Sunday, 31 July 2011

Twin Peaks

THE NEXT MORNING we were packed and out of San Juan within 45 minutes of opening our eyes. No point wasting any more precious moments of our trip. We arrived at the bus station and waited around amongst the rotting filth for transport to Ometepe. I've seen worse bus stations, but this one was still pretty bad. Walk anywhere and you have to keep an eye on the ground to avoid standing in something nasty, anything from a large pile of dogshit to a discarded piece of unidentifiable meat. And keep the other eye on your belongings: thieves love bus stations, and it's easy for one to distract you while his accomplice slashes your backpack. Best to get in and out as soon as possible.

I almost didn't visit Ometepe, the twin-peaked volcanic island south of Granada. Motorbike George hadn't enjoyed himself there; said it was dull, rife with mosquitoes and hot as hell. His view was echoed by a few other travellers, but an equal number loved it. In these instances, you need to go and see for yourself. Ometepe means "two mountains", from the ancient indigenous language. The two volcanoes rise out of the expanse of Lago de Nicaragua, one at either end of the island. Concepcion, considered the most perfectly-formed volcano in Central America, erupted as recently as 2010...and violently. The islanders defied government orders from Managua to leave. In 2005 an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale shook the hourglass-shaped island, rupturing roads and creating huge fissures. I didn't know all this before we got on the boat; but then, you can't let a hideous death by pyroclastic flow put you off a weekend away, now can you?

George was right in one respect: there isn't much happening, even in the main town. Nightlife is negligible. There are few bars. There are hikes to the summits of the peaks themselves but, with the low cloud during the day, it didn't seem worth it. So we hired motorbikes, grabbed a map, and set off to circumnavigate the island.

The roads are tarmaced between the main settlements, but soon turn to shit. And get shittier. We were on 125cc road bikes which were not ideal, but myself and Stef soon got into the groove, taking turns leading on the rutted, rock-strewn tracks. I loved it. Maxy, on the other hand, didn't. We'd slow up every so often to let him catch up; he generously fell off the bike three times, once for each of us...so me and Stef knew we were OK from here on in. All the accidents that could have happened had happened.

The ride took up most of the day, passing through some tiny villages where the inhabitants rarely saw westerners. They were friendly enough, a big improvement on San Juan's moody bunch. I skidded to a stop on seeing two young boys atop a horse, and asked permission to take their picture; they happily obliged before trotting off into the undergrowth. We took a break at a tiny makeshift cafe where a lad happily played with our cameras while I played with his tiny birds, one of which was quite content to sit on my hand while I drank a freezing Coke. Stef, fearing Maxy had crashed again, doubled back to look for him. Obviously he had.

The Scotsman was pretty pissed off with his steed by now, and possibly at the pace that myself and the Italian were setting, so we went on ahead to the freshwater springs on the way home, while Maxy took it easy to avoid more damage to the bike, and to get himself a few decent photographs. Slowcoach looking after himself, we set off at a blistering pace. We'd passed the worst of the roads by now, and I chuckled to myself at the words of the Finnish couple we'd chatted to at the cafe, who were heading the way we'd come: "The road gets really bad from here" they'd warned us. I could just picture their faces right about now. In fact, a similar face came into view a few minutes later as a group passed us with a few nods...a girl riding pillion with a look of tight-lipped anguish on her face. It'll only get worse love, I thought, as Stef turned round to me and laughed. He was obviously thinking the same thing.

The springs were refreshing, but not hot as we'd hoped. Bloody cold, in fact. Invigourated and dust-free, we headed for a tiny town to eat afterwards, where we suffered the worst of Nicaragua's fayre. And believe me, that's not a standard you want to fall below. It was appalling. Rubber chicken. Maxy caught us up; we warned him to wait until we got back to the main town if he was hungry. Off we went at breakneck speed, the Scotsman a lot happier and far more reckless now back on tarmac.

I spoke to a couple of locals later on about our experiences in San Juan Del Sur. It had a bad reputation even amongst the islanders. One told me that we were lucky to be in a group, as the locals there are known to menace lone travellers in bars, surrounding them and bullying them into a walk to the nearest ATM. I also heard of a couple who were warned not to walk along a stretch of road on one of the more secluded beaches outside the town; they heeded the warning, but later met a German pair who'd just arrived and weren't lucky enough to have found a friendly face: two distinctly unfriendly ones robbed them of everything the had at gunpoint. Nice start to your trip.

The people on Ometepe said that bad things had been happening in San Juan for years. It's only a matter of time before word gets out and people stop going.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Getting Your Nicas In A Twist...

GREAT EXPECTATIONS ARE all too rarely realised. I wanted to like Nicaragua. I really did. So many people, well-respected travellers from home especially, had told me what a great country it is, how friendly the people are etc. Sadly, neither myself nor my companions were to find this to be the case. I suppose one of the beauties of travel is that so many people can have such a wide variety of experiences in the same place. It's just a shame (for us) that some of the people I spoke to had the great ones, and we got the soiled end of the proverbial walking aid.

Borders are never the nicest places. The one between Honduras and Nicaragua is a pain in the arse. You are turfed off the bus at one point, bags searched, bus given the once-over by armed men. You jump back on, and the rusting jalopy is barely into third gear before it's grinding to a halt for the whole rigmarole to be repeated; this time you have to carry your bags from the hold to an examining room, where an old man with a face like a sun-dried raisin prods your clothes and gives your open bag a cursory glance, all the while eyeing you like you've just ravaged his teenage daughter. The process is far from rapid, so I was stood in the oven of a room, rivulets of sweat trickling down my back, waiting for the old duffer to get to me. Judging by the disinterested search he gave my bag, I could have brought a few kilos of uncut Colombian cocaine and a couple of AK47s...he wouldn't have noticed. Some of these processes are designed just to keep people in a job.

I spied an ice-cream vendor as I waited for the rest of the passengers to escape the oven. Wandering over, I made idle chit-chat as I asked the price of his wares, hoping they hadn't melted and been reformed at any point in their lifetime...especially seeing as there was no toilet on this particular bus. Well, there was a toilet, but without a fistful of asbestos up each nostril, there'd be now way you'd go anywhere near it: the stench could have curled the edges of a sandwich from ten paces. It was only as I walked away from the vendor that I realised he'd charged me double. 20 Cordobas was the price; I'd given him a dollar. I turned back and pointed this out. The man pointed in one direction and said "Honduras" and then in the other "Nicaragua". I tried again "Un dollar es 40 Cordobas, no..?" He repeated his concise geography lesson again, so I told him I hoped other Nicaraguans were honest, and got back on the bus. Bandit.

I arrived in Esteli, a dusty working town on the road to nowhere. The bus disappeared in a cloud of grit, and I chewed dirt as I trudgeed towards the centre in the dying sun. Responses to white faces in this town ranged from indifferent to contemptuous. And that's just the friendly ones. I'd already decided I'd be out of this place in the morning. Besides, I was expecting to catch up with Stef and Maxy pretty soon. Perusing my mail once checked into Hostal Unfriendly, I got the sorry saga from the lads.

The CA-4 Agreement between Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua was designed to allow free movement and trade between nationalities of those countries. What this means for the traveller is that you get a 90 day visa for those countries as a whole. The confusion comes when moving between the countries, as sometimes you get another 90 day stamp in your passport at a border. Result! you think...another 90 days. Wrong. If you go over the alloted 90 days for the whole region, you are fined $1 per day overstay when you cross into Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica.

So Maxy had crossed into Nicaragua from Honduras, only to be told he had to get out of the region immediately, as he was two days over his visa. The pair of them had to cross the whole country in a day, and had a few hours in Costa Rica before coming back into Nicaragua and heading for San Juan Del Sur, a surfing town in the southwest. So it was an early start for me. Four buses and two taxis later, relief washing over me as I escaped the dustbowl of human detritus known as Managua, I was chatting to an amiable cabbie ferrying me the last 20km. San Juan came into view, and looked a nice enough place. Dumping the bags, I set off out to find the boys. I needed a drink.

Happily reunited in the street, we swapped stories over a few beers. There was nothing much happening in the town, it being the low season. But we shot a little pool, and sank a few more beers. San Juan isn't a large town, perhaps four streets run parallel behind it's beachfront road; this road is dark at night, and gangs of youths and ne'er-do-wells hang around once the sun goes down. As we walked home, a group of three men were walking towards us. One decided to menace a stray dog in the street, creeping up to it and lunging at it. Understandably, the hound went for him, snarling. The man started kicking it. Red rag to a bull, in this dog-lover's book. We appealed to him to stop. Red rag to a bull, in a gringo-hater's book. He squared up to Stef, the other two hung back. Myself and Maxy moved sideways, keeping an eye on his companions. Despite being so baby-faced, Maxy is a Glaswegian, and he understood the look I gave him after looking over the other two. If it kicks off, I'll take this one nearest me. He nodded. We smiled at our potential adversaries with beery bravado. They soon lost interest in the heated discussion though, and carried on walking. Stef pointed at us and told the dog-kicker "Your friends have left you, and now these two guys are going to kick your ass." He looked around the three of us rapidly, uncertain of himself now alone, and retreated to the sound of our laughter. We had no intention of beating him up; I approve of a fair fight or nothing at all. But he needed a fright. Nothing, bar watching Preston North End of a Saturday afternoon, will make my blood boil like someone beating an animal.

We decided to cool off, literally and metaphorically, with a midnight swim. We nipped back to the hostel, changed into shorts and ran across the road to the beach. After swimming a stupid distance under the influence of alcohol, we headed home. The security guard at the hostal admonished us for swimming there. He pointed out the dark treeline separating the beach from the street, and told us local men like to hang out there and wait for people on the beach at night; robbery, assault or both, dependent on hour and mood. Charming.

I'd hoped there'd be no more trouble in San Juan. Some hope. Playing pool again as, if you don't surf, there isn't much else to do in this town, we were minding our own business down the far end of a bar the following night. The Scot was lining up a shot when a muscly Nicaraguan came by, on his way to the bathroom. He stood inches away from the end of Maxy's hand as he lined up the shot, and began a stupid dance, rolling his forearms like a barrel. Finishing this ridiculous diplay, he popped a hand out near the Scot's head and demanded "Name?!" Our friend sighed, took his shot and said "Maxy" without looking at the payaso. This didn't go down well at all. On the way back from his unfeasibly long bathroom break, and I'm talking cocaine rather than a difficult poo, Muscles was at it again. Slighted by a diminutive Scotsman? No way, Jose. Towering over Maxy, he glared as he passed him, forking two fingers at his own eyes and then jabbing Maxy's chest as if to say "I'm watching you." Stef thought that a little joke would ease the tension. It didn't. "Hey, man..." said the Italian from his stool as Muscles passed him "...I see you like my young friend? If you like, I can introduce you?" This went down like a shit sandwich. With dysentry salsa. Stopping a Nica kicking a dog is one thing, suggesting he may have an interest in batting for the Other Team is ill-advised.

Anticipating a punch, Stef stood as Muscles got nasty. Well...nastier. I lost track of the Spanish exchanged in the heat of the moment; Muscles spraying spit everywhere as he ranted and raved, carotid arteries bulging from his neck. I had a pool cue in my hand, and told Maxy to pick up a bottle and stick it in his pocket. Muscle's friends were looking on, and we were heavily outnumbered. Thankfully his amigos had many more brain cells than he, and one split the confrontation up, pushing Stef away from his musclebound freak of a friend. I nodded my thanks, dropped the cue; we moved to leave. Muscles threw a lame, token punch at Stef's shoulder. I laughed: if he'd wanted to fight, he could easily have broken free of his compatriots. All show.

"Never forget, you are in Nicaragua, motherfucker!!!" he spat in Stefano's face. What was this...two geography lessons in one day? I'll say this for the Nicas, they certainly know where they are. Who needs GPS? I thought of asking Muscles if he worked for the Tourist Board, or if he could point in the general direction of Costa Rica, so that I could leave immediately. What a pleasant thought: Muscles in a nicely-ironed uniform, complete with hat, fetid breath melting tourists' ice-creams as he screams "You're in San Juan Del Sur, hijo de puta!" on being asked directions to the beach.

Stef was almost speechless as we walked back to the hostel "Man, what is this place? What is their problem?" I suggested we leave the very next morning, as things were getting a bit too tasty for my liking.

If I wanted to get into a fight every night, I'd never have left my hometown, Preston.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Butchery

THE WAR MUSEUM at Perquin is an interesting collection of propaganda posters, decommissioned weapons, radio sets, witness transcripts and photographs. It's about as well-curated as you'd expect from a remote north-eastern village in El Salvador, but worth an hour. Nearby, an ex-guerilla has made a replica camp complete with tunnels, radio station and weapons. We had a quick look around and agreed to head to El Mozote a few miles away. Nothing happens in Perquin.

On December 11th 1981, the CIA-trained Atlacatl Battalion surrounded the tiny village of El Mozote, after a sustained bombing raid which left 20'-wide craters over a wide area. The locals, at the centre of the guerilla stronghold of Morazán, had nowhere to run. The government troops were about to send a stark message to the rebels, and the people suspected of supporting them. Men and youths were separated from the women and children, the latter taken away to the churchyard. The women were held in two houses a few hundred yards from the plaza. They could only listen to the gunshots as their menfolk were lined up against walls and killed by firing squad. Over the next three days, the women would be systematically and repeatedly raped by the soldiers. This incleded pre-teenage girls. They were then killed, but not before they suffered the anguish at the sound of their children being butchered in the churchyard. Over 700 people were murdered in this operation, 150 of them children.



A pall hangs over this town, as if it cursed. A strange atmosphere pervades the air...I felt it as we pulled into town. It feels like the people are waiting for something, but I don't know what. All eyes were on us as we crossed to a small hut to ask about guides. You could walk around the town without one, but you can't begrudge the inhabitants a few dollars for spending an hour telling the town's harrowing story.

Our guide spoke only Spanish. George's listening skills are better than mine, whereas I speak more...so we understood most of what she told us. Occasionally I wished we didn't. She began by showing us the memorials; telling us the story of the sole woman who survived to tell the tale, forced to hide as she listened to the massacre of the innocents. I can't begin to imagine the horror she felt. The names of the dead line the wall of the church, countless of them just 1 and 2 years old. How can you murder babies? I asked if the soldiers had been brought to justice, she told me not. Many of them were only youths themselves, high on drink and drugs during the slaughter. Much in the same way camp guards at German concentration camps were almost permanently drunk to deal with the tasks they were asked to perform, and American GIs were high during the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The commander of the battalion was later killed when shot down in his helicopter over Perquin. The wreckage lies in the museum.

The derelict houses have not been demolished, and stand as permanent reminders. She showed us walls full of bulletholes where the men died; the house where the rapes took place; the churchyard ground where infants were put to death, many of them dismembered. Holes from heavy-calibre shells riddled the walls of other houses where fighter planes had strafed the town before the ground attack. Our guide had lost family. She was a year old at the time of the massacre, but her father had taken the family away to the coffee-growing regions for work. Her young cousins had not been so lucky. 12 of her family died in all.

You feel guilty being here, somehow complicit. Over the years, the US and British governments have interfered with the economies and politics of various countries. All in the interests of our multinational companies and their profits. No thought for the people who die in the process. A million died when Britain covertly backed a right-wing coup in Indonesia in the 60s. The consequences of America's involvement in Iraq are steadily coming to light, but the men responsible are not punished. A million people have died in Iraq in our name. For oil and control. Here in the Americas, there are millions more whose blood stains Western hands. No matter who is doing the killing, the trail always seems to lead back to our governments. And it's the innocents who suffer. In World War I, an estimated 10% of the total deaths were civillian. In WW2 it was 50%. In Vietnam 70%. In Iraq it is estimated that that 90% of the dead so far are non-combatants. And we at home are fed the same lies, and excuses when the truth is revealed. It sickens me.

We thanked our guide for her time, and saddled up. I headed out of El Mozote feeling quite gloomy, and deep in thought. It took 20 years before the people returned to this town. Maybe it would have been better to let the ghosts keep it, and start again elsewhere? But the Salvadoreans are proudly defiant people, and these returned to claim their ground, depsite the horrific atrocities carried out on it by their fellow countrymen.

My mood lightened as we headed back out onto the country road. On the way in, a small terrier had run into the road outside his house and attacked us...as he'd gone for our ankles, I'd lifted my foot up. It hit George's elbow and he, thinking it was the dog jumping at him, hit the gas. I flew back, pivoting on my coccyx and screaming at him to slow down. I could feel myself on the verge of falling off the bike backwards onto the stones, to be ravaged by the hound. Regaining my balance with relief, I told George to take it easy...it was only my foot. We were clear. Approaching the edge of town, I could see the dog standing sentinel at the end of his driveway, waiting for us. Little bugger likely knew it was one road in, one road out. "Ready?" shouted George. I slapped him on the shoulder in the affirmative. On came the dog, growling and yapping as he tried to bite us. The pair of us lashed out with our feet as George tried to keep the bike upright. I love dogs, but was quite happy to give this one a shoe-ing. He kept at it until George caught him good and proper under the chin with his heavy biker boots...the dog was launched to the grass verge, rolled twice and gave up the chase. I turned and laughed as he sat on his haunches and barked for all he was worth, furious. You have to admire his balls. He probably does on a daily basis.

The Road Less Travelled...

...IS THE ROAD best travelled. I don't often envy people their trips; I'm lucky enough for it to occasionally be the other way around. But I envy Motorbike George his. I'd first met him when we'd dived the Blue Hole in Belize together. It was a disappointing dive, but a good day out. Besides, I made a pretty good mate out of it...so it wasn't all bad.

George is a Greek native, and has worked in the City of London for some time. He's probably one of those bastards responsible for the economic downturn...but if he is, he isn't letting on. He packedall that in in favour of a trip of a lifetime on a BMW 1200 motorbike he bought in Mexico. He's likely going to make it all the way to Patagonia, then get a boat to South Africa and work his way back to Europe and home. Now that is what I call a trip.

We'd followed the same route from Belize into Guatemala, George often a day behind. We traversed a river by ferry together: myself, Kneehead and The Bognorsin a sweaty minibus, George disappearing in a cloud of dusty freedom on the far bank. I could only watch green-eyed as he vanished over the horizon.

I've met a fair few bikers over the course of this trip, and indeed over the course of my last visit to the Americas. Stefano rates his best trip so far as being aboard a BSA across India. You can't match that freedom in a bus. If you shout to the driver "Hey...where does that road go?" as you pass an inviting, tree-lined stretch from a main road, he'll only think you mental. On a bike, you'd be braking and cutting off down it to investigate. I'm going to have to do it myself one of these days, and a short time on the road with George only reinforced that.

We left Suchitoto in the morning and took a back road uphill to another village, a route even the buses don't follow. This is where you really see the country and the people. Circumnavigating the lake, we enjoyed the valley from all possible vistas as we climbed higher on this winding dirt road. Cattle cooled off in the rivers; locals waved; screaming kids chased us as we passed through tiny villages; nervous dogs barked and ran us off their territory, slowing once satisfied we'd been shown who was boss.

Security is an issue with a bike. You're certainly a target on $15K's worth of shiny mechanical wonder in the middle of nowhere; particularly in places like Colombia and Brasil. You need to find hostels with somewhere to get the bike out of sight overnight, too. We'd been through one small puebleo and asked directions, only to find we had a tail a few miles out of the town. Two men on a smaller bike, the pillion hunched behind the rider. I didn't say anything, but saw George double-take in the mirror and accelerate a little. Was he thinking what I was thinking? I'm a nervous enough pillion passenger as it is, so I didn't want to voice my fears and have George put his foot down on these dodgy roads; I'd already seen how cars, buses and trucks could take a racing line in the oncoming lane, drifting over onto our side without a thought for us and our fragility. On the straights, we outpaced the duo. But on the bends, they started catching up. Closer. Closer still. I kept turning around nervously. The passenger was still crouching behind the rider, and he was eyeing me as they began to draw level. What was he holding out of sight? A gun? I pictured them alongside us, an arm with pistol outstretched as they forced us to pull over. They were right next to us now, and the pillion shifted his weight a little as we approached a bend. Shit...he's got a...he's...he's got...a chicken? I had to chuckle at my paranoia as they passed us and the passenger gave me the thumbs-up as he checked the bike out. I smiled and returned it. The chicken just looked at me, nonplussed. We started racing each other for a while, taking turns to recklessly overtake...and he waved again as they took a side-road and disappeared.

We hit the Panamerican Highway and headed east, myself navigating from the folded-up map stuffed inside my hooded top. The wind buffeted me as George accelerated, the road slightly better here. Trees zipped past, and I reflected on how my body would be smashed against one should one of these potholes prove too much for my friend's skill. But I started to relax, and George said he could feel this. I enjoyed the view, nerves disappearing. El Salvador has 18 volcanoes, and I could see four from my vantage point...the scenery was incredible.
I'd done my research on the region we were roaring towards, and George was quite happy to follow my itinerary as he hadn't read up on it. He's a lazy bugger, couldn't even be arsed getting up for the sunrise at Tikal. So we headed for the town of Alegría via Berlin. Here is where the beauty of bike travel really hits home; as we rode around the town square, surveying the groups of suspicious-looking locals with eyes glued to the bike, George tossed over his shoulder "What a shithole!" I laughed and pointed the way out of town. Alegría it was, then...a far more pleasant town of gorgeously-painted murals. Had I been on a bus, I'd have been stuck in Berlin an hour or two, with possible unwanted attention. We were lucky it was a Sunday in Alegría, though...the square was packed with diners; a small band played traditional music as we ate. The next morning the place was dead...not a soul around. So we mounted up, and cleared out...no waiting for public transport.

On the way out we visited a volcanic crater lake, described by the Lonely Paranoid as beautiful, and a great place to swim. It was neither. Underwhelmed after a circuit of it on the bike, we headed for the road out of town. Our next destination was the Morazán province, scene of the heaviest fighting, and the worst atrocities of the civil war.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Pot Luck

THE BUS WAS jam-packed heading through San Salvador's main streets; heat-shimmer on the blistering tarmac; sweating locals navigating the cracked, hole-strewn pavements and avoiding the gaping manholes, covers nowhere to be seen. If you don't look where you're going in Salvador, it could literally be your downfall. I was keeping my eye out for the the Occidente terminal which serves destinations east of the capital. More and more people crowded onto the 7A bus, the aisle now two people deep. My hair was soaked, sweat trickling into my eyes and stinging as I gauged where I was on the map. So far so good. A couple of yellow buses up ahead at a gas station were marked Suchitoto: I was close. We meandered through traffic and the endless blaring of horns. I still couldn't see the terminal, as we rounded a junction and headed down a highway hill. Coming up the other side, we hit another dense metropolitan sprawl of burger joints, roadside stalls and crowds of people. The signs said Soyopango Centro. Soyopango? Shit. Gangland Central, in other words. I started to sweat even more as we turned left into a side road of markets; several people looking up at me with curiosity, others with mild hostility. This was not good. I asked a man stood in the aisle if we were near the terminal. I couldn't decipher his answer, aside from understanding that it was in the negative...it's amazing how a bit of fear scrambles your comprehension of Spanish. He intimated that I had to get off and pointed in the general direction I was to go. I apologetically climbed over the old woman I was sat next to, and scrambled to the back of the bus as it picked up speed. I'd memorised the way we'd come from the highway. As the bus slowed in traffic, I'd barged my way to the rear door and jumped. Cutting through the cars, I avoided the groups of youths hanging out on the corners, and tried not to look like a hunted animal, despite feeling precisely like one. A man across the street shouted something to me and looked for a gap to cross and approach me. I quickened the pace, shouldering my bag...painfully aware that, despite travelling light, all my valuables were in it. As I walked across the next junction, a small battered bus swung around a bend, the magical word Occidente across the top of the windscreen. The lights changed to green, but I waved at the driver as I ran in front of it, gratefully boarded and sat back in relief as Soyopango disappeared in the rearview mirror.

The terminal was a dump. The bus for Suchitoto wasn't ready to leave, and I sat in the dust on top of my bag as I waited. I'd asked a few drivers stood around which one left next, and they'd directed to me to an empty one. The one next to it was filling up, and I jumped on that one, instead. They stood and watched, laughing amongst themselves...having a bit of fun with the gringo, no doubt. Still jittery after my trip to Soyopango, the joke was wasted on me. Just wanted the bus to get moving and leave this squalid place behind.

I rarely time it so that I arrive in a new place after dark, as it makes me a little uncomfortable. But Suchitoto is a delightful little pueblo. The cobbled main square is flanked by delicate trees, the white iglesia a pretty focal point. Small cafes and shops are dotted around. It's rather like a smaller Antigua de Guatemala, with far less tourists. The streets are quiet and clean, pastel-painted, most stencilled with a blackbird and a message decrying violence against women. Locals sit on their steps at all hours of the day, whiling away life. Strolls around town are pleasant, momentary shelter from the sun gained under manicured trees. Things move too slowly to even be called lazy. You could while away some of your own life here.

Laying in a hammock translating some Truman Capote from Spanish, I was admiring the view of the valley and the lake when two fellows came into the tiny garden. We exchanged Hellos. They were Mexican, and one of them was about to start puffing on a chillum. "Que fumas?" I asked, smiling. "Hashish...quieres?" "Claro que si" I said gratefully as he passed it over. We smoked awhile. The lads, Andreas and Emiliano, are both animators from Mexico City. As they were heading down to the lake, I tagged along; the afternoon was pleasant, and we rounded it off with a few beers. They told me that they were heading all the way to Argentina if possible, but would be around in Mexico when I headed back up. It'll be good to have a couple of guides, particularly as they live in the Mexican equivalent of East London: lots of cool bars and bohemian hangouts. I offered to teach Emi to dive if we cross paths; they mentioned that they'd possibly leave their car in Panama if I fancied driving it back up to Mexico? Sounded like a good idea in principle, but in reality I'd be a target for every corrupt bastard on the route up. And it's a long way.

We had a Belgian of my age at our guesthouse, and he came along for a drink one night. His topics of conversation varied, and he always came back to Poverty. And if the Mexicans spoke to him in English, for my benefit, he'd always answer in Spanish. He stayed out while we headed back for beers in our ramshackle garden, and a smoke. "Belgians are weird" decided Andreas, exhaling a cloud of brown smoke. I laughed and agreed. I certainly met a few rare ones in Asia; the best one in the Philippines on a diveboat, who'd loudly declared "I have fought a man in every country I have visited" and bellowed with laughter. Judging by his 50-year old, muscled frame and scarred, weathered face, you believed him. He looked every inch the brawling seaman.

Suchi is definitely on the touristy side, and Apple Mac laptops were in abundance around the square in the mornings. What kind of fool travels with a $2000 laptop? Insane if you ask me. My tiny Acer cost me $300 and, even if it was stolen tomorrow, I'd have paid that by now in web cafe fees. A 15" MacBook Pro getting lifted, on the other hand, would be no laughing matter. I was translating the newspaper one morning, over a cup of coffee. A woman with the naffest, hairiest little dog imaginable was shouting into her Mac's screen on the next table.

"Heeeeeey...how you doing?"
I was fine thirty seconds ago.
"I'm in Suchitoto. Suchitito. No...no. S-U-C-H-I-T-O-T-O. El Salvador.EL. SALVADOR. I can't hear you very well...I sure wish I had headphones."
You and me both.
Hopefully your Skype credit is low?
She fed the little dog, which had climbed from her lap onto the table, a piece of meat from her fork.
"Rene is here...say Hi, everyone..."
Rene, understandably, seemed more interested in the meat.
"Oh yeah...yeah...she's having a great time. I'm just updating her blog."
Sounds like a must-read? I think I'd rather read John Grisham's back-catalogue in one sitting. Could be interesting if the dog writes about its solo travels in Korea, though?
"I'll upload some of her pictures to her Facebook...I have some of her in front of all the sights."
This woman was clearly deranged. I suddenly remembered my iPod in my pocket. But playing loud techno to drown out deranged nonsense is not conducive to comprehending Spanish. I left.

There was no respite back at the guesthouse. A scruffy Czech had been there for a few days and was sat at the small table under the shelter facing the lake. He was making a distracting scratching noise. I looked up from my books to see him rolling handfuls of hair between his hands, trying to help them form dreddlocks. Spare me.

He turned and spoke. "Have you got a Nokia smartphone?"
Bizarre opening. "No, mate...why?"
"It's just that I logged into Foursquare, and there is another user nearby..."
"Why would you use an app designed for cities in a remote Salvadorean town?"
"It would be interesting to meet other users here."
"Oh. Good luck finding the other user here."
I noticed he was wearing a Ramones tee-shirt, and couldn't resist.
"So...who's your favourite Ramone?"
"Ah" he paused "I kind of like them all equally. I don't have a favourite."
I doubt you have their records, either.
"So what are you doing in Suchitoto?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Just relaxing, learning a little Spanish. You?"
"I'm looking for peace."
"Well...I hear the war's been over for years, mate."
"No...I mean I want to get into another state" he insisted.
"Get yourself down to the bars tonight, we'll be getting into a right old state" I told him.
"No...like meditation and stuff."
Straight over his head.

The Mexicans departed for Honduras. I was pondering my next move when Motorbike George, the Greek I'd met diving in Belize and had spent some time with in Guatemala, mailed to say he was on his way. Over a few beers, he told me he had no concrete plans in El Salvador, besides heading South. I told him I was travelling light, and he suggested I jump on the back of the bike. I didn't need asking twice.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

¡Barato!

ON THE ROAD you constantly hear fellow backpackers comparing the costs of living in various countries; prices of street food, hostels and the like. I too have a budget. I go over it occasionally, but can balance it out by having a day or two where I'm doing nothing: staying in to read, learn more Spanish or write this blurb. I'll just deny myself a night or two on the tiles if I've treated myself to a day of diving. What I refuse to do is travel for longer at the expense of the local people, whether that's a low-paid trek guide or a waitress in a cafe. Their employers may be getting them cheap, but this doesn't mean you should follow suit. So this means helping people out with a dollar or two where you can. A small amount of cash for good service you receive is not a high price to pay. Make someone's day: give them a bit extra. People here can feed their family for a day on what you or I would spend on beer in an evening. So it gets on my nerves when people refuse to tip, or try to haggle someone down to the bare minimum they can accept on an item or service and still turn a measly profit, before bragging to others about their negotiating skills. I'd ask those people to put themselves in the place of the people they are dealing with. How would you feel if someone with more available money than you could earn in ten years turned up and spent ten minutes trying to knock you down a dollar or two? I'll tell you how I would feel: I would depise them. I've seen the looks on people's faces when dealing with foreigners who are adamant they'll fight for the best possible deal. It's not a case of haggling, as they'll give you a gringo price initially, but offer them 3/4 of this and they'll give it to you...haggling is expected. In some countries, they respect you more for it. But starting negotiaiting at a quarter of the price is just downright rude, in my book. Saving yourself the price of a sandwich each day back home is a tasteless victory.

I've met people who are travelling on a much tighter budget than myself. Others with far more to spend. Personally, if service is not included on something then I'll give 10%, and more if the service has been really good. Speaking better Spanish has been useful in this respect; when using a tourist shuttle between cities or countries, I'll chat with the drivers...ask about their families, how many days of work they get a week, and whether or not they own the vehicle, or drive it for a firm. I've met some really nice drivers, and they've helped me with my Spanish. So if I've had a pleasant chat at the end of an journey, I don't consider it a bind to give a man a dollar for a beer as he's passing my bag down from the roof. I don't see enough people doing it. A smile and a gracias is worth a dollar of anyone's money when you've been looked after. Never forget that you are an ambassador for your country. I've talked to locals in many countries about various nationalities of backpacker; they have an opinion on each one, dependant on their experience of them. If you make time to speak to people, pay them what their service is worth, then you are smoothing the way for your fellow countrymen in the future.

I've had moments of mortal embarrassment when people I've met randomly on the road and eaten with have exclaimed "Oh...they've put 10% service on?" when the bill has arrived, and their share is a dollar over what they'd pulled out of their purses. Calculators come out, the proprietors frown as they wrongly think they are suspected of pulling a fast one. It's unpleasant. Other travellers write a budget diary, itemising to the last cent exactly what they have spent. This is no way to travel, for me. If I have a week less on a trip because I've given people their due in tips along the way, then so be it. When you're back home after travelling, spending $100 on a night out with friends, these people are still here trying to make ends meet.

The Israeli guy in Tacuba made my blood boil. He waxed lyrical about his favourite spot in Central America.
"Guatemala is so good...a great country. Better than El Salvador, for me."
"I liked it, too...lots of sights. But El Salvador has far less tourists, and the people are friendlier" I replied.
"Yes, but in Guatemala you can get a dorm for $3, a meal for $2 on the street...an amazing country..."
"Is that your definition of an amazing country, then? How cheap it is? Not how exciting it is to travel, or how stunning the scenery is?" I spat. "What about the people...did you like them?"

I didn't need to ask whether the people liked him...I saw the look on the old lady's face sour when she saw he'd left a ten cent coin after we'd eaten lunch on our return from the waterfall trek. The food was cheap enough, and tasty, so myself and James left a dollar each. They ran for a bus as I finished; as the lady cleared our table, she picked up the dollars...the dime was left where it was. She looked at me and I shrugged, pointing to where the tight bastard had been sat. She snorted, then laughed as I raised a forearm and slapped the elbow with the palm of my right hand. "Barato!" she agreed. Cheap.

I had a favourite breakfast place in El Tunco. Guacamole with coriander, beans and rice with fried plantain...washed down with a massive orange juice. Wasn't on the menu, I just told the waiter exactly what I wanted. And it was delicious. On leaving the first time, he said I owed $3. I told him I'd had orange juice, too...but he told me it was included. Figuring the meal was worth more, I gave him $4. He grinned. I ate there at least once a day, and was always greeted with a "Senor!" and a handshake. I was served pretty damn quick, too. Look after people, and they will look after you.

In Tacuba I'd met a couple at the opposite end of the spectrum to these spendthrifts. Two Canadians: Gary the bug-collector and his wife Maryanne. Bug Boy was out day and night collecting ugly specimens with his net, while his wife was content to take it easy around the hostel. They were quite reserved when I first arrived, but I later realised that they are content to see who they gravitate to, and vice versa. As it turns out, in the current crop it was myself and a Basque fellow named Nacho. We were all very similar in outlook, and got on very well. The Canadians were two of the most selfless people I've ever met. They don't have children of their own, but have brought up their niece and nephew after a series of tragic events in the family. Gary paints murals in the town in his spare time, Maryanne looks for volunteer work, and donates money and supplies to the local school. (I was due to leave from San Salvador to head for Nicaragua a few weeks later, and the couple generously donated one of the nights they have stored up at the Marriott so I could spend a night in luxury. If you're reading, Maryanne...thanks, it was heaven in a bed.) What goes around certainly comes around.

I was heading for Suchitoto that morning, but was hanging on for the party to arrive from the beach. Maryanne was in agreement that there would be some fallout as regards the women on the trip. I was told that a girl had turned up a couple of weeks back, after a fling with Manolo. Thinking there was something special between them, she'd arrived back to surprise him in a big romantic gesture...only to get a severely frosty shoulder in return. Oh dear...some people move on quickly, don't they? I couldn't wait any longer, despite the comedy potential, as I had a long journey ahead. So I sought the quiet local woman who'd been working each day at the hostel, and found her washing up. I thanked her for all her help, and gave her a $5 bill. She looked shocked, and accepted it in quiet embarrassment, saying "For me..?". I smiled. "Si." She recovered a little as I picked up my bag and went to leave the kitchen, thanked me and wished me a good trip. Sitting with Maryanne, I relayed what had just happened. "Good for you" she said "that lady earns $5 a day, for 12 hours. I gave her five myself this morning." I'm sure that $10 made a big difference to her family that week, and that makes me feel good...and less guilty for being a comparatively rich man in a poor environment.

So put your hand in your pocket. So what if you spend a few more dollars a day? Make somebody smile and oil the wheels for the next traveller passing through. Besides, you don't want a frowning, disgruntled Latino vigourously slapping his elbow as you leave the premises, do you?