I realized when it was too late to do anything about it that the breaks on the bike I was riding did not work. I was barreling down a cobblestone road in San Andres Itzapa, Guatemala, on a 24” pink kid’s bike, which was much too small for me. It had been converted from a 10-speed bike to a single speed—a simple way to avoid fixing gear shifters on bikes that are not worth the time or money to repair, or that require new cables or parts you might not have access in places like small mountains towns in the middle in Central America. By simply cutting the gear cables and removing the shifters from the handlebars, a bike that doesn’t shift properly can become a bike that works, but in only one gear.
Erin was directly in front of me, sitting atop a blue mountain bike, which, like mine was a few sizes too small and not working well. I could see the rear wheel wobbling back and forth, a sign that the axel in the hub might be loose. At any moment the wheel could which was not safe. Neither she nor I were pedaling our bikes at the moment. We were flying downhill, the countryside around us blanketed by dusk, the two of us moving fast enough to make my heart beat frantically in my chest. Fifty yards ahead of Erin was a fellow traveler, a young Canadian we had met about an hour before and who had convinced us to take this particular bike ride with him. He was somewhere in his mid 20s, tall, with brown hair, and arguably insane.
When we left San Andres Itzapa a few minutes earlier, we started out biking slowly through the center of town. The road beneath us was bumpy cobblestone, and I was biking gently, trying to keep the bouncing underneath me minimal, so I wasn’t pained in my rear with each turn of the wheel. I noticed almost right away that the bike didn’t shift gears, and the chain was making a clicking sound, but I wasn’t overly bothered—it was an old, cheap bike, and I expected it to have some issues. We made our way out of town, the road quickly declining to a 45-degree angle as the cobblestone street disappeared and a flat, smooth highway appeared in front of us. As my speed started to accelerate faster than I was comfortable with, somewhere around 30 miles an hour, I began to wonder if the bike was going to come to pieces underneath me. That’s when I tried to use the breaks. I gently pressed on the break handles to slow down, but my velocity did not change. I squeezed harder, my hands clenching to the cheap plastic brake handles, but my speed continued to increase with each second. It had to be that either the cables were too gooped up within their housing to move freely, meaning the breaks weren’t contracting against the tire, or the brake pads were worn down to nothing, keeping them from slowing the wheel to a stop. But this was not the time to wonder what was keeping the brakes from working. As the wind picked up on my face, and my eyes started to water, I could feel sweat gathering under my shift and at my hairline, even though the air was cool that night. I knew I needed to be prepared to stop the bike myself when we got to the bottom of the hill. It did not sound fun.
I felt stupid for not checking the bike more carefully before we left town, where I could have done something about its poor working condition, but I tried not to fixate on that particularly bad decision. I couldn’t change it now. Instead, I wondered why my sister and I agreed to follow this stranger we had just met into the dark, with no lights, and no helmets. We had just arrived in Guatemala the night before. It was the furthest either of us had been from home up to that point. Now, after traveling from Richmond to San Andres Itzapa alone, we had finally arrived safely to the place we were staying only to turn around and get on crappy bikes and head downhill at an atrocious speed.
We were 24 years old, and had never been on a trip like this before. Our family vacationed growing up, but, like most American families, we didn’t leave the country. During the summers, we would pile into the family Buick for road trips. Once we went to Washington D.C. to see the monuments and visit the museums, and Gettysburg another time to see the Civil War battlefields. We went to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, and New York to visit the Statue of Liberty. We had gone to Florida on the Amtrak when Erin and I were in elementary school to go Disneyland, and during our first year of high school, my mom took me and Erin on a plane to see our grandmother in Mississippi. When I think back, it seems we were always visiting grandparents and cousins on the weekends, or going to the beach in North Carolina in the summer.
When Erin and I went Guatemala that December, we were both on winter break from school. Erin was still in pharmacy school, and I had just finished my first semester of graduate school for social work. We had come to San Andres Itzapa to volunteer at Maya Pedal, a nonprofit that refurbished bikes that had been donated from Canada and the U.S. for locals to use for transportation.
After our east coast bike trip ended, I’d returned to Richmond and continued to pick up shifts at restaurants around town washing dishes or bartending. One night I had conversation with a customer who was the same age as I was at the time, who told me how much he liked his temp job because they didn’t give him that much responsibility, and he had his nights and weekends free. That sounded good to me, and an excuse to do something different for a while. I was growing tired of always working late nights, and having to work on Saturdays and Sundays when Erin was off from school and had time to hang out. I applied that same week for a position and was placed with a trucking company working in an office doing pretty menial data entry tasks. I disliked it intensely. Although I had no real professional experience to speak of, I found the work mindless and too easy, while also paying a very low hourly wage. It seemed like the management of the company was only interested in making money, and they treated other employees like they were idiots, berating them for every small mistake, and talking about their inadequency behind their backs. [EF2] Being there made my skin crawl. I could get what was supposed to be eight hours of a workday done in three hours. Instead of enjoying having nothing to do and getting paid for it, it made me anxious to be idle but still have to sit behind a desk. What the job did do was give me time to think about what else I could be doing with myself.
That spring I decided to return to school. At first, I considered teaching, but would require me to make more decisions than I was prepared to—What grade did I want to teach? What subjects? I wasn’t ready to decide what my career would be, and honestly, I was scared to commit to any one thing. I settled on applying to the VCU Social Work program. I wouldn’t have to decide right away what my focus would, and, in the end, it would hopefully lead to a job helping other people, not just working for someone who didn’t at least have a little heart. I knew it would mean I maybe wouldn’t ever make much money, but I already knew I didn’t care about that – it wouldn’t make me happy if I couldn’t do meaningful work and have a sense of importance and purpose. Today, I am still grateful for the boredom that that temp job provided for me, because it allowed my mind to focus on doing something for the first time with direction and intent.
It only took me a few weeks to complete my application for graduate school. While I waited to hear if I would be accepted, I continued to tinker with bikes in my free time. Erin rented a warehouse space in Richmond that we used for collecting and working on old bikes. It was mostly for our own entertainment, but we were also continuing with the mission of her nonprofit SPOKES. I learned how to weld, although never well, and we made shopping cart bikes and tall bikes by staking two or three frames on top of one another. We would collect bikes from police auctions or thrift stores or even the trash. I had spent quite a few Saturday afternoons sitting at the local county dump, waiting for trucks to pull up with bikes pilled in the bed, ready to be discarded. I would rush up to the driver, and before they threw the bikes over the edge, I’d ask if I could have it to work on and give away to someone who needed it. We donated the bikes we fixed up to local nonprofits, ones that worked with children and ones that works with adults.
Soon after, Erin opened a bike shop in Richmond . At the time, there were still only a few bike shops in the city, and those that were operating specialized in repairs for new, high-end models. There wasn’t a shop in town where you could feel comfortable bringing in old or really different or difficult bikes to work on, or a shop where you could get good, used parts or have the freedom to choose between old and new parts depending on your budget. Erin’s shop was just that—it was for everyone who didn’t have the newest and nicest bike, or the shiniest bike. Repairs were cheap, and the staff was helpful, friendly, and never judgmental. No one tried to sell you what you didn’t need or want. Erin would eventually begin teaching bicycle repair classes in the store, which I enjoyed helping her with here and there, and I still consider her to be one of the best bike mechanics that I know. When I wasn’t working, I would try to help in the shop, mostly just by watching the front counter while Erin worked on bikes in the back. I found the work energizing, and for the brief time I was there with her, I fed off Erin’s company. I was so proud of her for having started a non-profit, and now having become a business owner, all while still attending pharmacy school.
When I heard that I had been accepted to the Social Work Masters program a few months later, I was elated. I had been scared that I would be rejected, and fearful that if I had to wait to reapply, I wouldn’t, because I was too impatient to quit my job and get on with the next thing in my life. I still believe I was accepted into the program because I requested a meeting with the Dean while my application was under review. During out meeting, I told him all about the bike ride that I done with my sister and the other riders to New York. I took no credit for the fundraising or the planning efforts, but I did emphasis what I had learned from my sister, and what I had now realized about the experience—it was about helping the community, about helping others who were less privileged that I was. It was the same reason I now wanted to become a social worker. My talk with him made all the difference, and without my sister having given me something so incredible to participate in, I probably would never have gone back to school at all.
I turned 25 the same week that I started graduate school. It was a dream come true from the first day. I had forgotten how much I loved higher education classes. I love learning something new every day, I loved writing papers, and studying. I loved having a schedule, and rules, and grades. [EF6] I even loved my first internship, which was nothing more than glorified babysitting at an afterschool day care center. The internship may not have been glamorous, but I was learning what other people lives were like other than my own, and that gave me important perspective outside of my small world. I was more confident than I had been in years, and focused. Perhaps the best part, for me at the time, was the fact that being back in school meant I didn’t have to think about what I was doing for at least two years. Like a lot of people struggling to find their way in their mid-twenties, [EF7] the mere thought of having built-in direction for the next two years was empowering.
I don’t remember how I heard about Maya Pedal in Guatemala. Maybe someone came into the bike shop one day and mentioned having been there, or maybe I read about it in one of the many bicycling magazines I used to flip through after studying. But as soon as I looked up the website, I was enthralled by the concept of this special place. Not only did Maya Pedal fix up old bikes to sell inexpensively in the community, but they made pedal powered machines to help the indigenous population, offering them sustainable solutions to their everyday work. Their website had a picture of a bicycle blender, and a pedal powered machine that stripped corn off the cob. It was amazing. I should the website to Erin and we decided that we would spend our winter break, all two weeks of it before Christmas, in Guatemala working on bikes. To guarantee our spot, we filled out an online application form and sent it in. Within a few weeks heard back that we were accepted and could go ahead and book our plane tickets. We would be expected in Guatemala to volunteer the first week of December.
Erin and I had both done some volunteering work before, but nothing that I would really count as being actually helpful. In middle school, after we had so disappointedly stopped playing sports, my mom insisted that if we weren’t going to participate in afterschool activities, then we were going to go to work to some capacity. Since we were too young to actually join the workforce, and did not have the means to drive ourselves anywhere, our mom signed us up to volunteer at the Science Museum in downtown Richmond, where she or our older brother would drop us off on Saturday mornings and then pick us up when our shifts were over.
For the most part, volunteering at the Science Museum was a good time. We got to pet sting rays, showing people how to properly rub their fingers across their backs so as not go get to close to their stingers. We hung out in the aviary, so warm and damp, it made you feel like you were in the tropics. The room had skylights, allowing us to see some daylight in what was otherwise a very dark museum, as we stood around watching the birds fly and turtles scurry across the ground. The only real responsibly I had was to make sure that the turtles didn’t get out of the door and into the main museum, which seems like a silly task to give even a thirteen-year-old. I was surprised to find out that it was, in fact, a big responsibility. There were so many turtles it was crazy, and it seemed like they all really were trying to escape constantly. They slowly inched their way toward freedom, not knowing there were still so many more rooms between them and the real outdoors, and then a huge parking lot in their way after that. If the turtles weren’t trying to escape, they would spend their afternoons climbing on top of one another in a loving way, which meant I spent more time than I ever wanted (the correct amount of time would have been none) being asking by grown-ups if the turtles were doing what they thought they were doing, to which I replied honestly, yes (and that’s why there were so many damn turtles in the museum), and then they would giggle and I would die of embarrassment.
The less fun part of the working in the aviary was the continuous and constant bird dropping that landed on my shoulders, head, and down the front or back of my bright red museum-issued volunteer shirt. Whenever it happened, which was multiple times in a shift, I would have to walk the long distance across the museum to the women’s bathroom at the front entrance to clean myself up, while everyone I passed could see the white poop stain glaring at them. Humiliating as it was, I have fond memories of being at the Science Museum. Everyone visiting was there to have fun, and I learned a lot about animals and how to speak to strangers in public appropriately. I appreciated that my mom insisted that we became volunteers, even if it was just to get us out of the house.
When Erin and I flew to Guatemala, we first stayed overnight in Guatemala City. The next morning, as the sun was just beginning to raise the temperature around the city, we caught bus to Sand Andes Itzapa, a few hours west. Our ride was an old school bus, colorful, painted brightly, and extremely crowded. The other passengers loaded their bags high on top of the bus before getting in, the bus driver tying their luggage together with twine. Erin and I had packed lightly for our trip—only one book bag each, nothing that we couldn’t hold in our laps securely while we sat, gazing out the open window, dust in our faces, as we passed banana farm after banana farm, making our way out of the city.
The bus dropped us off near the center of town, a small plaza that were we could most see most of what the community had to offer by spinning in a circle—a church, and a school, and few shops, and some women selling food out of carts on the stone streets. It was quaint, and quiet, as people went about their daily business, uninterested in a few tourists that had dropped in. The first person I saw, I asked where Maya Pedal was [EF8] – I had learned enough Spanish during college to get by conversationally. The man pointed up a steep hill directly in front of us, and told us we would see it about half way up, on the right.
After a steady climb, we arrived a few minutes later to two metal doors, with a sign for Maya Pedal directly to the right, the words spelled out made from old bike parts that had been cut with an angle grinder. We knocked, and a few seconds later, a man opened a smaller door within the two larger ones. He introduced himself as Carlos. He was Guatemalan, a little shorter than us, looked to be in his early 40s, with tan skin. He was dressed causally in work clothes, with grease stains running up and down the pant legs, typical of a bike or auto mechanic. He smiled at us warmly, and motioned for us to duck as we walked through the small door. We entered the building, and as our eyes adjusted from the bright outdoor sun to the indoors, Carlos asked where we were from and how long we were staying. Erin and I looked at each other, slightly confused, realizing that he had not been expecting us as we had been told he would. For a moment, I was really unconformable as I answered him, and I told him we had sent in an application. He said he is sure he had seen it at some point, but it was a casual place—the space was more than large enough to accommodate multiple guests at a time, and it was just fine to show up at anytime from anywhere in the world. Carlos wasn’t worried about who was there or why. We were welcome to stay as long as we liked, as long as we were willing to work.
Carlos showed us around Maya Pedal. The front room housed the workshop. Two bike stands were centered in the middle of the large open space, and tools lined peg boards on the wall which had been painted with outlines of where each individual tool belonged to assure that they didn’t go missing. To the left was a bicycle powered well, where a bucket hung down about 8 feet to a water source. Welding tools sat closer to the front of the workspace. We walked to the back of the room, where a doorway led us to a small living area with couch and a few bookshelves, and an office. Beyond that was the kitchen, with a large table, and plenty of space for cooking, and a refrigerator.
Back out in the workspace, Carlos led us up the stairs to the second floor, where the hallway was lined with bikes on either side – ones that that been recently repaired by volunteers and were waiting to be sold to the community to keep Maya Pedal running. On either side of the hallway were separate women and men’s rooms had bunk beds. We continued up, following Carlos to the third floor, which opened up to the roof. It was partially covered by a tin lean-to, where a stack of tires and wheels stood taller than Erin and I, and 20 feet wide. The rest of the roof was uncovered, and housed many more bikes, all donated, waiting to be worked on – my eyes widened as I looked around, excited about how much work there was for us to do. I walked over to the edge, where a partition wall separated the roof of Maya Pedal with its neighbors, and saw a view of the mountains that made my breath catch—green and covered with trees, the clouds hanging low in the distance in the early evening. I turned around to follow Erin and Carlos back downstairs, feeling so lucky that we would get to work on bikes in this beautiful country.
The three of us arrived back to the first floor just as a young man was opening the front door and walked into the workshop. He introduced himself to me and Erin as Andrew. He told us he was from Canada and had been traveling for more than six weeks now through Central America. As he talked, he walked over to a bike on one of the stands and began working. With a wrench in one hand, he told us about growing up in a large family in Quebec City. He said was traveling through Central America with no particular plan—he’d stay for as long as he found it interesting to wander. I was fascinated. It seemed like it would be so cool to have all the time in the world and not have to worry about money or responsibilities or anything at home—just get to be out adventuring as long as you wanted. It turned out Andrew was the only other volunteer there at the time. Soon, Carlos excused himself—he had to get back to work after the short tour. He was a busy man, we were finding out. When he wasn’t running Maya Pedal, he worked as a bus driver, and he needed to get to his route. He handed Erin and me a set of keys, and left. Erin, Andrew and I chatted a few more minutes, before Erin and I went back upstairs to unpack. When we returned to the workshop a short while later, Andrew offered to make us dinner, which was a relief. Erin and I didn’t know our way around town yet, and we hadn’t determined what we would do for food, or even had a chance to do any shopping that day.
Looking around the kitchen made me realized how many people had come through Maya Pedal over the years- leftover spices and sauces lined the cabinets, and garlic cloves and onions lay on the counter, remnants of those that had volunteered before us and left behind what they no longer needed on their travels. As Andrew cooked, we chatted about what Erin and I did back home, and ask him more about his travels. By the time we were done eating our avocado, roasted potato, and onion salad, Andrew told us he was planning to into the next closest town, a little bigger than San Andres, wanted to know if we were interested in going with him to a bar to have a few beers. We excitedly accepted, pleased he was thoughtful enough to include us. We cleared out dishes from the table, and Erin and I left the kitchen to go upstairs and get ready. Andrew said it would be fine to borrow any of the bikes that were at the top of the stairs. We dug cash from our bags, pushing the bills snuggly into our hip packs, and grabbed the first two bikes we saw.
By the time we had made it to the workshop with the bikes, we could see Andrew through the open door, standing in the street. He was already outside, helmet on and bag secure around his shoulder, waiting for us. Erin and I pushed the bikes outside, and we all walked down the hill until we reached the plaza where we had been dropped off by the bus that morning. It was completely dark outside, and the town was nearly silent. Only a few lights shown from streetlamps and from windows of homes. We curved around the bended road, and headed out into the night.
Andrew didn’t tell us how far away the bar was, and we didn’t ask. We also didn’t ask what the road was like getting there. We found out soon enough that it was a 30-minute bike ride away, of which, quite literally, 28 minutes was going straight down a rather terrifying hill.
As we blindly followed Andrew, our speed increasing, my mind raced, as I tightly clutched the handlebars of the bike, squinting my eyes into the darkness as the streetlights faded out behind us. In my mind, I questioned why we were following this guy, and why we hadn’t asked him anything about this trip. I also wondered how in the world was I going to get this bike back up the hill that night. There was no way the small, gearless bike I was on was going back to Maya Pedal without me pushing it, which would take hours. Why hadn’t Andrew mentioned that it would be a long bike back up the hill? Why hadn’t Erin and I asked him any questions? Why had he let us ride such tiny bikes? But, most critically, I was trying to figure out how I was going to make the bike stop.
By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, I decided the best way to stop the bike would be to put my ride heel on the front tire and slowly press down hard until the wheel came to a stop. I had done this a hundred times before to stop or slow down bikes with bad breaks, but it is dangerous, and not my favorite way to get a bike to stop moving. If you do it wrong, you stop too quickly and get flipped off your bike, or you wear a bad hole in your shoe, or worse, you get your shoe caught in the forks and then you definitely go down. When the hill started to flatten out, I gently pushed the bottom of my shoe against the rubber tire, feeling the heat against the rubber on the bottom of my shoe, and holding my breath. Slowly, I came to a stop, no longer feeling out of control of the speeding bike I was on.
Andrew led us to a small bar where we grabbed barstools and ordered drinks from the bartender, a woman that Andrew knew. We quickly realized he was interest in her, because as soon as we entered that bar, he stopped talking to me and Erin and had all eyes and ears on the bartended. Two beers later, Erin and I realize that this guy is not going to talk to us again, and he wasn’t planning on leaving the bar anytime soon, which meant he was certainly not going to help us get back up that hill. Soon we grew bored with drinking and sitting alone. Already tired from the long day we had traveling, we told Andrew we were going to go. He barely turned his head to say goodbye, not even the least bit concerned about if we knew how to get back to Maya Pedal. I was irritated as we left, but at the same time, I didn’t really care about him, so it didn’t matter. Erin and I hadn’t come to Guatemala to meet people anyway. We had come to work on bikes and to see another country, not see the inside of a bar with someone who did not care to talk to us. We got our bikes from outside, unlocking them from a street lamp pole, and started walking. We didn’t know where we were going, so we pushed our bikes until we saw a small hotel sign hanging over an open window with a faint light inside. It was too late, and too dark, to try to find our way back to Maya Pedal on our own. We rang the bell, and a few moments later the owner appeared. He had a room available, and even was kind enough to stash out bikes in the courtyard so we didn’t have to cramp them into the bedroom for the night. Erin and I immediately passed out, fully dressed, dirty, a little buzzed from the beer, and exhausted.
The next morning when we woke up, the sun was already high in the sky. I was less grumpy than I had been the night before and ready for to get back to handling our trip on our own without following anyone else around. We grabbed our bikes, left the hotel, and headed out to look for a bus. It didn’t take us long to find a large, dusty open field where dozens of buses lined up, coming and going in every direction. Bus drivers shouted their destinations from the open doorways of their buses, as though they needed to entice the public to take a cheap ride with them instead of one of their competitors. We walked between buses, until we heard “San Andres Itzapa” and rushed up to the driver, who threw our bikes on top of the bus, along with the other passengers’ bags, stacked higher than seemed safe. Within a few minutes, we were headed back up the hill.
When we arrived at Maya Pedal, Andrew was in the workshop, drinking coffee, tinkering with the same bike he had been working on the day before. Even before I said good morning, I looked at the bike he was working on, and it occurred to me that the bike was his own bike that he had ridden to the bar! We hadn’t seen him pull it off the stand last night and take it outside, and in the dark, it just seemed like any other bike that he was borrowing in the workshop. In the daylight I could see how nice of a bike it was—27 gears, a new looking saddle, with perfectly fastened grip tape, and a greasy chain, a water bottle cage, and even an odometer. No wonder he was flying down the hill, not concerned at all about how he was going to get back up—he had working gears, and the bike was his size and had new looking tires. As I was finding out, it also got tuned up every day by Andrew himself. He hadn’t borrowed an old bike from Maya Pedal. This guy, who was volunteering and staying for free in exchange for working on bikes, had been working on his own bike for two days.
Andrew greeted us, but didn’t ask us how the rest of our night was, or where we had stayed, or how we got back that morning, and we didn’t offer him that information either. Instead he told us he would be heading out that day, riding off into the country, not sure of his next destination, never turning away from his bike as he spoke. I went upstairs to find a bicycle to bring down to the workshop to start working on. I didn’t bother to tell him good luck. I knew it was very likely we would never see him again in our lives.
Erin and I spent the next few days at Maya Pedal working on bikes alone, without any other volunteers. We worked nonstop, taking only occasional breaks to play with the neighborhood children who would come by, or pausing in between tuning up bikes to try out the pedal powered machines in the shop, seeing how fast we could pedal to get the blender or how quickly we could get the well bucket up and down from the water. With each bike we fixed and stored away on the second floor with the other working bikes, I gained more energy. I was amazed by how fun it was to be so productive, and I loved being able use real skills that I had learned to do something for other people. It never felt like work, and it never got boring. At the end of the night, after a long day in the workshop, Erin and I would walk down the street and buy bottles of beer and tacos from a food stand.
Carlos would come in and out throughout the day and talk about the machines, showing us how to use the ones we didn’t understand as well, like the corn husker. (Husking corn was something neither Erin nor I had ever down before.) He was the real engineer, the full time employee of Maya Pedal, and he had been working with the organization for a while, and was great a working on the bicycle machines. Although a small NGO, since 1997, Carlos worked hard at Maya Pedal to support a few of the 30,000 residents of San Andres Itzapa, who live in the 30 square miles that made up the town. What was most impressive and fun about volunteering at Maya Pedal was realize how much it really helped the community. Many of the people in and around San Andres Itzapa. are rural farmers who grow wheat, corn, beans, avocado, beets, radishes, carrots, and coffee, and live on only a few dollars a day. When Maya Pedal introduced their bike machines, the bicimáquinas, the first a pedal powered machine to mill grain, it sped up a usually slow process that is done by hand to something that could produce grain at a rate of three pounds per minute. Over the years, Carlos and other Maya Pedal engineers have developed washing machines, nut shellers, and water pumps. It was fascinating to learn about, and incredible to see working in person.
After four days of working, Erin and I decided to take some time to wander around and see some sights, and get out of the workshop for a while. We wanted to head to the east, to visit the lakes and then make our way to the beach for a day or two. We headed to the center of town and hoped on another colorful, crowded bus full of locals, ready for our next adventure. Erin and I were tightly packed into our seats, our bags dangling on the racks above our heads, feeling the wind on our faces. I was sitting on closer to the aisle, and since I was looking out the window, I didn’t notice right away that Erin wasn’t feeling well. I glanced at her for a moment, and could that she was no longer looking out the window, but had her head curled down, her arms clutched around her stomach. I knew right away what was wrong.
What was about to happen to Erin happened to me when I was eight years old at soccer practice . My family never spoke of it again.
I felt bad for Erin right away. I thought about all the food we had eaten over the last few days in Guatemala. She had only eaten meat that had been cooked thoroughly and tried to stay away from any vegetables that weren’t properly washed. But no matter how careful you are while traveling, you can never be certain if things are safe to eat or not. I looked at her, and then back out the window. The bus was moving up a narrow road, and I only saw trees surrounding us. I told her the second we saw a real place to get off the bus we would, but every time we came across a small town, it was mostly automobile shops and maybe a tiny tienda, nothing that would offer a restroom fast enough to help her. Our lively, fun bus ride had suddenly started to feel hot and cramped for both of us, which didn’t help Erin’s stomach pains. I was beginning to become nervous too, even though I didn’t feel sick, worrying for her. I assured her that as soon as there was a safe place we would jump off as quickly as we could. I continued to look out the window, my eyes scrolling for options, but all saw were shrubs on the side of the winding road, farms, and the occasional house or small roadside fruit stand. Nothing with a toilet. Erin’s shoulders hunched down even further.
I knew the second it happened by how her expression changed on her face. She went from complete discomfort to defeat. I my heart sank for her, even though we were alone, and there was no one around who knew us or even spoke the same language as we did—no one would ever have to know about this but her and me forever and ever. We could always keep it a secret, like how she kept my secret about soccer practice. We would never have to mention to anyone. And just then, a minute too late, the bus pulled up right next to a McDonalds.
I have never been so happy to see a McDonalds in my life. I grabbed our stuff from over our heads, and we ran off the bus, knowing the bus driver would leave us behind. Neither of us cared. We would find another bus somewhere. For now, Erin needed to find some relief and have some privacy. She went inside as I waited in the parking lot, lingering away from the building. She came back out a few minutes later, with new shorts on, and an embarrassed look on her face. When she got to me, I didn’t ask her how she felt or if she was OK. I knew she just wanted to move on from it, just like I would have wanted. We walked out to the street and silently waited for the next bus to come along. We wouldn’t speak of it again.
We visited a beautiful lake and went to a beach town where we checked into a hotel and wandered around a small, sleepy town with black sand and packed dirt roads. Outside of our hotel, we met a man who offered to take us on a sunrise canoe trip down the river, followed by an afternoon excursion to see sea turtle eggs on the beach. We signed up, and paid him for both activities at once. He picked us up the next morning at 4:30 for our boat ride, but never returned in the afternoon to show us the turtles. We weren’t too bothered by being ripped off of a few dollars—Guatemala was lovely and peaceful and full of gracious people. At night, we went out to bars where we met locals who wanted to dance and laugh with us as speakers played old American pop songs . We welcomed the company for a few hours a night. It was a wonderful short excursion away from our work, and we enjoyed every minute.
A few days later, Erin and I started our trip back to Maya Pedal. We were about halfway back to San Andres Itzapa when stopped in a small town where we had to transfer buses. Like all the buses we had been on in Guatemala, the bus we had taken that morning was tight, the aisle too narrow to pass through comfortably. As I made my exit from the bus, I brushed the shoulder of each passenger that sat on the outer edge of the bench and squeezed past some people who stood in the aisle. I tried to make myself taller, thinner, standing on my toes, holding onto the straps of my book bag so I could pull it more forcefully past the crowd. When the driver closed the doors behind us, I reached down feel for my hip pack, and realized it was gone. My heart stopped. I looked toward the bus. It had taken off so fast it was already far down the road, dust billowing up behind it, my passport, and wallet, my only identification and my only money inside—all my cash and my debit card. Maybe the buckle broke, or maybe someone managed to slyly detached it from around my waist as I tried to squeeze past them. I had brushed up against so many people—it would have been so easy for someone to reach down and take it without me noticing. Either way, it was gone.
I looked at Erin in a panic. In just a few seconds, I had ruined our trip. How could I have been so stupid as to keep all my valuables in the same place? I had thought the smartest way to carry the most important things that I would travel with was to attach them all to my waist. But that had ended with me in a foreign country, in the middle of nowhere, with everything gone other than some dirty clothes and few paperback books. We wouldn’t be going back to Maya Pedal to work – we would be getting ourselves to Guatemala City to the U.S. Embassy so I could get a new passport. I was mortified, and so disappointed in myself. Erin didn’t get mad at me, or even seen too concerned. We waited for the next bus, and Erin paid for both of us to be taken to the next closest town. Once we arrived, we found a small tourist agency, the kind that would book you a boat tour or a zip line adventure, and the owner suggested we hire a private car for $70 to get us to the capital as soon as possible – we could be there by early afternoon, much before the embassy closed. Again, Erin had to fork over the money for the car. I was so ashamed of having lost all of my belongings that I didn’t say anything for the entire two-hour ride to the city.
I knew I was lucky to be with my sister, and not alone, but again, Erin had to bail me out, and I felt terrible for it. I worried that without my debit card, Erin would have enough cash for the rest of our trip, now that she would have to pay for everything. We had run into some issues already traveling so close to the holidays. Banks didn’t have enough money to exchange our U.S. currency, and ATM machines were closed because there literally wasn’t enough money to go around—the bank’s priority was cashing citizens paychecks and Christmas bonuses. It had been tough. More than once, we had spent hours trying to find a bank or an ATM that would give us money, sometimes having to go to five or six machines before we had any success.
When we arrived at the U.S. Embassy, the line outside was around the block. My heart sank. There was no way were going to be seen today, or maybe even for a few days. We exited the car, and I went to see find the entrance to the beginning. I followed the snaking line, looking for where it led. As I approached the front of the building, I noticed a sign that said “U.S. Citizens,” where no one was waiting. The long line we were seeing was for Guatemalan citizens only! Erin and I walked right to the front doors, went through security, and within minutes, we were in the passport office, with only two other foreigners.
I shook and sweated as I explained to the customs officer that my passport had been stolen. It was three days before were supposed to be leaving Guatemala, and only a week before Christmas. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to leave the country, and my family would be mad at me for not showing up for the holiday because of such a dumb mistake. The officer told me to go back outside the building and pay someone across the street to take my picture. I was confused by the request, but did as he said. Sure enough, there were booths and booths lined up right outside the embassy offering photos—it was like an amusement park for passport pictures. For a few dollars, again paid for by Erin, I had my new photo taken. I presented it to the officer, who pointed to a row of chairs in the hallway where I could wait. I fidgeted in my chair, anxious, while Erin seemed bored and indifferent, mostly because she wasn’t interested in feeding into my anxiety. No more than an hour later, they called my name. For another $70 (footed, again, by Erin) I was issued a temporary passport to last me three months, until I could get back home and reapply for a new permanent passport. We left the Embassy and made our way to the bus station to buy tickets to San Andres Itzapa, relieved to be returning back to Maya Pedal. [EF23] We had only lost half a day in the whole ordeal, but I still felt like such an amateur traveler, so naïve, and lost without my sister, as usual. I still don’t know if I ever thanked Erin for saving me, and I don’t know if I ever remembered to pay her back for everything she did for us on that trip when I got us into that pickle.
We spent our last few days at Maya Pedal slowly and patiently working on bikes, with little else do to other than enjoy the mountain scenery and take comfort in knowing that what we were doing, although small, was helpful to a community. I loved getting my hands dirty every day. The night before we left to go home, Carlos told us he was so impressed with how many bikes we had fixed that he told us early on that he wished Erin and I could stay forever.