As I brew the coffee and stir the oats, my head is filled with the rich spicy scents of pine and cedar. The air is cool and heavy. The mist coats the coniferous forest and tall grasses and darkens the fly of our tent.
Where are we? Northern British Columbia? There’s something oddly comforting and familiar about this place.
We pack up and roll our loaded bikes down the hill from our secluded wooded campsite to the road. We start pedaling on our second day of pure climbing, crawling at 4 km/h up a brutal 20% grade that simply never ends. We’ve gone from sea level to over 4000 metres (15 000 feet) in less than three days.
The wall ahead of us represents the bare limit of our physical and mental abilities. With 100-pound bikes and a final destination over 10 000 km away, this is the kind of day that for some ends at the nearest bus station.
And that’s exactly where we’d be if we were still riding in the furnace-like tropical heat that only recently described our days. There would be no shame in it – to carry on in those conditions would be dangerous and stupid.
The cold wind is refreshing, invigorating, and necessary for the task at hand.
We come out above the cloud-line and see forested peaks in all directions. The mountains’ lower slopes disappear under a thick, rolling whiteness, and we continue on in the early sunlight. An elderly indigenous woman in traditional dress consisting of a colourful long skirt and an embroidered blouse of heavy fabric walks toward us along the deserted road with a bundle of firewood on her head. She smiles and says “Buenas dias” with a thick accent that is probably Mam, which would be her first language.
Okay. Not so familiar.
Still, there is something warm and genuine in the demeanors of those we meet along the road. As we ride through the quiet morning, each person we meet smiles openly, raises a hand, gives some words of greeting, of encouragement, of welcome. We feel welcome.
In Guatemala we’ve met with relentless generosity, both from locals and people from back home who have set up camp in this country. A roof, a hot meal and good conversation with new friends are things we’ve come to appreciate after living in our tent for half a year. In Mexico´s vast expanses, we were lucky to have breaks of hospitality during what sometimes seemed a long and lonely trek. At every turn so far in Guatemala, people have opened their doors to us, shared their meals with us and talked with us into the night, expecting absolutely nothing in return.
Though we’ll soon be crossing the border into El Salvador, we will definitely return one day. If the stories are to be believed, the danger of being attacked and robbed is more real here than it’s been since the start of our journey. Today a police officer warned us to pull of the road early and find a safe place to spend the night. A city bus had been held up by gunmen only hours earlier on that particular stretch of highway. He shook our hands and wished us luck. As we were looking for a suitable spot, a guy in a pickup truck asked us if we needed any help. Moments later, he was unlocking the door for us to his nearby office (with kitchenette and shower). He shook our hands and sped off to Guatemala City for the night, leaving us alone.
There may be bad elements here, which should come as a surprise to no one. This country’s past includes a brutal civil war that ended in a relatively recent cease-fire. We’ve learned that we’re in far greater danger of being invited for supper, however, than of meeting any banditos, and this makes all the difference to how we feel about this place.
Many have stayed away and will continue to stay away because of the stories, which in my opinion is a mistake. The beauty we´ve found in the Guatemalan highlands has humbled us, and our encounters with its people have, to some degree, changed the way we see the world and those with whom we share it.