Monday, August 14, 2006

Follow That Mannequin Leg!

Greetings from Antigua, Guatemala.

Those of you who know me well know that when I see a mannequin leg lashed to the top of a moving vehicle, I have no choice but to give chase. Logic and common sense abandon me, and I am enticed - nay! commanded - to follow it, like a lemming summoned to the sweet tunes of the piper.

So there we were, hustling at high speeds in a frenetic attempt to keep apace with a small Toyota pickup laden well beyond recommended capacity with equal parts Guatemalan teenagers and large burlap sacks stuffed to the gills with God knows what and capped by a mysterious pair of grey mannequin legs lashed to its roof as it barreled through mountainous turn after turn through the highlands of Guatemala.

Western Guatemala was essentially eastern Mexico writ large. The mountains were greener and more impressive, the potholes and myriad other road hazzards unannounced and potentially more debilitating, the scenery more intense, the native citizenry more exotic, the women in the towns more attractive, the vehicles more slipshod, the emissions standards more lax, and the cat in the window possessed of a certain level of sophistication never attained by his contemporary on other side of the border. Orange Crush had made a sudden and quite impressive inroad into Coca-Cola territory, and their 1980's style logo hung from almost every store, bar, and restaurant along the road. The people in the cities had a more laissez-faire attitude towards stop signs and traffic signals, more of an ¨as you like it¨ approach. All intersections were subject to the same rule: whichever street is bigger has the right of way and its traffic need not stop. This was fine and dandy in some places, like when you were on the large road and you intersected an obviously lesser thoroughfare. But sometimes the roads seemed of equal significance, and discerning which was which was entirely subjective. In other words, if you weren´t born in the city and didn´t know the secret hierarchy, enjoy.

Getting into Guatemala was fairly easy, albeit unnecessarily obfuscated by a lack of any signs whatsoever. In short, the process is as follows: drive to border, road is blocked by two men holding the ends of a long stick, men with stick direct you down filthy dirt road to the right and under shanties built on stilts a la ¨Waterworld¨ sans Costner to man in all denim, man in denim selling tickets to a parking lot that you have no desire to enter, man in denim directs you back to men with stick and tells you to tell them to let you through, back to main road, men lift stick, shysters in leather cowboy hats try to change your pesos for Guatemalan Quetzal at 60 percent of real rate, try to outsmart shysters by going to bank 100 feet further, man at bank says they don´t change money - you know, like a real bank at a border, back to smiling shysters in hats, then to line at counter to fill out paperwork and calculate fee for importation of motorcycles, back to bank guarded by 5´1¨ man with assault rifle to pay the fee as the guy at counter obviously cannot be counted upon to accept money, too, then go against traffic (mostly refurbished and brightly painted US schoolbuses and throngs of people buying cheap merchandise at stalls along street) until you reach freedom. And it´s 105 degrees and you´re wearing a black motorcycle jacket and pants.

But once you´re in, you are treated to some of the greatest scenery imaginable. Picture a road that meanders along a river through a smaller version of the Rockies that has been festooned in brilliant green in celebration of St. Patrick´s Day and you´ve got an idea.

At this point, we had a total of five Quetzal to our name, not wanting the senores en los sombreros to get the best of us. For those of you following along at home with your currency converters, that´s about 75 cents. Certainly there would be a bank or ATM somewhere. And that´s when I saw the legs.

In all honesty, I wanted to follow a vehicle of some sort, because potholes and large rocks would emerge without warning as you whipped around a corner at sixty. Usually the other drivers were Guatemalans and they knew from experience where all the dangers were, so you just had to keep up and follow the Good Ship Lollypop to safety. So we targeted the legs and proceeded; often that meant proceeding with great haste. It turned out that the driver of the mannqeuin truck was a man that liked to make things happen, and why wouldn´t he? There were only six Guatemalan guys sleeping in contorted positions amongst the burlap sacks in the bed of the truck and all of his tires were either underinflated or under extreme duress...or both, so he had little to lose. Keeping up with him made me feel like I was in a motorcross event, but we stayed within sight at all times and copied his movements - except when one of the guys in the back saw us, reached up, and patted the mannequin legs on the butt. I started laughing during a turn and almost lost it.

Eventually they pulled over at a gas station, so we did, too. I snapped a pic and Neubz joked with them about the mannequin. Just then we looked over and saw that Neubz´s bike had a flat rear tire, so he crouched down for a pic of that, too, which was precisely the moment that his motorcycle collapsed. In a reflex effort to save it, he thrust out a hand, and in doing so grabbed onto and subsequently tore off his cheap Chinese trunk. As the bike hit the ground, the plastic pieces that comprised the hinge system on the trunk scattered across the cement, the largest piece sliding several feet and through a grate that led to a current of murky water a foot and a half down that may or may not have contained sewage. And to add salt to the wound, he had consequently lost the falling bike game yet again, so I´ll be making another trip to the market.

The stage was set for good times at this point. One bike down. Darkness coming. Storm on the horizon. 75 cents in our pocket. Middle of nowhere. It was decided that Neubz would change the tire while I made a Quetzal run, so he busted out the tools while I made off for a bank. Finding a bank was easier said than done, and it took over an hour before I ended up in a town called Quetzaltenango, a damn fine place to find Quetzal if you ask me. Quetzal in hand, I scurried back to the scene of the fall to find Neubz surrounded by a throng of curious onlookers dressed in traditional rural Mayan garb. It turned out that I was too late to witness the Neubz coaxing a guy in a van to run over his tire to break the bead so that he could get it off the rim; that would have been an interesting conversation. Within a few minutes grimy-handed Neubz and I were off again, bound for the only reasonably sized town where we would be able to find a hotel for the night: jolly Quetzaltenango.

Once situated, we set out for food (now being able to afford it for the first time all day) and drink. Upon entering a bar/restaurant, we ordered food and were promptly accosted by two Guatemalan men (they looked 13 but claimed to be 22) who invited us to their table. Pouring what remained of their three 40 oz bottles of Dorado Ice into two dirty glasses besmirched with a mixture of salt and lime juice, they embarked upon Operation Jibberish - a marathon that we would endure for approximately forty five minutes while we waited, starving, for our food to arrive. We understood very little of what they said, but we did understand that they were excited to talk to us - evidenced by the incoherent, loud rambling and the dozen or so times the one who called himself Leonardo de Caprio spat inadvertently in my face while swinging his hand inches from my eyes, that they had consumed a reasonable amount of Doral Ice, that they wanted us to accompany them to a certain establishment where women exchanged certain services for Quetzal, and that they had absolutely no problem taking the food that we had waited so patiently for and eating it before our disbelieving eyes. Hungry, thirsty, and utterly defeated, we took our leave and headed back to the hotel steeped in despair.

The subsequent two days held redemption, as we first met up with the aunt of a girl Neubz went to law school with that lives in an awesome place overlooking Lake Atitlan. I am attaching a picture of the lake that I found on the Internet, as it is one of the most absolutely stunning places that I have ever been and I forgot to bring my card reader to this Internet place. She (Molly) and her well-read husband (Miguel) treated us to a delicious dinner and a great political discussion, put us up in their house (which Neubz kindly decimated with the stench from his boots), and served us a great breakfast early this morning. Fantastic people.

And today a guy named Guillermo pulled over with us to the side of the road while we were looking at a map and trying to figure out where in the heck we were. He had a KLR 650, too, and he had us follow him to the colonial town of Antigua and showed us around. That is where we are now.

Tomorrow we plan to leave early and exit Guatemala, cross El Salvador, and get halfway across Nicaragua. Stay tuned for the next item that Nuebz is forced to lash to his bike (the prospect of a rack of lamb was summarily dismissed, as was a giant plastic horse that an old man in a park was randomly selling), as I'll make sure it won´t cave as easily as the Dora the Explorer piƱata. I´ll try to get some pics up on when I get a chance later and a computer more recent than this Commodore 888.

- Tom

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