The Outsider

March 14th, 2012

Walking through the Sunday market of a small town in Guatemala’s Western highlands, a lone foreigner can’t help but be conspicuous. Whilst in some parts of the country, the indigenous population are the object of attention for hordes of camera wielding tourists, the situation is reversed in the towns that have the fortune of not being on a list of ‘Places to see in …’.

In a constant battle against my English tendency to queue, I get the attention of the two voluptuous fruit vendors and ask for a mango and pineapple salad. They giggle at the thought of a foreigner doing something as normal as eating fruit, maybe expecting me to produce a bag of freeze dried pellets for sustenance. With my fruit paid for, I navigate the market’s obstacle course back to the house of my Warm Showers host in San Cristobal Totonicapan, Carl, where I have spent a few days after my first week back on the road.

The flatness of the Mexican border gives way to mountainous Guatemala
The other side of the road blockage.

After descending the mountains of Chiapas into the hotter farmland near the Guatemalan border, it took two days of cycling uphill to find myself back at over 3000m on the Panamerican highway, looking over the Quetzaltenango valley and at yet another mountain range in the distance.

To give my body a chance to regain some fitness, I opted for the paved route into Guatemala, staying with the main road for the time being. If ever a border between countries was physically visible, the giant Cuchumatan range of Guatemala looming over the flattish farmland of Southern Chiapas was enough to make you know you had entered another country. Settling into a low gear, I started up the beautiful, forest clad canyon heading to the town of Huehuetenango. Coming across a tailback of vehicles after a few hours of cycling, I weaved my way through the stationary cars and trucks, expecting to see the site of an accident blocking the road ahead. Squeezing my way through the line, the culprit was one of the many landslides that can block for roads for hours at a time in Guatemala.

On the other side of the landslide, the crowd of truckers and policemen watched as the bulldozer stopped to let the muddy cyclist through, and I got back on my bike and made my way through the line of stopped cars. With the road mostly to myself due to the blockage, I continued up to Huehuetenango and then San Cristobal Totonicapan the next day.

The Panamerican highway was at a standstill for hours, not for cyclists though!!
Spectacular views from Santa Maria
Fuego volcano also erupting in the distance

At Carl’s house, each day is packed with volcano climbing, biking and helping in his allotment or taking the two boisterous dogs for a walk. If a lone foreigner attracts attention normally, then the effect is amplified ten fold when he’s covered in dog slobber and being dragged along by a rottweiler the size of a manatee.  Despite his size however, Rambo is harmless and the most damage he did to me was roll over and pee on my arm when overexcited. At the house, my offer of helping out with some cooking was also taken up. An offer to bake a cake for the family was met with the response that they would be gathered the next day, and that all eighteen of them would be there.

In this lifestyle of only ever passing through and always being the outsider, staying with Carl and his family makes thoughts turn towards home and the future of this trip. Most cyclists begin their trips with a definite target such as Patagonia or Alaska, always having that to aim for. For me, this trip started as a simple wish to see more of the world, but has turned into an effort to find my place in everything and the life that I should build. Instead of being a list of postcard pictures and tourist attractions ticked off, this past year has been the sum of the people I have met along the way and how their lives have inspired change in mine.

For the moment, there is still much to see in Central America, so I will continue my route to Panama where I will undoubtedly find some decisions waiting for me.

Arriving at the top, a smaller volcano erupted at just the right time.
Carl and I on the top of Santa Maria


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