Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Unmentionables

IS THERE ANYTHING positive I can say about Israelis? Not really. It seems that the only time you hear about them it’s because they’ve stolen some more Arab land, bulldozed some innocent people’s houses, stormed a ship in international waters and shot dead unarmed Greek students, sent their Mossad agents to murder terror suspects in foreign countries (sometimes killing the wrong men) or gunned down Palestinian kids who’ve thrown stones at their armoured cars. So, no...I don’t think I have anything positive to say about them. And before anyone thinks I’m being racist, I’m not: I’m talking about Israelis, not Jews. I know plenty of Jewish people in London, and there is no way they could be tarred with the Unmentionable brush. The Israelis are truly a breed apart from any other traveller you are likely to meet.

The Unmentionables travel in packs, and don’t mix. In fact, the most you’ll likely get is a dirty look if you happen to arrive at a hostel they’ve taken over. According to Guatemalans I’ve spoken to, one of whom spoke Hebrew and listened in frequently, their modus operandi is to establish themselves in a place, and then start haggling and making unreasonable demands which the owner can’t refuse without losing money if they all move out at once. In Coban, our hostel owner told us that they’d complained there was no kitchen for them to use. After snooping around, one of them came to him and pointed out that there was a kitchen at the back of the property. The owner said that this was his mother’s, but was bullied into letting them use it. His poor mother had to put up with being barged out of her own space when they took over to cook dinner. Charming.

I’ve seen some appalling incidents over the course of the last few years. In Saigon, I was in a cafe where around ten Unmentionables had commandeered half of it. The old Vietnamese lady serving got one of the meals wrong, which drove one of the Israeli girls into a rage. She waved the old woman away, and her dismissive hand caught the edge of the bowl, sending the noodles over the waitress. I was disgusted, as were several open-mouthed diners.

We arrived in Lanquin late one evening, and drove slowly down the hill into the village. On the way we were met with scowls and hard stares from some of the locals sat by the side of the road. Kneehead remarked that the place didn’t look too friendly. I replied that it looked downright hostile to me. It wasn’t long before we found out why. I’d put it down simply to resentment at rich Westerners visiting, but a local told me a different story. The place was crawling with Unmentionables, likely because it was one of the cheaper places in Guatemala. Antigua is the most expensive town in the country, and doesn’t see many of them. Probably explains why I’ve spent almost three weeks here? The local lad told me they were rude, haggled aggressively, and were disrespectful to his people. Within a day, we saw this in practice.

We’d spent the sunset at the mouth of the caves at Lanquin, waiting for the bats to exit for the nocturnal hunt. I’d found it hilarious as Kneehead cowered in near-terror as the bats flapped past his face, and lost count of the times he said the words “I think this is a really bad idea.” We headed back to the village, smelling fusty and with footwear encrusted in thick bat-shit. Nasty. A couple of New Yorkers tagged along for dinner, and we found a popular local restaurant. For around £3 each, we were fed a delicious chicken dinner with all the trimmings. As we ate, there was a commotion developing between the lady owner and a couple of Unmentionables sitting in a corner. Kneehead, having the better Spanish of us, earwigged on the conversation. He shook his head disgustedly and told us they were disputing the price of the food after they’d eaten it. Pigs.

Heading for Coban the next day, we discovered the same pair on our shuttle bus. The fare to the town is a standard Q30; a decent price for a two hour drive, at around £2.50. On reaching our destination, the conductor scrambled up on top of the minibus for our packs. The male Unmentionable questioned the fare, and said he would pay Q20. The conductor looked at me and Kneehead. I shrugged. As we were shouldering our packs, the debate raged back and forth. The Guatemalan appeared to back down “OK...OK...is 20 Quetzales for the ride...” and the Unmentionables looked triumphant “...and 10 Quetzales to get your bags back.” Checkmate. Guatemala 1-0 Israel. As we walked off, I cast a grin at the man on the roof, and he winked back.

A lack of manners was on display on the bus to Antigua from Coban. Three young female Unmentionables were hogging the back seats of the bus with their bags. As we waited to climb in, they were looking down their noses at myself and the Bognors. Nicola was distinctly unimpressed with their looking her up and down. A few hours into the journey, we stopped at a gas station and bought some snacks. An older American named Pete was first in the queue, the rest of us behind him. One of the Israeli girls sidled up next to Pete, blatantly pushing in and, a few minutes later her friends joined her. “Don’t mind us, we’ll just queue here for nothing” I muttered. They didn’t bat an eyelid. The arrogance of it. I was more annoyed with myself later for no saying anything, merely fuming in the bus for an hour; always better to get it off your chest. Especially where rude bastard Israelis are concerned.

On getting off the bus, I was set to walk with an American named Laura, as she had a decent hostel in mind. The Unmentionables had been asking her where she was staying, but were still on the bus as it drove away. I breathed a sigh of relief, and told her that if they’d joined her I’d have walked in the opposite direction. She said “Oh, I love the Israelis...” and before I could recover my jaw from the ground “...they make us Americans look polite.” So it’s not just me that thinks this way.

To be fair, I won’t tag all Israeli backpackers as Unmentionables. I met a lovely couple in Tulum; but I can’t consider them backpackers anyway, considering the stunning Efrat had 20 bikinis in one suitcase. With a body like hers, I can’t blame her, either. Her boyfriend, faux-Italian “Fabio”, was impossible to dislike...despite looking like Gael Garcia-Bernal and having a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend in tow. I spent some time in Thailand with an Israeli lad travelling with a Canadian flag on his pack; he said he was ashamed of some of his countrymen and their behaviour, so sought to distance himself. I’d laughed and said I hadn’t met many wiry, olive-skinned Canadians with curly black hair. There was also a couple of affable musicians on a night boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, who were very nice lads. They're certainly not all bad.

The rule of thumb seems to be that if you meet an Israeli travelling alone, or as a couple, they are generally nice people. But in groups, they have this post-national service mentality that the world is against them; they need to stick together and not trust outsiders. That’s clearly not the case. One of the joys of travel is meeting new people, finding out more about their culture, and having a bloody good laugh with them. It is certainly not about travelling a poor country and squeezing every last penny out of the impoverished locals, just so you can travel for longer. By doing that, you only make things difficult for your compatriots who follow. I’ve seen the way the locals’ attitude changed in Lanquin as soon as they find out your country of origin. “English...always tips me” a smiling Guatemalan told me. Be nice, give a little extra where it’s due...and you’re going to get a lot more back.

Fabio and Efrat invited me to Israel as we left Tulum. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d fit in. I’d love to see the pair of them again; but I think that, certainly after this article, I’d be assured of a warmer welcome in Palestine or Syria.

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(And this fellow (Jewish, too) seems to concur)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Running For The Border

WE DIDN'T LIKE Placencia at all. It probably didn't help that we were struggling to find a room, wandering around in torrential rain. Soaked to the bone, we finally secured musty rooms in an old guest house. The woman running it was American and in her early 60s. Clearly drunk, and with a rasping voice like sandpaper, she insisted we paid up front, and wouldn't even let us drop the bags in our room first. Did she think we were going to squat in a place with a bathroom that smelled like a squash court?

Nothing happens here. It's a tiny town on a short peninsula in the south of Belize. It seems to be popular with older ex-pats from this side of the Atlantic, and as a result we were some of the youngest in town (a novelty). We headed to the town's most popular nightspot, after dinner with Bigmouth and Jahlee. The waitresses knew the crew, as they make the trip often, and weren't giving Bigmouth any attention, despite his theatrical peering over the table and leering at them as they walked by. Who did he think he was impressing? We had tipped the crew, despite several people saying they didn't want Bigmouth to have anything, as he'd been a thorn in our side the whole trip. But it wouldn't have been fair on Jahlee, who had been great: if we'd had two of his calibre, the trip would have been a lot different. They offered to take us for a few beers. Back home this would translate as them buying us one, but in Belize-speak I think it means "We'll show you where the bar is, and you buy the beers."

I sat and took in the clientele. There was a French-looking guy with swept-back hair, hooked nose and a solid tan, dressed completely in white...like an aged Fabio. An older Indian woman was surveying the younger men in the bar, while her white friend pranced barefoot around the dancefloor to the sound of the live band, eyes closed with a serene look on her face, matted dreddlocks swinging behind her knees. I wished they'd been a bit longer so she might have tripped over them and made my night. I was pleasantly surprised when Ben Stiller muttered "I hate white people with dreddlocks." Most people in this hellhole looked like they'd stepped off a yacht or off the set of some film about colonialism, all safari shirts and chinos. The band launched into a Bob Marley cover; I downed my beer in one and left.

Kneehead rolled in at 2am, his snoring keeping me awake. I hit him a few times, and tried to roll him onto his front. He insisted he wasn't snoring, and was on his front already. He rambled, telling me he'd been warned off dancing with some of the local girls by the hoods hanging around. I could just picture it. A fitful and brief sleep was interrupted again by the sound of incessant banging from the upper floor, and the coarse cackle of our old soak of a landlady. I considered going out, but was beaten to it by a well-spoken English girl, who asked for the noise to be kept down a little. "Well, whaddayaknow" Sandpaper rasped "the fucking English...they think everyone should be travelling the world getting stoned." As opposed to pissing your life away in a sad little dusty town? Sounds like a better option, in my book.

Morning saw me up early, Kneehead apologetic for my disturbed evening. Sandpaper was outside at the BBQ on the terrace, three sheets to the wind already. Glass of rum in hand, she loudly wished me a good morning. I asked who the noisy buggers were upstairs last night, fully aware she was one of them. She said she didn't hear a thing, as she was in bed...but that Friday was the rowdy night, everyone would be quieter this evening after the late finish. Eyeing the glass in her hand, I doubted that. There was an art fair in the town but, counting the silver-haired heads passing by, I suggested we get off to Hopkins. The rest of the gang agreed.

We boarded a chicken bus for a fairly uneventful journey, marked only by the father and son who boarded, fair-skinned religious types from the States who dressed in identikal green overalls and shirts, woven hats covering their bowl hair-styles. I had to hold my breath as the older man passed, almost chewing the thick, tangy air around him. Unpleasant. I don't care what god people believe in, so long as they believe in soap, too. Bognor Kim struck up a conversation with the fellow, while his son squinted suspiciously at those around him. Turns out that they were heading to sell mahogany seeds in Dangrigga, as they couldn't sell them in Belize City after being robbed on every occasion. Kim was curious about their beliefs, and distrust of science and space exploration. I was more interested to know when his armpits had last seen water?

Dumped at the junction on the highway, we got a taxi for the last few miles to the Garifuna village of Hopkins. This is billed in the guidebooks as a charming little fishing community that time forgot. All I would say is that this description is up there with an estate agent describing a shithole of an area you are looking to rent a flat in as vibrant. Time has certainly forgotten it. And it's charming if you think downtown Detroit would be lifted slightly by palm trees and a few skiploads of sand. Its two streets run parallel to the beach for miles, lined with derelict and abandoned houses like broken teeth in a rotting mouth. There's nothing charming about people living in poverty and naked children...I almost felt guilty being here.

Two days of staying in and smoking grass later, and we were ready to leave. The grey skies and rain hadn't bothered me, as the beach was nothing to speak of, and the water murky. A couple of rickety buses later, and we were at the border. It's around £15 just to get out of the country overland, and this sticks in the craw after the expense of the place as a whole. I was asked to fill out a tourism questionnaire before leaving. In the section where the nosy sods asked how much I estimated I'd spent, I simply put "Too much."

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Way Of Death

LIFE IS CHEAP out here. The murder rate in Guatemala is currently 52 per 100,000 people. Pretty high (Britain's is 1.28), and it's not even the most violent country in the region. El Salvador and Honduras are vying for pole position, with 71 and 67 respectively. The rate in El Salvador is particularly high as it is the birthplace of MS-18, the world's largest street gang. Mara Salvatrucha, in full, derives its name from a street in San Salvador and the name of a guerilla movement from the Salvadorean civil war. The gang is estimated to have 69,000 members spread over California and Central America. Formed in the 1980s to protect the interests and safety of immigrants in Los Angeles, massive deportations of gang members from the States has only exarcerbated the problem; re-patriated members have recruited in their home countries, and new members cross the border back to the US. Their expolits are truly horrific. In Honduras there have been two cases of buses being shot to pieces in retaliation to the re-introduction of the death penalty. The victims were poor workers from nearby clothing factories. Once in this gang, it is almost impossible to get out. In 2003 a 17-year-old girl named Brenda Paz was lured to the banks of a Virginia river and brutally stabbed to death by her two former best friends; she'd given information about MS-18 to the police. In 2006 Ernesto Miranda, a founder member of the Maras, was murdered at his home after turning his back on the gang and convincing youths not to join.

Their actvities range from drugs, prostitution, extortion and murder to people-smuggling and arms-dealing. The power they exercise here is frightening, and it is only getting worse. I'm hoping not to have any contact with them whatsoever, and as a tourist will avoid any areas they inhabit. They're not hard to spot, most having extensive tattoos on body and face to show rank, time served and lists of crimes. The gang is all they have, and killing for it takes no more thought than making a coffee would for you or me. It's a way of life. San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, is riddled with Maras, and is one city I'll be in and out of within half an hour, hopefully.

I've spoken to Guatemalans about crime, and not just MS-18. The levels are high enough, even without their involvement. Myself and Kneehead were drinking on the porch in our hostel one night when Jimmy, one of the staff, limped by with his cane. He asked if we fancied a whisky, we shared the beers out and got talking about all things Guatemala. I asked if he was having hip trouble, unusual for a 28-year-old man. He told us that, 4 months ago, he was out late in the evening when three men jumped from a car and blocked the exit of a street he was on. Instinctively he turned and ran, halting when three shots were fired in the air as a warning. They quickly caught him up and robbed him of his iPod and wallet. Two turned to leave, the third man pointing his pistol at Jimmy's pelvis and firing, shattering his hip. He was told "Next time, don't run." The callous nature is chilling.

Jimmy told us about recent incidents in Guatemala City, where the gangs have been demanding taxes from bus companies for vehicles passing through their zones. One company had been refusing to pay. There were two drivers and conductors shot dead within a week, the killers pulling up on motorbikes, the pillion passengers executing the men with assault rifles. I asked why they didn't hit the company harder, and burn the buses after clearing the passengers out? "It's easier and quicker to stop the bus in traffic. Kill. Then go." Both the companies and the drivers can be extorted, and often the drivers are killed, even if they pay. Between 2006 and 2007 a total of 512 bus drivers have been killed this way. That figure is quite incredible. Imagine doing a simple job like driving a bus, and not knowing if you would see your family again as you left the house each morning?

I was looking forward to Antigua's football game against Xinabajul this afternoon. I met up with a Mancunian named Gary and a local called Alvarado I was drinking with last night while watching United v Chelsea. Alvarado told us we'd have to make do with watching the Barcelona game on TV after the Guatemalan League had been suspended following the murder of Carlos Noe Gomez, vice-president of Xinabajul. He'd received death threats after poor performances, the team rooted to the bottom of the league. After a recent 2-0 defeat at home, Gomez was gunned down by two men in Huehuetenango. No witnesses, no suspects.

This follows on from the murder of Carlos Vasquez, a midfielder with Malacateco. He met a more gruesome end, pieces of him being deposited in five plastic bags. His killers left a note to say he was paying for messing around with other women. There was also the infamous execution of Andres Escobar in Medellin, Colombia, after scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, which cost criminals vast amounts in gambling losses. It is said one of his killers mimicked a football commentator, shouting Gooool! as he pumped him full of bullets. 120,000 people attended Escobar's funeral, and photographs of him are brought to games on the anniversary of his death, in tribute.

This way of death is truly a dark side to what is a beautiful and fascinating country. As I watch the sun set on the hills above Antigua, the sounds of children returning home from school in the street below, it is difficult to comprehend the savagery of this region.

Empty Vessels

CERTAINLY MAKE the most noise. There are certain people I'd be loathe to be stuck on an open boat with: Janet Street-Porter, John McCrirrick, Dennis Nilsen, Jack Johnson (especially with guitar) and Alan Yentob are certainly up there. And after 3 days on a small craft out of Caye Caulker, I'm adding Captain Jerry to that list. First sight of an aggressive shark and I'd have thrown myself overboard, smothered in ketchup.

Kneehead fancied a boat trip and, as I'd had him hanging around a few days while I dived the cenotes, I agreed. Besides, it looked pretty good value, and was a good way to head South and avoid Belize City. Apparently the capital is full of black dudes with guns, out of their minds on crack cocaine; after a few years of living in East London I didn't need to see any more of that, thanks. So we signed up for a trip with Raggamuffin Tours. Peaceful sailing, and fresh lobster dinners were promised, though we got neither.

The Bognors were to join us, after ducking the previous trip due to too many travellers being of the Marks & Spencer's-sandals-wearing variety. Ours was to be a pretty young crowd, myself and Kneehead aside. There was an Aussie couple, an older one from the States who were fairly straight, an English pair and two young Americans, one of whom looked like Ben Stiller, and whose girlfriend had the most annoying laugh known to man; it was setting my teeth on edge as we disembarked, and piped up at every inane comment from Stiller. Captain Jerry was shouting out the rules of the boat as we left the harbour. When I say shouted, it soon became apparent that this was how Jerry spoke all the time: very loudly, and in an overly-heavy patois (due to his alluded-to contacts with Jamaican drug gangs in the area). "He certainly loves the sound of his own voice. Could be a long trip, this" I said to Kneehead. I could see he was thinking likewise.

The other crewman was Jahlee, a likeable rasta. Constantly stoned, he didn't seem too pleased when I put paid to the endless reggae with my iPod. But it was our trip, not theirs, and we were getting thoroughly sick of it. We stopped to snorkel and swim, and a few of the lads went off spear-fishing. Ben Stiller was bragging about his prowess, but his cheers were silenced when he came back with an inedible and rare fish on his barb. Clown. The rest of us on deck were treated to more of Bigmouth Jerry's endless yaggetmebludd monologue. If it seemed no-one was paying him enough attention ("Wow, Jerry...you're so coooool...") then he just got louder. And louder. While sailing the boat, he decided to whistle or sing with his iPod on, as some sort of protest at us customers actually wanting to play our own music. Jahlee picked up on our exasperated exchanged glances, and told him to shut up on Day Two. He did. For about twenty minutes.

First stop was Rendezvous Caye, a tiny speck of land with a jetty and a few palm trees. It was to be our home for the night, and the crew broke out the tents. Tents being a vague description of the soggy bags of canvas and rope we were each given. As night quickly fell, we'd managed to make a shelter from the mismatched pieces of tent, our flysheet covering at least half of the construction. Bigmouth and Jahlee cooked dinner and prepared the rum punch. The trip was billed as all-you-can-drink: no expense spared. Remember those jars of clear liquid in Grandad's shed, the ones he used to leave paintbrushes in? Well stick some orange juice in that, and let's get the party started.

A fire was built, the Squares went to bed, joints were rolled, and the Aussie-Baiting commenced. We had the cricket and rugby, he had the weather and was trying to claim drinking prowess to go with it. Oh dear. No-one out-drinks the Kneehead. The paint-stripper cocktail was revolting, but started working immediately. Fast forward several hours: the Aussie was semi-conscious and rambling on the sand; Kneehead standing above him in a Beckham-esque sarong triumphantly shouting/ singing "I am the champion...I AM THE CHAMPION!" like some demented Freddie Mercury, the wind whirling about him; Bognor Kim alternated between hysterics and yukele-playing; I was stoned and sitting in sticky wet shorts, after the other English lad had sat down and kicked his drink into my lap. It was quite a good night. I drifted off to sleep later, serenaded with the sound of the Englishman puking inside his tent. Letting the side down.

The howling wind and rain awoke me in the dead of night. The staccato flap of canvas right next to my head was not conducive to a relaxing Forty Winks, and water was coming in. We'd had the sense to move our scrappy home under the only shelter on the island, and I felt relatively well-off as I heard others scrambling to escape the downpour. Morning saw a scene of devastation, and ashen-faced survivors. The Aussie lad was in a bad way, sprawled out on the beach. Bognor Kim had had an attack of the runs in the first light of morning and had legged it, stark-bollock-naked, into the sea before his bowels did him (and Nicola) a disservice. It was only once he was in, feeding the fish via his rectum, that he saw The Squares emerging from their tent for an early snorkel. Sterling effort.

Another day, another litany of musings, songs and whistling from Bigmouth. We didn't actually do any sailing on the whole trip, but the noise of the engine was a silver-lining, as it turned out. I'd have happily stood next to an idling jet engine by the end of the trip. Our next port was Tobacco Caye, a pleasant little place with a tiny population. As we disembarked, a drunken member of Raggamuffin's staff was on the dock, a wizened black fellow of around 60. On seeing the Chinese half of the English couple jump off the boat, he shouted "Look, it's Jackie Chan." She impressively chose to ignore the comment, whereas I'd have pushed him off the dock to sober up.

There was a large catamaran moored on the other side of the pier. I spotted dive gear, and got chatting to the four Yanks aboard about their diving trip. They invited me to have a look around, and poured me a large (decent) rum and coke. The boat was beautiful, and should have been, considering they were paying $3000 each for a week on it. One told me it didn't matter, as they all earned huge salaries. Five dives a day had been planned, but they said it was down to two after the first day, as they were too busy getting pissed. What a waste of time and money. The lads were trying to get everyone on board for a party later, particularly the hot American dive instructor, who was all long blonde hair and bright teeth. Most people preferred hanging around our boat, smoking dope and listening to decent tunes. Except her, who seemed dazzled by the flashy boat and tales of wealth on the catamaran. Ah well, I won't go and live on Tobacco Caye, then? Their boat disappeared later, only to be forced to return shortly later when it was discovered Kneehead was on board, depleting their rum supplies.

The last morning saw the weather worsen as we rushed to depart before it closed in on the island, trapping us. Dark clouds chased us across the ocean, as the swells increased and threw the boat about. We hung on, some of us sheltering in the cabin as the rain lashed down. Further out to sea, other boats were suffering more in rougher seas. Kneehead, as a poor swimmer, looked nervous when I pointed out that Bigmouth and Jahlee seemed concerned at the limited visibilty and waves hitting the boat. The Chinese girl, being a non-swimmer, appeared slightly more concerned. The crew were busy navigating and, despite getting a bit wet, I was quite happy because it seemed Jerry couldn't engage his brain and his mouth at the same time.

Several hours behind schedule, we wearily arrived at Placencia. Relief was palpable. Though I don't know which I felt more for: being back on terra firma, or being able to put more than 20 feet between my ears and Jerry's mouth for the first time in three days.