Huehuetenango, Guatemala

I left Comitan, Chiapas, where I spent my last night in Mexico and began a long descent into a valley.  At the bottom there was lots of agriculture and a few irrigation canals with rather clean looking water, even kids swimming.  It was hot and I was tempted to go swimming, but I wanted to get to the Guatemala border and make it as far past it before nightfall.

I was getting closer to the border, and I knew it from other cyclists’ accounts.  Huge hills, not so much mountain ridges, but rather steep shaped cones towered in front of me, unlike anything I had seen so far on this trip.  There was a steep climb up to the border.  Along the way I passed two roadside dumps, one was a hole on the left side, uphill, the other, down the steep ridge, was a drop off where people came and tossed stuff.  Both dumps were smoldering and spewing out rancid smoke.  Buzzards picked apart garbage.  It seemed like a post apocalyptic movie, surely at any second now Bruce Willis would jump out of the bushes.

I crossed the border, got my passport stamped, and kept on climbing through the town of La Mesilla.  The highway was clogged with parked cars and stores overflowing with all sorts of wares.  I was in Guatemala but this was less than exhilarating.   At the moment all I wanted was to find somewhere to spend the night.

My entrance into Guatemala was less triumphant than when I crossed into Mexico.  Barely any cheers or horn honks.  But folks would generally smile and wave back at me if I did first.  Someone shot a squirt gun at me from the window of a van, twice (they had stopped after the first time and then caught up shortly after).  People sold gas out of plastic containers, even though there were gas stations every few miles.  Like the road on the Mexican side, trash was everywhere, but with different brands and labels.

Things went from bizarre to downright unpleasant.  The highway passed through a few small towns.  From across the road, I heard someone shout “Whats up my n****r” from a parked black pickup.  I didn’t think this remark deserved acknowledging, so I kept on riding.  But the pickup had pulled out to the highway and caught up to me, and slowed to my pace.  ”Where are you from?” the driver said in English, “De Mexico, soy de Mexico” I responded in Spanish.  ”No, you aren’t from Mexico, where are you from?” Again, “Soy de Mexico”.

This repeated itself a few more times.  By now the pickup was slowing many cars behind us.  We approached a trailer parked on the side of the road, and a game of chicken ensued.  He was going slow enough that I held out, knowing I could bail to the last second if necessary to avoid running into the trailer.  But the pickup driver moved over and gave me enough room, barely, to get through, obviously he wanted to keep the conversation going.

“No man, you don’t look Mexican, what are you, American, Canadian, European?”  ”No, soy Mexicano, hecho y derecho”.  ”You know, around here, if you are American, you are a dead man”.  Awesome!   ”So, where are you from?”  I’m stubborn, and wasn’t about to give up.  But I should have remembered that it isn’t worth attempting to reason and discourse with a guy with overly gelled spiky hair, unbuttoned shirt with big chains, bloodshot eyes, oversized tires with chrome rims. And of course, the discussion really wasn’t about whether I was Mexican or not (I could have easily pulled out my Mexican passport which today was within reach in my handlebar bag), but it was my attempt at not being bullied around and hoping that after this idiot kept repeating himself he might start to realize he made no sense.

He kept holding up traffic and continued to pester me.  ”No man you aren’t Mexican, you are a honky!”  ”You know I lived in America and got deported, they are assholes up there!” (Good riddance, I thought). He didn’t ask my opinion about immigration policy, which I think is on the progressive side, but if I ever have a country of my own, this guy isn’t invited.

He called me a honky again and reiterated that if you are an American, you are dead man here. Nothing like being threatened your first hour in a new country!  I decided I’d had enough, said goodbye, and slowed down, and he drove off.  Thoughts of him driving off a cliff popped into my head (“He went sailing right out there. Did you see the way he went just went sailing out there? I mean he just went sailing right out there.”), but I stopped wishing that on him with the possibility that he might be a father, or (quite unlikely) a productive member of society.

I tried really hard to put this encounter behind me, knowing that the next day was a new day.  A few more miles and I came across the town “La Democracia”.  I had planned on stopping here, as other cyclists had mentioned this town.  One hotel is on a STEEP driveway up the hill, and another the manager was gone so no one could tell me how much the rooms cost.  I approached another town with a “La Democracia” sign, and decided to stop at “Hotel Flor de Cafe”, if anything it seemed less seedy than some of the other ones, and the name sounded nice.  The owner’s toothless smile and questions about my bike and trip in an accent I could hardly understand dissipated most of my bad mood.  A plate of chicken and rice at a comedor, then a strong but quick rainstorm.  Then I fell asleep with the TV on.

I got going rather late this morning, knowing I had already done 10 miles in Guatemala.  But most of today was uphill through a narrow valley along a river.  Lots of chicken buses!  Later in the afternoon I waved hello to a spandex-clad cyclist on a slick road bike heading downhill in the opposite direction.  I figured he was from Huehue, and that he’d turn around and at my rate he’d easily catch up with me.

Which he did!  Manglio slowed down and chatted with me for a while.  We pulled over to exchange emails, and he offered a place to camp.  I told them that I already had a couchsurfing contact in Huehue but thanks for the offer.  He warned me about the last push up out of the valley before heading down to Huehue, but kindly stayed by my side, even as cars flew by.  He had the perfect Guatemalan expressions for everything I was thinking about the dumb drivers.  We got close to town and he offered me to use his phone to call my couchsurfing host.  My contact wasn’t in town at the moment, so it was just as easy to head home with Manglio.  He ordered a pizza as we arrived into the city!  At this point I was running on an empty tank and was thankful to not have to navigate in an unfamiliar town, and that food was on its way.

So here I am, well fed, after having spent dinner around the table with Manglio and his beautiful family.  Earlier today I got a half hour history lesson about the different family dogs courtesy of the two youngest siblings (there are six kids altogether).  Then they started asking me about my tent, and somehow the issue of pillows came up.  I said I usually just bunch up my sweater, but they didn’t think this was a good idea.  The two went to their rooms to grab one of their pillows each, and the sister, a little older and quicker, was able to stuff her pillow into my tent first.  So right now I have a 4 foot long Disney princess pillow for the night!

So there you have it.  From the dregs of society to a family that has opened its home to a complete stranger.

15 comments to Huehuetenango, Guatemala

  • Next time you are subject to death threats, just envision slapping the perpetrator silly with a princess pillow. : ) Glad you’re OK. Guatemala! Go you.

  • Bruno Calgaro Sandi

    Hell of a welcome to Guatemala jeje, just amazing you’re all the way down to Huehue! This is the first time I’ve checked in on your blog, look forward to seeing what comes next! Cuidate y muchos saludos Matt!

  • Ruth

    I loved reading this post! It’s good to know that you’re well on your way to forming immigration policy for your own country. I’m assuming transportation policy leans heavily in favor or bike trails. Enjoy Central America, Disney pillows and threats notwithstanding. Congrats on making it so far!

  • Nick

    Has the chicken bus strike affected you at all? I don’t actually know if it stretches out of Guatemala City, but it’s pretty wild here.

  • admin

    Hi Nick! On the radio this morning there were mentions of something happening in Cuatro Caminos (outside Xela), but didn’t come across any blockades today. It did seem that this morning was really quiet headed out of Huehue (barely noticed any buses, and one woman stood by the side of the road asked me if I knew if the buses were running or not), but I have nothing to compare it to.

  • Linder

    This post was almost like reading a thriller novel, a heartwarming story and a commentary on foreign relations all at the same time. I need to catch my breath…..

  • Janice

    On my daily walks I have been trying to push myself to go faster so my heart rate is functioning in the “aerobic zone.” Reading “Death threats and princess pillows” got me to the “aerobic zone” without taking a single step! Glad the story ended well. Would love to meet Manglio and his family.

    Take care. Un abrazo.

  • Ty

    Wow. If it’s any consolation, these are the kinds of stories that are at least entertaining. Maybe you’ll include them in your book someday. Glad you’re okay, dude. And don’t worry – America forgives you for denying it.

  • Cooper

    Man Matto, that is a little scary but a great story, as Ty said. You are pretty good at holding it down in a crazy situation like that. Kinda reminds me of that time we were walking from our place to the L or something and that guy blew through a stop sign….ha.

    So awesome you are making such great progress. Keep it up Matto.

  • Romain

    hey matt, nice blog and nice stories, Guatemala songs different from Mexico. I’m in Tuxtla, resting for 2 days after a deshydratation on the way from the coast. Thanks to give my email to Cass, he might be now in San cristobal, I hope to be there tomorrow in the afternoon. Take care and don’t talk to pickup drivers, they don’t understand nothing to the life! Tchao

  • Nohemi

    ¡Hola Mateo! ¿como te va? te saluda la familia de Manglio esperamos que todo vaya bien
    para hacerte reír un poquito aquí te mandamos un sarcasmo
    cual es el colmo de un bombero…
    “que tenga una esposa ardiente”
    jijijiji Saludos y bendiciones bay

  • cass

    awesome. great to hear you are well after a sketchy start.

    I’m resting up in San Christobal. Just been to the dentist today. Ouch…

    Oh, to be in the cool mountains again…

  • admin

    Gracias Nohemi! La verdad pase un tiempo maravilloso con ustedes, ya me faltaba reir asi! Espero que todos esten bien.
    Por cierto, si encuentran un calcetin en el terreno, es mio! Guardenlo para mi regreso. =)

  • Ruth

    Chicago misses you. Did you ever buy the machete?

  • You are in our thoughts and prayers. Wondering if you’ll be on a sailboat come May 9. You have so many wonderful people stories! Thankfully and hopefully not too many crazy ones!!

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