Experience of the sublime

I have been reluctant to write this post. Reluctant, because since our last post we spent much time in Guatemala, which has been physically and mentally tough and challenging. I don’t want my posts being spoiled with negativity but I want to be honest.

Roads have been bad and very often really steep in Guatemala. The steepest we have measured was 23%.

Guatemala is a densely populated country. There are people everywhere. They are very poor (away from the touristic zones where we have cycled) and to me they appeared hard and cold which I attribute to the Guatemalan Civil War from 1960 to 1996. We love traveling by bike among other things because you are not in the bubble of a car or bus but because you are close to nature and the people. You can make contact with passers-by very easily which we hardly managed in Guatemala. Even Ben and Esmé, who normally manage to play with locals within a few minutes, had little enjoyable contact with other children. People shouted Gringo (refers to someone who is from the United States, White American) and as soon as we stopped people surrounded us. Furthermore all day long vehicles honked which was a lot of noise. They stayed on a distance and looked at us, especially the children, like we were monkeys in a zoo. I tried to understand them. I’m pretty sure they have never seen a white child before, but it is tiring to have people staring after a hard day of cycling and I felt frustated and irritated. 

I started to doubt myself and our trip. I felt stressed and, as a result, have been less patient with my children, Peter and myself. I wondered if we would feel better in Mexico again and feared that we wouldn’t.

Besides this tough time we have done something extraordinary as a family. We climbed the highest non-volcanic mountain of Central America: La Torre, 3837 m. After our first night on 3350 m (to get used to the height and see what it does to our bodies) we were able to cycle until 3550 m. Then we pushed the bikes for 7 km and 4 hours on a very bad dirt road to the top. The road was so bad and steep sometimes, that we thought that we would fall back down with bikes and all. Ben walked everything himself, Esmé walked the steep parts herself. On the less steep parts she sat in the Weehoo. We camped on top.

Camping on 3350 m

Still able to cycle on 3400 m

That’s the amount of bread we took with us on this little expedition. Furthermore we carried 2 bags of roasted bread, peanutbutter, chocolate spread, 2 oranges, 1 apple, oats, sugar, 400 gr pasta, 2 onions, garlic, 3 peppers, tomatoe sauce and a lot of water.

Steep and bad dirt road till the top

On top of La Torre

The view in the morning from La Torre

The downhill was easier

Besides this big achievement we had another very nice experience in Guatemala: One day we arrived in the city Chiantla, near Huehuetenango, late in the afternoon. We had to do some shopping and then search for a place to camp. But everything took longer than expected and finally we found ourselves cycling in the dark, something we normally avoid. There are no streetlamps in Guatemala, the road was bad and cars drove like crazy and very often without lights. In short, we were in a dangerous and very unpleasant situation. Suddenly a car stopped and the guy inside offered us to stay in his house tonight. His name was Leonel and he and his wife Dora have been very kind and generous to us. Besides the very nice food Dora made for us we were allowed to stay with them for two more nights and they invited us to the thermal spring Fuentes Georginas near the vulcano Santa Maria.
The negative experiences in Guatemala made me thoughtful. What in fact do I search for by traveling like this that I didn’t find in Guatemala? Recently I read the book “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton and he uses the term “experience of the sublime”  which he describes as followed: 

The sublime is a feeling provoked by certain kinds of landscape that are very large, very impressive and dangerous. Places like the wide-open oceans, the high mountains, the polar caps. The Sinai Desert, the Grand Canyon. These places do all sorts of things to us. 

This is what I am looking for right now and what I didn’t find in Guatemala. But, luckily, I found it again for several times in Mexico on the Pacific Coast.

For us the sublime can also be experienced with big, old or beautiful trees …

… or by an encounter or gesture of a stranger.

Thanks to Noé from casa de ciclista in Mapastepec and Dane from Chocohuital we enjoyed water, sand and wind on the beach, rivers and in the swimming pool in the last couple of weeks. 

Now we are in Zanatepec with our Warmshowers host Rodrigo, his wife Lupita and their three sons. We decided to cycle along the coast to cover some distance and to enjoy some easier riding. 

​In a couple of days we will start cycling again and leave the hot coast (3 days ago we measured 48 ºC on the road) and cycle inland towards Oaxaca and the vulcanoes. We keep you updated! 


12 thoughts on “Experience of the sublime

  1. That dirt road looks awful. Congrats to the little ones for hiking it up! Thank you for sharing! I hope you received the tent poles ok at Rodrigo’s and that they will make your nights a little more enjoyable. Keep up the good work! Your friend, Stephane.

  2. Nice post! Glad to read about the self reflection and the fact that you left a lesser experience behind you. Keep it up!

  3. I don’t think this is a lesser experience, this is so character building as a family. Ben looks like a wise young man already. Proud of you guys, life is up and down, cycle touring is even more so. Keep your perspective take each day as it comes and treat everyone you meet as an individual. Look forward to more writing 🙂

    • Thank you Elliot. I also think this is a valuable experience for us and I know that touring is very much up and down. Hope you are doing well, at the moment I don’t follow you guys. Love to both of you!

  4. Thank you for sharing this candid insight. I very much appreciate it and look forward to the next lines.
    I (vaguely) remember De Botton also wrote of his holidays on the Bahamas. Where he didn’t sleep well the first night and woke (or got) up early, feeling very tired. Making the best out of it he walked to the beach where it was very windy and soon he found him-self in the urgent need for a bathroom. Where he later got rid of the food of the day before, which he couldn’t digest properly.

    I wish you and the rest of the gang more of those great days (including tight sleeping, good food and enjoyable encounters with the sublime!

    I m glad you wrote the article.

  5. Wow. Sounds very tough. Keep your spirits up. We have comfortable beds and good food for you when you arrive in Texas. Stay well, my friends.

  6. Thanks for the interspection. I ask myself, what do I have if I stay in my comfort zone?
    Then I read your post and I ponder. I see you and your family! Your courage is incredibly inspiring. Your depth of trust, the rich experances your having, your courage to go places where few will ever go, and the physical strength you exude to go there! All these shout out to me and others like me…get up, get out, reach out, and get living. Life is waiting for you go, embrace it! In short…Your living your life the way you do is inspiring me to want to make more out of my own life! Thank you. Your my teacher. May the Lord be with you still, and always!
    Everyday is its own story! Love Kim

    • Thank you Kim. I didn’t want to write bad about Guatemala. I did see only little of this country. But I wanted to describe my feelings and struggles which I didn’t manage to handle like I would like to. I learn a lot everyday on this trip an hopefully next time, when I am in similar situations, I will react differently. Love! Petra

  7. Maybe not always positive, but overall an awesome experience nevertheless! At ITC, where I work, we had an interesting guest speaker: Naresh Kumar. He cycled the length of New Zealand, and does ultra-marathons – all for fundraising. He raised NZ$42,000 cycling in NZ for Tear Fund. Carla.

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