Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Adios mis amigos

Following the trials and tribulations of my journey through Guatemala, the leg to Belize City was a doddle.  With one eye on the clock and given my desire to extend the great time I'd been having in Central America, once in Belize City I caught the ferry across to the extremely laid back Caribbean Island of Caye Caulker. 

Accommodation Caye Caulker style
Caye Caulker made Utila feel like a bustling metropolis, with life on the island consisting of a significant amount of sitting around waiting for the next boat to come in, making half hearted efforts at selling a ride or tour and then going back to sitting and waiting until it's time to have a drink and give up on the attempt at working for the day. 

Even road transport is by boat
As a traveler it's an idyllic island and if one has the will can be circumnavigated in two hours or so.  It also marked a point where I'd been travelling in the region for long enough that there was constant stream of familiar faces to spend time with. I did the obligatory snorkelling trip with the sting rays and nurse sharks, but it did feel like a bit of a treadmill experience of shuffling the tourists out each day to see the same, ahh, 'wildlife'.

To a degree however I was putting off the inevitable journey north to Cancun.  Several months ago during my aborted attempt to drive to San Diego I'd pulled off the highway somewhere in Southern California needing a break from driving, and spying a market gardener had pulled in to buy some apples.  As I approached a short portly American in denim overalls with a USS [insert suitable word 'Destroyer', 'Freedom', 'Touch of Paradise'] appeared chomping on a fat cigar.  

After he convinced me to buy some strange apple pear fruit blend he asked where I was from.  It was obvious he didn't have a Scooby Doo about Australia, but he did have a rather strong opinion about Mexico, 'worst damn country in the whole world' he repeated a number of times as he gestured in a vaguely southerly direction over the field...and even more profoundly and insightfully once he'd tired with this statement, he gravely announced that 'they were his neighbours'...not literally given we were about 200 mile from the border, but I understood from his bulging eyes and gesticulating that geographically, yes, they were the next country along the highway.  

Having now been to Cancun I have a feeling there maybe a Mexican market gardener making similar comments about what happened to their country in Cancun once American tourists decided this was the place for them. It is a strange place, 'muy plastico' I profoundly announced to a cab driver when there, but saying that I had one really fun night out there despite having my tshirt stolen at a pool party (the first theft in my travels, kind of ironic considering where I've been), and then probably stayed one night too many. 

My departing flight to New York and the next stage of my trip bought to an end my time in South and Central America.  I had no idea when I started the amazing adventures I'd find myself involved in  and could not have asked for more in terms of an experience. I'd often catch myself inadvertently smiling as I travelled along.

In travelling these countries you often meet people who are seeking answers for the next directions in their life.  I wasn't seeking this, but I did learn, or have reinforced a few simple insights.  

Probably the most poignant for me is how simply one can live and have an incredible time, I already knew this, but it's comforting to have it reinforced.  The other, as someone who is habitually late, is that there are times in life when it pays to be early, as often it allows you that extra inch of leg room slightly closer to the only form of ventilation in the portable sweat box you find yourself locked in for the next few hours as you stare mindlessly for miles at the passing scenery.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A place for old men

Along my travels, and especially in Central America, I’ve found myself in a number of long conversations with retired American men. A straw poll of other travelers indicated this doesn’t appear to be a common occurrence, and these conversations occur in the most unlikely of circumstances, although I have noticed that breakfast seems to be the conversation time of preference for the American retiree.

So it was I found myself sat on a wooden bench underneath a rusted bit of corrugated iron in the early morning sun chatting with my latest retiree, who for want of knowing his name I called, ‘Chet’, about the performance of various construction materials on Utila under the constant battering dealt out by the sun, wind and salty sea air.  

With the coming of Hurricane Ernesto I’d spent longer in Utila than planned and decided to gain time by flying a few legs to my next destination of Rio Dulce and then Flores to see Tikal back in Guatemala.  Unfortunately the flight had been overbooked and Chet and I had an hour or so wait for the flight to return to pick us up on the bench that served as the waiting room at Utila Airport for the plane to return.  Like most of retirees Chet was seeking an escape from elements of his life in the US and with a relatively small amount of money by western standards this part of the world offers plenty of opportunities to escape.

Eventually Chet and I made it onto our flight to La Ceiba, which marked the first leg of a crazy, hot and long day of travel.  Following La Ceiba I had another flight to San Pedro Sula, but was bumped again as I had no need to make a connection as I’d be bussing it from then on.  The silver lining being the next plane was a 6 seater and my seat the co-pilots, a novel experience, particularly as the captain let me film the take off and landing, no need to worry about electronic devices on these planes.  As we flew along I kept thinking of the co-pilot scene from Flying High and wondering how I’d cope if the pilot had a sudden heart attack and I’d have to take over as the co-pilot.

Reaching San Pedro Sula at about the same time as if I’d caught the boat and bus connection, I caught another bus to Peurto Cortes and then walked around the block to catch a chicken bus to Corinto and the Honduran border.  Jumping off the bus and changing money I was the only person around by the time I walked through immigration and the border.

By this time it was baking hot and steamy and I amused two bored Hondurian officials who debated whether I was James Bond or not before flicking my passport back.  I then piled into a beat up minivan and waited in the sun till it was packed with locals crossing the border and transported the 15km of no mans land to Guatemalan immigration.

Our van had picked up a group of Caribbean guys that the Guatemalan police took great interest in.  This was too much for our minivan driver who after 10 minutes of waiting ordered all those near into the van inside and put his foot down as we sped away and left the Caribbean guys stranded at the border.  I then changed minivans two more times, waiting at the roadside for another to come along.  The minivans are packed so tight I was standing inside in a half crouch so not hit my head on the roof.  Still I was doing better than the local guys standing on the vans running board and holding on with one hand as we sped along at 120km.

Rio Dulce
About 20mins outside my destination of Rio Dulce the heavens opened, and my backpack, which was on the roof, was soaked through as it’d been tied on with the rain cover facing down. In the driving rain I walked with my sodden backpack to the first accommodation I could find, right on the river and weirdly enough a haven for retired American sailors who bring their boats down the river from the Caribbean Sea for protection during hurricane season.  It was a testing day, but in a way exciting as during the time I left San Pedro Sula to Rio Dulce I only saw locals.

The following morning I completed my journey to Flores and the following day visited the daddy of Mayan Ruins, Tikal.  There were similarities with the ruins I’d seen in Copan but while those in Copan are more intricate, Tikal is of a much grander scale…and also differs in that it’s set in dense jungle, giving a true feeling of a lost city…..which is further emphasized when you realize only 20% of the ruins have been uncovered, the rest appear as giant hummocks with hints of the limestone ruins inside.


On the return from my day trip I learnt I’d had a lucky day as we unexpectedly stopped for an hour at the police station.  I learnt that most of the other passengers who’d been on the earlier morning tour bus prior had all their possessions stolen by a gang who boarded the bus with machine guns and machetes, a harrowing experience from all accounts. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Duckin' n diving

During my brief time in El Tunco I’d had a few beers with an English surfer, Sam Wildgoose (yes I’ve complimented him on the fineness of his surname) who mentioned that he was going to head to the Bay Islands in the Caribbean off Honduras to obtain his PADI open water scuba licence.  My own vague plans had been to slowly make my way north through Guatemala and Mexico on route to Cancun, but I’ve always wanted to scuba dive but always thought the time investment when on holiday for a shorter period was too much.  Reasoning that if I can’t find the time in 7 months of travel I don’t really want to do it I changed my plans and rendezvoused with Sam again in Copan Ruinas on the Honduran side of the Guatemalan border.

Copan Ruinas is one of the more impressive Mayan sites in Central America, an enormous sprawling complex of a once great city that was at the height of its powers from 400 to 900 AD. Arriving on a sultry afternoon I was the only one wishing a guided tour at the time, so with my own personal guide we sweated our way around as she babbled in my ear about each of the temples. 

The floor of the main temple area used to be covered in white staccato tiles which would have been amazing and blindingly bright.  Today it’s been covered by grass and kudos to the groundskeeper as I’ve only seen a better outfield on the first day of a Boxing Day test.  I also learnt the Mayans played a game that’s an early version of soccer, kicking a ball back and forth at concrete macaw heads, with the loser being sacrificed to the Gods.

As you may expect I’m a sucker for a nature walk and after the ruins took myself on the adjoining walk and interpretive trail, which I really enjoyed, with colourful macaws in the trees, lizards and other creatures moving through the jungle. At one stage I thought it had started raining only to look down and see the whole forest floor was a sea of moving ants criss-crossing my flip-flops.

After numerous hours of bussing followed by an hour ferry journey on the ‘vomit comet’, a small catamaran that makes the bumpy journey across the sea I arrived on the beautiful Caribbean island of Utila. Sam and I checked into our dive school, Alton’s, a series of weather worn wooden accommodation structures that connect to its own dock (and dive boats), bar, seaside hammocks and loungers.  It’s a sweet set up, although the accommodation is some of the ropiest to date, the shower is a bit of pipe sticking out of the wall and the cold water is intermittent, which can be frustrating if you wish to wash….or flush the toilet.
The Alton's Dock

I loved doing the dive course and our instructor, a German woman who must be slowly going insane with the complete lack of punctuality of anyone on the island, was really good, direct and no nonsense.  I was with a great group of people and over the four days of the course, as you’d expect, got to know each other pretty well.  By coincidence I was also here during the annual one day music festival, Sunjam, that is held on a very small tropical island off the coast of Utila. Almost all travellers go along and consequently the dive schools are closed the day following to enable people to recover.

I had a great time at the festival, but it also precipitated one of the scariest moments of my trip.  The festival started at midday and we’d been advised to get there before night as the seas were rough due to a strong onshore wind that had blown all day.  Unfortunately we’d been diving, returned late in the afternoon and all fancied a meal before heading off.  We made it back to the dive school only to see the last boat depart.  Walking the short distance into the centre of town we were ushered into the back seats of a small speedboat waiting to depart. 

It was only when we left the dock I realised the boat was severely overloaded as it tipped precariously back and forth in relatively calm water. It was now night and it was soon apparent the guy driving was drunk.  As we powered into the larger seas the boat lurched to one side and then swung alarmingly back the other. Lisa from my dive school who was sat next to me alternated between closing her eyes and putting her head down to hysterical screaming when she felt the boat tilt.  By this time the driver had slowed down and we appeared to trying to surf the face of the waves up and down, which worked until a large wave loomed out of the dark and the whole boat tipped to such an extent that the back section of the boat we were in dipped below the waterline and we started taking water. 

By now I thought there was a fair chance we were going under. Apparently I appeared very calm but I was focused on trying to work out when it was appropriate to jump into the sea and swim to the nearest piece of land.  A large part of me was wondering how I’d ended up in this situation, while a small part was intrigued to see what would happen if we did sink as I’ve never been in a boat that has sunk before and I was pretty sure I could make the swim to land, although it would put a dampener on the evening. Fortunately our little boat managed the waves and 45minutes later a very relieved group kissed the sand of the festival island.  The festival itself was very good and the return journey better in that the boat had a normal load and the sea a tad calmer.

Follow the day off I resumed and completed my PADI course, so am now an open water diver which should come in handy later in my journey. I spent the lay day checking out, according to the Lonely Planet, the fourth best bar on the planet, TreeTanic.  It is an amazing place and the work of several years of its owner, a cross between Gaudi and Alice in Wonderland and has probably the most artistic use of recycled materials, and glass bottles in particular, I’ve seen.  As someone quipped when we visited however, bars one, two and three on the LP ranking must have earnt that place as you can get a drink there...as there was no barman and no one vaguely interested in serving. It does feel more like a tourist attraction than a bar, but even so it’s an amazing piece of art.

My next move is up the coast on route to Cancun however I’m currently stuck as Hurricane Ernesto is moving through the region, which isn’t too bad as Utila is great place to be marooned.