Monday, 11 October 2010

Masks and Masquerades

Those few days in the Caribbean turned into just a few more, and then just a few more again. Having met up with previous travelling buddies from Costa Rica, I experienced a whole new level of exploring the islands. I swam and snorkeled and swam some more, discovering to my amusement that whilst I certainly cannot sink in warm (therefore very saline) tropical water, Israeli guys certainly cannot float. I spent and night on Isla Bastimientos where I met a guy skinning a shark that had tried to attack him whilst spear-fishing. And a very drunk old racist German guy who was hitting on my German friend and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. Finally time came to pack up and leave and I headed up to the biggest city in the world.

Arriving at Mexico City at midnight was an experience. The slew of currency exchange places vying for my attention, their enthusiasm immediately turned to disinterest when they realise I have travellers cheques instead of actual US dollars. I was informed by all and sundry that they couldn't exchange AmEx travellers cheques. Even though their booths displayed a rate for exchanging the cheques... Finally I gave up and found an ATM. Newly armed with Pesos I headed to the safe taxi booths. The first booth tried to sell me a ride for MX$180 to the centre of Mexico City. Knowing that the rate should be around MX$120 I asked to see his screen, seeing that the address he showed me was in zone 5. Even though I'd clearly told him my hostel was in zone 3. I rapidly moved onto a more competent company.

My hostel was brand new and very plush, rather like a hotel in ways, and full of Spaniards and Central Americans, which did wonders for my ailing Spanish, but was rather exhausting. The first day there I headed to the Zocalo to explore the sights that the centre of Mexico has to offer. I discovered that for the first time I was wandering around without being with men on in a mixed group, and it showed. I was hit on time after time by Mexican men who wouldn't take a rather unsubtle hint. Finally I gave in and decided to make use of the constant stream of locals. I ended up with a free walking tour of the centre of town, a free tour of the Arts Palace and help with locating and bartering for gifts and souvenirs. Finally I escaped the centre and headed out on a tour to the Mexican wrestling. Just as fixed as any other wrestling, but much funnier. I can't see the team of the fat guy, the old guy and the gay guy being allowed to win in any other setting. This experience also did wonders for my Spanish - although I won't be repeating what I learnt here...

I also headed out of the centre to view the virgin of Guadeloupe. A brown virgin, although this isn't immediately obvious by the shroud she's imprinted upon. Then on to visit the pyramids of the sun and the moon in a pre-Colombian, pre-Aztec city that enjoyed 600 years of power well before the Aztecs were more than just a nomad tribe of misfits. Interestingly the Aztecs were not even in power of the Mexican valley for 100 years by the time of the conquest. Part of this visit included learning the different uses of the cactus that tequila and mescalin are made from (yes it has more uses!). Natural paper can be peeled from the leaves, a ready threaded needle can be snapped from the centre, and the thread quickly and irreversibly dyed using various flowers. Also soap can be extracted and I'm sure many other uses were mentioned, but by that time the pre-lunch tasting session had kicked in. 4 shots of liquor before lunch? Welcome to Mexico!

And as all good things must come to an end, so has the money, and therefore the journey. Now it's time for the next big adventure - trying to curb the wanderlust and hold down a conventional life for a while. I can do it, just don't expect me to be happy about it...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Coral and Canals

Panama managed not to live up to stereotypes. When I thought of Panama I thought of sweltering jungles, drugs, the Panama canal, sucking up to US interference and the panama hat. OK, so the last stereotype is true, there are a lot of Panama hats. Although apparently they aren't made in Panama... What I found here were white sand beaches on islands dotted with coral reefs, chilly cloud forest and wilderness beaches. Yes there's an emphasis on beaches. In case you hadn't noticed, Panama has a lot of coast. I never made it down to the Darién where I believe most of the muggy rainforest is, and incidentally a lot of the drugs crossing the gap from Columbia. However I am told there were plenty of drugs on offer - apparently I just look too straight-laced to be offered them.

I started off in Panama by walking over a rickety iron and wood bridge to enter the country, fortunately speaking enough Spanish to sidestep the "you have to buy a return bus ticket that isn't actually a bus ticket" scam. Heading swiftly through banana country I took a boat to Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro. Here I swam, snorkeled and tried to dodge the sandflies for a few days before deciding to head down to Panama City. I didn't arrive in Panama City for nearly a week. I got a little waylaid...

To begin with I ended up in a hostel in the middle of the cloud forest in northern Panama. The name, rather appropriately, was Lost and Found, and being hidden in the clouds and only accessible by steep, muddy path, it had the feeling of being a place where people got lost in order to find themselves. Having had plenty of time in the last two years to find myself I instead found the noisiest silent place that I have ever been. The cloud seems to mute all sounds, and yet there are constant bird calls, and the lawnmower sound of hummingbirds whipping past your head. It was run by a group of "volunteers" who seemed to spend their time decorating (trying to remove the ghosts of a very strange past by balancing out the Egyptian-themed decor with images of local wildlife) and waiting for the evening to start so that drinking rules Jenga could begin. Here I also found a couple of American surf bums who I ended up getting lost with.

Although the cloud forest was beautiful, if was incredibly cold and so I and the two lads headed to Playa las Lajas, where we had heard beach cabins could be had for $10 US per night - the price of a cheap dorm bed in the rest of Panama. Following directions on a scrap of paper we found ourselves wandering down a muddy dirt track into the middle of nowhere as the fireflies lit up for the evening. Finally we found the end of the track and a small wooden sign saying "Cabañas" where we were acquainted with Chicho, the ever helpful owner (as long as I was speaking - he was apparently not so helpful when the lads were trying out a combination of Spanglish and sign language). The cabañas were bamboo, thatched with palm fronds. They had electricity (most of the time), a bed and a door that opened straight out onto a beautiful, empty, Pacific beach. Mine also had the occasional evening crab. We set up mosquito nets and hammocks, being careful to keep everything off the floor (high tides can enter the cabin - did I mention they opened onto the beach?), and then discarded our shoes and proceeded to go feral for more days than I care to remember. I do remember we drank a lot of rum and failed to light a fire. I believe these incidents were unrelated, however it is possible that my recollection of events is slightly rum-addled. This was also the period of time when I gave up on my anti-malarials. Apparently doxycyclin makes me vomit shortly after taking it. Which made the whole exercise seem rather pointless.

When we no longer knew the day of the week and had eaten Chicho out of chicken and drunk all his bottled Pepsi, had collected shells and coconuts and watched humpback whales jumping to our hearts delight, we headed back to civilisation. The guys up to Costa Rica, whilst I headed South to Panama City, getting to ride up front of the bus with a fantastic view because there were no more seats and the driver didn't want to leave a "chica solita" at the road junction. In Panama City I wandered around the old quarter with the ever present queue to ships waiting offshore to pass through the canal and visited the canal itself. Having had the canal talked up to me by so many travellers I met who were heading North, I was rather excited and thus disappointed. After all, it is only a canal, just bigger. Of course I later realised that those people who had been so excited were from countries without canals, and as such the use of locks would be just as exciting to them as it was to me when I was a child.

Having discovered that it was going to be too expensive for me to boat to Columbia I decided instead to head back north, to begin with to brave the highlands and cloud forests for a good cup of coffee or two in Boquete, and then back to Bocas del Toro, to further explore the beaches and coral there, to meet up with some friends and to enjoy some quality down time before the impending return to reality...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Costa Lotta

For me Costa Rica had a couple of problems. For me the most pressing was the cost of doing anything. Half day trips advertising "only $25 US" and the locals telling us this was cheap. Whilst you could find a dorm room for $5-6, eating and actually doing anything was rather more of a struggle. The second major problem was that nature just wasn't in the mood to perform.

We visited Monteverde cloud forest, a surreal experience that made me feel the atmosphere had been scripted by a second year media studies student. All around us were the peeps of birds, but the noises took on a spooky quality dampened in the swirling mists blotting out the tops of the trees so the source of the noise was rarely visible. We had headed there to try to spot the elusive Quetzal. It eluded us. We also planned on taking a night hike to spot sloths and tarantulas. I was rather more excited by the prospect of the former than the latter, but as it turned out the weather conspired against us and a torrential downpour dictated that a raucous game of pictionary replaced the night hike.

Our next stop was La Fortuna to spot lava flowing from the Arenal volcano, a very active volcano that apparently erupts nightly. After our guides distracted us with cuba libres we agreed to take their word for it and head by torchlight to a fast flowing natural hot river.

Giving up on the highlands we decided to head coast-wards into the jungles of Tortuguero National Park. The town of Tortuguero has no roads and is only accessible by lancha. We spent time bobbing around in the Caribbean, spotting sea-turtles nesting and I personally spent a rather frantic few minutes fending a dog off my ankle. Not my favourite experience of Costa Rica.

Deciding it was time to leave the drain on my bank balance we headed towards the border, finally arriving in Puerto Limon to find the next bus to the border was at 2pm, took 3 hours and the border closed at 5pm. Doing the maths and deciding spending a night in a border town was an experience we would rather not repeat, we headed to the pretty beach town of Cahuita where part of the national park is still free due to protests of the locals as national park entry fees are ridiculously high in Costa Rica, easily pricing the locals out. This results in a white sand beach, bordered by jungle and free of litter, an unheard of situation in Central America...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Leaving El Salvador was hard in many ways. First of all I didn't want to leave. Secondly it was a mad dash for the border to get the last bus from the Honduran side towards Nicaragua. We failed. So we experienced what all backpackers dread – a night in a border town. No street lights, many lorry drivers and a strange Honduran man who claimed to be a millionaire, yet was eating street food with us.

Needless to say, we survived and caught the first bus out the next day and made it to Nicaragua, possibly the worst border crossing yet. Before the collectivo had even stopped the cycle taxis had removed our bags from the roof and stashed them in their rickshaws. So in between trying to pay the collectivo driver and work out where immigration is we also had to keep removing our bags from the clutches of Hondurans and Nicaraguans with dollar signs in their eyes. Of course in the end it all got too much and we gave up. Asking how much they'd charge they refused to name a price and instead claimed it was tip only. We remained wary, but went along anyway. Getting through both sides of immigration (and being charged entry into Nicaragua, despite this not being a valid charge due to the CA4 agreement, so maybe I should say “paying a bribe”) our drivers then demanded a tip of $20 US each. Just to give an idea, normally bus journeys are approximately $1 US per hour. Of course we refused and offered a dollar each for their services of 20 minutes (most of which was waiting for us at immigration). They demanded all the money we could give, and then took a little more, leaving us short for the only bus. The bus driver refused to take any currency other than cordobas (which is unusual for Central America), or to take payment at the other end when we could exchange more currency. He made a fuss very loudly and in the end the guy in front of me on the bus tapped my arm and thrust a handful of change into my hand – the 2 cordobas (approximately 5p) that we were short. So my faith in humanity was restored, and I revised my opinion of hating Nicaraguans as much as Hondurans to hating Nicaraguan taxi drivers. This opinion turned out to be accurate. As long as you avoided taxi drivers (who would tell you there is no bus, even if you can see it...), Nicaraguans were lovely people.

In Nicaragua we went volcano boarding down a very active volcano, explored the delights of slightly dilapidated Granada, hitched and rode on bus roof-tops on Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, and tried to see sea turtles (twice) in San Juan del Sur. The river was too flooded to reach the beach both times. Instead we entertained ourselves by body-boarding and playing a lot of cards before finally plucking up the courage to leave the cheap sanctuary of Nicaragua and head to costly Costa Rica...

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Buen Viaje!

El Salvador turned out to be my favourite Central American country (so far that is!). There are many horrific stories and horrific reminders of a gruesome civil war, as in so many places in Central America, but it seems that through openly talking about the past they have reached acceptance of a brighter future. The country is mired with economic problems, high unemployment and the highest murder rate in the world, yet the people I met were the warmest, friendliest and most accepting people I have ever known. Unlike in other Central American countries, a conversation starting “What's your name? Where are you from?” is not immediately followed with “buy this”, instead continuing to “What do you do? Why are you here? What do you think of our country? Do you need any help? OK, have a safe journey!”.

In El Salvador I hitchhiked. I know that this isn't the safest thing to do in Central America (or anywhere for that matter), but it kept happening completely by accident. We would arrive somewhere having just missed a bus, or be waiting for a pickup (used as collective buses in the countryside of Central America) and someone would stop, ask where we were going and offer to take us there. When we got there (always they would drive out of their way to drop us somewhere perceived as safe) we would be about to offer to pay and they would hop back in their car, wish us a safe journey and give us a cheery wave as they sped off! I also found myself in many conversations on buses, the locals being happy to chat, and sometime not even caring if they were going too fast for my level of Spanish!

For such a beautiful country I didn't spend enough time there. I visited Alegria, a well cared for village nestled on an extinct volcano above the cloud line. The kind of place where everyone says “Hola!” in the streets, even to gringos. After Alegria I visited Perquin – headquarters for the FMLN during the civil war. Here I saw a museum dedicated to FMLN martyrs (usually commanders killed in action) – many of whom were students, and many women. We were showed around by an ex-guerrilla soldier, who was relieved to hear we were English, apparently the British ambassador was helpful to the FMLN during the war. One time that we didn't side with the US (who funded the government army). We saw exploded shells and some of the craters, and saw the FMLN radio station, Radio Venceremos (we will win – nothing like positive thinking!), basically a small room covered in egg boxes, yet the reason behind the El Mozote massacre. El Mozote was a small village around 15km from Perquin. The army thought it to be full of FMLN sympathisers, and possibly the site of Radio Venceremos, so they killed everybody. Down to the last child (the youngest recorded victim was 3 days old). The village was destroyed. Approximately 750 people died that day, but most of the bodies reclaimed are those of the children, and a peace garden with their names is now beside the church. The most haunting part of it was that some of the children are simply listed as “son of...” or “daughter of...” as no-one remains alive who knew their names. We were shown around by a lady who was 11 at the time. She was spared the massacre because she left the village early in the morning to work with her father at a finica, which was unusual for her. They returned to find they had lost everything. Yet in true El Salvadorian style El Mozote has risen from the ashes. Around the rebuilt church and memorials, the entire village has been rebuilt. Children play in the streets, cheery songs radiate from the church, and life goes on. Interestingly the civil war in El Salvador did eventually produce a change. The FMLN have formed a government.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Horsepower: 1

Honduras was a whole lot of mountains rising through misty clouds, random men wandering the streets with machetes and random letters being missed out of Spanish words, making the Spanish spoken all but incomprehensible. Unlike other Spanish speaking countries, Hondurans seemed to actively enjoy both confusing and misunderstanding us. In particular the lady working at the coffee shop in Gracias sticks in my mind. She was capable of serving “cafe con leche” (which she served a bit like a cappuccino but with more milk) or “cafe negro” (black), but ask for coffee with milk separately, or just a little milk and you will get a cold cappuccino. On our final day I took pleasure in the revelation that it wasn't just us she would misunderstand when overhearing some Spanish tourists ordering “white coffee and an espresso”. Her response? “Dos cafes con leche”?!

One aspect of Honduras that differed greatly from Guatemala was the absence of traditional dress. In Honduras about 90% of the population are Ladino, meaning that they're mixed Mayan and Spanish descent. Most people do not speak Mayan languages and Christian worship here does not combine elements of Mayan worship – no multicoloured candles or chicken sacrifice in churches here... Also there seemed to be a much bigger divide between rich and poor. Whilst in Guatemala most people were clearly poor, there didn't seem to be so many people desperately poor as in Honduras. Honduras has more obvious signs of wealth; shopping malls, major chains, air-conditioned buses, but as you cruise through the countryside in these air-conditioned buses you notice families living on tiny plots of land in single-roomed adobe (that's mud) huts that you see in other countries. Honduras has more rich people, but it also has poorer people that Guatemala. In the countryside you also notice that the horse is still a viable mode of local transport. Whilst people may take buses between towns, when they get off the bus it'll be at wherever they parked their horse, complete with wood and leather saddle.

We also visited the ruins at Copan Ruinas. Whilst much smaller than Tikal, these ruins were very interesting as not only did they seem less restored, allowing you a real glimpse of ruined temples rising out of the rainforest, but they also had many impressive carvings and Mayan hieroglyphs remaining. Whilst similar to Tikal, the city was notably different in style and sheer number of carvings surviving. Plus their sacrificial alters were rectangular, not round. Although that probably only really makes a difference if you're the one being sacrificed...

After Honduras we headed into El Salvador, where the guard at the border disappointed us by not stamping our passports as apparently we don't need a stamp. El Salvador itself did not disappoint, heading on our first day to La Palma, the home of naïve art, and a town that looks like it was attacked by a pack of over-zealous 7 year-olds... Even those buildings that are not covered with murals are brightly coloured and decorated, and the people have been friendly, curious and welcoming. It may not be so different to the rest of Central America, but in another way it really is, and I love it for that!

Friday, 20 August 2010

I think they're speaking English...

From Flores we headed North to Belize. Here I found myself getting a 2 day visa whilst everyone else got a 30 day visa and I'd asked for 7 days. As part of this scam I then had to travel to the capital city, Belmopan, (basically a bus station and many administration buildings) to buy a “visa-extension” for US$25, resulting in my beer and ice-cream budget for the duration of Belize being $0. Of course this didn't extend to rum mixed with coconut water from green coconuts we found on the beach. We headed first to Dangriga, a Garifuna settlement towards the south of the country. We found a very friendly hostel and a small town with sandy streets full of barefoot friendly people speaking English in a way we couldn't understand. Fortunately they were also well versed in “English for foreigners”. Food in Belize consisted of fish, fish or fish flavoured chicken. Fine for me, but not so good for my fish-hating friends.

We headed out to Tobacco Caye, a tiny coral island 100m by 40m in the Caribbean in the Belize barrier reef. The entire island is white (slightly coarse) sand, coconut trees, conch shells and brightly painted wooden huts. We snorkeled straight off the beach and I was very excited to see three levels of life and three levels of shoaling fish – right below the surface, in the reef and weed below and the space in between. I also saw eagle rays hunting for crabs under a boat tied at the dock, swimming off with the crabs legs dangling out from either side of their mouths, and a sting ray, although I kept my distance a little more from this one. My friends were apparently not as excited by fish as I was and quickly became bored of the underwater wonderland, instead preferring Cuba Libres to an interactive nature programme. We swung the night away on hammocks on our balcony watching the electric storms over the Caribbean and listening to the waves break on the barrier reef.

We also visited Placencia and again marvelled at the brightly coloured buildings rising out of the white sand (incidentally the white sand here really was quite rough underfoot too) before returning to our cockroach, ant and frog-infested room. The next day I either had a nasty heat-rash or had caught legionnaires disease. Leaving Belize we headed for Honduras in a boat that definitely looked too small to be a legal means of crossing a border, with a whole load of boxes that looked too dodgy to be legally crossing a border... Arriving in Honduras a man met the boat and ran away with everyone's passports. Apparently this is to ensure our attendance at immigration, however it may have worked better if he'd told us where the immigration office was...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Down from the Highlands

After an unexpected detour to Guatemala City, an unmarked cab ride later took us to the bus-stop to Coban. Finally arriving at Coban after dark we headed swiftly to a hostel. After realising there are two 3rd Avenues and turning the map the right way up... There's not really a lot in Coban. A small central square dominated by a strange modern art sculpture that looks like it was created for a film set (namely X-Men), and is now used predominantly by drunks to shelter from the rain and gaze upon confused tourists.

We swiftly moved on from Coban towards our main destination for central Guatemala, Lanquin. This small village is inundated by tourists from all over the world to visit the Lanquin caves and the famous Semuc Champey, where the river predominantly runs under a natural limestone bridge leaving just a small, gentle flow over the top of the bridge in a series of stepped turquoise pools. Unfortunately this has affected the local population in a negative way and nowhere in Guatemala did we find less friendly or unhelpful people. Once we'd managed to get to the pools (after being messed about and driven in the wrong direction by a pick-up driver, jumping in a different, more crowded pick-up and yours truly being stroked by a young Mayan woman) the cool water was a well welcome break. El Peten in Guatemala is hot and humid. You start sweating from the moment you get out of the shower...

The Lanquin caves were also very interesting, visiting at dusk you get to witness the spectacular exit of thousands of bats through a rather small entrance. Of course you don't really get to witness the bats as they move so fast, all you see is a blur and when the lights in the cave go out you have the rather strange sensation of being airbrushed from all angles as the bats flit past. My second experience of the caves was less impressive. One of the girls on our tour lost her wallet and spoke no Spanish. I went along with her to the police to help translate. The police drove us out to the caves where we hiked through the slippery caves again in the dark (there was no power in Lanquin that evening), 2 torches between 4 of us, accompanied by our guide and a man with a very big gun... We never did find her wallet.

After Lanquin we tried to attain Flores without having to back-track 1.5 hours to Coban. Admitting defeat we ended up in Coban again, managed to find a collectivo to Sayaxche, and upon arrival at Sayaxche we finally understood why there were no direct buses to Flores. We crossed the river by lancha, caught another collectivo the other side and made it to Flores before dark. Flores itself is a town on an island in a lake, attached to the mainland and twin town Santa Elena by a narrow spit of land. Our first day in Flores was characterised by a trip to Isla Santa Barbara where a very strange museum (Mayan artifacts and electronics) is run by a very strange man. One can only suppose that men that live on small islands and run museums are expected to be eccentric and therefore we shouldn't have been surprised when he proceeded to pick up a 2,000 year old jade knife and hacked away at the wooden post supporting the roof to show us it was still sharp. From the looks of the post it wasn't the first time he'd done this demonstration... This was followed by playing equally old Mayan clay whistles, playing a conch shell, wiping his spittle off on Chris's t-shirt then insisting that Chris play the conch, clearly taking much amusement from the raspberry sound that emerged. The tour finished with him playing Land of Hope and Glory on a gramophone, using his finger to turn the record. Finally we were introduced to the DJ of Radio Peten, also based on the island, and allowed to return to the mainland rather confused, but without lasting physical or mental damage.

We visited Tikal on an early morning tour. Not early enough to see sunrise as the gates only officially open at 6am, but early enough to share the rainforest ruins with wildlife. We wandered around the temples rising from the forest to the roars of tree lions (apparently it was the howler monkeys making that noise, but I'm still convinced that there is some species of rare lion living in the trees near the ruins...), the flap of butterflies and the buzz of approximately 6 billion mosquitoes. My major successes that day were climbing the ridiculously steep and shaky steps of temple 5, not having to hold a tarantula and not getting a single mosquito bite! A lot of the ruins at Tikal are restored and it can be hard to know what's rebuilt and what's original, but the sheer scale of the city and the height of the temples, combined with the majesty of them rising out of the rainforest gives the whole site an air of mystery and grandeur that I suspect would not have been present had the whole site been cleared of trees like the grand plaza.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Landslides and Chicken Buses

So, I finally found the Zapatistas in Mexico. Bizarrely they were en route to Palenque. We drove through a military checkpoint which had a sign stating that they were searching for drugs, but when I asked the driver what drugs were in the region he said the sign is only for tourists. Really they're searching for arms entering the Zapatista towns further along the road "otherwise why would they only stop people in one direction?". And sure enough, as we progressed down the road we came across many towns with brightly painted Zapatista murals as well as many signs declaring voting allegiances in elections past. And a lot of Mayans living well below the poverty line.

Before arriving in Palenque we visited a few waterfalls, with many brightly coloured butterflies, including some rather enormous electric blue ones. Palenque itself was impressive, and the tour interesting, although rather difficult to follow as it was all conducted in Spanish... However I did learn a lot about the history, how it was abandoned, apparently for no reason, and how the grave of a woman (the red queen) was found in the temple next to the most important central temple. Who this woman was remains a mystery, but made for an interesting story. Fortunately most archaeological and scientific terms are the same in Spanish and English! On the way back the weather came in and parts of the road that I swear were present on the way to Palenque had vanished into the dark abyss below. We finally made it back to San Cristobal at 11pm, only to find the roads more resembled rivers than roads.

The next morning I was up bright and early ready for my shuttle to Quetzaltenango (Xela) in Guatemala. Ever hopeful of arriving at the predicted time of 2-3pm I was looking forward to a smooth trip the likes of which I had on the way to Mexico. All went smoothly until the Mexican border. The border control itself was simple, and for some reason I didn't get charged the entry fee to Guatemala that everyone else did, but the problems began when we couldn't gain the border in the shuttle. So everybody out and we hiked across the border to Guatemalan immigration. Then we sat and waited in the sweltering heat. It became apparent that the shuttle was not coming and eventually our Mexican driver found the reason for the lack of traffic. A landslide an hour up the road. So, back on with the backpacks and we hiked through the border town of Mesilla until we found a chicken bus. Chicken bus to the landslide, or as close as it was possible to get (2-3km away) and then hiking past the cars filling both lanes of the road, honking their horns and the lorry drivers sheltering from the rain drinking coke under their trailers. Finally we gained the landslide, just as they were breaking through clearing it, and hiked around, through a corn field, emerging at the other side to find a shuttle and a very confused and surprised driver (mostly because there were 3 of us who were very insistent that we'd booked shuttles to Xela and not to Pana and therefore really DID want to go to Xela). Finally the driver took us close to Xela and paid for a taxi to the centre for us, having missed all possible connecting shuttles!

Today, having recovered from the hiking in tropical heat and occasional rain, the three of us decided to go visit a nearby town, Zunil, to see San Simon and check out the town in general. All of this sounded like an excellent idea, and we caught the chicken bus without any problems. Of course then the chicken bus stopped in the next town down where a mudslide had filled the whole main street. So for the second time in 2 days we were hiking over a mudslide (although this time it was neither raining nor tropically hot, but we are over 2,000m here, so not the easiest work...). At the other end there were no buses, but we managed to find out from the locals where we could catch a pickup from, and finally made it to see San Cristobal and a cute little Mayan town, surrounded by fields and with a rather torrential river flowing through it, and with that half-constructed feel of so many places in Guatemala. The way back was relatively easy, I know the drill by now, and am a pro at landslide hiking now...

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Having spent a month learning Spanish I am now capable of conversing in 3 types of past tense, present and a form of "irreal" future tense. I am also capable of explaining the joys of my new favourite word: "Trabajaba". Not only does this word roll off the tongue in a most delightfully amusing way (for native English speakers at least), it also means "worked". Yes, in past tense. Cuando yo trabajaba... When I worked... What a wonderful feeling!

I finally finished Spanish school, after a few fantastic weeks involving riding on the back of pick-ups to the beach with my family, attending a school play and prize-giving where everyone seemed to be called "Gonzalez Gonzalez" and zip-lining like a monkey through rainforest. I am now in Chiapas, Mexico, where I am learning more about the different Mayan groups and how difficult it is to have a proper Spanish conversation when outside of Spanish school. However I have been putting my Spanish to good use talking to an older guy playing guitar in a bar and asking where is good to visit.

The next day I found myself travelling for 25 minutes in a collectivo that smelt of goat and was filled with people wearing furry clothes, and way more children than you would have thought was possible, to a town called San Juan Chamula. In this town there is a catholic church, where the Mayan way of worship is used in front of the catholic saints. This means that many groups of brightly coloured candles (signifying different prayers) are lit on the floor whilst the locals sit on pine needles and leaves that they have spread around. During this ceremony cola is drunk (fizzy drinks purify the spirit) and a chicken is sacrificed. The air is humid with candle wax and the smell of pine needles, the walls lined with glass-encased figures of saints and there are no pews. This is not so much a church that has services as a church building that has been converted into a Mayan site of worship. On the way back we managed to find a collectivo that did not smell of any unexpected animal smell but instead had the radio playing song after song that seemed to involve people "writing letters to you in blood" and "being on the point of ending my beautiful pain", all in the name of love of course - apparently a musical genre unique to Mexico. Thankfully.

Today much of the day was spent trying to track down some information and history on the Zapatistas, who managed to take over San Cristobal de Las Casas in 1994 to protest Mayan rights and were never fully eliminated despite the best efforts of the military. Despite the prevalence of Zapatista artworks and symbols for sale, and the presence of a Zapatista magazine, there is surprisingly little information to be found on this movement in the city where they had the most power. Asking around people will inform you of towns that don't appear on any maps, or offices that are never open, yet the stories of military action against Zapatista insubordination prevail. For the record, cited offences include the heinous crime of building a free school for the children of a village.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Looks Like Rain...

The answer is not if, but when. Rainy season surrounded by mountains and volcanos? It's gonna rain! And when it does, boy does it rain... Yesterday the grass hut that I have classes under flooded. The roof remained intact, but our feet got very very wet... The lake is slowly encrouching on the town, being significantly higher than when I first got here and threatening the school (held in a shack) where I volunteer teaching English in the mornings. That said there is very little time in the day for me to notice the rain, especially as it normally rains during my afternoon lessons - 4 hours of one-to-one Spanish instruction, followed by "conversation club" led by a teacher (and yesterday held in a bar) and then evening activities at the school. Followed by evening activities outside of the school - involving many (very cheap, very strong) cuba libres, the occasional "orgasm brownie" (so called because upon first tasting it someone was heard to exclaim "it's like an orgasm in my mouth!") and definitely conducted in English.

At the weekend we kayaked to another town a couple of kilometers across the lake from San Pedro, San Marco. On the journey we encountered many floating stones (well it is a volcanic region...) and many cuba libre breaks. Before 9am. As a flotilla of kayaks in the middle of a lake. When we merrily arrived at San Marco we 'parked' our kayaks and explored the town, which only has paths, not roads (apart from one road that goes through linking all the lake towns). We followed this by jumping off cliffs into the clear blue water (at least it was where we jumped - other places it was full of floating shoes and pumice stones). We returned to the kayaks to find that the glassy clear water that we had encountered on the way over was no more and there were huge waves, and miscellaneous kayaks and paddles floating in the reeds or just not floating anymore... It took 5 of us to refloat one kayak, and once we were finally ready (and the 'fraidy cats of the group had finally been convinced that the waves really were only big by the shore) we set off back to San Pedro in the rain. It wasn't cold, it wasn't too rough, but boy did our arms hurt without the welcome relief of cuba libre breaks!

Another week at school and I'm learning two of the Spanish past tenses now that my teacher is satisfied that my present is grammatically correct... I have also learnt various Mayan folklore about the area around Lago de Atitlan from the father of my family, and origami from the son. Apparently my next challenge is to learn how to make tortillas round from my 'mother' (possibly impossible), as well as how to cook pepian, the Mayan curry. So more than just a Spanish school!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A Tale of Two Cities (and many volcanoes)

I'm now in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan. I left Antigua after my 2 weeks of Spanish school and numerous “cultural activities” which predominantly resulted in raucous laughter as we attempted (and failed) to gain skills that are part of everyday Mayan life. One Guatemalan cultural activity that I could have done without was the earthquake that woke me at 1:20am. Although small (4.7) it was plenty big enough to scare me!

The drive from Antigua to Panajachel was a windy road through mountain villages, maize fields with children, goats and chickens running through the corn with clouds clinging to the mountains. Rural life here is Guatemala at its' most beautiful with some villages being just a cluster of rooves barely visible above the surrounding maize. Unlike in Antigua, here there were stark reminders of the damage caused by cyclone Agatha only a month ago with many parts of the road still down to just one lane as mudslides are yet to be fully cleared and parts of the road have just washed away completely. One of the more haunting images was a school where half a basketball court sat comfortably intact whereas the other half was buried under mud and boulders, the only reminder that it was ever there being the basketball hoop sticking out of the rubble at a strange angle further down the slope.

Upon arriving in Panajachel I found it to be a town in motion – everyone is there to go somewhere else. It is the most easily accessible town of the lake and therefore acts as a port for the other settlements. I met a couple of English girls and travelled across to San Pedro, one of the other major lake settlements, with them.

San Pedro is a town of 2 parts stretched between 2 ports. At the top of the (very steep) hill is where daily life is conducted. You see very few tourists here and the restaurants exist to serve the locals. The buildings are a similar style to those in Antigua – low, stone and sturdy – with the streets all being cobbled. Unlike Antigua I have yet to see a single local woman wearing anything other than traditional Mayan dress. The men tend not to wear traditional dress because it's harder for them to find employment if they look like a 'yokel', but girls as young as 3 wear the tiniest traditional costumes you've seen!

The other life of San Pedro exists on the lake front where numerous cobbled alleyways and dirt paths run the gauntlet of laid back bars, cafes and hotels, all with hammocks out the front. And right beside the lake a dirt path winds its way through the trees and maize past the backs of the various cafes and bars and past a classroom in a shed, where I will be teaching English 3 days a week, a language school set in sculpted gardens, where I will be studying 5 days a week, and an art studio. At this art studio local artist Gaspar sells his traditional Mayan oil paintings. He also offers an option to get arty and paint your own masterpiece in just 4 hours. Of course this was an option that we could not refuse and after 4 hours of entertainment “I can't paint leaves!”, “how did I get paint there??”, “it so is a circle!”, and much laughter from our patient teacher (normally followed by “I fix” and a few deft strokes of his brush covering any of our sins against art), we had 3 reasonably convincing Mayan masterpieces, complete with our signatures. More expensive than buying? Possibly. More unique? Probably. More fun? Definitely!

Yesterday we travelled by bus along steep winding mountain roads, some where the road has been partially washed away, some still showing the remnants of landslides, both old and new, to a mountain-top village called Chichicastenango (or “Chichi” to people with a less flexible tongue). This village is the setting for Central Americas' biggest market which on Sundays spills out of the central square to encompass much of the town. It is also home to a large proportion of people still practising Mayan beliefs and rituals in combination with their official religion of catholicism. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the church along one side of the central square. The steps of this church are adorned with flower sellers and burning incense offerings. Inside the church are many candles burning alongside offerings down the central aisle and fabrics and flower petals strewn everywhere. Behind the alter a woman appeared to be doing some paperwork using the alter as you would an office desk!

Upon our return to San Pedro I went to my Spanish school and was introduced to my host family for the next two weeks – a lovely young family who own a restaurant and laundry on a cobbled laneway 5 minutes from the school. They have 2 small children: Theo, who's about 7 is shy now, but his father Mario assures me will very soon talk non-stop and ask continuous questions, and a baby that I have yet to meet. And so this is me for the next few weeks, I start Spanish lessons this afternoon and start my voluntary placement tomorrow morning!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Mas Sexi! Mas Sexi!

Well I'm still in Antigua, still in language school (for a few more days at least) and very much enjoying the local culture, and being laughed at as I try to participate. So far I have tried my hand at making some local food, most notably the small round tortillas that are a feature of every lunch here (at least one of mine was round... ish...). I tried my hand at merengue and salsa dancing, finding the latter much easier than the former - our instructor rotating her hips during merengue (whilst chanting "Mas sexi! Mas sexi!) in a way that simply makes the British mind boggle and the North Americans take out their neighbours whilst attempting to copy the moves. All I can say is that people born in Guatemala must have some sort of extra joint somewhere that allows them to do the move now known among language school students as "Mas sexi!".

Last week I learnt about a burger eating, porno moustache wearing sort of symbol for a deity or "saint" who takes offerings of cigars and alcohol - somewhere a cross between Catholic mythology and Mayan ritual. And at the weekend I did the tourist essential trip, somewhere between naive and idiotic, of visiting the lava flows of the VERY active Pacaya volcano (one that last erupted approximately 1 month ago). We took photos of the lava flows blocking tracks and roads, and clambered over the steaming rocks, finding that despite the continuing rain and rumbling thunder (at least we hoped it was thunder!) our clothes were drying from the heat emanating from under us. We found a hole where we could see red glowing rock and toasted marshmallows over it. Until our stick spontaneously caught fire that was. Gotta love the freedom that lack of health and safety rules give you!

A few more days of conjugating verbs and I'll be off to pastures new, but for now? Well I'm enjoying some other Central American traditions of spontaneous power outages when it rains, lack of running water after 10pm and random militia swarming the streets for no apparent reason. Think I might stay home tonight...

Friday, 2 July 2010

Hablo, Hablas, Habla, Hablamos, Hablan

So yes, I'm at Spanish school in Antigua, and spending my holiday learning to conjugate verbs. When I got to Antigua the accent and speed of speaking made it very obvious that I would need to speak more Spanish. As did the complete lack of English speakers. This being the most touristy town in Guatemala, and understandably so, makes my lack of Spanish skills seem all the more pressing. Fortunately my Spanish comprehension has come along in leaps and bounds, and I am even capable of dealing with a call centre in Spanish after only one week of lessons. Unfortunately I'm not capable of getting what I want out of the call centre (them to actually deliver text messages sent to me to my mobile phone...), but I'm certainly capable of explaining the problem and hearing “no es posible. Espara por favor”. For those of you familiar with Spanish this won't be a surprise, for those of you not, I'll give you one guess. Seriously, you don't need more. So I have one more week of Spanish lessons planned in Antigua, and I'm now learning the past tense, meaning that me and my teacher may be able to move on from topics such as: her ex-husband refusing to pay child support; Fairtrade; why telephone companies try to mess you around in Guatemala; and the problems macho men have in this day and age, and instead start discussing what I did on the weekend.

And mostly what I do in my free time (when I'm not taking lessons in how to make tortillas or in Salsa and Merenge) is take photos, because Antigua es uno puelbo muy bonito. All the streets are quaintly cobbled and reminiscent of colonial era towns in Spain, just built on only one or two stories. This means that the new cars drive slowly (so as not to destroy their suspension I would guess), the old cars drive fast (presumably to even out the bumps because their suspension no longer works) the mopeds ride fast and not necessarily in the right direction down the one way streets, and the chicken buses drive at breakneck speed, never actually stopping to let passengers fall off or on.

The houses are all brightly coloured, and of course shop-frontage or signage is practically non-existent. Whereas you may see the word “tienda” painted down the side of the stone door frame, or over the mantle, you will actually have to enter the shop to find what it sells, in most cases hidden behind bars with just enough space to allow you out of the afternoon rain. Antigua having so many tourists mean that it has the advantage of a dedicated tourist police-force, resulting in a rather safe feeling atmosphere and a rather strange bubble effect where many gringos seem afraid to actually leave Antigua.

Another major feature of Antigua are the sheer numbers of churches and ruins (although I'm pretty sure that these are far outnumbered by the number of language schools!). At one point Antigua was the capital of Guatemala. The capital was moved to Guatemala City after an earthquake razed Antigua in 1773, resulting in the virtual abandonment of the city. This mass movement of people meant that there were no longer enough bums for all the church seats, and many of them are still in ruins. Those that were re-built have been rebuilt in a slightly more sensible style for somewhere surrounded by volcanoes and rather earthquake-prone: short, squat, and none of these silly fancy spire things that Europeans seem to want on places of worship.

The general theme I have found of Guatemala is that the people are friendly and talkative, and really don't care whether you speak Spanish or not, they will still chatter away quite happily at you, and all you need to bring to the conversation is a smile and the occasional “si”. If you tell them that Antigua is beautiful they practically glow with pride. A bella city, bella people and bella handicrafts, combined with bella food and a bella setting it tells me that I have to leave and see some of the “real” Guatemala before I get too comfortable! And learn some more vocab...

Monday, 21 June 2010

Pastures New

So this is it, my last night in New Zealand, and I'm ready to head, not off to Chile, but to Guatemala. Yes I have perfect comic timing having booked my flights 2 days before a volcano erupted closing Guatemala City airport and 4 days before a tropical cyclone caused widespread havoc (and a very interesting sink-hole in Guatemala City). However now armed with my mosquito net, yellow fever certificate (thanks Mum!) and a fully functional backpack (after an hour or so with a needle and thread), I feel ready to take on the world! But I'll start with Guatemala I think.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Up In the Air...

Quite a few days have been spent in Taupo. Some intentionally, some not so. When we arrived in Taupo we found it to be wet and windy, and very cold overnight. Apparently these are less than ideal conditions for jumping out of an aeroplane. Not that I'd ever really considered whether you needed ideal conditions if you are crazy enough to do this. I apparently am. Crazy that is. And using my birthday money for its intended purpose I booked a skydive, that was put off, and put off and put off until the clouds cleared and the wind dropped!

So sitting in the plane knowing what I'm about to do, and rather calm and excited (as well as very cold - it was about 4 degrees C on the ground, -17 by the time I jumped - seriously I was just desperate to get out of that cold!) as everyone stares at me (last in, first out and facing the opposite direction to everyone else chilling on the floor of the plane). Then we get to the correct height, rather higher than the clouds, and the door opens. Now this was the only point at which I was scared. The reason? There was nothing between me and a long drop - I was sitting right on the edge! Then sanity regained - I was about to jump out of this door, so why was it so scary that there was no barrier? Silly me! So we went, and fell for a few seconds, and then we were floating on a cushion of (very cold) air - albeit whilst falling at about 200 kph - but still the sensation was one of floating, not falling. When the parachute finally opened it was as if someone was lifting me off the air-cushion and we floated serenely down to earth taking in the sights of snow-capped volcanoes (including Mount Doom!), steam vents all around and the deep blue of Lake Taupo. Back on solid ground 4 degrees suddenly didn't feel so cold, but my teeth certainly did from the crazy grin I had on my face the whole way down! If only it wasn't so expensive...

The next day we went on a rather more sedate air-trip in a helicopter over Huka Falls. That was once we'd scraped the thick frost off the car. We had an amazing view of low-lying cloud due to the steam venting from around Taupo, and this steam following the river down, but seeming to flow into the lake whereas the river flowed out. We continued the perfectly still day with blue skies all around with a trip to see the volcanoes, covered in fresh snow, and found plenty of snow to play with ourselves - Matt made his first snowman and threw his first snowball, and discovered that snow is not only "cold", but also "wet", his surprise and enjoyment providing me with hours of amusement.

We then planned to head to Rotorua, only an hours drive North of Taupo. We got nearly halfway and broke down. After being towed back to Taupo we spent the next couple of days with a mechanic trying to find an alternator. Finally admitting defeat and faced with a weekend the mechanic charged our battery and sent us on our way to the larger town of Rotorua where we had a very successful afternoon in the industrial estate and a very strange evening in a Wild West themed backpackers.

This morning we enjoyed the best of Rotorua by soaking in the hot pools of the Polynesian Spa, watching the steam dance across the water of the pools and vent across the lake. It almost makes the all-pervading smell of sulphur worthwhile. And now we are in a very cosy hostel up on the Coromandel Peninsula knowing the end to my New Zealand adventures is nearly here. Only 2 more days before I'm back in the air, hopefully this time staying in the plane until it lands!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On the Road to Nowhere

Yes that's right I'm on the road again - or maybe I should say "we're" on the road? Having worked in Christchurch for the past few months the cold finally caught up with me. Overnight frost? I can get that at home.

So we packed up our life in our little car "Betsy" (not my choice by the way) and headed off for pastures new. Pastures new turned out to be straight North for warmer climes and our first evening on the road was spent winding our way through twisting mountain passes in the driving rain feeling sorry for the guy on the motorbike in front of us, but equally wishing he would hurry up a bit. The problems with an old car being that you're never quite sure whether it will make it to the top of the hill unless it gets a run-up.... Finally we made it to Picton, only to find that we had missed the promised free chocolate pudding (obviously the mention of this did not sway our choice of hostels at all...), and awoke, after a night of drumming rain, to find that we had not in fact floated away overnight, but that the promised free breakfast had.

We headed off to the ferry where I discovered that, despite living on an island for his formative years, Matt had never been on a car ferry. Matt on the other hand discovered that rough seas lead to seasickness, and seasickness makes me grumpy. On arrival into Wellington we discovered that the weather was not better in the North Island of New Zealand. We proceeded to get rained on, and then later hailed on, for 2 nights before finally deciding to pack it in and flee further North, whereby the sun promptly emerged. This distraction may have been responsible for Matt's unusual mode of driving whereby if he doesn't hear otherwise from his navigator (yours truly), he turns left instead of continuing straight ahead... Possibly.

We headed North through the Hutts (Lower and Upper), heading through twisting mountains that showed traces of last nights snow by the sides of the road, before plunging down to surprisingly cold valleys. Finally we fled to Palmerston North, which seemed a reasonably pleasant city (despite what John Cleese may think: "If you ever want to kill yourself but lack the courage then a trip to Palmerston North should do the trick" - or something along those lines...), but certainly had very strange hostels, where Matt was reasonably convinced that the trapdoor in the living-room was where they kept the bodies - he watches too many horror films.

Fleeing crazy hostels in the light of day, in fact very bright and sunny light of day, we decided to head towards Mount Taranaki, a real life, not quite dormant, snow capped volcano. Pretty exciting, if it wasn't cloudy and raining here in New Plymouth. I'm sure the volcano would be really impressive if it were visible... Ah well, the land of the long white cloud is truly living up to its name.

Monday, 17 May 2010

All the Leaves are Brown...

...and the sky is grey, but as autumn finally catches up with me (after several years), it's not California that I'm dreaming of but South America. Ah yes, you've all heard me talk about it, and I'm sure many of you thought it was just a pipe dream and never to be...

So I bought a flight. Into Chile. I also bought a flight out of Argentina. There are 5 1/2 months between these flights. I have limited money, limited Spanish and a continent to cross... It's going to be fun!

So for now I will be working hard in Christchurch, for another few weeks at least, and then I will make my way up through New Zealand before waving the English-speaking world "adios". And yes, I have given just enough notice of my plans for my mother to panic, but not enough notice for her to try to talk me out of it!

Any suggestions for how to cross a continent with limited funds but plenty of time just let me know!

Monday, 15 March 2010

A Holiday from Holidaying?

So Aussie boyfriend and my parents (who he's never met before) in a camper van for 2 weeks... Sounds like a recipe for disaster? Apparently not. Although I wonder whether I should be concerned that my father and my boyfriend were ganging up on me within a few days....

It's amazing how fast a bit of travelling goes compared to 2 weeks in a call centre... We cruised down to Queenstown (where we tried the famous Fergburger, and Matt tried to eat a burger bigger than his head), and spectacularly managed to escape without having been dangled head-first over a river from a great height. Twice. I feel that this is somewhat of an achievement. From Queenstown we headed south to Milford Sound to experience what New Zealand has to offer at its' grandest scale: sandflies and rain. Of course there were also spectacular waterfalls (it didn't stop raining the whole time there), seals and penguins and a hair-raising drive there - made even more terrifying by the fact that the guy driving us through the hair-pin bends hadn't seen a mountain until two days previously.

We dragged our rather sodden selves back towards Queenstown and headed towards the West Coast (renowned for being the "wet" side of the South Island) with a feeling of dread. It was somewhere in the Haast Pass that me and Matt discovered that our tent wasn't sandfly-proof. Actually I did most of the discovering. Apparently I am rather tastier than Matt to the locals of Haast...

Along the West Coast we discovered... warm weather and glorious sunshine! As well as hair-raising drives, and a days glacier hike on the Fox glacier (enjoyed by at least three of our party). We eventually headed up to the Abel Tasman National Park where we found serene beaches, warm sunny days, golden beaches, calm, clear and deceptively cold sea, as well as seals and abundant wildlife (sandflies being particularly abundant, but fortunately for me deciding that Matt was dish-of-the-day). I also discovered the advantages of going in a dual kayak with your over-energetic boyfriend. And then we discovered that our tent wasn't waterproof...

So now back in Christchurch, back at work, but at least now in a house instead of a hostel. back to real life, just on the other side of the world...

Thursday, 18 February 2010

In the real world, just upside down...

So yes, once again it's been ages since I last posted anything. And once again it's because I haven't really been doing anything extraordinary But at least I've been doing nothing extraordinary in the summer on the wrong side of the world! Of course there was a brief sojourn back to Western Australia for Christmas and New Year, where I was introduced to a never ending stream of Australian friends and family, so traumatic that I have blocked many of the finer details from my memory... Actually it might have been the cocktails that did that...

Unfortunately a consequence of the long-term travel is that you inevitably run out of money, and that means work. So yes, I am still in Christchurch (and therefore can comfortably say to you all: "stop living in the past!". Yes, bad joke, I know), and no I am not still waitressing. Much. I now have full-time employment being shouted at down the phone. But at least I get regular breaks and the pay's OK. Of course I now have the added bonus of having my boyfriend here (at least until New Zealand realise their mistake as he drinks them dry...), so we're doing usual couple stuff of looking for somewhere to live, buying a car, etc. A normal life, just on the wrong side of the world!

Of course part of me is desperate to move on. The rest of me knows full well that money is a necessary evil and if I stick with work for a few months I will have enough money to leave the English speaking world and stretch my Spanish to the limit! A few months more and I might even be dragging a certain Australian chappy along with me.

In a week my parents come to join me for a few weeks holiday (possibly checking that I REALLY am still alive since I've been so lax with the blog...), so stories of travels and misadventures should abound... Especially when they meet my Aussie...