5/7/19 – 5/10/19
Out of San Juan Caldera there is one great hill. I managed to keep up with Yvan’s young legs for the climb and he and I waited for Soph at the top. From there it descends for several kilometers into a nothing town called Parramos. As we gained speed my sweat was icy cold, but it quickly dried and I felt the adrenaline kick in as we rocketed through the curves. After this it was mostly flat to Antigua.
We reached town in the late afternoon. It had been decided that we would all find a place together, but nobody had bothered to discuss specific desires in the price and amenities of that place. Yvan was a man of the Yukon. Utilitarian and parsimonious in nature and hence just looking to rest his head. The Englilsh, in contrast, do not pitch tents in the courtyards of moderately clean hostels. After being abused by the cobblestone streets for an hour while looking at several hostels that nobody could agree upon I stepped in.
“Our collective unit cannot stay in a places such as this,” I said, “and I believe it would be best for us to seek our own accommodations.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the bathroom tiles here don’t really sparkle and I don’t have faith that their complimentary coffee will be up to snuff. There is also that strange bearded fellow walking around barefoot leaving a sour fragrance in his wake.”
And so we parted ways. Antigua had long since been colonized by tourism though and so there wasn’t a decent place in our price range. We settled on a spot just outside the centro with reasonably clean, although worn tiles, hot water, and a stove where we could make our own coffee.
Antigua is probably rich in history, but after all the Pueblo Magicos of Mexico, I was still a bit burnt out on colonial towns. I remembered Paty in Zacatecas telling me that the heart of any Mexican town was the market. I decided to take a walk and have a look. The Latin American Mercado is a strange cross between a flea market and a farmers market. A good market is a bit like shopping on Amazon in that it has literally anything you can imagine but with the added bonus of strange bacteria floating through the air because the poultry farmers display chicken carcasses on the counters of their little shops with no refrigeration for hours in that southern sun. Shameless popup and sidebar ads are replaced by aggressive men and women jumping out from the shadows to sell you cheap Chinese pots and pans, injection molded boots, slingshots, blenders, and Hello Kitty cell phone cases.
It is a maze of little tiendas with tarps strung between them for shade giving an illusion of being inside. One shack sells nothing but bananas. The next, banana smoothies. Snake skin belts, boot repair, miniature backpacks. They’re all just lemonade stands on a slightly larger scale. One woman offered me some tree bark that she claimed would restore my virility. One shop sells myriad unrelated trinkets, but they are all red. Another, just tape, but every color imaginable. The paper woman next door could so easily undercut her neighbor with just a roll of scotch tape as a complimentary good, but respect for the livelihood of your fellow man or woman trumps capitalism here and so I buy peanuts from one vendor and cashews from another. Unneutered dogs wander the corridors with manliness swinging side to side as they piss on baskets of fruit before getting shoed away. I make a note never to buy anything that is stored less than three feet from the ground. You can spend hours wandering through these places, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing, simply being amazed that so many things exist that have so little use.
A man steps out from the shadows and offers to sell me cocaine. He had that, “I’m going to rob you,” sort of voice and look with his grubby fingernails and raggedy shirt raspy vocals no smile or honesty in him whatsoever. I wanted to tell him to clean up his act, the Chinese woman at the lavanderia could scrub his trousers for a quarter and if he flossed his eyes to get a little twinkle in them he might find himself with a few more clients and maybe a girlfriend. “Try to give the millennials the same feeling they get when they watch the Volkswagen commercial with that happy go lucky music and the guy and his gal throwing the surfboards on top,” I’d say, “they’ll be snorting that white gold right out of your palm.”
The road climbs out of Antigua, just like it does out of every town in Guatemala. We’d planned on pushing close to a hundred and twenty clicks with over two thousand meters of climbing to the border. Traffic was thick that day though and when we hit the downhill we couldn’t open it up because the trucks were going so slow around the bends. We played leap frog for a bit, but they would catch us on the uphill and we would get caught behind them again on the descents. We were floating in a nebula of exhaust.
We reach a toll road. In Mexico there was an understanding with the guards that if you could enter outside the views of the video cameras then all was good. “Dereche dereche,” one guard told us and motioned us to the right until we were off screen. This was not the case here. We were stopped by two armed men. They still had that Latin American misguided helpfulness though and rather than turn us away they told us they would get a truck to take us down the road. I knew immediately that when they said “ahorita” directly translated as “kinda right now” that it would likely be an hour and we could easily just take a side route as the toll road was only ten kilometers or so. Still, they were insistent on helping. They gave us cake and water and some packets of ramen noodles for later. As planned, after about an hour, a truck pulled up with some grounds keepers who helped us load our bikes and we crammed onto the front bench with the driver.
We kept pushing until close to dark and found ourselves staying at a roadside compound with a restaurant, gas station, and mini-mart that we’d read would sometimes allow camping. We’d also read that somebody was harassed in their tent by an overly friendly employee, but we didn’t have many options and hoped it was his day off. Alejandro, the owner, showed us a spot behind a vacant building, let us use the shower, and told us there was no charge to camp as long as we ate at the restaurant. It was Mother’s day. They were setting up for a band and hanging decorations from the ceiling. We sat in the tent that night listening to all the terrible classic songs of the nineties that moms love. There were several fruit trees around and a sour smell from their rotting surplus filled the air. I hardly noticed any of it though as I lay there wondering what El Salvador would be like.
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