On our map, the road to Sibol looked like a highway. In reality it was a potholed, muddy dirt track that threaded itself like a needle through dramatic mountain spires jutting up through dense rainforest. We put Nacho in first gear and slowly clambered through the mud and rocks. Once in Sebol, we planned to head south to the town of Semuc Champay where we would bask in clear pools and explore a network of caves.
After two hours of slow dirt road crawling, we arrived at pavement. We put Nacho in third gear and sailed through the torrential rain into the tiny pueblo of Fray Bartolomé. Moments later, a metal-on-metal whooshing sound erupted from Nacho’s left rear wheel. As we came to a stop in a mud puddle the wheel let out a groan. Our hearts sank; for the second time in a month the driver’s side rear wheel bearing had failed.
We were hosed. I had used up all of my spare bearings in Mexico, so we would have to rely on locals to find new bearings for us. I looked across the street: the sign in front of a simple cinderblock building read Hotel Fontana H. Two buildings away was a mecanico filled with broken down chicken buses and beat up trucks. It could have been worse; we could have broken down in a Mayan shantytown, or worse, in the middle of nowhere. Mari, the caretaker of the hotel, would later tell us that Dios had sent us to break down in front of her hotel. I made a mental note to write a harshly worded letter to this Dios of whom she spoke.
We started the engine and slowly crept across the street to the mechanic. He took the hub apart and verified again that indeed the rear wheel bearing was destroyed.
“Can you get parts?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, but I’ll try. It could be three, four days.” he said. This was not a good sign. Four days in Latin-American time could be six weeks! He let us plug the van into their electrical outlet in the shop since we wouldn’t get any solar energy there, and then we gathered our things and sulked over to the hotel where we fell heavily onto our dingy mattresses. My mood sunk to an all time low for the trip. Sheena entered the beginning stages of a near-nervous breakdown. The stained shower curtain separating the toilet from our room hung limply in the dank air, oblivious to our mood.
We collected our wits and headed out to a run down comedor next to the mechanic called Restaurante Manatí for a late lunch. I ordered the standard Central American lunch staple of grilled chicken with rice and beans, while Sheena ordered a bowl of soup. We tried to find the bright side. Everything was going to be fine. We would get Nacho fixed…some day. We would be done with mechanical issues…until next month. Our hotel was cheap, so we were saving money. Nothing really seemed to elevate our mood. We asked for the bill.
“Señor, how much do we owe?”
“It is 320 Quetzales.” He said.
“320 Quetzales!?” I said, startled. That’s $42. The typical daily wage for a Guatemalan worker is between 35 and 73 Quetzales. Our hotel was 85Q per night, and a typical lunch in a restaurant will set you back 15Q. “That’s a lot of money for lunch!”
“The chicken is 50 and the soup is 200. Your drinks were 70, so it’s 320 total.”
We hadn’t inquired about the unlisted prices before ordering, and quickly realized that he was robbing us. There was nothing we could do once we exhausted our bewildered inquiries. We had to pay him. In writing this post well after the fact, I wish I could report that this was an isolated incident, but it was not. In Guatemala, and in no other country we’ve been to thus far, merchants repeatedly tried to take advantage of us. After having more experience with dishonest Guatemalan vendors I would have certainly handled this situation differently if I were able to do it again.
We returned to our hotel exhausted, infuriated, and overwhelmed. Overland travel has its highs and its lows. This was a very low low.
The next morning I went to the mechanic for news on our bearings. He had put in a request with his suppliers in Guatemala City and was waiting to hear back. When I arrived I noticed that Nacho had been unplugged from the electrical outlet. I went to ask why when I noticed that the outlet where it had been plugged in was blackened and melted. I looked at our extension cord and saw that it too was melted, and had welded itself to Nacho’s electrical hookup.
“Last night there was an electrical storm.” It was the mechanic, approaching from behind a building. “The security guard called me and I came over. There was smoke coming out of the wall so I unplugged your cord.”
I quickly went inside of Nacho and checked the electrical panel. The 110V breaker hadn’t tripped for some inexplicable reason, meaning that the wiring inside of the van had probably been destroyed as well. I found the multimeter and checked. Sure enough, there was continuity between all three leads. Like us, our wiring was hosed. By some stroke of luck Nacho hadn’t gone up in flames. I made a note-to-self to try to find a surge protector if we ever became free from this hell.
I found a screwdriver and removed the hookup from the outside of the van, allowing me to peer behind the cabinets. I could see a melted mess of wires leading behind the water tanks. I could also see that the scorching hot wires had melted through one of our drinking water lines.
I decided not to go back and report this news to Sheena for fear that I’d trip her over the edge into a raging nervous breakdown. Instead I took a tuk-tuk to the gas station and bought a new extension cord and some 110V wiring. I spent the rest of the day dissecting Nacho’s interior, rewiring the 110VAC electrical system, and patching our severed water line. By the end of the day it was back to normal. I returned to the hotel with all of our food so that we wouldn’t have to run the refrigerator. There was still no sign of wheel bearings anywhere in the country.
As the days passed we made friends with the family that ran the hotel. It started with high fives and knuckle bumps with Debora and Jordi, the children, when we would pass them in the reception area. Soon we were having conversations with Rodolfo and Mari, the parents, while the kids watched cartoons. After a while congregating in the reception area became our daily ritual.
Mari was happy to show Sheena how to make tortillas in the hotel’s makeshift outdoor kitchen, and told us why they had come to Fray. In her home town she tried to sell tortillas on the street, but was unable to sell the 30 tortillas per day required to make ends meet. The people there were too poor to buy them. She was equally dismayed to find out that the Manití had charged us ten times her daily wage for lunch.
On our third night we decided to make the family a nice dinner. We walked down to the Dispensa Familiar and bought supplies for shrimp risotto and one of Sheena’s killer salads. In Guatemala we’d been having a hard time finding ample vegetables to eat, or really much of anything besides the typical meat and beans staples, so we really splurged. For the shrimp risotto we bought broccoli, peas and Argentine wine. For the salad toppings: walnuts, strawberries, avocado, apples, broccoli, tomatoes, cheese, raisins, and almonds. On the side we would have some of the fresh tortillas that Sheena and Mari made.
While we cooked the children stood on boxes so they could watch. They periodically snatched strawberries and broccoli, stuffing them into their mouths. It was clear that they too were craving some fresh fruits and vegetables. While the risotto simmered they showed us their favorite dances. First, a rudimentary version of the tango.
Next, as Jordi put it, “I’m dancing with my legs!” This basically entailed holding his upper body straight while stepping around with spaghetti legs. Debora loved it as much as we did.
Dinner delivered much needed nourishment and reminded us of how fortunate we are to have good food available to us so ubiquitously back home. Mari and Rodolfo had never tried walnuts or broccoli before. They each had seconds and thirds, and then asked to keep some of the leftovers. The next day Rodolfo asked if we could make the salad again. For the next few days every time we heard them on the phone they spent considerable time recounting the meal. “The gringos…shrimp in the rice…Argentine wine…salad with nuts…”
On the third day I returned to the mechanic to see about the progress. “They have found some bearings. They will arrive tomorrow at the gas station on a bus from Guatemala City.” It seemed too good to be true. That night we celebrated over a dinner of fried chicken with rice and beans that Rodolfo and Mari cooked for us.
On the final day I walked in the shop just as the mechanic was reassembling Nacho’s hub. I had ordered an extra set of bearings so that we would have a spare on hand, but there was bad news. When the new bearings arrived at the gas station, the gas station attendant had taken the initiative to help us out by pressing the bearings into the hub using his hammer press. When the mechanic picked them up he found that the use of a hammer had completely destroyed the bearings. He had to remove them and use the spare set instead. In the end we were really lucky to have ordered two sets; if we hadn’t we would have been stuck in Fray Bartolomé for even longer. On the downside, we still don’t have a backup set of bearings.
As the mechanic put the finishing touches on the hub, I took some time to do an oil change and a tire rotation. The mechanic asked a young boy who had been watching us to help me rotate my tires. It turned out that he actually worked there.
“How old are you”, I asked.
“Thirteen”, he replied.
“Do you go to school too, or do you just work?”
He looked at me as he jacked up the front of the car, his eyes giving away a hint of melancholy. “I only work.”
That night we thought a lot about the privileges afforded to us simply by being born in the United States. We had enjoyed carefree childhoods. The worst part of each summer was the act of back to school shopping, marking the momentary end to fort building, sleepovers, and back yard baseball games. We had grown up taking family vacations to the beach and to amusement parks. Neither Rodolfo nor Mari had ever been out of the small region in Guatemala where they were born. I went on a school trip to Peru when I was twelve.
The next morning we said goodbye to our new friends. Mari told us that the kids would probably cry for a long time once we left. Rodolfo jokingly offered to give us one of them as a gift. At that, Mari asked us to wait and went into her room. She came back with a ceramic angel with a broken wing.
“I wanted to give you this gift so that you will never forget us.”
Driving away from the Hotel Fintana H. filled us with relief to finally be free. But then again, we’ve been free all along. Sometimes we just take it for granted.