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Driving through Guatemala: border crossings and a market

Our first few days in Guatemala are taken up almost entirely by two complicated and seemingly endless journeys, their length altogether inexplicable for the distances covered. But the densely jungled round-topped mountains and the occasional volcanoes of the new country are all the entertainment we could ask for as we speed along the meandering roads and away from the security of Junax, San Cristóbal and Mexico.

I’ve reached that blissful level of tolerance known only to long-term travellers, where sleep is easily accessible and impenetrable when found, despite noise or motion. Any surface suffices a pillow and the observation of passing scenery is all that’s needed for occupation. On this first day, driving across the border to Quetzaltenango where we’ll find our next project, I spend those first two hours in a watchful meditation, resurfacing only to adjust the soundtrack humming companionably from my headphones.

Our party, which we collected from different corners of San Cristóbal at our early departure time, is international, and my interest drifts occasionally into the strange collection of different languages that surround me; French, Spanish and occasional English.

When we make it to the border and change vehicles, I remember again how blessedly temperate our climate has been in the mountains. The heat here is cloying and oppressive, making the short walk to the border office seem momentous. I curse as I trail the party with my wheeled bag, bearing its full weight along the broken road, its wheels rendered futile and ridiculous by the setting. Smirks set across the faces of the people assembling on the main road of the busy town and by the end I’m ready to throw the bag away. However much the salesman in Blacks may have assured me these were rough terrain wheels, this scene of humiliation is all too familiar. Eventually I collapse exhausted with my inapt equipment beside the others, a great deal more out of breath.

At the border

After sorting out the relatively simple logistics of border crossing and exchanging the last of our currency with the men fanning themselves with fistfuls of bank notes, we stand expectantly on the steps outside. But as the minutes pass and the optimism vanishes, we retreat into the shade, into seats and some into the distractions of the surrounding shops and markets.

I settle beside our pile of bags, retrieve my book contentedly and watch with considerable amusement as the collage of characters passes through the office behind us.

This amusement is more than a little dented as two hours later our next transport arrives at the terminal and gestures to us to pass our bags up to be tied precariously to its roof. But I’m grateful for its air conditioning and the wind passing through the cracks in its windows as we finally speed onwards. The road more unpredictable now, I’m forced to throw out my hand at every left turn to stop myself falling into the space between the seat and the door. I finally grip the window to the right, running my fingers through the breeze outside and settling back into my soundtrack.

Just one more vehicle change and a few more hours sees us in Quetzaltenango – also known as Xela – where we’ll be spending just over a week. Our hostel is a little run down, but has a gorgeous view of the city from its second floor terrace and hammocks and fairylights transform its courtyard into a tranquil kind of grotto. Elliott is excited to return to the town where he spent a few months volunteering a few years ago, and starts planning our stay. I hear the phrases ‘biggest market in Central America’ and ‘tomorrow’ and nod in agreement. But as I’m not altogether revived from my travelling trance, I haven’t entirely understood what I’ve agreed to.

The implications are another day of driving, more nauseating and plagued with frustrations than the first. And by the time we wake ourselves up for this second adventure, we’ve realised we’re paying £60 for the pleasure, rather than our initial assumption of £15, owing to a small exchange rate miscalculation.

In light of this, we’re surprised to find another passenger in the car that rumbles along the street outside the hostel and throws open its doors for us. He’s travelling to Antigua, and it turns out we’ll be making a stop at a service station on the way to connect with another transport headed that way. How they organise these complicated multi-vehicle journeys is entirely beyond me.

Elliott and I look at each other and raise our eyebrows, but the driver assures us it will be no problem and won’t add to the journey time. I settle back again and engage my driving reverie, watching the other cars on the road and trying to imagine what it would be like to travel in a Chicken Bus, the old American school buses they drive down from the US, pimp out and use as the country’s most official transport system. They get their name from the high probability of finding chickens on-board.

The stop is welcome when it comes, particularly for Elliott who has looked steadily more ashen faced as we’ve climbed through the steep and unforgiving roads. He wanders away from the car, looking a little unsteady, and I talk to our new companion for a while as we wait. He’s a Dutch doctor, currently travelling but on his way to look for a job in Costa Rica. We’ve made it through all the mandatory subjects and are even breaking new ground before I realise how long we’ve been waiting, called to attention by the muffled swearing of our driver still sitting in the front of the car. He’s just got off the phone, apologises and says, “20 minutes guys.”

Waiting

A little over 30 minutes later, and I’m not quite sure how it’s happened, we’re playing an energetic game of football in the abandoned pitch beside the service station. A cow wanders along the road in front of us, eating the grass on the verge as it goes. I seem to be covering goal, always my least favourite position, but as I get into the game I realise why I used to love to play so much when I was between seven and eleven, and maybe should revive the hobby. This very specific time-frame coincides with my years as a tom boy, cut short by my secondary school, which didn’t allow me to play ‘boys’ sports.

My newfound enthusiasm is soon punished with two bleeding gashes in my arm as I get a little too friendly with a fence, and this, as well as the midday sun and the generally low levels of fitness, calls an end to the game. Luckily there’s a doctor on-hand kitted out with iodine, and dresses my wounds just in time before his transfer finally arrives to collect him. Elliott accuses me of flirting.

Despite our delay, we’re warming to the driver. His football game suggestion was a big hit and he now delights us the rest of the way to Chichicastenango market with the ‘London slang’ he’s learnt from a friend, including the words ‘geeza’, ‘mate’, ‘whater’ and even ‘bare’. He also asks if people in London call girls ‘darlin’ – and I explain that this is very much dictated by context, and it wouldn’t be advisable for him to say it to someone he didn’t know. Elliot adds the word ‘dope’ to his repertoire.

The market is a maze of colour and noise, the churches at either end our only guide between the myriad of stalls. But we’re not impressed with the number of fellow tourist and the elevated price of the merchandise that accompanies them. After about an hour we find a much less busy quarter, with not a Western face in sight, an area we stick to for the rest of our time there. Before we leave, it starts to rain and we duck into one of the churches, watching the market below us artfully raise its tarpaulin defences.

Chichicastenango

The journey back to Xela is quick and not quite as eventful, and I manage to sleep my way through most of it. As the breathtaking views of the last few miles loom before us, our driver manages to make back any lost credit by stopping at several view points and waiting patiently for us to take many time-consuming photographs.

Later that night, in the strange stillness of my hostel bed, I’m grateful for the few days’ break before we start work, but also that we’ll be staying in one place for more than a week. Maybe I haven’t yet become quite as immune to long journeys as I’d imagined.

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