Friday, August 19, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever Part VI.5 Sweet River

I can't leave this chapter of log describing my circumnavigation of Guatemala via local bus without some mention of Santa Elena, Flores, La Isla De Flores, Tikal, and my experience there. What kind of selfish travel writer would I be if I only analyzed bedroom curtains?

The main point I will make is that Tikal and Flores are not the same place. People I met seemed to use Flores and Tikal interchangeably, but they are not very close to one another. If one wishes to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal then the city of Flores is the natural hub for travel, also a hub for travel to Belize and other historic destinations in Northern Guatemala as well as destinations to the south. There is an airport but I prefer bus. Within the Tikal zone there is a hotel as well as a campground. But the ruins are closed after 6pm except for guided night tours. So, even if a person hitchhiked to Tikal in the evening after the last bus departs for Flores it's possible to camp in the park or rent a room, but don't take my word for it if you know what's good for you. I'm irresponsible and barely care about my own well-being so do you really think I care if you must sleep in an active jaguar den because you followed my advice? I'm sure these hotel rooms are expensive, but probably nice too, if they do exist.
South of Tikal, along the reedy banks of Lago Peten Itza there are a few other pricey hotels. I met some of the camera crew on a production that filmed some people traveling through South and Central America without money. This is amusing because it is exactly the kind of imposition on poor regions that convinced me I should not travel further south in my van. Why impose my insane lifestyle on those who are in survival mode? Well, this production crew had decided that imposing some penniless Americans onto a region that had been devastated by twisted American foreign policy and demonic Milton Friedman economic experimentation for a century would make good television. Sure. Good television for Fucking Assholes. To intentionally film some travelers from developed countries traveling through developing countries without any money, to determine if these local citizens will help, is unethical in my book. Shit, I have tons of money but can't expect a Bolivian potato farmer to help me fix my van when it breaks down. It's cruel, sadistic and masochistic travel programing that is another piece of evidence that television has decayed to the point it will titillate any permutation of cruelty to sell cock drugs and booze. Bullshit. I met the production crew on one of the Mayan temples and thought their summary of the production was too cruel to believe. I thought I was misunderstanding them. Only later when I watch one of these episodes on television did I understand that they were telling the truth about filming young adults imposing their intentional poverty onto unintentionally impoverished cultures. In fact, the van I was on to Tikal stopped for a couple hitchhiking but they said they could not pay because they were traveling without any money. So the van left them there in the rain. I don't know if they were involved in the production, but I didn't see any cameras around. Maybe it was a coincidence or merely some cheap ass foreign travelers. Only after meeting the production crew did this make sense. They were not penniless from personal irresponsibility, no, rather because the rules of the production demanded they not pay for anything and merely accept handouts from everyone. Ah, of course. That makes sense. What fun! Let's burden these developing countries even more with our arrogance and thirst for fucked up entertainment after 100 years of making them pick bananas for our putrid, hegemonic, low-cost daiquiri enemas. 

Well, I had money and the van to Tikal is like $5 and the return trip is around $5 and I went back and forth 4 times, staying two nights in The Ambassador Hotel before discovering a less expensive hostel on the Island of Flores, which I could see across a causeway from the center of town. This Isla seems almost too perfect so I thought it was man-made, but apparently it's a natural high spot in what became Lago Peten when the Ice Age ended, connected by a man-made causeway from the mainland. Hernan Cortez actually marched right by the Isla in 1541 so it is a historic island. I moved to La Isla mostly because the other hotel was so uncomfortable that nothing could be worse and I treated myself to some fine dining and Cuba Libres. I love islands in principle and Flores Island is about as charming a setting as I've seen in a while. Every square inch is occupied by a building or a paved street but it was not overcrowded with people or cars. Indeed, only motorized single person tuk tuk taxis could easily navigate the narrow streets, though cars are not prohibited. I read that a Cortez invasion site was on the San Miguel peninsula and embarked on a classic Oggy misadventure to find this site and pay homage to The Conquistadors, for whom the van is named.

The only part of the trip that went as planned was the water taxi across to the peninsula. I had no map and no guide but I still stand by my belief that it is better to make ones own map. I reached the peninsula and based purely on a general idea of where these ruins would be I set off on as direct a path as possible. I know from past experience trekking randomly through small Central American towns is a guaranteed way to get attacked by dogs and end up confronted by armed property owners. It's a guarantee because all dirt paths will be guarded by snarling dogs and if you are on a dirt path you have already trespassed. There are no signs and seldom fences and your first clue that you are trespassing is a family blocking your path with rifles. Your mood changes instantly from "Isn't this quaint, I wonder what bird that is?" to "PLEASE DON'T KILL ME!" It's easier to say that in the 4 hour trip I was only NOT lost for about half an hour. The remainder of the 3.5 hours was marching in desperate circles, asking directions from suspicious children, running from dogs, begging forgiveness from property owners, and tying my soggy shoes. Of course the heavens opened up around 2pm with a torrential downpour as I found myself in an abandoned jungle, waving a tree branch back and forth to keep two dogs from attacking me because I had stumbled upon their killing zone. I did pass a hand painted sign that claimed Hernan Cortez had stood in this location in such and such year. There are Mayan ruins on this peninsula, I think, I saw some stone blocks buried under moss, and I saw a sign for an interpretation museum that I never found. The whole trip was one muddy dead end or loop and throwing rocks at barking dogs, which is about what I expected when I started it so I've learned to appreciate the journey and not the destination.

I had reached the northernmost point on my journey. Tikal was as far as I had planned to go and although I was in no hurry to get back to Xela I knew I was going to move slowly to the east so it was time to find another van. I used a phone to call my tailor in Xela who told me that my leather pants would be finished in one week. Perfect. That would give me one week or slightly more to travel from Tikal through Antigua and back to Xela. My van, El Conquistador, was in a gated parking lot in Chiapas, Mexico filled with everything but what was in my small day pack that I had brought with me, so I felt I should return so it would not be considered abandoned. Factoring in some unforseen delays I felt that I could safely leave Flores and travel east. Before I left I did find a gym where I could exercise my arthritic knees. One day I will do a full review of the dozens of gyms I have utilized in Central America. The Flores gym, barely adequate for any exercise, is in the large commercial plaza on the lake next to the causeway to the island. I also paid for a barber in the market to do some hedge trimming on my huge, bushy, salt and pepper beard that was clearly alarming everyone.

There are two bus terminals on the mainland Flores, the old and the new terminal. The new terminal is where the big buses come and go. The old terminal is in the center of the central market so only small travel vans can fit and I observed that tourist vans from the new terminal make their first stop at the old terminal so there was no need to walk all the way to the new terminal when the old terminal was a few blocks from the causeway to the Island. These vans are going to Tikal and also in the direction of Rio Dulce, in the state of Izabal, the next major destination that I was aiming for. So I walked to the central market and asked around for a van to Rio Dulce and was told there were no vans to Rio Dulce, but there were vans going in the direction of Poptun, and with a few transfers I could reach Rio Dulce. It turned out to be around six (6) van transfers to go 130 miles. This is what it means to travel by small local vans. Again, these were not true Chicken Buses, although chickens might be allowed as cargo. And these were not the larger Greyhound/Pullman style buses, which were available at the new terminal and went directly to the capital city each evening. No. These were merely long passenger vans that had been outfitted to carry as many passengers as possible, around 17, plus cargo on the roof. They would pick up anyone on the road and the cost was around $1 every 30km. I got lucky and the only space open on the next van to Poptun was the front passenger seat, so I was comfortable for the first leg of the trip and this paved and sparsely populated agriculture land to the southeast. Gone were the insane curves west and north of Coban. This region of south eastern Peten is flat, lush, eternal spring. The road is mostly straight to Poptun.

I think Poptun deserved a night or two because in retrospect the distance between Flores and Rio Dulce is beyond the limit I prefer to apply to one day of travel. Poptun is basically the center town between the two locations and it would have been an easy, enjoyable day of travel followed by a casual exploration of Poptun. Again and again this rule of slowly traveling has proved to be the most fulfilling for me. The only appointment I had was with my tailor in Xela, which could be delayed, so one extra day of travel, a night in Poptun, would affect very little. And what I don't know about Poptun could fill a book. Instead, when the van stopped at the terminal in Poptun I simply bought a generic bag of banana chips and looked for the next van in the direction of Rio Dulce, which turned out to be Chacte. Was there a more direct van to Rio Dulce? I don't know. Probably not from Poptun. There is only one road to Rio Dulce and the next departure was for Chacte so that's the van I got on. This was a shorter trip so being stuck in the back with snoring agriculture workers didn't bother me.

Now, a town like Chacte is on the limit of a location I would like to investigate. Poptun is slightly larger so my presence would not cause such a stir, but Chacte is small enough to make me stick out like Santa Claus at a mosque. With unlimited time I would like to live in all regions of Guatemala but on this trip I stopped in Chacte and transferred to another southbound van without a second glance. According to my notes this van from Chacte dropped me off in a place called 'Untla' but I can not find this town on a map. This might be a different name for Chocon or I might have written it down wrong or heard a different name. I don't know, but I had to transfer to another van bound for Rio Dulce. All these transfers were not tiresome. I recall they took about 10 seconds to disembark with my backpack and mandolin and walk a few feet to another van, stretch my legs, and get on the other van. These towns only have one bus terminal the size of a small gas station (sometimes the bus station was the gas station) so there is no way to get lost and the next van south was only a few feet away and was always preparing to leave in a few minutes. The locals did seem to wonder why I was taking these local buses when I could simply buy a ticket from Flores to Rio Dulce on one of the buses going directly to Guatemala City, but those buses all left at 8pm to avoid traffic and I would be getting off in Rio Dulce at around 10pm with no idea where I was going. There is simply no other way to travel from Flores to Rio Dulce during the day except by using the local buses and transferring every 40 km, and it is not a great burden. Central America and Mexico have convenient (not quite comfortable) local public transit. Most travelers choose to buy tickets on large buses that go directly between large destinations and I don't blame them for choosing that mode, but for locals on a budget they can get almost anywhere without ever owning a vehicle. There is always a public transportation option unless you are trying to summit a volcano peak. Basically, there will be a public transportation option right up to the spot where asphalt road turns to dirt and the dirt path becomes too narrow for a vehicle to drive at which point everyone walks. A van will take a local person to almost every corner of every country in Central America. I contrast this to my experience in Texas after I bused freely around Mexico and the Baja Peninsula and the absolute first bus I got on in Texas would not go to my destination. From Presidio, Tx I was trying to get to Uvalde,Tx on the east side of the Big Bend. Well, no bus goes to Uvalde from Presidio. The only option was to go to Fort Stockton, about 400 miles from Uvalde, and then to San Antonio, about 80 miles from Uvalde and then from San Antonio, maybe, take a bus going back to Del Rio near the border. One month of travel in Mexico without a hint of problem in getting to any destination from any other destination efficiently and economically but I was in Texas for 30 minutes and already had exhausted any sane public transportation options and would be making a 10 hour detour around my home to eventually get home from the opposite direction. That simple problem, the lack of any public transportation on Route 90 across southern Texas, caused me many problems. So, I hitchhiked rather than resign myself to the arcane U.S. public transport system. One might argue, "Texas is more complicated than Guatemala, public transportation can never be expected to go to all corners of Texas, especially on Route 90." Sure. The state has the natural resource value of all of Central America combined and there is no bus on Route 90? Yes, there is an Amtrak train from Los Angeles that goes by once a day, so it's possible to take a bus from Presidio to Alpine and then a train to Del Rio and then a bus to Uvalde. Maybe. It's cheaper and faster to simply work in the oil field and buy a super duty truck.

The last leg of the journey to Rio Dulce was uneventful. From Untla or Chocon we cruised to the Rio Dulce terminal that is actually in a town called Fronteras, which was a small parking lot near a lane of fried chicken booths next to the big bridge over the river. I hunted on foot for a hotel and was told prices around $20, far above what I was accustomed to paying, and my searching quickly exhausted all the hotels in downtown Fronteras. Jeez, would I actually have to spend $20 for a small room? Finally, a hotel owner told me the cheap hotels were on the other side of this huge bridge. Although evening was approaching, the heat and sun were still cruel so I decided to take a taxi to the other side of the bridge. Here is where it pays to know what vehicle you are getting on because I simply got on the next van that was pointed toward the bridge. Yes, we crossed the bridge but we were speeding so fast and the only empty seat was way in the back and as I was looking out the window for economy hotels we flew out of town. I mean, it only took about 10 seconds and because the driver was flying at maximum velocity we were soon far out of town, surrounded by cow pastures and I knew my plan had been fouled. I asked where we were going and heard the word "Honduras" and my fears were confirmed. I had missed my chance to get off at the bottom of the bridge and the driver simply assumed I knew where I wanted to go even though the van had no destination written on it. The van was not a Rio Dulce van, but a long distance transport to the border of Honduras. And because I had been indecisive at the critical 4 second window of opportunity to get off where there were people now I had to keep my mouth shut or else get off the van where there was nothing. Even worse, I paid full fare ($1.75) to get to Honduras, knowing I did not want to go. And to complicate things further, I actually had nothing invested in sleeping the night in Rio Dulce. I sincerely didn't care one way or another. I could continue to Honduras. I had my passport. It made no difference, but I had a basic rule to travel no more than 4 hours a day and I had reached that limit so Rio Dulce was my destination for the night. That was the only rule I had and I would definitely break it if I stayed on the van for Honduras. Also, there was a rumor of a pirate castle near Rio Dulce and I certainly wasn't going to be returning to this area any time soon so this was my one chance to see it. Not long after that mental conversation we stopped at a gas station/ceviche restaurant and I simply grabbed my bag and mandolin and plunged off the van through the side door that rarely closed even when we were moving. The driver looked at me and I said I wanted to eat some Ceviche, which is always true, but not the real reason I was getting off. The van disappeared up the road. I needed to get back to Rio Dulce and this gas station would provide some security while I waited. Well, that's laughable because the first person I talked to about Ceviche carried a menacing shotgun and eyed me suspiciously. So, I didn't get Ceviche and instead waited on the opposite side of the road in a light rain until a van going back to Rio Dulce passed and stopped when one of the restaurant women flagged it down for me, accounting for the U-Turn on my handwritten map.
Unexpected Backtracking.
This time I remembered to ask them to stop before we crossed the bridge so at least I would be in the area known as El Relleno where I had originally been aiming for to continue my hunt for cheap lodging. Finally, at the end of the road, actually under the south side of the bridge was an economy hostel, an empty dormitory of bunk beds with no fan and toilets that probably emptied directly into the river because the whole building was supported by posts over the water, sort of picturesque on paper because it was a floating platform, but in reality not very romantic as heavy rains flooded the kitchen and lack of air flow made it as humid as a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp barrack and I had to double up the thin mattresses to prevent bed sores on my bony hips. It was adequate. Although they required that I rent my pillow and a sheet, they would not rent me a fan for the mosquitoes, so I slept with a mosquito shirt over my sweaty body and was still bitten on my eyelids. 

Part I: Pacific Blues

Part II: Sierra Madre

Part III: Mal Estado

Part IV: Jungle Love

Part V: North

Part VI: Ruined

Part VI.5 Sweet River

Part VII: Lost and Sick

Part VIII: Capital

Part IX: Coming Full Circle
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.