Coban, Semuc Champey, and the Orphanage fence

We’d made contact with our Coban connection and agreed that, as it was 1:30am, it would be best for us to find a hotel and meet up the next morning. One of the reasons it was so important that we get there that night was because Jenna and Geoffrey were leaving for Guatemala City the next day and wouldn’t be around to show us what needed to be done at the orphanage. They were trying to get one of their neighbors into an assisted living home in Guatemala City and also had some business to take care of for the legal aspects of the orphanage.

So we drove around Coban, a city known to be a bit dodgy, in the early hours of the morning looking for a hotel. It took a while, because all the hotels were closed up. We eventually found a hotel with a doorbell and a man came to answer.

He had a high voice and acted a bit squirrely, but we were just glad to have found a dry place to stand for the moment.

We agreed to a price of $27USD for the night. A major selling point was the courtyard that we could park the bikes in. The only problem with that, however, was the van blocking the entrance.

The man gave Aaron the keys and told him to move it. After asking why, the man replied that it was blocking the way.

“No… Not, ‘Why does it have to be moved?’ I want to know why you can’t move it.”

The man replied that he does not drive.

So after fumbling around looking for the emergency break on the manual van, Aaron moved it slightly and we got the bikes in.

Then he brought us up to our room where he gave us a painfully meticulous tour. The room barely had enough space for the two double beds and the TV in the front, but somehow he found it necessary to show and demonstrate everything.

“This is the bathroom.” He then turned on the light in the bathroom.

“This is the shower.” He said as he walked towards it and pointed. “Hot and cold.” He again demonstrated.

He did the same with the sink.

If I believed that he was simply showing off his English vocabulary, perhaps I would not have been so annoyed. Or, perhaps, it was because it was 2am and I was still cold and wet and just wanted him to leave so that I could take a hot shower.

Whatever the case, Aaron felt the same way and I could tell by the frequency he was saying, “Gracias,” and “Noche.”

Trying to physically display our contentedness with the room and readiness to sleep, Aaron and I both took to sitting on our beds and simply waiting.

Then he pointed to the TV and reached into his pocket. “The remote.”

Again, as if we’d never seen anything like it before, he displayed it as Vanna White might have and began flipping channels as if we’d asked to buy a vowel. He channel surfed through basically without stopping until he reached late night Cinemax, porn.

The man left the channel there and looked at us.

Confused and awkward we again thanked him and tried to get him to leave. About a minute and a half later,and I mean an actual minute and half,  he finally did.

This was the first real interaction we had with a Guatemalan.

The next morning, we woke up early and met with Jenna and Geoffery. I know Jenna through a missions friend. We were connected through Facebook and were really looking forward to helping at the orphanage. Coban is one of the poorest parts of Guatemala and there was a serious need for a safe place for children. You can read more about their ministry at misionvidanueva.info.

That first day they showed us the building site, as the orphanage is still in the construction phase, and set us up at an apartment in downtown Coban. We agreed to take the first day as a time to relax and explore the city.

Our new apartment was acquired through Jenna and Geoffery’s old landlord. There was some money owed there and the landlord agreed to give us use of the space for a reasonable price to be deducted from his debt on the understanding that he would still be showing people the apartment while we were there.

The apartment didn’t seem to have been taken care of too closely since the absence of tennants, but there were a few cigarettes in the kitchen sink and some dirty clothes in the corner of the shower to indicate that someone had been occasionally occupying the space.

We immediately went looking for bleach to fix a smell that was coming from the bathroom and were relatively pleased with the result by the end of the day.

Despite everything mentioned above, we were truly grateful for the apartment and for simply being out of the rain and having use of a bathroom.

We didn’t do much other than eat at a restaurant or two, look at the park, and clean the bathroom that first day. Ironically, the landlord was a bit quirky and felt that we were too messy, or something like that, to be in the apartment and asked that we leave a couple days after that. It was odd.

Anyways, we woke up early the next day and went to the orphanage where we started on the fence. The construction crew and security there were a lot of fun and we completed a good portion of the fence then. We used some rebar to pull evenly on the links and tied the DR to it to stretch two lengths at a time.

One of the worker’s wives made us food for lunch. When he asked what we liked to eat, I tried to explain that we weren’t picky and liked to eat whatever he liked to eat. Somehow this translated to speghetti burritos, some fried chicken, and coffee. We were thankful, but certain this was not his regular diet.

We didn’t head back to the apartment until it started getting dark and the next day we left for the orphanage with the sun and finished the fence just before nightfall.

Jenna and Geoffery we getting back later that night and we wanted to have it done for them before then.

That night, as we packed our things away and moved to the hotel next to the apartment, we called Jenna and discussed what we could do next for the orphanage. Without a clear option, we decided we’d head to Semuc Champey for a day. When we came back, they would have more things lined up.

So, early the next day, we packed up and headed towards Semuc Champey, which when translated, means something like, “Where the river hides under the ground.” There are a lot of caves, waterfalls, and natural pools and it came highly recommended by several friends, so we were excited.

When the weather is terrible, the winding mountain roads in Guatemala are torture. When it’s clear and sunny, the views are great and it’s actually fun. At a certain point, the pavement ended and the road to Semuc Champey is all rocks and mud. This too was fun.

When we arrived at the Zephyr, a popular hostel in Lanquin, I was covered in mud. At one point I was following Aaron a bit too close and when he slowed down for some slick mud I swerved into it to avoid him. The guitar strapped to the side of the KLR probably got the worst of that exchange and one of the workers at the hostel was kind enough to inform me of this while we were sitting inside.

“Is that your moto outside?”

“Yes.”

“Your guitar is very, very muddy.”

“It’s because I rubbed mud all over it.”

“Oh.”

Lanquin is the closest town to the Semuc Champey park. There are hostels inside the park, but we’d heard good things about the Zephyr and that thievery was relatively common inside the park so we were happy to stop there.

Not long after deciding to stay in a tent there for the night, we realized that we didn’t have enough money to stay. Also, we learned there are no ATMs in Lanquin… or anywhere near there, for that matter. So after talking things through, Aaron decided he would speed back to Coban, about an hour and a half by motorcycle, take out some money, and head back.

So I waited at the hostel and talked to the other travelers.

Three hours later I began to worry about Aaron. Everyone there told me that four hours is an acceptable amount of transit time to get to Coban and back. I knew it only took us about an hour and a half to get there earlier that day and that Aaron was likely trying to set a new Lanquin-Coban record. For these reasons I knew something was wrong, so I started asking new arrivals if they happened to see a gringo on a motorcycle somewhere on the road from the bus they took. They all said, “No.”

Rewind to the moment Aaron took off and we’ll follow him. He takes the dirt and rocks faster than might be considered safe and laughs to himself at the challenge. This is actually one of the reasons I didn’t go with him; I’d been babying the KLR since the breakdown in Mexico.

When he reached the paved roads he continued at this pace and sped around the narrow mountain roads. Upon one particular blind turn that came off another sharp turn, a shape not unlike a butterfly’s wing, he met a truck.

The middle-sized truck was riding the center of the two lanes, which is common for large vehicles to do in Central America. We think it’s because they figure they’re big enough to not have to care too much about what’s around the bend; motorcycles, for instance, simply bounce off and cause no major harm.

Aaron was also in the center. He swerved hard and missed the head-on collision. He still hit his hand hard against the middle of the truck, though, and he narrowly escaped the rear tires of the truck as they ran over the DR.

Lying on the road as the truck rumbled by, Aaron saw the man look in the rear-view-mirror and make eye contact with him. Perhaps this was his way of checking to make sure Aaron was OK. If that’s the case, he was satisfied, because he didn’t hesitate to continue on his way like nothing had happened.

Aaron pulled the bike to the side of the road and tried to straighten his front wheel, which would never be the same after the truck ran over it. Kicking it there, he was soon joined by some Guatemalans who seemed more than happy to help, especially if it meant kicking a motorcycle.

No matter what they tried, they couldn’t get it straight, though. So Aaron started the DR up and rode it 45 minutes into Coban while holding the handlebars hard right, because this was the new direction to hold the handlebars to go straight. The ride would have been shorter, but the new shape his tire formed only vaguely resembled a circle. Furthermore, he was attracting lots of whistling, honking, and pointing. At first he was annoyed, but later was tickled. Apparently, they weren’t certain Aaron knew that there was something wrong with his bike. He later mentioned that if he had stopped to thank each person that offered him this courtesy, he would have never made it to Coban.

First he went to a mechanic, but they weren’t able to help, as they had no means to bend the forks. Then he made it to a fabrication shop and asked if they could help. They said they could, but they would need him to remove it, as they weren’t moto mechanics and didn’t know how to take it apart. Aaron gave it his best, but due to his recent injury, his hands wouldn’t comply and his progress was painful and slow. When they finally helped him out, they did a decent job of bending it straight.

Bleeding, Aaron made it to a Coban ATM. He’s fairly certain that there will always be a bit of him inside that ATM. He returned to Lanquin where I’d been waiting for five to six hours.

When I saw him, I asked if the DR was alright. This, of course, was because if Aaron can walk, he’s just fine. It’s the bike you have to worry about.

There was a nearly audible sigh of relief from the other travelers at the Zephyr as they saw the man I described earlier sitting at the table with me. Later, some would confide that they were also convinced Aaron was in an accident or had carined off a cliff and was dead, but were just trying to console me.

With the DR in need of some care and Aaron nursing fresh wounds, but neither being a particularly pressing issue at the moment, we decided to pretend the whole thing hadn’t happened and go on with our Semuc Champey vacation as planned.

We later found out that this whole journey back for the ATM was completely uneccessary, as people running out of money at the Zephyr is commonplace. All you have to do is give the bus driver your passport and go back to Cabon with them in the morning, find an ATM, and pay your bill there to get your passport back. Given that no one told us this while we were trying to figure out how to get money before Aaron left, this news was not greeted happily.

We had a good night hanging out at the hostel and got up the next morning to jump on a truck with about 12 others headed for Semuc Champey. They were a great group comprised of six Irish women, two English, an Aussie named Ryan, and an American named Nate. We went through some watery caves with candles in our hands. We had to hold the candles above our heads at times to keep them from going out as we swam.

Later, we jumped on a giant swing that launched us into the river and soon after that a few of us jumped off a bridge.

Then we hiked a fair distance up to a miramar (lookout). My sandals fell off the back of the KLR back in Mexico and we hadn’t found a suitable set for me yet, so I went barefoot. Aaron and I are both doing the whole trip with just two sets of footware: sandals and combat boots. The boots are for business and the sandals are for everything else. This day promised swimming and fun, so I definitely wasn’t going to wear boots.

Needless to say, the trek was rather painful and by the end my feet were spent.

After getting a view of the cascading pools from above, we hiked down the path and swam from one to the next all the way down to the big waterfall at the end.

A common phrase said among the group that day was, “I think this might be the best day of my life.”

Even though it was a great day up to that point, we still weren’t satisfied. Nate, Ryan, Aaron and I walked off to the local batcave at dusk. Walking turned out to be a terrible choice, due to the condition of my feet, but everyone played musical sandals so the discomfort was spread evenly between us.  Aaron would express his displeasure, even more so during his barefoot shifts; apparently he thought I should have sucked it up or just worn my boots.

The cave was huge and, as promised, filled with bats that would get uncomfortably close to you. They moved so fast that, at times, you couldn’t see what was happening, but you could feel them nearly slap you in the face.

We were dead set against walking all the way back to the Hostel after the cave; partially because we didn’t want to share sandals anymore and partially because we didn’t want to attract armed thugs (not unheard of around there).

So I put my thumb out and we hitched a ride clinging to the back of a large truck. It was a terrific and, to some in our party, terrifying way to end that journey.

We ate the slow-roasted pork barbeque provided by the hostel when we returned and had one more night to hang out and say goodbye to our new friends. The next day we rode back to Coban and started looking for options to fix Aarons DR.

 

 

 

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