5/4/19 – 5/5/19
I struggle to load my bike onto the little boat at the docks in San Pedro and out of the corner of my eye see the porter trying to put Soph’s bike on the top.
“Por favor no.”
He keeps doing it. He can barely lift it, he’s knocking the drive train against the railing, and there is no way to really secure it up there so if the water is at all rough it will get damaged or maybe even fall off. I yell a few more times with some words that to me seem to be clear and comprehensible Spanish, but their lack of efficacy suggested otherwise. I get my bike moderately secured, jump off the boat, take the bike from him, and briskly explain that it will not go on top. We argue a bit about where it can go and how much we will be charged. Eventually I just ignore his instructions and put it next to mine and strap things down.
“He’s just trying to help,” Soph said.
“Breaking your bike doesn’t help us.”
“I wouldn’t assume nobody speaks English here.”
“If it were America and he spoke English I would have said that louder.”
I am the belligerent gringo and I know this, but I am willing to reinforce negative views of my fellow countrymen in the name of a functional derailleur. In ten months one of the things that had become quite clear was the fact that for the average person, a bike is a bike. And generally I get it. Most people have no need to demarcate the difference between a Schwinn (After they sold out, shuttered Chicago, moved to China and lost their soul and the way) and a seventeen hundred dollar chromolybdenum touring rig. At first glance, they basically look the same.
Sometimes I think we baby our bikes too much. I see folks down here riding old canary yellow clunkers… eighty pound bag of concrete on handlebars, wife on rear rack with baby in one hand and cell phone in the other, tires half deflated and rims pinching them against the ground, rusty chain, sprocket teeth worn to nothing, wheels bent and wobbly, missing spokes and shoes worn flat because who needs brakes? Yet here I am worried about a few bumps on a flat lake that reflects this volcano like a Bob Ross landscape.
Stunning float to Pana, which was overrun with tourists from Antigua. One quick night in a hostel and early morning movements. Brutal climb out of the crater but great views. Occasional rancid pollution smells from human excrement dumped in the river. Freeway before Ixtapa cuts through blown out mountain with striations of red, orange, yellow, and cream. Almost swerve off the road or into oncoming traffic several times because I can’t stop staring at it.
We’d planned on visiting Maya Pedal, a semi famous bike collective and hostel. We rode seventy kilometers and climbed two thousand meters to find they were not open. Nothing to do but continue another twenty kilometers and seven hundred and fifty meters up to San Jose Calderas to climb Acatenango and watch Volcan Fuego erupt in the middle of the night.
You ride up these mountains and your internal temp is boiling but you’re shivering on the outside because the air is cold and the clouds condense into little droplets on the hairs of your arms. We’d both had food poisoning in San Pedro and I hadn’t eaten much for several days. This combined with an extra twenty pounds of food because we’d read that we wouldn’t find any near the volcano and I was barely able to finish the day out.
Late arrival in San Jose and cannot find the hotels on the map. Poor farming village. Nothing for several miles and getting late to find camp.
“Hola,” a man says from behind, “Que buscan?”
We tell him we’re looking for the hotel. He confirms there are none.
We shake hands and he tells us that he knows somebody with a room for rent. He was a farmer and a guide on the nearby volcano. He’d spent some time in the states illegally but had been deported. He looked sixty, but the manual labor tends to keep people young here and he could have been eighty.
We turn off the main road into what feels like a narrow catacomb through concrete walls with an occasional steel door. Little puffs of smoke rise from chimneys as everyone is preparing dinner on wood burning stoves. Florencio knocks on one and a little girl answers. Parents not around. He tells her to find them. She runs off, and returns a few moments later.
A man approaches. Introduces himself, and invites us in.
Jonas and Maria. Offer tea and dinner and a place to stay. Tell us to pay whatever we want. Chulie, the little girl, shows me her notebook of English lessons as Soph takes the first bath. All the words were written just as they sound to a Spanish speaker. I didn't even recognize them at first.
Cielo - Skai (sky)
I thought about pointing this out to her but realized that it must be easier to learn this way for now.
I bathed second. No running water in the bathroom so Maria heats huge pot of water on eternal wood burning stove. I huddled over the drain pouring blue plastic dog dishes of hot water over my head. It was fantastic.
Beans, eggs, and tortillas for dinner. Told them I could eat a horse and they brought more.
Jonas had worked in the states with Florencio at a food processing plant. Their town was raided by ICE one day. Two thousand people arrested, many from this village. He was given the option of 5 years in jail or 5 months plus a $12,000 fine. He had been paid six dollars an hour at the plant, so this was the equivalent of one year of work. He didn’t have the cash so the court allowed him to do the five months and then work the fine off. He lived in a home and had a security bracelet on his leg so he could be tracked and somebody would pick him up each day. I didn’t catch what sort of work they made him do. On the side he cleaned a restaurant and washed dishes for $200/week that he sent back to Maria. Lived like this for two years before being allowed to return home.
“It was an important lesson. It made me appreciate the life we have here.”
There is no equivalent to a town like San Jose in the states. It is subsistence living. Jonas rented a small plot of land where he farmed. They had chickens for meat and eggs. One exposed lightbulb hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Concrete walls, and tin roof. Waste water from the kitchen and laundry drained into a small swale in their backyard where there was also an outhouse. Most of their food waste was eaten by the chickens, but anything else had to be burned. Phones don’t work, the internet is more of a legend. There were maybe five hundred people in town that lived the same or perhaps more modest conditions.
Jonas was in his thirties the first time he really left this town. He’d spent the family’s entire savings on a guide (a coyote as they call them) to help him navigate through Mexico and into the United States. I try to imagine coming from that little town, with no money and no clue, walking and taking busses through Mexico, and then one day the guide says, “Ok, we’re going to walk across this desert for five days and if we don’t die of thirst we still have to look out for the red white and blue blooded patriots with rifles.” They do it in blue jeans and five dollar second or fifth hand sneakers that get donated from the states with a blanket wrapped in a garbage bag inside an old Jansport rucksack with tattered straps held together by safety pins. There was more advanced hiking gear sixty years ago. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to come from that place and then find myself in Minnesota cutting fish heads for six bucks an hour in some strip mall town only to find myself staring down the barrel of federal agent’s gun while he yells to his buddies, “I got me a little fucker right here!” How these people have not been awarded Outside Magazine’s “Explorer of the Year” prize is beyond me.
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