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Sick Days, Smoking Brakes and String Theory? Guatemala Pt.1

Alarm clocks are the worst human invention. Ever.

Alarm clocks are the worst human invention. Ever.

The morning started with a pretty familiar routine. The alarm went off, Jason and Victoria grumbled about it, and I curled up tighter to snuggle under the covers. But unlike most mornings, when I’d be allowed to snooze to my heart’s content, My Family quickly jumped up and started packing. That could only mean one thing: a border crossing day! We were ready to leave Belize behind and cross into our third new country on my Big Adventure.

The Trek Stop was only a few miles from the border of Belize and Guatemala, and we were there before I knew it. Leaving Belize was much easier than getting in. The Border Agent looked at me a little sideways, but My Family had all the paperwork in place and we were soon through the process. Once I heard all the humans speaking Spanish again, I knew we were in Guatemala. We stopped a couple of times in some cool little towns, so Jason could find the little stick that lets him use the internet, and so we could go shopping. In the afternoon I looked up from Victoria’s lap to find we had made it to a pretty little town on a big lake. El Remate is a great spot for travelers, apparently, as it’s close to one of those ruined things called Tikal. Our destination was a campsite called Gringo Perdido. Perdido means ‘lost’ in Spanish, which wasn’t that encouraging and when we first got there it felt like it. It was a big hotel, but totally empty. We found someone to show us the pretty campsite, where we settled in for our first night of sleep in Guatemala. We met an odd camper who seemed like he lived there full time, and a nice older couple from the United States who liked me a lot. Good people and a cozy place to stay! I was pretty happy, until I heard screaming in the trees. Victoria called them “howler monkeys”, and I did’t want anything to do with them. They didn’t sound very nice at all, and they smelled super weird.

Me listening to the Howler Monkeys. Don't Like.

Me listening to the Howler Monkeys. Don’t Like.

The Dock at Gringo Perdido.  Don't like this either.

The Dock at Gringo Perdido. Don’t like this either.

Luckily, we didn’t spend long at this place. The next morning we quickly packed up to hit the road. Victoria and Jason took a break to listen to the other campers chatting. Jason was laughing because one of them sounded like someone named Christopher Walken, while Victoria couldn’t believe she was hearing a debate about string theory at the side of a lake in Guatemala. I didn’t get any of this at all. What sort of theories would you need about string? You play with it, you wrap things in it… and that’s about it, right? Anyway, I was happy when we got back on the road, even with another long stop in the city for Jason to fix a problem with his internet stick.

We spent the morning on a beautiful drive through the country. Jason and Victoria stopped to take a bunch of pictures, but soon enough we reached a place called Finca Ixobel. This was a really pretty spot, a big hotel and campsite that was packed with a kids’ party when we arrived. Apparently all the rain that we had had in Belize also came down here and their campground was totally flooded out. My Family thought if we tried to camp there we’d get stuck so the nice people who ran the hotel allowed us to set up our home right in front of the restaurant on the pavement.

We ended up spending quite a long time here at Finca Ixobel. I’m not sure if My Family would agree, but I had a pretty good time. There were all sorts of nice people to meet, delicious food to taste and plenty of grass for running around. Of course, that grass was soaking wet most of the time, as it rained on and off for our whole stay! I don’t like the rain one bit. It usually doesn’t seem to bother My Family that much, but after another day or two of rain I could tell Jason wasn’t feeling very well at all. He just didn’t smell right. Sure enough, he was soon stuck in bed with something Victoria called ‘the flu’ and all of the snuggles and kisses I could muster up didn’t make him feel any better.

So here we were, in a parking lot outside of a beautiful hotel in Guatemala, and getting more miserable by the day. Jason felt terrible, and Victoria and I were stuck either inside the camper or in the hotel’s common area, staring at the rain. There was so much to do around here, and we weren’t getting to do any of it! There were some highlights, however. The nice couple from Gringo Perdido ended up showing up again, and I got to spend some time with them. My Family also met a nice girl from a place called Germany who makes bracelets for people. Victoria got her to make me a collar, the first time she’s ever done that for a dog!

After a couple of days of shivering and groaning, Jason finally started to feel a little better. The rain broke for a couple of hours, so My Family took the opportunity to pack up and hit the road. Some of the other travelers who were staying at the hotel had told us that the weather gets better as you drive south, so we were off to find some sun. I was more than happy with this plan. I mean, I couldn’t even remember the last time I got to run around on a beach or lay on the grass in the sun. Those were the two things My Family said I’d get to do all the time on the Big Adventure, so what gives, huh?

Guatemala is beautiful but also full of mountains.

Guatemala is beautiful but also full of mountains.

We got on the road, and the drive started out pretty cool. The sun was finally out, and everyone was in a good mood. We followed directions that Jason had found, and suddenly ended up on a dirt road that was super duper bumpy. It was like we were back in Belize! Jason and Victoria had thought this was going to be a short trip, but the road just kept going on and on, bouncing along super slow through tiny towns. It was neat to see for a while, but soon I started to feel a little woozy with all of the bouncing. I put my head down in Victoria’s lap and didn’t pick it up again until we finally got back on the pavement.

The smooth sailing wouldn’t last. We were headed to a place called Lanquin, and we thought we were taking a highway there. It was a big red line on the map, and even had a number. That fancy road ended up being the bumpiest, craziest drive yet, up into the mountains and through tiny towns filled with people wearing super colorful clothes. They all smiled and waved, yelling things like “Gringos!” or “Hello!” or “Goodbye!” to My Family as we passed. It wasn’t scary at all, but it sure was bouncy. Every time I started to feel a little sick I looked out at these colorful humans, carrying huge baskets on their heads or massive packs of wood on their backs and forget all about the bumpy roads. My Family said they’re called “Mayans”, and they speak a whole different language from anyone else. I realized what a lucky dog I was to see all of this. I mean, none of my friends from Venice had ever met a Mayan, and I got to meet a ton of them! Pretty cool.

None of the highways at home looked like this.  Sheesh.

None of the highways at home looked like this. Sheesh.

Soon the excitement started to wear off, as there didn’t seem to be any end to this mountain or the bumpy roads. What felt like forever later we finally got back to pavement. That’s when things got really weird. There was a car on its side in the middle of the street, and it was on fire! The heat as we drove by felt like it could have singed the whiskers right off my face. Then down and down and down the mountain we went, into a valley and the town of Lanquin. It seemed like everyone in the town was out that day, and we could barely drive through! I thought that maybe they were there to greet us, but we heard later that something bad had happened there, and the people of the town were pretty angry. Luckily we found a place called El Retiro, just outside of town, that was completely safe for me and My Family.

El Retiro is beautiful but also built on the side of a big hill.  My family took forever to get up  and down the stairs every day since they only have two legs,

El Retiro is beautiful but also built on the side of a big hill. My family took forever to get up and down the stairs every day since they only have two legs,

El Retiro was a huge place, set right next to a really pretty river. It’s called a hostel, which I guess is a hotel for people who have big adventures with only a backpack instead of a camper. And we met a lot of these adventurers! Everyone was so nice to me, and there were a couple of really cool dogs to hang out with too. And the food! Holy moly, the food! Every night there were gigantic feasts, and all the new friends staying there got to go up and get as much as they wanted. Because of this, me and the camp dogs always had delicious tastes. I think I got to try more chicken at El Retiro than I had ever had before in my life. My Family had planned on staying here for just a couple of nights, so they could check out a place called Semuc Champey, but we ended up staying for a whole week. Victoria actually got pretty sick too, so we did a lot of laying around. Luckily the weather was much better here. We had tons of sun, and there were great spots down by the river with hammocks to lay in. Every day new people arrived, and most of them really liked me. That meant a ton of attention, so even though My Family still wasn’t feeling well it was pretty cool there. We hung out at the restaurant listening to good music, laid in bed watching movies, and laughed with the other adventurers at all the cool travel stories everyone had collected.

This is Cho-cho. She lives at El Retiro but she slept outside our camper every night. We all really loved her and My Family even said if she didn't already have a good home she could have come to live with us.  What?!

This is Cho-cho. She lives at El Retiro but she slept outside our camper every night. We all really loved her and My Family even said if she didn’t already have a good home she could have come to live with us. What?!

Victoria and Jason had been talking for days about doing a tour at Semuc Champey, but they didn’t want to leave me alone all day. I was pretty happy with this decision. The camper hadn’t been plugged in for a long time, and nothing was working at full power. I couldn’t imagine being stuck inside all day with nothing but a weak fan to keep me company! Luckily this didn’t happen. We finally packed up our home, said goodbye to our new friends, and drove off.

This Semuc Champey place wasn’t far away, but the drive took FOREVER. As soon as we left the town of Lanquin to head up there, the road disintegrated into little more than a trail. There were huge boulders to crawl across, gravel and mud to navigate, and some of the biggest hills I’ve ever seen. At some points the road was so narrow that only our big truck could fit, with a steep drop on one side and a hill on the other. I curled up into the tightest ball possible and held on to Victoria while Jason drove. We made it to the parking lot outside of Semuc Champey an hour or two later. Mayan children sold chocolate to My Family, but even though it smelled delicious I didn’t get a single bite. I guess the plan was for us to check out this park in the morning, so we settled in for the night. There were nice Mayan guides there camping as well, so we had company as things got very dark and VERY quiet.

Late in the evening, just before bed, I heard beautiful music. I climbed over to the window and looked out at the campground to find a whole gathering of Mayan men. Three of them were playing a huge instrument, banging on it with sticks, while another walked around swinging a ball of smoke. Other people sat around talking, clapping, or stepping in to take over at the instrument when someone got tired. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I have no idea what it was, but it was a pretty neat way to end the day.

The next morning I found out that I wasn’t going to get to see the Semuc Champey place at all! Apparently dogs aren’t allowed. What a stupid rule. I mean, what did they think I was going to do? If I happened to poo, Jason was going to pick it up anyway! There was no arguing it, so I spent forever stuck at home while My Family went adventuring. Apparently it was a really beautiful set of pools and waterfalls, but all I got to see was the parking lot. I guess you’ll have to check out My Family’s Facebook page if you’re curious about this stupid place with the no dogs rule.

We left soon after and headed for the city. My Family was very excited, because Victoria’s parents were going to be visiting us the next day! I hadn’t seen my Grandparents in quite a long time, and I love them lots so I was more interested in the drive than usual when we hit the road. But before I could cover them with kisses, we had to get back down that terrible road. It was even worse this way! Some people put a rope across the road and stopped us at one point asking for money to use the road (which we didn’t pay, by the way), and then we had to keep pulling to the side while other cars tried to squeeze by. I could smell the stress pouring off of Jason but we made it back to town with no problem, and headed off for Guatemala City and towards our next destination, called Antigua.

Things got strange in a hurry. Later I discovered that Jason had found the directions, which is something Victoria usually does. Apparently, he chose the ‘scenic route’. Scenic means pretty, and everything in Guatemala certainly is. But in Guatemala, scenic also means, bumpy, bouncy, hilly and SLOW. We spent hours and hours doing nothing but driving up and down mountains on really bad roads. Then something really weird happened. Halfway down another huge mountain, Jason suddenly pulled the car over and stopped driving. I knew something was wrong, because I could smell really stinky smoke. In case you don’t know, cars and trucks have things called ‘brakes’, which stop you from going too fast. It turned out that we had spent so much time driving our big truck down mountains that our brakes had given up! Jason was pretty shaken by the whole thing, and we sat there on the road in the middle of nowhere trying to figure out what to do.

Not having 'brakes' is not a good thing.

Not having ‘brakes’ is not a good thing.

While Victoria placed emergency signs around the truck, a man rode up on a motorcycle and asked us in English if we were okay. He was a Guatemalan, but had spent a lot of years in the United States and his English was WAY better than My Family’s Spanish. We explained what was going on, and he suggested that we had overheated the brakes. He thought we should let them rest for a while, and then said he’d come back to check on us. Well, we sat there and sat there, getting hotter and hotter while the sun sunk lower and lower in the sky. My Family started getting nervous. Problems with the truck were one thing, but how would we ever get to Guatemala City now? Apparently we were still really far away from our next stop.

The nice man came back to check on us, and the brakes were still not so great. He helped Jason drive down the hill, while I stood watching with Victoria. I didn’t particularly like watching the big truck drive away, but soon the nice man came back for us. You know what happened next? I got to ride on the motorcycle! It was so cool! Victoria held me while we scooted down the hill to find Jason and the truck. I had never felt so much breeze on my face! It was a little scary, but one of the neatest experiences of the Big Adventure so far. What came after was almost as cool. The nice man, whose name was Ariel, let us drive to his house and gave us a place to stay! It was starting to get dark at this point, and he said the road was pretty bad up ahead. He let us set up camp on his property and the whole town came out to watch, with their dogs and their chickens and their donkeys and their pigs, and played soccer while we sank into our camp chairs. It had been a pretty stressful day, but we were all in a great mood. My Family couldn’t believe how nice Ariel was, and his wife even cooked us dinner! My Family had heard all sorts of stories about how kind strangers could be, but they were still amazed that this perfect stranger could be so fantastic. I know that people are generally nice (and I can tell right away when they’re not) so I wasn’t that surprised, but when we snuggled under the covers that night we all felt particularly lucky. Our first couple of weeks in Guatemala had been filled with rains, flus and smoking brakes, and yet we were happier than ever. What a cool country!

Me, hanging out by the truck on Ariel's property.  Thanks again, Ariel and Marleen!

Me, hanging out by the truck on Ariel’s property. Thanks again, Ariel and Marleen!

PS: If you want to see the photos My Family took during our first two weeks here in Guatemala, they are on Facebook.

Feb 2014


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