Monday, January 21, 2013

Tailing the Longjaw Squirrelfish

Well well well, here we are on Isla Utila, off the north coast of Honduras, in the Caribbean Sea, lounging in hammocks, sipping cervezas and planning tomorrow’s scuba diving. It’s been a whole month since we last dabbled in blog world, so it’s time to dust off our capes, goggles and masks, and raise our skinny fists like antennas to the gods. Que chilero mano!

Hitting the road once again.
Lake Atitlan crew representing.
Discussing route options: "I think we should go past the bandits"
We left Lake Atitlan with happy goodbye waves from Sebastian, Cardenas, Sarah, Karoline and Luis, and hit some barely marked roads on our map to further circumnavigate the lake. The road started as a freshly paved mountain road, then abruptly transformed into a steep, dusty, rocky track of death. We idled the bikes down the precipitous path, with grimacing locals hauling faggots on their backs to keep the taco fires roaring. Concentration levels were at maximum, until Atley lost his brakes and let out a Guatemalan war cry as he swung the bike into the bushes rather than off the cliff edge. His faint bleeting sounded out over the intercom moments before we lost connection, but enough for Ferg and I to pull u-bolts and head back up to assist. His front brakes had copped a friendly spray of ArmourAll at a 50 cent car wash a few days earlier, and were yet to resume full performance, but it was when his rear brakes overheated that the burble escaped from beneath his hair lip. As it turned out Ferg’s rear brakes were also on the verge of overheating, so we were about to stop for a cool-down break, when a police 4wd crunched up beside us. “Hay bandidos aqui. Ustedes van ahora,” the cop said to us with a frown. There are robbers here, you go now. OK we said, and forgot about hot brakes, and saddled up. Luckily the brakes all grabbed like that scary lady from the market, and we took off down the track, smiles from our lovely week at the lake gone, replaced with furrowed concentration and bandit wonderings. Alas we had a trouble-free ride from there on, and sailed past many potential robbers, some selling tacos, some washing cars and some going to church.

The adrenaline filled faces of canoeing. 
The ride that day took us onto a horribly busy artery of Guatemalan traffic, and we did serious battle with transport trucks, patch-work road surfaces and some deep-fried pork fat for lunch. In the afternoon we rolled into the surf town of Champerico, on the Pacific Coast, and immediately spotted The Gringo heading down for a late afternoon wave. We stopped him and he directed us to the yellow hotel, who gave us a room with 3 beds and a bathroom for $7 a night. We caught up with The Gringo later on, and he invited us to his girlfriend’s mum’s closed restaurant, where we celebrated with beer and regaled each others’ escape from Regular World. His local friends listened patiently to our stumbling spanish, then we were served whole fish, freshly plucked from the ocean that morning, to feast on. The Gringo was formally Thomas, from Texas, but now he’s Tomàs, living in Champerico for the last year and a half, trying to start up a surf shop and surf school. He offered to take us for a wave the next morning, at the local spot, and we happily accepted. At 7am the next morning we tip-toed down the gravel road, past the abandoned cruise ship port, to a series of beaches with clean 4 footers rolling in. Out we went, singing the Gozz’s name, and got pleasantly SMASHED by the vicious surf on our longboards. Eventually Ferg and I went into the shallows and rode foamies to remind ourselves we could in fact stand up, while Atley lay on the beach nursing some stab wounds from his now missing surfboard fin. All in all, a wicked morning in the waves, and we celebrated by eating a huge volume of fresh shrimp at a beachside restaurant in town.

Endless cat toys in garbage world.
Nothing more scenic than a beach FULL OF GARBAGE!
That evening Tomàs took us out to his friends in the fishing village nearby, and we had a jolly evening speaking Spanish and listening to Tomàs’s adventures of his arrival into the community. Freddie the fisherman offered to take us out in canoes the next morning, for a tour of the mangrove rivers that started at the back of his house. We showed up the next morning with beers in hand as instructed, and set off for an amazing tour through dense jungle undergrowth in tiny wooden canoes. Life flourished in the sometimes filthy waterways, with fish regularly leaping into the air and birds flapping about. The fisherman never stopped laughing as he led us through some super tight waterways on our way out to the coast, for a lunch of papaya with lemon and salt drizzled on it. The fishing village itself was a functional shamble town, made of corrugated iron and mud, strewn with yapping dogs, chicken wire, and oinking pigs grovelling in garbage. The humble, lovely residents made us feel very welcome, and loaned Ferg a sweet hat for the canoe trip.

Guatemalan jungle homes for sale for $10k a pop.
Sunset at Tikal Ruins
Living on the road, with no home or support network, means that the reaction from the people we meet has a large impact on the quality of our experience. We’ve learned that when someone offers you something, whether it be some food, some advice, or a tour, you say yes. When Carlos offered us to stay at his place, we said yes. When Jorge and Juan offered to take us for a motorbike ride through their local area, we said yes. When Tomàs offered to take us surfing, we said yes. When Freddy the fisherman offered to take us on a canoe trip through the mangrove rivers, we said yes. At the moment when these offers were made, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but the outcomes were all great. Obviously not every single offer made to us is healthy, respectable, or ethical, so we do assess before approving, but the lesson for now, is to always say yes.

To be said out loud in a Norwegian accent: "You cannot fuck with Hungarian moustache wax".
Remains of Christmas lunch with our hostel family.
The Viking Wants More!
By now Christmas was approaching, so we again mounted our mules and plodded across the mountains, to the backpacker tourist hub of the town of Antigua. There, surrounded by picturesque volcanoes, we planned to spend 5 or 6 days, to celebrate jolly old Saint Nick giving us things. We also figured we’d find some cool peeps there, to replace the gaping holes left by our families on the other side of the world, on that special day. Our ploy worked well, and by the time Christmas Day came, we had a crew of friends, enough to hold a lunch banquet for 9. In between rounds of rum, wine and The Viking’s weird black liquor, Atley stood up and announced in his grown up voice that he and Wendy got engaged the night before!

Some new bling.
Piñata! And Wendy, chewing on something bitter!
They had been smashing tacos in a gypsy hut, when Frank the restaurant owner asked them if they cared to join him and the Costa Rican band, that night’s entertainment. He explained in a drifty, far-out-dude kinda voice that the Christmas Eve fireworks tended to look pretty cool from his place, as it was built on the side of a volcano. So into a van full of strangers they piled and switchbacked their way up the mountain, swerving violently at times to avoid cliff edges and Honda-125-Tornado-riding locals. Their reward for Always Saying Yes, when presented with the interesting yet dubious sounding offers of kindly strangers, was a massive view of the entire valley floor, the twinkling lights of Antigua and the 5 surrounding pueblos laid out before them. With the Gypsy band playing, the fireworks booming, and the rum punch flowing, Atley dug deep into the chest hair of courage and stammered a proposal. And so the McAtleys begin!

Last remaining photo of Matt's Guitar.
Foggy bananas.
Antigua was another happy, social week for us, making many new friends, loitering at the seedy Cafe No-se, and letting off many fireworks in increasingly hilarious ways, much to the glee of the surrounding locals. We departed late one morning, and had a big day of riding to scoot into the remote town of Lanquin that evening. Near the bottom of a huge valley, this tiny town is only accessible by a steep, rocky track lightly slashed into the jungle. Riding down it in the dark was an exhausting 45 minutes of tedious not-dying, as the unprotected cliff edge beckoned menacingly. But coincidentally our riding skills appear to be in fine working order after 22,000km on the road, and we smashed it like an avocado on the side of a police car.

Candle light caves in Semuc.
Wendy is oblivious to the fury that is about to be released by Drunk-American-Guy.
Morning view from Zephyr Lodge.
The destination that day was Zephyr Riverlodge, a beautiful open-plan hostel placed along a mountain ridge, with deep, green valleys on either side, and a gushing river at the bottom. That was to be our base for the next few days, while we toured the caves and natural rock pools of nearby Semuc Champey. The caving was excellent, with exciting moments of swimming in the dark with a candle in your teeth, making your way through about 15 cave rooms, clambering up and down waterfalls and teetering ladders, and leaping from rocky ledges into barely-deep-enough rock pools below, all in the dark! After, a large rope swing into the Jurassic looking green river kept us laughing for a few minutes, as pale-skinned backpackers worked up the courage to go flying through the air into the water, for the entertainment of the local guides. Next was a 12 meter leap of hope from a rickety bridge into the river, so Ferg practiced his front flip with amusing success. The guide then took us through 10 huge rock pools, with clear green water, at the bottom of a massive canyon. We jumped, flipped and slid down rocky waterslides from pool to pool, and swam under some very low ledges hiding rocky tunnels with only 3 inches of air at the top. We made some good friends that day, and it jumps to one of the top days we’ve had in the last 6 months of adventures. Thanks Peku, Fadi, Ale, Mark, Caitlin, Jarred, Drew, Vincent, Ben, Chris, Tom and the drunk Americans!

Overlooking Semuc Champey.
A few minutes after this, thousands of bats streamed out of this cave, and over the river, where we were swimming!
When I purchased a classical guitar in Guadalajara in September, Ferg’s guess was that it would have a maximum life of 3 weeks, in the severe service of adventure motorbike travel. Funnily enough it lasted over 3 months, spending it’s time in a garbage bag, strapped to the top of my bike, and was pleasant to pull out in remote locations for a tune. Every time I suggested a ceremonial burning, Ferg promptly denied the action, so it lived more days than we expected on the bumpy roads of Latin America. Alas it didn’t stay in tune, wasn’t very loud, was separating at several joints, and I just never really fell in love with it. I started to be rather loose with my storage of it, and often left it leaning against the bike when we weren’t around. After 3 days outside Zephyr Lodge, someone finally had the nerve to thieve it from its resting positing against my front wheel, hopefully with grand plans to educate the local community through song. I was mostly pleased to have been relieved of it, and thus closes another relationship between me and some wood.

Atley, dying. Bike, rusting. Somewhere, a chicken clucks.
Our ride out of Lanquin was post-poned a day, due to massive rainfall overnight and into the morning, and so we pushed our escape from the muddy valley back by a day. The next day was only slightly better, but we had geezers to meet, so headed out into the rain and mud, except this time with a delirious Atley, green with the scurvy, battling to keep the motorcycle wheels-down. We plodded patiently down a newly made mountain road for the opening 2 hours of riding, battling low visibility, slippery road surfaces, unprotected cliff edges and swerving, lurching Toyota vans hauling 32+ wide-eyed locals, all presumably eager to hear about Dual Sporting. Atley slumbered and groaned in various positions during our many breaks, and put any niggling complaints Ferg and I had to shame. He came good after about 6 hours of riding, which is a valuable lesson for everyone out there: 6 hours of off road riding in Guatemala is better than any fancy prescriptions your so-called local doctor can dish out, so get riding!

Tikal just had some ruins put in.
Phil - The ancient mayan assassin. 
By now we’d travelled into Northern Guatemala, and headed to a small island on a lake, with the town of Flores on it. There we met back up with Wendy, who we’d shipped up there the day before then promptly changed our mind about following her, and Captain Phillip John Alsop P.Eng from the Syncrude Armies from the North. PJ was kind enough to mule down various vital supplies to the front line where we did battle, and we excitedly unwrapped our Christmas gifts to ourselves, of a helmet visor, 6 sets of brake pads, 3 oil filters, one rear suspension assembly, one oil filter cover and one brand spanking new GoPro H3 video camera! Thanks heaps Phil!

We were in Flores for New Years eve, and celebrated by mimicking the beer-drinking locals. I had the pleasure of listening to, then watching, some guy on the bunk bed below me spew all over himself and his possessions, then fall back to sleep with it all over him – classic hostel living. Just to the north of Flores is a Mayan Ruin site called Tikal that everybody craps on about, so we apologised in advance to our bikes and embarrassingly stepped aboard a tour bus in a disgustingly non-dual sporting fashion. We wandered about the ruins, with a guide laying out his shpiel, climbed some old temples and watched the sun set over the jungletop. We saw some yellow tucans winging about, listened to some howler monkeys screaming bloody murder, and had a squirming tarantula gently eased into our open mouths, all while being herded around the site by a local sheppard. With a nod, a spit into the dirt, and a serious expression on his face, Ferg announced, “These are the last ruins we visit for a very, very long time.”

PJ eats something hairy and black!
Rock pools at Semuc Champey.
With our glowing review of Semuc Champey smooshed into his pudgy widdle face, Phil parted ways with TheMattAtleyFergandWendyShow, and went to see what all the fuss was about, solo. The four of us travelled by bike and bus to Rio Dulce, and had a leisurely time getting gastroenteritis in scenic surrounds. While I lay in the grips of the scurvy in the 20 bed hostel room, the others caught a boat to get their first (and unfortunately disappointing) sight, of the Carribean Sea at Livingstone. Ferg and Megan became the next victims of the dreaded scurvy, and my abdomen felt like an irritated German marching band were practicing sequences in there, when we geared up a few days later to depart Rio Dulce, and Guatemala. All up Guatemala was a lovely little country, with a great division between the poor and the wealthy, amazing mountains, jungles and animals, pleasant, smiling people and some reasonable food. Mexican food is something we heartily miss these days, as the taco has become purely a figment of our imagination in quiet, personal moments. We heard more tales of local crime in Guatemala, but observed nothing criminal in our 4 week tour, other than Atley’s dance moves.

The river at Semuc Champey.
An amazing view to wake up to at Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin. Some advice: go there.
Phil rejoined us at Rio Dulce, and our border crossing was incident-free but tested our patience, waiting in line after slow-moving-line, to export ourselves and the bikes, then reverse the process to enter Honduras, under a burning Central American sun. Once the formalities were completed, the immigration man let us eat the oranges rolling around in the back of his pickup truck, which were juicy, of typical diameter and robust flavour.

Contemplating the Dutch Rudder.
Sunset over Utila.
Tough life in between dives.
The 2 days of riding we’ve done so far in Honduras have been unremarkable, skirting banana plantations, feeble rivers, and very simple, sad looking homes. The looping razor wire on walls of San Pedro Sula gave us all a bad vibe, and after an unconvincing explanation of the Things We Must Do and See In Honduras by the hotel owner there, we headed straight for the North coast and set out on the ferry to Isla Utila in the Carribean Sea. Utila is a scuba diving hub due to the clear water and coral reef that surrounds the island, and renown for the cheap cost of diving. Here we took our Open Water Diving Certification for $250, and in doing so saw eagle rays, dolphins, barracudas, puffer fish, caves, trumpet fish, turtles, nurse shark, moray eels, lion fish and illuminescent green things that float around you like little alien angels. I snuck in the Advanced Open Water Certification course too, in the last few days, cos I like life with 40 metres of water on top of you. And Coco’s cool too.

Dual Sporting!
"Does anyone need a new deckhand?"
PJ chillin' in the Carribean!
After 9 days of amazing warm, sunny weather here, we’ve finally been hit with the rainy season, and are currently stranded on the island as the ferry doesn’t run in rough weather. But life is good on Utila, and we’ve had some great nights with our instructors Coco and Meg, at their house, other instructor’s houses and local seedy dive bars. From here we have to decide if we’re going to go cross Central America, to El Salvador, or motor on into Nicaragua for some Pacific surfing adventures.

Thanks for reading. Now for our 12th video instalment, entitled, “Scuba Sessions with Coco.”

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