Within minutes of entering Guatemala (a process that would have been absurdly simple, had the Mexican government not decided to detain one of our British friends for three hours due to a missing piece of paper), Bruce gets a flat tire.
As we attend to this by the side of the road in a patch of jungly shade, a man pulls up on a motorbike and sells us two plastic bags full of ice-cold piña juice for 10 quetzals — our first purchase in a new currency, and the first sign that we aren’t in Kansas (aka Mexico, land of eternal affordability) anymore.
(In fact, we are surprised to learn from a gentleman at the border that the cost of living in Guatemala is, in fact, 33% higher than in Mexico — which is why many Guatemalan families make day trips into Mexico, just to do their weekly shopping.)
When the motorcyclist learns how far we’ve traveled on our bicycles, he invites us to take two additional watermelon juices at no extra charge, and then tells us all about the cevichería he runs in the next town over — on account of which he is now carrying half a freshly-killed octopus, which he happily shows us, and which, when alive, clocked in at over 18 pounds.
40km from the border, on the outskirts of a town called Coatepeque, we meet our first host in Guatemala: a small woman with crinkly eyes named Zoyla.
Zoyla runs a Chinese restaurant/hotel that triples, curiously, as a liquor dispensary.
When she lets us in, it is to circular dining tables draped with red tablecloths, flanked on all sides by towering glass display cases — boasting bottles of obscure delights such as peach schnapps, crème de menthe, and mandarin-flavored Absolut vodka.
Once we’ve settled in our rooms and returned to the restaurant and given our order of chicken chow mein and shrimp fried rice and beef with broccoli, Zoyla disappears into the back, where the phone immediately begins to ring.
Every time it rings, Zoyla picks the phone up and barks that she can't talk right now because she is cocinando, and then she swiftly hangs up.
This is how we come to realize that Zoyla is in the kitchen, cooking a multi-course dinner for four, all by herself.
Every course is delicious, as are the surprise wontons that she produces for dessert — which we eat sheepishly, having had the nerve to grumble about how long it was taking to get the check, our impatience for bed thrown into stark relief by the light of her hospitality.
The next morning after setting down mugs of coffee, Zoyla pulls a tin of Christmas butter cookies off a high shelf, places them on the table in front of us, and insists that we eat ALL of them, to fortify us for the day.
Then, over the course of two refills, she sits with her hands wrapped around her own coffee mug, and tells us about her family.
Her husband was the head chef, but he passed away many years ago, and now she is upholding his legacy. Thirty years ago business was very good. But now, she says, no one wants to eat foreign food except foreigners, and even they mostly go for pizza or Pollo Camparo.
Zoyla has four sons, and two daughters — one of whom is about to graduate to become a doctor, and the other of whom works at a bank.
Zoyla has people in Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and Arkansas; but she’s heard that Arkansas is a rather sad place to be.
At one point, Zoyla leans in close to me, and says:
“Listen. Guatemalans will never speak badly of their country, but there is a lot of delinquency here. You have to be careful. No one will say so, but be careful."
Shortly thereafter Zoyla disappears, and re-appears with two t-shirts.
One, she gives to me: white cotton with a red rooster on it, the logo for Gallo, “the best beer in Guatemala,” she says, showing me a warm sample bottle for emphasis.
The other — a white jersey-like shirt that says "Coca-Cola" on the front and “Coatepeque” on the back — she gives to Zoe.
“Para que acuerdense de mi,” she says, beaming. So that you remember me.
To the men, she gives two tiny packets of candy-coated peanuts and says: “You can share.”
When we finally peel ourselves away from the table, after the exchanging of emails and the taking of photos and a few clumsy attempts at expressing gratitude after she insists that the coffee and cookies are her treat…
… I return to the room to gather the last of my things, and retrieve a little turquoise necklace I acquired back in Puerto Escondido.
When I get back to my bike, there is ANOTHER t-shirt draped across it.
… This one is bright yellow, a jersey like Zoe’s, that also says “Coatepeque” on it.
I look at Bruce, who shrugs. “Zoyla wanted you to have it. Don't worry," he assures me, "I didn't want one anyway.”
I put on the yellow jersey, which is conveniently too small for Bruce, and venture toward the back, where Zoyla is doing laundry.
As she puts her wet soapy hand in mine, I show her the necklace, and say that it comes from a beach in Mexico where you can release baby turtles to the sea.
“Okay,” she says simply, accepting with a nod, smiling her elfin smile.
And then we cycle off, grinning — wearing matching Coatepeque jerseys that scratch at our skin and trap all the heat and the sweat, but which identify us, somehow, as here — welcomed and ceremoniously befriended in a new land.
... And — for at least ten kilometers — blissfully unaware of just how hard it will be, to climb the 9,000-foot volcanoes that await.