Copan Ruinas, Honduras * November 12
I lingered for a long week in Antigua. Despite its colonial charms, the city began to chafe on me, as irritating as George Bush’s voice. It had too many tourists. It had too few trees. That was it! It took me a day or two to recognize the absence of trees on the street, but once I did, it became conspicuous and somehow unsettling.
The city began to feel naked and hard and … boring. I turned restless. My hand itched for the throttle.
I lingered, though, for a reason. Other riders from Horizons Unlimited were en route to the city. We were in touch via email. We would ride out together. My difficulties at the border – and Jon had had a similar experience – made it advisable to pass as a group.
Too, each of us wanted to pass thru Colombia. Of course, we didn’t want to be kidnapped by guerillas and be made famous on the side of a milk carton, either. At any given time, the FARC and ELN rebel groups in Colombia hold 3000 hostages, or so I’ve read. Riding as four would enhance our chances of a safe passage.
Bill Shockley pulled into town on his 1983 BMW R80 ST. Bill is a quirky 58-year-old from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, with an inimitable sense of humor and silver glasses and salt and pepper hair and a dilettante’s knowledge of everything from Mao to Jung, from tuberculosis to transmissions. His smirk was always just short of a boil. He would prove to be a fine addition to the group.
Dan Pettersson pulled in, too, on his 750 Africa Twin, after several days of chasing chicas in Guadalajara, Mexico, and riding solo thru Mexico, up to the great Mayan ruins at Palenque on the Yucatan Peninsula. I was reading in bed in late afternoon when I heard the welcome purr of his motorbike in the courytyard of my hostel, Posada Ruiz 2.
Amigo! We shook hands like old friends. I’d last seen the 27-year-old Swede in Durango, Mexico, when he and others opted for coastal Mazatlan and I turned inland to Zacatecas. Small, spartan rooms at Posada Ruiz 2 – a bed and a table and a low wattage fluorescent lite -- were less than $5 a nite.
I advised Dan that of the two shared showers, only one had hot water. He hadn’t showered in days, he told me with a certain pride. That’s the adventure motorcycling spirit.
Over several nites, ground zero was a restaurant called Monoloco, meaning Crazy Monkey. It was peopled almost entirely with tourists, from the U.S. and Europe. The food was good and generously portioned, the beer cheep and cold, and a seat at the ergonomically and aesthetically agreeable bar guaranteed an interesting conversation in English with another adventuresome soul, or a broadcast of American football or basketball on large-screen TVs. An oasis it was.
On the street a day earlier, I’d spotted a BMW 650 GS loaded with touring gear. Its plates were from Chile. I admired the bike, and the rider approached. His name was Sebastian, age 32. Several days’ growth of stubble was on his face. He’d ridden here from Santiago, his country’s capital, and was heading north, to San Francisco. I invited him to meet me and my rider friends at Monoloco that evening.
Over dinner and beers, we four riders – Dan, Bill, Jon, and myself – settled down to getting to know each other. The dynamic was good. I liked the energy of this bunch, and the fact that our conversations were lubricated with laughter and one-liners.
Sebastian, on his first motorcycle ride of any distance, was immensely helpful in recommending routes through Costa Rica and Peru and Chile. I tried to do the same for destinations in Mexico and the U.S. I gave him the email of a rider friend of mine in San Francisco, Anne Girardin, who could help him once he arrived. I spoke enough Spanish, and he enough English, for passable communication.
Sebastian loved hanging out with us. It was gratifying to see. If we made it to Santiago, please, he said … look me up. I added Sebastian’s email address to my growing collection.
On Friday, November 12, we four packed our gear and tightened our bungees and lubed our chains and fueled up with coffee and huevos rancheros and bore out of Antigua for Copan Ruinas, a small town of 6000 over the Honduran border and nudged up less than a mile from Copan, one of the most impressive of the ancient Mayan ruins scattered among Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
* * *
The Mayan are a fascinating people, and so are the lands that they occupy. They are insular and wary, having suffered a history of oppression and slaughter at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores, and believe that being photographed will steal their soul. If that’s the case, I’ve got a few Mayan spirits on my 512 MB SanDisk memory card.
On Sunday, November 7, Jon Huber and I rode the 70 scenic and sweeping miles from Antigua to a small town called Panajachel, situated on the shores of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands. Prehistoric panoramas, accented by the handful of volcanic peaks in the region and the finest scenery one will find in Guatemala, were breathtaking. So was the colorful Mayan culture that we encountered.
Lake Atitlan itself is a caldera, or the collapsed cone of a volcano. Like Crater Lake in Oregon, it has over time filed with rainwater. Panajechel, pop. 5000, and other small communities – Santa Catarina, Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro la Laguna – line its shores. Many are accessible only by boat.
En route to Lake Atitlan, Jon had spotted a gathering of several dozen motorcycles outside what passes for a Guatemalan highlands shopping plaza – a large restaurant, and sampling of craft shops and tiendas. He pulled in. We were welcomed instantly by the Moto Candejos – Motorcycle Night Dogs – a motorcycle club from Guatemala City.
These several dozen riders surrounded us immediately, greeting us with effusive grins and vigorous handshakes and slaps on the back. They checked out our license plates – Estados Unidos?! -- and my GPS unit and panniers and the growing collection of stickers from the places I had visited.
One leather-clad, bearded man deliberately took out his wallet … and, from it, a red, iron cross sticker made specially for the Moto Candejos. A gift for you, American rider. Here. Take it. I affixed it to my right pannier with appropriate ceremony.
We were greeted by virtually ever member in the group. We explained our ride, from the U.S. to the tip of South America, and, at least for me, back to San Francisco. Woooooooow! They nodded approvingly, and jealously.
It’s moments like that – or even more prosaic occasions, such as fueling up or asking directions, when a man expresses admiration for our adventure and the wish that he could do the same – that I remember just how fortunate I am to be on the road ... riding south.
After nearly an hour, we parted company with the Moto Candejos and proceeded to Lake Atitlan. The road was smooth and sinuous, and the few clouds in the sky did nothing to diminish our high spirits. We reached elevations of greater than 6800 feet, and though I had bundled up in double long johns, jeans, and riding pants after having heard that the highlands could be wickedly cold, the day was perfectly temperate.
Around Lake Atitlan tower three companion volcanoes. Now, in mid-November, towards the end of the rainy season, their slopes are as green as the Jolly Green Giant. Riding and later wandering about Panajachel, I was struck time and again by the great vistas. This place just didn’t quit! Jon called it the scenic highlight of his ride … at least so far.
At Panajachel, we settled in at an open-air patio restaurant for lunch. Mayan women and small girls – plus a few boys, but no men -- spotted us immediately as tourists. They approached us to shamelessly push their wares – colorful shirts and necklaces and bracelets and fabrics that would be a perfect size for a motorcycle rag, though of course one could not in good conscience soil such a fine piece of handiwork.
These peripatetic peddlers prowled the streets in search of tourists. Tourists were not difficult to spot – given its picturesque setting, the abundance of Mayan culture and fine wares, and its reputation as a backpacker oasis, Panajachel was overrun by visitors.
At first, you think, how cute! Look at the cute little Mayan girl with the stack of colorful fabrics perched so elegantly atop her little head! That lasts about a half-hour. These native Mayans are fierce businesspeople. Their demure demeanor belies a dogged determination to sell, sell, sell. They rival in cleverness and insistence the best of Istanbul’s carpet salesmen, with whom last summer I had gained more than enough experience.
The wiles of these young ladies proved too difficult to overcome. I would leave Panajachel with two shirts, two fabrics, and a leather bracelet that fit along perfectly with two others I wear, from a Cherokee girl in Colorado and a vendor in Varna, Bulgaria. Jon similarly splurged. It was against our better judgment, sort of, but also inexpensive and entertaining. A fine, hand-sewn shirt set me back a little more than $5 US; the bracelet, less than $2.
At our hotel, a place called Hotel Monte Rosa on a side street, I relaxed, shirtless in the sun on a chair in the open courtyard. I read my Lost Discoveries book and Lonely Planet guide to Central America and pored over my maps. Jon worked on his bike.
It was quiet – sublimely so. That’s what I’d been missing. Antigua was noisy. The silence was deeply soothing.
In response to my inquiries, the pleasant proprietor, himself a Mayan, informed me that, indeed, reports of robbery and crime in the Guatemalan highlands were not exaggerated. We will ride in a group, I told him in Spanish.
Bueno, he said. Cuidado. Be careful.
* * *
I stood on the impeccably groomed lawns of the great Mayan ruins of Copan, in Honduras, about 10 miles from the Guatemalan border. We four riders had made our way here, to wander and wonder amid this antediluvian concentration of massive pyramids and stone carvings and elaborate temples and colossal amphitheatres of a once-prosperous pagan culture.
Our guide was named Saul. He was 48 years old with slight build and slumping shoulders and spoke good English. A former music teacher and lifelong Beatles fan, Saul proved to be entertainingly well informed on many topics. We had agreed to pay him $20 US for a tour of one of the premier archeological sites of the ancient Mayan civilization, dating to 2000 B.C. and earlier. It was a worthwhile investment.
We were told of kings and queens and power struggles and gods of fire and wind and water and sun. I studied closely the many theriomorphic sculptings of gods as lizards and tortoises and jaguars and serpents and monkeys and others of the animal kingdom, and listened intently as Saul explained how the Mayan had precisely aligned certain structures with the rising and setting sun.
To me, it was fascinating. I’d made an avocation of studying Carl G. Jung and Joseph Campbell and understood, at least in a rudimentary sense, the common threads of mythology and archetypes that Jung and Campbell and others have documented across cultures, geographies, and centuries.
The Mayan, Saul told us, excelled at mathematics and science, particularly astronomy. Indeed, I’d read in my book Lost Discoveries how the Mayan, as well as other ancient civilizations, had conceptualized zero – a deceptively difficult idea, supposedly, but then again I’m an English major -- millennia before the Greeks and 15th century European mathematicians.
Raw intuition and instinct – that’s what fascinates me the most. The Mayans and other ancients – the Sumerians and Babylonians and Egyptians and North American Indians and Greeks and tribes scattered among the islands of the South Pacific and throughout Africa – had devised theological systems and theories of the natural world based strictly on intuition and instinct.
For instance, the atomists of ancient Greece had correctly intuited that matter is comprised of infinitesimally small particles, the atom and its constituents. To me, that’s pretty damn amazing. Of course, they had incorrectly intuited many other things, as well; to read the pre-B.C. text called “On the Nature of the Universe,” by a Roman Epicurean philosopher named Lucretius, is fabulous entertainment.
The ancients lived close to the earth. At nite, they sat beneath the stars and riddled over the moon. They relied on rivers for water and fish; on woods for timber and game; on the land for crops and shelter. The purity of it intrigues me.
Distance motorcycling is, in a sense, an avenue to instinct. I am challenged to live close to the earth, to exploit my surroundings, and to make decisions based on gut feel and dead reckoning. The stakes are amped. I feel nowhere and no time closer to the heart of things than I do while motorcycling.
The piece of paper is torn and tattered and stained. It has accompanied me for more than 75,000 miles of motorcycling. I keep it in my tankbag: “Four Elements Medicine Wheel Prayer,” a poem by a psychedelic ‘60s figure named Ralph Metzner. It begins:
Great Spirit of the North
Invisible Spirit of the Air
And of the fresh, cool winds
Vast and boundless Grandfather Sky
Your living breath animates all life
Yours is the power of clarity and strength
Power to hear the inner sounds
To sweep out the old patterns
And to bring change and challenge
Amid the silent grandeur of Copan, I felt just a bit closer to something timeless and true.
* * *
The pterodactyls and the Neanderthals, the mastodon and the sabre-toothed tiger, the Babylonians and the Thessalonians, the Washington Senators and Montgomery Ward, the pet rock and the E-Z Bake Oven: All gone, except for what relics might be found on eBay. The Mayan civilization at Copan, too, declined and fell. Is it a natural cycle, a bell curve, the caprice of chaos theory?
As Saul described Copan’s demise, from a peak of an estimated 20,000 people, Bill Shockley articulated the parallel that was obvious to everyone. “Sounds like the United States,” he said.
According to Saul, population growth and a drought and crop shortage and vanishing fauna set the wheels in motion sometime after 750 A.D. Political power struggles and revolt by the lower echelons of society followed.
In tandem came dissolution and decay and intoxication. Some plant-picker discovered a hallucinogen, and pretty soon everyone was stoned. There in the Copan amphitheatre, it was easy to imagine bacchanal festivities consuming this culture, much in the way that they did Rome.
I pictured sensual nocturnal excess, with blazing torches and outrageous garb and a pounding, primitive, tribal music and brown-skinned, bare-breasted Mayan girls prancing about like sprites. (It was a tantalizing thought. For the first time, I sort of missed San Francisco).
In time, the jungle reclaimed Copan, and buried for centuries what man had made.