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June 7, 2013

Postcards from Nowhere: Peoria to Panama - Day 19: San Ignacio, Belize to Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Above: Crossing over a bridge on the "shortcut" to Poptun, Guatemala.

Update: I am alive and well and resting peacefully in the Posado Del Rio hotel in the town of Rio Dulce, Guatemala on the shores of Lago De Izabal.

Friday June 7, 2013

Motorcycle Odometer (at start of day): 3,829
Motorcycle Odometer (at end of day): 3,995
Miles driven today: 166 miles

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Crossing the border into Guatemala was a nightmare.

Like, I wonder why people don't come down here and do what I'm doing....it's because they're smarter than me. That's all. Like, for whatever reason,the excitement always overrides the memory of the pain and the scars from the last border crossing.

Going into Guatemala was indescribably painful. First, you've got to get out of Belize. So, Immigracion and Customs to get out of Belize. You have to pay a fee, of course. Now, the money changers show up, like flies at a picnic. One of the things they talk about in the bible is driving the money changers out of the temple. They're as welcome as flies at a picnic. They walk around carrying these enormous stacks of cash in little leather purses.

But, you may as well get something for your Belize dollars, so I convert all of my Belize currency into Guatemalan currency. I have no idea what their currency even is. Pesos? Dollars? Round stones with the centers cut out? I have no clue, of course. Just no clue. Exchange rate? Yeah. About that. No idea.

He says he'll give me an exchange rate of 3 Guatemalan clams to 1 Belizean Dollar.

"I'm like...perfect. Seems fair. I mean, it's more than anyone else is offering me for it. It's just taking up space in my wallet, and by now, the wallet is getting pretty confusing. It's got US Dollars, Mexican Pesos, and Belizean Dollars in there. Plus, now, we've going to make way for Guatemalan Clams. And it's not like I can tell them apart or anything.

Now, I go into immigration and customs to leave Belize. They charge me some exorbitant fee, but I've already converted all of my Belizean currency. Thanks for that, guys.

So, now I have to break another $100 US bill, now I have more money to convert back into Guatemalan Clams. This is a nightmare. Back to the money changers to get raped yet again.

I should mention here that it is scorching hot. Sweltering beneath the third world sun.

Finally, I'm ready to exit from Belize. So, I drive across the border and now I'm in that peculiar little no-man's land between Belize and Guatamela, but i have no clue where to go.

There are no signs, of course, and I'm in this third world squalor. All I see is some cars going through a giant car wash. I have to stop and ask someone where to go. They point towards the car wash. Suddenly, I realize it's some sort of DDT/fumigating car wash deal. And they want me to drive through it. I'm like "Oh fuck that."

But now, I see they're motioning for me to drive beside it on what's essentially a pedestrian bridge.

So, I drive beside it. Now, a man motions for me to stop, and he fumigates my motorcycle. This is for truing to enter Guatemala.

He gives me some form. Now, they motion for me to park. The sign clearly says I have to go inside, so this time, I go inside. I'll play by the rules. But I get this old man and he keeps wanting for me to get copies made of my documents for him. And, I have to walk about a block to get copies made. I only know this because I have one of the money changers in my pocket.

Everyone said how dangerous Guatemala would be. Instead, I'm walking around like I own the place. Barking orders in Spanish to my man-servant. I tell him to go get us two CocaCola Lights, while I get more copies made.

So, honest to god, I now have strangers fronting me soft drinks in Guatemala. You can't make this up.

But the old man wants to see the title work to the bike, the registration, all of this paperwork. It's insane. So, I have it all, of course. I show it all to him. And every time I hand him another piece of paper, he tells me I have to go get more copies made.

By the third time the government bureaucrat sends sends me out in mid-day sun to get copies made. I'm furious. I'm ready to kill him. I make sure he's aware of this.

"Finito! No mas! Entiende? No mas!" I'm yelling at the guy. Like...dude...figure out what you need me to get copied, hand it all to me at once, and I'll go make copies. But I'm dying here.

I'm pouring sweat. He's giving me papers to sign, and sweat is pouring onto the papers. I've taken off everything except for a T-shirt and jeans. I'm very close to taking off more clothes. No one wants that.

Last trip to the copier, but now it's closed. I'm going to shoot myself. The guy comes running up and opens the roll-up steel-cage door. Makes another copy for me. Each time, he charges me 3 clams. I have no idea how much this is. No clue. It is what it is. Somehow, I've got to get into Guatemala.

I find my man-servant-money-changer. He comes running across the street with our CocaCola Lights. I feel like a third world king. I have people running errands for me in the streets of Guatemala, when everyone on earth assured me I'd be grilling on shish kabob skewers in a back alley and fed to cats.

I'm bossing around the Immigracion people like I own the place. Yelling at them for wasting my time. "Necessito maps. Entiende?" They give me some free maps of Guatemala.

Now, he wants to see the VIN number on the bike. I remove the seat to show him. Show him the license plate.

He's trying to show me that something expires of 05/09/13. And I'm like...it can't be expired. I just bought the freaking thing two weeks ago. But slowly, I realize, he's telling me I can stay in Guatemala until September 5th. They do their months/days backwards here. Doh!

I have to go pay some fee at the window. A man guards with window with a Rossi shotgun, extended magazine, 9 + 1, buckshot. Pistol grip. Pump. This is what you do when you take up money in a 3rd world country. You've got to have a trigger man watching the money.

Finally, finally, finally, after hours of sweltering in a 3rd world hell of immigration, customs, and border patrol, they wave me across the river into Guatemala.

Now, my plan is to buy a map, and get some currency. I stop at the first gas station I come to. I have gas. Don't need that. Need a map. She doesn't have one. Need some Guatemalan clams, she points me to an ATM machine.

So, I hit the ATM machine. I just put in my ATM machine, and sort of guess at pushing the buttons. It's all in spanish, so it's just sort of like playing whack-a-mole at the fair. I push buttons and hope for the best. Eventually, it gives me some options of how much money to get. I always just select the maximum amount. In this case, it's 1,000 Guatemalen clams. So, at least I have currency.

Now, I drive on, heading west, towards Casa Flores.

I'm following a large river for a time. And I see people down in the river. I'm thinking....rafting? tubing? fishing? swimming?

No. They're doing their laundry in the river. Every one of them. Every hundred yards, another family is doing their laundry in the river. Like, if this isn't the stone age, then I don't know what is.

The Short-cut to Pop-TUNE

Presently, I come to a military checkpoint. I believe that this is the turn for my dirt-road short-cut to Pop-TUNE. I interrogate all of the officials there. And also the soldiers that pull up in a truck. I'm using a free map they gave me in customs. And I've drawn in my dirt-road shortcut with a pen. About where I think it should be. And I'm trying to get them to agree that this is, indeed, the short-cut dirt road to Pop-TUNE.

Finally, they all sort of agree that it's probably the right road, and I start off down it.

So,there's a reason they call it a short cut. It's not really a short cut because, if it was, it wouldn't be called a "short cut", it would be called "the way".

This is a dirt road, potholes. Well maintained in some areas. Not so good in others. And, I'm rolling through the countryside, loosely following some river. The countryside is just stunning. Verdant hills, punctuated by palm trees, Flora del Mayo, papaya trees, etc.

It's kind of hard to understand what they're doing with the land, though. LIke, it's more like pasture fields, so far as I can tell, but there aren't many animals grazing on the land. Occasionally, a field of goats, or a few head of cattle, but mostly the land just appears to be idle, so far as I can tell.

But every little village I come to, is just the poorest display of poverty you can imagine. Horses wandering loose in the streets. Pigs running wild in town. Turkeys. Chickens. A lizard about a 18" long runs across the street on his hind legs somehow.

Along the road, people walk between the villages. Girls. Men. Young. Old. Nothing matters. There are hardly any other vehicles on the road. Occasionally, I pass a scooter or a truck.

There are no signs. No road signs. No directions. I'm just sort of trying to follow the "main dirt road" at each town. In one town, I'm lost, doing circles...another motorcycle driver sees me, and points down river. I nod, and follow his lead. This is all we have.

Now, I see a truck, with a dirt bike in the back in a town. He drives out of town, and I follow him. I figure he's going where I'm going. It's a guess, but it's something. I follow him for about 30 miles, when he stops at his house.

I stop and interrogate him for some time.

"This is the road to Pop-TUNE?"

"Si. Yes. Just keep going straight."

So now, I'm on my own. I have no one to follow any more. I'm just driving down this dirt road all alone. Through town after town. Every time I get lost, I just stop and ask "Donde Pop-TUNE?" and they point, and I drive on.

After 50 miles of dirt road, I finally roll onto hard-top. I can't believe my fortune. I want to kiss the pavement. I stop for a Coca-Cola light, and a Squiz citrus punch. I will now turn south, and stay on pavement from here on out, God willing and the river don't rise.

Once I get back onto hard top, the journey is really just a dream. Guatemala is so beautiful. The countryside I mean. Just breathtaking. And I'm rolling through this verdant dream thinking that, this is easily the best adventure I've ever had in my life. Why not sooner? Why not more often? Why not longer?

This is what I'm honestly thinking because, this is what I want to be doing with my life. Not sitting under pallid lights on the 14th floor of some office building in San Francisco. That's too gentrified. Too tame. Too bourgeoise.

I try to imagine what my life would be like if I'd married Carrie. Right now, she'd be screaming at me about what I jackass I am because [invent new reason here, or repeat old rehashed issue if no new issues can be dreamed up promptly], and I'd be looking at her like a raccoon with his leg in a steel trap thinking....I can do without one limb, right? Three limbs is good enough for dogs. Let me chew this one off, cut my losses, and hobble away into obscurity.

But that didn't happen. Somehow, I bought my way out of the leg-tap for two grand. The best money I ever spent. The problem is that, we get too caught up in our little lives. The here and now and we focus too intensely on the things around us. We lose perspective. So, that's what this trip is for me. Gaining perspective. One kilometer at a time.

So, I'm rolling through this stunning mural of a countryside that is Guatemala, and occasionally, what I like to do is shoot through the lens while I'm driving. So, this goes something like this....let go of the handlebars (causing the bike to throttle down), lift camera to right eye, look through the lens, zoom, and shoot. All while going about 70 mph, or so.

Now, normally, I have no problem with this. However, with the weight of the tank bag, I do occasionally have issues keeping the bike in the center of my lane, especially if I'm zoom in all the way with the lens, that I'm looking through as I drive. The human eye is approximately 50mm. But my lens zooms to 85mm. So, I'm seeing much further down the road, and it's hard to keep perspective of my location in the road, occasionally.

So, what happens is....I'm driving with no hands, taking some photos, at about 70 mph, when I suddenly realize that someone took the road away.. I'm not on the road any more. I'm driving down the shoulder, in a grass field, going about 60 mph.

"I'm like...ah...OK....don't panic....you can do this....and I sort of flip the back back onto the highway without going down and that was easily the closest I've come to crashing on this trip so far. That was a close one. Note to self: Have to be more careful shooting through the lens on this trip.

I keep driving....I'm getting the feeling that, the further south I go, the further back into the Stone Age I get. Like, at this point, people are doing their laundry in the river, walking up and down the sides of the road with baskets of laundry on their heads, walking up and down the roads with machetes. Gathering bundles of sticks. And I'm thinking like...."seriously, people? this was your plan for today? To go to the river and wash your clothes while your husband gathers a bundle of sticks? Yikes."

Dogs, horses, pigs, goats, and cows wander around like they own the place, standing in the streets. It's basically open range at this point.

One thing that I do like about Guatemala though, is that the street vendors are back in full force. There weren't many street vendors in Belize. They were everywhere in Mexico, and now, I'm glad to see them back again in Guatemala. Also, I like that they speak Spanish in Guatemala. In Belize, a lot of people speak English, and I really don't feel like I'm on an adventure if the people around me are speaking English. I just don't. Can't help it.

So now, we're speaking Spanish again. Total immersion. I refuse to speak English at this point. I'm speaking Spanish. I'm all in. Plus, the signs are all in Spanish again, which I love. And I'm racing down the road...not going that fast really...probably about 75 mph today. (I was only going about 50 mph on the dirt road. It was pretty bad.)

Now, in Central America, you kinda have two choices in the rainy season. You can be hot, or you can be wet. But pretty much, those are your options. So, most of the day, I've been "hot". Put on some sunscreen on my wrists, and on the spot on my leg that burns because my jeans ripped. And I just drive in the heat of the day, sweating like a whore in church.

But now, I can't help but notice, that it's about to start raining. I stop, pack away my cameras, and then resume driving. I want to put up some miles today. I'd really like to be in a position to end this trip at some point in my lifetime. And now, it starts raining, softly at first, and presently, it's raining so hard I can't see and I am not this dumb. I have to stop now. Must seek shelter. I see a house on the side of the road, and I pull up onto the front porch.

This is somewhat risky, obviously. I'm aware of this. I've already had two grown men approach me in a very physically intimidating, confrontational manner. Once, in Mexico when I stopped and was taking photos of a man's horse. I got him to calm down once he realized I was just a tourist. Another time, when I was taking a photo of a street vendor, he got very upset and came at me, again, he calmed down once he realized I was a tourist. But yesterday, I had a black man throw a rock at me for taking his picture. So, I'm well aware of the fact that I could potentially upset someone by driving my motorcycle uninvited, out of the rain, onto their front porch.

A woman emerges from the house.

"No hay problema?" I ask, showing her my hands.

"Touristo, solamente....lluvia is mui malo para motocycleta. Peligrosa." I explain.

It is no problem, of course. She's very nice. I introduce myself.

Her son comes out onto the veranda. The rain comes down hard now, drawing the fields. Pouring like a river onto the verdant countryside. Pounding on the tin roof of the hacienda.

Her son, covered in mosquito bites. She goes inside, and gets some ointment to put on them.

"Donde su espouso?" I ask her.

But she says she has no husband. He passed away in a motorcycle accident two months ago. She lives alone now, with her 3 year old son. She's beautiful, of course.

"Y su espousa?" she asks.

"No. Sadly, my fiancé tragically drowned in a shallow water fountain at Highland Village in Jackson, three weeks ago. She wanted to special order the Hope Diamond and have it set in an platinum band, and then tragically, she drowned, slowly, in three inches of water," I explain.

"Muy tragico," she replies.


I have little packages of snacks that I carry with me on the road, so that if I break down, I won't die waiting for help. I offer a small bag of peanuts (Jabones) to her 3 year old son, Markos.)

He takes it, and he's enjoying his snack now, as we all watch the torrential downpour washes away the cattle from the fields.

And I think about how odd it is. How focused we become on our own lives. How hard it is to reach out to these beautiful women in third world countries that have lost their husbands. I'm so glad that I'm able to do my small part.

In all seriousness, it is striking to me how radically different Central America is from what I'd expected, based on the State Department Advisory, the news, etc. I mean, you'd expect to be massacred, tortured, and raped for stopping at a stranger's house. Instead, she tells me her life's story, and shares her veranda with me in a blinding rainstorm. So diametrically opposed to what we're taught to expect. How is that? How is it that we allow these fear peddlers access to the media? How did they get control of the airwaves and the microphones?

The rain stops, I thank her, give her all of my contact information, and I move along. 1 km down the road, the road is dry. How? I have no clue.

I'm heading roughly south, along Highway CA-13. I only have a vague idea of where to go, but I'm following signs for Puerto Barrios, as that's pretty close to where I want to end up tonight.

Carne Asada in the Rain

At some point, I'm crossing a field, and I see the rain pouring down on the mountains before me. Again, I stop, pack away my cameras, and then I resume driving. When it starts raining, I pull over at a little farm house. There's a gate. And a woman on the porch. I wave at her. Park my bike in front of their gate. Open their gate, and walk up to her farm house.

"Hola seniorita. Pardon. Tourista en motocycleta y lluvia is muy malo. Peligrosa. No hay problema?"

She waves me up onto the front porch, and offers me a chair. I sit down and start talking to her. Introduce myself. Explain my trip on the motorcycle. Her husband comes up. I introduce myself to him. They're both very friendly. Insanely nice. I offer him a package of pumpkin seeds, which he accepts. Now, he asks if I'd like a "carne". I'm like..."OH hell yeah. I'm all in."

He steps around the corner, and comes back with carne asada and maize tortillas. To die for. The best I've ever eaten.

They ask me if I have a wife, and I explain again how my beautiful fiancé, tragically drowned in three inches of water in a shallow fountain with a boot print on the back of her neck, and they both agree how sad and tragic are the times we live in.

Just the nicest people you would ever meet. Who does this? Who invites strangers in out of the rain onto their veranda and offers them carne asada and maize tortillas? Why is this not on the news? This should be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Why is this story not newsworthy? I truly don't understand.

The rain lets up, I give them all of my contact information and ask them to follow my little adventure on the peeniewallie website, and I'm off again.

I drive until it gets dark, and finally I end up on the shore of some enormous body of water, the Lago de Izabal. And I'm suddenly on this modern bridge crossing over this large body of water, and I just can't believe I'm still in Guatemala. I"m like...who built this bridge? Half the population is washing their clothes in the river, and y'all have money to build a bridge that costs five hundred million guatemalan clams?

Circle back and start searching for a hotel that has:
Internet in the rooms
Air conditioning
Hot showers
Toilet Paper

Like, you'd think that this would go without saying, but nothing goes without saying in the Third World. It's always best to spell it out up front. I check into the Posado Del Rio hotel in Rio Dulce.

Posted by Rob Kiser on June 7, 2013 at 8:49 PM


Glad you included picture of yourself so we can see how week you are doing. The home cooked meal sounds awesome. The pictures are enjoyed by this armchair tourist. Thanks for sharing. Postings on Internet should remain judicious.

Posted by: sl on June 8, 2013 at 4:48 AM

...tragically drowned in three inches of water.....hahahahahahahaaaaaaa.....boot print...HAHAAAAHHAHAAA. You are a sick one cuz. I needed that laugh as I take a break at the jobsite on a Saturday morning. Stay safe. Cheers

Posted by: Carlisle on June 8, 2013 at 6:36 AM

I'm thinking there's going to be a bounty on your head here in the states when you return. Probably safer to stay down there.

Posted by: TL on June 8, 2013 at 11:01 AM

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