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Oct 18

The land of a thousand villages.

Semuc Champey, one of the many natural wonders of Guatemala

Map to Huehuetenango

After our first day in Guatemala, Tony and I spent the next two weeks working our way 500 km south-west across the country to a city near the Mexican border called Huehuetenango.  Yes, some might say we were going backwards… again.

In Guatemala though we were moving forward! Just very, very slowly… In fact, it was one of the most difficult legs of the trip.  Everything was working against us: the hilly terrain, the poor road conditions, the constant rain, a worn out bicycle and an out-of-shape rider.   Apparently, covering 2000 flat kilometers in the previous 3 months had not been enough for me to keep my edge – and it only takes one glance at this stage’s elevation profile to see that an edge could come in handy.

The road less traveled. The sign reads “Welcome to the landslide, proceed at your own risk, high risk area.”

Never Alone.

We took the roads less traveled, and they led us through rich landscapes of stunning mountain passes and lush tropical valleys, over roaring rivers and under tumbling waterfalls.  We were in backwater Guatemala, riding on washed out dirt tracks and over landslides that were still being cleared years after the event, but we were still far from being in the middle of nowhere.  That’s because there are people everywhere in Guatemala.

 

That was what really defined our journey across Guatemala: village after village after indigenous village along the most obscure rural roads.  You couldn’t go 5km without tripping across a small aldea.  As we rolled through we would see women dressed in traditional attire carrying a child on their back and their laundry wrapped up and on their heads as they walked down to the river or men sweating at their forehead strap as they leaned against the absurdly large stacks of firewood on their backs.  The smell of wood smoke, burnt corn, and animal shit followed us as we made or our way along.  In between the villages would be cornfields planted in any space a dozen stalks could be squeezed in – no matter how steep or small the slope… or cliff.  The general lanscape would change, but the pattern remained the same: village, fields, less fields, fields, village, fields, less fields, fields, village.  There were always people along the road though, moving firewood, spraying pesticides, working with a machete, doing laundry; I rarely went more than 10 minutes without saying hello to someone.

 

My hosts break into the government-built house, my home for the night in one of the villages. In rained incredibly hard that night, so I was glad I didn’t camp

Tony and I stayed in a number of these small settlements, usually just a collection of a few houses, a modest church, and a little shed selling a few bags of crisps and some sodas.  Sometimes we would camp behind somebody’s house, other times there was a place they could put me – a spare house the government built, the church, the school.  In Guatemala it gets dark at 6pm and by 8pm the whole village would be tucked up in bed or wrapped up in their hammocks – perhaps with a bit of music beforehand – but the roosters start early in Guatemala – around 4am – and with the price of eggs being the way they are these days it takes a fierce determination to ignore them and still be in bed come 4:30.

 

How we were received by our hosts varied considerably, depending largely on how much Spanish they spoke and how tired I was, but always it was with kindness and respect.  Once some common cultural misconceptions were overcome – yes foreigners do eat tortillas – there would always be a fresh, hot pile of the thick handmade corn goodnesses to wake up to, maybe even a cup of coffee and some guacamole to go with it.  The main question I got from hosts was “why are you riding a bike through here?”.  It’s a difficult question to answer – particularly as the geographical scale of our little adventure often belied their comprehension – and explaining that you want to get to know new places and meet new people does not do much to satisfy their bemusement.

Hauling firewood on a mayatour bicycle

Culture vs Poverty

Guatemala is renowned in Central America for its strong preservation of indigenous cultures.  Though the official language in Guatemala is Spanish, people love to tell you that there are actually over 20 mayan languages spoken in Guatemala.  In my meanders I met old-timers who didn’t speak a word of Spanish as well as younger generations who barely speak it as a second language.  School lessons are not delivered in Spanish, school is taught in the indigenous tongue, thus ensuring their survival.  Beyond language, the indigenous way of life has also been largely presevered, and people continue to live much as they did hundreds of years ago.

 

Progress is coming slowly to some of the more out of the way areas of Guatemala

While that may have a nice ring to it in a guidebook or a tourist brochure, the reality I was confronted with on the road was far less mellifluous.  What I saw was a development nightmare of overpopulation, poverty, vast deforestation, waterway pollution, poor family planning, inadequate education, malnourishment, and a lack of economic mobility.  What I saw was a ticking time bomb set to explode in one generation’s time.  There are already people everywhere in Guatemala, but somewhere between 37 and 50% of the population is under the age of 14 (compared to 13% in Germany, or 18% in Australia) and the vast majority of those youngsters are out in the rural areas.  What opportunities will be available to the fourth child when he grows up with only a very basic education, poor Spanish, and no way to get to/from a job?  Most of the people I met along the way seemed happy.  Poor, but happy.  There is nothing wrong with a simple life, as long as you can provide for your family and can live with the knowledge that life for your children might be better.  Unfortunately, I do not see life getting any better for the indigenous rural communities I passed through on my way to Huehue.  I see things getting worse.

I’m not the only one either.  I’ve been in Guatemala for less than a month, but protests have been dotting the headlines the entire time I’ve been here, reflecting the social tension.  The political situation is a bit “dicey” here, just the other week on Oct. 4 a protest was held in Alaska Totonicapan at km 170 of the Inter-American Highway (a spot I would be riding through later) and  resulted in eight indigenous protestors being killed and over 30 injured at the hands of the military.

Passing through one of the big towns on route to Huehue

In Huehue

On a brighter note, Tony and I eventually rolled into the central plaza of Huehuetenanago, dirty and grimy as always and soaking wet and freezing cold from the rain at this elevation.  Ignoring the usual stares and attention I was receiving from the people around me, I scarfed down two steaming hot “cheveres” (hotdogs) from a plaza vendor while changing into a dry t-shirt and pulling on a sweater before relaxing and looking around.  Now then, where were we going to sleep tonight?

 

———

Market day on the highway.

 

 

For more photos, check out the stage album here.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/ultimas_noticias/2012/10/121005_ultnot_guatemala_enfrentamiento_indigenas_med.shtml

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guatemala

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guatemala#Demograf.C3.ADa

http://www.elperiodico.com.gt/es/20121014/domingo/219196/

http://www.elperiodico.com.gt/es/20121014/domingo/219196/

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