Saturday, 26 November 2011

Message In A Bottle

I DROPPED MY pack on the sandy road, and wiped the sweat from my eyes with my shoulder. The damp back of my tee-shirt clung to me in the afternoon heat. "How much?" I asked again in surprise. The big Mexican in front of the taco shop repeated the price of the rooms at his friend's place: $25 a night. And allegedly I wouldn't find cheaper. This place was going to rinse me out by the looks of things. I thanked him and said I'd take a look. I crossed the street on his directions and found the small hotel. A tall, scrawny American in his late 60s owned the place. His name was Dave. And he reeked of booze. I had to take a subtle step backwards when he spoke, for fear of being knocked out. His pale, watery blue eyes were streaked with red, and his hands shook as he looked for the keys to the room. The room was OK, but nothing special considering it was more than twice what I'd normally expect to pay. While we talked the price over, an older woman behind Dave came out of another room, and was waving at me as if to say No. He saw me frowning over his shoulder, and he turned to look at her. I told him I'd take a look around, and headed down the stairs. She followed me out. In the street she asked me what price I'd been quoted, and where else I was thinking of looking? Dave made her feel uneasy. I told her there were a couple of listed hostels, and I was about to look for them. She said she preferred a hotel, and said she'd see me around.

Sayulita is a small beach-fronted pueblito North of Puerto Vallarta's huge bay, in the state of Nayarit. I arrived mid-afternoon, the centre quiet, with most people on or around the beach. There are more holidaymakers than backpackers here, and I drew a few stares walking around town bearing my load. I tried the two hostels in the Lonely Paranoid. The first was locked up and a manky, growling dog guarded the door, seemingly keen on a piece of white man's leg for an afternoon snack. Dogs normally love me, sensing a fellow simple being I suppose, but dogs in México don't. One had gone for me as I'd walked home in Vallarta a couple of nights previously, lunging out of the darkness and scaring the shit out of me. According the two women outside the shop next door the place was open, the owner out of town on holiday. The two Méxican lads she'd left in charge had obviously decided to take a holiday, too? The second place was deserted, the rooms wide open and dead leaves on the floor. If I didn't have valuables with me, I'd have squatted. As it was, it was looking like Drunken Dave's Hotel Borracho.

Keen for the business, he dropped the room to $20. I noticed that the older woman had come back, too. Nothing much available in town on a budget, it seemed. I headed back to the taco place, and got chatting to JT, the Méxicano who'd directed me to Dave's. The shrimp tacos he'd promised me went far beyond expectations...they were excellent. He filled me in on Dave. The guy had been here years, and was leasing the hotel. All his money went on alcohol, and his wife had just left him. Sounded like the booze-soaked tale of many an ex-pat. Their day revolves around that first drink. I've seen this a lot on my travels: ex-pats drinking too much for lack of something to do, and then sitting around bitching about each other. Paradise looks different through the bottom of a bottle.

I took a look around town, and a nice little town it is. The tiny square is colourful and spotless, shaded by several trees. Coffee shops and restaurants surround it, and two blocks of houses and shops away is the beach. Gentle surf sees a lot of trainee 'boarders, and judging by the number of families on the beach, it's a popular holiday destination. Nothing exciting, but a good place to relax for a while. I'd get my tan back and catch up on some reading and writing.

At Hotel Borracho that evening, I was to be treated to the car-crash spectacle of Drunken Dave and his ex-spouse at war. The hotel was single-storey and featured six rooms around an open space with a balcony. A few friends of Dave's turned up, with the woman I later found to be his wife, and they populated the balcony. The drinking got heavier, I was writing and having a quiet couple of drinks. It got more and more raucous. The older woman, a New Yorker named Rachel, came out of her room around aghast. She said she'd been assured that this was a quiet place to stay. Wanted to know if it was going to continue late? I shrugged. How should I know? I turned in a short while later, leaving the drunk couple alone. The friends had left when they started bickering over their failed marriage. The conversation took a turn for the worse, and it soon became clear that I wouldn't be getting much sleep. I could hear everything through the door.

"Look at you" she hissed. "Look...at...you."
"What?" he mumbled.
"You fucking drunk. You're a drunk. Fucking drunk. Drunk. Fucker."
I opened my eyes.
Dave told her that she was free to go, as she didn't live there.
"I've seen you puke blood. Fucker...I've seen you shit blood" she slurred.
"You bitch. I should never have married you..." he replied.
"You're an alcoholic, Dave...just look at yourself...you fucking mess..."
"...fucking bitch..."
"You're going to die..." she sang, mockingly "and I'm going to watch you die, Dave..."
"So are you...look at you, you're fucking anorexic. You skinny bitch..."
"You're going to die, Dave..." the harridan said, mock-soothingly.
"Fuck you, too. Fucking bitch. Get out of here."
"...shitting and puking blood, on the floor...and I'm going to watch."
This had gone far enough. In fact, it had gone beyond anything I've ever heard in my life.

I left my room and walked out to the balcony. The emaciated witch dropped a glass on the floor, and shoved the broken pieces to one side with her foot. Neither made a move to clear it up. Several empty bottles littered the table. It took a full minute before Dave turned, bleary-eyed towards me.

"Everything OK?" he slurred.
"Not really, Dave. In fact, I'd say I'm pretty far from OK right now."
"Were we disturbing you? Oh I'm sorry...we'll try and keep it down."
I was disturbed, alright.
"For a start, you're keeping everyone awake...and this is your hotel" His wife turned to regard me. "And it's not really my business, but I have to say that if I heard my parents speak to each other in the way you two have been doing, I would be mortified. I've never heard anything so spiteful." She apologised. Dave meekly apologised again. I suggested they should sort their differences out with a clear head in the morning, and retired to my room. No wonder their kids never visit, according to JT?

"Dead, Dave. In your own...fucking...blood. And I can't wait. I'm going to watch you die, Dave...do you know that? Watch you. Die."
"Fuck you. You'll die, too...I'll kill you, you bitch..."
She laughed shrilly. I heard chairs overturn, the scrape of metal table-legs on tile, an ashtray hit the floor with a crash; I jumped up out of bed. JT was out of his room, picking up chairs. Rachel had come out of her room, too. A drunken friend of Dave's emerged from his, and tried to placate me as I remonstrated with the drunken pair. This place was like Fawlty Towers, but with violence, booze and little humour. I was off in the morning, no doubt about that.

His wife got up to leave. It was 2am. She apologised to me, and said it had been nice to meet me. Eh? She held out her hand, which I pointedly ignored. She staggered away down the stairs, muttering spite, and Dave slumped in his chair. "Sorry about that...it won't happen again." I told him that wasn't good enough, but that in my opinion he was much better off without that hateful wretch in his life. And then went back to bed.

Morning saw me leaving with a bad back from the lumpy bed, and a partial refund from Dave; he'd likely spent the rest on last night's jolly knees-up. I'd been on the verge of leaving, but had found a shabby hostal-in-progress run by a grumpy Chileño and a young Méxicano named Victor. Between these fellows and an Alaskan nicknamed Hollywood who frequented the place, my mind was changed about departing: a few days on the beach would do me good, and this lot liked a smoke. Though the moody Chileño liked smoking ours, and then rolling his own in the bathroom. Not very sociable. But Victor was great to be around, and took me to several good bars. Hollywood and I got on like a house on fire; he reminded of a slim Ray Winstone, and had a few good L.A. tales from his days of working there as an editor, hence his nickname. A solid drinking partner.

The days drifted by. Sun. Books. Beers. Smokes. I met a few more ex-pats as the week went on. Two women, one in her late 40s and the other a blonde Canadian in her early 20s, seemed a permanent fixture on the party scene. The older one was attractive, but it looked like years of hard-drinking were taking the edge off her looks. The younger one had introduced herself as they were walking by our table one night. Nice figure, but her mouth was surrounded by small spots and sores. Not my type. When she'd given me the eye and moved on, Hollywood leaned over and said "Stay away from that one...meth-head." She certainly looked it. I encountered these two with another woman late one night in a local bar a few blocks from the beach. A group of people outside Hotel Borracho warned me not to go in, as it was full of dodgy Méxicans, and the scene of constant trouble. Red rag to this bull: in I went. The place wasn't packed, but the pair were there with another friend. Soon drunk, myself and Hollywood were dancing with them. The older one leaned into me as the third one was writhing up behind me, groping me. "I think she wants you" she slurred, breathing potent rum fumes in my face. The spotty one was slyly grinning at me across the dancefloor. "Well" I said "you can't always get what you want." She looked a little puzzled as I extricated myself and escaped their clutches. I had a suspicion they'd probably been through most of the men in this town, and weren't used to being turned down.

I found myself chatting to the owner of the bar later, a gorgeous 44-year-old. She looked 30 if a day. We got on, and in my drunken stupor I started thinking that maybe I should stick around in Sayulita for a while longer? A few more tequilas and I decided Yes, that's exactly what I'll do...this place isn't so bad after all. Reckon I could live here etc etc. I even had a few dances more with the gruesome gropers. I might even have groped them back, I can't remember? It was a very messy night with a late finish.

Next morning I awoke with a sawdust mouth, but thankfully it was my own ceiling I saw when I first opened my eyes. The Australian lad, Julian, who'd turned up the night previously, was packing his bags. He'd offered me a lift to Guadalajara, but last night in the bar I'd been keen to stay on instead. I recalled the details of my late-night conversation with the latina: divorced, two twenty-something kids, jealous ex-husband in the town, and tied to the place by a dodgy bar. Hmmm. I stirred, and Julian looked over. "That lift still on, mate?" I asked. He nodded "Let's get the fuck out of here."

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Bridge Too Far

THE ROAD CUT through dense swathes of palm trees and vegetation, shadows and silhouettes swaying in the darkness. The bus shuddered over the potholed tarmac towards the coast and our destination of Puerto Vallarta. Dawn saw me in a taxi, flying along the highway bisecting the city. The overnight journey had taken its toll, and I rubbed my sore eyes wearily and cast doubtful glances at the rows of high-rise hotels drifting past my open window; the fresh salty air pleasantly stinging my nostrils as the the populace awoke for another day beneath a blistering sun.

I'd headed up here from DF after hearing about a upcoming postion for an instructor at one of the shops. Having had quite enough of towns and cities for now, I was aching for boats, beaches and sharks. It had been almost two full months since my last immersion on Utila in Honduras, and for a dive addict, that is a hell of a long time. My taxi driver was a chatty fellow, and we talked about the town. He told me that he had a nice room to rent long-term if my hostel wasn't comfortable enough? He gave me his number. I dumped my bags at the door to the hostel, grabbed a milkshake from a lady in the street and waited for them to open up. It was still very early.

I paid for three nights up front, thinking that this would give me plenty of time to speak to the dive shop, find my feet and decide where I was going to live. Stomach growling, I headed downhill into the pueblo around the river's mouth, the sea visible ahead of me. The place had a nice atmosphere, the cobbled road leading alongside the river and through narrow streets towards a small plaza. Many food stalls and local stores had cheery owners sat outside shooting the breeze with passers-by; I stopped and ordered shrimp ceviche on tostadas from one of them, and a fresh orange-and-carrot juice from the elderly lady next door. I like to share my money around a little. And the little old lady was very funny, squeezing oranges with an old mechanical juicer...pointing out her toned biceps while she worked, after I'd pointed out that she didn't need a gym with that kind of work to do.

Belly appeased, I set off walking again. I liked the atmosphere of the place, and saw a couple of potential homes with Se Renta painted on them. Towards the beachfront things got a little too glitzy for my liking, but then Vallarta is a large resort. Hopefully I'd be able to avoid most of this in my day-to-day routine. Then I reached the bridges across the river. They may as well have been the gates of Hell.

The cute old town ended immediately at the bridge. On the other side the shiny developments, bars and restaurants started. Starbucks. Two of the horrific Señor Frogs chain of bars...the true Méxican experience, no? This was like being back in Cancún. My heart sank to my flip-flops as a beaming local hailed me from a shop doorway "Hey, buddy...how are you liking your vacation?" As of thirty minutes ago, I'm hating it, thanks for asking. I continued on, gazing at the upmarket shops and restaurants as I walked down the Malecón, the pedestrianised seafront. It depressed me. Ancient tourists in sandals and white socks, slathered in sunblock, ambled along the front and hung out in front of the bars with their frozen cocktails. Three days. Three bloody days here? Did I learn nothing from the Taxco experience? Apparently not. I sat chiding myself for being so stupid, especially as I recalled the prominent No Refunds At All sign behind the desk at the hostal. Jesus. So the internal debate was: do I just bin two nights accommodation in favour of not wasting 2-3 days of my remaining time? Tough call.

I got halfway down the Marina and stopped dead in my tracks; turned around and walked back to the main road and hailed a bus back to the hostal. I'd email the shop from there and tell them Thanks, But No Thanks. Why waste time walking over there when I'd clearly made up my mind? Even if the diving was outstanding, which the Méxican Pacific isn't, there was no way on earth that I could live in this tourist hellhole. I'd sooner live in Mogadishu. Honestly.

I awoke from a nap to find a short, shaven-headed Canadian fella a little older than myself rolling a joint, cross-legged on the dormitory floor. His name was Karl. He told me he'd just arrived, but had lived here previously. "Man, it's changed around here. When I was here fifteen years ago, this road was never even here...just trees. I just bought some tacos for 60 pesos. They were 20 when I was here before. Maaaan...I lived on the edge of the jungle up there..." he indicated a forested ridge above us "...just me and my girl. Hardly any Westerners here...I just spoke Spanish all the time, man. Learned it in two months. Everything's different now." He passed the joint. He filled me in on the area and his experiences...all good and interesting so far.

We chatted some more about his plans to get further North up the coast, to find some less-populated areas and beaches. Sayulita was on his list, as well as mine. "Man, Sayuita's probably changed, too. I was there fifteen years ago..." After a couple of hours Karl went from someone who could have made the three days bearable to a painful stuck record. Stuck fifteen years in the past. I'd quickly realised Karl's angle before he spelled it out "Man...you should have been here fifteen years ago...everything was better. You've missed it...you're too late." Karl is a I Was Here First And Everything Is Rubbish Now merchant. These types become tedious pretty quickly.

"Thanks, Karl...I'm sure there are still some places worth visiting... México hasn't died just because one place gets the taste for tourists?"
"No...sure. I'm just telling you like it was, man. Fifteen years ago..."
You get the picture.

He accompanied me out to get an afternoon coffee. I had to keep stopping to let him catch up. I'd estimate his pace at a mere 2km/hr.
"Karl...can't you walk any faster?"
"Maaan..." he grinned, stoned out of his mind behind his sunglasses.
"Man nothing...get a bloody move on...coffee'll be out of fashion by the time you get there."
"Maaan...you need to get your Méxican groove on...slow down, man. I got my Méxican groove down..."
I wanted my coffee. Not my Méxican groove.
"I'm not even walking that fast, Karl?"
My London pace gets left at Heathrow airport. Well...mostly.
"Just speed up a little, Karl...look..." I indicated the abuelita passing him "even little old ladies are overtaking you."
He was nonplussed, a big, beatific grin on his face.
"What's the rush, maaan? We're just walking..?"
"Yes, but walking is a method of getting somewhere in order to do something else...like sit and drink coffee?"
"Yeah, man...but..."
But bloody nothing.
"Tell you what, mate...meet you there?"
I needed a coffee some time that afternoon...not the weekend after next.

I visited the beach at Boca the next day, a half-hour bus ride South. It was a better vibe here, the tourists being Méxicanos rather than Western. Sat on the beach all day and read my book, then had a walk upriver and chatted to a few locals. A nice day out. It broke up my time in Vallarta nicely, too. I'd spent all my time in the old part of town anyway, refusing to cross the dreaded bridge ever again. The dive shop didn't reply to my apologetic email about the vacancy. No great loss...I'll never be back.

I'd packed the night previously, and headed out for my final shrimp ceviche tostadas and orange juice. It was midmorning, and the burly ceviche vendor was already on the ale. We'd chatted a lot the last few days, and he offered me some beer and grass, if only I'd hang out at the stall with him and his friends. As enticing an offer as that was, his compadres were a great bunch, I had to escape this town. Getting back to the hostal to grab my bags, I bumped into Karl on the stairs. He asked me how I'd found Boca? I told him very relaxing and peaceful. "Maaan, I bet it's all changed since I was last there. I remember fifteen years back there wasn't even a road down that way. I could sure tell you some stories..."

I left.

Herbie Goes Bananas

TAXCO SHOULD BE picture-postcard perfect. A small pueblo, famous for its silver and jewellery, it sits on a hillside a few hours out of México DF by road. The silver mining industry is all but dead, and now tourism has taken over. I'd been quite excited about seeing the place, expecting to come away with a nice bespoke item after a relaxing weekend. As the bus rounded the curve and the valley came into view, Taxco shone brilliant white from the hillside it covered. I'd come with an Austrian architect named Karina whom I'd met at the hostel in DF, and she was as taken with the view as I was. We'd booked three nights in a hotel, there being no cheap hostel options in this town. We'd soon find out why.

The bus pulled into the tiny station, and we climbed uphill through the tight, pavement-free cobbled streets and into the centre. The place looked very pretty. As we approached the town plaza, I estimated we'd been passed by at least twenty white VW Beetles with numbered red circles on their doors. The noise of idling engines grew as we reached the square; a band of these taxis, two or three wide, snaked through the wide streets around it; all making for the exit at the far side, it being a one-way system due to the tight streets around town. Myself and Karina looked at each other "What the bloody hell is this?" I asked her. As we picked our way through the cars and asked directions to our hotel, she was voicing my fears "Maybe we should have just booked the one night?" Indeed. Too late now.

We found the entrance to the hotel and mounted the 157 steps to the reception. Karina counted them. These Austrians are almost as precise as the Germans? Our misgivings grew in magnitude as we got higher: dusty, long-unused tables and chairs with cobwebs all over them were randomly placed all over one terrace. Workmen were hammering away from within a tarpaulin-covered doorway next to the reception. I caught Karina's eye, and realised we were both thinking the same thing. The woman on duty showed us three rooms of a similar standard, but with differing shapes and furniture. We took the last one on the upper floor.

The room was grand. Or at least it probably was in the 40s. Indeed, from the state of the hotel in general, you'd have thought that visitors really were here last in 1940: Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe. And they were still cleaning up the mess. The bed looked big and comfortable, until Karina fell through the middle and realised that it was, in fact, two single beds pushed together: great. I took a look at the balcony. The view from the rusty wrought-iron chairs around the wobbly table was nice enough: if you ignored the weeds creeping from the cracks in the bricks and the dead leaves strewn all over the place. Karina emerged from the bathroom as I was re-fixing the guttering which hung down over the double doors from the room. "Look at the state of this" I said. I also pointed out the ancient roof tiles as stained and badly-set as a tramp's teeth. She grinned. "How is the bathroom?" I asked. "OK...but very old...and there doesn't seem to be any hot water." It just got better and better? I went and found the nightwatchman, an amiable old fellow named Carmelito, who informed me that we had to run the water for ten minutes before it got hot. So we were wasting almost a swimming pool of water before we could have a rinse in the shower? Must be some sort of Méxican eco-lodge. "Three days" I muttered. "Do you think they'll let us cancel one or two nights?" Karina asked me. I raised my eyebrows doubtfully. As we were likely the only guests here, I don't think a refund was on the cards. So...what the bloody hell were we going to do for three nights here?

After a first, thankfully very quiet and peaceful night atop the slope, we descended to check out the town. The burble of Beetle engines awaited us like a growling dog. Heading into the square through the mid-morning throng of white cars, we found a decent coffee and sat in the square with it. I spat half of mine out as a woman walked through the paved centre holding a small Polish flag aloft, a line of sandal-wearing, shuffling people twenty-strong behind her. Another group was less than five minutes in following. "Look" I said "a Japanese fellow with only two cameras. Travelling light." Karina laughed and bemoaned "A little bit touristy, isn't it?" How we laughed mirthlessly at our misfortune.

The smiles were well and truly wiped from our faces at lunch, when confronted with menu prices three times those of México DF. This was most definitely not a backpacker destination. Bad enough if the crappy food didn't add injury to the insult. When you're a captive audience people can charge whatever they like for any old rubbish, just like Picadilly in Central London. In fact, those shitty week-old slices of pizza you see under the hot displays in downmarket London takeaways are probably tastier and twice as nutritious as the one we had in Taxco's main plaza. "Oh it's not that bad" Karina scolded me. Compared to what, I thought...McDonald's? Eating wood?

Another day, another (thankfully) great coffee. This time the balcony overlooking the square was free, and we quickly took it. Below our vantage point was the entrance to said square, and we watched the line of traffic crawling through. For such a beautiful little town, it's a crying shame that there is, quite literally, not a moment's silence. We sat for an hour waiting for the traffic noise to die away to nothing, but there was always the growing metallic rattle of another approaching Beetle. "Is this a joke?" Karina asked me. If it was, it was definitely on us. Three days? Even the locals looked at us funny on Day Two...surprised we were still there, no doubt.

Depressingly, all the silver shops stocked the same mediocre shit; hardly the variety of Camden Market. Decent pieces were extremely thin on the ground. It was a little disappointing that there was only one independent workshop we could find. They had some nice stuff: for women. Ah well. More money saved to spend on diving, no? Or booze. At least Karina found something she liked. And I found her bargaining over 50 pesos (£2.50) quite amusing...it went on for a while before she caved in. I was amused, the shop owner less so. At least in that particular shop the staff weren't constantly on our heels making sure we weren't stealing anything; most followed us or positioned themselves so that they could see our hands at all times. I mean...there may be a slight Liverpool lilt to my Spanish, but I'm hardly going to start nicking everything that isn't nailed down? Feeling like a criminal while shopping isn't a comfortable experience, so we gave up after a while.

We took a walk around the hilly streets. This town's layout is truly crazy, a map wouldn't do you much good. The roads veer off uphill in scattered directions: it's all over the place. It has a certain charm, but the traffic killed it stone dead for us. After breakfast at the bend of a road, just above the square, we sat and watched the intricate mechanical ballet as taxis came from opposite directions and manoeuvered around each other in a dance of three-point-turns, engines revving noisily on the slopes. As the traffic snarled up the passage, I headed uphill and counted the VW Beetles in the jam: 15 of them. But the drivers don't get irate. No-one honks or shakes fists. In NYC or London I reckon someone would be beaten to death with a steering wheel. I took advantage of the fact that drivers were stood around chatting to ask how many taxis there were in Taxco. Over 300, apparently.

Having seen everything of the town in the first hour of the first day, we headed out to the Cascadas de Cacalotenango, less than an hour away by minibus. No drone of Beetles here as we jumped out of the colectivo bus. A short hike uphill in the quiet of the valley below us was pleasant in the midmorning heat. We passed a local with some delightful little cabañas to rent, and wished again that we weren't stuck at Hotel Decrepit. The tranquility here suited us far better. After a short conversation and a look around, we headed to the fall. Quickly changed after a wade across the stream, we were in the freezing cold water for barely a minute each dip. It was so cold that it made the head swim and vision blur. Climbing out across the rocks I looked over at Karina and mentally remarked that a pneumatic, blue-eyed Austrian blonde dripping water, nipples erect in a grey bikini and covered in goosebumps, looked a damn sight sexier than an overweight Englishman with wet shorts clinging to a manhood wisely retreating from the intense cold? Ah well. Can't win them all, old chap.

So we were glad to escape Taxco after the third night. I wouldn't say to avoid the place entirely, as it's pretty enough and certainly worth a visit. But if you're in México DF, get up early and see the place on a day trip. If you do happen to get stuck here overnight, be sure not to stay at Hotel Decrepit. And bring a packed lunch.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An Assault On The Senses

ARRIVING IN A large, unknown city can be an intimidating experience; I try to ensure that my arrival is in daylight. And they don't come much bigger, or apparently badder, than the megacity of Ciudad De México. The place has a negative reputation, little-deserved these days. Indeed, many locals are horrified when you tell them which parts of the city you have walked through without an armed guard. They tend to believe their own media, rather than see for themselves. Apparently as little as five years ago certain parts of the centre were no-go areas even for the police. And so I felt a little daunted on arrival, the endless barrios blurring by as the bus crept into the Centro Historico in the early morning. It was around 6am; I shouldered my dusty pack and headed off into the unknown, swallowed up by the streets. I decided to walk due to the fear of pirate taxis and express-kidnappings (the so-called Millionaire's Tour of ATMs at gunpoint in the back of a car). It was initially my intention to stay only for a few days, not knowing that I'd rapidly develop a strong affection for this impressive place. Its fearsome reputation would soon be dispelled.

My first impressions were good. Thankful for the coolness of the early morning air I picked my way through the side streets on my way to the Zócalo, the huge paved central plaza. I liked the atmosphere; I was reminded of my immediate love for Barcelona...it had a similar look and feel in places. Some buildings are in a state of disrepair, others immaculate and intricately tiled; cracked pavements, leafy avenues and cobblestone streets contribute to its atmosphere of a yesteryear Spanish city.

The Aztec capital was originally situated on an island amidst a huge lake when founded in 1325 A.D. and now commands this vast plain, surrounded by volcanoes and hills. From the Torre Latinoamericana in the heart of the central district the solid mass of streets and buildings spreads in every direction, toward all four horizons. It covers an incredible 1485 square kilometres. In the distance dense settlements encroach upon steep slopes above the conurbation, space is at a premium here. The four main arterial roads serving as the main points of entry cut the city into four pieces of concrete pie. The view from here is truly breathtaking.

The ancient lake of Texcoco has been completely drained since work began to expand the city in the 17th Century: miles of tunnels and canals run below thousands of streets, draining away water which continues to seep upwards from the clay bed. But this is causing problems, as buildings in various areas of México DF are slowly sinking: the cathedral in the Zócalo has dropped an incredible 9m since the beginning of this century, the ground floor is now the basement. In the early hours of each morning, crews can be heard draining the excess water into container trucks. Keeping the city flood-free and above ground level is a 24/7 job.

Pollution is a major problem. On some days it is impossible to see the hills and volcanoes from the centre for the filthy smog. And this aire mala is estimated to shorten the life of the average resident by 10 years. In 1991, the air was deemed a health hazard for 355 days of that year. I dread to think how the conditions would be if the city did not sit at an altitude 2240m above sea level. But several measures seem set to improve conditions. The subway system, built in 1968, is very cheap at 15 pence a journey, and carries 5 million passengers each day. Anyone who thinks that the rush hour on London's Tube is claustraphobic and stressful should really try this one. The Tube feels like a day out on the Orient Express by comparison. I've seen carriages jammed with people, and yet more literally bouncing into them from the platform in vain attempts to create a space. The transit authority has wisely created an area of the platform available only to women and children during the busier periods. It is savagery down there. As regards traffic, by law new cars need to be fitted with a catalytic converter, and LPG cars are becoming more popular. There is also a system called Hoy No Circula, whereby cars ending in a certain number are only allowed on the streets certain days of the week, in a bid to alleviate the problem. Hopefully these will begin to make a difference and improve the lives of this city's residents.

The other problem is the people: indeed, they're very nice...but they are everywhere. An estimated 21.2 million people populate the metropolitan area, 8.85 million of those souls in the Distrito Federal, or DF as the locals refer to it. In the municipality of Nezahualcóyotl, to the northeast of DF, it was recently reported in National Geographic that 17,537 people saturate a square kilometre. A staggering figure. Throw in the problems with narco-trafficking on top of the usual issues associated with over-population, and you have troubles. The article reported residents taking matters into their own hands and reclaiming the streets after various gruesome murders and drive-by shootings: they built their own concrete barriers to pedestrianise roads and create safe-havens from the gangs. If people stick together, these problems will gradually be overcome. I overheard one American bemoaning the danger and drug-war in this country, and its drain on US resources. The deadpan reply from his Mexican friend was a classic "Well if you gringos would stop buying cocaine..?"

On my first day in the city I walked solidly for almost six hours. I'd climbed the Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador, in a pair of Converse, but this trek gave me more blisters. I left the Centro Historico with its heaving streets and roar of traffic; the khaki-uniformed wurlitzer players with their caps on outstretched arms, a raucous, tuneless din emerging from their ancient instruments; the noisy farting of VW Beetle taxis in their gold and burgundy livery; hawkers plying their wares in the streets adding to the racket. This assault on the senses is incessant. It begins at 5am and tails off around 9pm. Your ears ring as it dies down and the city relaxes.

I reached the bohemian Colonia Roma, and this was where I began to toy with the possibility of living here. It's rough around the edges, beautiful and decrepit. Gorgeous old houses covered with climbing vines, shabby-chic bars and restaurants with an arty vibe. Both here and the more upmarket Condesa district are littered with coffee shops populated by Macbook-wielding drinkers. The two Méxicanos I'd befriended in El Salvador live here, and I could see why (incidentally Emi, the thin, handsome one pointed out some factual errors in this text, and told me to say that he was The Thin And Handsome one of the two...sorry, Wíro (who is cute in a Beardy And Cuddly way, girls...see the photo)). They have a network of fellow creative friends in this area; it's the design-centric barrio of México DF. All I need is my Mac laptop and my diving gear: I could design for London agencies for 6 months of the year and dive, write and travel the rest? Sounds rubbish. Something for me to ponder, anyway. As far as art and design goes, there is plenty of inspiration on tap here: the city boasts some 2000+ museums and galleries. I took in a few on the way to DF's biggest green space, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of work and tasteful curation on show.

Parque Chapultepec is an oasis of calm amongst the madness; once you penetrate deep enough to escape the sounds of traffic, that is. At its edge squirrels make forays between the groups of people, unabashedly searching for food. I had a couple scramble up my legs and dig about in the pockets of my jeans, and made a mental note to bring some nuts next time. Lose yourself in this vast park, and it's possible to forget that you're in one of the biggest cities in the Americas. Within its walls is the Museo De Caracol, showcasing a history of México and its people; outside the park is the famous Museo De Antropologia, a stunning building and collection of ancient artifacts charting the development of the human race on this vast continent. While here, I was lucky enough to catch the temporary exhibition of anthropolgical studies by JB Debret, a French exile to Brasil in the early 19th Century. His pencil drawings are stunning depictions of everyday life for the Portuguese colonials and their African slaves. I envied him his skills, having been pretty handy at sketching myself in younger days. The age of the Mac has put paid to those, but I've been inspired to pick up a pencil again. Though it's going to take a while...Rome wasn't drawn in a day.

I traversed the centro once more on my walk in the afternoon sun and stumbled across Calle Donceles. Being a bit of a bookworm, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this long avenue is populated almost solely by secondhand bookshops, stocking titles in English (and many other languages) as well as Spanish. As books in Spanish are very expensive in London, I stocked up on a few titles by García Márquez to study and improve my collection back home. As things look, I may be shipping them back to México within 12 months? Incidentally, I met an Australian who was carrying 41 books at last count, and was having to buy another bag to carry them home. I had to laugh, explaining to him that I had a strict Five Book Rule when travelling, as books aren't light. His library ensured that he was using México City as base...carrying those around would be impossible.

Physically shattered by my lengthy hike, I headed back to the Centro. Resting with a delicious, cheap coffee across the street from my hostal, I read a little in between the amusingly bad performance of those buskers who force unwanted music upon people enjoying a bit of peace and quiet with their coffee. At least the teams of Mariachis ask if you'd like them to play for you, whereas the buskers just start playing and you're obliged to endure it. There's a regular on Calle Regina for whom I have a soft spot, though: a middle-aged man who plays and sings (murders?) The Cranberries' Zombie every afternoon. He's so bad that he's good, as far as entertainment goes, and I tip him every time I see him. Unlike the mohicaned gimp screaming worthy revolutionary songs out of tune, while strumming a guitar which sounds like it hasn't been tuned since he bought it. My tip for him? Give up, mate...it's giving everyone a migraine.

A gentle breeze carried the stench of a long-unwashed body. No...not mine. I looked to my left and saw that a tramp had laid down on a nearby bench for a nap, barely ten yards from me. His less-than-delicate aroma was clearing tables in a rapid fashion, empty ones appearing around him. Customers fled to those upwind, wrinkling their noses and laughing. I quickly grabbed another before I became stuck where I was, and the afternoon continued. I caught the eye of a few locals who raised their eyebrows and smiled, rolling their eyes at the prone figure as if to say What can you do? I smiled back. You've got to love the Mexicans. People are so tolerant of each other here. Back in England the tramp would have been poked with a (long) stick and told to bugger off.

So I was happy to be here. Inspired. Excited. And feeling the butterflies and goosebumps usually associated with the beginning of a love affair. I couldn't wait to see more of México and felt that, at last, I may just have found my place.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A Mixed Bunch

MY HONDURAN AMIGA was flying to Arizona for a holiday, and had a stopover in Florida for a few days. She asked me if I'd like to join her? I'd only previously visited NYC as far as my Stateside jaunts go, and fancied seeing Miami. It was the location for Brian De Palma's 1980s epic gangster flick Scarface...and so naturally I wanted to visit South Beach.

It was also a good opportunity to see Americans in their natural habitat, so to speak. You can't judge the States on New York City, after all. I've encountered plenty of switched-on American backpackers on the road. And I've met some freaks. I'm not tarring all Yanks with the same brush, so don't be offended; I have several good friends from the other side of the Pond (you know who you are). Besides, we English have countrymen to embarrass us: our drunken football hooligans, white trash racists and ex-pats in Spain who speak only English, eat only English breakfasts and refer to the Spaniards as foreigners. Ahem.

I'd been in Mexico a few days, having travelled up from Guatemala with a brief stay in San Cristobal De Las Casas. Returning to the hostel one evening, I was buttonholed by a long-haired American of mixed race. He began quizzing me about the motorcyclist's gear in our dorm, and did it belong to me? Then whose is it? Where is he? He had only got to the city that evening and bemoaned his lack of marijuana opportunities. I told him he'd met the right man, and invited him to smoke awhile on the balcony upstairs. As is the way, destinations and length of trip were the primary threads of conversation. Then I asked him where he was from. Then I wished I hadn't.

"California, man."
"Whereabouts?"
"All over.You know..."
Do I?
"But where?" I asked.
"Everywhere..."
"But don't you remember which place you were born in?" Puzzled now.
"Weeeell...Santa Monica, I guess."
"You guess? Like sticking a pin on a map?"
"Uh-huh."
"Right." I frowned, took another drag and began wishing that I was smoking alone.
"And I'm from Panama."
I coughed a cloud of smoke "You what, mate..?"
"I partly grew up in Panama" he told me.
"Whereabouts?"
"All over."
Here we went again.

He asked me what I was doing in Mexico, and I told him I'd been backpacking and diving, glad of the change of subject. He went on to tell me he couldn't dive again, after a rocket had exploded near him in Iraq, damaging his ears. When he pointed out how close it had been, I struggled to contain my mirth: there was no way he'd have survived. Other half-baked tales came out which exposed the fact that the guy was, quite clearly, talking out his arse. The fella was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, no doubt; he was so vague about everything that I got the impression I had a stoned Walter Mitty on my hands. And I was bored already.

When he informed me that it was 9pm, I yawned theatrically and told him that I was off to bed, thinking this was my chance to escape. He said he'd turn in too, and took a bottom bunk next to mine.

"Bottom bunk, man" he said from beneath the blankets.
"Eh?" I asked.
"Bottom bunk...you know."
"Know what?"
"Bottom bunk."
"Bottom bunk what?" I almost groaned.
"Too long in the miltary...bottom bunk...you know..." he grinned knowingly.
"G'night."
Time for the earplugs. I can't half pick them, you know...I'm some sort of freak magnet.

As I was dropping off to sleep, movement made me open my eyes. He was there, this fellow (who I later nicknamed Syndrome, short for the Gulf War variety), hurriedly packing his rucksack.

"What are you doing?" I asked him.
"Getting out, man...big cities..."
"Eh?"
"Big cities what, exactly?" I was perplexed.
"Not good, man...gotta get out of the cities."
I asked him just where he thought he'd get to at midnight, starting to think that shit...maybe he had served in Iraq? Maybe he has got Gulf War Syndrome? Maybe I've set him off and he's going to go on a mad one somewhere? Shoot some kids, or something. I was still a little stoned, which wasn't helping.

When he left the room I followed at a distance and watched him shiftily making his way down to reception. I felt a bit guilty, but he did look funny creeping around in the shadows of the lobby, obviously pretty stoned himself. Thankfully he didn't wander off into the night and trouble (I didn't want the blood of innocents on my hands, obviously), but fell asleep on a sofa instead. Next time I offer someone a smoke, first I'm going to ask them "Have you ever nearly been blown up in a war or experienced anything equally traumatic?"

4am and I was in a taxi hurtling towards the airport, the last of the madrugada fading as the sun inched over the hills. I had a pleasant chat with the taxista in Spanish; not all taxi drivers are arseholes. But more on those who are at some point in the future. Airport formalities over, I joined a queue for a paperwork check. An elderly American gentleman, and I use that term loosely, was in front of me, haranguing his silent wife. Not that I'm a nosey bastard: it was impossible to avoid listening in. "This fucking country...backwards...fucking primitives. We've been through African countries more civilised than this. They just wanted that stuff for themselves. Those motherfuckers. They'll be drinking it tonight and laughing at us...you mark my words." He turned my way, and he reminded me of the late comedy legend George Burns. Yes, actually...like a vitriolic, hate-filled, xenophobic George Burns. "This'd never happen in a developed country. These fucking wetbacks..." he spat. His wife dutifully bore it, probably used to it after 50 years of blissful marriage. I felt like saying something, but couldn't be bothered. People like that don't reason, and never change, so why bother engaging in conversation with them? Life's too short as it is. Besides, the last time I picked a fight with a racist, I broke a finger.

I experienced a joyous flight to Dallas; forced onto an old lady in the window seat due to the sheer mass of the gargantuan chap next to me. I think I sat at a 25 degree angle for the entire flight; listening to a running commentary on the scenery from the lady, who hadn't flown this route for 20 years. All the buildings that hadn't been there in 1991 were helpfully pointed out. The fields looked different too, apparently. Fascinating stuff. I was looking around for a hidden camera after an hour of it, my face an aching, rictus grin from constantly acknowledging her running commentary.

I wasn't quite prepared for the scale of Dallas airport: it's huge. Having only 45 minutes for my connection, I'm pleased I decided to just head for the next departure gate rather than wander around the shops, as there was a ten minute shuttle ride between terminals. I found a bookshop amongst the draped Stars & Stripes, various huge screens broadcasting war footage and Obama speeches. It was here that I encountered my first, and sadly not last, Have A Nice Day-er. She looked up as I perused a shelf of novels. "Hey, how ya doin' today?" she asked with a big toothy smile. "I'm fine, thanks...you?" She answered in the affirmative. I left and withdrew some cash from a nearby ATM; I was gone not three minutes. She looked up at my return and gave me an identical smile, then cheerily asked "Hey, how ya doin' today?" Great. Just like three minutes ago. I went to the gate and sat watching the endless patriotic ads for the airline, between war footage: servicemen in uniform being shaken by the hand; given first boarding privileges (British military personnel traditionally get free tickets for Wimbledon here); thanking the pilot for a great flight and getting a heartfelt "No...thank you." I nearly threw up. Thanks for what? Securing the oil to keep American Airlines flying? All those poor young men getting killed or crippled for the greedy bastards behind the Administration.

I find most Americans a friendly enough bunch. True, I had to run the gauntlet of Have A Nice Day-ers on arrival in Fort Lauderdale. But there were several people made my first day in the US a pleasant one. The 20-something black girl on the Hertz desk allayed my fears about driving a car here. "Don't worry...the roads are huge here, the lanes are wide, and everything is on a grid. You'll be fine." She flashed me a beautiful smile as I left and said "Try and bring it back in one piece, OK?"

She wasn't lying. The roads in America are very wide and easy to drive on, I'd been worried for nothing. And now I understand why Americans feel claustrophobic while driving in British cities. The only problems I had were road signs drying up unexpectedly, and the traffic lights being on the far side of intersections, resulting in a few screeching stops. The nice Hertz lady had given me a map and a rough idea of where my hotel was, as I'd neglected to write down the full address. Clown. The roadside scenery seemed to be on a continuous loop: KFC; Wendy's; Knives & Guns; Blockbuster; We Buy Guns; used car lot; KFC; Wendy's; Knives & Guns; Blockbuster; We Buy Guns. I decided to stop and ask someone.

I asked for directions in a McDonalds. Two black guys in there, dressed like gang-bangers, were very enthusiastic about helping me but didn't know the hotel. The staff were none the wiser. After a quick chat and well-wishes from them and I headed across the parking lot to a row of shops. I entered a lawyer's office and told the grey-looking man sat at the desk that I was English and lost. He hardly batted an eyelid. By the pallor of his skin I'd say that he hadn't been outside in three or four years. I asked him if he could possibly Google the hotel, and soon wished I hadn't. I ended up having to show him how to open new tabs in a browser, and how to use Google. Painful. But I got the address.

The hotel was nondescript and far from special, but I've stayed in far worse places. I soon found a decent Thai restaurant; a pleasant change from the Taco Diet, let me tell you. My friend arrived soon after me and, deciding that Ft Lauderdale was a little on the dull side, we planned a trip to Miami the next morning. Most of my Stateside friends agreed that Miami Beach would be the place to find the most vacuous, plastic, image-obsessed lunatics in the country. I didn't expect to fall in love with the town.

I was in a store in Ft Lauderdale before we left, grabbing some supplies. An old man was walking around talking loudly to anyone who'd listen. I arrived at the till and he sidled up to me; obviously my turn to be engaged in unwilling conversation.

"They don't know nuthin'..." he informed me, wild-eyed beneath unkempt hair.
"They certainly don't, no..." I smiled placatingly.
"Nuthin'. The Irish know nuthin'..."
"Quite."
"And I ain't telling them nuthin', neither" he said, tapping his nose and winking conspiratorially.
I turned to the woman ringing up my items, and she smiled knowingly.
"It's going to be one of those days, eh?"
"Honey..around here, it's always one of those days."
A pause.
"Nuthin'. The Irish know nuthin'..."

The approach to South Beach is a pleasant drive, spotless roads lined by some jaw-dropping houses adjacent to the water. We parked up and wandered down through the Art Deco District. There are some interesting buildings here, but the atmosphere of the place wasn't grabbing me. It was an obvious see-and-be-seen kind of town. I noticed a guy get out of a yellow Ferrari, wearing matching shades and a Ferrari polo-shirt. He sat down and looked about to see who'd been impressed by his arrival. No-one much, by the looks of things. I was so tempted to go over and point at his sunglasses on the table, the crest on his shirt, and then adopt a penny-just-dropped expression and saw "Wow...is that your car outside? You are so cool..."

We sat and had lunch at a pavement cafe. My companion was accusing (to me) the camp waiter of being catty and selective about who he served. I think she was just a little miffed that I was getting more attentive service? It was a great spot to people-watch. I saw just how far money gets you in this town; several stunning woman strutted by with stunted Danny DeVitos in badly-fitting outfits. Unbelievable that a woman could sleep with a toad for a lavish lifestyle? Lights off, hopefully. And each to their own.

My favourite freak of the afternoon was the young man who strolled by, pushing a shopping trolley with a dog in it. He wore a leopard-skin bikini, smudged lipstick lined his mouth and he'd written Slut in marker pen on his forehead. He was smiling and waving at people, not a care in the world. I actually admired his (metaphorical) balls, just didn't want to see his actual balls hanging out of a skimpy outfit. You can't not admire people who just don't give a flying fuck what other people think of them?

I got to see the building used in the chainsaw-murder scene in Scarface, sadly now a fast-food joint. Thirty years have changed the town a great deal, and the beach isn't even next to the road any longer, you need to walk through a hundred yards of vegetation to see it. A few photos later, and a walk on the hugely underwhelming, featurless beach and we were heading for the car. We crossed the street twice to avoid a shouting crazy in the street; the middle-aged white man, wearing a filthy bandanna, was walking up to random people, smiling, nodding at them "Yeah...yeah...fuck yeah...yeah...FUCK YEAH! Yeah! Alright...yeah." Some people have nothing better to do with their day, they really don't.

So. Culture? Not much. I'm going to have to visit the Deep South and San Francisco to see a little of that. But this story's just about the people, and it was a short break, after all. Before we knew it, the trip was over and we were heading back to the airport. I filled the car's tank at a 24-hour gas station, manned by an elderly and seemingly spaced-out rastafarian. The pumps were pre-pay only, and a few people were waiting for their change. I'm used to late-night customers at gas stations being a bit stoned and unsure of exactly what they want, but this guy was working here...wandering around picking the wrong items up and looking flummoxed. I asked a young man next to me how much I should put on the pump to fill my tank. He wanted to know what kind of car it was. I said I wasn't sure, as the car was out of shight, but that it was "a tiny Chevvy piece of shit". He made a mock-offended face, thumped his heart and said "Man, that hurts...Chevvy's my brand, man." We continued giggling at the rasta's continued antics: he was certainly entertaining. I eventually managed to get my change and left the lengthening queue behind me. As I crossed the forecourt, the young man I'd spoken to shouted over to me as he got in his car "Hey man...you were right...that one is a piece of shit!" I grinned and waved him off.

I left my friend at her terminal, and drove to the international one. I had a couple of hours to kill, and headed to the Hertz car park to drop the auto. The unearthly hour was no excuse for the rudeness I encountered from one man there. I pulled up and asked him if he wanted me to leave it in the same bay I'd collected it from?

"Leave it there with the keys in it."
I got out and waited for him to go through a checklist of some sort.
"Anything else I need to do?" I asked.
I received a grunt in reply, he didn't even look at me as he scanned the car.
"I'm sorry?"
"You're done" he replied tersely.
"And which way is the office, please?" I continued to be polite, even if he refused to.
"That way...second door after the pillar" he jabbed a pen in the vague direction I wanted to go.
I walked off, but couldn't see the exit. I returned to within 20 yards of the Hertz man and called over "Sorry, mate...where, exactly?"
He jabbed again and repeated the directions. "Yellow door, just keep walking...man, you stupid or something?"
I hadn't really met many rude Americans yet. This was certainly a first.
"You tell me, mate? I'm flying to Mexico today...whereas you're parking my car?"
I turned on my heel, didn't wait for a reply.

If I thought he was rude, then the best was yet to come. I had a handful of change when I made it through to the departure area. Mexican shops accept dollars, but not US change. I had a little over a dollar, and wanted to exchange it for a bill instead. I went into a newsagent staffed by a weighty black woman in her 30s. I smiled and asked if it was possible to swap my coins for a dollar bill, mindful that most shops like having change. She grumpily told that she couldn't open her till. I told her I could wait.

Five minutes later a woman entered the shop, and a man around my age entered with his teenage son. The woman bought something, and to my surprise the till girl immediately closed the drawer without changing my money. I gasped.

The woman next to me apologised. "Oh I'm sorry...were you next?" she asked.
"No, no...it's OK. I just wanted to change these coins for a bill."
"Oh, well I can change that for you" she said, producing a dollar.
I thanked her, and explained that I'd asked the shop assistant but she hadn't been keen to do it. She seemed surprised.
The assistant was ignoring me and serving the man. He had a copy of Playboy. She scanned it repeatedly, and 60 cents kept flashing on the till. She seemed puzzled.
"I don't understand it...it keeps coming up as 60 cents."
"I think the big black and yellow sticker on the cover saying 60 Cents Offer means it's probably 60 cents?" I offered. I was mildly annoyed by now.
"Bargain!" laughed the man at me; his son eyed the magazine; the assistant scowled and ignored me.

I left the store and sat near a group of elderly Americans with a delightful Southern-drawl. I love that accent. As I counted my remaining coins and realized that I had 55 cents, an idea formed in my mind; if revenge is a dish best served cold, then I was about to have mine with ice-cream. I asked one of the southern gentlemen if he could spare 10 cents, please? No problem, and he gave me more than I needed. I thanked them, and said I'd be right back.

She looked surprised when I walked back into the store. It was empty, and I walked right over the shelf and picked up the magazine. I put it down on the counter, then deliberately placed the coins next to it in a neat pyramid. "6o cents, I believe?" I asked cheerfully. "That's handy...exactly what I had left."

She didn't even look at me; scanned the barcode on the Playboy.
"That'll be 64 cents." She took the coins.
A slight smile crept across her face.
"Ah...tax on it?" I asked.
She nodded.
I pulled out a 5 cent coin with a well-look-what-I-found expression.
"Well...that was lucky, wasn't it?" I gave her a big smile.
The smile evaporated as I passed her the coin. "Keep the change" I said haughtily, and walked away without looking at her: the unexpected cherry on the vengeance-flavoured ice-cream.

I sat down with the old folks. One of the women eyed the magazine and said "Oh yeah?" and laughed.
"There's actually a story behind this...I don't usually buy this magazine."
"Oh sure!" they cackled. Her husband grinned and winked.
I related my experience in the shop. They were very surprised at the assistant's attitude, and apologised for her. I told them that they needn't...I'd met lots of nice people from their country, but some strange ones too.
"Where have you been?" asked the winker.
"Miami" I told him, and they all laughed as if to say that that explained everything.
"So where you headed to, boy?" I could have just listened to him talk all day, just to hear that accent.
"Mexico."
He paused for a moment.
"You be careful down there, boy...you hear?" he smiled.
"I will...thanks" I said. I shook their hands, thanked them again and headed for the plane.

So that was the Americans at home. And to be honest, I quite liked them. Sure, they have their idiots...but doesn't every nationality? I found them a friendly and helpful bunch; some of them were very funny indeed; and nobody minded giving up time to help me, bar one or two notable (and duly noted) exceptions. It's actually made me think that I should see more of the States, so they can't have been bad. I think I'd just avoid Florida and Texas next time. After all, only steers and queers come from Texas, no?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Dark Undercurrent

THEY SAY YOU should never go back a second time. Whether that's a relationship that didn't work, a job you left, or perhaps a favourite bar on an island. The dynamics change, the people are different and your memories can sometimes be spoiled by a second visit. I recently spoke to a fella I met on Koh Tao, Thailand, three years ago. There had been a decent gang of us there, diving most days and frequenting the Eazy Bar most nights; good music and the barmen supplied us with a steady flow of joints. It was a great few weeks. But he'd returned two years later: the staff had changed, and locals we'd known had moved on. So I try not to go back if I can help it. Coron in the Philippines is different: there are wrecks there.

So after all I said about the Bay Island of Utila, Honduras, it was as much a shock to me as anyone else that I was returning there. But there was wind of a diving job with a friend I'd taken the Instructor Development Course with, and with the season low in places such as Mexico, I decided to go back. Work experience and just something to do was appealing...constant travelling can get tiring. So Stacey said to head up, as they needed someone soon. I also had another motive for visiting as I'd been dating a beautiful Honduran girl when there originally. But no details on that...gentlemen don't tell, and all that.

I'd been in Costa Rica when the job had been mentioned, and had a horrific bus journey across three countries to look forward to. I stayed overnight in Managua, and at least found something decent to eat in the ramshackle neighbourhood near the bus station. I was up at 4am and on a bus 20 minutes later. It was a grind to get up to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. The bus had pulled up outside the tiny depot, and armed guards saw us inside. The café served nothing but chicken that had been fried for a month and bright-orange cheese sandwiches on unappealing white cardboard-like bread. I was starving, but not that desperate. I recalled seeing a taco place a few blocks away, and headed for the door.

"Where are you going, sir?" asked the man, brandishing a assault-rifle.
"I don't like the food here...I'm going to find something else."
"Do you have a gun?" he asked, patting the weapon.
"Pardon?"
"Do you have a gun?"
"Er...no?" I smiled.
"Then don't go outside."
Righty-ho. I suppose the people being escorted to their taxis by the security guards should have been a bit of an indicator. Tegucigalpa really is as dangerous as they say.

And so, refreshed by my can of sugary fizzy-pop and a bag of stale, hard nuts, I was on my way again. Night was falling as we arrived in San Pedro Sula, reputed AIDS capital of the Americas. I didn't want to be catching that again, it was bad enough last time. So I was lucky enough to get out of that violent shithole, making the last bus to La Ceiba by the skin of my teeth.

First thing in the morning, and a pleasant(ish) ferry crossing saw me deposited on the dock in Utila Town. Juicy and Fernando, a couple of instructors from the shop I'd trained at, were waiting to ambush tourists and take them to the shop. They both hugged me, laughing, and said "I thought you were never coming back?" I grinned sheepishly. I walked up the road and went to see Tempy at Treetanic Bar, arranged lunch, and then took my old room at Bavaria Hotel. Every familiar face I passed grinned and asked "Never again, eh?" You have to laugh, don't you?

To be honest, despite my problems with the place, it felt like coming home. Walking down the street and seeing old acquaintances was great, buying my baleadas from the same lady in the street, and catching up with the remainder of my class. But things weren't to be as rosy as I'd hoped. Sometimes in the dive industry you can be treated like a commodity: worked into the ground for little reward, and dropped like a hot potato when the trade is slack. So I was hardly surprised when the job didn't materialise. No guarantees in this business. There was some talk of dive-guiding, but Utila's sites are hardly the most exciting on the planet. So I settled into my old routine of swimming, reading, sunset beers, G&Ts and reefers at Treetanic, and seeing my lady friend most evenings.

Beneath the surface, though, all was not well on the island. A local criminal had recently returned and there had been a large number of robberies. A Divemaster at one shop had been away for a week, and came home to find that someone had smashed a hole through the wall of his house. Everything had been taken including, he told me with understandable dismay, the soap from his shower (talk about a clean getaway). Several other people had been robbed, and word came that the police on Roatan had seized a large number of items. By the time these tourists got to Roatan by boat a day later, locals there had already claimed the haul of iPods, phones, computers and dive gear. One man I spoke to had gone to see the police chief back on Utila. This cop is reputed to be a virtual prisoner on The Rock; involved in the murder of a couple of criminals in past years, he's been told that he is a dead man should he set foot on the Honduran mainland. He didn't bother taking his feet off the desk when the tourist entered, and was reading the paper. On being asked about the valuables being given to locals on Roatan he shook his wrist, on which hung a gold watch, and said "Nothing there...just a few watches..." He went back to reading his paper. Apparently the police are complicit in the thefts, receiving their cut of the profits. A notorious family live on the island and, for a fee, they can usually "find out" who stole and then "buy" your items back for you. But even they are unaware of who this gang are. Or that's their line, at least.

I was sat in Treetanic one evening, and things were slow. The island was very quiet. I struck up a conversation with a German at the bar, a man in his 50s. He told me that he'd been robbed two nights before, and that the thieves had broken through the ceiling outside his room, then climbed over the wall via the roof space. Being drunk that evening, he hadn't noticed anything out of place but, on waking, he'd seen the hole in the ceiling above his bed: all his camera equipment and his laptop were gone. I asked him where he was staying? Next door but one to my room at Bavaria. I told him to watch my beer, and raced back to my quarters, bagging my valuables to be locked in Tempy's house. No way was I taking any chances.

The German told me that he'd been running a dive shop on Roatan for 5 years, and had lived on his boat. Though he'd never had a single problem in all that time, sleeping on an unlocked boat obviously had potential dangers. He'd slept with a snub-nosed .38 revolver under his pillow; also stolen in the raid. To say he was thoroughly pissed-off was an understatement. So much so that he was selling his boat and heading back to Germany. I told him how the Thais deal with Burmese thieves out on the islands. Myself and Jocky had been robbed in 2008 on Koh Tao, but only our cash was taken from the room, despite all our valuables lying around: if the thieves are caught with currency only, nothing can be proved; but caught with someone's camera and it's a different story. One Thai had told me of a notorious thief who'd finally been apprehended in the act, how he'd been taken out on a fishing boat late at night and bound with rope and lead weight. The terrified man had pleaded with his captors and swore that he would never steal again. "We know you won't" said the Thais, and threw him into the sea. Rough justice Thai-style.

The German fella also told me an amusing story about a vicious dog owned by a local on Roatan, who had bitten a couple of people, and had also gone for him on several occasions. Despite discussing it with the owner, nothing was done...so he and a few friends decided that it was time for the dog to go: they poisoned it. They took the carcass out to sea, weighted it and dumped it with several large lobster pots into the water. A week or so later they retrieved the pots, full of large lobster, and forgot about the dog. Some time after that he was on the beach one day, chatting to two local policemen, their backs to the shoreline. He noticed something floating in the water and realised with horror that it was what was left of the dog. The conversation was cut short and he was soon quickly heading back out to sea with a little more weight; this time it stayed down. Apparently the lobster was the biggest and tastiest he'd ever eaten. I've heard of corn-fed chicken, but never dog-fed lobster? I'll take his word for it.

My German friend Gerald had been around when I first arrived back on the island, but before I could go and visit him he'd disappeared. He and a few friends had started a rival ferry company recently, with a solitary boat. One morning he'd been poaching customers from the queue for the main company, run by one family for years. This went down like a shit sandwich, obviously. A few nights later someone fired a fusilade of shots at his house. Taking the subtle hint, the German left the island immediately, abandoning his house and all his belongings. Don't step on local toes.

It wasn't all doom and gloom on Utila, though...there was much hilarity, too. I met a bearded ex-Navy S.E.A.L named Dave. Short and wiry, he was amiable but looked the type you shouldn't mess with; like he could kill you with his bare hands. I'd missed his 30th birthday the previous night. Apparently he'd been having dinner with friends when a bespectacled tourist ran past on the main street, stripped to the waist and sweating heavily. This fella would run up and down the main street every single night, in that weird low-impact style which looks somewhere between walking fast and mincing down a Paris catwalk...it's not a good look. Dave had had enough "If that guy runs past one more time, I'm stripping off and running with him." As good as his word, as the jogger passed again, he stood and stripped naked and then chased him down the street. The locals were horrified, as the island is deeply religious; he'd passed numerous churches and halls before someone called the police about the jogger with the swinging, hairy ballbag. The other runner ignored him, and Dave got bored. He returned to his table, got dressed, and was two forkfuls into the remains of his dinner when the cops arrived and hauled him away. He spent 18 hours locked up, without food and water. Paying a fine sometime later, he was released. He laughed and told me that it wasn't how he envisioned spending his 30th birthday, but I told him that I thought it was brilliant: how many people can tell their grandchildren that they spent their 30th in a Honduran police cell for streaking down Utila's main drag? Not many, I'd imagine.

So after a couple of weeks catching up with friends, the heat becoming unbearable, and the season dead...it was time to leave again. As the job hadn't materialised, I couldn't hang around doing nothing. Stefano got in touch: did I fancy joining him in San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala? I sure did. I'd had a great time there first time around, and it was on my route back up to Mexico. I could drop in on people I'd met in Antigua on the way, too.

I waved Goodbye to Utila for a second time. And I'll never go back. Ever. Yeah, yeah...I know. That's what I said last time.