After a month of living in the “real” Guatemala, I finally hopped on the Gringo Trail – Quetzaltenango (Xela). I came to the center of NGO activity and volcano excursions to give myself the chance to work or volunteer again, and to see the famed, lava spewing, volcanoes. And though I got close to achieving both goals, in the end I came away with little more than myself intact, and even for that I was thankful.
I was staying in a place with no sink (the shower being the only source of water, and only cold water at that). The single room has no window, and smelled of old brie. It’s kind of Willy to share such a small space with me and give me a place to stay, but I could not see myself inviting someone to stay if I lived in such a place. This brought me to a rare decision to move to a hostel, before finding a fellow photographer who become the best part of Xela.
Other than an artist party and an excursion to a rare, underground Gay bar (they have to pay off the cops to stay open), Xela had been relatively uninteresting. I had not brought myself to climb a volcano yet, I wasn’t doing enough writing, and no NGO’s had piqued my interest. I spent days playing chess with a French guy I had met, or hanging out with my photographer friend and his sister.
Finally I decided to go to the famous market in Chichecastenango (one of the biggest and most colorful markets in the world). I needed something to get me out of Xela and feeling like I’m doing something. I decided to take Caroline, a Chinese-Canadian girl I met a few days before. We started in the morning, and were soon on a beautiful, twisty, well-paved, mountain road. The weather was fine and cool – a perfect day for a ride. The 4 lane highway wound up and down the mountains, with big curves that begged for speed. The road itself was in excellent condition – well marked, clean, with side barriers and few cars. The first hour was some of the best riding I had done in a very long time.
I had just finished a series of tight curves which threatened to scrape my pegs, and began yet another descent down a slope which begged for my usual speed of 75 mph. We crested a rise and were approaching a gentle curve and for some reason I decided to slow down a bit. We were going no faster than 50mph, when all of a sudden I saw Georgia drop and slide away from me. Apparently the whole curve was covered in gasoline/oil. I can still see it in slow motion as I was suddenly flung to the ground, at first facing my bike as she slid down the hill, then the top of the curve as I got turned around. I decided not to roll for fear of hitting the barrier – before which I stopped only a few feet away (had I not dropped my speed there is a great possibility you would not be reading this right now). By the time I stopped sliding I heard Caroline’s voice asking if I was OK. I wasn’t sure, but had enough sense to ask her if she was alright as well. She said yes, and so I allowed myself to drop back for a few moments to recover from the shock. Thankfully there was a car just behind us. The man and his wife pulled over, called to some people up the road, and rushed to help me. I told them I was fine for the most part, and was then urged to go get the bike upright as it was leaking gas. I struggled to my feet and saw Georgia lying upside down, pressed against the barrier. The man pulled her off the rail by himself, and by the time I hobbled over, a few others had joined us and helped set her upright.
Of course I was not wearing my motorcycle jacket or pants. So my one pair of jeans, my shoes, my gortex jacket, fleece, long sleeve, and t-shirt were torn to shreds. Thankfully I kept most of my skin, and suffered only bruises as opposed to broken bones – a real possibility had I hit the barrier. The pain was pretty bad, but slowly I began to realize just how lucky I was.
The cops came quickly, called an ambulance to get us cleaned up and a truck to bring my bike back to Xela. The alcohol on the burns was not too pleasant, but was still better than the 900 QTZ (talked down from 1500) I had to pay to get my back to town. I didn’t even want to think about what it was going to cost to fix everything.
However, though Georgia’s windshield, instrument panel, cell phone mount and panniers were smashed, the gas tank was in one piece, and the engine suffered no damage. Though there was a car so near to us that they immediately pulled over, it was not so close that we slid into, or under, it, or it into us. Though my clothes were torn, the bags with our cameras strapped to the back were perfectly fine. My cell phone, though it flew off the bike, appeared as though nothing happened to it. And finally, regardless of the pain, swelling and bleeding – both Caroline and I were alive. In fact she barely had a scratch on her.
It is a horrible and stupid way to learn a lesson, considering how long I’ve been riding and everything I know about riding. But it took that crash to make me wear all my gear, all the time, no matter how hot it may be.
By the time I had finished recovering from the crash the rains had finally arrived. My opportunity to hike the volcanoes disappeared with them, and the dry season would not come for many months yet. I had found a couple of interesting possibilities for writing, volunteering, and even directing a school, but nothing panned out in the time I expected. Between the school not being ready yet, and people disappearing for days on end in the country (where they run their NGO), my impatience got the better of me and I decided to leave. I regretted missing the chance to write about uniquely developing multi-cultural villages along the coast, but my preconceptions of Guatemala were interfering with my perspective and patience. It is a great fallacy of travel which I have since managed much more effectively, but by then it was too late and I made my decision to ride on.