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Bienvenidos a Central America

 Utopia Hostel in Semuc, Champey.
Utopia Hostel in Semuc, Champey.

I’m sitting at a long, raw edge wood table. One designed for communal meals. Running along it’s center is a living garden. Plants grow out of it where centerpieces would be. Across the table, I can see Utopia Hostel’s bar. Wooden swings support coffee-drinkers and afternoon readers. Signs for yoga and chocolate tours adorn the walls. Looking up, I can see the balcony above that hosts an open air dormitory, and somewhere up there, is our bedroom nook. Behind me, and all around the open common area under Utopia’s roof, are mountains. Lush, green, tropical jungle. Oh, and Josh is here too. Quietly reading and soaking up the meditative and calming music that plays overhead. This is Guatemala.

The quiet here did not come without a price. The road from Raxuha to Semuc Champey (our current riverside destination) was only 83km, but the ride took us 4 hours. We were spoiled with asphalt for the first 45 minutes of our ride before the universe shook her fist. “Not so fast, Havekosts. Let’s see how badly you want to make it to Semuc.” The road quickly turned into a one-lane, gravel, boulder-and-rock-infested road, with nothing but dust and jungle for 60km.

These are the roads Josh often dreamed about before we left. They are the roads I couldn’t have imagined, and the roads I now dread. Since leaving the United States, we have been fortunate to have beautifully paved roads, few construction issues, and hardly any obstruction. This morning alone, we encountered relentless twists and turns, loose rocks so large we were forced to move at snail’s pace, and hills so steep I feared I’d tumble over Josh in front of me. With every turn of our wheels, we bounced and shook on the bike. Our heads rattled inside our helmets, and our heels pressed firmly against our foot pedals to stop us from tumbling forward. In the next instant, we’d be heading uphill, craning our torsos forward. As the sun crept higher, so did the temperature. At such a slow pace, we had no wind to relieve us from the heat, and our limbs quickly became sticky surfaces for our gear to suck on. 

Twice, we were stopped by men holding ropes across the road. They asked us for a fee to let the rope down, informing us they were paving the road. When Josh expressed concern that they were taking all our cash, and that we may encounter more “tolls” ahead, they promised us there were no more besides them for the next 60km. Spoiler alert, they lied.

 This is a picture of one of the BETTER rocky roads. I was too terrified to pull my phone out and take a picture of the really scary ones.
This is a picture of one of the BETTER rocky roads. I was too terrified to pull my phone out and take a picture of the really scary ones.

The final stretch to get to our hostel was brutal. We dug our wheels into the road and our heels into our foot pedals, doing everything in our power to slow the inevitable steep decline into the Semuc Champey valley. When the road ended and we had arrived, I felt my knees begging me to quit. My neck and head demanded time away from my helmet. My heart felt heavy, and I held back tears. I don’t know why, but I wanted to cry when I dismounted the bike. I felt defeated by the road. As if my body had taken a beating. I just need a shower and some food. That’s all. I’ll be okay.

Our room wasn’t ready, and there was no WiFi in the common area. It bothered me how helpless I felt without the internet. How reliant I was on instantly being able to check in with the world. How in moments when I feel physically and mentally worn down, all I want to do is reach for my phone and browse the worldwide web. I tried not to think too much about it. I tried not to think at all. I just wanted to shower and lay down without a complaint, without showing Josh how difficult the road had been for me, without showing defeat. 

Once our room was ready, I planned to do a quick workout on the yoga deck. A little movement will help. I’ll stretch my hips and strengthen my muscles to protect my knees. This will be good. This will turn my day around! I felt bloated and dehydrated, but I did the workout. My toe, which has slowly turned into a severely concerning bunion over the last few years, was killing me. Nonetheless, I did my stretching. Nothing would prevent me from turning irritation and angst into good vibes only, bro!

When I was finished I went to find Josh, who was up in the only part of the property where the WiFi works. Signs are plastered around the single bench and foot stool: “Zombies Ahead,” and “Get off Facebook, go play!” He was downloading a movie for us to watch tonight when all the rest of Utopia went to sleep. He asked me how I was doing, and all I could say was, “I think I’m going to cry.” He sat down next to me and put his arm around my shoulders. “That’s ok buddy, it’s ok to cry.” For a few moments, I just cried. I didn’t know why. But somehow, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to know why. I didn’t need to unpack it, and Josh didn’t try to fix it. We just sat there quietly while I cried. 

 Zombie Zone
Zombie Zone

Then, with an ease I don’t normally feel when I’m upset, I started to talk. I told him I felt beat up and exhausted. That my body can’t take multiple ride days in a row. That the scarcity I feel when I ‘m not sure we’ll have food to eat or a place to sleep reeks havoc on my mental state. That my toe was pissing me off and though I hated admitting it, I wished we had WiFi. That not being able to check my e-mail or look at Instagram made me feel disconnected from the world. As if something important would happen and I would miss it. That I was afraid of letting him ride alone when I go to New York for a few days in March. I said I needed to slow down. That the pressure of needing to get to Guatemala City, where my flight to NYC is booked from, is making us ride faster and more often than I can handle. So freely these words came out. And so did the tears. And I felt no shame or embarrassment for being upset. For the trivially minimal concerns or the really big and important ones.

Josh validated everything. He told me that my feelings were a sign. It was good to say them out loud. That maybe the universe was trying to tell me something; that we were moving too fast and my emotions were the signal to slow down. That maybe we should, and could, revisit our plans down the literal and figurative road. I was comforted by this, and realized he was right. The physical angst I feel at times, the need to turn my day around or change my feelings, these are cues from something in me that is trying to communicate something. It’s my gut, begging to be heard. It’s my intuition, whispering to listen up and pay attention, because something isn’t right. 

 Playing  The Gift of Enlightenment  at Utopia Eco Hotel.
Playing The Gift of Enlightenment at Utopia Eco Hotel.

The rest of the day we relaxed. Josh took the restorative yoga and meditation class on the yoga deck, and I wrote. We met a couple from Belgium and ate family dinner with them. The man told us he had bicycled in 23 countries, and wanted to pick our brains as he planned to ride from Alaska to South America in May. Josh offered his parents’ place as a resting spot along the way, and he happily took down Ken’s information. We split a special brownie and played a board game called The Gift of Enlightenment by candlelight, and laughed painfully over the “craftsmanship” of a Quaker Oats packaged cookie. We fell asleep with the rest of Utopia around 10:00pm, bellies full from our meal and sore from our laughter. 

 At the yellow bridge where we met our guides for the river float home from Semuc Champey.
At the yellow bridge where we met our guides for the river float home from Semuc Champey.

The next day we hiked 45 minutes to Semuc Champey National park and swam in the natural pools. We tubed an hour and a half back down the river—sometimes a gentle ride and others rapid enough that our guides shouted “butts up!” so we wouldn’t graze our behinds on the rocks below.

I am proud of how much both Josh and I have grown in the last few months. How we have strengthened our partnership and broadened our perspective on life. How we have learned to become more flexible and adaptable while still setting boundaries and getting our needs met. I feel like I am coming into myself. I feel like an adult. An adult, but one who remembers to play and have fun. One who believes that being an adult is not about being serious, but about taking life by the horns and directing it with intention, gratitude, and ease. 

I suppose I could have used this blog post to update you on where we’ve been since Bacalar. How we crossed into Belize and had to pay once again for the tourist cards we flew all the way to Tijuana to get stamped. How we were perplexed by Belize’s heterogeneous population and unclear about the culture. How we rode to the Guatemalan border in only a week and were met by the friendliest faces and gleeful smiles. That we magically were able to meet up with friends from home, because the timing of our trips happened to line up just so. That we spent a day in the largest park of Mayan pyramids we’ve ever witnessed, just an hour from the small island town of Flores in northern Guatemala. 

But for me, memories don’t work that way. They somehow fail to fall into a chronological timeline of events, recalling themselves one by one for me to remember them by. My memories are like vivid dreams. I remember the feelings. The heat or cold and the way my body felt. The sound of someone’s voice, or the color of the grass. Ask any of my friends: I am terrible at remembering the details or history of events. But a day that holds a story? That I remember. Today was one of those memories. I didn’t think today would be a day to remember, but most of these dreamlike memories aren’t. They’re days I never planned to keep track of, and then something happens, and suddenly, it’s a day I will never forget.   

6 thoughts on “Bienvenidos a Central America

  1. This is a stunningly insightful post Rachel. Your courage and openness and the growth you and Josh are sharing has been inspiring. Pretty darn entertaining as well.Robert.


  2. You’re writing is so beautiful Rachel… so honest. I feel like I was on that dirt road with you. Sending you endless hugs and love. I’m so proud of you


  3. Rach and Josh, you write beautifully and your comment about perceiving your experience as stories evoked for me. I am working on a piece right now on Author Brian Doyle’s work whose theme is story story story story. I thought you might like this piece.
    Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil point. A hummingbird’s heart is most of the hummingbird. Joyas volardores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, only here, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear were our elephantine ears pressed to their infinitesimal chests.
    Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rates slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment these hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmetcrests and booted racket-tails, violet- tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of the tiniest pebble, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.
    Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles. Anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; They suffer heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures more than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.
    The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around in it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long, when this creature is born, it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is way bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day and when it is seven or eight years old, it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs, and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.
    So much held in a heart in a life. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end––not mother and father, not wife and husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but welive alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.


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