As Christmas wound down and the hours of our vacation days began to drag on again, Hilary and I decided we would give our travelling legs another chance to run, so we packed up our bags again and set to the Pan-American Highway, this time heading north. We decided that our mistakes last time were 1) Packing too big of a bag, and 2) Leaving too late in the day, so we downsized our cargo and walked away from our bedroom door at 7:05AM on a cold Saturday morning. At 8:00, we stopped at a cliffside Swiss restaurant and stuffed ourselves on ham and cheese crêpes, bought Hilary a pair of gloves, and then continued our climb up the mountain. At the highest point in our trip, on top of a mountain that peaks about 3,000 meters above sea level, Hilary and I stopped at the lookout point to enjoy the breathtaking views of our pristine destination- Guatemala’s treasured Lake Atitlan. Surrounded by 3 volcanoes and considered by many as the World’s Most Beautiful Lake, paradise beckoned us to descend into its warmth, so we climbed back on El Herocito and kindly obliged.
Close to thirty seconds after we left the lookout point, the motorcycle began to make terrible noises. When pushing it hard in fifth gear, it just seemed too loud. When coming off the acceleration a little, it transformed into a moving bubble-maker. Though we didn’t seem to be producing any bubbles, El Herocito puttered along to a noise that seemed more appropriate in a Willy Wonka factory. As is a common experience for us in Guatemala, we felt very silly. Ten kilometers later, we pulled into a gas station to make sure fuel wasn’t the problem and to get a little advice on our noise dilemma. The very friendly gas station attendant gave our vehicle a once-over and kindly pointed out that there was a gaping space where an important pipe should be, and a large hole in the engine was now exposed the outside world instead of being properly rerouted to the muffler. He also told us that aside from sounding a bit undignified, we should make it just fine to Solola, where a moto-shop could help us out with a new part. About 10 minutes down the road, Hilary tugged at my arm and we pulled into “El Shaday Moto Shop,” a quaint but welcoming repair joint in a small countryside strip mall. Once again, a very friendly Guatemalan recognized that we were missing an important pipe, found an old Honda with a matching part, and set us back on the road to vacation for a mere $30.
Half an hour after our appointment with El Shaday, and a full kilometer lower in altitude, we arrived at our hotel in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan. Well-known as an old hippie town set beside crystal waters in a volcanic crater, we were ready for a few days of rest and tranquility. Instead, we found a dirty, overrun drug mecca with few redeeming qualities. Most of the corners were converted into homes for coked-up troubadours on bad trips that were overconfident in their harmonica skills. Over-ambitious Guatemalans set up their artisan shops along the streets or just simply carried racks full of goods down the sidewalks. Under-ambitious Guatemalans that had immigrated to Panajachel pestered tourists to buy them a beer or share a toke in the spirit of unity. Hilary and I were in the mood for none of it, so we swatted the noise of the town away best we could as we searched for a decent taco. I always imagined a town full of hippies would be a peaceful place, blissfully nostalgic for many from an older generation. As I was reflecting on that in the streets of Pana, a neo-hippie wearing rolled up red chino khakis, a white linen shirt, no shoes, and a homemade guitar, assaulted a man on a bike for the hell of it. On a serene Saturday afternoon, he just had the urge to scare someone. After giving the man a good jostle, he detached himself from the victim’s handlebars and continued walking, whistling and plucking at his ramshackle guitar, like a fault line settling after a tremor. Who were these terrorist hippies, and why had so many gathered in one such beautiful place? I worked on my theories and tried to put our hostile environment behind me as I planned the next day of our trip.
Hilary and I woke up early on Sunday to avoid the crowds. We planned to catch a boat across the lake where the terrorists are scant and the kayaks are cheaper. We asked for a boat at 8. The boat drivers said they would leave at 9. We grabbed a cup of coffee to pass the time and returned to the dock. The boat left at 10. Panajachel. The boats on Lake Atitlan are seemingly fashioned out of some mix of plaster, paper maché, and lacquer. The drivers overfill the 12-passenger novelties with 25 nervous tourists. Then they drive as fast as they can for 45 minutes across the immense body of water. They hit each wake full speed, tempting the lake to break through the boat floor and welcome visitors into its frigid, daunting embrace. We finally pulled into the shanty dock in San Pedro, wet with mist and at ease to be so far from hippie terrorism. San Pedro is good and full of hippies too, but the aura must affect their Chi in a different way, because it was over an hour before we were hassled for anything. We ate yogurt and eggs in a Hindu meditation club, or some combination of the sort, and breathed easy for the first time since descending Atitlan’s mountainous walls.
In our kitschy breakfast meditation spot, I read through Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries as we sat by the lake in peace, less aware of the contact high that inevitably hovered over the lake and mellowed its inhabitants. After we finished our coffee, we took to the streets to explore the charming city that invited us in with its more passive nature. The strength of fate must be strong in Atitlan, because after ten minutes of loitering in the streets, we ran upon a bearded friend from Pittsburgh we had met only a week earlier, about eight hours away on a Monterrico beach. He happened to be living in a hostel and looking for Spanish lessons in San Pedro, and somehow the chaos of the Universe brought us to the same spot on the same Volcano lake at the same time. Busy, busy, busy. Then again, the whole encounter could have been a hallucinogenic vision set on by the aforementioned contact high. Nonetheless, we were happy to see each other again and caught each other up on a week’s worth of Guatemala adventure. As we were talking, another guy from the hostel walked out to the street and introduced himself. His name escapes me, but I’m sure it was “Spirit Child” or “Chris.” Anyway, he wore natty dreadlocks, cut-off cargo pants, and a t-shirt covered in screen-printed marijuana leaves, and he was tripping hard. He came in on the part of the conversation where we told our friend about our unfortunate moto part, which really got him riled up.
“So where’d it fall off?” he asked in his high-pitched voice as he jittered around and bit his yellow fingernails.
“On the highway.”
“The highway? I said where.” Clearly my answer didn’t satisfy him.
“On the Pan-American-” He interrupted me.
“Yeah, but I said where.” Hilary tried to help me out.
“It was up on the Pan-American, on the top of the mountain that looks down over the lake, close to the split for Chichicastenango.”
“Yeah, okay, but I’m like saying, like where did it happen?!” At this point he was flailing his arms and yelling at me. I looked at Hil and my friend from Monterrico. We laughed nervously. Spirit Child laughed too. He offered us some weed breadloaf and we declined. Then he got distracted by something down the street and told us not to move because he would come back within an hour. We all looked at each other, a bit confused but a little less nervous. Maybe we answered his question and he had gone in search of the moto part, or maybe he just saw something shiny. Whichever it was, we said goodbye again to our friend from Monterrico and set off looking for the kayaks. I pondered a little on my theories of hippie terrorism, but mostly I thanked God for my gorgeous wife and His gift of beautiful, incomprehensible nature. Then I prayed he would give Spirit Child whatever answer he had been searching for.