Thursday, April 30, 2009

Safe Passage

While in Guatemala, we visited an organization called Safe Passage, or ¨Camino Seguro." Approximately 2,000 people scavenge in Guatemala City´s dumps, plucking out materials for sale or reuse. The working conditions are unsavory to say the least: the dump, which we looked at from afar, is smelly and dangerous. Safe Passage, started in 1999, provides social services -- food and educational support -- to the children of the families that work in the dumps.

Our tour guide, Freddy, said that approximately 60% of the 7,000 tons of waste tipped daily in the Guatemala City dump is gleaned out and recycled. If this is true, Guatemala City has one of the highest recycling rates of the world! (I want to see some numbers.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Maya Pedal

Here is a photo from the roof of Maya Pedal, an organization that recycles bike frames into machines. Volunteers from all over the world come here to fix bikes, make bike machines (bici maquinas, if ya wanna speak the local spoke), practice welding, or just help out. The guy who runs the shop – Carlos – is the main cog of this operation. We saw Maya Pedal during a slightly disfunctional chapter of its life, but I think the concept is a good one: use pedal-powered technology to increase efficiency and reduce oil dependency. (That's my interpretation of Maya Pedal's purpose.)

What is a bike machine? Imagine a bike attached to a blender so you can make a smoothie in the middle of a market without electricity. Picture a bike frame connected to a pump in the middle of a field: voila, you can water your crops. The list of bike machines goes on -- some, admittedly, more useful than others. The local women's coop, for example, uses bike machines to grind aloe plants into shampoo.

Our stay overlapped with a bunch of lively folks from North America -- all friendly, talented, and fun. We cooked meals, got greasy with bike parts, and learned about freewheel hubs. Gene was a pro bike mechanic. I streamlined the waste systems in the kitchen (no more fruit flies!).

After a couple weeks, we got back on our bike machine and pedaled on.

Semana Santa: Pac Man with Easter

April 8-12, 2009 was holy week, or Semana Santa. Apparently Antigua has the largest processions in Central America, but we decided to stay in a smaller town, San Andreas Ixtapa, to experience a more local vibe.

The Catholic contingent of town created alfombras (carpets) throughout the streets using natural materials such as palm flowers, sawdust, fruit, pine cones, and pine needles. The alfombras were beautiful and included vases of flowers (made out of flowers), stenciled portraits of Jesus, and patterns in the pine needles using dyed sawdust. All ages helped. They sprayed down the roads with water, used cardboard cutouts (used year after year) to be precise with the decorations, and carefully spritzed the patterns with water throughout the day to keep it in place. The procession exited the church and walked through town OVER the alfombras. Smooshed and strewn to bits, a crew with shovels and brooms swept up the decorations while folks moved in to create even more elaborate decorations for later in the afternoon.

Imagine a religious version of Pac-Man, eating up stripes of the alfombras throughout the city.

The procession included swinging incense, a float with Jesus, kids scooping up fruit, a small band, a generator and people walking. Carrying the float and walking count as part of their penance. We thought the ceremony that evening was IT, but then, up through Easter Sunday, I saw people creating even more alfombras, sporadically through the streets. I don't know the full score, but there was a lot going on.

I cringe to think of anyone that KNOWS the ceremony in depth reading this. My description: "There was sawdust in pretty colors! The community worked together! They walked for hours in the hot sun! Kids scooped up fruit! Jesus, depicted in various poses, was on a big float!" Oh gee.

The fact is that it was such an honor to witness this tradition, especially in comparison to our "traditions" and the overabundance of chocolate, candy, and plastic figurines.

We Heart Guatemala´s Police

We were originally going to bike around Lake Atitlan (poor photo on the right of a volcano at sunset), but after gathering information about the road conditions (serious ups and downs) and safety concerns (potential bandits on the south side of the lake), we decided to hitch a ride on a boat.

In Panachel, we ran into Jenna, who runs Jenna´s B&B. Her daughter wrote a book, “Our Atitlan,” with local kids about life on the Lake. I really liked the book – it had fun content and a really good design. You can buy Our Atitlan here on

So up till this point, we had occasionally passed the Guatemalan police. They were usually on the side of the road in their black pickup trucks, or perhaps standing outside the local equivalent of a donut shop. Their usefulness? Debatable.

Until now.

Now, the Guatemalan police are our HEROS.

On a serious climb out of Panachel from Lake Atitlan, we heard a funny pop. A few kilometers later, we heard another pop. Gene, practical guy that he is, realized that something felt funny and stopped. It turns out that we had sheered two of the steel ball bearings of the rear hub in half. (We generate a lot of force when both of us are pedaling hard). It was dusk. The police passed us as we were walking along the road (one of the road we heard was dangerous after dark). They stopped, turned around, and picked us up (Gene road in the back, holding the bike), and not only drove us to the next town, but then on to their outpost in the middle of the woods. We camped behind their tent. They brought us a jug of potable water and were very friendly (we reciprocated by feeding the sentry on duty dinner and cookies). They have a LOT of time on their hands. The next morning, they drove us to the next town, right to the bike shop. We took them out to breakfast. We now wave at each and every Guatemalan police truck with a hearty smile.

It took a few more hours to get the right ball bearings, and even then Gene had to do some adjustments. Eventually we got to back on the bike and made our way down the road to the highway (sweet, blessed, graded-climbs-and-descents highway), through Chimaltenango, and into San Andreas Ixtapa, a little town where we have been volunteering for MayaPadal, an organization that recycles bikes into machines such as a corn grinder, blender, and water pump.

Walls of Waste

San Marcos on the shores of Lake Atitlan is home to a crafty lady, Susana Heisse, who turns plastic bottles into bricks. Her organization, Pura Vida Atitlan, stuffs plastic bottles tightly with dry, plastic waste (wrappers and bags), and then uses the resulting material for construction. I am not so sure of the structural integrity of this process, but what an interesting concept as a way to transform plastic materials into a building material... especially in a rural community, without waste management infructures, in a low-tech process. I especially like that Susana´s group has been doing waste audits every two years to monitor the recycling rates of her community. Yeah data.

The photo is of a demonstration wall, with a hole in the plaster so you can see the steel frame, plastic bottle-and-bag filling, and coated walls. The wall is then painted with an information mural.

Xela to Lake Atitlan: Steaming Brakes

After a dusty climb (due to roadwork) out of Xela, we arrived at the bit of Guatemala referred to as “Alaska”. According to the guidebook, this region turns white with frost in the mornings. We then had the best downhill of the entire journey into Nahuala, dramatically weaving in and out of clouds, coming out of curvy corners into a bright blue sky. I felt so alive. At one point we were rolling at 79 kilometers per hour (49 mph).

After documenting a few locations of burning trash by the side of the road (there were flames in the site pictured on the right), we turned off the highway onto a side road that went towards San Pedro and San Marcos on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

We had a really tough uphill climb to the lip of the caldera. Kids ran with us on the flats.

At the rim, we put on our rain gear, expecting to get chilly on a steep descent. Hah! Little did we realize that a STEEP descent equals HEAT.

A kilometer into the downhill, Gene pulled over. He said he started seeing sparks. It turns out our front hub drum break was overheating, and little bits of the break pads were incinerating upon contact with the extreme heat. I sprayed water on the hub, which hissed, steamed and sizzled. The rims on the tires were hot, too, from all the braking. We got into a routine where every half-kilometer, Gene would pull over, I would hop off, get the water out of the trailer, squirt down the hub, front rims, rear rims, and the front hub again, put the water back into the trailer, and hop back on. We went from having the best downhill earlier in the day to having the worst, most tedious downhill at the end of the day.

We finally turned a corner and could see the lake, a few communities on the shores, warmly lit in the late-afternoon sun. There was also garbage on the side of the road, with dogs.

We thought that perhaps once we got down to the lake, the road would get easier. Not so. Down near the shore, there were still vicious ups and downs. We were glad to get to our destination just as it was getting dark: San Marcos, a peaceful little place with cliffs to jump off of into the lake, one street food lady, and lots of folks that dig meditation, yoga, and healing cleanses.

Huehuetenanto to Xela

In the highlands of Guatemala, you are either going uphill or downhill. We struck out from Huehuetenango on Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 7am, headed decidedly UP. We got about an hour-and-a-half of riding in before a hearty breakfast of rice, beans, hard-boiled eggs, tortillas, and coffee (“coffee” being a generous term for the highly-sweetened Nescafe served in most places; I guess the good beans are sent overseas where they fetch a higher price). Some climbs present a clear goal: a slot horizon or a distinct saddle in the mountains with a road cut. This road was more elusive – the curves and mountain range unfolded as we steadily pedaled uphill on the curvy highway.That night, we camped in a big field in San Cristobal Totonicapan, the crossroads for Xela, Guatemala City, and Huehuetenango.

We had really friendly interactions with the locals in San Cristobal Totonicapan. The first person we talked to was Antonio (age 34) who was watching kids kick a soccer ball with his two kids, Angelica (3) and Pedro (6). Antonio spent eight years on-and-off in the States working construction. It seems that most men we meet have spent 2-8 years in the States doing similar work. As we do whenever we camp in a public space, we sounded it out with the locals: “We have a tent. We were thinking about setting it up over near the stream where it is flat and grassy. You think it’s okay?” Sure.

As we set up the tent in the setting sun, Antonio and his kids came over to watch. Another old man (age 70) came over, too, lounging on a mound in the grass. He really liked to call us “mister” and “missus”. They all were interested in our stove, so Gene showed them how it works and described how long it takes to boil a pot of water.

I asked the old man what they did with their trash in this town. He heartily replied that they chuck it directly in the river.

The next morning, we met Martina. It is funny how this town, barely a comma in the guidebook, was so nice to us.

Conversely, 15 kilometers down the road is Quetzaltenango (Xela). It has many delights: excursions (trekking, volcano summiting, cool day trips to hot springs), is a language school hub, and has the magic traveler ingredients: internet and ice cream. It even had an unintentional funny homonym: Xela, pronounced SHAY-lah, sells milk called Xelac. Heh. SHAH-lac. Sounds shiny. For whatever reason, we didn’t really click with Xela.

There was a paper sorting facility down the street from our hostel, Casa Argentina. Three women (and a baby) were hand-sorting piles of paper into four categories. The owner (right) stores the sorted paper in gunny sacks and brings loads into Guatemala City.

The waste worker on the right let me take his picture, but only when I agreed to give him a copy of the photo. I hope it got to him.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mario and Martina

While Gene and I are a friendly crew, I think it is safe to say that the tandem opens up lots of additional doors to friendships, however brief.

Insert Mario, a friendly man that runs a bike shop in Huehuetenango. On a hunt for de-greaser and a new chain ring, we entered his shop. When we mentioned we were on a bike tour on a tandem, he said, "Is it green? With a trailer? I saw you biking through the central square yesterday. Come in!"

We returned to his shop later that day, and he told us he ran a bar down the street (K-lua, for anyone going to Huehue). That night we stopped by for a drink. Expressing interest in the surrounding communities, he said, "Come to my shop at 1:30pm and I'll show you the hills." Sure enough, the next day he drove us all the way up to the lookout above Huehuetenango -- it felt like we were on top of the planet. Then, we went further down the road to Cuchumantanes, a land of windswept plains, and shared an incredible meal of ram, multi-colored beans, fresh cheese and (of course) tortillas.

Mario is such a kind, generous man. He felt like a father-figure and friend, immediately bringing us into his circle of warmth, largely because he is just one of those people, but also because of our shared interest in cycling.

Another friendship, much more brief, was with a woman named Martina. We had just packed up our tent and camp things when she came over on the field (it was a public space in San Cristobal Totonicapan, outside of Xela). She said, "I saw that you were going to sleep here last night and thought, nooo. Were you warm enough?" We assured her, we were. "Well next time," she continued, "you come over and knock on my door. It's right over there." [my interpretation of the dialogue]

She said lots more -- mostly friendly chit-chat. It warmed my heart. It made me think, in my hometown, if I see strangers camping in the local park, I will walk over and make sure they are doing okay.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Yeah, that feels honest.

People say where they go on trips... but the place doesn't really come ALIVE for me until I locate it on a map.

For those of you who do not have your atlas out as you browse this blog, here's a map of the places we have covered on the tandem since mid-March, 2009. The pin pricks identify locations where we took photos: trash, landscapes, people, and the bike are featured prominently.