Friday, February 27, 2009

Zurück in Berlin

The damn snow scarpered as soon as it heard I was returning to Berlin. Typical! A couple of days before I got back, the city was glorious, covered in a thick white carpet, inches deep. A clear sharp blue sky above suggested a new beginning. A comforting crunch accompanied every footfall, and the sun gently glistened off the snow, sending sparkles of light towards the trees' laden branches.

Or so I imagine it was anyway. Despite the lack of snow it's good to be back. It helps when you're met at the airport by a beautiful girl with flowers. One quickly remembers the things that make it so special to live here: the bread (my beloved Kurbiskernbröt), the bicycles, the squealing old trams trundling by, the gurkens, Hefeweißbier, the hookers on Oranienburger Straße with their unnatural Barbie doll figures, the forthrightness of the locals... Seriously, in the local supermarket today, the poor cashier was under a bit pressure as the queue started to get longer and longer. He was on his own. Instead of getting sympathy however, he was roared at by a gobshite behind me: "Zweite Kasse!" (Second cashier). Even other people looked shocked at this. A minute later, when his lordship's request went unfulfilled, he roared again. "ZWEITE KASSE BITTE!!!" I presume he eventually got his eggs and milk. An old guy too, in a suit - they're the ones you need to watch.

It's damn cold here. Not as miserable as Ireland, but cold, the kind of cold that makes you feel alive; the kind of cold that makes you wish your jacket wasn't stolen in Mexico.
Now that the snow is gone however, I get the feeling people are just waiting for the weather to improve so they can take off their clothes and jump into the nearest river or lake. Germans are never really truly happy unless they're naked, preferably in public places. East Germans in particular. Maybe it's a backlash from living in the Stasi-controlled state for so long. I have to say I too like the feeling of naked liberation, and can't wait for summer again.

In the meantime, I've been adding photos to posts from the past couple of months, starting with "Antigua" on December 28th and working towards the present. I didn't realise I wrote so much. There was a load of stuff I meant to write about too, but I find one has to strike a happy balance between experiencing experiences and writing about them. A very happy balance in my case...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Death in Mesoamérica

I wrote the following soon after arriving in México, where I felt a lot safer than I did in Guatemala. (Ironic given nearly 6,000 murders or executions in México last year, not too mention the robberies and kidnappings, but I felt safer there all the same.)
However, not wishing to tempt fate, there was just no good time to post these words. I never got cocky enough to do so, but I'm back in Berlin now, so I guess it's now or never.

Death is never ever far away. As we were hurtling along the road in our shuttle (Hiace minivan) from Lanquin to Antigua a couple of weeks ago, we passed through a village where a huge crowd of people had gathered by the side of the road. The police were there and we knew it was something bad, but nevertheless, no one in the shuttle could avert their eyes. All necks were craned as we drove slowly past to see what was going on.
Through a break in the crowd we saw it. A pair of legs protruding from a dark blanket. Even though we were expecting the worst, it was still a shock. Everyone stayed quiet. Even the driver kept to a reasonable speed for a few kilometres before getting back up to his normal pace.
Three or four days later I saw something similar in Guatemala City. This time a bus was involved. The front of it was smashed up. I didn't see a body this time, but I'm pretty sure there was a body.

I guess the tone was set on my first day in the country, in Antigua. We went to check out the elaborate graves in the local graveyard, when we noticed a body lying casually on a slab, waiting no doubt to be transferred to one of the elaborate graves, with feet pointing expectantly to the heavens. Yes, I know, one finds bodies in graveyards - people are always dying to get in, but it was a beautiful sunny day, and you don't expect to find bodies casually lying around waiting for burial. Poor Jenny hadn't even seen a dead body up to that point. Unfortunately, I'd already seen plenty thanks to my time chasing car crash reports for the Gorey Echo. Well, with a name like that, what was I to do? News is news.

The locals here seem to have a strange acceptance of death. While it's an inevitable part of life, they seem to have a fateful belief that all is out of their hands and that there's nothing one can do about it. As the bus I was on was passing the crash site in Guatemala City, another bus overtook us at ferocious speed. On the back of this bus was written: "El éxito de hombre dependiente de Dios." (Man´s death depends on God.)
The driver obviously believed that, and thought no matter how he drove, that his fate was already determined by God. It's no wonder life is so cheap there.
Everywhere you look in Guatemala, signs declare "Jesús Cristo el Rey" and other such slogans declaring allegiance to God and/or Jesus. I don´t know if the locals are so fond of God that they want to meet him as soon as possible, or if they have such a sense of fate that they believe life is just a rehearsal for the main event afterwards.
In any event these slogans feature predominantly on the fronts and backs of buses and minivans which bring tourists around. I don't know how we didn't see more bodies at the side of the road.

Apart from the roads, the newspapers in Guatemala are full of gory details everyday, quite different from the Gorey Details I once compiled. The day before I left for Mexico, I picked up the paper to discover four men had been executed in Rio Dulce two nights before. Rio Dulce! Where I had been with Jenny two weeks before! The men - a rancher, his two sons and a hired helper - left the main house at 4 a.m. to be confronted by four masked men armed with machine guns. They were led to woods nearby and shot, their bodies left where they fell. The newspaper had lovely diagrams detailing the chain of events, culminating with little stars on the victim´s bodies where the bullets hit them.
This story didn't even make the front page. That was reserved for a woman whose body was found in three plastic shopping bags dumped in the middle of a street in Guatemala City. Only her head was missing. Apparently she was the 40th woman to die of a violence-related crime in Guatemala since the turn of the year. (That paper was on January 29th - feck knows what that figure is now.)
The same paper detailed a few other less-interesting murders, including one of an eight year old boy. The paper's editors kindly included a picture of the kid´s grieving mother, just so other mothers might know how she felt.
Everyday I picked up the newspaper, there were at least four murders, but usually much more. Four was the least I counted on any given day, and I think that only happened once. Apparently, in 2008, there were 16 deaths a day in the country from murders, extortions and kidnappings.
No wonder I feel so much safer in Mexico.

In the end, I didn't witness any deaths in México, not even a car crash. I did however, make the mistake of picking up a newspaper just before I left México City. My eyes were greeted by a half-page murder shot; three other pictures of less impressive murders below it.
The main photo showed the poor guy as he lay in a shiny dark red pool on the street; his torso in shreds, riddled by bullets; arms hanging limply up by his side, as if still in surrender. His head was inclined slightly, but his face betrayed none of the trauma he surely must have experienced in death. Hopefully, that will have been of some consolation to his grieving family.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Observations on Mexicans

A couple of observations on Mexicans, detailed below in no particular order of importance:
  • Mexicans never ever wear seatbelts. Not even bus drivers, despite the fact all drivers are supposed to wear them. I suspect this is a result of machismo; wearing a seatbelt is probably seen as a sign of weakness. It was the same in Honduras and Guatemala - countries where seatbelts are more likely to be called into action than anywhere else on Earth.
  • Guns are held with pride by all those who hold them. I guess these weapons inflate the bearer’s sense of self-importance. I presume guns are the reason these guys became cops, security guards or whatever.
  • Mexicans can’t drink. They get drunk very quickly and do not make good drunks. It’s probably hard to find any country with good drunks to be honest, but the Mexicans can get ridiculously messy and aggressive (as I saw during La Noche Loca).
  • The children of this part of the world are ridiculously smiley and friendly. They nearly always offer a wave hello or a cheery “hola”. Irish kids, on the other hand, would sooner throw stones or rotten eggs at you. Ahhh, those were the days!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teotihuacán

The best was saved for last. Or so I thought. Teotihuacán is famous for its imposing pyramids, Pirámide de la Luna and Pirámide del Sol, the third biggest in the world. Other temples and pyramids litter the site too.
Built by the Aztecs' predecessors around 100 AD, this ancient city rose to become the Mesoamérica's greatest, 20 square km in size, with a population of 125,000. Of course, it went the way of all these ancient cities after it was pillaged, burned and abandoned around 600 hundred years later.

To be honest, I found it underwhelming. Maybe I was spoiled by what I had seen before over the last couple of months (or even the Lucha Libre the night before), but I was expecting bigger pyramids, more imposing ruins, more impressive remains.
There's a huge fuss made about Teotihuacán, going back to the days when the Aztecs used to make pilgrimages here, but apart from the size of the two pyramids (they are big), I didn't find much else to excite me. There were no underground tunnels under the structures, so basically all these fellas did was pile up the bricks.
I also find it hard to appreciate these things when they have been restored to such an extent that I don't know whether what I'm looking at is real or not. Or whether it ever existed to begin with. I was reading about the Pirámide del Sol, when they admitted the archaeologists got it wrong in reconstruction when they rebuilt it with five levels instead of the original four. The fools basically built a different pyramid!
I feel if they're going to reconstruct something, they should do it properly, and rebuild the city exactly as it once was. Now that would be impressive. These half-arsed attempts at reconstruction are pitiful. The top of the Pirámide del Sol was basically a load of stones stuck together with cement. I'm no expert on these matters, but I'm pretty sure this wasn't how it was in its time of glory.

Never mind. I sacrificed three peanuts from Pirámide de la Luna, and a biscuit, nachos and peso from Pirámide del Sol to appease Tlaloc, the rain god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of fertility and life. Thousands of lesser men than me had been sacrificed for these two in the good old days, but all they were getting from me was peanuts and nachos.

The Mexican's reconstruction efforts could be an example for Bord Fáilte to boost Ireland's flagging economy. What better way to draw the tourists than "discover" an old Celtic temple bigger than the Sphinx? They could fast-track the planning application process so it could be built and jobs created ahead of the next general election. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

This is my last post from México. Tomorrow morning I fly to New York en route to Ireland en route to Berlin. There'll be pints I'm sure in Ireland either Friday, Saturday or Sunday, if not all of them.
I hope you enjoyed reading my ramblings as much as I enjoyed living them. Photos will be added at some stage in the future, and of course all spelling mistakes will be weeded out, punished and shot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

¡Lucha Libre!

The madness just never ends. It was outrageous. It was wild and wonderful. It was Lucha Libre - Mexican wrestling!

Security wouldn't let me into the 17,000-seater Arena Mexico at first with my camera, but I kicked up a fuss, and eventually Sandra Granados, Relaciones Publicas, very kindly let me in after hearing I was representing Ireland's newspapers. Not only was I let in, but I was granted ringside access to take my photos with the other photographers.

Jesus Christ, What an experience! As soon as I entered the arena the sheer madness of it all hits me. Trumpets blast, the crowd screams and roars, and six masked wrestlers proceed to punch, kick slap, throw, choke and body slam each other with sadistic gusto. And this is the women!
When the main event, the Espectacular Final de Trios, starts, the crowd goes absolutely bananas. Beyond bananas. Six colourfully-masked brutes of men make spectacular noisy entrances into the ring, while being introduced to thunderous applause.
The participants play to the crowd, the two teams of three squaring up to each other, roaring, gesturing and prancing about under the hot bright lights, before the referees finally allow them get at it!
Within seconds they're knocking lumps off each other, flinging each other into the ropes, over the ropes, from the ropes, onto the ring floor, out of the ring floor. The noise is unbelievable! The slaps, the thuds, the groans, yells, screams. It's painful just to watch.
The crowd meanwhile, bays for injuries, cheering, clapping, chanting, shouting, screaming, whistling. They roar approval whenever some poor fecker's flung on his head, thrown out of the ring, or hit so hard he can't get up again. There are laughs too when one slips as he tries climb the ropes.
Meanwhile, I scurry around the ring with my heart in my mouth, trying to take decent photographs, so close to the action I can smell it, reach in and touch it. Bodies fly out at will, and the fighting continues outside the ring, sometimes even in the seats, sending spectators scampering for safely.
I duck and dive around the ring to avoid injury. You don't want one of those feckers landing on you! One crashes into me however, his knee connecting with my head, knocking me over and sending my camera flying, much to amusement of the crowd behind me, especially the women who laugh hysterically.
The security guys seem more concerned, but are happy once I gave them the thumbs up. There are photos to take!
Seconds after I'm hit, another body is sent flying from the ring. The crowd roars its approval again. The acrobatics continue in the ring. Sweat pours off the wrestlers' bodies. It's then I notice I'm sweating too - from all the running around just trying to avoid being hit!
Just when the ring is littered with bodies, the referees start arguing with each other, pushing each other and then arguing with the wrestlers. It all goes out of control. It's mayhem. Everybody's fighting everyone at the same time. Suddenly it's all over. Somebody has won. I've no idea who. Both team captains give rousing emotional speaches. There's talk of a rematch. One stomps off in disgust, while the other leaves to a hero's applause.
The crowd definitely won anyway. Everybody leaves with huge smiles on their faces. The carnival atmosphere continues on the street where takes place a roaring trade in colourful Lucha Libre masks.

(I had been taking a photo of two guys in the crowd when I got hit, and hadn't noticed the wrestler being thrown back into the ring after fighting in the seats. Thankfully the camera survived, but I remained a source of amusement crowd for the rest of the bout. People gave me the thumbs up. Some of them even shook my hand afterwards. Mucho respecto!
In fact the crowd itself was hilarious. Old women, and there were loads of them, would scream abuse at the wrestlers who sometimes came down from the ring and reciprocated with good-natured yelling and posturing of their own, much to the amusement of the rest of the spectators.)

I had been expecting more theatrics than wrestling to be honest, but Lucha Libre is not fake wrestling, or play-acting, it's real!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The big D.F.

Mexico City! El Distrito Federal. I've finally made it. It's the last leg of my journey, and it feels like everything has been building up slowly to this point.
To be honest, I'd been apprehensive about coming here, given all the tales of kidnappings, murders, assaults and robberies. Apparently a French tourist was shot dead as he left a bank here last week. Wrong place, wrong time. Or maybe because he was French.
But I'd heard a lot of stories. One girl told me they got a taxi to their hostel. As they were crossing the road towards it, the driver leaned out of the window and shouted: "Run girls! Run!" Not the kind of thing that would give you confidence.
Apparently, it's very dangerous to get taxis off the streets here. (As if I needed another reason to dislike them.) They're notorious for having accomplices in the back, or waiting at another location, so they can accost their passengers, kidnap them or worse.
The metros are notorious for thieves and pickpockets too, simply because they're so crowded. They sometimes segregate women and children into the first carriages of the train for their safety and protection from the squeeze, and also, or so I've heard, because so many women were getting groped on board.

But I survived my first day! I got the 6.30am bus from Oaxaca to make sure I arrived in daylight. Six and a half hours later we arrived at the bus station and I was forced to try and comprehend the sheer size of the city. It was a daunting prospect, possibly made worse by all the stories I'd heard, but the traffic is absolutely everywhere; buildings soar up and up; people mill around like ants; and helicopters roar overhead at night, probing the darkness with powerful searchlights.
You can smell the excitement in the air; feel the energy; sense the sheer life of it. For Mexico City is alive! An incredible megalopolis whose countless stories unfold quicker than can be told.
After spending an en evening here without incident, I've realised I'm just another soul in a city of 23 million. They probably don't even know I'm here.

La noche loca

Street salsa, mezcal, fights and fireworks; Noche de Luces was a night to remember!
It started with a bang as fireworks and crackers were sent spinning around the streets, but it almost ended up with us being banged up, as the police attempted to keep us overnight in their hostal behind bars.

A mariachi band paraded down the main promenade to get the action underway, followed by colourful masked dancers, huge twirling puppets, and a stream of revellers all carrying candles in tulip-shaped stained glass holders. A twirling firework contraption at the head of the band would explode to life every so often, showering onlookers in clouds of sparks while blasting their eardrums.
Of course we joined in behind the band too, as if hypnotised by the trumpets, fire and incredible noise. With faces hidden behind great protruding red and yellow straw masks, and costumes to match, just the eyes of the dancers were visible.
One of them evidently cast their eye on me, and proffered a glass of suspicious looking yellow liquid before my face. "Drink, drink!" he urged me. I smelled it to make sure it wasn't what I thought it could be, (terrible how suspicious one can be). Other dancers gathered around me. "Drink! Drink!" I gulped it down. Mezcal! My friend from the night before. It greeted me warmly as it slid down my throat, and straight away I knew it was going to be a great night.
We paraded all the way down Oaxaca's main thoroughfare, before settling down for the party at the Zocalo, where the dancers really strut their stuff. Hungry for more mezcal however, we wandered off; me, my new friends Pablo from Argentina and Santiago from Colombia, Carola the Argentinian singer (what a name for a singer!), and a couple of American girls.
We soon found ourselves in Babel, a tiny smoke-filled den packed to the rafters for a local Oaxacan band. From outside the crammed room, I counted at least seven guitars, a wooden box being pounded by a guy sitting on it, and a couple of other crazy instruments. Eventually we forced ourselves in and took up position sitting crossed-legged on the tiled floor directly in front of the musicians. They took it in turns to sing at the top of their voices while the others strummed/banged along to accompany. Streams of sweat poured down their faces, but the unforgiving crowd screamed and bayed for more anytime their was even a hint they might stop. Each song would last 20 minutes if not more, before we too would bay for more.
Beer, mezcal, mojitos; we tried everything as we took in every note, every strum, every chord, every lyric. And it went on and on. And still we bayed for more.
Eventually we found ourselves back out on the street as the musicians were finally given respite. More music flowed from the door of another bar further on. We went in, but left quickly when they demanded a 60 peso cover charge. About 3 euro. Outrageous.
Back outside on the street, I discovered some beers in my bag. Emergency beers. Well, this was an emergency, so we cracked them open. Soon we were dancing on the street to the expensive music from the bar. The Colombian and Argentinian lads of course were natural and they flung their girls around with gusto. I tried my best. The Argentinian girl took pity on me, and attempted to show me how to salsa. One step two step back, one step two step back. A few twirls, more steps, shoulders, hips. She tried, but I'm definitely not Buenos Aires standard just yet.
Three Mexican guys meanwhile, were looking at the goings on with open amusement. They laughed when they heard we wouldn't pay for the music upstairs. They disappeared and returned with a bottle of vodka (lemon vodka - crazy Mexicans), grape juice and a load of plastic glasses.
Soon it was a real party, everyone talking at the same time, all laughing and yabbering. Erik from Norway and Viktor from Sweden then showed up, and of course they needed no second invitation to lash into the bottle.
The police needed no invitation either. Driving by on a motorbike, they stopped suddenly when Seren, one of the American girls, was swinging out of the high window bars above the street.
They wanted to bring us all down to the station. Drinking in public is illegal in Mexico, which of course makes it more fun.
These fellas weren't in the mood for fun however. The Mexican guys protested, and we stayed quiet, but the police wanted either 100 pesos from each of us, or we were going with them. After more complaining and haggling, one of the Mexican guys eventually paid them off with 50 pesos and they left us alone.
We were still in the mood to party, so we quickly left the scene. The Mexicans invited us to go home with them in a taxi, but I thought it wiser to go Café Central, a neutral venue, and the scene for my introduction to mezcal the night before.
Of course, they had a cover charge too, so we wandered instead to look for El Elephante, a long-opening venue and thus better value per peso.
On the way there, however, all hell was to break loose. A lone hombre made some remark to one of the Mexicans as they were passing. More words were exchanged, until they were shouting at each other across the street.
Then one of our Mexicans hands over the remaining grape juice, takes off his jacket and the three of them all run after the other guy. They catch up with him outside Cafe Central and smash his head off a car. They start hoofing into him then as he lies on the ground. They really hammer the shit out of him. No love at all despite it being Valentine's night. We all look on meanwhile, with open mouths.
Suddenly they're running back towards us, and they turn down a side street just before they reach us. A lone cop follows seconds later, stops in the middle of the road, and radios for assistance.
We don't know what to do, but decide it's wise to leave the area. We cross the next side street over and see two of the lads surrounded by police, while a police van with lights flashing waits beside. Just two of them are there - Juan got away. (I know it shouldn't be funny, but his name actually was Juan - like most things on this trip, you couldn't make it up.)
They stand there with their hands up, look up, see us, and look at us imploringly. But what can we do? We decide it's not worth getting mixed up in the whole affair and start heading home. It was definitely the end of the night. But what a night! video

Monday, February 16, 2009

San Kevin of Glendalough

I met a Mexican guy on my way home from the pub last night who was delighted to hear the background to his name: Kevin. He knew it was an Irish name, but hadn’t heard of the saint.
I'm happy to inform you Kevin Rivera Martinez now knows all there is to know about San Kevin of Glendalough.

Hierve el Agua

A waterfall of stone with no falling water where the water "boils" despite being cold. Welcome to the wonderful world of Hierve el Agua, a natural phenomenon of staggering beauty.
Seen from afar, it looks like water is actually cascading spectacularly over the top of this mountain, plunging steeply 30 meters onto the rocks below. The anomaly was created over thousands of years, as mineral water from deep below bubbles to the surface, bringing with it mineral deposits which are left behind to create the illusion of a frozen waterfall.
A wide valley floor far below keeps the surrounding mountains at a distance, as if they give themselves enough space and perception to marvel at the scale and magnitude of nature’s creation. Deep turquoise pools find their home on top of the smaller 12 metre petrified “waterfall”, and bathers find it impossible to resist plunging into the inviting waters.
Standing on Hierve el Agua, which translates as “The Water Boils” in Spanish, it’s easy to see why it was sacred to the ancient Zapotecs. They built a series of irrigation channels in the area between 300 and 1300 AD.
I had been brought there by Pablo and Santiago who are driving from Florida to Buenos Aires and doing social work en route. (I wasn’t the social work in this case.) Of course, being Argentinian and Colombian they brought a couple of girls along too: Carola from Argentina and Heather from Canada. I can see now why boys with cars always get the girls. I was just thankful they didn’t bring another girl instead of me.
The peace, isolation and serenity of where we found ourselves can make a man do crazy things. For me it was my first taste of yoga, as Carola somehow coaxed us into flailing our arms, mimicking helicopters, and generally doing things in public we would never dream of doing at home. Other tourists looked on in amazement but the five of us carried on regardless. Hierve instils a sense of apathy towards other people’s perceptions.
Swimming and yoga can work up quite an appetite however. Being poor backpackers we skipped the comedors on site, proceeding instead to the nearest village of San Lorenzo Albarradas. Delicious quesadillas and enchiladas were immediately flung on the fire oven and served up for half-nothing. Meanwhile a little boy, about four years old, terrorised the establishment's dog by jabbing him repeatedly with a sharp stick, much to the amusement of the boy’s grandmother.
The dog’s yelps reminded us that life is particularly tough in rural Mexico, a fact which was underlined later when I found one of the dog’s pups eating a used discarded nappy. He was the lucky one – he had just fought off one of his siblings for the privilege.
On our way back to Oaxaca, we called in at Tule, to see the “world’s largest tree”. Hmmm... I’ll admit it was a big tree, but it's hard to tell when the world's second-largest tree isn't nearby. I’m pretty sure Tule’s is not the world’s largest. I suspect another case of innovative thinking from the Mexican tourist board.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Zapotecs, balloons and mezcal

Today Oaxaca is awash with balloons; huge balloons usually heart or puppy-shaped and pink with "Te amo" written on them. It's Valentine's Day and everyone is wandering around with ridiculous balloons, from sad-looking lonely Mexican girls to businessmen on their way home to their wives or mistresses.
It's also an excuse for a fiesta this evening, and every half-excuse is seized upon by the party-crazy Mexicans to throw another one. Thus tonight is Noche de Luces, and the streets of Oaxaca will be crammed with revellers, fireworks will be shot into the sky, and mezcal will be consumed in copious quantities.
It's not all about tequila you know; Oaxaca is the home of mezcal, a spirit which is like that of the Mexicans themselves - fiery and full-on. I like it!

Despite last night's mezcal's best efforts to hinder me, I made it as planned to the site of the ancient mountain-top city of Monte Alban, home for 1,300 years to the Zapotecs. They're related to the Olmecs, famous for their huge sculptures of heads with flatted noses and thick lips.
Apparently the Zapotecs were another blood-thirsty bunch, as can be deduced from the stone engravings of their victims being castrated and sacrificed for the voracious appetite of their gods. They eventually abandoned their city around 800 or 900 A.D.

While not as impressive as Tikal in Guatemala, the setting of these ancient pyramid-temples and tombs is spectacular, commanding wonderful views of the mountain ranges and valleys down below.
The ruins themselves are impressive too of course, but again, like those of Tikal, they were in ruins. They seem to be very careless about this type of thing on this side of the planet. Maybe the mezcal has something to do with it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Taxis strike again

My low opinion of taxi drivers dropped below what I already considered the bottom - it dropped below the bottom yesterday when the fuckers forced me to walk almost two hours in the unforgiving Mexican sun. In flip flops. With all my luggage.

I decided with a heavy heart to leave Mazunte and make my way to Oaxaca. Isn't that a wonderful name? Pronounced Wa-haka. I think if I was ever going to change my name I would change it to Oaxaca. Oaxaca Fahey has a certain ring methinks.
Anyway, I figured with a name like that it's got to be a city of unlimited fun, excitement and diversion. Apparently they eat grasshoppers here covered in chili powder, so I'm looking forward also to crunching into a few of those.

But the taxi drivers. The collectivo dropped me about two miles outside of Pochutla (from where I was to get the bus to Oaxaca), and couldn't bring me any further, because the damn taxi drivers had blocked the highway with their robbing vehicles in some sort of protest. Presumably they feel they aren't robbing enough.
I walked into the town to find out that they had blocked the other side of the town too, and no vehicles, including buses to Oaxaca, could get in or out. I was advised to walk another two kilometres "mas o menos" uphill to the other side of town to see if any buses would be leaving from there.
Not wishing to walk back the way I came, I had no option. Anyway, I walked and walked, with the sun beating down mercilessly, and eventually passed the fuckbag taxi drivers' picket line on the other side of the village. Traffic chaos was on the other side, as trucks, cars, buses and camionetas were stuck with nowhere to go. One guy in particular was doing his nut in as he had two passengers who needed to catch a flight on their way to the airport.

Thankfully I found a minibus going my way. I settled into my seat and relaxed. A group of Italian girls were my only companions. Pretty to look at but very hard on the ear drums. However, that was nothing on the discomfort level compared to when a huge Mexican, the size of two small cows, boarded the bus and squeezed into the two vacant seats beside me. He wheezed and gasped for air, and rivers of sweat poured down his fat face.
The road between Pochutla and Oaxaca is spectacular, passing over mountains, around canyons and through cloud forests en route. We went so high I was almost looking down at the sky in places. The scenery however, necessitates the windiest roads ever built, and the driver (as most drivers in this part of the world are) happened to be a lunatic intent on breaking the mountain speed record, if not the bus itself, as he threw it around every corner with gusto.
We were all thrown around from left to right like rag-dolls. Of course, the incredibly large specimen beside me contributed to the G-forces at work, and he crammed me against the window anytime we took a right turn, which was almost immediately after every left turn when I pushed into him as hard as I could in retaliation.
The odds were against me however, as was your man's bulk, so I was delighted when we finally arrived in Oaxaca some six hours later.
They managed to get your man out of the bus without having to cut him out. All's well that ends well!

Tortugas y ballenas

Last Wednesday I got up at the ungodly hour of 6.30 a.m. but with good reason - there was a whale of a time to be had! A local fisherman was to bring us off across the first Pacific waves of another beautiful day to see whales, dolphins and sea turtles in their natural environment, followed by a spot of snorkeling near the rocks.
It didn't take long to see our first prize - a lone giant of a sea turtle just paddling along quietly minding his own business. The sight of a boat crammed with camera lenses pointed towards him must have given him a shock however. With a flip of his flippers he plunged deep beneath us, and we were left looking at blue sea once again. The unflippin'sociable flipper. (Although he had good reason to dive as I was to find out later on.)
A short while later we found another. This guy too was simply paddling along minding his own business. Where he was going or what he was thinking in the middle of the ocean was anybody's guess. Like his predecessor, he too dived once he realised there was a boatload of tourists gawking at him.
More and more of there shy creatures were soon found floating and paddling in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes a cheeky bird would hitch a lift on one of the giant beasts' shells. Every time however, it was the same reaction as a motorist driving through Carlow: dive, dive, dive!!!

We bobbed up and down in our boat looking for dolphins and/or whales. Funny how fickle one can be - we'd had enough of turtles.
Suddenly we noticed a disturbance up ahead of us. A big jet of water went shooting into the sky with a whoosh and we knew we'd found what we were looking for. Whales! At least two of them were ahead. Taking turns to surface and shoot water and air out their blowholes. There was so much blowhole action I thought I was at a sitting of the Dáil - possibly an even rarer occurrence. I could mention Mary Harney but that would just be mean and petty so I won't.

The whales, it seems, are just as unsociable as their turtle buddies. They didn't hang around for long. We were left bobbling up and down and we continued our search for the dolphins. For quite possibly an hour we bobbed up and down in increasingly high and strong waves. I don't know who named that sea Pacifico but it must have been either a lunatic or an attempt of irony.
Not even an oul' turtle floated by and my mind started to wander. I began thinking crazy thoughts. I wondered how long it would take a seaman to go mad from the incessant bobbing up and down in the middle of an ocean with nothing to do. How long would it take for scurvy to set in? Did anyone bring vitamin C tablets?
I thought of the night before, a long hard night when we ended up in La Luna Nueva where the whole village of Mazunte seemed to gather for a spectacular acrobatic show from the roof.
As with a band in an Irish pub however, nobody paid any attention to the show and everyone chatted, laughed and drank and did anything but look up. That was until a huge black scorpion made an appearance on the wall separating our group from the dance floor. He walked slowly up the wall, then across the doorway over people's heads, down the other wall, before starting back the way he came! Those still sober enough to freak out did, while others just carried on drinking.
The damn scorpion didn't seem to know where he was going.
I watched him walk directly over people's heads and waited for him to fall on one of them. Eventually even that became boring however, and I went back to my beer and conversation. Even the people who were freaking out just got on with it too. When I next looked up the scorpion was gone. God knows where he ended up.
I thought of all that while we bobbed up and down like hopeless plastic ducks stuck far away from where the race was due to take place.
The Mexican guy responsible for spotting the dolphins stood at the front of the boat and began a weird sort of whistle which was no more a dolphin call than the Angelus is. It was just a show for the tourists (like the Angelus).

Suddenly a sea turtle appeared out of nowhere paddling along in front of the boat, and the Mexican guy jumped in on top of him. Neither the turtle nor the nutbag could be seen for what seemed like ages as we watched with open mouths, before the Mexican eventually came back to the surface.
He flopped back into the boat and nobody said a word.
"Fair play," I thought, "at least he's doing something to try kill the boredom."
He retook his position at the front of the boat, wet and pissed off looking, and we bobbed up and down in the ocean once again.

Another sea turtle appeared soon enough, and the lunatic plunged in on top of him too. This time he was back up very quickly however, and he had the sea turtle with him. He'd caught it! A struggle ensued. The particularly pissed off looking beast moved its flippers up and down in an attempt to escape your man's clutches. Both had their faces turned towards us. The Mexican guy frowned as he struggled to keep hold of the beast, and for a while he actually looked like a turtle. The turtle meanwhile had his flippers up in the air as if in surrender but I believe that was just a cunning ploy on his behalf.
The Mexican guy didn't buy it, and he wanted to know if any of us wanted to jump in, so we could swim with the turtle. Our mouths were all still open at the sight of all this carry on, and it took a while for his question to register. "You want us to jump in there with you?"
The turtle kept waving his flippers around in obvious distress, and your man seemed surprised at our hesitation. "¡Ven nadar con la tortuga!" he urged us.
"Ehhh, you're alright there."
He evidently thought we were all mad. Touristas locas. He waited a while for us to change our minds and then reluctantly let the poor creature go. Two flips of his flippers and he was far away from the clutches of the Mexican madman.
Still, he livened up proceedings. Nobody minded that we didn't find any dolphins. They were probably wise to stay away!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Magical Mazunte

México just gets better and better. I've spent the past three days at Mazunte, a former sea turtle-slaughtering village which has had to adjust to the 1990 ban on turtle hunting. Now the place is full of turtles, looked after and cared for by the villagers, and the happy vibes of love and peace have helped turn this laid-back village into an idyllic paradise on the Pacific coast.

As soon as I arrived I knew I'd be staying longer than anticipated. I checked into Posada del Arquitecto, right on the beach. My sleeping quarters consisted of a hanging mattress from a palapa (hut without walls but with a banana-leaf roof) on top of a hill overlooking the beach and sea. The bed rocked gently with the relievingly cool breeze at night.
During the day one could also chill out in hammocks as colourful birds and other wildlife would pop by to say hello. A friendly little hummingbird greeted me one morning as I was surveying the sheer beauty around me.
Mazunte's curved beach is simply magnificent. Clean, golden sand is kissed regularly by impressive crashing waves. The water is a wonderful inviting blue, and the hot sun and cool water conspire to entice people in despite the waves' appearance and the possibility of strong currents.
(A Quebecois guy I met the morning I left told me he nearly drowned the day before on another nearby beach, possibly even more spectacular. Just proves one should always treat things of beauty with suspicion. He really thought he was a goner. He could only stagger like a drunk when he finally made it back to shore, exhausted mentally and physically. He was a happy camper, just thankful to be alive!)

From the Western headland (the most southerly point in the state of Oaxaca), one can witness the most amazing sunsets. We had to climb over rocks by the side of sea to get there but the effort was definitely worth it!
A huge lone cactus acts as a sentinel at the top of the headland, and the sun brings it to life with scarlet and orange shades of warmth as it goes to bed. Clouds high above put on a spectacular red-light show as the sun drops quietly behind the Pacific. (There were no red-light activities down below, at least none that I'm aware of, despite the romantic mood and setting).
Of course, we brought various species of beer with us to help cope with the climb, and to pass the time while observing the show, and plenty of like-minded individuals did the same. The waft of marijuana confirmed the laid back nature of the observers.

Yes, Mazunte really is a special place. I met a very pretty Czech girl on the first day. We ended up going for a candlelit dinner on the beach while flame-throwers put on a show in front. Everything was set up for romance but she wasn't the girl I wanted there at the time.
The next day we were brought on a canoe tour behind a neighbouring beach, La Ventanilla, where we saw wild crocodiles, turtles, iguanas and spectacular birds as we glided through the mangroves.
Afterwards we had the whole beach to ourselves, as the soft sand stretched for miles as far as the eye could see. Manta rays leaped up out of the water just off-shore and splashed back with a comforting-sounding slap. Apparently there were just as happy as I was to be in Mexico.
Much further along we found an old plane wreck, left to rust on the beach after if was shot down while on a drug-run from Colombia. Maybe the manta rays had been jumping so they could see it too.
It's amazing how old boring rusted pieces of metal are suddenly fascinating if found on a beach. The plane wreck became an art piece and we spent as long looking at it as one would in a museum, taking pictures and jumping up and down on the wing.
Again though, romance wasn't an option while I wanted someone else there.

The last night turned into a real Mexican fiesta. I ended up knacker drinking from 1.2 litre bottles of the local poison on the beach, while the almost full moon bathed everyone in a soft glow. A local band played wonderfully fast hypnotic music in the bar hgh on stilts just behind us so we really had the best of both worlds. I was joined at the time by a ridiculously nice Australian couple, Ben and Nicky, and another English couple, Daniel and I forget your wan's name.
Of course, when we ran out of beer we had to go up and join the fun. ¡Tequila! It was madness. The whole bar was heaving with people and I quickly made more new friends.
One of these was an absolutely stone mad and pissed rough Ost-Berliner, so I was happy to practise my German on him despite his madness/pissedness/roughness. He was delighted when I said "Nay" instead of "Nein" and he called me "Alter" which in turn delighted me. (It´s a sort of Berliner version of "Bud" in Dublin. "Story bud?" becomes "Eh alter" in Berlin.)
He had an unnerving habit of rolling his eyes, drooling and sticking his tongue out like a snake so I didn't talk to him for too long despite the promising start and I went back to my original friends.
The music continued until well after 4 a.m. when just myself and Ben were left standing. I had been up since 6 a.m. the previous morning to look at whales and sea turtles however, so we eventually had to call it a night. We staggered home along the beach in pretty much the same manner as the Quebecois guy must have after he almost drowned.

The next morning I woke up feeling like shit. Hangovers strike even in paradise. I suddenly realised I only had a week left in Mexico, and knew that it was time to hit the road once again.
I met Ben as I was leaving, fairly rough-looking from the night before. "Watch out for bandits on that road," he told me in his lazy relaxing drawl. I figured I wouldn't have to. They'd be looking for me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Pizza Escondido

I’ve made my way to Puerto Escondido, home of Playa Zicatela and the “Mexican Pipeline”, one of the world’s best surfing breaks. Unfortunately this means swimming is not an option due to the huge waves and treacherous currents. The beach is also thronged with surfer dudes and posers.
Puerto Escondido was made famous in Italy by a film of the same name, but an unfortunate consequence now sees the town home to more than its fair share of Italians, which probably explains the overabundance of posers on the beach.
Italians were affectionately monikered “Pizzafickers” by David, my ex-housemate who since absconded to Hamburg. Not very politically correct, David also reserved ire for the Dutch, or Käsekopfe (Cheeseheads) as he called them. But he really hated the Italians. They certainly are a different breed.
I get the feeling Puerto’s better days are behind it. There are a multitude of surf shops and souvenir stalls, but obviously not enough tourists to keep them going. Walls are unpainted, streets dirty, roadworks abandoned midway.
Even the poor oul’ cats are feline the pinch. Scrawniness surrounded my table as I was tucking into my Pescado al Ajo at Casa Amilia last night. I suppose I was asking for trouble ordering fish, but the cats were delighted, gulping it down without ceremony, bones and all.

Crocodile teeth

The crocodile's nose was just two centimetres from mine. I could hear his raspy breath as he surveyed my face before him.
His green slitted eyes were some distance away at the other end of his snout, and his nostrils loomed over mine.
But it was all about the teeth. Heaps of them. All crammed in at crazy angles, but sharp and pointy like the Dublin spike. (At least your man's teeth have a purpose.)
All yellow. A dirty brown yellow which betrayed his lack of dental hygiene. There was no way this was a German crocodile. It may have been an Irish one, but I'm sure even an Irish dentist would have baulked on being presented with gob like this.
In the meantime, the croc opened his mouth slightly. The rasping increased, becoming louder and faster, as the beast got more agitated.
There was no way I was going to avert my eyes however. One of us was going to back down and it sure as hell wasn't going to be me.
Eventually he cracked. With a angry rasp he wrenched his head backwards, opened his mouth fully to display all his rotten teeth, and he peddled his giant cumbersome body backwards with his short flat legs.
The poor thing. I guess he thought I was going to feed him.