05 September, 2010

The Long, Long, Long Way Home

Location: Hotel Catamaran Marina, Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Position: N 15 40.366 W 088 59.538

Bee bee beep! Bee bee beep!”

Dang. It's the alarm. It's 4 am and time to get up.

We've had a lovely 6 week visit with family and friends and spent some quality time hugging and playing with the grand kids. We have a big day today. Have to drive with Mark's mom from West Hartford to New Haven and catch the 6 am commuter train to Grand Central Station in NYC. We're heading back to Guatemala. With three 50 pound bags, a long tube, a collapsible hand truck, and two backpacks. Yawn. Stretch. Well, let's get crackin'!

We arrive at the station, unload Mom's car, and send her off following another car that's headed back to I-91. Load up the two soft bags onto the hand truck. Tow the wheelie suitcase. We get to the doors at Union Station and find the two bags won't fit through on the hand truck. We turn them sideways, drag them though, and Julie's off to the ticket machine.

A lady security guard points out the elevator and we take it down to the hallway to the platforms. Plural. Which one goes to NYC? It doesn't say on our ticket and there are no signs. We ask a man and he says “10”. We find the entrance to track 10 and are greeted by about 25 or 30 steps up and we can see the train is at the platform. How are we going to do this and not miss the train? A nice young man stops and offers to help. He carries one, Mark carries two and the cart, and Julie carries the backpacks and the tube. We get on the train about 30 seconds before the doors close. Whew, that was a close one.

We look at each other! It's going to be a long long trip home to Rachel!

Thankfully, the train ride is uneventful. The number of people on the train and the platforms who are texting and talking on cell phones is incredible. Virtually nobody is reading a paper or talking. We watch the starched shirts and suits and shiny shoes heading to the city, thankful we aren't them. At each station the train gets more full until it's bursting at the seams.

Grand Central station, the end of the line. We get off the train along with everyone else. Being in no hurry, we decide to just stand on the platform with our bags and wait for the throng to dissipate. Blocking the platform doesn't seem to make us very popular but aside from almost getting pushed under the train by the thundering horde all is well. Now we just need to get to the bus to LaGuardia airport.

Mark stays with bags in the magnificent lobby of Grand Central while Julie goes on a fact finding mission. She verifies which exit we need to take, checks on the bus times and buys the tickets. Negotiating the ramps, more doors that aren't wide enough, we manage to exit the station and get across 42nd Street at rush hour. Only a 10 minute wait for the bus and then we are whisked away to LaGuardia Airport and dropped fairly close to the American Airlines check-in.

The weight limit for checked bags is 50lb per bag with a $50 fee for overage. We've already weighed the bags at Mom's and we know it's going to be close. The first bag goes on the scale – Uh oh - it's 53 lbs. We look at the check-in guy who says “Put another one on”. Together they're exactly 100 lbs. The attendant says “Okay – no problem. Add the third bag.”

151 lbs. Oh man. We glance at each other with just knowing we're gonna have to move stuff between bags and add another pound to the backpacks. The attendant says “No problem. It's fine. Have a great day.” and we have our boarding passes. Whew! What a nice guy! Julie almost kisses him, “Thanks Earl”, she says.

We head to the gate and wait 4 hours for our flight to Miami. No problem. We actually planned our arrival early so the TSA folks would have plenty of time to go through our bags – we want to make sure they all make it on the same flight with us.

After another 2 hours in Miami and we board the plane and are on our way to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Again, no problems.

At 8 pm we land in San Pedro Sula and pass through immigration. All our bags have made it – they're all here!! Awesome!! We have been nervous about the next part of the trip. Customs. Our bags are loaded with food stuff, vitamins to last a year, parts for the boat, fabric and glass to get a new dodger made and other general incidentals that we can't buy in Guatemala. From talking to other cruisers and the way we read the customs form we believe that we don't need to declare all of this stuff. But you never know if you'll get an official who's a bit of a 'stickler' or is looking to “grease his palm”.

We pass through customs with nothing to declare, put our luggage and backpacks on the x-ray machine and hold our breath. We're trying not to look obvious and anxious. If they decide to go through our bags it could be a LONG night. La la la la nothing nothing nothing. The x-ray operator is talking to a young lady and neither of them look concerned so we nonchalantly remove our bags and head for the door. Woohoo!!

We are spit out into the airport waiting area where there a lots of people waiting expectantly. Looking around we see Luis waiting for us. Luis and his wife own Guesthouse Dos Molinos. We stayed there on our way to the US and booked in again for the trip back. What a relief to see a smiling face waiting for us after a very long day. After a pleasant ride back to the B & B we flop into bed and drift off to sleep. Now we just have a 6 hour bus ride tomorrow and one more border to cross and we'll be home free.

Bee bee beep! Bee bee beep!”

Dang. It's the alarm. Again. It's 4 am and time to get up. Again.

We have to catch the bus to Rio Dulce. Thank goodness we only have to change buses once.

We stagger downstairs, rubbing sleep from our eyes, to find Luis up, waiting and ready to take us to the bus station. Dos Molinos has been great and de-stressed our trip immensely by willingly picking us up and delivering us to bus stations and airports at weird times of the day. We apologize to Luis for having him get up early again to deliver us. “No problem” he says.

All our heavy bags spent the night in his van so at least we didn't have to carry them up and down the stairs here. At the bus station, which is just opening at 5am, Luis disappears and returns with a porter with a huge cart. Thank goodness. We load up all the bags and are whisked away to the bus with big thanks to Luis. The bags are loaded on the bus and we just have time to buy a little something to eat before we board.

We've been told that we buy the tickets on the bus so we sit back in air conditioned comfort and enjoy the scenery, napping and reading. After about 3 hours we still are not seeing the ocean which is a bit strange because we're pretty sure that on the trip out we were by the ocean at this point.

There are only about 10 or 12 passengers and as far as we know nobody on the bus speaks English. And, of course, we don't speak enough Spanish to get any information so we just sit and enjoy the absolutely gorgeous mountain scenery. The road winds around and we pass through lots of interesting villages. We see many ranchers on their horses herding cows along the side of the roads. Also lots of mud and rock slides with the road closed down to one lane – or less!! We traverse a couple of almost washed out bridges that were down to one lane barely wider than the bus. Raging water rushing right below us, no guard rail .

After about 5 hours we are really starting to wonder what's going on. We are still in the mountains, which we should not be, and we haven't passed the border yet, which we should have. None of the places we pass through are familiar, but that's not surprising because we only know places along the coast. Luis had mentioned that Honduras had been having a lot of rain, but no mention of road closures.

The conductor comes around selling tickets.

Rio Dulce!” we say.

Rio Dulce?” the ticket taker asks.

Si.” we say.

Rio Dulce?” he says again. We think we may detect a bit of incredulity this time.

Si.” we say again.

He turns to the driver and says “Rio Dulce?”

Si.” says the driver, then he launches into a brief explanation we don't understand but assume contains his plan for getting us there.

The ticket taker writes out our tickets, hands them to us, and asks “Rio Dulce?” one last time.

Si” we say.

He shakes his head and moves on. We're really thinking something might be up now. About an hour later we pass Copan which we know is pretty far inland and SW of where we should be going. Finally we come to the border. There is probably half a mile of trucks full of produce and other goods parked along the road. Some have hammocks w/ sleeping drivers slung below them. This doesn't look good. We slowly wend our way through the traffic jam on this really narrow road. Our driver is amazing – he gets the bus through places we'd be nervous about driving a compact car.

We all get off the bus and go to Hut 4. This is the Honduran immigration, passports stamped, no problem. Now we are told to go to Hut 1, Guatemala immigration. After paying Q10 each ($2.50 total), our passports are stamped again, “Welcome to Guatemala”. The place is bustling: money changers; guys with big wads of Honduran Guatemalan and US currency; all the truck drivers trying to get through; tour groups who have been visiting the Mayan ruins at Copan; street vendors and comedors selling food and drink. We don't buy anything to eat because we're supposed to be back in Rio Dulce by lunch time. Even though we seem to be running a bit late.

No customs issues getting into Guatemala, either. Didn't even have to take our bags off the bus. Maybe today won't be so bad after all.

It's now about 11am and we're back on the bus again traveling along windy roads. At one point we drive through several hundred feet of muddy water – along the shoulder on the wrong side of the road – we hope the road's intact under it.

Finally we pass about another skillion or so parked trucks, grinding slowly forward, weaving our way around mud slides and huge boulders that block much of the road. And we stop. There's a lot of road working equipment here. Apparently the road ahead has washed out.

The workers have leveled one stretch, filling the gap with boulders covered with mud and gravel. It doesn't look good - it's about 6” wider than the bus and very wet. But they wave us forward so the driver slowly tries to cross. We're almost through it when we start to hear the mud and rock scraping the side of the bus. We're getting bogged down in the mud. Our driver expertly reverses and we back all the way back to where we started and park, waiting for the workers to add more gravel.

An hour, four dump trucks full of gravel and dirt, and a lot of standing around and talking later, we try again. We're not so sure that we like the idea of our bus being the first one to go over this stretch of road. Everyone is standing on the bus looking out of the front window as we slowly make our way through the mud. We bog down a bit, but manage to get through successfully. We all cheer and clap, shouts of “Bravo” are heard, and all the passengers express gratitude and respect to the driver.

It's about 12:30 pm now and we're starting to wish we'd bought some food at the border.

Finally we emerge onto a main road with both lanes open and no rocks or mud in evidence. Except now we start seeing signs that say we're heading to Guatemala City. This is not good. It's a long way in the wrong direction from Rio Dulce. After about 40 minutes the bus pulls over at the side of the road where another bus is waiting. The conductor says “Rio Dulce” and waves us off the bus. We hesitate, because we know this is NOT Rio Dulce. Finally we understand that we need to change buses to get to Rio Dulce. We get off, drag our bags across the gravel around to the other bus. “Rio Dulce?” we say. “Rio Dulce!” the new driver says. We get on the bus, this one is not air conditioned and has way more people on it. They all smile and say “Buenas tardes” and off we go.

This driver is a bit more aggressive that the first one. Roaring around corners, passing on curves and hills, and slamming on the brakes to avoid oncoming traffic we become a bit tense. After about an hour of this we stop again at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. There are 2 buses waiting and everyone is told to get off our bus. We all remove our bags, a bus official says something to the crowd and they all start getting on the 2 buses.

We say to the official “Rio Dulce?”
He points to one of the buses “Rio Dulce! Si”
Again we drag our bags over to the new bus. We want to make certain we're doing the right thing, so we say “Rio Dulce?” to the new driver
Rio Dulce! Si!” the new driver says. We sit down and off we go.

As you can imagine we are now feeling totally inadequate with our Spanish. Julie has been studying our language tapes on the iPod but has not really learned enough to get information in this situation. We can ask questions but do not understand the replies – quite frustrating and demoralizing. But we're confident things will work out fine.

After about another hour the bus stops again at a cross road on the Rio Honda. There's yet another bus waiting. The driver looks at us and says “Rio Dulce” and points to the other bus
Rio Dulce?” we say
Rio Dulce! Si” he says.

We get off the bus and are surrounded by throngs of venders selling food, drinks, fruit, all yelling and shouting for our attention. We're hungry but we don't want to miss our bus so we AGAIN get our bags from the old bus ….drag them through the venders who are shoving scrumptious smelling food in our faces....get them on the new bus and haul ourselves into our seats. People on the bus are poking money through the 2” opening in the windows and the venders are cramming food and drinks back. Even as the bus is starting to leave these purchases are madly being made.

This driver must have gone to the same reckless driving school as our last one. Our lack of ease is exacerbated by the fact that the seat backs are broken and, as soon as you lean back, you're lying in the lap of the person behind you. We sit on the edge of our seats and grin and bear it.

Finally we see road signs for Morales, a name we recognize - and we know it's only about a 40 minute drive from there to Rio Dulce. The bus stops at a Fuente del Norte station outside of town, where we changed buses on our way to the US. People get off the bus. We ask the bus driver if this bus will go to Rio Dulce. “Si”, he says. We are starving and really need a bathroom, it's 3:00pm and we haven't eaten since 6am.

We ask the driver how long before we leave. Thank goodness we can at least ask these questions in our broken Spanish, although we often don't really understand the answers. At least we have time for a quick pee and something to eat. We hop back on the bus just as the driver begins backing it up to leave.

Off we go, now for the first time in hours feeling like we are really going to make it back to Rachel today.

Our marina has free lancha (boat) service back and forth from town several times a day and we think we can make it just in time to catch the 3:45. We have it all planned out. When we arrive Julie will jump off the bus with the back packs and run down the hill to make sure the lancha is there and will wait for us. Mark, in the meantime, will get the bags off the bus and start dragging them down to the dock.

Great plan, but the timing is a bit off. As Julie runs down the hill she sees the lancha about 100 yards off the dock heading back to the marina. It's not really a problem, though, as we just make a phone call and have them come back and pick us up for a nominal fee. While we're waiting, Julie nips up to the store to get enough food to last us until we can get back into town the next day.

Whew! Back to Rio Dulce (Fronteras) at 4 pm – only about 4 hours late. Not too bad, considering all the excitement.

It's nice to be back after our long, long, long way home.

As it turns out a bridge on the major highway from Honduras to Guatemala had been washed away and there were lots of other roads closed due to many mud slides and rock slides. Luckily they were still running buses to Rio Dulce although we were the only 2 traveling from San Pedro Sula to Rio Dulce. Once we learned this news we were so grateful that the driver had gone out of his way to hook us up with these other buses so that we could make it back to Rio Dulce. Our hats are off to all of the Fuente del Norte folk that helped make our trip successful. If we'd known what was going on we'd have been way more appreciative. Click here to read more about the bridge outage.