Saturday, 26 February 2011

Going Slow In The Creole Utopia

IF THE WORLD was more like Caye Caulker, it would be a happy place with no wars, prejudices or hatred. There may be an undercurrent a traveller passing through this microcosm can miss, but this is how the place feels to me. Stepping from the boat onto the rickety wooden jetty, Ambergris Caye was forgotten. The first thing that hit me was the silence. A solitary black man crouched disinterestedly in the sand at the shore, half-heartedly swatting flies. I asked which way the cheaper accomodation was and he smiled and pointed South. We headed down the narrow strip of beach, as fishermen mended nets in the shade and laughing kids rode by on bicycles way too big for them. I quickly found a place to stay, with a Canadian couple who'd bought a run-down resort (and I'm using the term looser than Grandad's bowels) to renovate as a retirement project. Very nice people, even if Colin does have the loudest voice this side of the Atlantic. Our hut had seen better days, likely in the 80s, but it was cheap and secure.

You can walk across the island in less than 5 minutes, and there are three streets...Front, Middle and Back. No chance that even Speckled Jim could get lost here. But then again. From our end of the island it was a 15 minute walk to the other tip, where a hurricane tore away tonnes of sand and created a break. The locals decided that this made a great shortcut, so widened and deepend it; someone built the Lazy Lizard bar, a ramshackle pile of timber and corrugated iron. And so The Split became the place to hang out, drink and swim. Not all at the same time, of course...soggy joints are rubbish.

The main thing I love about it here is the mix of colour: everyone is a different ethnicity. The population of Belize is a mix of Mayan, European and African (usually escaped slaves or those who survived shipwrecks). As a result you get people with black features but white skin and blue eyes, latinos with afros as well as whites and the blackest Garifunas you can imagine. Accents vary from British-sounding, to American, to creole, the patois language of the black Caribbean. It's a shock after Mexico...you hardly hear Spanish in Belize.

There are plenty of Guatemalans working here. Indeed, if you look at a Guatemalan map of this continent, Belize doesn't exist. The British nicked it, renamed it British Honduras, took all the mahogany and gave them some English lessons in return. Sounds fair enough to me. We promised the Guatemalans a road from their capital to the Caribe coast in return for land rights in 1859. We still haven't built it. Mañana, mañana chicos. What's the hurry? The Belizeans love the English, which surprised me. But they pointed out that the gift of our language has been massive, as millions of American dollars pour in every year from the US visitors alone. A man I met in a bar said Belize was the best country in the world. I told him it was second, behind England. When he enquired why so, I told him it was because they hadn't won the World Cup as many times as us. He liked that.

Go Slow the hand-painted signs everywhere say. You do as you're told; you can't help it. Caulker moves at a pace and to a rhythym all of its own. You walk slower, think slower, drink faster. A lazy walk through the dusty town is interespersed with friendly locals shouting you over for a chat, asking where you're from; teeneagers knocking knuckles with you, kids shouting at you from the windows of their houses. It's a special place, alright.

Caulker isn't a stunning island: it's all about the people. A fellow Divemaster named Ronnie cuts hair in a yard off Middle Street. He shaved Kneehead's cranium in five minutes and we had a chat as he set to work on mine. He told me he alternates between cutting hair and guiding divers on the surrounding reefs for his uncle's shop. When asked which he'd prefer to do, he said he couldn't choose, as he loves both trades. A New Yorker with a salon had been so impressed with his skills with the scissors, that he'd offered him a chair there. "But why would I want to go an' live in all that madness, man?" I simply smiled in acknowledgement.

We ate most evenings at Wish Willy (the Belizean nickname for a gecko), an open-air place up towards The Split run by a large dredd named Maurice. He has a nice way about him, and we hit it off straight away when we first tried his cooking out after a dive one day. The restaurant is simple, and fish and lobster is always on the menu. As usual, I asked for something spicy. He had the spiciest sauce on the island, he said. As I tucked into my shrimps and noodles, he hovered for my verdict. I shrugged and kept wolfing it down, grinning. "Just you wait there, I gon' get sometin' special for you..." He came back with a mix of chillies and pulped oranges, it was delicious. Watching m piling it onto the shrimps, he looked surprised...a few of the others had dipped a fork in it and declared it too hot. Red rag to a bull...I took a teaspoon and put a full load in my mouth, smacking my lips appreciatively at the citrus-tinted burn. "Maurice, my man...you're right...that really is special." He shook his head and laughed. "Man, you come back tomorrow...I gonna cook you something be having you screamin' my name in the morning." I shook my head in return and winked at him.

The Bognors, Kneehead and myself swore to try other places out. But we always ended up back at Willy's. It wasn't just the food, but Maurice and his staff. He'd walk over when we'd finished and drop a fistful of pungent, sweet grass on our table and order us to go round the back and roll a joint. So we'd sit in the dark on battered old sofas beneath the stars, smoking and laughing with the fishermen who hung round there. Bliss. He looked after us, and we looked after his staff...always generous with the tips. If you ever visit, his place is a must.

Another character was Greg. A Guatemalan whose mother was pure Mayan, he is a tiny, wiry and wild-eyed fellow. Sporting a few days' growth and a bandanna, he'd probably give you a fright in a dark alley in Guatemala City. And he talks like Cheech Marin. I'd had a great day diving with him and, like me, he didn't suffer fools. We were on the surface waiting to submerge, when an American joined us. Greg told him that he was with the other group. "But they've gone and left me?" he whined. He was told to look beneath him and across at the reef, and to descend and join them there. When the American said he'd struggle to catch them up, Greg told him that if he descended at an angle, he would catch them in 30 seconds. As he went under, Greg turned to us, wide-eyed, and said "Blockhead!" Being Mayan, he has plenty of thories about 2012, and what the end of the Mayan calendar means for the world as we know it. His English is perfect, and he's very intelligent. I complimented on his use of lesser-used words such as expounding when he discussed theories. He told me he loves to read, and is a self-labelled Freak. "I live for diving, weed and mushrooms, man." I pointed out that he'd missed out women from the list. "No, man...I know where I am with weed, shrooms and water." As we discussed 2012, I said that it was a lot to think about "Pretty mental..." He stopped. "Mental?" he cackled. "Mental! I love it...this is gonna be my new word, man. Fucking mental. This beer, it is mental. I'm smoking some mental weed. Mental. Everyone is mental. I'm gonna use this a lot, man. Mental." happy as Larry, he wandered off to get another drink.

I'd come to Belize solely to dive the Blue Hole (a disapointing dive). As a country, it hadn't really interested me, being more Caribbean than latino. The primary goals of this year are improving the Spanish and attaining Instructor status with my diving. But Caulker had surprised me. Whether it was just chatting in the street, eating and smoking at Willy's, people-watching in the sun at the split, or listening to thunderous dub reggae at the I-and-I Bar, Caulker has the ability to hold you up. A frenchman told Kneehead that the place hasn't changed in 14 years of him visiting. I hope that continues. Go Slow...

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Bunch Of Cayes And Bognor Regis

Tulum had been a great place for a week. The margaritas are cheap, the sand white, the sky blue with a constant whisper of marijuana on the sea breeze. We'd had a nice cabana a short walk from the beach, and were spending afternoons reading in the sun and smoking the grass supplied by one of the staff. Myself and Kneehead hadn't bothered mixing much with others there, as a lot of people seemed a little cliquey and kept themselves to themselves. I was ordering yet another couple of margaritas one afternoon, when a lad ducked under the low palm-frond roof of the bar said Hello. The English recognise each other easily, I find. He introduced himself as Kim, and asked how long I'd been in the country. He and his girlfriend had done a tour of the States, and had just started in Mexico City; they were working their way to Costa Rica to fly home in a few months' time. He said no-one else had spoken to him in Tulum. I grabbed my drinks and told him to come over when he'd got his.

I chuckled at the fact they were from Bognor Regis (a small, unfashionable town in southern England). Myself and my mate Garfield were regular faces on the rave scene back in the early 90s. In those days, people would stagger over, completely off it on a variety of drugs, and start conversations at random with the sentence "What's yer name, where are yer from, and what have you had?" Standard. Everyone was pretty mangled in those days, before Ecstasy went shit. But we got sick of the formulaic ice-breaker, so we'd just make it up and say "My name's Dennis Nilsen, I'm from Bognor Regis, and I've had 10 Acid." They'd always laugh and say they'd never met anyone from Bognor Regis. Neither had I, until now. I'd attended a mate's wedding on the South Downs recently, and had considered a pilgrimage to nearby Bognor. Still haven't been.

Kim and Nicola were struggling a little, having no Spanish between them. They told us they were considering abandoning Central America and spending the rest of the trip in Thailand, where they'd started. I told them not to be so bloody daft, and that that was the easy way out of what would be a more challenging and worthwhile trip; anyone can go to Thailand. That's not travelling...it's a holiday. I think you have to get out of your comfort zone sometimes and, as they're setting up home in Brighton on their return, would they get the chance to come back out here, I queried? Maybe not. And they'd be missing some fantastic spots out here. Give it a month and see how you feel, I advised. Not that I'm any sort of travel guru, but I just thought they'd regret not giving the place a chance. Besides, they'd pick a bit of the lingo up as they went along, surely.

We would be heading the same way, over the border to Belize; we arranged to meet up on the islands. They went ahead, as they had a little less time to spare. Myself and Kneehead were a few days behind them and met them in Bacalar, but we headed for the border at Chetumal ahead of them, as absolutely nothing happens in Bacalar. It's an event when a bus goes through it. This has got to be the most relaxed border crossing in the world. Stamped out in a tiny office on a pier, and a couple of hours' boatride later we were pulling up on Ambergris Caye.

While waiting for Customs to open, we got chatting to a lone Korean female. Nice girl, if a bit mad, and had been travelling a while. She was first in the queue when the door opened. Asked for her visa, she explained to the stern woman that she didn't need one, as she wasn't North Korean. The officer stated she did need one, and the argument went back and forth a good five minutes. She was told to step aside and wait. I was next, and presented my passport and immigration with a big smile. She smiled back, transformed. Pretty hot actually, I thought as she fluttered her eyelashes and we flirted vaguely. I might like Belize. "Have a great stay" she told me, and I walked off down the rickety pier.

What was keeping Kneehead? He was there four times as long as me. Stomping down the pier, he was shaking his head. "Fancied you, I reckon...but didn't like my bloody tattoos...fuck's sake."
"Well I thought she was very nice...I'll have to keep my eye out for her around town."
"She was looking at my arms all the time, and grilling me about where we were staying. I told her I didn't know yet, and she said I had to tell them where I'd be living. What did you put as the accomodation address?"
"I put No sé" I laughed.
"And she just let you through? Bitch."
"English Charm, my dear fellow..."
He snorted.

Dumping the bags, we hit the streets in search of food. Walking up the main street, we were amazed at the sight of silver-haired people driving golf-carts. Lots of them. It was like a huge retirement home: Bournemouth with better weather. Constantly jumping out of the way of some manic geriatric Mr Magoo on his way to cocktails, we decided that this island was definitely not the place for us. This was reinforced when three middle-aged women, wearing the white yachty trousers Kneehead describes as Tena Pants (after the ad for incontinent women) slowed as they passed us in their cart; one gawped "Oh my gaawd...tattoooos!" in a Canadian accent. This, you can imagine, did nothing to ease Kneehead's mood. Neither did the smiling old folks dancing round to a rasta band, oblivious to the chatted patois lyrics about cocaine and ganja, lift mine. We agreed to head for Caye Caulker in the morning.

Belize isn't cheap. And, while having the most expensive breakfast this side of Knightsbridge, we were approached by a wild-eyed old man from the street. Barefoot, shabbily-dressed and obviously the worse for wear, he walked over and stood below our bench on the edge of the street. He put a tiny wooden whistle to his lips and played a brief tune, his expressive brown eyes wide beneath unruly hair. He reminded me of a bony Samuel L Jackson, in the scene from Pulp Fiction where we see the close-up of his drinking Brett's Sprite before exclaiming "That hit the spot." He started another short tune, and then started a ranting tale of how he'd fought for the US Marines in Vietnam. Likely story, I thought. I asked if he had any more tunes.

"What?!!" he shouted.
"I said do you know any more tunes?"
"Maaan...you tink I only got two tunes?" he growled, nostrils flaring.
"No, I was just..."
"Fuck you if you think a man like me only got two tunes. Why would I only got two tunes?"
"I didn't mean it like that, I only..."
He took a half-step backwards and regarded me with a frown of puzzlement.
"You curious. I call you Curious George."
"Fair enough" I laughed.
"You sound colonial. Where you from?" he narrowed his eyes.
Oh dear. I just wanted my breakfast.
"England."
"Hmmmm..." he appraised me. "I play ya 'nother tune, Curious George."
He piped up once more; I offered him a dollar I had spare. He squinted at his palm.
"Now where de fuck on dis island am I going to find a beer for a dollar?"
Kneehead gave him another. He backed up across the sandy street, playing as he went, his eyes never straing from me, the colonial oppressor, the whole time. Then he turned and disappeared.
"Interesting character" laughed Kneehead.
"Indeed."

House remortgaged and breakfast therefore paid for, we headed for the dock. As our bags were being unceremoniously thrown into the boat (don't worry about the laptop, fella) a chap next to me asked how long we'd been on Ambergris. "Fifteen hours, mate" I told him. "That's pretty precise?" He sounded surprised. "Yep. I counted them." And off we went.

Another World

Nico's light swept before me, its beam picking out pillars of molten wax; huge stalagtites hung from the cavern's ceiling, millions of years old. We probed further, and the natural light from the cenote's entrance faded behind us. I felt the giddy excitement I'd first experienced diving wrecks: this was another level. I've visited plenty of impressive caves since my boyhood, particularly those of Cumbria and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam; it's quite a different experience to be floating through them, chasms below you and otherwordly formations and tunnels awaiting you. A dive in Malapascua had been akin to a spacewalk: out in the blue with no points of reference at 5am, bio-luminescence in the purple water like stars. We saw nothing alive whatsoever, yet it remains one of my favourite dives. Here in the darkness, shapes and formations from the mind of Giger leapt into view with every corner turned. If the Philippine dive was a spacewalk, then this was exploring an alien planet: truly incredible. And, considering that stalagtites grown only 1.5cm per century, the ages of these formations are staggering: they are huge.

These limestone sinkholes were first discoved in the 1980s, and it wasn't long before pioneering divers were exploring them. The entrances were revealed when the land collapsed; the hidden cave systems themselves created over millenia by underground rivers. Local land had been divided up amongst the people many years before, and several families lay claim to each cenote. Nico explained that these would provide incomes for those people for life. More cenotes are being discovered to this day, and is like a lottery win for the Mexicans with claims to them. Dos Ojos, one of the more popular dives, is owned by 175 families. Akhtun Ha is less popular, but owned by one man. It's an easy living.

Some of these cave systems stretch for kilometres, Dos Ojos for 60km. By definition, cavern diving allows divers to penetrate up to 60m in, and always within view of an exit. Nico had taken me a little further once he knew I was a confident diver. I watched technical divers continuing beyond the signs bearing skulls and the legend: WARNING! Do not pass this point without the proper training. I was like a puppy watching a kid eat a hot dog as they disappeared from view down a tunnel. Nico took me to a point in Dos Ojos where we surfaced inside the Bat Cave, a small dome populated hundreds of the tiny mammals. Quite bizarre to be floating in water bith leathery wings flapping around your head. We'd had the dive to ourselves, as most tours went to the other system first. As we returned to the entrance, other divers were heading our way through shafts of light knifing the water, the trees surrounding the hole shimmering above us as a mirage.

Nico was grinning as I surfaced behind him. He asked me if I'd enjoyed the dive. By way of reply I asked how much the full cave course was, and how long it took. He laughed. I'd wanted to dive these since reading about them after completing my Open Water course in May 2008, and I wasn't disappointed. From the moment I'd sunk into Akhtun Ha on our first dive of the two days, the resident baby crocodile swimming above me, I was hooked.

Nico's a native of Cordoba, Argentina. He came to Cozumel almost 10 years ago to work in the hotels on the island. By chance he'd befriended a local dive instructor who introduced him to the sport, and he progressed to Divemaster. As in my case, this changed his life. And once he'd dived a cenote, he completely ignored the sea, and knew he'd found his vocation. Now he said he can't imagine a day in his life without diving them, and they account for 95% of his diving experience. I understood immediately after that first dive, and was already thinking about Tulum as a potential new home. I was already picturing the house by the sea, hot Mexican wife, kids and a dog. It really was that good.

I'd found Nico through a recommendation on a scuba forum. I liked the idea of diving with someone local, rather than with a Western-owned shop. We'd had a quick chat in Playa before I headed for Cozumel, and I'd liked him immediately. There were cheaper options, but I'll always dive with people I get a good feeling about from the off. On returning, we'd arrived in Tulum and I let him know I was back. A few days later he was collecting me in his yellow pick-up and we were heading out. We shared a similar outlook on life, and he'd travelled the Americas. He'd had some problems with his girlfriend when we met, and I'd said that the good thing about diving was that you didn't think about anything above water when you were under it. He said that wasn't the case when he was with divers like me: as he only had to check I was still around every so often, he was having plenty of time to contemplate things with the missus. You don't get a backhanded compliment like that every day, and I appreciated it. I knew where he was coming from, as I'd guided some excellent divers on the wrecks in Coron...and it was like diving with mates rather than working. It's not always the case.

We spoke of travel, and he recommended some places to visit. When I asked about Guatemala he told me he'd been in one city at night, and a local had told him to cease his search for a meal and return to his hotel immediately before something bad happened, as the streets were dangerous. And he's latino! That certainly got me thinking. I asked if he'd been to Peru, as I'd loved the place. He'd said he got as far as the border with Bolivia when a taxi driver turned round with a gun, and robbed him of everything. Lovely chap. Having had the presence of mind to have stashed $40 in a sock, he wasn't completely broke. But he was several thousand miles from home. Getting by on the kindness of strangers, cheap buses and hitching rides, he made it to his neighbourhood with $1 to his name almost a month later. Not the nicest of experiences at the time, but a great story to tell the grandchildren at some point?

So if you're planning on diving the cenotes, have a chat to Nico. I can't recommend him highly enough. And tell him you want the chicken sandwiches with picante: they're bloody good.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Cat Stevens & Chicken Pizza

The weather turned as we left Cozumel. I'd planned to head for the cenotes, but those dives are best done on a bright, sunny day to best appreciate the atmosphere within the caverns. We decided to head to the colonial town of Valladolid, and the ruins of Chichen Itza. Hopefully there'd be less American tourists there; on the ferry across from the island we'd had the dubious pleasure of being sat next to four day-trippers, whooping and yelping to the live band while shouting for sangria. They were half-cut at 11am, and were noisily crowing about their love of Senor Frogs, the tacky beachside franchise beloved by their countrymen. Only they pronounced it Senior Frogs. When the latino band asked for requests they screamed for Freebird. Peasants.

The bus rattled along cobbled streets as we entered Valladolid, the afternoon sun soaking the pastel-coloured buildings lining the streets. From the depot, it was a short walk along a quiet calle filled with fruit hawkers to our destination at Hostal Los Frailes, run by a lovely woman named Rosa. Friendly staff, quiet rooms and a pool table...what more did I need?

I took a walk around this pleasant, tranquil town; it's very photogenic. From the gorgeous tree-filled plaza opposite the church, a wealth of pretty, dusty streets lead to the quiet suburbs. Hand-painted signs adorn the walls of the shops and businesses, some of them crude, others skilfully done. The colours vary from street to street, house to house; faded pastels and crumbling cement; rust and rot. Beautiful. If you like that sort off thing, anyway. But a wandering day is enough, and the next we were boarding a bus for the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. On the journey, we passed a local eatery with a huge angular M in yellow, and the legend McGomez beneath it. I wasn't quick enough with the camera to record Sr Gomez's amusing cheek. But then again, had I posted it, those bastards would probably shut the poor fellow down, and then bulldozed his house. With him inside.

Chichen Itza is a fair-sized set of ruins, the main pyramid being in the best condition. It's set in a peaceful jungle clearing. The trouble with this place is the hawkers. Not content with mobbing the entrance, they line the route to each pile of rocks, trying to sell you the same tasteless tat: blankets; hammocks; miniature pyramids; fridge magnets; wooden masks; huge, awful paintings. You name it, they sell it. And the man next door but one sells the same stuff. It's impossible to stand and absorb what you are looking at without someone walking up and blowing into the wooden carvings which make the sound of a jaguar. Apparently. If that's what jaguars sound like, I'd say they need to lay off the fags and whisky.

While walking about looking at piles of rubble and not looking at shit souvenirs, a curious sight caught my eye. A young white man wearing a small, tight, bright orange turban was looking at me. I returned the stare as we passed. Had to be American, I thought. "Bloody hell" I'm murmured to Kneehead "it's Cat Stevens." Thinking no more of it, we had an overpiced ice-cream and headed for the exit as the hordes began to arrive. Declining further offers of hammocks, we jumped a collectivo minibus back to the sanity of Valladolid.

Playing pool that evening, who should walk in but Cat Stevens and companero? While we played they were asking a western girl about where she'd been, the safety of travel in Mexico, and the need to book ahead on buses and collectivos (local minibuses you just turn up to use, and they leave when full...these lads thought you could book online). They mentioned Playa, and I piped up and said they should avoid it, as it was full of their bloated compatriots. I told them I meant no slight, and that we have the same English equivalents in Spain. They obviously took slight, as Kneehead informed me that, when I went to the bathroom, Cat had remarked to his mate "Jeez, what a welcome...I didn't realise that guy was such a nationalist!" When I returned, Cat was telling the girl that he was looking for "spiritual experiences" and that what he'd seen so far was "not very spiritual". He planned to go to Bacalar because "I hear it's pretty spiritual down there". Do me a favour. Why not save your money, and just go straight to Mecca? I got chatting to his mate, and we talked about our respective trips. They were only away three weeks, and wanted to visit Belize and Guatemala too. I suggested they might be doing too much, especially after he said he wanted to visit Belize "for a day...just to take a look and see what's there". When I told him that most of the day would be spent travelling for an hour's look, he asked about border crossings. "Will they stamp my passport? Or will they just rush us through? Do you think there'll be queues, or not?" Eh? I have two extensive maps of Central America, and I got them out for him so he'd have a better idea of the terrain involved, the guidebook maps having no contours. "Woooow" he gasped "this map's got shitloads of countries on it...like...it's got everywhere." I was guessing they don't get out much.

A couple were leaving next morning and, as they were settling up with Rosa, Cat asked if he and his friend could accompany them to the station. They rushed to pack...obviously fearing for their lives on the short walk. Lots of dangerous 3-foot tall fruit-selling grannies out there...it's a dark place, is Valladolid. On hearing this couple were also destined for Tulum next, Cat suggested the four of them could share a room to save money? The look on the girl's face as she worriedly searched her frowning partner's face was a picture.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Texan Tenerife

I'd been warned. When asked why on earth I'd booked a flight to Cancun, rather than Mexico City, my answer involved the diving on Cozumel and the cenotes, ancient underwater caverns, that had been high on my lists of must-dives since my first aquatic descent in May 2008. The Yucatan Peninsula and Quintana Roo are flooded with Americans. Now I have some good friends who are American, but they are in the switched-on minority as far as I have experienced. The rest seem to be an overweight, myopic bunch who didn't know where Afghanistan was until they bombed it, and believe culture to be something which grows in a petri-dish. That's assuming they know what a petri-dish is. Cancun arrivals lounge was full of them, all shorts and baseball-hats, white socks and sandals. And that was just the stylish ones. I can see myself knocking Americans a lot on this trip, so I'll apologise beforehand to the intelligent ones. And until I meet some Australians or Frenchmen, your countrymen will just have to take the flak. Sorry.

It was 6.30pm and dark when we arrived. After a blundering first try at Spanish at an information desk (Darren pointed out that it was terrible, in case my blushes didn't indicate that I was aware of how amateurish I sounded) we were directed to the bus terminal nearby. We were keen to get out of Cancun and make for the relative safety of Playa Del Carmen. The usual nonsense was happening outside: touts trying it on, telling us buses had all finished, and that a $90 taxi was the best bet. Another pair took us aside, and said that they worked for ADO and could get us tickets for $40 on a private bus. Suspicious, I asked him where the office was, and we'd book there. He told us the office was closed, and that he was an ADO rep. I eyed the non-ADO logo on his shirt pocket. Yeah...right. They followed us up the concourse, the price dropping as we neared the office, disappearing as we mounted the steps. A ticket was bought for the next bus at $10. First rip-off avoided nicely.

Well, if Playa Del Carmen compares favourably to Cancun, then the latter should be bulldozed into the sea right now. The main drag is full of tacky shops selling all manner of shit, and nasty bars. Fast food outlets from the States line it. Two Americans we were walking behind seemed relieved to see the KFC, as one of them pointed it out. "At last, buddy...something we can eat." His companion told him not to worry, as he'd seen a Burger King a few blocks back. Nothing like sampling the local cuisine on the road, eh? Myself and Darren whiled away an hour with coffee, people-watching. A woman in her 60s strutted past; bleached-blond, sun-wrinkled skin, clad in a sparkly mini-dress a 40-year-old divorcee wouldn't wear to a disco in Barnsley. She scanned the street from left to right behind her huge sunglasses, to see who was watching. Everyone, love. Great figure for your age, but let it go. Just let it go. It's undignified. As was the huge couple walking down the street. Well, I say walking...waddling would be far more accurate. The guy was gargantuan...at least 25 stone, I'd say. His chin disappeared into his chest, with no hint of a neck. And his partner-in-pizza wasn't far behind. I was particularly taken by his Thousand Yard Stare as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, the patches of sweat from his armpits reaching as far as his waist. They seemed oblivious to the giggles of locals, some of whom were taking pictures with their phones. The shame of it.

So we decided to head to Cozumel, the island made famous when Jacques Cousteau discovered the beautiful reefs off there in the 60s. My heart started sinking rapidly as we approached the harbour; there were four huge cruise ships docked nearby, each the size of a small town. I could imagine the clientele populating the town before we had even disembarked. The ocean front is a strip full of those shops you need when travelling: Louis Vuitton, Gucci et al. Themed restaurants everywhere, Darren even spotted a board advertising "The Real American Eating Experience", a huge burger the size of a 4-year-old with a 40 oz Coke. And you wonder why you're waddling down the street?

We found a decent place to stay, and a great local taco place...the best food we'd had so far. I found a small food market serving Indonesian and Filipino food. This must be a cheap alternative to the expensive places in town, right? Wrong. I ordered a shrimp nasi goreng which would have cost me 50p in Banda Aceh. I was coughing up lumps of shrimp when the bill came in at £7. And you should have seen this place...basic. I had a nice chat with some Indonesian and Filipino sailors from the cruise ships, though. They were working a 4 day route: Miami to Cancun to Cozumel. Wow...see the world in 4 days, no? Americans buying tax-free goodies, no doubt. I tried some Mexican stall in there the next day, at far more reasonable prices. Sitting down, I ordered chicken tacos, and began regretting my decision as I cast my eyes around the place. It made the Black Hole Of Calcutta look clean. My chicken and tacos were being microwaved, and the huge lady behind the counter was sweating like a French rapist as she stirred my cold beans into life. When it came, the small comfort I took was that it couldn't possibly taste worse than it looked. How wrong I was. As I ate this revolting fayre, I noticed a strong smell of unwashed bodies, the tang stinging my nostrils. I cast a dirty look at the bloke behind me, and went and sat at the table next to the old lady at the front drawing customers in. I was to rue this move literally thirty seconds later when Big Mama left the kitchen to sit with Granny...it was her needed the soap. The fetid air around her was so thick I was almost chewing instead of breathing. Fighting the gag reflex, I finished what I could and cast a large note on the table. Keep the change, it's better than waiting for it with my eyes streaming.

I could write a thousand words on overheard inane comments I overheard, but two choice ones illustrate my point. Myself and Darren were waiting for a lunch order in a cafe when three American 30-somethings walked in and sat next to us. After a while they were studying the map of Cozumel, which was obviously annotated in Spanish. One girl was confused by the compass, which had the initals N, S, E and O. One girl asked what the O was for. Her male companion explained it was North, South, East and...uhm...Ocean. Yeah...Ocean." The girls were relieved this had been explained. Not Norte, Sur, Est and Oeste then?

He started explaining the Zapatista war in Chiapas province to the girls. He was over-simplifying it, to say the least. To ease their frowns, he said "They're kinda like fighting for their homeland against the corporations and...uh, like corporations...kinda like, uh...have you seen the movie Avatar?" They had. "It's kinda like that..." Cue smiles all round. "That's so cool" one girl cooed "where do you learn all this stuff?" He shrugged "From my Mom." I'm guessing Mom doesn't lecture in American History at the Arizona State University?

Another classic was overheard by Darren. A 60-something American was with a crowd of friends watching a few latino kids playing with an ice machine outside a shop. "Shee-it, man...those Koreans don't have nothin'. I tell yuh. Nothin'. An' I should know...I fought there." Brilliant.

There's only one half-decent bar in Cozumel: Abuelita's (Granny's). It was the only place that had more than five people drinking, and a sprinkling of local regulars inside. We took a table and proceeded to get pretty hammered. Getting friendly with a few of the locals after I'd put on a few Rolling Stones and Doors tracks on the jukebox, we ended up sat at the bar. This one went down less well, but I enjoyed it. Took me back to Friday nights in Sankeys, Manchester, back in the 90s.

One guy was squinting an examining Darren's bald cranium. "Your head..." he said in heavily-accented English.
"Yes?" said Darren.
"It look like a knee."
"Yes?"
"Yes!"
"Thanks."
"It is like...your head...a knee. Looks like a knee, your head."
"Cheers" said Darren, laughing.
"Your head is a knee. Kneehead. Is like a knee."
"Ok, mate...I get it."

Kneehead it is, then. Excellent.

A Familar Face

Travelling alone is my preferred way to go: you tend to meet more people doing likewise, and speak to locals more if you're not in a group. Having said that, sometimes you crave the company of a friend. I spent time on the road in Asia with Jocky and The Colonel, and more in South America with Garfield and Speckled Jim. An ideal period of travel involves a bit of both, I think. While working as a dive guide in the Philippines in 2010, my mate Grumpy from the Hackney BSAC branch had come out to work and travel with me for a while. We had a ball. And it was nice to have Dil and Helen, a couple of close friends from London, come visit me out there. Their visit was all to brief; the nice thing for me was that I made the effort to do the more "touristy" things I wouldn't normally do in between diving work. We made a tour of the island on scooters, memorable for Dil's not-too-serious crash. We climbed the biggest hill on the island in the midday sun; it almost killed us, but the view was worth it. And a night out ended with a dash down the wooden walkway to our hut out on the waters of the bay, Dil forced to hang his arse out over the water, as Helen couldn't open the front door quick enough for him: something he'd eaten hadn't agreed with him at all. As far as I am aware, a pair of his soiled Calvin Kleins are still floating around Busuanga island somewhere.

A mate of mine I hadn't seen in seven years, Darren, had recently added another mate on Facebook. I said Hello. The last I'd heard of him, he was living in Barcelona. It turned out that he was now living in Berlin, after a year of study in Santiago de Chile. Never one to sit still too long, is Darren. When he learned I was planning 9-18 months in Central America and beyond, he said he'd be interesting in visiting me at some point. I sent him a very loose itinerary and details of my return flight to Cancun. Next thing I know, he's calling me on Skype and booking the same outward flight as we were catching up. Random, but that's Darren, too: no half-measures. As we were going to be spending five weeks on the road together, I went to visit him in Berlin before Xmas. Would have been a bit too random to just meet up at Gatwick after seven years? As it was, a very drunken (as always) weekend was had, and it was like we'd not seen each other for seven days, rather than years. That was lucky, eh?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Bad Press And Brief Encounters

The shark is a much-maligned, misunderstood creature; by the majority of humans on the planet, at least. Much of it is down to a primal fear of these apex predators. When in the water, we are in an alien environment; thousands of cubic metres of ocean below us, containing a variety of threats. The fact that sharks kill, on average, 70 people per year...compared to humans killing 100 million sharks a year, I would argue points to the human as the villain. The continued slaughter of these magnificent animals, simply for the tastes of wealthy Asian diners, means that within our lifetime sharks may be on the verge of extinction; and shark-fin soup will definitely be off the menu. I heard a tale from a Mexican diver who said there are no bull sharks in Playa del Carmen any longer. There was a healthy population until recently, when divers discovered the carcasses of twenty finned sharks lying dead at the bottom of a reef system a few miles offshore. Man's selfishness always ceases to amaze me.

Whenever the subject of diving comes up, I've lost count of the number of times people ask me whether I worry about sharks or not. Worry? Sharks are one of the main reasons I dive. Being in the ocean with a creature larger and more powerful than yourself is a humbling experience, and reinforces an essential respect for this aquatic environment; it's a privilege I'll never take for granted. And when it comes to attacks on humans, this is generally down to mistaken identity. A shark's eyesight is not its stongest sense, and it relies on exploratory bites to find out exactly what something is. Most attacks are a single bite and, when the shark realises the meat is not rich in the oils and fat they usually eat, the prey is discarded. Unfortunately for the human subject of the bite, this means losing a limb or bleeding to death. Most attacks occur on the surface, where a swimming human can appear to a shark as a fish in distress. Divers are rarely the subject of attacks; only the great white threatens us.

On one dive in Ras Mohammad National Park, I was to get close-up with what is considered one of the more dangerous sharks to humans, responsible for more attacks than all other sharks put together: the oceanic white tip. So far in my diving experience I have come across white-tip and black-tip reef sharks: slender, essentially timid creatures, not in the least frightening. The oceanic is what I would describe as a proper shark: more typically shark-shaped and muscular. A few days previous to our arrival, four snorkellers had been injured in two separate incidents by a suspected oceanic or mako shark. Swimming was banned until the authorities deemed it safe, and fishermen caught and killed two other species not suspected of the attack. Less than a week later, a German woman foolishly decided it was fine to go back in, and was mauled to death. Several causes have been mooted for the sharks being so close to the shore, among them the illegal dumping of sheep carcasses at sea, and the feeding of sharks by dive operations to entertain their customers. Sharks have come to associate us with food.

We were briefed. The dive was along a wall, dropping to the sea bed hundreds of metres below. The boat would drop us close to the reef and retreat, coming back in for us quickly at the end of the dive...the surface is no place to be with a rogue shark around. I certainly feel more vulnerable above water than I do immersed in it. Regrouping on the reef below the boat, we headed across the wreckage of the Yolanda to Shark Reef. As we swam with the wall on our left, I drifted out into the blue void, away from the group; this is always my favourite place to be, flying over the dim ocean floor below. There is also far more chance of seeing the bigger stuff out there.

It was literally minutes before someone started banging on their tank and rapidly tapping their forehead with the egde of their hand, fingers pointing upwards: the signal for a shark. I looked in the general direction they had pointed, and in my line of sight there was just a trio of divers, two female, one male. Then I saw it: a sleek apparition appearing from the deep blue haze, moving with purpose, tight flicks of its tail propelling it towards us. It reached the trio first; they huddled together for safety. I was hovering at around 18m, perfectly still. Looking to my left I could see the rest of the group hugging the reef. I was quite alone in bright blue space. The shark passed by the trio, they dropped deeper as it moved overhead. In curiosity it slowly approached me, head-on. I exhaled slowly and flicked my fins to rotate gently as it cruised by, presenting it with as small a profile as possible. Fascinated rather than frightened, I actually wanted to get closer. Dappled sunlight danced across its broad back as it edged nearer, and as it turned, less than five metres from me, I stared into the eyes of a killer: an incredibly beautiful one. And she stared back with an emotionless black eye. I don't think I have ever felt more alive than I did in that moment. Completing an effortlessly graceful loop, she was undisturbed by my presence; the group of black-and-white striped pilot fish shadowing her every move. I had a laugh to myself as the shark completed a figure-of-eight and increased speed towards the trio. The male of the three was patting the arm of one woman reassuringly, while the other cowered below him. The girl above was wide-eyed with fear, her orbs almost filling her mask. Easy for me to laugh as it headed away, obviously. And with that, she was gone, headed back out into the blue.

The dive over, we surfaced. The boat raced over, divers scrambling for the line thrown by a crewman. I've never seen a group of divers clamber back aboard a vessel so quickly in my life. I was nervously looking around below me until it was my turn to hug the ladder and drag myself clear of potential danger. The photographer and video team with us were comparing notes. There was some dispute as to whether it was an oceanic white-tip, or an even rarer silvertip: it had characteristics of both. Maybe a hybrid? One thing was certain: it was the same shark that had attacked the swimmers. The photographer, witness to the shark's arrival prior to those incidents, compared the images he had. A large nick in the dorsal fin confirmed it. This made the experience all the more exhilarating for me, I was just sad Nino couldn't have seen it. The authorities had banned any diver with less than 50 logged dives from diving anywhere bar Dahab, further up the coast. The closest we had got to diving together was waving to each other at a dive site there as he finished one dive with his instructor, and I began one with another group; hardly the experience he was looking for, but I hope he just takes it on the chin and continues diving.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A Kindred Spirit & The Thistlegorm

I'd given in to Nino's badgering to go to Egypt for two reasons: I wanted to dive with him, and there was the wreck of the HMS Thistlegorm to dive. While Nino started his training at Camel, I started begging to be on the next trip to the wreck. It was only a few days' diving before I got my wish.

I'd been diving previously with a couple of likeable Canadian Koreans, and they were up for the trip, as were a couple of English divers from Camel. We rose at 5am for the departure: she lay some hours away, near the mouth of the Suez Canal. We boarded in the dark, climbing to the upper deck whilst the crew made ready to cast-off. Two more divers joined us, a tall crop-headed man in his 60s; his companion a portly, bearded 40-something. Russians? I hoped not. The bearded man laid down and pulled his hat over his eyes, the rest of the divers already asleep on the mats at the rear of the sun deck. That left just myself and the older fellow at the table. I offered my hand, my name, and asked where they were from. He told me that he was a Norwegian named Robbie, and that he detected a Liverpudlian lilt in my accent. We laughed, and he told me of his fondness of the Beatles. We shared the opinion that the others aboard were missing out on a spectacular sunrise; together we watched in silence as the orange orb crested the horizon. When the sky was lit, we began one of the most interesting discussions I have had for a long time. Topics covered were Liverpool; the 60s and its music; the Summer Of Love and its similarities to 80s Acid House culture in Britain; the Baby Boomers; World War Two; Vietnam as the first war viewable from your living room armchair; diving; travel, and in particular the way it changes you and your outlook. I mentioned my limited belongings back home, and the fact I had no mortgage or permanent place to live. "You don't own things...they own you" he said. I told him I couldn't agree more and, while I felt a little rootless in life at times, that I wouldn't alter things.

I've met plenty of good people on the road, but certain ones connect with you on another level, regardless of nationality or age. Seb (England, 19) in Ko Tao; Karl (Germany, 20-odd) in the Batad; Gerd (Bavaria, 50) in Coron; Jonathan (my age, French Canadian) in Palawan. All interesting, thought-provoking people completely on my wavelength. I have a handful of close friends back home whom I could talk to right through the night, and they would love these people, too. I now add Robbie to that list. A neuro-surgeon back home, he informed me that this holiday was on his Senile Week. This the extra week's holiday you get in Norway after you pass 60. Not bad. He'd been diving some years with Alun. They work at the same hospital. Alun's an orderly, and was surprised when one of the top surgeons came down to the basement to say he'd heard Alun was a diver, and could he go diving with him? He told me it had been interesting to see Robbie's diving progress from awkward novice to the experienced diver he is today. By the time we arrived at the Thistlegorm, they had invited me to go and dive with them in some very cold and dark waters in Norway. I will definitely be taking them up on that, and taking Robbie some Peep Show DVD: he loves Mitchell & Webb.

Robbie told me some interesting tales of WWII, from a different perspective to that which we are presented. The British were responsible for enough atrocities. And the first casualty of war is said to be the truth, after all. Several civillian ships had been strafed or sunk by the RAF off the Norwegian coastline. Suspicion of German munitions or troops aboard were deemed reason enough to risk or even take Norwegian lives; A German cruiser had been sunk in a fjord near Narvik, but was literally undiveable due to the sweeping currents and freezing water in the fjord; A lake in Norway held the remains of two Blenheim bombers which had crashed into each other shortly after take-off...and divers had found boots with the airmen's feet still in them. Grim. And after the Germans had been defeated on a remote peninsular, the British refused to let the locals keep the trucks and boats which had been captured, and instead saw fit to crush them with bulldozers. Thanks for all your help beating Fritz, chaps. Charming.

The boat slowed and Tulio, our Italian guide, popped his head up from the stairs and told us to kit up. The lower deck became a hive of activity; regulators connected and tested, masks rinsed, wetsuits struggled into. Around us, six or seven boatloads of divers were doing likewise. My heart sank as I saw a group of around twenty divers on the boat next door preparing to enter. I'd heard the wreck got busy, but Tulio told me that this was nothing. So in we went. As we descended down the line I looked around me, horrified at the criss-crosses of shotlines from various boats, and the hordes of divers dropping onto the wreck. I'd liken it to being an extra in the final scene of a Bond film, and not in a good way. At least 20 divers were in view at any given moment. I was kicked in the head from above, and a diver rose from below, crashing into me and swimming away with no acknowledgment. I had no idea it would be this bad. One of the Canadians mistook another group for us and disappeared, Tulio in hot pursuit. This was a joke, and it was costing me £50 per dive? I hardly took the wreck in, I was that down. We climbed aboard the boat, and Alan made eye contact with me and sadly shook his head. "I dived this wreck 20 years ago, and also 7 years ago...it was not like this." He refused to to make the second dive. I almost followed suit, but decided that I was here, and that I might as well dive.

It was the right decision. We were in before everyone else, having had a shorter surface interval. I was paired with Julian, a veteran of several hundred wrecks, and who knew this one well. After being hand-held around the first dive with the less-experienced divers in the group, we decided we were going to be the naughty boys and disappear alone. Arriving at the stern of the ship, we watched Tulio lead the group into one hole. Julian pointed at another and I nodded: see you later, kids. The Thistlegorm is a beautiful wreck. Sunk by the bombs of a Heinkel He111 on its way back to base after a fruitless search for its intended targets, the ship had received its complete payload of ordnance. As the vessel went down, primed depth-charges on the decks exploded, causing more fatalities. There are many highlights on this wreck: two Bren-gun carriers on their sides, tracks intact; trucks in the lower decks, as well as rows and rows of BSA motorcycles; and Lee Enfield rifles litter the main deck nearer the bow. You can certainly see why it is rated as one of the world's best wreck dives.

Twice I encountered Tulio and the rest of the group, and he knocked two forefingers together to tell us to stay with the group. I nodded and ignored it. To be honest, I'd be pissed off if the boot were on the other foot, but I had paid well over the odds for these dives, and I wasn't about to follow a group and view the wreck through the silt someone in front was kicking up. No way. Besides, myself and Julian are both adept at wreck orientation, and are used to diving them. We knew where the shotline was, and were more than capable of looking after ourselves. The third time I passed him, Tulio shook his head and gave me a V-sign.

On the way back to the shotline, another group descended. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A guide had a young girl below him, supporting her with an arm around her waist. She had no equipment besides a bikini and a mask, and was breathing from his alternate air source. On a wreck. Twenty-odd metres underwater. In strong currents. What a complete lunatic. If they'd drifted away from the group, and she'd panicked, I wouldn't have bet much on her making it to the surface on a single breath. That's before you even start considering the Bends. I'm sure PADI would be interested in speaking to him.

We regrouped at the bow, and headed back past the locomotive and rolling stock on the foredeck, an amazing sight. I'll have to return to dive this one again, but on a liveaboard trip next time, to avoid living in Sharm, and to be first on the wreck at dawn's break. Climbing back aboard, Alun was waiting, shaking his head wistfully. I gave him a comiserating shake of the head in return. I didn't need to tell him how good the dive had been, as he'd seen our group enter the water alone, while the other boats continued lunch. But I bet it was better when he dived it 20 years ago, so no big deal. And it'll still be there in another 20, though the way she's being treated by divers and dive operations, there'll be less to see.

Little Roman In Faded Vegas

Travel should delight the senses, and usually does. But something inside me died as our minibus pulled into Sharm El-Shit. The neon glow from the main strip was visible miles from the highway; likely from space. I'd been forewarned about the town, and the overabundance of divers, before organising the trip. But my good mate Nino had been inspired to learn to dive by my constant enthusing about the things I'd seen. It being Winter in England, Egypt and Malta were the only options; Egypt was cheaper and a little warmer.

The usual shenanigans were encountered at Immigration, the most amusing of these being the scrawny fellow sat atop a battered office chair beyond the booths, whose job it was to re-check your passport thirty seconds after it had been checked previously; waving you through, seemingly more interested in deep pulls on a reeking filterless cigarette.

We were joined in the minibus by an English couple in their sixties. After announcing that they were technical divers, they told me there'd still be good stuff for me to see. Thanks. I couldn't be bothered mentioning that I was Trimix-trained, myself; it's not a competition, is it? This was their fourth time in Sharm, and they enthused about its charms. Wife did most of the talking; it seemed Husband's job was to chip in with affirmations when required. Anyone who has seen The Fast Show will know the types.

Wife: "This your first time in Sharm, is it? Oh, you'll love it. Best place we've been...been back four times, haven't we, Mick?"
Husband: "Four times..."
Wife: "It's all here in Sharm. All you could want...you can get food from all over the world can't you, Mick?"
Husband: "All kinds of food..from everywhere..."
Wife: "We spend the winters here now...it's just like coming home to us. What it's like, Mick?"
Husband: "It's like coming home..."

Nino rolled his eyes at me. I stopped speaking, but it was no use: we were a captive audience. As we pulled up at the Camel Dive Centre, a quick glance around told me I was going to hate it here. The Best English Breakfast here! A Taste Of Germany! Real Italian Pizza! Tacky bars blasted out music, a competitive cacophony. Plastic palms lined the strip by the beach, and themed restaurants transported you to any corner of the world you wished: Mexico, Italy, France or the US. Is a bit of authentic Arab cuisine too much to ask for? It seemed you could get it, but the prices were higher than my local Turkish place in London Fields.

The place is full of arrogant Russians with money to burn. They strut around like they own the place. Nino convinced my one evening that Pascha would be a good idea. It wasn't a good idea. Probably up there with Hitler invading Poland. Overpriced drinks, and laughable roped-off VIP areas of various levels, policed by tuxedoed goons. Scantily-glad, sullen Russian and Polish beauties gyrated and pouted on the dancefloor while their rope-chain-clad boyfriends looked appreciatively on. I don't know what tune these girls were dancing to, but it certainly wasn't the one the DJ was playing. A diminutive Russian sat sprawled across a sofa, two muscled gorillas either side of him in tight tee-shirts. You can spot an east European a mile off: dodgy bleached jeans with lots of pockets and zips. They weren't kidding in the 80s when they said you coul pay for a trip there simply by filling your suitcase with Levis 501s. These lads hadn't secured a pair, obviously. Nino nicknamed the short one Little Roman, due to his resemblance to Chelsea's owner. Occasionally he'd give us a long, hard (he imagined) stare. I couldn't see his problem, but then Nino pointed out that Roman and his crew had been two tables away one night when he'd been doing his Borat impression for some Canadian divers: "I am liking to wear the jeans with zips...is nice, you like! In my country we are bleaching the trousers." Lighten up, Roman.

I've nothing more to add about Sharm. It's a tourist hellhole I never wish to visit again, notable only for having the worst Indian curry I have ever tasted; made, sadly, by an Indian.