Saturday, January 31, 2009

Yoga Bear

I've found the real hippies! Forget the wasters of San Pedro, these are the real deal!
Not here for ganga, blow or weed, a more intelligent breed is in San Marcos for some sort of mystical natural healing-type things which occur in the village.
This is an eco-dream, with peaceful environmental types drawn here for meditation, yoga, reiki, massage therapy and energy work. Some sort of earthy magnet must be switched on which has everyone strolling around totally at one with themselves and the world.
Couples with babies chant on lawns and slap their thighs. Other people actually greet you as you pass.

This morning, before breakfast, I was entertained by free yoga classes given on the wide balcony of my hostel. It overlooks the lake far below and the setting is stunning, but my attention was captured by a line of arses high in the air, followed by stretching exercises and body contortions which had me thinking the participants were trying to leave their own bodies - perhaps enter the spiritual world directly. At one stage they literally had their feet and then elbows behind their heads.
Despite this going on for more than an hour, the participants all gave it the thumbs up afterwards. (I know, not hard in comparison to sticking your foot behind you head.)
The reports were so good, I've been convinced. I'll be up bright and early for my first yoga experience tomorrow!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Have-nots / want-nots

San Pedro La Laguna, on the shores of Lago de Atitlán, is a strange place. It faces the tranquil silver-surfaced waters of this beautiful lake and turns its back on the menacing 3,020 metre Volcán San Pedro looming immediately behind it.
I've been assured there is no danger of this beast erupting but even still, it feels as if the villagers are adopting an ostrich approach.

Certainly life goes on here as it would in any other traditional Mayan village. Coffee beans are dried along the roadside. (They actually stink!) Colourfully-attired women in traditional dress sit at the market surrounded by baskets of their wares: avocados, melons, tomatoes, mangoes and other mad fruits which seem to do their best to rival the colour of the dresses.
Little kids help out too. The hardship of living in the country and eking out a meagre existence ensures that it's all hands on deck for family members.
In fact it's stunning how hard the children seem to have to work here. Little boys lug boxes of stuff around while little girls are already hard-nosed businesswomen. Today I bought three bananas and three oranges from a girl at the market who couldn't have been more than 9 or 10. Five Quetzales for the lot (50 cent). She may have been ripping me off but I wasn't going to start haggling with her.

Apart from the Mayan villagers, San Pedro is home to what seems an inappropriate number of scruffy, long-haired smelly gringos. These hippie-wannabees are found in many of the village's cheap hangouts, slouched over couches or reclining in hammocks without a care in the world.
They justify their existence with long lost romantic notions of freedom, fighting the system and corruption. In reality though, like the San Francisco hippies, they're typically stoned, unwashed and too lazy to even describe themselves as wasters.
The only thing they fight for is the sense of inequality which permeates throughout the village. Really, the contrast between the natives who labour and toil for everything they've got (which isn't much), and the "blow"-ins couldn't be more pronounced.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Guatemala City

As soon as I decided to stay it became an adventure. At the airport I had just 40 Quetzales left (about €4), insufficient to get me back to Antigua on the shuttle bus. None of the airport's ATMs were working - one of them was missing a keyboard and screen. I presume they were stolen.
Instead I had to take public transport into Guatemala City's centre and somehow find where the chicken buses for Antigua left from. It wasn't an enticing proposition. My guidebook is apocalyptic when it comes to warnings about venturing into the city, never mind using its public buses which, it informed me, are known for "robberies, assaults and sometimes even murder".
The bus arrived with two armed guards on board. Two! One behind the driver and the other at the back of the bus. It didn't necessarily make me feel any safer. I had tried to memorise the street numbers I needed to look out for en route, but the sight of two pubescents clutching rifles occupied all my attention. (No one else seemed to mind. Two businessmen in suits were happily yakking away beside one of them.)

Guatemala City is a dump. An incredible filthy dump. It's surrounded on three sides by shanty towns, and the centre isn't that many steps up in appearance. Traffic chokes the streets in all directions. Chicken buses and trucks belch black fumes on top of everyone else. Radios blare. Advertising signs, car horns and hawkers all vie for attention. It really is an overwhelming assault on the senses.
In fact, it seemed to get worse as I got closer and then further into the city's lair. Buildings became more dilapidated, people more threatening looking. Even the dogs which lie on the streets of towns all over Guatemala were nowhere to be seen in its capital - they have more sense.
The gun-wielding kids were soon forgotten as I realised I had to actually get off the bus to find my chicken bus to Antigua. I found myself in Zona 1, but knew I had to make my way to Zona 7, some distance to the west. I walked purposely in the general direction I thought it would be, trying to appear bored and unconcerned, and definitely not lost.

My eyes couldn't help themselves however - they took everything in. Every shop I walked by had at least one armed guard. Mad stuff. Piss stained the pavements and most corners black. Everyone bustled, (presumably like me so they wouldn't be shot, stabbed or robbed),
It was a most unpleasant, foul-smelling but fascinating walk.
Meanwhile I hadn't a clue where I was going, but I couldn't take out my guidebook for fear someone would notice. (I didn't dare attempt take money out for the same reason.) I walked and walked and walked, maintaining a steady gait.
Eventually I stopped in a café to get my bearings. (Also a fine breakfast of scrambled egg, fried beans, fried bananas, chili sauce, nachos, a sugar coated bread thing and coffee for 17 Quetzales.)
The kind people in this wonderful sanctuary of a café told me I'd have to get another chicken bus to the terminal for Antigua. I jumped on. Of course I got off at the wrong stop. More wandering around dusty streets and piss-stained paths. Every chicken bus I saw quickened my heartbeat, but hopes were dashed as none were going my way.
Eventually I just took out my paranoia-inducing guidebook and looked up the map. At least I was walking in the right direction. I kept going and going, each step bringing me closer to the promise of safety.
At last I heard a wonderful sound: "¡Tigua, Tigua, Tiguaaa!"
My bus!
"¿Antigua?" enquired a guy running up to me.
"¡Si, si!" I replied. I could have hugged him. I was going home.

Never question a Quetzal

Well, two and a half hours ago my flight left Guatemala. I wasn't on board despite checking in and being at the boarding gate in plenty of time.
The adventure goes on - I'm off to México!

It really was a last minute decision in the end. I just couldn't decide. At 3.30 this morning (10.30 am in Germany) I rang the would-be-employers to see if they were still offering me a job. Your wan wasn't there however. "She'll be back in an hour."
So I went to the airport with Jenny. (Her flight was much earlier.) None of the phones in the airport worked, so I had to leave and find a card-phone on the street. Of course, your wan still wasn´t in. "She rang to say she won't be in today."
It's as if the gods wanted me to go to México.

I still couldn't decide however, not even by the time Jenny's flight left at 8 am.
Eventually I decided a coin was only way to go. Let the Quetzal decide! So I flipped it in the air. Up it flew like it's namesake - the national bird of Guatemala. (Not pictured - that's a parrot).
The Guatemalan coat of arms told me one thing - Stay. Grand, decision made I thought. But still the nagging continued. Despite the Quetzal's advice, I wanted to be sure. I flipped the coin again. The other side came up. Damn. "Best of three," I thought. Again the other side. I flipped the increasingly dizzy coin another three times - each time the other side came up.
It was obviously mocking me - what are the chances of the same side coming up five times in a row?
I asked the Quetzal if it was mocking me - the coat of arms confirmed it was.
It just proves one thing - one should never question a Quetzal.

I don't know how many flights I paid for without taking over the last year, but it must be some sort of record. I'll check when I get back to the relative sanity of Berlin. I stole a pen in any case from American Airlines after I checked in, so at least I didn't pay for nothing, (although the damn thing is almost out of ink already). I was also able to bid adieu to Jenny in true movie fashion at her boarding gate.

There was a bit of consternation at airport security when I told them I'd changed my mind, that I was going to get the bus to Mexico instead. Incredulation was followed by hushed hurried consultations and backward glances at the crazy gringo, before I was eventually allowed leave the boarding area.
I had to go through passport control on the way back. More confusion ensued when they asked where I'd come from. "Aqui (here)," probably wasn't an answer they had heard before, but it all got sorted out in the end. Eventually.

So off I go to México. The job will wait. Or not. Arse to them.

With hindsight I can see I made the right decision. There were too many things telling me to stay (besides the Quetzal). I still had postcards to send. (Written but unstamped.) We had also left some food in our box in the hostel: an onion, tomato, honey, two mangos, half a gobfull of rum, possibly some herbs. I hadn't taken a good picture of the chicken buses. The fact I couldn't get in touch with the job despite repeated attempts...

I'm happy now I won't be betraying my journalistic calling. As I make my way northwards, I plan taking notes of what I see and experience en route. Maybe I can convince some esteemed publication to publish a few scribblings.

¡Que sera sera!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Still no decision

Still no decision. It's gonna have to be a last minute job. I'm going with Jenny to the airport at 4 am. My plan is to ring the work-crowd from there, and if they confirm the job, I'll hop on my flight back to Berlin.
Otherwise it's México!

For now we're back in Antigua, a half hour bus ride from Guatemala City airport. We got back here yesterday, and I must say it feels good to be back - almost like we're home again. Maybe it's as close to home as I'll get for now...

Antonia opened the door to the hostel when we arrived, and she greeted us with a huge smile, as did Raúl when he saw us later on. Happy to see us once again. There was genuine warmth as they welcomed us back.
Raúl owns a tomato farm and so we were invited to help ourselves to an unlimited supply of the juiciest, tastiest tomatoes in the kitchen. He was genuinely delighted to hear how much we enjoyed lashing into them. "Eat them. Eat them," he urged us. "There are plenty. Help yourselves."

When you're made feel so very welcome, it's very, very hard to leave...

A real porker

I've a big decision to make and 24 hours to make it. On Monday, my flight leaves Guatemala for Miami, the first leg of my journey home via London and Dublin. I'm supposed to start work the following Monday at 8 am in Berlin.
On the other hand, México is just a few hours north. I've never been there before. Sombreros, banditos, cacti, tequila, feelthy steenking gringos - ¡México!

This is a real dilemma. This job I have lined up is very well paid (for Berlin). On the other hand, it's in sales, not journalism, and I can't see myself doing it for long. Once a newshound...
My bank account is screaming: "Go home! Take the job. Earn money!" It would be the first time since last February.
On the other hand: ¡México!

I'm not even sure if the job actually exists. I´ve been trying to get in touch with them to verify everything is all set, but my attempts to communicate have failed miserably. Berlin is seven hours ahead of this part of the world, so ringing during working hours is proving problematic.
My mobile phone doesn't appear to work in Central America. I have sent emails to confirm everything is as arranged during the interview, but no news back as yet.
I find it hard to believe if they no longer wished to employ me that they would simply ignore me in the hope I'd go away. They could just blame the financial crisis as everyone else seems to be doing. Maybe their email is banjaxed. Maybe they're arseholes.

If I did go to México, I'd be on my own. Jenny's heading back to Berlin on Monday. I'd have to make some new friends quickly to stay entertained. The Zapatistas are still on the go in San Cristobal. I could join the revolution!

That would mean spending money I don't have to spend. But then what's more important? Money or spending it? Working or living? The job or México?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Batty about Lanquín

After Semuc Champey we made our way along the windiest, bumpiest "road" 10 km away to Lanquín, a pretty local Mayan village set in the most spectacular mountain setting one could imagine.
Spanish isn't the language of choice here, rather Q’eqchi’. The locals would either greet you with a smile full of teeth, or simply with a look of unabashed curiosity, gawking without shame. Hundreds of little kids ran around the dusty, bumpy streets, while the older generation simply sat or stood around watching the commotion around them, particularly the commotion caused when a bus or minivan arrived and the destinations were announced. "Cobán, Cobán!" or "Semuc, Semuc". (No buses have their destinations marked. Fare collectors hang precariously from moving vehicles shouting out the final destination and urging would be passengers to hop on. Room is always made, either in the bus or on it.).
Dogs meanwhile, some of the mangiest I've ever seen, simply lie around indiscriminately, whether on the road or not. casually ignoring everything around them, unless a passing vehicle strays too close for comfort - but that has to be VERY close.)

Visitors are made feel very welcome in Lanquín. After checking in to El Retiro, a hostel in the valley where guests are housed in private wooden huts on stilts beside the fast flowing rio, we noted that the nearby restaurant advertised "Schnitzel food". Naturally we ate there that night. It was so good in fact we went there again the next night, although I didn't try their famous "schnitzels" which were made from chicken.

The chief attraction of Lanquín however, is not the schnitzels but the limestone caves, carved in much the same way as the aforementioned Semuc Champey. They go on for hundreds of kilometres below the surface. Weird and wondrous fantastical formations are carved on pillars, stalactites and stalagmites. Visitors can decide for themselves how to interpret the scenes. Nature´s modern art I guess.
Care is needed however. We spent most of the time slipping and sliding on the rocks and muck beneath or feet. At times I literally had to hold onto stalagmites (or stalactites, I´m not sure which) for balance and support as I tried clamour over rocks, taking care not to slip or drop the damn camera into the darkness below. It was great though, especially as we had the caves all to ourselves. Although not quite...

The caves are home to thousands if not millions of bats. So the real show began later, at dusk. As soon as the sun starts getting sleepy, they make their way out of the cave in droves. Clouds of bats zoom out of the caves' entrance over the river, as the furry fliers make their way out to feast on insect life outside.
I stood at the entrance. Like a bouncer, but there was no way I was stopping anything going in or out. Firstly a few stray bats zipped in and around the trees and river. The small numbers quickly multiplied as it got darker, and soon I was looking at a blur of action, as the winged mammals flapped their way like darts in and out of the caves. It was literally like watching smoke leaving a chimney. A never ending stream of bats just kept coming and coming without pause.
They were all around me - to my left, right and above. THOUSANDS of them. It was incredible. A couple brushed my skin as they flew past, but none collided with me or the jagged walls of the cave despite moving at lightening speeds. A credit to their sonar. It was only with the camera that I was able to pick out sightings of individual bats thanks to the flash. The rest were just too fast as they blurred past me and out into the night.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is quite possibly the most beautiful place I've been. The stage was set on Tuesday night. After a minivan journey of almost nine hours from Flores, (after being told it would take five and a half hours), we arrived tired and pissed off.
I tried to catch the last of the sunlight, so after dumping the bags in the hostel, I took a stroll up the to site of a wondrous natural wonder carved over millennia from the limestone rocks. So I'd heard anyway - by the time I got up there it was dark and I couldn't see I thing.
I was greeted by two security guards wielding machine guns. (You're no one without a gun in this country.) "¿Es abierto?" I enquired.. They seemed surprised but welcomed me none the less. One pointed me in the direction I should take - down a series of steps with a stone wall in either side. At the bottom was darkness. "Okay," I thought, "I'll just wander down, have a quick scoot around, and then head home."
Halfway down, I realised one of the armed guards as following behind me. A bit disconcerting to say the least. I wondered how many people were the recipients of unexpected bullets in the back of the head in Guatemala in the recent years, never mind the civil war.
Once I got to the bottom, only to reveal even more darkness, I thought I should confront him. At least face him in case he got any ideas. I noted the moonshine reflecting from the barrel of his gun.
Thankfully he was just there for my protection. (A lot of tourists had been victims at this spot before.) In terrible Spanish I somehow managed to convey to him that it was quite silly of me to wander up to arguably Guatemala's most beautiful spot in the middle of the night, and that I would return instead the following day. In daylight. So I could see it. He seemed to agree with my logic, but not before he tried to convince me to stay a bit longer.
On the way home, I could see the jagged peaks of the surrounding mountains, and I could hear the whoosh of the river beside me. Holas greeted me from the side of the road from friendly locals, invisible in the dark. One little kid appeared out of nowhere and tried to sell me some chocolate.
Further down the road, it became magical. As the river gurgled along merrily, and crickets and tree frogs accompanied with clicks and more austere tones, glow worms lit up intermittently, like tiny lighthouses in a sea of darkness.
I made it home unscathed, but wow, I couldn't wait to see Semuc Champey in daylight!

The next day the beauty hidden by the darkness was revealed. It was stunning! Crystal clear water in pools cradled by marvelous limestone formations trickled into each other, each a different shade of turquoise or green from the rest. We swam in various pools, as friendly fish nibbled their greetings anytime we stopped paddling. Mountains soared from the waters' edges, covered in trees and vegetation. A hike to the top of one revealed a magnificent vista below. Truly worth seeing during the day!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tikal

Tikal! That most famous of all ancient Mayan cities - home to 100,000 people at the height of its power, and the site of the most impressive ruins from the remnants of that once great civilisation.
Of course I had to go there myself to see what all the fuss is about. Despite the early start (4 a.m.), I managed to gather enough enthusiasm to traipse through the jungle at dawn, before emerging at the Gran Plaza to be confronted by two huge pyramids towering above me and the jungle canopy. I hadn't even had breakfast!
I perched myself on another less significant (but still impressive) ruin to snack on a few crackers and take in the view. The miserable breakfast was more than compensated by the feast on offer for my eyes. (Although that didn't stop my stomach complaining later on.)
Exotic birds tried to outdo each other with increasingly strange and wonderful calls, songs and noises, while in the distance, howler monkeys could be heard screeching their presence to the world. The roars were incredible. Judging from the noise, they could have been voicing their displeasure with the Irish health system. Apparently, tree frogs were also supposed to add to the cacophony of noise, but to be perfectly honest, I'd no idea what the hell I was listening to. It was madder than a large bag of small monkeys.
I wandered on to look at the rest of the attractions, and soon spotted some of those responsible for the racket - monkeys jumped from branch to branch high in the tress above me; toucans, parrots and other fantastically-coloured birds squawked and squabbled around me; raccoons rummaged around for something to eat; while hawks and vultures scoured the air high above for the same - all these damn animals only ever think of their bellies.

Earlier that morning I had planned on cutting through the jungle to get to the sacred site without paying. The entrance fee was a scaldy 150 Quetzales (€15). However, a guy with a rifle or machine gun or something informed me I'd need to buy a ticket. I didn't argue.
I wouldn't mind the fee if they actually did something with it. Funnily enough however, these ruins were in ruins. They'd been lying neglected in the jungle for hundreds of years before anyone even knew of their existence, but now that people are showing an interest, they decide to screw them for as much as possible.
For €15 they should at least have organised a few blood-letting rituals like they used to have in the good ol' days. But no. Not one sacrifice. Not even a miserable oul' chicken. Such is the way of "progress".

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Jungle

I saw my first wild monkey today! My first wild monkey!!
This fucker was LOUD. He roared and roared, before rustling his disapproval in the branches high above us. Apparently he wasn’t as happy to see us as we were to see him. He rustled and grunted and threw sticks down on top of us. Just being friendly in an inner-city Dublin sort of way.
He was part of a gang of howler monkeys who lived up to their names by making more noise than Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day. Scarier noise too, although perhaps not to a Waterford GAA fan. RRAAAAAARRRRRGGHH!!! (You can make up your own minds whether that was a monkey or Déise.)
Perhaps scarier again however, was the snake we saw just a few tense minutes’ walk into the protected jungle of the Biotopo Cerro Cahui. I suppose we should have expected trouble when we saw the jars of snakes and the line of skulls sitting on the entrance desk. We were warned the park was full of poisonous snakes, although the park ranger helpfully suggested the snakes never venture over the path. He lied. The path was barely discernable from the rest of the jungle, so how a wild snake was supposed to know they couldn’t cross it was beyond me.
After making our way in I walked on ahead of Jenny when suddenly she yelled: “Get back! Get back!”
“Get back from what?” I asked as I moved forward.
“Stop, stop!” she replied.
And then I saw it. The Snake. Still as a rock. Stripey scales. Beady eyes staring ahead. Unflinching.
As it turned out he appeared to be looking at the path. Maybe he was trying to figure out if he was allowed cross it or not.
We didn’t hang around; pausing just long enough for a quick picture before running on up the track.
Ten minutes later I was attacked by two hornets. The fuckers stung my shoulder and head, with just my hair saving my head. I batted at them like a girl, before a real one jumped to the rescue, pulling the head off one, and somehow getting rid of the other. Again we paused just long enough for a picture, the mean little fucker trying to sting me all the while, moving his arse or whatever downwards as he tried inflict more pain.
We cautiously moved onward. All kinds of weird and wonderful birds flittered around. Butterflies followed suit. A woodpecker vandalised a tree. A squirrel scurried up another.
Then we heard the howlers. RRAAAAAARRRRRGGHH!!! We heard them long before we met our aforementioned stick-throwing friend. After his show of petulance we wandered on again.
A friendly group of spider monkeys put on another show high in the trees above us, but we couldn’t hang around too long; dusk was approaching. We didn’t want to get stuck there after dark!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Food to go

The sun is back! We left the rain and gloom of Río Dulce and made it unscathed to Flores, a pretty tourist town set on an island in the middle of a large lake. The star attraction is Tikal, an hour and a half away, but more on that later...

The bus to Flores was an experience in itself. Six hours due north. The bus driver, for once, was actually sane, although that didn't prevent him using his TWO mobile phones while driving, or scoffing a plate of tortillas and chicken with one hand on the steering wheel.
To be honest I couldn´t blame him. This great big woman got on the bus an hour after we left, with a huge blue plastic clothes basket crammed with food.
"Pollo, pescado, res, chuletas, tortillas, arroz, verduras, comidas!" she cried out. She had everything - Chicken, fried fish, minced beef, chops, tortillas, rice, vegetables etc. and the smell was amazing!
Suddenly the bus (which was jammed with people, I was standing at the top at the time,) became a restaurant, with the "diners" all placing their orders for meals which were served on plates. A little kid, presumably this woman's son, ran around selling cans of orange, coke and the like.
Everybody bought something, starting with the bus driver at the top. When the woman served the top half of the bus, she perched the basket on her head, and squeezed her way down the aisle to appease the other hungry passengers. Soon everyone was munching on the most delicious-smelling plates of food. Young and old stuffing their faces. Nobody talked. Eating.

I was actually happy the bus driver was stuffing his face too. (He got some mighty tempting-looking tortillas.) It meant he had to slow down just a bit, and give the overtaking a break for just a few moments. Definitely the most comfortable journey so far...

Blame the Swiss

I'm sorry to report Río Dulce was crap. It rained non-stop apart from a half-hour window when we were lucky enough to get out on the lake in canoes. Then the rain started again, with a vengeance, as previously reported in the last post.

I blame the Swiss. They can be blamed for most of the world's ills, and our shit time in Rio Dulce was no exception. The place we stayed was a jungle lodge on stilts-type affair, run by two Swiss guys. One of them was a wannabe Bavarian beer-swilling, Lederhosen-wearing, pompous ass. He so wanted to be German he had the most god-awful German singalong folk songs from the 80s on the stereo, (even poor Jenny was cringing), while he "danced" on his own in front of the bar, swaying back and forth, oblivious to the stares and groans from his embarrassed guests.
Yaw yaw was his answer to everything. When I asked him the next morning if he heard the weather forecast, if there was going to be any letup in the rain, he answered: "Yaw, yaw. Rain will stop." The lying sack of shite.
Every raindrop which hit my head, and there were a lot, was another dagger in the neck of the admittedly small esteem I had held for the Swiss. Now I think they could even be worse than the Bavarians and the Austrians.
The neutral, money-grabbing leeches. Even their cheese has holes in it - probably syphoned off to line the vaults of their bank accounts. Neutrality only maximises their appeal to all the crooks of the world. Money is more important than principal. They also invented clocks so the rest of the world could get up each day to work. They just collect the ill-gotten gains.
Even in the lodge, which cost us a hefty 120 Quetzales per night (€12), there was a warning that every HOUR extra would be charged at another 50. Only the Swiss could come up with something like that.

So you've been warned. If you ever find yourself in Río Dulce, Guatemala, don't ever stay with the Swiss.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Vampires

Woke up this morning to find a bat asleep under the roof outside the room. Damn camera wouldn’t focus on him for some reason though. I suspect that means it must have been a vampire bat. You know the drill with vampires - can’t see their reflections in mirrors; their images won’t come out on film once photos are developed; digital cameras won’t focus on them...

A feckin’ vampire! Just outside the door!!! Time to leave methinks...

Raindog Café

Rain, rain, rain. The fourth consecutive day of rain. Bucketing down. Not the best time to stay in a wooden hut beside a great big lake. Nor is it the best time to get canoes and go canoing on said lake. But that's precisely what we did.
The first half hour was grand. But then. But then. Jesus Christ! The rain would have sent Noah scurrying for cover. Half an hour from home, we waited for about an hour under a shelter waiting for it to pass. It didn't. Eventually we just had to go on. We paddled towards the town of Río Dulce. The rain kept spilling. Water under the canoe, water over the canoe, beside it, outside it, in it - it was fucking everywhere!!! We eventually dragged our sorry wet arses into the town and tried to dry out.
In the shelter of the Sundog Café, we attempted to sit out the downpour and dry ourselves. Even the Sundog had no power over the Raindog however. That beast's barks are torrential.
We waited, and waited, and waited some more. We knew we couldn't stay forever however. We were still soaking wet from our first drowned rat experience, and the shivers were starting the bite. The gloom was getting gloomier too, as dusk threatened to approach.
We gave up. We had to get home. We paddled once again through the torrents, slow painstaking progress, inch by inch making our way over the lake back to the sanctuary of the Casa.
Ages later, arms, legs, arses and nerves frayed, we finally pulled up beside the jetty. We had made it! As soon as we did, of course, the rain stopped.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Roads and rage

I've just spent almost an hour typing the latest account of my travels but this fucking computer lost the whole lot. The auto save on this damn site is so bloody efficient it saved the latest version - the one with everything already lost.
Needless to say, it was the funniest, most informative, engaging piece of writing I've ever done. Now it´s been lost in cyberspace, never to be read by human eyes, and I'm going to smash up this shitty computer...

Okay - I just got a coffee there. Time to calm down...
Basically, all I wanted to say is that we've finally arrived in Río Dulce, Guatemala, some 27 hours after leaving El Pino, Honduras. We made it by two collectivos, a directo (which was anything but direct), one taxi, a chicken bus, and a lift from a woman in a pick-up who must have been the Road Runner in a previous life. She drove like the devil was after her, beeping at everything in her path (and also everything off her path). Beep beep! Beep beep!
At times she was literally struck dumb by road rage. She would throw her hands up and down, gesturing frantically, her face contorted, her lips moving, although no sound could escape. In between fits of road rage she was very nice. We stopped to drink green cocos en route, and she refused to take money from us when she mercifully left us off at San Pedro Sula before continuing on her way.
The guy who drove us this morning was even worse. He also overtook everything in his path. He even overtook when he had to pull in ahead to pick up more passengers, slamming on the brakes ahead of the trucks he just overtook to pick them up. Then he would overtake them again! Whether traffic was approaching or not didn´t seem to concern him.
At one stage there were 25 people in this Hiace-sized van. It might even have been a Hiace. The tear that had been in my eye on leaving Honduras was replaced by someone's elbow, but at least we've finally made it here with all limbs intact. It was touch and go there for a while!

Puerto Barrios

We spent last night in Puerto Barrios (en route to Río Dulce). It's a dodgy city by all accounts, and I’m not going to contradict those accounts based on my stay there. We became slightly lost during our hunt for a half-daecent comedor shortly after we arrived, when it was late and dark.

Jenny decided to ask a woman standing by the side of the road for directions. The woman nearly jumped out of her skin! She genuinely looked terrified. She was visibly relieved when she realised we weren’t going to stab or kidnap her, and she gladly sent us on our way.

The flip side of all this danger however, is that Puerto Barrios is a cheap place to visit. Our hotel, Hotel Lee, might have looked like the scene for a drug deal from Scarface or worse, but it was only 70 Quetzales (€7) for both of us for the night. The meal around the corner was just 29Q, and a hearty one it was too, including two strawberry milkshakes, a chicken tortilla, enchilada, scrambled eggs and coffee.

The coffee, as the rest of the coffee I’ve had to suffer in this country, was truly awful however. It seems they import all the good stuff, and leave the shite behind for all the locals to drink. I guess it’s the same with the meat in Ireland, where all the good stuff is exported to France and Germany, and the locals are expected to eat arses, noses and anything else scraped off the abattoir’s floor.

(Guate, our new travelling companion, joined our party last night. As long as he pays his way and behaves himself I’m happy enough. To be honest, it could be useful to have a guard-bear with us.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arsey rat

Cayos Cochinos will have to wait 'til next time I'm afraid. The thievin' gypsies wanted $35 each to bring us to the islands, more even if we wanted to come back a few days later.
So instead we went to El Pino, and the natural park of Pico Bonito, in the hope of catching sight of a jaguar, poisonous snake or crocodile. Alas, however, the animals were a bit shy. Despite traipsing through the jungle for three hours or more, we had to make do with just beautiful scenery. Waterfalls and rapids, wooden bridges over ravines, and oodles of exotic trees.
Not one poisonous snake tried attack us, nor did any jaguars try eat us. I expected the park to be stuffed with snakes at least. We saw a couple of lizards and Jenny saw a toad (not me) and that was it.
In fact, there was more wildlife in the cabin we übernachted in that night. The cabin was in the middle of nowhere, thatched with palm leaves, had no electricity, and had holes covered by cloth for windows. Mosquito nets over the beds and candles helped create a peaceful, romantic setting. Outside, glowworms were lighting up to sparkle in the grass. It was truly beautiful to watch them.
We were just lying there relaxing and noting how peaceful it was when we heard a rustling in the roof above. Suddenly a long dark shadow burst in through the thatch. A looonnng shadow. All we could see, in the candlelight, was that it had a long long tail.
"What the fuck is that?!"
It kept snuffling around above our heads, apparently oblivious to our presence. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was planning its attack.
We shone a light at it, and discovered it was a big rat-like creature. He carried on with his snuffling. His eyes reflected the light in the darkness like some sort of hell-rat.
Still he continued with his snuffling. Only when I grabbed the camera (typical) did he appear to take notice. Apparently he didn't like the red auto focus light. He repeatedly showed us his arse, as if to tell us "Feck off! I live here!" I got a great picture of him mooning us, before he eventually bogged off.
The spell was broken though. The cabin was in the middle of nowhere, and apparently animals could just waltz in and out whenever the mood took them. All sorts of weird noises could be heard from outside. We hit the hay, but not two minutes after blowing out the candles, we heard more rustling, and then fluttering above our heads.
"Ciarán, there's a bat in the room."
Great. What the hell could I do? They've vampire bats in Honduras you know.
Thankfully he didn't hang around. Better pickings elsewhere I suppose.
Intermittent rusting in the roof thereafter though made sure it was a restless night.

High steaks

Yesterday I ate the first bit of meat to have passed my lips since St. Stephen’s Day – an unprecedented 18 days without flesh! This time last year, I wouldn’t have thought I’d survive such an abstinence.

It wasn’t an intentional fast to be honest, but once I went two days without eating meat through circumstance, I had already gone longer without meat for the first time since I was a baby.

I decided to go a week. No mad side effects. Pretty damn healthy in fact. After that the achievement became higher every day, and it was a case of deciding when to let go of the balloon. The only way I was letting go of that balloon was through the biggest, juiciest steak I could find. Chicken, pig or any other inferior meat was simply not good enough anymore. It was steak or nothing. Last night I got steak. The balloon burst. Wow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Not a sandwich in sight...

Sambo Creek and the village doesn't even have bread! Never mind sandwiches. Jaysus, talk about misleading people...
We had to walk to the next village along the coast, Corozal, 6 km away just to get some bread! Still, I wasn't complaining. The walk took in some of the prettiest beaches I've seen, the Caribbean on one side, with gigantic jagged mountains rising sharply as a backdrop behind. All of them canopied by a blanket of lush green trees, home to Jaysus-knows-what type of animals, and Jaysus-knows-how many of them. Clouds clung to the top of the mountains, shrouding the tips give them an eerie sense of mystery.
Closer to the beach then, and we were flanked on one side by palm trees. One after the other. More palms than the bible.

There was some sort of fair on in Corozal, with horsemen thundering their steeds at tremendous speed and then attempting to dart a target through a hoop hanging from a rope as they passed underneath. Gangs of dogs roved around in the meantime, oblivious to the impressive horsemanship on show, but enjoying themselves nonetheless.

In Sambo Creek itself I was given a taste of how Phil Lynott must have felt growing up in Dublin - I was the whitest guy in the village, if not the only white guy in the village. Little black kids would stare in open-mouthed amazement as we walked by.
The poverty here is tangible though. Most of the houses were just run-down huts. A glance in one revealed a kitchen from what I imagine it must have been like in Ireland during the famine. No, I'm not showing my age here.
While most people were very friendly and would say hello, others would simply look directly at you with unkind eyes. Some kids just blatantly asked for money. Your man in the place we were staying told us "be careful" as were leaving for a walk, something were planning to do anyway, although now we had an extra dose of apprehension for good measure.
We also discovered what appeared to be an old haunted house at the beach on the way home that night. All dark, abandoned, with just one light on. Jungle behind and me in front. Jenny had refused to investigate and remained closer to the water. It was freaky because the house appeared to make noises at me as I approached - only when I moved did it make noise, getting loader the closer I got. I didn't hang around too long, but still it gave me goose bumps. Jenny got a bit scared then when I told her about the experience.
"Its okay - it can't follow us," I assured her.
Further down the beach I heard the noise again.
"Do you hear that?" I asked.
Shit. The damn house was following us. It had heard me saying it couldn't follow us and decided to accept the challenge.
Then I discovered the noise wasn't coming from the direction of the house. It was just a lizard or crocodile or something. Probably a cousin of the original one at the "haunted house" who was likely getting freaked out as I approached.

We still haven't made it to the tropical islands across the bay. The sea was even choppier getting from Utila to the mainland than the last non-pork experience, and the boats they use to get to Cayos Cochinos look a little fragile to say the least.
Coming back from Utila was a regular pukefest. There were people getting sick everywhere, and staff were handing out plastic bags at a rate which almost hit pre-levy levels.

We haven't given up hope of getting to the islands however. We're leaving Sambo Creek today, heading back to La Ceiba. From there we'll either get a bigger boat to what, I presume, are pristine tropical islands, or we'll say "feck it" and head straight for the jungle-clad slopes of Pico Bonito. Jaguars, armadillos, manatees, agouti and huge waterfalls await us there.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sambo Creek

Today we're leaving the island of Utila, and heading back to the mainland of Honduras. To a Garifuna seaside village called Sambo Creek to be precise. Imagine that - a river of sandwiches!

The Garifuna are descendants of black slaves dumped on the Caribbean island of Roatán by the British. They mixed with the locals, set up seaside communities, and made their way to the mainland where they did the same again.
They're a colourful bunch, pretty laid back. The ones on Utila speak a version of English which is almost incomprehensible. They shout a lot, but I think they're only talking. Loud music is on from the minute they wake to bedtime. Probably why they have to shout at each other.

Anyway, across the sea from Sambo Creek are Los Cayos Cochinos (the Hog Islands), small islands surrounded by coral reefs and known for their unique species of pink boa. I'm surprised they didn't have those in San Francisco.
The islands are protected national parks and have no roads, so there won't be any fuckers on motorbikes beeping at me. I noted they aren't called the Road Hog Islands. Hopefully we'll get to go over. There'd be more opportunities for snorkeling and swimming. It may be expensive though - we might have to charter a boat, and I'm not sure what the story is with accommodation. We may have to bed down with the pink boas.
In any event, Sambo Creek has a good beach. The boat's leaving in an hour. Good thing too - I'm starvin'!

The mighty fish

We looked at each other eye to eye. His further apart than mine. Neither of us backed down. Man to fish. Beast to beast. 3,000 teeth versus 32. Floating in the middle of the ocean. We understood each other. Mutual admiration. His mouth was big enough to swallow my head. But he chewed nonchalantly, evidently trying not to display any fear.
Smaller fish, (but still bloody big), ambled around his body, calmly sucking off any parasites. It was as if they were massaging his ego. Like the towel lads mopping the boxer´s sweat before he went back into the ring. At first I thought they were baby sharks, but in fact they were his helpers.
Meanwhile his gaze held mine. Steady. No backing down. I won't back down. Johnny Cash would be proud. Time stopped. The tension rose. He opened his mouth once more...
Then with one swish of his giant tail, the 20ft magnificent beast was gone. His spotted skin (in more ways than one!) blended perfectly with the murky deep waters and he was on his way. An underwater encounter he will no doubt remember for a long time.

I won't forget it in a hurry either. We spent what seemed like an eternity looking for the giant sharks. Birds were the tell tale sign we were told. They circled around where fish were driven to the surface by tuna and other preying fish. Then formed what they called a "boil" and it was this phenomenon we were looking for. That's where the whale sharks would be.
But I couldn't see any birds. I was beginning to think whale sharks were like buses, only I hoped more than one would arrive at the same time.
Then we got the sign. Birds ahead! And the water was alive with fish! It did, in fact, appear as if it was boiling. Fish were literally jumping out of the water. And a great beast was spotted in the midst of this madness.
We lashed on our snorkel gear and jumped overboard. Swimming like mad to the where all the excitement was. Legs pounding like jackhammers, I headed straight for the action.
Suddenly he was in front of me. Absolutely incredible! I just stopped, suspended in the sea, and looked. He was huge! Literally, a "whale" shark.
One could see marks on his dark spotted body - deep gashes, war wounds from earlier tussles with propeller boats. But he lived to tell the tale. He probably didn't even notice. This was a mighty fish if ever there was one.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Skinny-dippin'

Only when one goes skinny-dipping under a full or almost-full moon does one appreciate just what kind of tan one has got. Everything is white, but some parts are really white. Some parts of the body just wanna shine right back up there!

(No photographs accompany this post.)

Whale sharks at noon

Tomorrow's the big day. Whale sharks at noon. Half noon to be precise.
Anyway, the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center (WSORC), the crowd we've going with, have had a pretty good encounter rate the past few days - four on Wednesday - so it's pretty certain we're going to be snorkeling with the biggest fish in the world tomorrow. Aaarrgh!!

Pirates actually seem to have left their mark on this island. (One bearded guy actually walked down to the beach with a parrot perched on his shoulder yesterday. He left the parrot in the tree while he jumped in for a dip. Of course, he would have to talk to us.)
The pirate Henry Morgan was a big wig here at one time. I presume most of today's residents are descendants. They all seem to be particularly lazy, and the town itself looks like shit. Run down buildings, broken up pavement, unpainted walls. rubbish just strewn around. Cockroaches, maggots and land crabs left to their own devices. I guess they're lazy because of the climate, the sea and the beaches - surely not conducive to any sort of work.
To be honest there really is no comparison between the underwater world and the overwater one - the former is spectacular, so maybe they just don't need to bother with the one above.

Today a barracuda swam by our heads. A long pointy fellow (like Éamon de Valera).
He'd be no match for a whale shark though. Bring them on!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Snappers' decisions

I just learned today there are six species of snake on this island. And it's a pretty small island. Not big enough for all of us methinks.
They told me that at the Iguana Breeding and Research Station, where I've just returned from a personal tour. They also had a tarantula which they had captured there the day before. Apparently, there are loads of them too on the island. Hmmm, maybe time to head back to the mainland. It also turns out those lizards I thought I'd been looking at the past few days are actually iguanas.
More disturbing however, as mentioned before, are the land crabs. On the way way home last night, we noticed millions of the pinchy feckers at the side of the road. Big feckers too. All looking at us with their beady eyes. Itching for a pinch.

These distractions don't take away from the overall experience however. I now have a few dilemmas to mull over. Firstly is the fact we are on Utila, the cheapest place in the world to learn how to dive. The snorkeling has given me a taste for it. To get internationally recognised diving certification costs $259 here, a fraction of what it would cost in Europe or elsewhere. It's a four day course with two deep dives at the end. I'm not sure I would make use of it again however. Berlin's pretty far from the sea, and there are no coral reefs in the Baltic. Too damn cold.

The next thing to consider is whether I'll go back at all. I mean, I will go back, but maybe not when I'm supposed to. I'm supposed to start work on February 2nd, but I haven't had confirmation of that since November. Maybe I don't want confirmation. Now that I'm actually on this side of the world, it seems a shame to be so hasty in heading back. It also seems to be another case of work getting in the way of living, although my finances keep protesting otherwise. Anyway, still a few weeks of living to be done either way. No need to make any snappy decisions, although México's call is getting louder by the day...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Caribbean dreamin'

The lack of posts in recent days can be explained by one simple sentence - I'm on a Caribbean island! Utila, Honduras to be precise. We've been here three days now, arriving on Saturday after a mammoth 12 hours journey which culminated in a three hour sailing, the choppiest experience of my life despite the lack of pork.

The island itself is as one would expect a Caribbean island to be - palm trees, white sand, clear warm waters. It's what's in the water however, that's spectacular. These islands have the fortune to be flanked by the second largest coral reef in the world, so on Sunday we went snorkeling, something I'd never done in my life before. It was amazing! Jesus Christ, I was literally swimming with the fishes - thankfully without the mafia consequences. The colours, shapes, sizes, and variety of the marine life just a few metres under the surface is astounding, and simply just to float/swim above this wonderful world was an unforgettable experience. Words can't do it justice, and I don't have any pictures to post due my my lack of ownership of an underwater camera, so I guess you'll just have to trust me.

Anyway, we went snorkeling again yesterday, and the sights were, if anything, even more impressive. We saw some triangley poisonous fish, as well as come clown of a fish with big eyes and a weird nose kitted out in all the rainbow's colours.
We also went sea-kayaking, but that didn't exactly go according to plan. Wind and waves conspired to lead us rapidly off-course, causing us to abandon plans for sailing to the other side of the island through mangroves to check out turtles or whatever is on the other side.
Instead I found a sea urchin which captured my attention for what I realise now was an inappropriately long time. They're known as sea hedgehogs in German, so for the poor fecker who was being examined by yours truly for so long, it must have been like looking in a mirror.
video

Unfortunately, due to my enthusiasm for the Caribbean sun, I've taken on the common hue of the Irish species once it occasionally migrates south - Lobster. From here it will either be nutty brown or beetroot. I'm hopeful it will be the former but time will tell.

Today we hiked to the other side of the island. I had company today so paranoia didn't tag along as on the last hike. It was quite relaxing I must say. We encountered a squillion lizards and butterflies en route, before finding ourselves once again on the northern seashore. Jenny was as happy as a seahorse, collecting old coral rock formations, or fossils, (to be honest I'm not sure what they are, but they're pretty in any case). After spending an eternity grappling with the heartbreaking decisions on which to take and which to abandon, (and eventually taking most anyway), she frolicked in the waves awhile before emerging with even more coral.
We later hiked up Pumpkin Hill, the highest point of the island at a lofty 74 metres, in flip-flops. Meanwhile my recently-purchased hiking boots lay neglected at home.

Today we booked our place to go swimming with whale sharks on Friday. Whale sharks! The biggest goddamn fish in the world!! Another opportunity to snorkel. Isn't snorkel a great word? Snorkel. I love saying that. Apparently the German for snorkel is schnorchel. Even funnier. That language gives me no end of laughs.

Despite being on a Caribbean island, life can have it travails. This evening for example, I had to shave with just a blade. The handle on my Mach 3 supersonic device broke because all the shit in my bag was packed too tightly. I guess it just shows that life's hardships will always track you down, even in the Caribbean. I know, woe is me!!
Maybe however, it explains why the locals seems to be constantly shouting and arguing with each other. Seriously, they're in danger of wrecking the vibe man. As for the fuckers on the motorbikes going up and down the only "road" on the island, Jaysus. The road is also a path, about three metres wide, and some of them actually beep at you as they come from behind. I suppose you're meant to fling yourself off the road into the sea so they can zoom past... I tell ya, the next fella who beeps at me will be getting a stick in the eye.

The only other slightly off-putting thing is the number of cockroaches I've encountered so far. Two met with untimely ends yesterday thanks to my under-appreciated flip-flop. Apparently, they can fly too, which makes them even worse. I just don't like them - much like the people sitting beside me right now.
But those cockroaches can be cheeky buggers. While on the Honduran mainland last week, we were cooking dinner. I opened the kitchen door to get something outside, when this little fecker can scurrying in by my feet and under the kitchen table. I don't know which was more disturbing - the fact I couldn't then find him, or that Jenny christened him "Cocky".

Right, time to go. Apparently the people running this interweb joint wanna go home. I haven't mentioned the land crabs yet though - they're everywhere! But more on them next time.
Now, I just have to find a stick...

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Guns and Mayans

Guns definitely rule the roost here - also in Guatemala. Copán still has the feel of a frontier town - probably because it's near the frontier but nevertheless... Most of the men walking the cobbled and tattered streets are rancheros, strutting around in their distinctive white cowboy hats.
It's the kind of place a couple of Yankee gun-toting adventurers might once have ridden into after a couple of misdemeanors, as they fled south to escape the long arm of the law.
One could imagine Robert Redford and Paul Newman riding into town, and deciding Honduras could be a comfortable place to lie low for a while. They might even have cast an envious eye at the local banks.
All of them are guarded by armed security guards, two to each door, and all proud of their status. To be honest however, I think even I could take them out. They seem to be a bit past their prime, big bellies betraying their level of comfort. They all have the uniform moustache, beady eyes, and the dark hats of authority, and while they scan all around them with suspicious eyes, I get the feeling they wouldn´t really have the heart for a fight. If they were called to business.
One of them, a particularly large fellow, has a habit of taking up the whole pavement with his outstretched rifle. Twice now he has had to move his rifle out of my way so I could walk past.
I can't help thinking I could easily grab it from his arms, pop a few slugs into his fat belly, and that of his compadre, and hold up the bank. It sure would beat having to work for a living.
Instead however, I just smile politely at him. He smiles back, unaware of my thoughts. He's lucky. If he wasn't so damn polite...

We finally saw the Mayan ruins today. Interesting enough, but for me not worth the entrance fee. ($15 each.) We should have bought a wire cutters and made our way in through the fence like I suggested.
The ruins go back to the time when the Mayans used to sacrifice each other to the gods from pyramidic temples. Unfortunately the shows were all long over by the time we got there, (It had been a thousand years or so since the last one apparently - talk about being too late), and there were only the sculptures and remains of the once alleged great civilisation left from which one could imagine the carry on at the time.
Apparently the temples of Tikal, in Guatemala, are much grander and impressive. Once I knew that, the ruins of Copán didn't stand a chance. I mean, who wants to go see the second best Mayan ruins in Mesoamérica?

Tomorrow we begin our journey towards the Bay Islands in the Caribbean (at 7am!). I'm sure the early start will be worth it.