I saw my first tuk tuk in Guatemala, bombing down the road at about 30 miles per hour, just outside of Tikal. I’ve heard of these interesting contraptions before, but had never seen one in real life. I was snapping multiple pictures of one particular tuk tuk like I would never see another one again. Little did I know, I would soon become one with the tuk tuks.
It all started the night we arrived in San Pedro La Laguna. After greeting the school and taking our exams, we set up camp in the parking area where we planned to stay for a week or two waiting for a cabana to open up. We decided to grab a bite to eat that night in “Gringolandia”- a network of tight alley ways packed with restaurants serving up food you would only find back in the states. We strolled along looking for a place to quench our undeniable thirst and fill our bellies. We found a restaurant that served up everything from burgers to salads to thai food. The best part? They sold our favorite type of beer by the bottle!! We entered into the dark, smokey restaurant and plopped down at the nearest table. We ordered our food and waited patiently.
After the waitress dropped the food off, Nate looked at me and told me that he didn’t feel ‘right’ but attempted to eat his meal anyway. He got about halfway through and glanced at me with a concerned look and said, “Sarah, I think we need to go back to the truck now. I really don’t feel that good.” While desperately looking for the waitress, I saw Nate go outside to get some fresh air. Once the bill was paid and the food packed up, I went outside to meet him but he was no where to be found. Having just arrived earlier that day, I did not know my way around town and did not know which direction he had gone. Panicked, I started sprint-walking back and forth in front of the restaurant saying his name. Nothing. Where did he go? Why would he go somewhere I couldn’t easily find him?
FInally, I spotted him down an alley, slumped over sitting on the ground. He had his sweatshirt in his hands and his head in between his knees. He was not making words and was completely drenched with sweat. I got him to stand up but he could not walk far. He pointed to an area near us that looked to be a garden of sorts and asked if he could lie down in there. I checked it out and it looked legit so I left him there while I went to find a taxi to bring us back to the school. I started jogging down the alley way, looking for a ride. A tuk tuk rounded the corner and was headed straight for me. I threw my hands up in the air and asked the man for a ride. He complied and waited for me while I went and dragged Nate out of the garden.
In my terrible Spanish, I told him that we needed to go to the Corazon Maya spanish school. He knew exactly where to go but first, had to back up down the alley to face to right direction. Then, he took off like a bat out of hell. It felt like we were in the Baja 1000 of tuk tuks. We were going up and over narrow cobblestone streets, weaving from side to side threading between people like a needle. Nate was slouched over beside me, his face pale green. I thought he was going fall out of the side of the tuk tuk a few times. When we finally arrived, I graciously gave the driver the ten quatzales he asked for and hurriedly opened the back of the truck so Nate could lie down. I gave him a pot in case he got sick and some water. After he was settled, I called my parents to ask what to do. This was the first time in my life with Nate, a total of almost eleven years, that I had seen him this sick. I didn’t know what to do. I was lost. My compadre was down and out for the count.
It wasn’t until after I got off the phone with my parents that I realized Mat and Isabel had arrived in San Pedro and were probably wondering where we were. I checked our emails. Mat had sent one asking us where we were and told us what hotel they were at. Nate assured me that he was fine so I took off looking for them, all by myself. I walked up to the gate of the school but it was locked. What was I going to do? I envisioned myself in an episode of ‘Cops’; on the run, hopping the fence to get away. Coming back to realization, knowing I’m not that badass, I strolled over to check it out. I peered over the fence- It wasn’t that far of a drop. I mustered up the courage and flung myself up and over the bamboo fence. However, in midair, I started realizing what I was doing and frantically clung to the sharp metal grating. I slowly scraped down the side of the bamboo, my body totally stiff with nervousness. Once I reached the ground, I brushed myself off and looked around to make sure no one saw my embarrassing attempt to be a badass. Only a few battle wounds later and I was back on my feet. I walked about three or four minutes before deciding to grab a tuk tuk because I had no idea where I was going. I turned around, standing on the side of the road, and waited for one to come my way. All of a sudden, I saw what looked like blue police lights blinking down the road. They were getting closer and closer. It was a tuk tuk! A red, three wheeled contraption flying down the road right in my direction. He pulled over and I hopped in. We blasted down the road, past all the street dogs and people, watching the lights whizz by.
Once at the hotel, I thanked him for the ride and went on my way to find Mat and Isabel. I told them my heroic story of saving Nate from the sketchy alley, flagging down my first tuk tuk and jumping fences like a convict on the run. When it was time for me to leave, I confidently walked out into the street, flagged down the first tuk tuk I saw and hopped in.
Once back at the school, I realized that I hadn’t completely thought it through when I left earlier. Because I had to jump the fence to get out of the school, that would mean I would have to jump the fence to get back into the school. With a little more confidence this time around, I was able to gracefully hoist myself up and over the fence.
The next couple of days were spent at a hotel so Nate could recover. However, no hotels would allow dogs. The hotel Mat and Isabel were staying at allowed us to keep Brady on the roof of the hotel during the day but we had to bring him back to the truck at nighttime. This is where I became the master of all masters of the tuk tuk world. Not only was I confident in flagging down tuk tuks at any given time, but I was negotiating prices and even able to convince them to allow Brady to ride for free!
The reason for taking Brady in the tuk tuk is because of the perro bravos (aggressive dogs) in town. When walking the streets of San Pedro with a gringo dog, packs of street dogs aggressively chase you down, nipping at their heels. Although Brady is easily three times the size of any dog down here, he knows they have strength in numbers and won’t fight back. The only way to negotiate with these dogs is with tall boots and a pocket full of rocks. Since much of this traveling with Brady was done during the night hours, I decided to forgo my negotiations with the street dogs and hop in the safety of a tuk tuk.
Brady’s first tuk tuk ride was interesting. The tuk tuks around here are souped up with bright lights and mufflers louder than my ’83 Harley. Because of that, Brady was real skittish when in the tuk tuk. He hunkered down on the floor and tried to jump out a few times. The second and third times were better. He jumped right in and sat down next to me in the seat. He would stick his whole head out the side while we whizzed down the roads. He definitely got made fun of by the street dogs as we passed by. I also imagine it looked pretty funny to the locals to see a gringa with her bigheaded dog hanging out the side of the tuk tuk.
I got to know the streets of San Pedro pretty well in my tuk tuk time. It was not only a way to get from here to there for me, I was getting free spanish lessons and even got offered some quetzalteca (cane liquor), which I denied. In that week, I became a professional, a master of the tuk tuks, an extraordinaire.
**Unfortunately, no photos were taken during these events. You will have to use your creative imagination to picture Brady and I whizzing down the streets of San Pedro in the back of a souped up, three wheeled golf cart with neon lights and straight piped mufflers **
Author: The Long Way South
Nate and Sarah were born and raised in the small town Saco, Maine, USA. We attended college in Boston, MA where we caught the traveling bug and have been addicted ever since. After our brief stint with the corporate world we decided, never again! The Long Way South is our website for our Pan-American journey, and the porthole for a life full of travel.