Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Puerto Morazan, Nicaragua

It's Wednesday morning, and I'm sitting in the front room of my host family. I've just noticed that the time on my computer says 8:30am. Strange. The clock on the wall says 10:15, and I'm pretty sure that my computer clock is right. My pocket watch has been intermittently functional over the last few days, a quality not especially useful in a watch. That does however mean that I went to bed at 8pm last night, not the 9.45pm I thought previously. Lightweight.

Francisco, my host, is a teacher at the local school. He is charmingly adorable. He just left to go to school, on his motorbike. Actually, no he didn't, I can see it outside. Last night he did pick up his papa from "the fields" and afterwards his wife, Virginia, on it. There aren't really any cars around here, in Tonalá. I reckon there certainly aren't more than 100 in the whole municipality, of 15,000 people. Those that there are are pick-up trucks. A fair few motorbikes, and lots of bikes though. And buses between the towns.

So the place I'm staying is Tonalá, not Puerto Morazán. I'm here because my home city, Bristol, is twinned with Puerto Morazán. Through the Bristol Link with Nicaragua (BLINC), I'm spending a couple of weeks here. Although it would be nice to spend a month here, the car has 30 days in the country and I've been in León for a week already. And afterwards I want to visit Damian on Ometepe, a twin-volcano island in the Lago de Atitlan, the world's largest freshwater lake.

So it appears that the municipality of Bristol (denoted by the local council, Bristol City Council) is twinned with the municipality of Puerto Morazán. Confusingly, that includes the town of Puerto Morazán, as well as the surrounding villages. Further, the administrative offices are in Tonalá. It's taken me a couple of days to get my head around all of this.

It's quite a shift to be figuring stuff out for myself. For one, a shift from the daily routine of getting up and going to the beach. But also from the 'development' gap year work I did in Nepal 9 years ago (wow, it was that long ago), as well as the Education solidarity delegation in did in Colombia 3 years ago. Both of the latter were more guided and led, with a lot of presentations, talks and explanatory workshops. That is mainly due to the fact that then I was part of organised groups.

I feel like coming here wasn't quite so big a shock, or shift, as flying from the UK to Colombia, out of one culture and into another, quite different, in 24 hours. I've had 6 months to feel my way along and into this life. That's has been the truly wonderful thing about this trip so far, and by avoiding flying, is noticing the gradual, subtle differences (cultural and socio-economic) as I creep along. Nonetheless, getting off the tourist trail has, like I said, been a shift of gears, and is a culture switch of different sorts.

I can see the difficulties that have been faced in the past by representation of solidarity campaigns. There have been issues when people from the UK have represented the Colombia Solidarity Campaign while in Colombia, and then said and done reprehensibly stupid, or at least naive, things. This had consequences for representing the Campaign in a negative light in Colombia, and also facilitated internal factional rifts at home. So, to be in this position myself, as representing BLINC, is a step I take with a heavy weight of responsibility.

So I can see how these difficulties have arisen. It feels like a minefield, what should I say, what shouldn't I say, who should I talk to, who shouldn't I talk to, and what the hell am I doing here in the first place? I feel like really I should have looked more closely at the BLINC website, on their stance and angle on the solidarity and development work the do. I know that they try and facilitate exchanges, and have helped equip and fund local schools.

Well, I'm here for my own reasons, that I'm pretty sure are more than compatible with BLINC's. After discussion with Alix, the Chair of the Bristol Twinnings Association and a comrade in the Bristol Latin America Forum (whose blog is incidentally getting a fantastic spread and volume of hits from around the world), I decided to try and make a short film about Puerto Morazán. Additionally, wanting to get my hands dirty, I was to try and help the Lucrecia Lindo shrimp farming co-operative, who have suffered storm damage from Hurricane Mitch, and also to have a chat with the new incoming Executive Mayor about their development priorities for the next 5 years, to present an informal report to Bristol City Council.

So last week, I emailed BLINC's local contact in León, to discuss my arrangements while I'd be here. Having waited 5 days, on Monday I found the address of the office and popped in. It turns out I had an incorrect email address. So, from there, after a phone call, it was arranged that someone would pick me up from Chinandega, the nearest large town to both León and Puerto Morazán, roughly half way between the two. So I met Norma, who would turn out to also be on the new Council Board.

I drove us to Tonalá, where she said it would be better that I stayed, and she arranged to put me up here, with Francisco and his lovely family. All this took a little while, with nonchalant efficiency, given that this was all being done without any of their prior knowledge. I felt bad about this, all happening on the spot. WIth hindsight, I wonder if had I announced my arrival 3 months previous whether this would have made any difference.

Explaining to Norma that I would like to help the women's shrimp farming co-operative, we drove to Puerto Morazán from Tonalá, a 20 minute drive down an occasionally bumpy, straight dirt road. I could see the lagoons on either side, some of which were decidedly dry. We arrived, and parked the car in the shade - at 2pm, it was around 34ºC. I'll spare the details of who and how, but we arranged that I'd meet the co-operative for Tuesday at noon, after meeting the new Alcadia (local Council).

So yesterday being Tuesday, I awoke and made my way to the Council building for 10am. A single storey concrete block, the Alcadia is not quite on the same scale as its equivalent in Bristol. That's a heritage of slavery and capitalist exploitation to thank for that. As I arrived, my contact from Leon was there to take a photo of the new administration. It turns out I was here for their inaugural cabinet meeting, the new administration for 2009-2012. They were a friendly bunch, and I tried hard to avoid comparing them to Bristol's Board. Somehow I felt closer and more alike to these people, from a rural municipality in Nicaragua, than to Bristol's elected representatives. Maybe it's my quasi-diplomatic status here, or something else, I'm not quite sure.

I observed the meeting, the details of which I'll spare you. Meetings are the same the world over - being at them is one thing, usually a fairly necessary evil, but reading about them is quite unnecessarily pestilent. I want to keep what little readers I have at this stage. Suffice to say that this is the steep learning curve that I need to improve my Spanish further at the moment. It's come on leaps and bounds since being in Central America, and pushing it further is pretty hard work. Maybe that's why I'm sleeping 10 hours a night.

Afterwards, I went back over to Puerto Morazán, to meet with the shrimp farmer co-operative. In the back of my mind, I wondered on the way over why Alix had suggested this lot in particular to work with. I said I was up for getting my hands dirty, and this was a suggestion. While driving over the day previous with Norma I questioned the appropriateness of a bloke helping out a women's group, but she quickly put my mind to rest. She said that women here were emancipated and liberated, that it really wasn't an issue.

So I got to Gloria's house, and the lady we met the day previous was there, along with Gloria. Not quite the 16-strong co-operative I had been led to expect. So we had a chat, getting some plastic chairs out in the shade in front of Gloria's house. I found out more about the co-operative, and the history of the relationship between BLINC and them. Without literally pushing the issue, I suppose my presence did. It seemed like the explanation I got was a explanation for the absence of action going on. From what I understood, BLINC had given a bunch of money to help legalise ownership of their land, and buy a boat. It seems like now, they need a bunch more money in order to actually get started, for machinery and suchlike. It appears that it all cost more than previously thought.

So this was the crunch. I felt my representation of BLINC and my level of involvement with them at home under irreconcilable tension. I explained that my role here was to offer practical help, for a week or so, to help repair storm damage that I suppose had been offered as an explanation for inaction in the past. Hurricane Mitch was in 1999, 10 years ago. I wondered how long had they been off-line? This is precisely why funding overseas 'development' work is so fraught with complicated ethical issues.

In return for my gentle prodding that elicited a diplomatically defensive response, it was my turn to take the back foot. I explained my level of involvement with BLINC as truthfully as I could, through the Bristol Latin America Forum as cross-solidarity work. I also felt a bit guilty in explaining the last 5 months of my time as constructively as possible. So sensing that doing anything practical with this group was not forthcoming, we agreed to meet tomorrow at 6am to go for a tour of the lagoons. This would be a great time to get some footage and photos for the film.

The film... is going to be a tricky one. I have a Canon Powershot S70 camera. It takes 10 frames per second of 640x352 video, approximate to a cameraphone. I think that it can work though. It'll have to be short, and snappy, and be led by a strong narrative. As long as it's viewed on computer screens, it'll be fine. Which if the target audience is for kids in posh Bristol schools and the Council, it will be. The hard part will be the editing, which takes time. But time is something I'm not short of really.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Getting More Productive...

if you look really hard you can see me jumping on the horizon

Saturday 3rd January - Friday 9th January 2009

It's my last night in El Salvador, after a really rather relaxing, and moderately productive week. I'm extremely glad I came. It's a jolly beautiful place, despite the recently ended civil war. And there's not many tourists (other than surfers), which is also jolly nice. And the best part is that it cost absolutely nothing for either our persons or the car to enter the country. Just the way it should be, No Borders [link]and all that.

After leaving Finca de Eden, on the Honduran North coast, we backtracked a bit down a lush, well paved road. We decided we would make the border that night, so stayed in Santa Rosa de Copán, a colonial town described in Boring Planet as exuding a gentlemanly cool. Artistic license gone a little crazy there...

The next day, the border crossing took a little longer than hoped. Although free, the issue was that the 'aduana' (customs - the ones that deal with vehicles) for both El Salvador and Honduras were located together. It appears from my experience that Honduran border officials are amongst the worst I've met. In order for an El Salvadorian vehicle permit to be issued, the Honduran one had to be cancelled. Now, a brief look at a map shows that for those travelling South / East, one must pass back through Honduras (unless you have an amphibious vehicle). So I was being told that my Honduran permit "To Enter And Leave The Country" had to be cancelled, and I would need to pay $40 for a new one when re-entering Honduras. Again, Saturday crossings meant there was one tired and fed-up looking staff member, with no management around. All this just to get the (free) El Salvador vehicle permit.

This all sounded a bit odd, and after an hour of back-and-forthing, the lady agreed to phone the boss (a second time) to check this was correct. Turns out that because the vehicle is mine (with title to prove it) I don't actually have to cancel the Honduran permit in order to issue the El Salvador one. I wonder how many folks before me have forked out another $40.

So, another hour to do the paperwork with a jolly friendly El Salvadorian chap who came out to the vehicle to check it over, then another in the office to type it up, and by the time we were on the road it was 2pm. Note that no immigration paperwork was done here, nor taxed for this, as per the CA-4 agreement. Good job El Salvador.

The rest of Saturday I was in a rather foul mood. Our decision-making process broke down somewhat, and we ended up doing something I wasn't pleased with doing. Given that I'm the driver, that's rather frustrating, as I had to take us exactly where I didn't want to go. Consensus failed - majority vote ruled, and I was in a minority of 1 against 2.

My proposal a couple of days earlier was to go to a National Park in the Northern tip of El Salvador, as a park-up one-night stopover. The idea was to arrive with plenty of time to go for a nice long walk, although this was an afterthought.

So, it was decided that they (my girlfriend and Damian) didn't fancy the lush, only accessible by vehicle, National Park, and instead we chanced getting to the South coast by nightfall, as if we hadn't seen enough beaches in the last few weeks. Am I losing my persuasive abilities? I didn't think it needed persuading. They were all up for it until 5 minutes down the dirt road, whereupon we turned around.

Arriving at Playa El Sunzal, going for a Lonely Planet tip at Surfers Inn, we camped for $2.50 a night. The currency here is US$, quite bizarre. Good for getting dollars out of the hole in the wall to replenish the emergency supply though.

i haven't yet tried the aguardiente (local moonshine) i got from this shop... should I?

On Monday I took a daytrip by bus to San Salvador, an hour and a half (and $0.95) away. I couldn't face the prospect of driving to a capital city, and worried for the safety of the car and myself in it. Bussing was a good choice in the end, cheap and easy, and a good break from driving too. I wanted to go to try a seek out some film contacts for the Cinema Klandestino LatAm film festival in the autumn.

I went to the Museum of the Word and the Image, to check out their exhibition and film library. They have a great catalogue of documentaries, recently put onto DVDs, although few with English subtitles. I also didn't bring my laptop to San Salvador, so couldn't copy any. Nonetheless, I got a couple of good contacts, one with a local film club.

lots of people chilling in front of the National Palace prompts the old classic, what are they waiting for, justice?

The whole day in San Salvador I didn't see a single white tourist - except on the bus on the way back home, this German guy stood up and made an announcement. He'd had all of his stuff robbed, including passport and all, and there was no German Embassy. I didn't really listen to all of it, but it reminded me of how shit i felt when I got stuck for 2 weeks in Delhi aged 18 with no money having lost my onward ticket on my way home back from Kathmandu, having to beg in a city of poverty. I gave him a dime.

Wednesday we moved off to the next beach location, Playa El Espino, where there would hopefully be less tourists. The never-trust-the-guidebook maxim won loud and proud, the dirt road now paved, and the isolated beach a bustling fishing village. By Damian's "if there's cold beer, it's civilised" rule, it's civilised. We gave a ride to a couple of ladies hitching from the main road, and in return one of them hooked us up with her abuela's place, a champa on the beach. A champa is a basic shelter structure, made from coconut leaves. A great spot for our hammocks, a fire, and our pirate flag. See the video below for a 360 view.

We've got used to being stared at and laughed at. Maybe it's my silly haircut. Any interaction with the locals results in hard laughing... but usually success. We've been living off flatfish - I think they're plaice - for $1.50 for 3 big ones. I've got pretty good at filleting them, the first attempt to barbeque them whole didn't really work without the barbeque.

The moderately productive part has come through learning to use Traktor, this other DJing program that appears much more intuitive and useful at mixing songs than Ableton. I've worked my way through the manual, which I very well laid out.

The car in the top right corner, the sun top left. Ahhhh. Almost like a Jeep ad or summat.

Tonight, my girlfriend got her first driving lesson on the beach. The sand was pretty hardpacked, so was pretty good. And it's an automatic too, which is pretty easy to learn to drive on. I'm not sure whether it's good to learn to drive an automatic, but we'll see. Afterwards, Damian and I drove further up the beach to hunt down a beer, and ended up hooking up to the soundsystem in the bar and blasting a few tunes. We ended up having a soundclash with the locals, who put on the jukebox after each tune, and had a right laugh. On return, the abuela and my girlfriend were worried about us, going off on our own, which snowballed into an argument. Funny how the old gender stereotype stories often turn out true despite not believing them, and wanting to resist them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Years Day Swim - my best moment of 2009 so far....

Saturday 27th December 2008 - Saturday 2rd January 2009

This post really is going to be short. Very little to talk about between Utilan New Year and getting here, Finca de Eden, back on Honduran mainland. And still no photos either.

The day after Boxing Day we left Paradise for Water Key, a small uninhabited island about 500m long by 50m wide. Sunday I perfected my hammock, mosquito net and tarpaulin setup, by using the diagonal of the tarp across the line of the hammock, and tying the other 2 corners down to not obscure the view too much. The net then attaches to the eyes of the tarp by 4 corners, being a hybrid 4-poster hammock net, perfectly suited for such use as this.

Monday night rained hard, the rainy season on Utila being completely out of sync with mainland Honduras and the rest of Central America. The horizontal sheet rain got me wet from both ends, so I crawled into the tent with Damian and my girlfriend. Damian's net and hammock all-in-one's zip's broken, but he is travelling with a hammock AND a tent, so is well equipped. Tuesday we blagged a bottle of vodka off some Guatemalan rich tourists, and had Bloody Mary shooters. Later Zorro picked us up and took us back to Utila and Paradise.

New Year's Eve was probably my second best ever (after the multirig free party 2 years ago), again staying up all night. It started fairly unpromisingly with having the runs during the day of the 31st. So I slept from 8pm-11pm, and felt a lot better. And my favourite moment of 2009 so far (ahem) was swimming from the dock of the bar to our dock, and then back again, at 9am on New Year's Day. It's not often you can swim from your hotel to the bar.

Today, Friday, we left Utila on the boat, picked up the car that I left the passenger side window open of as I left in such a hurry, paid the lady an extra 100L on top of the 150L for being 5 days longer than we said we'd be, dropped Jordan off in La Ceiba, and headed for El Salvador. Our stopover tonight is a place run by a German guy, pretty chilled given it's the 3rd January, with good cold beer as one would expect from a German bar owner. Tonight, in the absence of a good hammock spot, I think I'll sleep in the car, a factor I haven't really taken advantage of since the U.S.

Krimbo in the Caribbean

Saturday 20th - Friday 26th December 2008

This is going to be a short one, I don't think anyone wants to waste too much time reading about Christmas in Caribbean paradise. Also, all of us left our cameras in La Ceiba, on mainland Honduras, whilst we are on Utila, the middle sized of the 3 Bay Islands, about 30km off the North coast of Honduras. So no pics :-(( until Jordan gets his disposable camera developed and sends me the jpgs, which I fear will take a good while, if at all.

So where I left off last we were in Antigua Guatemala. We crossed the border into Honduras on Saturday near Copán on the CA-10. This was a rather painful crossing, it being hot, and 3pm on a Saturday. The girl at the Customs desk (immigration for people, customs "aduana" for the car) was resting her eyes and head in her arms when I arrived, and not too pleased to be awoken. We needed US$29.80 - L580 - for the car. However, there was no explanation of a breakdown of this, and the Form 9A, the permit/certificate said "Value: 135L" at the top. The accompanying receipt said "Form 9A: 430L". So to be asked for the total of these seemed strange, particularly when there was no sign nor documentation to explain this. The large roadsign indicated a much lower amount, along with the instruction to refuse to pay more than this. Anyways, I put up a good fight but my girlfriend told me to shut up and paid.

The next thing was the $3 immigration tax. This was odd, as here the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise me that the CA-4 agreement of 2003, to which Honduras is party, states that UK residents need not even register with immigration to travel inside the CA4. I again argued until blue in the face, the chap behind the desk not too keen that I knew the law. The problem was that he had my passport, and some of the above details I didn't find out until afterwards.

Well, the result is that I've made the point. The problem is that I imagine all travellers just pay it, given that it's only 3 bucks. If only everyone just refused to pay...

So we arrived at La Lima, the town closest to the airport near San Pedro Sula in Northwest Honduras, where Tori was flying out from the next morning. Damian took her to the airport in the morning, after swapping photos. I must add that she deserves credit for a few of the last bunch of photos too. Far from the boring nightmare I tagged her with earlier, she was fun to travel with, we had a good gas about plenty of meaningful and meaningless things.

Sunday, after stopping off at the airport for a coffee and a crap and narrowly missing the 15 minute free parking, we drove through lush Honduran countryside northeast to La Ceiba, the access port for the Bay Islands. Not fancying the hotelhunt very much, we stayed at Hotel Amsterdam 2001, camping for 30L (£1) for the night. La Ceiba was a strange town, a tourist platform to the Bay Islands with prices to match. We did nosh this amazing seafood stew, a Sunday Special, for dinner.

Monday morning we got food supplies for the week, being well equipped between the four of us in terms of actual equipment and outdoor cooking skills. Jordan says he cooks most of his meals on a fire. Meanwhile, Jordan and I set out to find a secure cheap place to leave the car on the mainland. We settled on this lady's house 20 minutes walk from the port, who had a driveway with a lockable gate and no car, agreeing to give her 200L then and another 150L on our return.

While waiting for the others to return from their last minute missions, I talked my way out of a parking fine largely due to my ability to speak Spanish. All 3 of the others took their goddamn time while I sat sweating about how we were missing the boat. We hightailed it to the port out of the East end of town, and dropped the others and our stuff off while I drove back to the lady's place, gave her the 200L, and sprinted the 2km to the boat. That was the furthest I'd run in a very long time.

Luckily the boat wasn't leaving at 4 on the dot, and after getting there at 4.05 the boat didn't leave for another 25 minutes anyway. The crossing took about an hour, for 425L, heading for a speck in the Caribbean distance to an averagely spectacular sunset.

On arrival at the dock, we got mobbed in classic fashion with offers for staying at dive schools for $2 for the first night. We went to the one with girl who liked Damian... Altons Dive Centre, down the East road, on the back of the Altons pickup truck. The place was pretty nice, but as soon as we said we were not interested in diving (yet) the English management couple lost all their nicety and interest in us. Added, we got told off for fishing off the end of their dock ("this is a dive centre you know"). Anyhow, we made up for it by topping up our cooking oil supply and some maple syrup out of the kitchen.

The next day we moved to Paradise Dive Centre, a locally owned place just off the main dock. The landlady, Rosa, was chilled and welcoming with a rather unusual Irish accent, being a 4th or 5th generation settler. We got a room for 4 for 50L each, but slept in hammocks anyway. This time, we thought better than presenting ourselves as uninterested in diving, and ended up actually convincing ourselves that it would be a good thing to ask our relatives for as Christmas presents. Now, on Boxing Day having heard nothing back from them, I think it's probably quite cheeky really, to ask for a bit of money to have yet more adventures.

There was a nice dock, used by a lot of locals. The best part was Zorro, the local fisherman who came daily with his catch of fresh tuna. Outwardly mad as a hatter, hands like an ogre's, and sunbleached body hair, his disregard for 'environmentally sustainable' fishing practices (like not fishing sharks) was interesting. He had clearly been doing this all his life, since when fish were plentiful. So because big-scale commercial fisheries have drained the oceans, why should he change his practices - if not for the commercial fisheries a local and sustainable way?

Wednesday was Christmas Eve, a night usually spent in my local pub at home getting drunk with my old friends. This was probably my best Christmas Eve (sorry guys)... dinner was a painstakingly sourced 14lb ham on the bone (not all for dinner!), then we got drunk in Treetanic aka the Tree House, the most beautifully decorated bar I have ever seen.

Until now, I've realised more and more that overplaying the beauty of something leads others that see it to be disappointed. With this, there's nothing I can say that would leave a future visitor disappointed. The painstakingly designed and constructed garden of multiple level areas and walkways, all inlayed by ceramic and glass collaged sculptures must have taken years to collect the materials and build. I really hope Jordan sends me those pictures... Afterwards, we stayed up all night, the first time I'd seen the morning through since... back home I guess, not even Burning Man. The other 2 dockside bars, the next 2 docks over from Paradise (our dock), saw us into the morning. Obviously our own clandestine supplies of rum made the whole night a little more affordable.

So yesterday saw in Christmas Day, at 32 degrees, with a dive into the Caribbean of our dock a pleasant interruption. And no presents for or from anyone. A nice change from the norm. Well, not such a short post after all...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Public and Private Spaces

Friday 12th December - Friday 19th December

Another tumultuous week, this time more testing emotionally. Not that anything's really been that stressful until now actually. I'm beginning to wonder when I'm going to get down to doing something useful beyond my own horizon expansion and experience gathering. As I sit in a cafe in Antigua Guatemala writing this, it's a good time to reflect on the last week or so.

I feel a bit strange too airing my innermost emotional feelings in the most public way, about stuff that intimately affects my girlfriend and our relationship. I guess that's the more revolutionary aspect to blogging: transcending the boundaries between public and private issues and spaces.

I never was a disciple of the clarity of distinction between public and private spaces, be they discursive or physical. I think at home, in Britain, there is a real distinction between physical public and private spaces, evidenced in a number of ways. First, by the culture of "Public Houses" (pubs) and entertainment licensing that is derived from this. Related to this is public liability, and the [legal, suing] culture, perhaps more acute in the U.S. but certainly prevalent in the UK. Being in Central America, with critical distance from home, I can see how spaces in the UK are hypermanaged and defined as public or private. Going into an eatery here, you walk through someone's home to get to the toilet, shared by the family whose home it is. Or someone invites you to stay with them in their house. Without going into too much more detail right now, I won't overplay the distinction, but I think there is a difference in the way spaces are managed and controlled. Perhaps wealth has something to do with it too, being unable to afford another 'customer' toilet.

Wow, I don't know where that came from. But the point I was about to make was that my girlfriend wanted to break up, on Saturday, soon after arriving in Xela to meet her after 3 weeks going our own ways. I guess independent travel suited her pretty good. Love never being straightforward, the complicated part was what happened after. As I came to terms with these revelations, she did say she wanted to spend Christmas with me. I couldn't answer whether I wanted to as well, but left to think things through. We agreed to meet for dinner. The long and short of it is that we're gonna spend Christmas together. Things are now good, but a bit more complicated. We'll see what goes down.

Between here (Antigua) and there (Xela), we made a couple of stops. The first, shorter stop at the hot springs of Fuentes Georginas, the next at the Lago de Atitlan, a big ol lake in the middle of Guatemala. Tori didn't reckon she could make it to the Bay Islands anymore, her flight being from San Pedro Sula, just inside Northern Honduras, in 2 days time. So the last few days have been more relaxed, spending 3 nights in San Pedro (de la Laguna - on the lake).

The hot springs on Sunday were as lush as they get. Xela had been pretty chilly, one of the coolest places in Central America. So going up a windy mountain road to find a 20ftx50ft hottub, with 3 smaller, less bakingly hot pools below, was blissful. The cabins up there were pretty steep - 90Q (£9) a person. So 2 of got the cabin, and 2 paid for camping, next to the cabin (for 15Q each)! That brought the costs down nicely, we even put the tent up for full blag effect. There was a log fire inside the stone cabin, and a barbeque outside. And a jolly nice evening was had.

On Monday we left by noon and drove the couple of hours to the lake. 10km long and 3 km wide, the lake is surrounded by steep hills dotted with villages and a couple of towns. We avoided Panachel (the busiest), going for San Pedro, a little smaller with less, but still a fair few, tourists. Arriving just before dark, we stayed at Hotel San Francisco, Damian and I paying 5Q (50 pence!) for use of the roof to string our hammocks, with a glorious view of the lake interrupted only by the steel re-inforcement bars (reebars) poking out of the concrete pillars and the chicken wire fence that I don't think would have broken a fall. Damian won at spoof so got the lakeside spot. We ended up contributing 5Q a night to the girls' room's cost for use of their bathroom too.

One the 2 items on my checklist of things I wanted to do on the road (the other being breakfast on a rooftop terrace) was spend a day on a lake in a canoe. That day was Tuesday, hiring canoes and sailing over to the 'beach', 45 minutes away, and generally larking about on the water. The only thing lacking was ganj, I guess you can't win 'em all.

So yesterday we left San Pedro, and drove to Antigua Guatemala, a colonial town a little removed from the capital of Guate, and found the cheapest digs in town. 38Q each, for a fairly uncomfortable bed in a basic hostel in the middle of town. With a rollmat it was very bearable. Last night as I walked to the super to get ice for mojitos, I passed through a street that was cordened at one end and screened off at the other. Inside, things were setting up for a kids Christmas show. Sadly, the melting ice beckoned me away, but I heard lots of firecrackers from inside our hostel courtyard suggesting fun was had. Then Jordan turned up, having bumped into Damian in the street. He'd made his own way from Xela, and is down from our Krimbo plan...

So, next week, Christmas in the Bay Islands. We need to find somewhere in La Ceiba, the Honduran mainland port to access Utila, to park the car for a week. And stock up, as I hear it's expensive out there. I wonder if Amanda and Mega, who we met at Lanquin, or Julia (in Antigua), or Jay will make it. I hope so.

Guatemala - into Central America propa

Saturday 6th December - Friday 12th December 2008
[seems like I'm doing a lot of week-long sections...]

It's lunchtime, I'm hungover from last night's salubrity, and it's time for a quick driving break and time to catch up. We've blitzed through Northern Guatemala, known as the Petén. Until about 15 years ago, this part of Guate was totally undeveloped, with very little infrastructure. Now, thanks to government funding and Guatemala's main tourist attraction, Tikal, paved roads and supermarkets make the traveller's life that little bit more convenient... Funny how that makes it so much less exciting though.

So the border crossing from Belize into Guatemala at San Ignacio was like walking from one world into another. From the friendly officials of Belize to the grumpy moody Guatemaltecans that can't even be bothered to make eye contact when you present yourself. We did manage to convince them that we weren't going to pay the US$10 entrance into the first CA-4 country though (CA-4 is a 2003 border agreement between Guate, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua to allow free migration between States for residents and non-residents of the CA-4).

Just before this, we had a few drops of some colourless liquid sprayed underneath the car, and were advised we would need to pay for this at a window. The chap asked for 18 Belize Dollars (about £6). I, "really?!?", asked to see the receipt, where beside the number 18 was a Q - for quetzal, the currency of Guatemala. 18Q - £2. Joker.

So after paying the police 50Q (£5) to be allowed in that region (!?!?) we hightailed it to Flores, the nearest town to Tikal, to stay the night before heading to the ruins there. The town reminded me of Venice, if a little less hectic, due to it's narrow cobbled streets, quaint architecture and being surrounded by water, with prices to match.

At the hostel there, we met Emma and Jordan, the latter of whom we hooked up with the next day at Tikal and has been with us since, making it down toward Quetzaltenango (a name locals conveniently shorten to Xela). Here I'll meet up again with my girlfriend and possibly study some Spanish, as she has been doing for the last 2 weeks. I hope she's fluent by now.

Jordan seems like a nice chap. Tori doesn't like him much, but then she has quite a strong personality that you either love or hate. He's a 23 year old cowboy from Oregon, spending most of the year is isolation looking after cattle on a horse, the rest as a guide. I like him because he knows lots of stuff I don't.

Tikal was, frankly, a bit of a wet fart. The stakes were high - £20 entrance fee, notorious for being the biggest and best Mayan ruins in Central America. We got the most out of our cash, by going after 3pm, for which they give you a ticket for the next day. The campsite located just outside the entrance was cheap. So we caught sunset, and then the early morning the next day. It started pissing it down just before sunset, while atop Temple IV, and we were thoroughly soaked by the time we got back to our palapa. In the dark, I then found a red antnest with my bare foot, a feeling similar to walking through a field of stinging nettles naked.

So the stones were impressive, and spending 3 hours atop Temple V holding an orange pip spitting contest whilst simultaneously conducting an informal anthopological survey of visitors who had just climbed the innumerable steps was fun, but I really think there are some great other ruins sites that cost a whole load less. Bah humbug.

Monday we made it to Finca Ixobel, described to Damian by a friend of his as an awesome place with great treehouses, and some fat semi-submarine caves explorable for free. The one treehouse only fitted 2 - the others were houses on 8ft stilts. And the cave was an organised tour, costing bucks. Added, there was a general bad vibe around, and then we heard news that a couple had had their cabin robbed of it's entire contents the day previous. We stayed the night, playing cards with a couple of Israeli girls, and cooked up a storm. I cooked the on-the-road adaption of a Heston Blumenthal classic bolognese, minus the meat. After the 3 and half hours cooking on a fire, it disappeared down our gullets within minutes, to wordless silence. I call that a victory.

Leaving Finca Ixobel as rapidly in the morning as the spaghetti disappeared the night before, we plotted our path to Xela. Next stop, Rio Dulce. Specifically, we parked up at Bruno's, underneath the main bridge over the Rio Dulce. Mainly frequented by old American yaghties, the very charming and hospitable patron let us camp on the lawn outside the hotel for £2 for the night. Hammock and mozzie net for shizzle. I couldn't help notice how we spent most of the evening in our camping chairs around the back of the car, in the middle of the dark car park, sipping hot rum chocolate, rather than anywhere in sight of the Rio, the reason for our being there. A timeless twist on that contemporary classic, the Welsh Cultural Fair. (That's a reference to back home a bunch of us sitting out of the back of my friend's truck at a rave, like English OAPs on a summer's day).

The final stop was in Lanquín, after a beautiful and tortuous drive up, down and around dirt roads not oft travelled by white folk. The expressions of locals as their gazes met our gringo faces was kind and gleeful astonishment, the views over the plains behind us and down unspolit valley after valley unforgettable. We arrived at El Retiro, excited by it's description in Lonely Planet as a backpacker's paradise. Our 15Q (£2) nightly fee for stringing up our hammocks in a room under construction certainly helped the wallet. The amount of Americans and Israelis firmly supported by their trust funds kinda ruined the 'paradise' I expected.

I have since decided ever more firmly to completely ignore Lonely Planet on all counts. As soon as something is described as 'paradise', hundreds of boring travellers arrive by the busload and render the place a nice little earner for the locals (or, usually, the ex-pat owners). I already knew this, I just forgot again.

Notwithstanding my disappointment, Damian and I rocked out another laptop Ableton set in the bar on our last night there, Thursday. None of my mixes worked, so I ended up fading most of the them in and out. Damian's tune selection went down a treat, his oldskool hiphop set from Mazunte. The first half of mine built up alright, no-one knew a single tune (slightly disappointing), but the icing on the cake came when during the heavy part of DJ C's Billy Jungle a random punter came up to me with a crazed look on his face and said "uh, could you turn it down or something, it's too loud". That makes me so happy when people tell me that, that I arouse emotion strong enough to make someone come up to the DJ and ask them to turn it down and play something more boring. This was not uncoincidentally also the guy who earlier on asked me to play more Manu Chao. Oh, please. The rest was great fun, until the bar manager unplugged me mid-song at 12.45am, the facist arse couldn't wait until 1.

Earlier that day we took the self-guided tour to the 'bat-cave', where every sunset about 2 million bats fly out into the night. We found it, 30 minutes walk down a paved road, despite the hostel's staff refusing to explain how to get there unless we paid for the tour. And the tour was led by a 12 year old. Pah.

On Worms and More

Sunday 30th November - Saturday 6th December 2008

Well, I've spent a week in Belize, which certainly wasn't part of my plan. Partly because they speak English (or a funny creole/patois dialect thereof) and I want to immerse myself in Spanish, and partly because it's supposedly really expensive. We ended up here as a dogleg tour via Tulum to check out the white sandy Carribean coast (which was fukin lush as attested by the photos on the previous post); to pick up Tori, Damian's friend from home travelling for a month on a whistlestop tour of Central America; and to get some solo time away from my girlfriend, with whom I've shared the same 10 cubic feet since we left on the 1st August, all those 4 months ago.

The verdict is that it was well worth it, a couple of choice spots for camping (Gales Point and Barton Creek), lush nature and an immense ethnic diversity for a country with 300,000 peeps - altogether negating the negatives, when cooking for ourselves - rice and beans cooked in coconut oil mostly. I left Chetumal, in Mexico, with Damian, still on the same path after a month, Tori, Enzo and Mariposa, and am now sat on the deck of Barton Creek, about to leave for Flores, just over the border in Guatemala, with Damian, Tori, and Ayesha, aka Wishy, a lovely Ozzie girl who shares my love of good food. It's so much fun being inventive without a kitchen, made so much more pleasurable with Jay's Japanese knife he gave us a few weeks ago.

Leaving Chetumal, the Mexican border town, on Sunday and crossing into Belize was predicably fitful. It wasn't until we arrived and parked just before the border that I remembered my maxim to avoid bureaucracy at weekends... Signing the car in and out of countries needs a bureaucratic machine to process the paperwork and give us the certificate we needed to leave Mexico and avoid the $400 car import tax levied on my credit card. So we were then resigned to staying another night in Chetumal, a characterful town given its border location. It turned out we could actually cross, so I brought all the paperwork over, signed my passport out, found a closed customs window, went back and cursed at the passport man who told me it was open, went back, found the right window, got the certificate, went back to the passport man and apologised and got back in the car and drove across. All the above took about 2 hours.

Belizean immigration and customs was like a breath of fresh salty air. Smiles and 'alright sir' greetings made for an actually pleasurable experience. No costs to import the car. No immigration fee. Minimal paperwork all at the same desk. The only cost was having to buy car insurance, for £10 for a week. They give you a sticker you have to show inside the car. Although with hindsight, I can't see that not having bothered would have mattered, as the police were as equally chilled and friendly as the immigration lot. The one time we passed a checkpoint they pointed at a rolly in a way that suggested they didn't really care what it was.

The first nice spot we found was Gales Point. I guess the reason it was such a great spot was how we found it - by circumstances rather than planning to go there. We were headed down a long dirt road in the later hours of the afternoon and stopped to see if a broken down car needed help. They needed the wheelnut tool we had, and willingly obliged. Whilst one guy put the donut wheel on their car, we chatted to the others. In almost one breath he gave us a small bag of weed, and in the next he gave me his card; he worked for the Foreign Ministry. He also told me that he was best friends with the Chief Prosecutor and that if we ran into any problems at all, to give him a call. A get-out-of-gaol-free card, if ever I saw one.

So, this encounter made the rapidly approaching sunset trickle closer. I have been trying to avoid driving at dark, partly for security reasons, and partly because of the roads full of potholes, dogs, cows, pigs, kids, drunks, trucks, cars without rear lights or headlights or indicators, cyclists always without lights and cantering wild horses.

So after 5 minutes we passed a sign for Gales Point, with the magic word "Camping" (not the one above, for the eagleeyed amongst you will observe this one doesn't say camping). With my hammock I bought in Mexico, it's been the surefire budget accomodation winner, just needing 2 trees conveniently spaced. Most places seem happy to let us use the facilities for £1-2 for a night. Situated at the end of a 2 mile spit sandwiching 2 lagoons, Emmeth's Sugar Shack was one of my highlights so far. A postcard sunset and coconuts falling off the trees (not onto my head though!), with a garifuna host who looked 25 but was 39. Hmmm, must be something in the water. The next day we shelled out for a boat trip with ..., who took us fishing (Tori catching a 5ft tarpin), manatee watching and to a mad cave, clambering around the bat poo.

Tuesday we checked out coastal Dangriga, Belize's second biggest city, very briefly (not worth it), then made for Hopkins, a small Carribean coastal town to drop off Enzo and Mariposa, who were going to volunteer there for a bit. Just as I was beginning to think about looking for another passenger, Damian overheard Ayesha, who we hadn't met yet, saying she was thinking of heading for Guatemala soon. Perfect!

While I was chilling there, a man sitting behind me was singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Oh god, it really is nearly Christmas. It was very weird wearing a vest and my lightweight fishing trousers I got on the beach in Mazunte. Back home I'd be wearing two pairs of trousers and have a Big Thick Winter Jumper on. I've decided to try to spend Chistmas in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras in the Carribean, when Damian is still there after going there with Tori, who will have gone home by then. It sounds pretty awesome, about as far removed from the usual as it gets.

Wow, this is a pretty newsworthy week. Wednesday we left Hopkins and hit up Cockscombe Nature Reserve. Belize is actually covered in nature reserves, totalling over 40% of land. This one was lush, with a perpetual drizzle, and famous for it's Jaguars (so they say).

Hammock under the palapa structure, nice. Met a guy from Yorkshire, who'd been volunteering there for the last 2 months, but plagued by illness. He'd had worms for 2 months, and tried every medication given to him. He didn't however think through that they reproduce by laying eggs around the outside of one's bumhole and so sleeping naked didn't help him stop spreading billions of eggs all over the place, considerably increasing his chances of re-ingestion. All the drugs in the world don't matter if you can't stop the cycle of reproduction. I should know, I've had them 4 times in the last 6 months now. None of the latter 3 times have been less pleasant than discovering little white things crawling in my poo while tripping at a teknival in France last Easter tho.

Well, I digress. Thursday, we arrived here in Barton Creek. We heard of it as it was mentioned as one the the Country Highlights in the Lonely Planet guidebook (I'll save my tirade against them for later). The hook was the free camping. No catch.

A gorgeous decked bar and owners' living area, overlooking a creek with a wide deep pool right in front. Behind it lies a sheer rock face and we're surrounded by jungle. Rope swinging into the creek kind of reminds me of being a kid, but I don't think I ever did much rope swinging into rivers. Made up for lost time though. And made use of the car too, driving through a foot and a half deep ford (see the video below!) And without it, it would have been a hell of a trek to get here, being about 12km off the main road.