Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I seem to have caught an addiction to biking up mountains. From the border I head towards Quetzaltenango. The easier route keeps to the littoral. I turned left on the RN1. A little beyond the intersection, an extraordinary building has been under construction for the past twenty years. I am told that it is a private house; it is the size of hotel. It has minarets and towers and endless wings. It stands on the side of hill behind iron gates decorated with lions rampant. Those whom I asked were either ignorant or reluctant to tell me anything of the owner though I gathered from the interplay that they believed him more than eccentric - a little crazy.
So am I. RN1 climbs over the flank of Ajumulco, at 4,220 metres, the tallest volcano in Guatemala. I stopped for a good breakfast (Q20) at the entrance to San Paulo at the Rancho de los Sora, then headed up in expectation of superb views. The views were wonderful until I hit the first layer of cloud. The road climbed thru the cloud into a thin layer of clear air before climbing on up into the next layer of cloud. The upper clouds were wet. I froze and I dripped and pictured myself in the eyes of a sensible hotel keeper - an aged tramp on a small bike. No, not a good prospect.
Quetztalenango has cobbled streets and a one way system that is bewildering when your specatacles drip rain. I slithered downhill into the Park Central (Cathedral across the square), took a right to escape the traffic and spotted Hotel Kiktem-Ja. The hotel is on a one way street. Continue half a block beyond the square and the hotel is on the right. Drive into the courtyard: a good bed, excellent hot water in the bathroom. More welcoming if the owners repainted floors and ceilings - black is not a lively color! Shame, as window boxes on the first floor gallery giving onto the courtyard drip geraniums.
I am attempting to catch up on the blog and worked at an internet cafe until 9 p.m. The owner of the internet cafe, Mario, is a biker, though above my class: big BMW. Mario directed me to a waiter-serviced cafeteria. Steak with guacamole and refried beans (Q20 - as of now the exchange rate is 7.47 Quetzales to the US dollar). The hotel room is Q125 - perhaps more than I need pay but I was tired, wet and cold and the receptionist didn´t quake at my appearance.
Monday morning, I visted schools. I wore my green shirt, the shirt that failed to earn me an upgrade on Air Lingus.
Students at the first, a private school, were in the middle of exams. The second turned out to be a junior technical college, the students too old. The Principal warned against visiting State schools were teachers were under qualified and English taught from a dictionary. She suggested a second private school with some foreign teachers (US). Access was thru solid iron gates set in a twelve-foot high wall. A statue of the Virgin and one of Christ stood on a patch of neat lawn to the right of the gate. Walling and gateing is the norm in Guatemala and religious statues are a positive. No statues and I would be on Evangelist territory - unsafe for a Catholic, even a lapsed Catholic. I wore the Virgin of Guadalupe in my colar. I preened myself in my green shirt - green for Ireland, Ireland for Catholicism. Who would doubt that I was in a winning situation? I handed the licenciada my visiting card, outlined my purpose and awaited a priest from County Mayo baring a whisky Mac.
The licenciada had doubts. Was she colour blind? Or was she sensible of a recent past in which murder/execution/assasination/fatal accident were a common reward for being suspected of harbouring the wrong political thoughts?
Or did she pick me as a possible sex criminal? Surely not. And, if so, that, also, would be thought crime. Whatever the urge, I am too old and slow and lazy to catch unwilling prey.
The manner in which she fingered my visiting card sapped my initial confidence. She askled what questions I intended asking and said that she would peruse my web site prior to discussing the possibility with the Principal. Would I call her in the morning?
"Of course," I say, while mentally reviewing my web site. The one piece of fiction is chosen for its quality. It is a pece of writing of which I am proud. It is moral. It is humane. Would the licenciada be shocked at discovering that sexuality is its subject matter?
Should I cut the piece out? Could I reach an internet cafe before the licenciada read it? Why was I even thinking of cutting it out. It is good writing. It is what I do best - or believe that I do best: portray characters in moments of intimacy.
The piece continues to exist. I called the licenciada in the morning only to be informed that the Principal wished to examine my web site before reaching a decision.
What could I say, other than weakly wonder whether an elderly English writer could corrupt students of a good school in a mere thirty minutes?
Better get back on my bike...
I took the road down to the littoral. Recent torrential rains have swept bridges away. A truck and trailer had slipped off a corner on one of the dirt-surfaced diversions. Retalhuleu was well worth an uninteresting cup of coffee - the mountains are cloaked in coffee, coffee is Guatemala´s biggest export.
From the coast I took the main highway towards Guatemala City (very busy), then turned off to Lake Atitlan on a road thru rich beautiful farmland and climbs thru sugar and ranches and rubber plantations to coffee and on into clouds in which Friesian dairy-cows were barely visible in a lush paddock.
The clouds turned wet on the way down the mountain to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. I rode down the main street and turned right at the pink walled bakery to a small hotel within gates. Good room with excellentt hot water in the shower for Q75 (I bargained it down from Q100). I walked across the street to the Hotel Dos Mundos and found Room 12 facing onto the pool. The palm trees have grown in the past ten years. Ten years ago I crawled in agony out of that room on all fours begging for a doctor. The doctor arrived on a trial bike and jammed a needle in my butt. So I live and my heart has been good ever since. The doctor worked at the State Health Center up the street. Hearts were his major interest. Back in Havana none of my medical friends believed that free medicine and State employed doctors existed outside Cuba - particularly in Guatemala.
I asked at the Health Center and was told that doctors usually only stay a year. Nor could they put a name to my saviour - sad as I was in Atitlan specifically to thank him.
Evening and the rain bucketed down transforming the main street, now tarmac, earth when I was last here, into a river. Unable to escape, I ordered vegetable soup at a tiny six-table restaurant. The soup was good and freshly-made. I know because of the wait: Q15.
Thunder much of the night and a noisy group of French in the next room packing their plunder from the markets and catching an early bus.
When riding, I smile at anyone I pass. In Mexico I became accustomed to smiles in immediate reply - from everyone, cops included. My small experience is that Guatemalans take more time to respond or are more cautious in responding. Perhaps they have less to smile about or are unused to people smiling at them. When I do receive an answering smile, it has great value.

Monday, May 29, 2006


I arrived in Mexico May 6 and left today - three weeks, of which ten days was occupied by buying and registering the Honda. I have crossed Mexico from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific. I have ridden 1885 kilometers and have used 44 liters of gas (approximately 100 miles to the US gallon - smaller than the Imperial) at an approximate cost of $US45. The Honda has carried me up mountains to an altitude of nearly 3000 meters and born me effortlessly along the two littoral.
I have eaten sensibly. I have cleaned my teeth and washed the toothbrush in bottled water. I have drunk bottled water, fresh fruit juice and the occasional beer. My bowels have functioned normally.
I have made myself comfortable within a reasonable budget - this is not an endurance or survival test. Older people have their quirks. Our ablutions are more complicated than in our youth. We need to get up in the night and we value our privacy. I have taken rooms with bathrooms other than in Oaxaca where the bathroom block was across the patio and at the beach where the ablutions were midway down a gravel path behind the row of palapas ($M50). My heavy feet trudging back and forth thru the night must have kept younger guests awake!
I prefer a fan to air-con. A fan keeps the mosquitoes at bay and you don't risk a chill from frequent acute changes in temperature. My final two nights were $M120 - the rest were $M175. All rooms were ample, clean and with double beds. The bathrooms were clean and adequate: shower draining through the tiled floor, hand basin, lavatory. Mexican plumbing requires coseting - put all paper in the bin supplied. On the coast the water was cold - you don't want hot. In Oaxaca the water was hot and I could easily have found a hotel with private bath within the $M175 budget, I preferred to enjoy the Hotel Central's lovely patio.
Staff seldom volunteer to carry bags. Ask and they will do so. Don't be shy of asking.
Laundry is easily arranged, economical ($M30-40) and fast so there is no need to weigh yourself down with clothes. Again, ask the hotel staff for directions.
We Oldies tend to be particular in our diet. We prefer quality to quantity - though, if hungry, a simple set meal of three courses costs between $M35 and $M50. Mindful of my senile diabetes, I ate a cooked breakfast ($M28-35). Mostly I have eaten fruit at midday and in mid-afternoon. I have made do with fruit in the evenings of those days when I ate a late lunch. I have seldom eaten more than single dish. $M70-80 is the standard main course at a good restaurant - good judged by the food rather than by the tablecloths, cutlery and waiter's uniform. Mexico is a nation of cooks. Cross into Guatemala and recognize the difference between comfortable adequacy and true fanaticism. I look for restaurants with full tables.
I was chatting with a woman in the bank today. I remarked on how helpful I had found all Mexican officials. She said that much depends on the tourist's attitude. I always first apologies for putting demands on the official's time. Such small courtesies are valued in countries where salaries are woefully inadequate.
Transport: Mexican main bus services are safe, comfortable and punctual. They serve all cities and major towns. All bus companies use the same terminal. The terminals are clean and safe. Porters are available both to load and unload luggage from the hold. Luggage carried in the hold is ticketed. Cab fares from the bus terminal to your hotel are set at the terminal taxi kiosk so there is no fear of being over charged.
Mexicans dress conservatively. I wear sports shirts during the day, long sleeves at night and black or dark brown chinos with velcroed side pockets. Wallet goes in the left, camera in the right. I wear good solid Church shoes (shoe shine $M10) and carry flip-flops for the beach and bathroom. We Oldies tend to be absentminded. I carry my passport, credit card, bike registration and spare bike keys in a waterproof purse hung on a steel cord and tucked inside my pants - the purse was an invaluable gift from my sister-in-law, Caroline. She also gave me a Boots first aid kit which I can top up as needs be. Chemists will advise on any small medical problem and subscribe the remedy. I have a burn on my leg from the exhaust for which a chemist subscribed a good antibiotic cream.
I can only write of my own experiences. Riding the Honda enables me to stop where I want. An old man on a bike arouses curiosity and is an easy introduction. I have chatted with campesinos on the road side, with minor and middle officials, those in commerce and the professional classes - lawyers, doctors, an architect, dentist. I have not met any of the white oligarchy that rules Mexico - merely a couple of their servants. I have been shamed by the warmth of Mexican hospitality and courtesy. I write of every contact over these past three weeks. Oh, that we Brits treated foreigners with such universal kindness.
Mexicans appear to like the elderly. They keep their elderly at home rather than park them in a geriatric's garage. Do I recommend Mexico as a tourist destination for Oldies? Definitely
Turn off the TV, pack your bags, go...


The frontier at Talisman is recommended to the private motorist as the most trouble free. However, some guide books warn of delays, over charging, swindles by money changers, robbery in the public lavatories, etc. and the neccessity of an international driving permit if entering Guatemala.
Maybe this all true.
I don't have an international driving permit.
You must have photocopies of your car registration papers, of your driving permit (mine is standard plastic UK and EU) and of the details pages of your passport.
Leaving Mexico, I was five minutes at Immigration most of which was taken up with where was I going and humorous hopes that I would survive and had I enjoyed Mexico?
I changed money with a man in a stetson while seated on my bike. He gave the correct rate.
I stopped a couple of minnutes at the Guatemalan sanitation post - mostly we joked. I was a little over thirty minutes at Immigration and customs. The three customs officers came out of the office to wave me on my way.


Writers write. They also suffer painful cramps in the thighs at night if they are old and dumb and feel challenged and ride a small motorcycle 500 Ks acros Oaxaca and the Chiapas litoral in a day. The Honda was mocked, not the man. The Honda remains victorious.
AND THERE ARE NO SEVEN-FOOT-TALL ALIENS IN CENTRAL AMERICA, IN OR OUT OF SARCOPHAGI. Go recalibrate yourself for the umpteenth time. Shades of Ibiza sixties...

I worked an hour last night at a pleasant internet cafe peopled by a bunch of students with whom I chatted before being directed to an old-fashioned cafe, dark wood-panelling and wood-bladed celing fans. Drank a beer, ate good liver and onions with chili AND a flan: $M71

Took my laundry round the corner ($M38 for 3Ks, wash, iron and ready in two hours). Breakfast outdoors on the central square. Cafe on the right facing uphill is best value ($M28). The electricity had been cut at last night's internet cafe! Found another, more comfortable, equally pleasant people and worked for ten hours ($M100) with only a break to fetch my laundry and eat a fruit salad. People-watched on the central square, drank a beer and ate a steak. My last meal in Mexico...


I long to stay at this small village, to record the happenings. I am commited to a different book.
Let this be clear: the mockery of a chemicaly-recalibrated fortysomething (yes, all of that), a surf addict who states as fact that corpses of seven-foot-tall aliens have been discovered in stone sarcophagus unearthed from the burial chambers beneath Central America's pyramids - that I should be so adolescent (in my dotage) as to rise to the challenge of such a man? Never. Yet I find myself on the road at 7 a.m. and determined to reach Tapachula - 500 Ks.
The coast road is glorious with it trees and blossoms and the Honda slices through fresh scent. A freeway bypasses Salina del Cruz and Tehuantepec: $M12.50. I stop for breakfast at a roadside palapa $M28. At the state border an official welcomes me to Chiapas.
"To Argentina? Patagonia? Bravo," he tells me and shakes my hand and claps me on the back.
The Chiapas litoral is mile after mile of magnificent green paddocks and cows and horses grazing in the shade of trees that would dwarf the tallest oak in an English parkland. Cloud blankets forested mountains that rise directly behind the ranches.
So my bum is numb - this is a countyman's visual heaven...
I stop for cold water and a packet of nuts at a tiny roadside shack, two of the white tables, six chairs. A man in uniform is the only customer. The earth gives way beneath the weight of the Honda and it tumbles sideways. The man tries to save the bike and burns his palm on the exhaust. He holds ice in his hand and boasts of the beauty of Chiapas and enquires of my journey and what will I write of Mexico.
The owner of the shack and her daughter listen, as does an old white man with pale blue eyes and a grey bristle-beard who has shuffled across the highway from a five-hut village.
"That Mexcio is an immensely rich and beautiful country with many poor people," I answer.
My listeners murmur their assent. Despite my protests, the man in uniform and with the painfully burnt hand insists on paying for my water and the packet of nuts.
Mexican generosity is inescapable. There is a moment in which I consider turning back to write that other book.
Instead I ride on into the evening and Tehuantepec and get caught in the rain as I try to decypher the guidebook's directions to a hotel. Who writes this stuff? ONE BLOCK FROM THE CENTRAL SQUARE? A square has four sides and is more than one block long and all streets are part of an incomprehensible one way system. A kind young man in jewellery suggests two hotels. He promises taht both are clean, cheap and comfortable. His directions are presice. I find without difficulty the Hotel Cervantina. Saintly staff hike the Honda over the high curb and wheel it to the far end of an entrance lobby that runs the full depth of the hotel. I take a room on the top floor, double bed, fan, bathroom and the best, biggest, thickest bath towell I have yet experienced: $M120 ($M150 for a room with TV).
Here are clear directions, understandable by even a fat wet old Toad on a bike in the rain: go up hill on the side of the central square oposit the church. Turn right midway up the square. Drive one block and turn right. The Hotel Feliz is on the left. It is clean, modern, comfortable and excellent value at $M200. The hotel's parking is immediately prior to the hotel's entrance so stop outside the garage entrance or you must circle the block again.
For the cheaper Hotel Cervantina take the same turning off the square and drive five blocks, turn right and drive one block, then right again. The Cervantina is on your right.