I walk into the garden and see a hammock smiling at me between two trees. Come on over, sit down, put your feet up, relax… Ah! This is the life, swinging gently in the breeze in the shade of exotic fruit trees, surrounded by flowers everywhere, their sweet scent tingling the nostrils and teasing my eyes closed. Ludicrously bright butterflies flit to and fro as they dally around the flowers doing their thing. I hear the soft whirr of a hummingbird and watch idly as she hovers around a trumpet flower, performing her delicate docking manoeuvres to dip her beak in and taste the honey… Ten minutes later I’m up on a balcony overlooking the garden. Another little hummingbird hovers, buzzing in my ear this time probing my brain looking for Spanish. Class has started and the ‘hummingbird’ is the lovely 20-year-old Victoria, ‘mi profesora’, with a beaming smile on her face as another interrogation session starts! We are in Panajachel signed up for 2 weeks intensive Spanish Lessons in the ‘Jardin De America’ Spanish Language School. Prior to the trip, we spoke no Spanish at all. Back home, we bought a ‘Learn Spanish in 6 Weeks’ book & CD and promised ourselves to studiously follow its regime prior to leaving the UK. It never happened. 6 weeks prior to departure and we had both read the first page – well maybe we could cram it into the 3 or 4 weeks before we go, do a little extra each day? 2 weeks before the trip we were no further on with the book sat on our bedside table, a guilty reminder each night of our neglect. The truth was we simply ran out of time as D-Day approached, packing for the trip, saying our farewells, spending Xmas with the family etc, etc. On arrival in Chile we had a crash course in our hotel room, learning the vital phrases we would need to order beer and get the bikes out of customs. This was extended by more self-taught emergency lessons in Argentina so we could order more beer and other lesser essentials such as food, shelter and medical help. So over the past 7 months on the road, through various encounters, crises and emergencies we have built up an extensive vocabulary but with very poor grammar & structure. Add to this the ability of us folk from Northern Ireland (or as we say ‘Norn Iron’) to flatten the bejasus out of any vowel combination known to man and you get some fairly horrible pronunciations thrown in as well. To be honest the most important thing is to communicate and we have got along fairly well with our pidgin Spanish. Still, we both feel really sorry for some of the locals we have inflicted this on and their kind and sympathetic responses have added to the growing admiration we have developed for the Latin American people in general.
The Jardin de America school has been running for around 9 years and we were impressed first of all by the school’s location, set in a lovely secluded garden full of flowers and fruit trees. Then we met Nicolas the owner who explained the ropes to us. For $135 each we would have 7 nights accommodation with a local family in Panajachel, 3 meals a day for 6 of the days and 5 days with 4 hours of Spanish lessons every morning each with a personal teacher – no struggling in a classroom full of students here. Afternoons consist of extra-curricular activities such as trips to nearby villages, visits to Mayan caves up above the lake and cookery classes, where we learned to make tortillas, salsas, guacamole etc. All the time we were accompanied by our teachers, on hand to explain the various things we saw and did thereby extending our vocabulary and mastery of the language. The whole enterprise is run very professionally with the emphasis on your personal needs, whether as a complete beginner or an experienced linguist just wanting to chat and brush up with a native speaker. The fact that 2 of the 3 other students studying at the same time as us were repeat-attendees verified our choice of school. For more info check out the web site at www.jardindeamerica.com.
For both of us our Spanish tuition at Panajachel has been an immensely enjoyable experience and another highlight of our whole Pan-American trip. We can’t recommend it highly enough! On it’s own, 2 or 3 weeks at the school would make an excellent vacation. Our teachers, Victoria for me and the lovely smiley Loida for Maggie, are excellent. Basically I would describe my brain as a big untidy cupboard, full of words and phrases that needed a good sort out and put back into a proper place. Victoria was just the girl for the job! On day 1 we underwent a couple of hours of grilling in Spanish to determine how much we knew and could understand. From there an intensive programme was launched to work on our weak areas. Both Victoria and Loida would not speak any English, but have aided and guided us as we struggled to communicate. Gradually the mess of Spanish in our heads has been ordered and within a day or two we were both making fast progress, responding well to the one-on-one tuition with grammar comprehension and vocabulary simply growing every day. In the past I have studied French at school (which I hated at the time) & German at evening classes, but this method of 1 to 1 teaching is far and away the best and most enjoyable language schooling I have ever had. Home life is a comfortable if basic little room with a local family, in our case with the friendly Doña Angelica. At 7am, Desayuno or breakfast consists of chopped fresh fruit and pancakes followed at 12:30 by Almuerza – lunch, the main meal of the day – some meat, salad and local vegetables with tortillas. Cena – supper is served at 7pm and is usually a lighter dish – omelette, soup etc. With a 10-minute walk each way to school we have comfortable, quiet lodgings with a healthy diet and a little exercise every day thrown in!
Activities are mostly over by 4pm, when it’s time for coffee. Head up to prop up the bar at the ‘Crossroads Café’ run by Mike Roberts & his lovely wife Adele. The Crossroads Café is a great place to hang out and meet other travellers, sharing tales from the road behind and learning what’s up ahead. Mike is a mine of local information and he has that New York machine-gun wit that would lend itself well to stand-up comedy. A fellow motorcyclist, he rode a 650 Suzuki from the States down to Peru but he has now settled with Adele and their 2 charming kids in Panajachel where he has hung up his helmet & gloves to serve what can only be described as the best coffee in the world! The coffee is made using organically produced local beans, roasted and ground in the shop and as if the aromas and smells from this weren’t enough, throw in the whiff of fresh baked cakes, pies and pastries made upstairs by Adele and it’s simply an olfactory heaven! Two young backpackers came in the other day for some chocolate cream cheesecake and they were almost crying when they were told the last piece had just been sold.
As we have travelled up from South America and through Central America, we have met increasing numbers of refugees fleeing from Bush’s America. We must have met hundreds of Americans now and every time it is the same. After introductions have passed, they all feel it is necessary to apologise for their president and his policies, especially overseas. I am not only talking about young backpackers or hippies. We have spoken to mature businessmen, retired doctors, ex-military personnel and they all say the same. It is embarrassing – US citizens overseas are now behaving like Germans did after WW2, with a horrific guilt complex over the actions of their government, feeling it necessary to disassociate themselves and to clarify that they personally in no way endorse its policies. One guy, a retiree we spoke to, was actually considering renouncing his US Citizenship so ashamed was he of the Bush administration and what it has done to the American people. I guess the really scary thing is that the people we have met are educated exceptional people, who have had the imagination to leave home and go see the world. For every one of these folk there must be a hundred others at home who think Bush is a decent guy and they may re-elect him in the elections this coming November. Lead on Michael Moore!
Back in Panajachel – wow this is a dangerous place for travellers! Putting it simply, it is a place to derail the best-laid travel plans and entice you to remain forever. Why go further on down the road when you can stay here in this paradise? This place has such a powerful allure! Admittedly it is something of a tourist town, but the sunny setting on beautiful Lake Atitlan, cool evening air, waking up to that startling sight of the 3 huge volcanoes towering across the crystal clear water every day is just so enticing. The local people too, mainly direct descendants of the Mayans, are very friendly and very colourful in their local dress or ‘traje’, which is unique in each village around the lake. It is very much a place we would like to come back to one day…
Sadly, all good things must come to an end and a re-examination of my rear tyre made us abort our next plans to ride up to the Mayan runs at Tikal and instead head to Guatemala City, the nearest place where we could buy replacements. The city has a bad reputation or being dirty and full of crime so we determined to stay there for as short a time as possible. Fortunately we had excellent service from BMW and made great friends with Jose Del Buso, the BMW Motorcycle Divisional Manager in Guatemala and Armin Kraemer, a BMW customer support engineer out for a few weeks from HQ in Munich. I only needed to replace the rear tyre but as I couldn’t get a Bridgestone, I had to replace both with a set of Metzeler ‘Tourance’ tyres at the shockingly low price of $100 for the pair! The show was back on the road and next day Jose led us safely out of the city as we set off on the ride north to Tikal. The road was fairly clogged with heavy traffic for the first 100km making for a tedious ride but after this it thinned out and the last section was another twisty delight. We rode on through Rio Dulce and put in for the night at Finca Ixobel.
Finca Ixobel (‘Finca’ is Spanish for farm) is set in a sweet scented pine forest in the Maya Mountains and is run by an American lady, Carole Devine, who has lived here for the past 32 years. They offer a range of accommodations from simple camping through small basic cabins up to luxury bungalows all set in neat parkland sculpted out of the surrounding jungle. There is a lake where you can swim, numerous jungle trail walks and horses for rent. It’s also possible to set off on 3 and 4-day jungle adventures – but for us maybe some other time? When we left Panajachel we both wondered inwardly when would we next find such a paradise and now only 2 days later here we are! Andrea, a young Swiss lass, showed us to our room – a beautifully crafted wooden tree house, complete with private bathroom, with pine trees out front and the jungle right outside our back door. The farm organically produces most of its own food and has it’s own bakery so its fresh baked bread, cakes and pastries every day. Dinner consists of an all-you-can-eat buffet, served in candlelit dining areas in the main building and is a good opportunity to mingle with the other guests. Buffets can be dodgy at the best of times but the food here is simply excellent with all tastes catered for. Wine & beer are also available and there is a small bar down by the pool for late night moonlit parties.
So ends August in Guatemala, to date our favourite country in all of Central America. September will see us in Tikal and then on to Belize, last stop in Central America before Mexico. We will then spend the rest of September, October and part of November there (Mexico is a big country – the rest of Central America is only ¼ the size of Mexico), finishing for this year in the southern US where we will leave the bikes to return home for Christmas in Belfast. We haven’t given up on reaching Canada and Alaska – it will just happen next year!
In Panajachel, we met a lovely American lady called Mally, a fellow student at the Jardin de America school. She gave us a very precious present before leaving – a poem penned by Walt Whitman in 1856. This is from The Song of the Open Road and maybe it explains a little of what this travel lark is all about…
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held such goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same for you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself amongst men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.