A crowd of people were gathered along the treacherous switchback as we made our descent after an 800 meter climb. My first reaction was how did all of those people fit in the lorry with those onions in the first place, let alone survive unscaved?
“If a lorry full of onions toppled down the mountainside near your village, wouldn’t you go and check it out”?
Lars could hardly contain his laughter at my naive confusion. Of course, silly me.
Luckily the three men in the lorry were unharmed. After three days of riding on steep, loose gravel mountain roads, it’s easy to understand how the driver could have overshot this turn.
We may not have yet reached the great vastness of the Andes but I have never experienced remoteness like we did in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. Climbing up to a tiny bunch of casitas in search of food and water was initially alarming when we discovered that the only options were Cup Noodles, eggs and border-line stale bread, but we made the best of it.
As we sat drinking our warm Pepsi, the inquisitive children came over to watch us. Every smile, wave or hello would get them laughing hysterically, shying away behind their little hands or just bolting towards their homes.
The shop owner watched in amusement. She must have been about 75, the lines etched on her face told the story of a wise woman. Her long plaits were weaved with blue ribbon fixed under a multicolored headscarf. It reminded me that the Mayan culture here is incredibly rich. She spoke to her son in Awakatek, one of the 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. Everyone in the village spoke Awakatek and only a handful of young men spoke Spanish.
Thinking about the juxtaposition of our London home on Islington’s trendy Upper Street was comical. Without electricity the locals keep themselves amused playing games, chasing chickens or spending time on the things we take for granted like washing clothes without a machine. The need for boutique shops, fashion magazines or pop-up restaurants would be met with confusion and utter bewilderment.
Life for the montañeros is simple. They work the terraced fields for crops, collect eggs and prepare their animals to eat. The lone tiendita sold crisps, sweets, biscuits, eggs and warm Pepsi.
The women and little girls all wore long pretty traditional skirts with identical plastic slip-on shoes. The next time I covet a new pair of shoes, I will think of these girls and ask myself; do I really need these? The likelihood would be no.
The men and boys all wore a plastic version of Adidas trainers. I Imagine these may have been donated to the village along with the girls little slip-ons.
I would hazard a guess that many of the locals had never seen white-skinned travellers before. Our blue eyes and beard (that’s Lars’ beard by the way) stuck out like two rouge white onions. The route Lars mapped out was so remote it made the Pan-American highway seem like a family bicycle lane. Only 4×4 trucks and motorbikes can pass on these roads and even then they are dicing with death.
The next village was 15 km away. Exhaustion was setting in and we were ready to find a place to camp. As I pushed my bike up a particularly steep section in the rain I suddenly felt it had become lighter. Worried I had dropped half of my belongings I turned around to find two little boys were pushing my bike with all their might. Their little faces lit up with laughter and giggles when I discovered them peering over my rear panniers, causing every bystander to share the joke and erupt in laughter.
We ducked for cover from the rain and met a group of men walking home after a days work in the fields. They directed us to a small Evangelical church just a few kilometres ahead.
We met the pastor who invited us into the church for the night. We cooked our notorious quick pasta in front of the church doors before attending the evening service at the church. The pastor gave his sermon in a combination of Spanish and Awakatek in which he announced the details of our visit and asked all the locals to pray for our safe passage through the mountains and beyond. We were overwhelmed with the humility of the people here that had come to our aid. We stayed awake for the sermon and then politely snuck off to sleep in one of the spare beds.
Our cycling rhythm carried us up and down the mountain passes for the next few days until we eventually hit the main road.
A gruelling 1200 meter climb took us near the summit of the Cuchumatanes. At 3400 metres (over 11,000 ft), we were both feeling the altitude and the cold. The rain was coming down hard and we again needed to find a place to camp, fast!
We frantically put up the tent in a thunderstorm and settled in for an early night. In the morning we were greeted with the most beautiful sunrise. How we picked this camp spot the night before I do not know.
Now sitting in a cafe with WiFi in the city of Huehuetenango, I feel like we have left a completely different world up in Los Cuchumatanes. The stunning views and the snapshot into a far away community will certainly keep me pedalling for more.