Sunday, February 25, 2018

San Juan de Atilan

After my visit to Mount Alban, I set my sights on my next goal, which was to visit my friends in Guatemala.  In 2012, on my way to Ushuaia, I had landed, by chance, in the wonderful Guatemalan village of San Juan de Atilan.  I had spent a couple of weeks in Antigua at a Spanish school, and I felt that I could use some more immersion and direct instruction.   I had wandered westerly on some minor roads, and ended up meeting Juan and his wonderful family in their small pueblo.   They arranged for me to have further Spanish lessons, and welcomed me to their place.  At the time, Juan  was running an Internet cafe, and his kids were quite young. I wandered around this great little pueblo, and lived with this wonderful family for a couple of weeks before I headed South.  I was enormously impacted by the village, and particularly this family, who had taken me into their lives and treated me to a view of their lives that was incredibly uplifting.   I had thought about them since my return to Canada, and it has always been a goal of mine to return to visit them.

The ride south from Mount Alban was interesting from a number of different perspectives.  The riding on Mex190 was incredible in that the twists and turns as I came down in elevation from Oaxaca to Ixtepec was phenomenal. I can truly say that this route equals any route  that I have run across so far in my travels.  I was having so much fun in the mountains that I rarely stopped for a photo. The mountains and twisties south of Oaxaca went on forever....

From Ixtepec south, the region begins to feel the influence of the western Gulf, and the winds were very strong as I rode south. I  was amazed at the number of wind machines populating this area, and research tells me that there are over 500 in the region which I passed through. As I was heading south, the westerly winds were certainly noticeable and I needed to be on my game, but not nearly as scary or threatening as they were when I returned up the same route a month or so later.  The wind machines are geared to stop when the wind speed increases over 60 mph, and when I returned north through Chiapas, I first noticed that the machines were idle, in spite of increasingly steady offshore winds blowing at me.

Apparently there are over 500 of these monsters producing electricity for Mexico.

I took these photos on the ride north, when the winds had increased above 70 mph. The machines were stopped, and I should have done the same. It took a while for me to notice the lack of trucks and traffic on the road...

 There have been a number of times in my riding career when I did not listen closely enough to that voice in my head, and continued to ride, in spite of the advice from my Guardian Angels.  On the ride north, along this same coast, I found the  wind so powerful that I has genuinely afraid of being pitched over. The gusts were amazing, and I somehow convince myself that the answer was to power on, with the tachometer  registering over 4000 rpm, and my lean of 30 degrees into the wind, I seemed to make about 35 kph!  When I saw that the blades on the wind machines had stopped, I knew that I was not listening closely enough, and that I needed to remind myself that I was not in northern Alberta or Kansas, for that matter.

While the wind farms provided a different perspective on my ride south to San Juan de Atilan, the winds cooperated to the extent that I made good time and after a couple of days, arrived at the Guatemalan border.  The last time I had crossed into Guatemala had been further to the east, and that was five or six years ago.  I had crossed with a couple of rider friends, and other than the pesky handlers and money exchangers, I had an okay feeling about crossing on my own at this new, more westerly, border crossing.

About 5 km. before the Guatemalan border, I noticed a sport bike behind me. I didn't think too much of it, other than it looked to be about a 300cc crotch rocket, which was bigger than most of the bikes flitting around, those seeming to be around 125 cc. at the most.  As I reached the border area of Ciudad Hidalgo, the fellow on the red crotch rocket rolls up beside me and gives me a big halo and indicates to me which lane to follow to get to the border.  Because we were still within Mexico, I didn't think too much of this, and waved a grateful thumbs up to the guy.  I exited Mexico without any issues, and noticed that the red crotch rocket was now following.  The guy, somewhat overweight  to be riding a 300 cc bike in my view, waved me to what was the Guatemalan Aduna. I dawned on me that this dude was the latest version of the helpers that I had run into before in Central and South America. He explained to me, in good English, where I had to go, and what papers to bring.  I was pretty confident that I could handle this crossing.

I was prepared to deal with the Aduna, a middle-aged woman, in my broken Spanglish.  Red crotch rocket sidles up to the window, and proceeds to engage the Government representative in a conversation in Spanish.  He tells me that she says my ownership papers are not good enough.  He says that she is only familiar with Canadian ownership papers from Ontario, and that my B.C. papers are not good enough.  He further states that in order to fix the problem, it will probably take three days, and maybe even I will have to go to another border crossing.  I try to discuss the issue with the Government official, not imagining that she would not listen to me, and certainly not figuring out that there was collusion between the two of them.   Red Crotch says he can fix the problem by paying her superior a thousand Quetzals.  By now I was waking up to the scam, and I also realized that whether I liked it or not, whether Middle-Aged Lady and Red Crotch were in fact in cahoots, I was not getting into Guatemala without paying the bribe.  I told Red Crotch that I did not have 1000 Q, and so he conveniently found a buddy of his running a bike taxi.

My ride into the border town with the bike taxi was interesting. Ciudad Tecun Uman was another border city, with the usual number of characters hustling. I stood out like a sore thumb as a Gringo, and bike taxi guy probably was the third wheel of the border bandits trio. I was somewhat pissed that yet again I had to deal with dishonest border officials.  As we bounced through the seedy border town, looking for ATM's which would work, and dealing with a money changer who conveniently appeared on our winding route, I was at a low point in terms of my faith in humanity, and I accepted that this exploitation seemed to be the new normal, at least at the Guatemalan border in this town.   Between a couple of ATM's, the money-exchanger, and my Mexican pesos, I managed to get sufficient money together for Red Crotch and his crew.  Half way back to the border and my bike, he had met us in the street, presented some papers for me to sign, and assured me that I would soon be on my way.  I awhile, I was in fact on my way,. after paying 40 or 50 quetzals to the bike-taxi guy, and another 500 quetzals to Red Crotch, who assured me that the 1000 quetzals went to the "big boss."

There is a part of me that accepts that this kind of payoff is part of doing business when travelling. After all, a couple of thousand quetzals was worth how much?....340 dollars CDN!   The other part of me, the Canadian part, was really pissed off that a Government official, a representative of the country, would permit this kin of larceny on her watch.  Move on, I said to myself. You are now in Guatemala....

I had plotted a route to my friends' pueblo, San Juan La Laguna (Atilan) via a route that would put me at their door in 4 or 5 hours, according to Mr. Garmin.  My route would involve a breakout from the Pan-American, over a few "hills" and twisties, arriving at Santa Clara, and then a short hop to San Juan La Laguna...Atilan.

Determined to leave the bad vibes of the border crossing behind me, I set out with optimism and confidence that between my TWO  Garmin GPS machines and my up to date paper maps, I would be able to navigate to Juan's without any difficulty.    Sure enough, the towns and villages checked off as I moved closer and closer to the Lake. I could sense that I was just a mountain range or two away from dropping down on the village, just as I had done 5 years ago.

The road soon gave up on asphalt, and the tracks became a bit narrower, and the hills bit steeper.  The GPS showed that I as still heading in an south easterly direction, and the Twin was not complaining....

I thought that I would be breaking through to Santa Clara around the next bend, or at least over the next hill....

My first off was on a rather steep hill, and the Twin reared up and lay down for a rest. I had rolled free, and other than knowing I had an hour or two of stripping the bike in order to lift it, I was still thinking San Juan was just around the corner.  Fortunately, a truckload of young Guatemalans came down the hill, and helped me with the gear and uprighting the bike.  One of them was even bold enhough to suggest that that the "ruta es may Malo"...implying that I needed to think twice about what I was doing.

I had gathered a bit of an audience from somewhere. I couldn't see their house or their parents, but these kids were glad of the entertainment.  The young fellow  below did not say much, but I think he was thinking that this is going to be fun, watching the big gringo fall on his ass...

What is that saying?...God speaks through the children?  I made that up.  After two more offs in very short order, I recognized that my Guardian Angel for the day was speaking through these onlookers, and that I had better readjust my plans and my agenda, before things got broken.   After reassuring the onlookers that I was just a little bit nuts...I backtracked about three hours through towns and villages and selected a route south around the Lake,  which would get to San Juan safely, without a broken bike or leg..

The next day, I knew that I had made the correct decision. Volcanoes began to appear, and the route around the lake through San Pedro was much saner and manageable.  When I returned through this route, Juan insisted that I get a police escort, which was fine by me.  Two municipal police on a little 400 followed me two-up through the area between San Pedro and San Juan.  I know that a few bikers have been robbed in this section, so Juan's advice was warranted.

Not knowing if Juan had seen my posts of a few days ago, from Mexico, I elected to wander around town and take more photos of San Juan de Atilan.  The murals that I had appreciated six years ago were still in place, and a walk through the pueblo was a pleasant and welcome review for me.

In some cases, the murals seemed to be new, and of a different  style.

I remembered this one, portraying a local medical procedure.

These two portray the traditional dress and weaving style of this particular pueblo.

The chiefs' nose was still there..the mountain is called the "The Mayan Face", as it resembles a Mayan looking up at the Sky..

The mountain is prominent in many murals, and is a focus for the community.

I noticed many "tut-tuks", a seemingly advancement from my last visit.

The pueblo is famous for the skill of the weavers.  There appears to be a number of co-operatives established by the women in the community.  It is fascinating to watch the demonstrations of the back strap looms.

The women of the co-operatives are very aware of the value of educating buyers to the quality of their products.  These blurred pictures show the different local plants which are used to dye their weavings.

I was fascinated by a newly produced mural in the village.  The Mayan calendar pays close attention to one's birth date.

Here is another mural with the "Mayan Face" being a major focus point of the origin myth regarding the village itself.

My friends provided me with the following story, which features the "Mayan Face":

Legend of the Red Patojo
Our friend Marco Perez, who is a local tourist guide, told us the Tzutiujil legend of a "Red Man or the Dancing Duck", who came to the mountains near San Juan, specifically the mountain called "The Mayan Face", which resembles a Maya seeing the sky.  At that time the land was very rich in vegetation and the soils  very fertile, but they say that this duck came to mock the people of the town, from the hill of the cross, shouted "Los de San Juan smells ugly, because they eat a lot of fish and crab"...which made  the people of San Juan angry, and they ran at it with sticks and stones, this made the child sad and left, not knowing that he was the protector of the place, but the people did not respected.

When Red Patojo left, people began to realize that the soil of the place changed, the vegetation disappeared and it was a bad time for San Juan, since nothing of what they sowed was reproduced, until the grandparents one day had to meet and think that he had caused the misfortune. So they had to go up the mountain and pray for forgiveness, and asking heaven to help them.  After that prayer, San Juan returned to recover and little by little it has been going back to recover the vegetation of the place, since at present, you can still see arid areas."

The sun does a wonderful job in drying this crop. I wasn't sure whether it was maize or coffee..

 Juan had taken me to a meeting in this building on my first visit to the pueblo. I remember speaking to the group, many who probably only spoke Tzutujil, in my "Spanglish."  At best, I spoke from the heart.

Near the local school, someone had added wonderful murals.  The quality of their work was outstanding, and I knew that there were many messages embedded within the huge paintings.

I never did learn about the reason for the flying saucer in the murals.  Perhaps the locals had a story about a sighting...

On another day, I caught the Mayan Face in repose.  The lighting was spectacular.

One of the murals in the village depicts a major earthquake and flood which killed many people..

The new church was completed and the village had decided to keep parts of the original church as part of the facade.

 For me, the Christmas tree, the Cross, and the Mayan Face portray different layers of the culture of the community.

It was heartwarming to find Juan and his family again. All sorts of emotions came forth for all of us. We had not seen each other since 2012.  The kids had grown in all sorts of good ways.  

The kids have grown bigger and wiser, and yet their wonderful personalities still shine through.  The "Mayan Face" remains in repose.  (For any readers interested in my posting on my first visit to San Juan, simply place "San Juan" in the search portion of blogger, or try this URL:

San Juan faces the wonderful lake....

The water-taxis serve the communities on the lake. Folks commute using these sturdy vessels.

Since my last visit, Juan has changed jobs. He is a chef at this hotel in town. I was set up with a beautiful room.

Juan arranged with one of his friends who owns a car wash to have the Twin cleaned of the road dust she had accumulated on the way south.

Juan's friend went out of his way to ensure that the big Moto was sparkling clean. He did a wonderful job of getting rid of dirt from all the way back to Moab, Utah.

Somehow, the Twin looks somewhat bigger than Blondy did....

The flowers are out...

The interior of the new church was beautiful..

Perro was sunbathing on the outside of the Church.

These fellows were very proud of their puppy

My tour guides for the day...

The kids took me to their grandmothers' co-operative.

I told Jessie that I was going to pay close attention to the time of birth of my next grandchild, who was growing in Edmonton...

There is clear evidence of an increase in tourism, and of a marketing strategy to meet the customers as they come off the launches..

Jacy is what my Dad used to call a "Card"...meaning she is full of energy, fanciful wit, and trickster quirks.  We had a fun day wandering around the village.

In the 'Nawale Store' I was able to find out more about my birthdate according to the Mayan interpretations..

We are examining the mural which depicts the circle of nawales...

As I said..a Trickster...

I am not sure which of these women  is the most  beautiful: the ladies of the mural or the young girl demonstrating the back strap loom.

Juan's new job as a chef afforded us with a first had view for the making of our dinner together.

Jacy is looking forward to the pizza..

I felt blessed to have the opportunity to revisit these wonderful people in a magical peublo within a awesome country. Juan Carlos, White Rosa, Miguel Angel and Jacy Melchora are forever part of my Soul. I will do everything in my power to ensure that the family goal for  the children to visit Canada becomes a reality.