Moriartys -- Dispatch from Guatemala

From Ann and Kent Moriarty in Antigua, Guatemala, Saturday 28 March 1998:

Hello family and friends! The long-awaited dispatch has arrived and we're afraid that you might be scared off by how long it is. Don't worry; we've managed to squeeze about three months of stuff into five pages. HA! Anyway, feel more than free to skim! And we still look forward to hearing from you at our address or getting a letter sent to Ann's parents in Sun Lakes, AZ. The bike should hopefully be here soon and we'll be on our way! Take care!

The burro had one thing on its mind and it was looove! He was straining so hard against the rope that tied him to the cement light post that his eyes bulged and the post seemed to bend under the tension. The female burros that were the objects of his attention turned onto another small dirt street with their owners and their loads of corn. Kent and I followed along. We hadn't walked more than fifty yards when we heard frantic yelling and a boy raced around the corner frantically whipping his mount, a small female burro. The object of the boy's fear followed right on their heels; somehow the male had broken free and had designs on the little female, whom he was going to get regardless of the blows he was receiving from his owner who was trying without success to retrieve his wayward charge.

Everyone on the street virtually collapsed in convulsions of laughter as they watched the spectacle. But several women and children pulled themselves together enough to help; Kent and I took their burdens so they could run after the burros too. But the male was oblivious to the crowd chasing him and suddenly he took notice of the other female burros in the vicinity. The burden of choice was reflected in his fevered eyes but finally he made his decision and chased after another female, trying to mount her sideways, so crazy in lust he could not figure out how to get the job done. He continued to ignore the crowd that was beating him with sticks until his owner finally got a fresh rope around his neck and the tug of war began. Others helped the owner, pulling on the end of the rope with all their strength. The burro's tongue hung out in agony as he fought with mightily against them, trying to return to the business at hand. Finally strength in numbers won out and the villagers were able to pull the miscreant away. The show was over, everyone weak from laughter as they picked up their own burdens to continue on their way.

We had left Puebla two days earlier headed for Oaxaca on the toll highway. Our first night on the road we were counting on staying at a hotel in a small town along the way. Much to our dismay, the town had no hotels and we did not feel comfortable asking someone to allow us to set up our tent by their house because the town had an eerie feeling to it. So we got on a small parallel road and scanned for a place to camp. Nothing, nothing, nothing and it was starting to get dark. We finally spotted some abandoned poultry barns and headed towards them on a small dirt road. Great! No one was around and it was the perfect place to get out of the wind that was plaguing us. As we wheeled the tandem towards the closest barn, Kent noticed some men in the next one and went over to talk to them. They were camping like we were, probably harmless, but had their machetes out by their cook fire and spooked us a little. So we returned to our dirt road riding until we saw a crumbling old adobe behind which we set up camp, praying that no one would see or bother us. We experienced no problems except for the wind that continued to moan and shake the leaves in the tree above us, and the next morning we got back to the highway and headed into the mountains.

A hard day of climbing awaited us and though the views were spectacular, by the time the sun started to set, we were pretty wiped out and wanted to make it to Tepelmeme, the next town on the way. As we got off the highway and started towards town, we asked a man pushing a wheelbarrow about any places to stay. He looked at us quizzically and informed us that there wasn't even really a store in the village. Hmmm. But he then invited us to stay by his home and leaving his wheelbarrow, he ran back to get his wife to lead us there. What a relief! We met her on the road, passed the horny burro and after the big show, arrived at the family's humble home. We cooked spaghetti on our small cook stove much to the amusement of their young daughters, bought sodas from their small supply and spread out our sleeping bags in a small front room.

We left Tepelmeme the next morning for Oaxaca where we stayed several days before riding over yet another range of mountains to the coast just south of Puerto Escondido. As we climbed to over 8,000 feet we enjoyed the beauty surrounding us -- untouched slopes, tilled fields, colorful villages and a peaceful, fairly untraveled road. Riding down the other side, however, was a different story; we were amazed at the destruction wreaked by Hurricanes Pauline and Rick. The road was completely destroyed in places, washed out by rivers some of which still poured over what was left, or covered by landslides leaving only a narrow dirt track barely wide enough for the busses which still braved the road to pass. I was nervous whenever we picked up any speed down the steep hills because I just knew we were going to fly around a corner into a huge pothole, or something worse, like a log or a car or a bus that was coming the other way. The construction workers along the way found us entertaining as they watched us navigate the rough sections and ride through the rivers that had washed out the road.

Towards the end of the day I was finally relaxing a bit, enjoying the thrill of the unknown until we saw something horrifying off to the side of the road. A dog was hanging by its neck, screaming, kicking, trying desperately to somehow pull itself up by its paws on the rope that was strangling it. A family watched from a short distance as another dog savaged the hanging one viciously, biting its thrashing legs. I yelled at Kent to STOP! The family yelled at us to keep going: we were in a quandary. ¿Qué pasa con el perro? -- What's happening with the dog? -- but the people just waved us on. I was about ready to run over and cut the dog down but again they just shouted and waved us on. What could we do? And then the dog simply stopped thrashing -- hung limply, apparently dead. With tears in my eyes, I looked back at the family -- in my mind, they were cruel killers -- got on the bike and we left. For miles, we saw nothing more of the road, only the image of the suffering animal being hung by the neck until his death. We tried to understand why people would do this and came up with numerous possibilities: the dog had killed a sheep, had bitten a child, or done something that threatened the livelihood of the family, or maybe had rabies or another disease. But nothing we came up with seemed to justify to our Western-thinking minds this kind of death for a living thing. Not until we encountered the beauty of the coffee plantations and the different jungle terrain the next day riding down to the coast were we able to start putting the experience behind us.

As we continued south we enjoyed the coastline and the quiet road, although we sorely missed the cool dry climate of the highlands. Something about humidity and heat and still air just made us, well, just made us sweat. We crossed onto the narrow isthmus that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic and marks the geographic end of North America. The only problem with this area is that it is virtually flat. Normally, flatness is a welcome relief from strenuous mountains but when combined with oceans on either side a four-letter word describes the result: W-I-N-D. What a nightmare! There was a helpful road sign: "If there is strong wind, slow down!" We had no trouble with that as we could not top six mph no matter how hard we tried. HA! The wind must have been blowing 40-mph quartering from our left front and as we turned further south, the wind hit us directly broadside on a road with no shoulder and a fair amount of truck traffic. I lost track of the number of times we were nearly blown off the road and the number of times we were blown off. Incredible -- gusts of 50 mph just pushed us right into the grass. Kent controlled all of our unexpected exits so we never ate any dust, but still, my nerves were fraying. I couldn't help whimpering or shouting imprecations that my mom would be ashamed of into the wind or singing "Victory in Jesus" loudly to myself. It was worse whenever a truck overtook us or even worse than that, when a truck going the opposite way passed pushing a huge blast of air with it that buffeted us all over the road.

Finally, when I was near the end of my rope, a small roadside tienda emerged from the flying dust. We sat drinking a soda trying to recover a bit of our confidence but it did not help that it seemed like we were sitting in the middle of Clint Eastwood's movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, silent customers watching the dust and dry plants blow across the road, listening to the wind whistling and the eerie rattling of the sign against the fence, waiting for something, God only knew what, to happen. I was waiting for the haunting whistle and cowboy to enter the picture. And I would not budge. Period. "This is stupid, dangerous ... not worth it -- we need to hitch a ride, listen to that gust anyway -- NO WAY!" was my response to Kent's begging me to get back on the bike and continue. We prayed for a sign and the only answer we got from God was a louder wind. I finally ungraciously gave in to Kent's urging and walked out to the bike. We had a new system: we rode in the middle of the lane, Kent concentrated on keeping the bike on the road and I took full responsibility for watching traffic to make sure we did not get plastered by an aggressive vehicle. To my surprise it worked out and we rode another thirty miles without incident.

Chiapas was just ahead of us and we looked forward to escaping the flats and reentering the mountains. We rode into a paradise of perfect weather, beautiful scenery, challenging riding and nice people. We even arrived in one town, Cintalapa, during its annual Fair and after enjoying the spectacle we left the next morning for the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez. We had ridden perhaps six miles out of town on the lightly traveled wide highway when I noticed a van following us at our same speed, allowing other vehicles to pass. "That's weird," I thought and then the van sped up as if to pass us.

That is all I remember and Kent not even that. The memory would return to haunt me as we later tried to understand what happened. I came to, sprawled on the ground beside the road unable to move -- I could see someone waving our bright orange flag and then heard a siren and a voice telling me to be calm. I kept calling for Kent and he does not remember answering and I am not sure I heard him respond. The siren approached, we were moved onto backboards and as Kent's face came into view, I started crying; his face was covered in blood, his neck was covered by a brace and he was lying very still. I must have been making some noise because the Red Cross ambulance workers kept telling me to be calm. Kent was silent, apparently still unconscious. My back was on fire and it did not help that to keep from rolling around inside the swaying ambulance, I had to grab a strap hanging from the ceiling. The movement stopped and we were slid out the back of the ambulance and into a room. "Do you have insurance?" someone asked.

I replied, "Yes, but all of the information is with our bike."

They slid us back into the ambulance and we were sped on our way to a private hospital in the capital. (Wasn't that where we had been headed in the first place? At least this way, we'd get there sooner....) The ambulance made a quick stop at the scene of the accident to get our panniers which had our insurance information and our clothes and I remembered to ask the ambulance workers to take pictures of the wreck. Kent was now awake; I kept telling him "I love you" just to hear his voice respond. After what seemed an eternity of twisting roads we arrived at the hospital and were moved into the X-ray room. I remember being almost desperate to make sure we were together and that we would be placed in the same room because I didn't think I could deal with the combination of pain and Spanish and not knowing how Kent was.

We did end up together in a small private room that had, of all things, cable TV. Which we didn't get to enjoy all that much over the five days of our stay because we were both on Valium IV drips. Due in part, I'm sure, to this, time both stood still and flew. We were in a fog interrupted only by phone calls from family and friends, meals topped off by different colored jellos, and a seemingly endless parade of nurse and doctor visits.

Physically, we suffered remarkably few injuries. Kent was forced to lie on his back because of the brace protecting his neck and he became proficient at peeing into a "duck," the improbable name for a male bedpan. The left side of his face changed from raw red scrapes to white as the nurses spread sulfur cream over it to help it heal and his broken left wrist was soon encased in a solid cast. But the cast was so tight that it caused severe pain; the doctor returned to cut a slit by his thumb to relieve some of the pressure. This, according to Kent, was not enough and he kept working at the slit with his breakfast spoon until finally the cast was open sufficiently to allow him to relax though he had to endure scoldings from the doctor for messing with it. But aside from these relatively minor injuries and general trauma, Kent was okay and had no recurring problems even though he had been unconscious for a good period of time -- we guess somewhere between thirty and sixty minutes.

I did even better, the spasming and tight muscles in my lower back the only major concern. I was in enough pain that I could shift positions in bed only with great effort and sitting up for long was difficult but my body experienced no other real trauma. One of the hardest things for me was learning to use the female equivalent of Kent's duck, a much more uncomfortable and potentially messy affair.

I am not sure when we started trying to understand what really happened on the road but we realized immediately that both of us had a huge blank spot where the memory of the actual crash should have been. I remembered all too painfully the van following us but not why I didn't figure out it was suspicious enough behavior for us to get off the road. And what was the motive? Did whoever was in the vehicle want to rob us? Or was the driver just drunk? The vehicle took off after hitting us; did they think they had killed us and panicked? Or had there been witnesses? We had been so proud of how visible we were with our fluorescent jerseys and pannier covers, bright orange flag snapping in the wind of our passage. So why on a flat, clear, lightly trafficked road had we been hit? It had to have been on purpose; something we had never innocently even considered to be a possibility. Why would anyone deliberately aim for and try to crush bicyclists? We determined that there was definitely a messed-up someone out there.

The second day of our stay in the hospital, I called my parents and related to them our situation and I remember feeling their fear as well as their love. I guess that until Kent and I have children ourselves we will not truly understand the depth of emotion and fear parents experience for their young when they are in trouble. We assured them that we were not seriously injured and were in a fine hospital and then we asked for prayer. Soon after, we felt the peace of God surrounding us. We were OKAY. We had survived; perhaps angels had plucked us from the bike at a critical moment and set us down (none too gently, I am afraid) out of death's way. This was certainly an isolated incident. Maybe our bike was even going to be fixable. Even then, lying in bed, we were thinking of how soon we would be able to continue riding south towards Argentina.

During our stay, we had several visits from a young woman who introduced herself as Maria Isabel and told us that her sister was also in the hospital. One of our doctors had suggested she visit the poor gringos who had no visitors and were probably very lonely. She spoke perfect English, the result of a year's study in Canada and was very gracious and sweet. This same doctor told Maria Isabel's family that we needed to keep resting after we left the hospital and they invited us to use the guestroom at their home. We happily accepted and on the day of our discharge, Maria Isabel and her chauffeur picked us up in the family Suburban.

We were a little overwhelmed upon arrival at the Pedrero home by a seeming swarm of servants running around cleaning rooms, making meals, washing cars, gardening, .... We had never been in the home of someone in the "servant-having" class before. Did we even have any friends at home who had servants? I have to admit that I sometimes thought that it would be nice to have someone else do the vacuuming or wash dishes....

But the Pedreros were even more generous than they were wealthy. They were a true blessing to us, inviting us in for more than a week, incorporating us into their family, feeding us three big meals a day, lending us the family lawyer to help us wade through the bureaucratic mess involved in obtaining our bike, suffering through my poor Spanish. Yolanda, according to the social pages of the newspaper one of the most beautiful and elegant women in Chiapas, kept telling us to eat more, more, more and Hernan was constantly on the phone trying to arrange this or that for us. In one particularly amusing case, we told him that we were surprised by the $6,000.00 hospital bill (even though our insurance covered it) and wasn't that a bit much? "Absolutely!" And he called the owner of the hospital, asking him the same question. The owner's response? "Well, if I had known they friends of yours, Hernan, I would not have charged them so much." Sigh.

The time finally came for us to make the hour-long journey back to Cintalapa to pick up our tandem. We piled into the Suburban with the chauffeur, the lawyer and another retainer. Both Kent and I had high hopes of repairing the bike and we looked forward to recovering our gear. But after a loooooong bureaucratic process during which we learned we could not take the bike back home until we returned with a special stamped paper from the head office in Tuxtla authorizing its removal, we decided to at least see it at the wrecking yard where it was stored.

A maze of destroyed cars and trucks led back to an old Nissan that had a tarp over its burned out trunk. The wrecking yard owner pulled off the tarp and we sucked in a deep breath. My knees threatened to crumble and shivers coursed up and down our bodies as we stared in shock at the remains of our lovely Cannondale tandem. The twisted broken pieces of aluminum lay there crumpled in a heap. I started crying. "My God, we should have been killed." We finally pulled ourselves together enough to check through the wreckage and do a quick inventory of our gear. Miraculously, everything was accounted for, even the $500 USD in cash that we had stashed inside one of the seat tubes.

While we were there, the wrecking yard owner pointed out the van that had supposedly hit us. Apparently a witness had described a green van and this one was found several kilometers away after a search, abandoned with no registration or information. But we could not find any scratches or bike paint on it anywhere -- neither on the side panels nor underneath nor on any bumper. So we were not convinced that this was the vehicle that had hit us.

This was pretty much where the investigation ended. No detectives were assigned to the case to track down the driver who escaped and we were told that if we wanted to pursue any kind of justice, we would need to stay in Mexico for maybe six months or more. As much as we wanted this justice, in our guts we knew that we did not have a chance. Heck, the authorities could not even get the police report right, reporting that I was the only injured party, in spite of the fact that Kent was standing in front of the official filling out the papers wearing the appropriate accessories: a neck brace and cast. So after some thought and some frustration, we let any idea of an investigation go.

Now, as we look back on this whole misadventure and try to make sense of it, we realize that in spite of the horror of the actual accident and the pain we suffered, we have much to be thankful for. After seeing how utterly destroyed our bike was, we are amazed that we were not killed. Because of our travel medical insurance, we were transferred to a reputable private hospital where we received exemplary care. We came to know a marvelous family, the Pedreros, and shared a small portion of their lives. A doctor friend of ours from Visalia tracked us down not knowing what had happened, found out and arranged to have our x-rays examined by trauma specialists in California. Through this same friend, we were introduced to Students International, a Christian organization here in Antigua, Guatemala where we are waiting for a new bicycle. Our parents have shown us an incredible amount of support and love. Kent's parents joined us here in Antigua on their pre-planned vacation and brought many letters, gifts and encouragement from home. We have been able to study Spanish here for four weeks, which we never would have done if we had not been forced to stay and recuperate.

And so while we wait for our new tandem to be built up by a local Bay Area bike shop, The Pedaler, whose owner Jeff Jerge agreed to sell us parts at cost, we are enjoying Antigua. Students International has provided great opportunities for us to join them in their ministry which invites high school and college students from the U.S. to volunteer in schools, orphanages, prisons, hospitals and other areas. Our bodies continue to heal and we hope to be back on the road soon, meeting more good people and hopefully avoiding the other kind!

Copyright (c) 1998 Ann Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.
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