Nebaj, Guatemala 10 Nov 05
Odometer 12,672 m 20,394 km

Having survived the “wire” stretched across the road, there was no time to delay. As my speed climbed and my heart-rate fell, I pushed on to the village of Nebaj, where at one o’clock I was supposed to meet my friend in the central park.

A few more miles up the road where the asphalt once again turned to dirt, I was forced to stop dead in my tracks. A tall man wearing a sweat-stained, straw cowboy hat was blocking the route. His long, down-turned mustache accentuated the grimace on his gaunt, sun-baked and leathery face. It looked as though he had spent far too many days manning roadblocks just like this one. They clearly picked the right guy for the job.

At his feet was a 1- by 8-foot strip of plywood, pierced with dozens of sharp nails--points up. A couple of truck drivers standing nearby explained to me that the road was closed for construction for the next hour and a half, but to the left I spotted a narrow window of opportunity. With my engine still running, I eased out the clutch and began to roll forward. If I could shoot the gap between the nail-studded plywood and a large rock on the side of the road, I could blow by this impasse and still make it to my destination on time.
road crew
Guatemalan road crew.
Bad idea.

The grizzled guard read me like a book, sidestepped to block the gap, put one hand on his belt-sheathed machete and slowly shook his head back and forth with a stare that would have made the Terminator wet his pants. I had to find an alternate route.

Getting directions in countries like Guatemala is always a crapshoot. People will nod their heads and agree with just about anything you say, if only to be polite. Never mind if the information is accurate, they would rather be
nice than right. For this reason, I always ask at least three people, careful not to lead them with the question, then average their answers.

The two truck drivers knew the area well, but both were certain that
this road was the only road. At that point a local stepped forward to volunteer that there might be another way, but I’d have to backtrack some 20 kilometers to find what he described as a steep, curvy, rocky, dusty and narrow alternate.

“Are you
sure that this obscure route you describe leads to Nebaj,” I emphatically inquired?

“No,” he replied as he shrugged.

Well, at least he was honest. Twenty klicks back down the road I found exactly what the guy had described, especially the part about it being steep. At the base of the turnout was an older man sitting on a primitive cart with two solid wooden wheels, drawn by oxen. His children did their best to hide behind him.
Navigating the back roads of Guatemala, where sometimes pigs are tied to road signs and cross-traffic is on horseback.
“Where does this road go,” I innocently asked?

“To my house,” he replied, as though it was obvious.

“And after that,” I pressed?

“To my field.”

At this point, I almost committed the cardinal sin of asking for directions: never actually
name the place you’re looking for. As previously stated, they’ll affirm virtually anything you say. So, had I wondered aloud if this was the road to New York City, he no doubt would have assured me that it was!

senor, but after passing your house and field, then where does it go?”

He thought for a moment, then smiled and replied with a single, yet critical word: “Nebaj.”

Pay dirt.
“Muchas Gracias, senor, and can I get there on my moto?”

After an inordinately long pause he hesitantly mumbled, “Yes, well, I
think you can make it.”

Good enough for me.
I discounted his estimate of five hours, convinced I could make better time here than sitting back at the roadblock. But as I stood up on my footpegs and began grinding my way up the sharp incline through countless off-camber, tight switchbacks covered in tractionless powder, I wondered if the guy wasn’t right. On a lightweight, 250cc dirt bike with knobby tires this would actually be fun, but on my fully laden beast of burden I was beginning to prefer his ox.

Three things contributed to my apprehension. First, my deadline: though I am forever trying to put 12-pounds of potatoes into a 10-pound bag, I work hard to keep my commitments. Second, the weather: the higher I rode, the closer I approached a foreboding black cloud spitting water and wind as though sucking me into the Temple of Doom. Finally, the route: I had no idea where I was going, and despite the old man’s confirmation that this road leads to Nebaj, he said nothing about the multiple forks I began to discover
en route.

Though I was passing some signs of life, small adobe-block huts dotting the steep, terraced farmland, nearly all of the people were out working in their fields. At one three-way split, I simply gave up and stopped.

Then, while gazing at my useless map, this entire area was completely blank, I suddenly felt, well,
creepy. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Was someone watching me?

Two glowing eyes peered secretively from behind a dilapidated adobe wall off to my left.
“Buenas tardes,” I shouted in hopes of a reply. Nothing. “Excuse me, but I need some help,” I elaborated in Spanish, to no avail.

I turned off the engine and removed my helmet, thinking that maybe whoever was there was simply afraid to respond. I waited. Slowly, ever so timidly, a small girl dressed in
tipico Guatemalan attire revealed herself. I motioned her forward.

She spoke only native Ixil, so dismounting from El Viento I picked up a small stick with which to draw. Though reduced to plotting my course in the dirt with a nine-year-old who spoke neither Spanish nor English and had possibly never even seen Nebaj--misery loves company.

Over the next ten minutes the two of us commiserated about the various options ahead: forks and streams, bridges and settlements. She delighted in my antics and seemed genuinely concerned.

One can imagine her explaining this event to her parents later on: “Mommy, daddy, a spaceman visited me today and I helped him find his way!” E.T. phone home.

A half hour later I succeeded in cresting the ridge under intensely lit skies, the sun streaming through dark clouds as though God himself was speaking. Nebaj must lie in the next valley, I thought, but to be sure I had better ask someone.

“Yes,” the man in the tiny
tienda nodded to my delight, “The village is near--only three hours more.”

Three hours more? Only then did I surmise that all of my guides were giving me the time it takes for them to
walk there, having no frame of reference for how long it would take on a motorcycle or perhaps any mode of mechanized travel.

As the number of houses, shops, dogs and people steadily grew, I knew I was getting warmer. I finally rolled up in front of the church in the town square, only two hours late, where my friend Tucker had wiled away the time consuming multiple chicken tacos from a friendly street vender.

I slowly peeled off my helmet, brushed back my sweat-soaked hair with my still-gloved hand and confessed: “Getting here,
mi amigo, was no ‘walk in the park.’”

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