Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Tribe of their own

One of the reasons why I personally like travelling so much (aside from the evolving scenery and sense of discovery, which rank top on the list) is the transient, non-committal feeling of it all. I like the constant shift between being here and being gone, being part of a defining moment in time and taking off before the moment loses its magic, the feeling that any of these haphazard, kindergarden-constructed days could change your life. The sense of freedom and wonder is exhilirating, addictive. Because of the fleeting feeling travel necessitates, it is unusual and more concrete when you get to experience moments within a group. The combined energy of the tribe opens a whole other universe of potential.

First encounter camping at Lake Peten. Sunrise at El Encantandero campsite
Westwards across Lake Peten.
We had a feeling like this between Christmas and New Years when we stayed in Flores, a heritage island in Lake Peten where the little Spanish stone houses were built on top of an old Mayan city. Cobblestone roads, colonial houses painted in M&M colours, flowerpots on the balconies... you get the picture. And in this charming town, in one of the colourful houses is Los Amigos Hostel, complete with a garden courtyard, yummy restaurant, bookshelves, a parrot a cat and a sausage dog, oversized pillows and plenty of hammocks. And a resident community of travelling macrame artists (the kind my sister would call nasty-ass-cracker-backbackers, complete with dreadlocks and flappy hemp pants), who loved the place so much that they have been stationed in the same hammocks and pillows for over 3 weeks working away at bracelets, necklaces, earrings and the like. This groups became our tribe, no thanks to the fact that Vinko picked up some macrame skills in Cancun and was keen to expand his repertoire (191 things you didn't know about Vinko!) We didn't quite join in the Kumbaja singing on the last night, but I was genuinely sad to part with these people three days later.

But we were barely on the road when we met the first member of another phantom tribe we belong to: the Crazy People on Bicycles Tribe. Everywhere we have been so far, the people who weren't utterly shocked at our travel methods were the ones who had encountered a bike tourist before. We keep hearing about this mysterious Swiss guy who always seems to be 2 weeks ahead of us, or another couple from 2 years ago. And more are coming out of the woodwork weekly, for example a Cairo to Cape Town rider raising funds for Tour d'Afrique Foundation. We were starting to doubt the authenticity of the rumours since we have not met any other cyclists. But on our way out of Flores we met Anna, an Aussie going all the way from Alaska to Argentina on bicycle. She's been going for about 18 months now, and has covered over 22,000km. With our day-glo orange milk crates and clearly ghetto arrangement of bags, it was no wonder that she could barely contain laughter. It was both an inspiring and intimidating first encounter with the phantom tribe.

Our current tribe is the community in the small village of San Andres, where we are living while struggling to get a grip on the Spanish language. We love it here. A bundle of colourful houses with rusty tin roofs tumble down the green mountain, connected by impossibly steep roads and hidden cobblestone stairways that usually lead nowhere but will dead-end with a spectacular view of the lake below. In the oppressive midday heat (welcome to winter in Peten province!) it's a ghost town - save for some feral dogs skulking around - but at sundown kids spill out onto the roads to play football, neighbours sit on front steps to share jokes and a lone fisherman cuts across the violet, pink and orange surface.

Streetscape, San Jose (2km from our house)

Sunset from Ni'Tun Ecolodge, New Years Eve
San Jose, about 2km east along the lake from San Andres
Our host family through the Eco-Escuala de Espanol program is Don Carmen and Dona Rosa Chabin. The family currently has 8 members living here, although some other rooms around us are rented out to include another 6 or so people milling around at the call of the rooster, which never fails to be at some random hour like 3am. We have our own little bungalow (glorified play hut), which looks across the short side of a 5x10m courtyard into the "open-plan" hand-wash laundry. Behind that is the "semi-open-plan" kitchen where Darling makes over 100 tortillas on the fire every day to feed the hungry masses. A cold shower ensures that everyone gets 2 showers daily without a line up. It's an ideal detour into village living for us, although the communal nature means that we are all sharing the same common cold now. I guess it comes with the (tribal) territory.
Part of laundry day (everyday) - this sweet arrangement is right under our window


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