Monterrico, Agatha, and the 2 ½ hour shuttle ride back to Antigua that took 30 hours
Ever have one of those experiences that prompts the thought “Everything happens for a reason and I know, there’s always a hidden gift or meaning….I just don’t always know what it is.”
I had one of those moments this weekend. In fact, it was a little longer than a moment, it was all of 30 hours. Actually, as I sit here writing this I have some ideas of the ‘value’ I am taking away from the the experience, and I’ll share those as I tell this story.
Miro’s school is closed the last Friday of each month, giving the kids a three day weekend each month, which is nice.
Recently, Miro befriended a new boy from school named Kai, who comes from Oakland California and is fairly close in age with Miro. Kai and his mom Gail, who are recent transplants to Antigua plan on spending six to nine months here, trying on a new lifestyle, seeing how they like the fit. Gail is blessed with the ability to work remotely for the company she worked for in the states without much trouble. I was so pleased to have befriended a fellow mom to share experiences with and equally pleased the boys seem to get along so well. Over the past few weeks, we have all shared a little time together, and had no major trepidations about spending a weekend with them. I suggested to Gail we grab the kids and take advantage of the three day weekend and head to the beach for a little change of scenery.
Last December, Miro and I spent a little time on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala at a small beach village called Monterrico. At the time, even though it was very cold in Antigua, the weather there provided a perfect bathing suit-wearing, ocean-swimming, sangria-drinking beach opportunity. I craved a little of that now, needed a little beach and sun fix. So that was the plan.
After the kids returned from school on Thursday afternoon, the four of us met in the rainy Parque Central in the center of Antigua with one mission in mind: Check out the times and prices for shuttles to and from Monterrico and plan our weekend escape. Antigua has an abundance of travel agencies so we knew there would be no problem finding transportation. We decided to buy our tickets at the second agency we visited, just off the park. We purchased four tickets for shuttle transport both to and from the beach village, for a mere $18 a person. And with that, the three hour trip was booked, leaving Antigua the following morning.
It had been raining on and off here in Antigua, and the weather forecasts online reported “chance of” scattered thunderstorms on Pacific coast. “That’s not too severe”, I thought. ‘Chance of’ means ‘possible’ not a ‘probable’, right? Throughout our travels, we’ve experienced quick shifts in weather conditions, going from sunny to rain and back again in a matter of minutes, and to me this read the same way. Maybe there would be a few little showers about, maybe some clouds clapping together to made some dramatic thunder, then maybe the winds will blow them apart to reveal clear sunny skies. Yeah, maybe that’s what it all means. No worries.
We planed on staying at Johnny’s Place, a little beach front backpackers hub, with a hammock lined beach front bar, Turkish style seating along the shore, an ocean view and excellent drinks. One other thing I look forward to is having use of one of the several little pools scattered throughout the property (which we couldn’t use last time were there, because we weren’t registered guests) and playing with the life size chess set once again. Johnny’s Place is not elegant lodging by any means, but Miro and I are used to hostels, have our sleeping bags and pillows ready for just the occasion. Generally, we love the people we meet at the travel circuit hubs, and this definitely one of those places. When we were there in December, we didn’t want to leave, the place was packed with travelers filled with stories, energy of a buzzing beach, and festive music . Sounds good to me.
We arrived in Monterrico around noon to, as the weather report promised, scattered thunderstorms. The power in the whole village was out, but we had daylight and were confident the power would be back on before nightfall. We checked into Johnny’s Place which was fairly empty to my surprise and realized it was going to be a different beach visit this time. A perfect opportunity to simply relax.
Works for me.
The boys got into their swim suits and played in the pool, throughout the sun, rain and thunderstorms, continuously laughing splashing and playing, no need for anything other than what the day provided. I too, put on my bathing suit and a sarong, claimed the perfect under-shade structure hammock I could find and promptly dug into my first book in over a month (a luxury I have not given myself since I committed to catch up on my writing for this blog). I spent hours reading while gently swinging in my hammock loving the feeling of the cool rain mist on my exposed skin. The low baritone of the waves crashing beyond the shore set the perfect mood for hours of reading and relaxing.
OK, so this wasn’t my ideal for sun worshiping, but I was truly content, nevertheless.
Throughout the day, we experienced ten to thirty minute segments of non-rain intervals and pretty heave winds and much to my dismay, the clouds remained securely in place. We made the best of though. During those brief periods, we chased the waves, walked along the beach and kicked the black wet sand.
During the evening, we did get a brief break from the rain. We all changed into dry clothes and set out to grab some dinner in town. We ate at one of the local restaurants Miro and I visited during our last trip and the food was great. After dinner, we returned to our room and settled in for the night, all equipped with books and heavy-eyed from the early start. As the evening turned into night, the rain and thunderstorms grew more frequent and our room felt like a temporary safe haven.
It rained hard throughout the night and when the morning came I woke up feeling very wet. I was not wet from direct contact with water, rather wet from the thick humidity that encapsulated our room. The temperature of the cold air inside our room was no different from the temperature of the air outside. The building’s shoddy construction provided no insulation from the dampness. The high ceilings of our our room were constructed with palm fronds and thankfully were covered on the outside with some sort of plastic covering that prevented rain from seeping through and directly drenching us. Our bathroom roof, made of corrugated fiberglass wasn’t so lucky. It had several obvious holes, creating tiny waterfalls, saturating a very cold concrete bathroom floor below.
As the natural light of the morning started to illuminate our room, we saw tiny fluttering of wings in the attic-like points above our heads. We all four remained in our prospective beds watching what Kai said were “baby birds in our room”. I watched for a minute and corrected him.
“Those aren’t birds, Kai, those are bats”. We opened the door so they could fly out if they wanted and I settled back to watch a little more. They were very small and elegant, and flew in a choreographed pas de duet. One would fly in large circles, tracing the perimeter of the roof as the other would join the dance just one beat after the first, mimicking the rhythm and formation of it’s partner, dancing together amongst the palm frond. This aerial dance continued as the duo would fly countless circles, one large, then one smaller, then one smaller yet, and another and finally another, which looked like a modern ballet, much more interesting than anything I’ve seen on Dancing with the Stars. When they came to the end of a “dance” they would stop on one of the beams in unison, one in front of the other as the bigger of the two would wrap it’s wings around the both of them, making one hanging bat-blob, and rest there for a few minutes before starting again. I was fascinated and entertained as I watched them repeat their performance over the next few minutes until they determined the show was over. Then, they promptly disappeared through an unseen opening between several palm fronds without waiting for my applause.
“Bravo”, I said to myself. “Bravo!”
Gail and I left it open whether we’d spend one or two nights in Montericco and said we’d decide based on the weather. We were in a storm and this morning I was certain I had no interest in spending another night there, since the weather was seemingly getting worse. I would rather be back in Antigua taking advantage of the perfect writing weather, listening to the rainfall from my living room and tapping away on my computer key board in efforts to finish my self-imposed, overdue writing assignments.
Gail agreed (reluctantly I sensed, since she was really enjoying the weather, something she said was her “beach ideal”) but since the kids were having a little of ‘togetherness-overdose’ we agreed to cut our trip short one day. We called to confirm our shuttle transportation in the morning and had until 4:00 pm to wait out the weather until it arrived. The morning and afternoon consisted of sessions of the the boys playing in the pool, Gail and Kai chasing waves on the beach, me sitting in the cafe reading, Miro and I eating lunch together, and finally Miro and I having conversations with the few other travelers who too, were waiting for a shuttle back to Antigua.
This day, it stormed heavily and provided few breaks in the constant downpour of rain.
At 4:00 we were greeted by by Juan Jose, the same shuttle driver who dropped us off the morning before. Thankfully, he was a great driver and had a friendly disposition as I suspected the roads back to Antigua would be wet and challenging.
The shuttle was half full when it picked us up, Kai, Gail and Miro climbed into the empty back seat and I joined a dark-haired girl sitting in the front row of the passenger seats. She did not seem very friendly, did not respond to my “hi” and had no apparent interest in engaging her new seat companion as she continued to look out the window away from me. There was little leg room in the front row, but at least there is a little ledge in front of us that provided enough space to put our feet up. I selected the fold-down end chair, leaving one seat available between me and the girl. My seat gave me a little more space with the aisle next to me so I could stretch my legs out straight, I noticed. Not bad at all, I thought.
We got settled, and the shuttle stopped at another hotel to pick up two more passengers which would fill the remaining seats, creating three rows of three and one passenger in the front seat next to Juan Jose. The available empty seats were between me the unfriendly girl and the pull down seat behind me in the second row. As the two new passengers approached the shuttle, I looked at these tall Swiss girls and knew neither of them would fit comfortably in the front seat between me and my unfriendly companion since there was virtually no leg room. I was committed to staying where I was, so I told Miro he should move up front next to me, the right thing to do to help out the joining passengers. He grunted for a minute, but moved forward which was a blessing, since we had no idea we were about to spend 30 hours in that van.
We left the muddy roads leading out of Montericco, driving very slowly. The unfriendly girl, now next to Miro, was Johanna, and her friend Jasmine was the girl in the front seat, both from Germany. I asked Johanna if she liked card tricks and she said yes, and Miro accessed his magician persona, successfully sharing trick after trick and Johanna almost cracked a smile. I went back to my reading taking advantage of the light and determined to finish the book I had begun the day before (book review coming soon, I promise). The shuttle was abuzz with a dull chorus of simultaneous conversations in multiple languages, German between Johanna and Jasmine, two girls behind me, Patrica and Maria, speaking in Swiss-German with much enthusiasm, the sound of mother and son from two rows behind us, Kai and Gail sounding like low whispers and giggles, and finally, the whines of an English speaking Canadian couple, unhappy about everything under the sun.
I put my book down and introduced myself to the the couple behind me, wondering what their story was. They are Rebecca and Paul, who have been traveling in Guatemala for ten days and have had nothing but ‘horrible experiences’ since their arrival. They happily shared their laundry list of complaints with me from their lost luggage to the bad food and dysentery, expensive lodgings, leaky roofs, bug bites and four days of bad weather in Montericco. They were also upset they had to extend their trip a couple of extra days due to the airport closures in Guatemala City as a result of Pacaya erupting on Thursday and shared how inconvenient that was for them. They had work, pets and careers they needed to get back to and wanted nothing more but to leave Guatemala forever and be home in Canada. I heard their story, understood their situation and offered nothing but compassion for their experience. I privately wondered if they understood the more they told their stories of all the bad things that happened to them and the more they focused on the negative aspects of their trip, they would experience more and more of the same? In the end, I opted not to share that thought with them, anticipating more stories that justified as a result, and did not want to experience that sort of downward spiral. Instead, I went back to my book.
We traveled for a good three hours, many of the single lane roads were heavy with traffic. We were getting pelted with heavy rain and the tires seems to glide as we made our way through the flooded stretches. The skies were gray and dark and the power of the sun’s rays were loosing strength against the rain clouds and earth’s rotation. I noticed my eyes straining trying to make out the words on the pages of my book and realized I was done reading, for the time being. The sound of the rain against the shuttle was louder than the and multi-language chatter and when there was none, I heard the sound of the uncomfortable silence. We passed through the city of Esquintla and took the turn off towards Antigua, a paved multi-level roundabout. We traveled for 20 kilometers, the grounds a little higher, and mountains surround our path. And they were getting muddier and muddier. Driving very slow, we approach a tree that had been shredded in the road. I assumed a tree had fallen onto the road and maybe a large truck drove over it, shredding it to pieces.
I was wrong.
A couple kilometers later, we came across many flashing lights, halted vehicles and men working in the rain. There were many other cars stopped, waiting to pass, as Juan Jose asked what had happened. Apparently a few kilometers up, the road was effected by a flash flood from the surrounding mountains and as it passed over the road, it took with it, several trees. The remnants of the shredded trees we saw were from that. Thankfully we were not in that road a couple of hours ago when that occurred.
Juan Jose told our group what had happened and said he was going to head back to Esquintla and take the other turn off towards Guatemala City instead.
The Canadians were ripe in their negativity and muttered phrases to each other like “of course this happening” and “it figures” and “just kill me now”. I turned around to them and jokingly said, “You guys cursed us!” And tried to laugh it off. This was one of those appropriate moments I could use the expression “if looks could kill, I’d be dead,” so you get my point about their reaction. Not a good move, Lainie.
About forty minutes later, the shuttle traveled down the highway in the direction of Guatemala City. This highway had three lanes and we were moving at a pretty good speed, for at least fifteen minutes. Then up ahead, we saw the tail lights of cars stopped head of us. This road must be a major trucking artery, since about half of the cars ended up being large trucks hauling containers. We stopped, turned the engine off and waited. Eventually more and more cars piled up behind us. Every twenty minutes or so, Juan Jose would have to turn on the engine and inch forward a few feet, which would get us all excited that were were finally moving. The hours went on in this exact manner and eventually we discovered there was no progress being made, the movement we were making was from the cars and trucks ahead of us, giving up waiting and driving over the grass median in retreat.
Juan Jose goes out to investigate the status. He returns to the shuttle and says he doesn’t think we’ll get through tonight, the roads may open tomorrow but doesn’t know. He says we have a couple of choices, and to let him know what we want to do. “We could stay here and wait it out or we could go back to Esquintla and find a place to stay for the night and try again in the morning.”
Frustrated sighs and a few choice words were heard throughout the shuttle, but no discussions actually broke out, people pretty much keeping to themselves. Juan Jose exited the shuttle again to see if there was any new news he could find out. It was still raining pretty hard and we had be stationary for the last two hours and everyone was getting pretty antsy from just sitting, waiting and not knowing. I asked if anyone had any connections or travel plans the next day. The Canadians said they had a flight to catch the next morning and HAD to get to Antigua tonight. They preferred to wait it out. OK, that’s something. I asked Juan Jose if there was someone he could call to check if the airport had actually re-opened yet. He did and it hadn’t.
Jasmine and Johanna spoke in German, which I didn’t understand. Then Jasmine said, said impatiently that the weather might be worse in the morning and that we should just wait. I asked her, what if the weather is better? I asked everyone to consider, if we go to Esquintla to sleep, and if the roads are as bad as they say, at least Juan Jose, our driver will have gotten some rest too, which makes our drive back safer. Just then, the motors all started and the headlights switched on as well. The cars were moving again. Juan Jose comes running back to the shuttle, as cars started to retreat forward. Several cars from behind us moved around us and in front of us. We were in the far left lane, next to the median for the last two hours, a simple fact that had assured we could turn around across the median if at any point, we decided to head back to Esquintla. Juan Jose got the shuttle started and in order to maneuver around and go forward he had to move the shuttle into the center lane. We inched forward a few feet and the cars stopped again, leaving us now, in the center lane, surrounded by 18 wheel trucks and other cars, all sitting and waiting. We had traveled a little bit, only now, we could not act on the option to head back to Esquintla. So there we stayed, a shuttle filled with of eleven people with varying degrees of frustration and negativity, trying to sleep together for the next few hours. Miro laid across my lap and I discovered I had the only seat in the entire bus that reclined back, so I did.
We all woke around the same time, around 6:30 am. I really had to pee and I knew, had the feeling all night that my period was coming. In fact, at 6:30 in the morning, I knew it would be there so I needed to get to a bathroom fast. One by one we piled out of the shuttle, the sun had already risen and it was sprinkling lightly. Juan Jose told us there was a gas station about 1 ½ km up the road and we should go there. Our group all walked separately, towards the same place. Miro and I choose to walk in the middle of the rows of cars and play a game. We would greet and smile to as many people as we could and say “Buenas dias”. There were virtually no other tourist shuttles on the one kilometer strip of cars, all local passenger cars carrying families, 18 wheel vehicles, and pick up trucks with workers all who became stuck on their way going somewhere. We all were in the same boat, and people were so friendly, and so responsive to Miro and my smiles it was contagious. We actually had a wonderful walk and felt great by the time we reached the gas station.
I was in luck, the gas station sold the products I needed, had a clean bathroom and even had an adjacent restaurant. I had a cappuccino and turkey sandwich and Miro had a thick piece of chocolate cake. I thought, why the hell not? Before we left, we ordered another sandwich for Juan Jose and headed back to the shuttle.
We stayed stationary for the next three hours and sometime just after noon, the roads started to open. The long line of motors starting, cars inching forward, some cars racing around the slow starting cars whizzing by. We approached the toll gates, where the gas station was located, and made our way past, cars passing for free. Everyone was grateful and spirits were up to finally be on our way. We traveled through the toll road for about forty five minutes along with a continuous line of cars and trucks. We were all excited thinking we’d be back in Antigua within an hour or two.. then, up ahead, another parking lot.
We found ourselves outside of a small village, where many of the residents came out to watch the cars unable to pass by, and have formed a giant parking lot instead. I was grateful the rain has stopped for a little bit and had the opportunity to stretch our legs, explore and in my case, try to walk off some of the cramps I was having. This was an interesting place to be, see villagers and locals alike on the street, chickens, farms in the distance. The road filled with cars had organized street vendors, presumable from the village selling fried plantain chips, nuts, agua pura, and all sorts of other things. Uniformed guards with guns patrolled the streets striking up conversations with the drivers and passengers alike, trucks filled with bananas and live chickens all stooped, waiting patiently. Passenger buses came, dropped off loads of locals to this spot, not able to go farther. There were smiles on everyone’s face and not even a hint of tension in the air. The mood here matched the rain, light and friendly and it almost felt like a street festival.
We were about a kilometer from the another point in the road where the river flood waters washed across the road and left behind debris of many large tree pieces. One of the fascinating things I’ve observed about the indigenous Mayan culture, is that the women do all of the labor. They can frequently be seen carrying heavy loads upon their heads and hauling timber on their backs. I was fortunate enough to have caught a few images of a couple of young girls hauling chunks of wood from the road, presumably headed back to their village.
We waited. Waited some more. After about another two and half hours waiting, we were given word, this road would not be opening tonight. I caught a glimpse of Rachael behind me, her face red with frustration, had tears streaming down her face before she tucked it tightly into Paul’s chest. This was getting to her. We decided to go back and try the first road, the smaller road directly back to Antigua. We travel back to Esquintla, about 25 kilometers, and then we drive another 25 kilometers to the point we reached the night before, when we could not pass.
It was raining hard, once again, and there was little visibility. We could, however, see the familiar line of a single row of cars stopped ahead of us. Again, Juan Jose got out and talked to the surrounding drivers and residents. We were told this road is indeed open, but it’s very steep and muddy and many cars were getting stuck. The long delays are due to cars attempting the single lane highway and becoming stuck in the mud and requiring the help of the tow truck, standing by. What other choice did we have?
The rain started heavily again, and we sit and wait. We moved about five feet every twenty minutes or so, a pattern we were to keep for the next two hours. We were on a two lane highway, with one lane going up the hill, the other lane going down. Every thirty minutes or so we’d see a group of about ten cars come from the other side, heading down the hill, presumably grateful to past the mess. About every thirty minutes, in between that, we’d see a police pickup truck zooming by the open lane with three or four heavy duty pickup trucks following it. Seemingly it was timed and controlled somewhere far out of sight where someone controlled the flow of traffic. That was reassuring at least. Every-time one of the police cars drove up the hill, the official heavy duty pick up trucks follow and I assumed they had the task of transporting debris away from the scene. However, as the patterns started to be predictable, opportunist drivers tired of waiting, jumped on the tail of the “official” caravan and made their way to the front of the line. We watch this happen over and over, as cars pop out of waiting in front of us to tail the caravan to move farther up the line. This really starts to piss off Jasmine in the front seat, to no ends. She is getting louder and louder calling the drivers names in both Spanish and German. Then at the height of her frenzy, she reaches across the steering wheel and starts to honk the shuttle horn. Juan Jose pulls her hand back and says firmly with a smile “tranquilo!”
After two hours, we have moved up to a bridge. The top of the hill is about 100 meters from there, and Jasmine and Johanna get out to walk in the rain and check out the scene and presumably take control. They come back to the shuttle maybe fifteen minutes later and tell the group in English that someone told them that shuttle will never make it up the muddy hill and for certain, the wheels will spin out and we’ll get stuck. Then it will take another two hours to get to Antigua after that and none of us wouldn’t be back until after midnight. Jasmine expressed that this clearly was unacceptable and believed she needed to take some action. More conversation in German persists as Jasmine is trying to convince the group that we should each grab our packs and walk in the rain through the mud to the other side. But more importantly, we needed to convince Juan Jose he needed to call his boss and insist another shuttle drives in from Antigua to the other side to meet us.
“Uh, yeah…” I ask, “why don’t we wait to see what happens, we don’t even know if the shuttle will get stuck.”
I say, Miro and I are not walking in the rain across the mud and I certainly wasn’t going to walk 25 kilometers to reach Antigua.
I also invited them to do just that if they wanted to. (I guess I wasn’t making any friends today. )
Jasmine’s request is translated to Juan Jose into Spanish and he replies “let’s wait and see what happens” in Spanish. We were very close at this point to the troublesome muddy uphill portion of the road and I was excited to see for myself.
About twenty minutes later found ourselves on the other side, past the mud, past the police cars, past the officer directing the flow of traffic, past the waiting tow trucks.
We were finally past the obstacles that kept us all together for the last thirty hours and now we were on the road to Antigua.
Fifteen kilometers farther and about thirty minutes later, Miro and I were at our house in Antigua. I put the key in the door, opened it, and entered to the warm welcoming faces of Roxanne and Stijn, both our friends and roommates for this part of the “now” that we call our journey. They were happy to see us and we were happy to see them. It was good to be home and what makes this such a great moment in time is that we have returned to people we like as people we equally like.
I think of our journey, I think of the gift in all of this. We are travelers, we are traveling, and the journey is what makes it so rich. If we forget to enjoy the path along the way, there is no point. If we can’t enjoy both the ups and downs of all of it, there is no point.
We are sometimes stuck and that’s OK. We are sometimes in the position that things don’t go as planned, and that’s OK too.
This was a unique gift allowing us to look at how we live in the “now”, what’s important and how easy it is to choose how we want to experience whatever obstacles fall in our path.