Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Running The Gauntlet

MY COORDINATION COMPLETELY and utterly gone, I staggered along the quayside in the blistering mid-afternoon heat. Dodging the tourists and hawkers, it was a real struggle to stay on my feet, a bigger one still not to vomit. My head pounded and my face burned, my brain fogged. I struggled to think straight. The ground tilted this way and that in front of me; my world a see-saw. I had never felt this horrendous in my life. It was like being horrifically drunk. Reaching the road, I paused to acclimatise to the noise and potential danger: in this state I could esily be hit by a car should I fall into the street. I hoisted my mesh bag of dive gear over my shoulder and headed for the bus stop. The half-hour journey ahead of me filled me with dread. Would I throw up on the bus? I prayed I wouldn't. I'm still not sure how I made it back to my hostal, Señor Mañana in San José del Cabo, but make it I did. The next two days would be spent sleeping, drinking endless litres of water and crawling across the floor between bed and bathroom until my equilibrium was back to normal. Before sleeping that first night, I made notes on what I'd eaten and gave details of my dive profile: I wasn't sure I'd see the dawn.

So a word of advice. If you're going diving, don't have ceviche for lunch and follow it with a double espresso. That, my friends, is the recipe for disaster. I'd come to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California purely to dive. There is no other reason to visit. I thought that Cancún was a characterless, gringo hellhole until I saw this place. If anyone regales you with tales of their Mexican holiday, and then tells you they stayed in Cabo, you can retort that they haven't really been to Mexico. Fact. My Grandad had more authentic Mexican experiences, and the closest that he got to Mexico was fighting the Japanese in 1940s Burma, and eating my Mum's enchiladas in Lancashire. It's beyond bad.

I'd stayed at the delightful and tranquil garden hostal in San José for a couple of nights, and the lovely owners had convinced me that it was better to stay there and just go to San Lucas on the bus to dive. They were right. On arrival in the town, I was horrified by the Señor Frogs, Wendy's, Starbucks and hotel chains which line the boulevard. I scuttled up a side street and walked several blocks to the seafood cafetería which would be responsible for my demise less than an hour later. The place was clean, the staff chatty and, I have to say, the fish was delicious. Steeling myself for the half-hour walk down the harbour to the dive shop I paid, tipped and left with the waiter's wishes of luck. He obviously knew something I didn't...

Stifling sniggers at the lobster-red behemoths strolling gingerly around the designer mall between the boulevard and the harbour, I exited to a scene from Dante's Inferno. Bars full of braying tourists slamming tequilas, wearing large Mexican hats and tee-shirts from the last bar they were in; loud, shouty people; Mexicans with gringo accents trying to sell you everything from a fishing trip to their wives; screaming kids bemoaning the fact that they hadn't been spoiled for 17 seconds; boats the size of mansions bobbing on the harbour's dirty water. Truly. Awful. Fucking. Place.

Unsure of the shop's location, I spied a chandlers and decided to ask for directions there. There were two Mexicans who smiled as I entered the air-conditioned shop.
"Buenos días" I said.
"Morning, Sir."
"Busco una tienda de buceo se llama Mantarraya...lo conoces, por favor?"
"You're looking to dive today, Sir?"
I sighed and gave up on the Spanish.
"Yeah, I'm looking for Manta Ray Divers?"
"We run excellent diving trips, Sir"
"Please...drop the 'Sir'"
He opened a glossy brochure and showed me fishing, diving and whale-watching options.
"But I'm already booked to dive with Manta."
He showed me PADI course prices.
"I'm already qualified."
He pointed out the PADI Advanced course.
"I'm an instructor."
They did trips for Advanced divers only.
"I need to find the shop in half an hour, the boat will leave without me."
He recommended a wakeboarding course.
I left.

There are pushy salesmen, and there are annoying, deranged bullies. I walked a little further up the harbour, and saw a tourist information booth. A fat man was eating tacos and reading a newspaper. He told me he'd never heard of Manta Divers, but could recommend a place to dive. He nonchalantly waved over his shoulder, spilling pieces of meat on it. Jesus. I spotted another stall and made my way over. There was a rotund, disinterested woman and a young lad with a lion cub over his shoulder. A fleshy tourist was trying to touch it: he wanted her to hold it and pose for a $20 photograph. I took advantage of a lull in their conversation to ask about Manta Divers. The kid gave me some directions, and I clarified them with him. The tourist was dumbfounded.

"Oh my speak Spanish?" she asked me.
"Yeah. I get by" I answered in my Northern drawl.
"Are you Spanish?'
The young kid raised his eyebrows at me and smirked.
"No" I said.
"Isn't the lion cute?" she asked "Don't you just want to hold it?"
"No, not belongs in the wild"
"Yeah, but where else are you gonna see a lion?"
"In Africa?" I offered, hopefully.
"Oh my gaaaawd...are you from Africa?"
Oh Christ.
"Do I look African? I'm English." I frowned.
"Oh my're English?"
I left.

I was halfway to the shop by now. It was a journey which would have tested Job.
"Water taxi, buddy?"
"Fishing trip, amigo?"
"Wanna sell your diving gear, my friend?"
"Not really, mate...could make my dive trip a little trickier."
"Cocaine? You want girls..?"
"Bit early, isn't it?"
I sped up a little, and avoided eye contact with the hawkers. Or just ignored can only be polite for so long. Another drifted out of the shade into the sun, and accosted a tall black man in front of me. 
"My fren, my fren...real Cuban cigars. Good price. From Havana."
The big fella waved him away with a wagging finger. As I passed the visitor I said "If those things are Cuban, then I'm Fidel Castro."
"An' I don't see no beard, man..." he grinned.

I reached the haven of the dive shop. They were efficient, and we were on the boat within 30 minutes. Diving out of season, I wasn't expecting too much...I'd earlier been advised that I'd arrived at the worst time of year to dive. Bloody fantastic. But it wasn't bad at all. Visibility was certainly limited, and the water was bloody cold, even with a thick 7mm wetsuit and a hood. But the fish here are huge, and it is no wonder sport fisherman the world over flock to these shores. Great schools of fish drifted around us, and I made a mental note to come back when conditions improve and the whales turn up. My buddy was getting low on air, and the guide signalled that he'd leave me alone for an extra ten minutes as it would have been a short dive, otherwise. I really appreciate that in a guide. I knew where the boat and shotline were, and simply hovered around the rocks that the fish were frequenting until I got too cold to hang about.

Back on the boat, we headed off on a short tour of the famous Arcos, the rocky outcrops of Lands End for which Cabo is famous. An impressive sight. But I couldn't really enjoy it, as I'd started to feel distinctly queasy and a little disoriented. Never being one to fall seasick, I was a little puzzled; I just didn't feel right in myself. Looking at land and the horizon didn't help. But, having paid £100 for two dives, there was no way I was aborting the second. Surely I'd feel better in the water? Wrong. Ten minutes in and I was feeling, for want of a better expression, absolutely fucking horrible. Nauseous. Head pounding. Cold...very cold. I managed half an hour of the dive and was thankful when my buddy indicated that he was low on air; I declined the guide's offer of another ten minutes solo this time...I felt like I was dying. De-kitting on the deck of the craft, my world was being turned, almost literally, upside-down. I staggered about, and began wondering if I'd got decompression sickness. Unlikely, but I was beginning to worry that there was a rogue bubble floating about my system somewhere. 

I voiced my concerns back at the shop, and the probable causes of my malaise. Dehydration due to the espresso was possible, but I'd been drinking plenty of water. Then the guide asked if I'd eaten any seafood recently, and I told him of my ceviche lunch. He shook his head and told me that 3/4 of the customers he guided who fell ill on the boat were usually victims of the local mariscos. Especially as, at this time of year, a layer of dead and decomposing bacteria known as the red tide polluted the catch. As I headed off unsteadily down the marina walkway, I was seriously considering going vegetarian.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Bridge Of God

AS ANY REGULAR reader of these articles appreciates, I love my dear Old Fella. He's always been there for me throughout my life, no matter what I've messed up or done wrong. And I've done plenty wrong. He's fixed my cars when they've broken down. He's always been patient with me. Well, apart when he was giving me driving lessons. I mean... driving lesson (singular). He's instilled values in me through his words and actions. And he's never embarrassed me or let me down. Well...he embarrassed me once by entering our school disco and walking through the crowd, to tap me on the shoulder to tell me that it was time to go home, as he'd grown tired of waiting outside in the car. I was twelve and busy snogging the face off the pretty girl who was sat on my knee at the time. Not cool, Dad. And he did actually let me down once. Badly. At Derby Baths in Blackpool, Lancashire. In 1978.

It was on a fine summer's day that we'd gone to visit that particular seaside slum; a grim, depressing town that should be bulldozed into the sea and erased from the map, the people with it (it's a football thing). But the now-defunct Derby Baths was an amazing olympic-sized swimming pool, with a series of high diving boards. They don't build pools with such boards these days, as the nanny state has decreed that it's unsafe to jump off high things into water. They'll ban swimming next, I shouldn't wonder.

My brother and I were halfway along the pool with a handful of other kids, messing about and trying to drown one another. I happened to look up to see the svelte figure of my Dad (like I was 1978) climbing the ladders to the diving boards. Up he went. Past the second level. Further. The third. Up again, to the top board. One of the lifeguards blew a whistle to clear the area in the pool below. Dad approached the edge. My brother grinned at me; my little chest was bursting with pride as no-one else had dived from the top board all morning. "That's my Dad, that is" I gleefully informed the crowd of kids looking up at the figure with his toes clenched on the edge of the top platform, surveying the drop to the pool below. We waited. And waited. And then the unthinkable happened: he stepped back from the precipice and climbed down not one, but two, ladders to the third board. My face burned. Bollocks. The crowd of kids swam away, the biggest amongst them sneering over his shoulder "That's your Dad, that is..." 

But, let-down in 43 years isn't bad going, Dad? And besides, the distant memory gave me a laugh as I stood atop a 14m waterfall, looking down. The largest, most powerful fall was below me to my left, feeding a large pool surrounded by less powerful but higher cascades. The few rays of sunshine which penetrated the pit, cast warm patches on groups of rocks under the falls at the far side, where Mexican tourists baked like lizards. Kids splashed and swam about the turbulent falls; an X-shaped safety line criss-crossed the azure pool. The current from the falls drove swimmers to the rear of the pit where a tunnel leads to a further series of falls. A truly stunning place.

My toes gripped the rock, as I craned my neck to look at the drop into foaming water. I'd climbed a good few metres beyond the point people had been throwing themselves off all morning. As I picked my way across from rock to rock, I thought of the 1978 Blackpool Incident. What did for Dad was hesitation. Like the saying goes: He who hesitates...I wasn't going to make a shameful retreat. But in order to achieve this, it was essential to make the leap quickly. Don't think. Just jump. So I reached the point, found purchase with my feet, and leaned out to check the length of the drop. But I didn't jump immediately: the view was too beautiful, and such moments should be savoured. The tropical forest which rings the edge of the pit draped a fringe of green vines; the water boiled white in six different spots; the mist cast upwards powered a shimmer of iridescent rainbow; colourful swifts flew around the cavern, behind falls, skimming the water; where I was stood was amongst the trees. Mexico has taken my breath away several times: this time she took it away and held it. The Puente De Dios (Bridge Of God) is almost enough to make a devout atheist like me believe in the false idol. Time to exorcise the 35-year-old demon: I jumped, hanging in the air for a fraction of the time I'd expected. Steely water in the shade rushed up to meet me, rewarding my impudence with a slap. Right in the face. As I slowly surfaced, enjoying the subaquatic rumble in my ears, I thought Well at least I kept my legs together. Otherwise I'd have been wearing my balls like earrings. I floated to the surface, eyes open to appreciate the clarity of the water. Taking in a large lungful of air, I floated on my back to the safety lines, trying to pretend my face wasn't stinging. It was. It's only when you make a jump like that that you appreciate why people choose to kill themselves by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Water is hard. It has surface tension. From that height, it's like hitting concrete. Impact usually kills them rather than drowning. Or the sharks get them. Ah...there was me telling you a nice story about natural beauty, and now I've just depressed you? Soz.

Climbing upwards from San Luis Potosi, we'd arrived in Tamasopo, a small town in the Huasteca region a few hours northeast of Mexico City. The name means water that falls in the Tenek language. We were at altitude now, and had expected a fresh mountain climate. How wrong can you be? We climbed down from the windowless bus into a wall of heat. I gasped, as did the Kid when his feet hit dirt. "Joder! (fuck!)" he exclaimed. "Bloody hell, I'm melting..." I retorted. We staggered to a cheap hotel, sharpish. And then sat in front of a fan each for half an hour, trying to breathe.

Murderous humidity and a lack of nightlife aside, this place is a must-visit if you are coming to Mexico. It's in my Top Five. Unforgettable is a word reserved for only the best places I've seen: this spot is on that list. The series of waterfalls and pools stretch for miles, and these are merely a few in this region. The town is sleepy, tand he locals standoffish unless you make the effort to speak to them. They don't get so many foreign visitors. But we struck up a rapport with the staff of a local seafood restaurant, and frequented that place every day. Great food...huge plates of fish. They even put the Champions League on the telly for us. Result. 

I had a pleasant and memorable chat in Tamasopo, too. Myself and the Kid had gone to pick up our laundry, only to find that it wasn't quite ready and that la senora would be back in fifteen minutes. Fifteen Mexican minutes, obviously. We waited in the park awhile, and she ushered us in with an apology and ordered us sit. Fifteen minutes to dry the clothes, she said. So we sat. Her husband turned up, and we fell into conversation. Mexico: where to go; where to avoid; political relations with the US; the drug war; how it was before. Very interesting, and he was a natural raconteur. We discussed the Conquest, Cortez and Moctezuma. I'd followed 80% of the conversation, as my comprehension was improving after a couple of weeks travelling with the Kid, whose English was limited. And I'd recently read Bernal Diaz's account of the Spanish campaign, so was keen to talk about it. And get the odd Spaniard-baiting joke in.

"Pinches Españoles! (fucking Spaniards)" I said. The woman cracked a smile.
"They came to steal all the gold" she said, nodding.
"And then the pinches English pirates took it from us" said the Kid.
Everyone laughed.
"The English were not stupid" I told them. "They thought that the Aztecs looked a bit fearsome, and decided to let Cortez and his Spaniards fight it out with them. They hung out at the beach drinking rum while they waited for the gold to arrive."
More laughs. The Kid laughed loudest.

My Spanish is getting a lot better on this trip. It's great to be able to crack jokes now. Sometimes people even find them amusing. I still trip over words, make repetitive mistakes, try to translate directly from English (forget it) and get embarrassed in shops sometimes (if you ask for durex in a pharmacy, you'll be handed a roll of sellotape...that is not going to be an effective barrier against pregnancy or venereal disease, I can assure you). But it's getting there, poco a poco. I just wish I'd had this grasp of the language years ago, it makes travel in the Americas a completely different and far more rewarding experience. And I likely wouldn't have blown it with the beautiful Colombiana I met in Medellin in 2009, who couldn't understand a word of my pidgin Spanish. Lessons learned...

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Desert Flower

THE SOUND OF SILENCE is briefly interrupted as a vulture glides above. I both feel and hear the beating of its wings as they thump the sky. From across the desert plain the lonely cry of a locomotive creeps on the breeze. I stand and watch it run, shimmering bright in the heat, the clatter of wheel on rail reaching me after it has passed into the distance, thundering toward Mexico City some 690km south. It disappears from sight with a protesting howl, and silence descends once more. I move into the shade of a leafless tree in the centre of a dusty clearing. Not a soul in sight. The wind picks up: a soft burr against the dry rasp of unseen insects. I crouch and examine the  peyote head most recently cut. Those already eaten, with slices of orange to alleviate the foul, sharply bitter flavour of the cactus, are already taking effect. Warm energy courses through my body, I feel plugged into my surroundings, into the earth itself. The peyote, small, round and green, topped with a delicate flower, feels  alive in my hand; it seems to throb and pulsate like something alien and knowing. I cut and prepare it, already dreading the taste and texture barely hidden by the citrus fruit. But nothing good ever came easy. The rustle of dry, resisting undergrowth announces the return of the Kid. I cast a glance over my shoulder as he approaches the sanctuary of the tree. “I found more. Lots more” he grins.

I hadn’t made it this far north on my last trip. Though told of the deserts around the mountain hideaway of Real de Catorce, I’d decided not to journey up to  partake after reading about the Huichol indians, and their anger at the peyoteros…travellers who seek the peyote for recreational use. Apparently they were  forced to walk farther and farther into the desert to find enough for their ceremonies. I respected that, and travelled to other regions of Mexico instead. But then I  reconsidered things on this trip. Having been an atheist since childhood, I looked at things the other way around. Peyote is something which grows naturally, and why shouldn’t it be available to all who seek its enlightenment? As long as it is taken for the right reasons, and not just to get high as a kite. I’d known something of the plant’s powers after reading The Doors Of Perception by Aldous Huxley as a student, and had been curious about it ever since. Though LSD and magic mushrooms are readily available in England, mescaline is not. This time around, I was keen to find out what it was all about.

The Kid, a 22-year-old Spaniard, had been staying in the same Zacatecas hostel as myself. We decided to head to San Luis Potosi together, as we were traveling  the same route. There were few foreign tourists around, and I knew this would be good for my Spanish. After one night in possibly the worst–run hostel  I’ve ever had the displeasure to stay in, we were on an early bus to Matehuala, then another to Real de Catorce. A transfer to a smaller bus was required for the hair–raising hurtle through a dark tunnel of rock to the tiny pueblo nestled amongst hills and ravines on the other side. There are few entries to a remote spot as spectacular. Winding, broken-cobbled streets lead down to a small central plaza and tiny churches with pastel domes. Small roads and tracks traverse this central spine up and down the hill on which the town sits. Freshly painting buildings sit alongside derelict neighbours; donkeys bray and church bells chime irregularly; dusty horsemen saunter lazily through the streets. In the early morning and late afternoon, its grey stone buildings glow with a touch of pink in the advancing or retreating light. A truly magical place. Abandoned mines surround Real, and the plummeting price of silver in the last century caused the town’s virtual abandonment. It was only when foreign artists, charmed by its ghostly atmosphere, began to make it their home in the 1970s that the town’s fortunes turned around. The silver industry long–dead, tourism is now its lifeblood. The European–owned cafes and restaurants are a double–edged sword for me. On the one hand they detract somewhat from the look and atmosphere of the place but, if you want a decent coffee around here, you need a European to make it. Can’t have your cake and eat it, can you? Not if you want a nice long espresso to wash it down with, you can’t.

Preferring the surrounding hills to the pueblo itself, the first day was spent trekking up to the Cerro Quemada, three hours walk uphill: tiring at sea level, never  mind at this altitude of 2700m. My lungs were burning by the time we reached the summit. On a clear day they reckon you can see for a hundred miles north. I  can believe it; even on this slightly hazy day, mountain ranges were visible in every direction. My breath would have been taken away had the hike not already  done so. I took the vista in between ragged gasps as we recovered. After a peaceful hour I returned downhill to Real. The Kid decided to go and watch the Huichol ceremony taking place at the top of the peaks. Later he told me that he was approached by one of the group and duly told to fuck off, and warned that the peyote was theirs alone. Not the most pleasant indigenous interaction, judging by the account of the shaken young man. I did try and tell him, mind. After lunch we trekked up to the Pueblo Fantasma (Ghost Town), the ruins above Real, and passed these to view the vast valley beyond from whence we'd come by bus the previous afternoon. A spectacular view.

A few further cups of Swiss–made coffee later and we’d had enough of town. It's very quiet. A couple of backpackers passed us, wearing indigenous clothing and haughty “I’m a better traveller than you” expressions. A few too many of those on the road for my liking. Autenticos, we call that breed. I'd be interested to know if they wear the gear back home. My mates would never let me live it down, I'd be torn to shreds. We agreed we’d head off in the morning. Tempting as it was to hire a guide for the trip into the desert, we both believed it was better to go it alone. Besides…they say that you don’t find the peyote, but that the peyote finds you. Like a lot of things in life, if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. The only thing I was slightly nervous about was the presence of both the police, and the activity of narco–traficantes who use the desert to move drugs and weapons. And to murder rivals. So the police didn’t worry me too much, as they are only looking for a bribe rather than to throw you into jail for a few days. The narcos are a different matter. I doubt that, had we stumbled across a group packing a truck full of cocaine, we would have been allowed to back away with a polite “Whoops. Sorry to disturb you, chaps…but you wouldn’t happen to know where the peyote is around here?” No chance: we'd have been shot where we stood and buried in the desert.

And so, after various conflicting time and distance estimations from locals, we set off walking downhill. A complication of travel in Asia and the Americas is that  nobody likes to admit that they don’t actually know where a place or street is, or indeed how long it takes to get there. So we were walking to Estacion de Catorce knowing that it was 4, 6, 7 or 10km away…and that we’d arrive somewhere between half an hour and half a day later. If we’d wanted a real Mexican town with none of the  tourist trappings of Real, then we certainly got it here. It was downright unfriendly, verging on hostile. We found a basic cocina in which to eat a lunch of  scrambled eggs and beans, and asked the owners about transport to Wadley, a smaller town 12km away. Again, misleading information and sometimes deliberate misinformation. The woman behind the counter at a dusty bus transport office told us that there were no trucks or jeeps going to Wadley, and yet outside on another wall there was a timetable of sporadic services? I was beginning to feel uncomfortable under the gaze of the locals, and the hostile glares from passing  pickups full of rural workers. We picked up our packs and decided to walk in the noon heat. Anything was better than hanging around here and waiting for nightfall. Or death.

My anxiety levels were higher than usual as we jumped down from the pickup truck. A nice old gentleman in a huge hat had picked us up halfway down the  highway. The only people we’d seen besides him were a few dark–skinned men hugging the railway tracks as they headed North. Illegal immigrants. The train that plies this route is nicknamed La Bestia, and she has earned her fearsome moniker. As many as 1500 immigrants ride it daily from Central America into  Mexico and beyond to the US, trying to escape poverty and find work. What they are sure to find on the way are violence, extortion, rape, disfigurement and  murder. The gangs of Maras and Zeta cartel members in Mexico extort $100 for the simple ‘privilege’ of riding the train. Charitable hostels sheltering the  immigrants in the southern state of Chiapas, on the Guatemalan frontera, have been closed down with intimidation and violence. People fall from the train, or are  thrown from it; they die or lose limbs. It has been reported that 80% of women riding the train from Honduras and El Salvador have contraceptive injections prior to leaving, such is the level of expected sexual assault. I cannot imagine the desperation which forces someone to undertake such a life-threatening and harrowing journey. I’m glad I didn’t find all this out until we arrived in Wadley, as seeing them scurrying alongside the train would have made me feel quite depressed.

So we ambled into town from the highway, through dusty alleyways and across a deserted, dustbowl of a central plaza, to the main street with it’s fifteen buildings. Faded pastel-painted concrete facades. Wooden signs on creaking  hinges swinging gently in the breeze. An eerily deserted railway station. Old men sat in shaded doorways beneath pristine white hats. Shoeless drunks hiding from the sun, fast asleep. Bony stray dogs skulking around the streets in search of scraps. The skeletons of forgotten pickup trucks bleaching in the sun on flat tyres. Locals who smiled or grinned at mine. I liked the place immediately. This was the real Mexico. Just needed the poncho and the cigar-stub.

We were approached by a shabby local man who said he could fix us up with a room and a peyote guide. I wasn’t keen, but the Kid marched on ahead with him, saying he seemed like a decent bloke. The  rooms he took us to were in a windowless outhouse belonging to an impossibly tiny old lady with unnervingly black teeth named Juanita. Cheap, but I didn’t fancy it, as I wouldn’t have put a dog in there. Even the peso-pinching Spaniard wrinkled his nose. I’ve had bedbug bites once, and once is enough. We found a battered old hotel in town, run by a fat man who chewed a match: the same match every day...he could have sold the place as an eco-lodge? He gave us a cheap room downstairs. I pointed out that there was a pane of glass missing from one of the windows. Air-conditioning, I was told with a humourless grin. We’d stay a night and see. A Mexican upstairs introduced himself: Elizar, a 50-something man from Queretaro. With three wives. And two matted, stinking poodles. Over a beer he told us that he came here regularly, and had been doing for years. His method was to open doors in the minds of his favorite women with peyote trips, and then add them to the harem. Good plan, I thought. The Kid was getting the eye from one of the wives, and Elizar asked him to visit them in Queretaro. I sniggered to myself, as a mental picture of The Gimp from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction popped into my head. The wizened fella told us where to head in our peyote search, and which trails the police usually patrolled.

Moving rooms next day, we were installed at a finca (small farm) on the edge of town. Just us staying there. Solid metal doors, locks and a gate out of the courtyard to the street. Secure and perfect, unlike Hotel Fat Man, although the bathroom was a horror show. Double espresso, that vile grass stuff you can drink and moist carrot-cake is not coming to Wadley anytime soon, believe me. Juan, the owner’s whiskered brother, didn’t have a key for the outside door, but showed us how to leave the barred window on a latch so we could open it to reach through the bars and open the door. Simple. Juan then proceeded to give us directions for a good spot to seek peyote. Four hours of walking to a white patch he indicated in the middle distance, bracketed by two larger ones, he said. We should just navigate towards that one, he told us. I turned and took a few mental pictures on the mountains behind us, their shapes and roads, for the return journey. Didn’t want to end up back in Estacion by mistake…especially if high on peyote. It'd be like Deliverance on a bad trip. Not fun. So we set off, the dog from the  corner shop following us. It was a mid-sized black thing, scrawny and lean, and went by the name of Vino…which means “he/ it came” (or wine) in Spanish. He belonged to nobody and everybody, we were told...hence the name. A boisterous, friendly little chap.

Morning broke. And so to the desert. My Dad had asked me exactly what the attraction was with the place. “Why do you want to see the desert? Once you’ve seen one cactus, you’ve seen them all..” Two words: Clint Eastwood. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, though shot in Almeria in  southern Spain, started a lifelong fascination with these arid vistas and windblown towns in the middle of nowhere. These films were first shown in England on BBC2 in the 1970s. I was around seven years old. I’d seen the listing, read the write-up on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and was desperate to watch it. But it was on after 10pm. No chance. Mum despatched me to bed at 9pm. “Give your Dad a kiss first.” I sulked my way over to Dad. A kiss. A hug. A whisper in the ear. A wink. I’d run upstairs and get into bed, watching the luminous hands tick their way torturously slowly around my bedside clock to ten as I listened for Mum’s footsteps on the stairs. Twenty more minutes, and a creak on the landing: Dad. Watching that film with him left a big impression on me. Eli Wallach. Lee Van Cleef. Clint. That poncho. But whenever I hear the theme tune, I think of my Dad. I watch it with a smile and think of him. Being able to stay up past 10pm on a school night is no big deal for kids these days, but it certainly was back then. Only a few kids the next day could say that their Dad let them stay up late, too. Mum and my siblings didn’t have a clue: it was a secret thing  between me and Dad. And that’s cool when you’re little. So that’s why I wanted to see the desert, Dad. You and Clint Eastwood. Now I could digress and tell you about  another amusing secret episode with my old fella, but that’s for another time. What’s that? Oh…go on, then.

I used to smoke a lot of weed when I was younger, and later with my kid brother. I rolled him his first joint. We actually got on a lot better for it: we'd fought so much previously that some friends nicknamed us The Gallaghers. Anyway…we were nicked by my Dad when he found a bag my brother had stashed for me. We’d both imagined that Dad, being a long-haired sailor in 1960s Liverpool, would have been a pot-smoker? Wrong. Dad was a quite angry, pretty-bloody-obviously-not-a-smoker. Anger subsided, and it was  agreed that we could smoke in the garden and garage to prevent us mixing with the wrong company. Though we were the wrong company around our way...but we jumped at the chance for police-free smoking at home. So we’re in the garage one day, and the old fella comes in looking for a tool. After finding it, he continued to potter and glanced over from time to time, watching what we were doing with the joint. I looked at Scott, my brother, and winked. We knew what was coming. “Is that that stuff you’re smoking there? Your...err...wacky baccie?” We offered him a little, and he took a few tentative puffs. It went around again, and he had a little more, though he complained about the taste of tobacco. We had a pipe ready, and began smoking some dark, soft Moroccan hashish. The good stuff. Dad was coughing his lungs up after a couple of rounds on it.

He’d been out long enough, and decided he didn’t want Mum busting him, so he left to go back to the house. Ten minutes later my sister, Emma, came into the  garage with a huge grin and twinkling blue eyes. “What have you done to Dad?” It turned out that Dad entered the lounge to find my sister and Mum watching TV.  He complained that everything seemed dim in the house, and did it look that way to them? It didn’t, obviously. Cue much amusement and bemusement when he  fetched step-ladders and proceeded to clean every lightbulb in the house with a soft cloth because “they’re dusty”. Obviously this secret with Dad had lasted all of about twenty minutes, because it was plain even to Mum that he was off his rocker. Rather than berate him, though, Mum would just torment  him if he went over the edge. I remember another occasion Dad smoked in the garage with us before we left for a night out. We crafted him a joint in case he  fancied a smoke alone in the evening. According to Mum, he went out in the garden an hour later and stood and smoked the lot, grinning in defiance at her disapproving looks. The next thing she knew he was calling her from the garden. She left the kitchen to find him on his hands and knees, trying to crawl over the door jamb into the conservatory. He wanted help getting up the stairs to bed, but my cruel mother insisted that he make his own way up, or else. He ended up sleeping at the foot of the stairs, though Mum did graciously throw a duvet and pillow down to him. Or at him, more likely.

I went off at a tangent there? Anyone would think I’ve been eating psychedelic plants in the middle of nowhere?

For four hours we walked. Struggling through spiny desert plans tearing at our clothes and bare arms. Beyond the dried husks of trees, collections of bleached bones  spread out below them. The floor felt hollow beneath our feet, so dry was the earth. Vino came running back after scouting ahead, with three large cactus spines in his snout and mouth. I called him to me and he approached, head down and tail wagging near the ground, nervous. He knew what was coming. I told the Spaniard to grab him, and I secured his head beneath my left arm. His head thrashed about as I tried to grab the spines, and it took fifteen minutes to pull all three out, but boy was Vino pleased afterwards. He disappeared soon after, and I was praying he knew his way home. Not much shelter or water out here for a small black dog. The piles of whitened bones we happened across frequently hardly reassured me about the little black chap's chances.

A solitary palm tree appeared in the near-distance. Two smaller ones nearby. “Las Palmas Borracheras?” I asked the Spaniard. “The place Elizar was on about” he confirmed. We walked a little farther. He suddenly looked down and pointed. “Is that it?” He was indicating a small clump of dusted discs of cactus below a dried, thorny plant. I looked around…similar plants had excavated holes beneath them. “Must be, yeah...” The pair of us cackled with glee. The indigenous people in these parts do not pick the first peyote they find, but move onto the next one, leaving the first as a tribute to their ancient gods. For the sake of tradition I followed suit, and sought my own.

We cut it, washed and cleaned it. Sliced oranges. Opened bottles of drinking water ready to wash it down with. Obviously, it being the first trip on peyote, we’d take it slowly. Didn’t want to go too far over the edge. I put some peyote buds into my mouth and chewed. A revolting, acrid taste filled it, and I was frantically reaching for a piece of orange. The Spaniard laughed "Your face!" Until he tried it: he soon had a grimace to match. It’s pretty fucking nasty. But after a while you learn to bear it, and we consumed several cactus heads. It didn’t take long for the effects to begin. I was mildly concerned when the Spaniard told me that it was his first experience with  hallucinogens, but then, out in the desert there’s no-one to make you paranoid or potentially send you on a bad trip. Well…the police and bloodthirsty narcos, yes. But apart from them. He took a walk alone, I relaxed beneath our tree.

Peyote was more of a body trip for me, rather than anything too visual. You feel relaxed. Warm. The light appeared different. You feel in tune with nature. I watched birds settle in the tree and call across to mates. The vultures above. Always vultures. I stood and stretched, feeling every sinew in my body singing. Senses are heightened: drinking water, I could feel it trace its route from my throat to cool every cell in my body. The sensations are very pleasant. And lots of laughing. I'd take a little more next time for the visual effects. Walking, I found a clump of peyote…eight flowers in all: beautiful. Knife out, I was prepared to cut the first when an insect landed amongst the flowers. Ants crawled in and out of the cacti. I crouched and watched this little society function, and could’t bring myself to destroy it. I walked a little more and found another. Plenty for everyone.

The Kid was gone awhile, and I stretched out in the sun. The clearing around the tree felt like the centre of the universe, and I was at one with it. Closing my  eyes, long-lost images and sequences from my life flashed before me; people forgotten from my childhood drifted by; standing on a Welsh beach as a boy, surrounded by thousands of huge orange starfish washed up on the sands, my younger brother in blue shorts with white anchors; playing golf with my Grandad and Uncle Barry on a shabby municipal course in Liverpool in the 70s; a school disco; Dawn Fawthorpe…my first kiss; Dad running over my foot in his car on a Boulogne quayside; crashing my first bike. I looked up at the clouds. The winds were blowing banks of them above in different directions. I thought that the clouds were like us drifting through life…it can look like you’re on course to meet another, before a breeze carries you away on another track, and you don’t cross paths in the end. Life seems to be a long process of casting off, especially when you’re on the road. Endless goodbyes. I thought about my route through life to this exact point and place. I’d been driving a delivery van around the English Lake District just fifteen years before. Several people, connections that did happen, and before I knew it I was in London. Life changed. A friend of mine took a year out to travel, and came back with stories and photographs…and the rest is rootless history for me. Of course, there were things that looked likely to happen in my life yet didn’t, but different doors opened because they failed to. The girl that never was. If I’d been with her now, would I be sat in a tree watching a sunset over a Mexican desert? Maybe so. But more likely not. You just never know, and life takes a different route with every way you turn. Every bus you miss. Every extra five minutes in bed before work. And that is the random beauty of it. Play the hand that you are dealt, and just be happy that you have cards at all…and the chance to play them. As John Lennon once said “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Beautifully put, should write songs.

Sun was setting now, the lilacs, blues and purples stunning over distant ranges of hills. The Kid was approaching and I called down from the tree I'd climbed on impulse...I've always loved climbing trees. He was ready to go. I jumped down and gave him a bear hug. He laughed "We did it, man." What a day. We watched the bloody orb finally sink behind the hills and headed for town. If there were narcos about, they’d likely be more active at night. I wanted to sleep in my bed, not a shallow hole in the desert. We reached the pueblo and had to walk beyond the finca to get the front door key: Juan hadn’t left it open as promised. The old lady in the corner shop called her errant brother, and he set off  to open the door. She set my mind at rest, too: Vino had come back for his lunch. We reached home and, in typical Mexican manner, Juan still hadn’t opened the window in the front door. I didn’t fancy walking back into town. Leaping up, I took hold of the concrete slab above the gate, and scrambled over the wall with my legs, being careful to avoid the broken glass set in the concrete. “Pinches ingleses” (the fucking English) laughed the Spaniard. I straddled the wall and paused. “You can take the boy out of  Liverpool…” I winked and, dropping over the wall, opened the gate “…but you can’t take Liverpool out of the boy.”

Friday, 31 May 2013

A Dirty War

AN AFTERNOON IN a busy salon in Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the United States. As the stylist puts the finishing touches to her hair, a woman is discussing the recent events in the city, renowned for its drug-related violence. "Things are so bad around here that I can't even let my kids play out in the street any more. And all because of these damned narcos (drug traffickers)." A young woman behind her, awaiting her turn, stands and approaches the pair, drawing a .38 revolver from her handbag. She points it at the head of the customer, who looks on in shock via the mirror, and orders the stylist "Shave her." As the girl obeys and quickly cuts off all of the trembling woman's hair, she is told "If I see you wearing a wig to cover this up, I will kill you." The pistol is put away, and the assailant leaves the shop without a backward glance.

This incident occurred in Juarez in 2009, up until then the most violent year on record. In 2008 a mere 1,653 people were assassinated in the city. By the end of 2009, cartel-related murders happened on average seven times a day in a city of 1.8 million people. A total of almost 2000 killings, including 80+ women and 49 children. It is said that the average Juarense will see a road blocked by the ubiquitous yellow crime scene tape at least once a day. The northwestern states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango are known as the Dorado Triangle. The war on drugs begun by president Felipe Calderon six years ago has seen little success; unless success is measured in bodies, of which there have been 60,000 in his six-year term. The cartels compete for control of the "plaza", or drug market. And they are many. The Sinaloa cartel and their armed faction La Linea; the Federation, headed by the Carillo Fuentes dynasty; the Knights Templar; Familia Michoacana; the Zetas, deadly enemies of Sinaloa, consisting of ex-military men until recently working for the Gulf cartel. There is no clear picture of who is fighting who. But every week, the corpses of murdered rival factions are publicly displayed: mutilated, dismembered or beheaded, along with messages for their enemies: the so-called narcomantas. This macabre practice is designed to frighten and intimidate. Not only rivals in the business, but also the public. Do not talk. One man was hung, headless, from a bridge in Chihuahua; his head was found in a plastic bag, in a town square 8km from his corpse. In Michoacan in 2010 a discoteca full of revellers became a scene of panic when masked men entered and emptied a bag of ten severed heads onto the dancefloor. The savagery is beyond belief. In a step up from leaving bodies in busy public places, the narcos have taken to the Web to spread their messages of fear. Graphic beheadings with knives, and even chainsaws, are there for all to see online. "But, you see, we're descended from the Aztecs" a friend in the capital told me "this brutality is in our blood." Having read Bernal Diaz's account of the Spaniards' conquest of Mexico, and the Aztecs' pitiless sacrifices of captured men, I'd be inclined to agree. But those ancient Mexicans had faith in their gods as an excuse for slaughter.

The violence does not exclusively affect those in the drugs trade. The blood of innocents is shed as they are caught in the crossfire. In 2009 a man was targeted in a dispute; his car was shot up as he travelled with his family, his hunters unperturbed by the fact that children were in the vehicle. He was unhurt, but his nine-year-old son received a hole in the arm courtesy of a bullet from an AK-47 assault rifle. Ordinary people are caught up in the cycle. A Juarez businessman, tired of the corpses that would be dumped outside his business on a weekly basis, decided to hang a sign out front as a joke: "It is prohibited to throw rubbish or corpses outside these premises". The joke was on him two weeks later as killers dumped the body of his daughter on his doorstep. Fortunately he was not around to see it: they had killed him the previous week. Up in the hills of the Sierra Madre, the Le Baron family cultivated products for the likes of Ferrero Rocher. When one of their number was kidnapped in 2008 they refused to pay a ransom, believing that this would pave the way for more extortion and kidnappings. The boy was eventually recovered by an army operation. But if the Le Barons thought that this was the end of the matter, they were sadly mistaken. Months later, the high-profile head of the family, Benjamin Le Baron, was kidnapped by twenty armed and masked men. He was taken, along with his brother-in-law, several miles out of town on the highway before being thrown to the ground and shot several times in the head. Even something as simple as a date with your girlfriend can turn into a nightmare here: if a narco takes a liking to her, the safest thing for both you and her is to let the narco to take her. A lost girlfriend is better than a bullet in the head for either of you.

The police force is notoriously corrupt. The only piece of advice I was given before travelling in Mexico was "If you get into trouble, the last person you should ask for help is a policeman". I met a couple from Washington recently who were travelling in a hire car in Baja California. They passed two policemen who had pulled someone over on the other side of the road. One cop made eye contact with them, and his eyes spun like the wheels on a slot machine. He couldn't get in his car fast enough to turn around and chase after them. They were stopped, told they were speeding and stung for $100 (£65). It was that or a trip to the station. Not speaking much Spanish, they opted just to pay up. Nice, simple tax for the police. Especially when you consider that a policeman earns just £175 a week here.

There are three levels of policing in this country: municipal, state and federal. Those at the bottom, your small-town cops and the like, are the most corrupt. There is less amongst the feds, but the corruption is at another level. The municipal and state police are taking backhanders and turning blind eyes; though in more serious cases you have the recent arrests of several off-duty policemen who were involved in shooting up a convoy of lawyers who were involved in the prosecution of narcotraficantes. Guns for hire, indeed. For anyone taken off the street to be interrogated and tortured by the authorities, the outlook is bleak: most are disappeared from their homes soon afterwards, and murdered by the narcos just in case they talked. The military have also been accused of collusion with the cartels. Many cases of robbery were reported during Operation Conjunctivo Chihuahua, when army units would demand to search the properties of rich people for suspected drugs and weapons, when in fact they would be searching for the family safe. "Mexico is the second most corrupt country in the world" a man in the Oaxacan hills told me with a smile "because we paid not to be first..."

The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes said: "The war on drugs has no direction. The solution is to raise the quality of life for the Mexicans, that is the way to reduce crime." When drug money is so easy to make, and the standard of living is so poor, you can understand people taking a chance. The police and military are so badly-paid that you can, to a certain extent, understand their ease of corruption. But the money can be good even on the peripherals. Mechanics and bodyshop owners can earn decent money fitting out vehicles to smuggle contraband, be it people, drugs or weapons. But when investigators get too close, or the cartels decide someone knows too much, these people get butchered as easily as a cartel soldier tosses a cellphone which has become too hot to use. Close-range executions with powerful .44 calibre Magnums seem to be the favoured method of guaranteed execution. Life has never been cheaper.

Perhaps the most dangerous profession in these northern states is that of the journalist. They are murdered frequently. Editors are threatened, told what they can and can't print. Photographers have been beaten or killed for photographing cartel members at society weddings and funerals; sometimes for not photographing them, as if this was an intended slight. Foreign journalists tend to file their reports from their hotel rooms, and conduct interviews with the subjects in the relative safety of their grounds. I recently read an article written by a Mexican journalist lamenting his city's moniker of Most Violent City In The World. On being contacted by a Scandinavian journalist looking for a story on what it was like to be working in such a risky industry, he offered to give the man a guided tour. The foreigner was understandably nervous about his safety, but the Mexican assured him that he would be fine. He took him into the hills above Juarez; showed him the stunning views of the town, the river and the sight of El Paso across the border; the fine old districts with beautiful old buildings which once bustled with the famous nightlife of the town which would draw visitors from the U.S. side of the river. But no longer. At nights the streets are deserted and anyone in search of nightlife is now over on the American side of the river. Juarez has changed irrevocably. They passed two of the most notorious corners in the Alta Vista barrio: La Cima (the Summit) where the police come by to pick up their quota, or payoffs, and La Tiendita (Little Shop) where any drug you could possibly want is on sale. And guns should you need them. In the Parque Central lie the ruins of an old sports complex. In 2008 the army used this as a base for 2000 soldiers until it was deemed unsafe for them. Unsafe. For 2000 trained and heavily armed men. Having seen all of this, the foreign correspondent was still surprised by the pleasant appearance of the town, and remarked on the fact that it didn't quite resemble the war-zone he'd been expecting? Life goes on for the people of Juarez, albeit a little more cautiously these days.

Now picture yourself in a nice restaurant enjoying a meal with your family. In walks a man as his associates quickly seal off the space. "I am Joaquin El Chapo Guzman. Everything is paid for. My men are going to collect your cell phones. If you value life, you will co-operate. Nothing is going to happen. We will eat and go in peace. Good evening." Shorty Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel, has made many such appearances, always with the same introduction, since his escape from prison in 2001. According to Forbes magazine, he earns $25-40 million a year, and has amassed a personal fortune of $1.2 billion. He makes Pablo Escobar look like a street dealer in Brixton. If this is just one cartel head, albeit the most successful, imagine how much money is washing around Mexico and the States? Because the simple fact is that a lot of money disappears into the system on both sides of the border. As long as America wants cocaine and heroin, and the Mexicans want the guns and cash which flood south, the slaughter continues. There are lots of rich people getting steadily richer. There is far too much money at stake for anyone, innocents aside, to want the war on drugs to end. How best to resolve it? Legalisation and taxation? It would be a step in the right direction; hopefully the recent initiatives taken in several U.S. states will go some way towards making this happen.

Though the likes of El Chapo and Carillo Fuentes are not likely to be the last of their kind, neither were they the first. On this dusty land, already soaked with the spilled blood of the Apache and the Navajo, was born the first in the genesis of the narco: a woman named La Nacha. From 1906 right up until the 1960s, she and her clan controlled the flow of contraband into the United States from Ciudad Juarez with an iron fist. In the 1920s the trickle became a flood as Prohibition in America saw the Mexicans shipping illegal alcohol across the border, along with cocaine, heroin and opium. There were several Chinese rivals for the business in the early days, and she had them captured and brought before her to be executed. No prisoners. Like Pablo Escobar in Colombia, La Nacha financed community projects and supported her people, earning her their loyalty. If the police ever entered the barrio of Alta Vista looking for her, she was spirited away by her neighbours before they got close. The bloodline was severed when her only grandson was killed in a car crash shortly before her death in 1973. Her passing signalled a scramble for control of the market which continues to this day.

The city has suffered a shrinkage in its business sector in recent years, the world economic crisis adding to the woes of protection racketeering and other extortion. Almost 2000 businesses closed between 2006 and 2009, a shrinkage of 12.5%. But it's not all doom and gloom. Especially if you are a funeral director. Business is booming for them, as the bodies continue to pile up. Shiny new emporiums spring up continually, full of state-of-the-art coffins in a range of colours and finishes. And amongst the many offers are those of skilled reconstructive services. As one funeral director advertises: "Bring us your loved one and a recent photograph, and we will do the rest". Reassuring for those who've recently lost someone at point-blank range to a sicario with a .44 Magnum.

No-one is sure where this will end. Only one thing is certain, and that is that more people are going to die horribly. Felipe Calderon's term ended six months ago, and the current incumbent is, unbelievably, being blamed for the spiral of violence, continued unemployment and poor standard of living in the country. He's going to need more than Luck on his side, I know that much.

And please...don't quote me on any of this? Mine is not the prettiest head in the world, but I'm quite happy with where it's located at the moment.

Death Race 2013 & Déja Vu

I WATCHED sunny Little Corn recede into the distance as our boat headed for her bigger sister. My sadness at leaving was tempered by the fact that Stefano was along for the ride, as he had to renew his visa. On arrival in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua you receive a 90 day visa. But this is not renewed as you cross any of their mutual borders. This is due to the CA-4 trade agreement which apparently makes things easier for the four countries to do business. I began reading about it so as to be able to explain it better, but almost fell asleep after the first paragraph. Suffice to say, all you need to know is that it's a royal pain in the arse if you're in El Salvador and your visa is running out: you need to either traverse Guatemala to get to Belize or Mexico, or pass through Nicaragua to get to Costa Rica...leave and come back in. The bane of the Central American traveller's life; well, that and gangs of Israeli backpackers.

A larger boat awaited us at Big Corn for the 60km sail to the southernmost tip of Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Us being amongst the first aboard, we had our pick of spots in which to sling a hammock. The vessel soon filled up with travellers and locals making their way to the mainland. Towards midnight, our filthy boat chugged and smoked its way from port and headed out into open ocean. I watched the lights of the island diminish as I swung in my hammock with the rhythm of the waves. Folk bedded down wherever they could: on packing crates, families amongst heaps of blankets on the deck. Space was at a premium. Some old bloke had crept beneath Stef's hammock, making it uncomfortable for the Italian as he kept bumping into him as the boat gently lurched from side to side. I had to laugh at his obvious annoyance, as he's always accusing me of being the grumpy fucker. I was soon regretting not changing into my jeans as the wind picked up: it got cold. But bearable...I've been colder on long-distance buses in Thailand, to be fair. I nodded off into sleep.

I was amongst the first to wake, dim light and a lack of water movement rousing me: we must be on the river now, I thought. The sky was purple, and the silhouetted trees on the banks drifted past like Rorschach ink blots on tranquil lilac waters. I was transfixed, watching the small bow waves from the boat spreading out in perfect parallel lines, rousing the birds and small animals living amongst the waterside undergrowth. Beautiful. Akin to scenes from Coppola's Apocalypse Now, of Martin Sheen's gunboat as it stole upriver towards Colonel Kurtz and his heart of darkness. Far and away my favourite boat ride. As the light grew, several others shared this stunning dawn. A Nicaraguan man at the stern peered out at the river from the railing; turning, he caught my eye and nodded. I gave him a big grin back and raised a hand. I soon dropped the hand and grin, quickly looking the other way, as I realised that he had his cock out and was taking a piss over the side. I'd thought we were silently sharing a special moment: I don't want to know what he thought? Most passengers were now beginning to stir. Local women with kids brushed their teeth, rinsing with cups of water and spitting into the boat's wake.

We reached the river town of Rama soon afterwards, a hive of activity. Stevedores began unloading cargo; touts shouted taxi fares and times; passengers scrambled to the first to the buses. A thin line of soldiers advanced on us as we walked uphill from the dock, they searched bags and boxes. My mouth went dry, as I had a little grass stashed. But these boys are after cocaine traffickers, nothing more. A cursory check, and we passed through.

I'd savoured the boat ride, and the time to reflect, despite the awful tales of toilets ankle-deep in vomit I'd heard from other travellers. Little Corn had been good to me; I'd got the experience I'd needed to find work as an instructor elsewhere. It had been a great place to unwind after ten months working and saving in London. I'd still been able to see Match Of The Day every week, courtesy of Adam. Top man. But the regular instructors had begun turning up at the shop, and work had begun to dry up for me at the bottom of the food chain. Island paradises and beaches are all well and good, but I need to be occupied...there is only so long I can spend smoking weed and reading books on a tropical beach. Time was up.

The bus to Managua was, by contrast, pure hell. It took forty minutes for this jalopy of an old American school bus to creep out of town. I am not exaggerrating when I say it stopped every fifty yards to take on more passengers, cargo and vendors selling the same crap as the last lot thirty seconds since. All manner of tat, unhealthy food and other nonsense. An hour into the journey and an evangelist boarded and began preaching against the gringo and the U.S. government. The white man was a devil, apparently. "So the Pope is a devil, too?" Stefano tossed over his shoulder at the man. I winced. Some woman nearby was loudly praising Jesus and going into raptures. The pair of them blessed some kids nearby. A woman stood in the aisle next to my Italian friend was dripping some white gunk from a carrier bag all over his feet. The driver of the bus was blasting a variety of awful soft rock hits from the tinny radio: you know it's bad when Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse Of The Heart is actually a highlight of the selection. Three or four hours later (I can't remember exactly, as I was busy trying to hang myself from the headrest with my own belt by this time) we rolled into that charmless shithole of a capital city: Managua. No-one likes hanging around here if they can help it. Two friends of mine were robbed a few weeks later at an intersection outside of town by three men wielding machetes, one pointing a pistol at their heads. An unpleasant place devoid of interest and character. "Bus to Granada?" the Italian asked me. Yep.

So we escaped to Granada. Then to the border the next day: passports stamped and another 90 days on the visa. Stefano had had a torrid time here last trip, when he went to the border with Maxy, a mutual friend. The border guards had tried it on, insisting that they had to pay a bribe if they didn't want to stay in Costa Rica the "obligatory" 24 hours before re-entering Nicaragua. Not speaking Spanish, Maxy had been confused by all this. They'd ended up crossing back into Nicaragua, and telling a guard that they'd already paid his friend, who was 100 yards away, the tip and giving the distant man a wave which he confusedly returned. They were across no man's land before the Costa Ricans realised they'd been had.

We returned to Managua after a night in San Juan Del Sur. I said hasta luego to my friend at the bus terminal. I never feel too sad saying goodbye to the Italian, as we both know that we'll find one another on the road again before long. I headed for Leon, close to the border with El Salvador. This was all old ground I'd covered in 2011. Nothing was new, and I had trouble rousing any sort of enthusiasm to see any places nearby that I'd missed first time around. And the Nicaraguans aren't the most welcoming people; I've met friendlier Honduran gangsters. So I was booked on a shuttle to Guatamala pretty soon afterwards.

One place I had been looking forward to returning to was Antigua de Guatemala. My favourite town on my last adventure, I was keen to spend a little more time here and return to my Spanish school. Though I had an ulterior motive. Whilst working in London in September last year, I'd been too occupied with some pretty tedious designs for a very corporate client to notice the pretty girl three desks in front of me, she having her back to me all day. It was only when I heard someone speaking (a kind of) Spanish with the Irish girl to my right that my ears pricked up and I looked around in curiosity. And there she was: a tall, slender, raven-haired, green-eyed vision. I made sure I bumped into her in the kitchen when she went to make tea (I'm a creep, I know). Her name was Jennifer. She gave me those rare butterflies in the stomach for the first time in twenty years. A fellow hispanophile, she'd lived in Colombia for six months; a travel writer, she was looking to return to the Americas a little after my departure date. Just the kind of woman I'd been looking for. But, having recently come out of a brief relationship with a broken heart, she wasn't in the market for another one. Timing, as ever, can be cruel. But we agreed that it would be nice to cross paths in Guatemala.

The drive to Guatemala, through El Salvador, was truly frightening. We switched vehicles at the Salvadorean border, and an elderly man was to drive ten of us to Antigua in a minivan. Night had fallen, and the man's driving soon began to concern us. He was continually drifting across the line into oncoming traffic, and several of us shouted warnings to him as he swerved back again to the blare of horns. We approached a bridge at high speed, and I asked him in Spanish if he could please slow down, as he was scaring people. Me included, I can tell you. We narrowly avoided a concrete pillar at the edge of the bridge, and the dark chasm below it flashed by in the headlights. The man was sweating profusely. He pulled over at a tiny row of shops soon afterwards, and bought some pills and water. I explained that I would be happy to drive if he was feeling unwell? He was having none of it. We continued at the same pace. Several cyclists and other drivers almost met their end as he swerved all over the road. One of the girls in the back started crying. It seemed that the more we panicked and asked him to slow down, the faster he went...he obviously wanted rid of us. I had to laugh at the Australian lad who'd bagged the front seat next to the driver. He'd been quite smug about it in the beginning but now, feet braced against the dashboard and hand on the windscreen, he didn't look so pleased with himself. Indeed, had there been a crocodile-infested pool alongside the van right at that moment, I wouldn't have bet against him jumping to comparative safety.

I almost did an impression of the Pope on arrival: I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss Antigua's cobbletones. But I made do with telling the driver exactly what I thought of him and his dangerous driving. To think that my Mum worries when I'm diving, visiting border towns or heading out into the desert? If you're going to die on your travels, it's more likely than not to happen on the road. Amphetamine-fuelled drivers on 18-hour routes; dilapidated buses; bald tyres; landslides. You name it, I've seen it out here and in Asia. They drive at such insane speeds, and without seatbelts, that you are positive Physics is not on the curriculum in their schools.

And so I happily settled into old routines in this familiar town. Coffee at my favourite spots in the morning. Sunny terraces for healthy breakfasts and smoothies; Spanish tution in the gardens of the Antiguena Spanish School; the odd mezcal of an evening in the candlelit Café No Sé, reading a book; burritos at Porqué No? I'm quite sure that my 21-year-old self would have been horrified at reading of his sedate future? I stayed in a dorm at a hostel initially, but the genial atmosphere and nice bunch of people were spoiled somewhat by a fly in the ointment named Kaly, a middle-aged Indian woman from Coventry. Far and away the strangest, darkest and nastiest person I've met on my travels. She came across as a harmless oddball to everyone at first, but soon changed when drunk. Like Jeckyll and Hyde. Conversation amongst a group could be changed for the worst by her deliberately obscure ramblings. And talk about begging? Scrounging cigarettes from people, poncing drinks and watching you make breakfast before asking "Can I have a little bit of that?" became a bit tedious after a while. She had a drunken rant at another girl at the hostel one morning, and accused her of keeping her up all night, invading her head with "dark energy and negative vibes". Truly bizarre. A travelling sociopath, no less. I had a word with her, and said that she couldn't behave in this manner. I told the staff at the hostel that they were in danger of losing everyone there, as people had had quite enough and spoke of leaving. The Guatemalan women seemed scared of her and would only go as far as telling her that she couldn't stay beyond the weekend, as her room was reserved for someone else. Kaly came to apologise to us as a group, with a contrite speech for each of us. But enough was enough for me...I was leaving if she wasn't. Life's too short.

So I returned to El Jardin De Lolita, a small hotel where I'd roomed previously. I got my old room, and it felt like I was home as I sat and watched the sunsets from the roof. When Jennifer rolled into town a few weeks later, life had assumed a tranquil rhythm. She took classes too; I hired a motorbike and we toured the smaller surrounding towns. I took her to see the Mexican singer Lila Downs perform in the gardens of a derelict convent for her birthday. We hung out in my favourite spots and discovered new ones. Pleasant time together, but it was blatantly obvious that she needed time on her own this trip. Así es.

A friend of Jen's turned up, a girl named Liz. We all met up in a coffee shop facing the Parque Central. As well chatted, it was obvious that Liz was thinking the same as myself: that we'd met before. Mutual friends in London, work perhaps? No. But I thought I had it. "Have you ever done online dating?" She laughed. It turned out that we'd met for a date in the Prince George, one of my favourite local pubs back at home. "Must have made an impression on each other, then?" she laughed. Liz was a funny one. She didn't mix with other travellers and rarely went out alone. Constantly complaining of her tight budget, Jen ended up paying for her concert ticket and more than one meal we had together. It annoyed me. She couldn't pay for her dinner one night, and her friend stumped up again. Jen was understandably irked the following day when Liz told her that she'd had an amazing massage for only £20...Jen's daily budget. That's not a true friend, in my book.

The coincidences continued. I left my room one morning to see a familiar face outside the room next door: the singing American woman from Sayulita that I'd met when last in Mexico. It had been fifteen months since that drive to Guadalajara, several hundred miles away. She was as surprised as me. And I didn't know it then, but four months later in Mazunte I would recognise the gait of a bald Canadian fella I spent a week smoking with up in Puerto Vallarta, several states north. He was walking downhill with a Mexican friend. "Carl?" I asked, flabbergasted. "The English guy, right? Vallarta? Fuck!" It's a small world, indeed.

And so what of the green-eyed one? heart is in Mexico, and I could hear her calling me north. Jen was heading south: she had unfinished business with Colombia, her place. She stressed again that she wanted time to be alone, and little things I picked up when we were together indicated that I wasn't really for her. So Mum can keep that hat in the need to make that cosy family of moths homeless just yet? But it was a good couple of weeks together, and Antigua will be all the more special to me because of that. Jennifer would have been that rare thing in the life of a footloose wanderer like me: a plan-changer. This is both the beauty and sorrow of travel: you will meet people now and again that you want to get closer to, but they are more likely than not travelling in the opposite direction. Physically or emotionally, or both. What can you do but follow your own path and wait for the stars to align? I just hope it's not another twenty years before those rare butterflies get another chance to spread their wings.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Needle Swings West

AFTER ENDURING a truly appalling English Summer, the worst on record for a hundred years, my latest exit from these shores was drawing near. Autumn is the only season I miss while away on my travels, and I had been happy to see an October here for a change. The crisp, bright mornings; crunch of browned and yellowed leaves underfoot; frigid blue skies; clouds of breath in fresh air. But come winter I seek escape. No snow-blocked roads, dysfunctional London Underground services or grey-skinned, disgruntled populace for me. No way, Jose...I'm offski.

For some months I'd been pondering a return to the Philippines. Finding a diving job in an unfamiliar location elsewhere in the world could prove difficult with my limited work experience. My best bet appeared to be to turn up and freelance in Coron. I'd previously served as a guide on the WWII Japanese wrecks there, and so the local dive shop owners know me. I also felt that I had unfinished business with the deepest and most thrilling of the ships: Irako. And using the Philippines as a base, I'd maybe see some of Japan on a visa run, finally make it to Borneo, and perhaps revisit Truk Lagoon for a Busman's Holiday on the wrecks over there. Right? Wrong.

Plans have a funny way of changing. And after all, I've always said that the plan is there is no plan. And so it happened, as I sat alone in an Old Street pub on the fringe of east London, nursing one of my last pints of real ale. A familiar leering face appeared pressed up against the window to the street, that of my rangy Italian friend Stefano. We'd met in Honduras on the PADI Instructor course, and dived together in the Galapagos islands: an easy travelling companion. He was on his way from Genoa to work on a tiny Caribbean island in Nicaragua called Little Corn. It took him little time to sell it to me over a few drinks: no roads, no cars, no motorbikes, no noise, beautiful beaches, plentiful grass and a nice relaxed vibe. Stef told me that Adam, the English manager of the dive shop he was returning to, would let me help out on courses to get some student certifications on my CV, something I was certainly lacking. This sounded a lot better than hanging around in a dusty Philippine town with back-biting ex-pats and scant opportunities of work. My German diving mentor there, Gerd, had also split with his wife, and had recently left the island. Coron wouldn't be the same for me without the boss there. Something just didn't feel right about going back. It's a long way to go if you're not feeling a hundred percent convinced.

And as much as I love spending time in Asia, the food and the diving being far superior to that in the Americas, the Latin countries will always draw me back: the people, the colour, the vibe, the language. My Spanish, as rusty as it got during my time back in Blighty, would soon improve. I'd spend time improving it en route to the place where I felt I'd left my heart last trip: Mexico. I'd never been so sad to leave a country as I had been that December afternoon in Cancun. A few months with Stefano diving a Caribbean island, followed by a return to Mexican friends had my mind changing like the wind; a few pints with him before he left to catch his connecting flight, and we'd made arrangements to rendezvous on Little Corn.

Two weeks later and I was bouncing across huge waves in a tiny panga, watching the dimiutive island appearing and disappearing as we crested peaks and lurched into troughs; huge walls of dark blue water loomed threateningly above us as the sun fled. The heads-up from Stefano proved useful: I'd changed into a pair of board shorts and stuffed everything into a waterproof bag; plenty of people around me were drenched in hoodies and jeans. Local knowledge is always key. Though having said that, Stef hates Miami airport and I actually enjoyed my couple of hours there, beginning with the grinning chap who stamped my passport and welcomed me to the States with "British, huh? Enjoy Miami...and you can eat the beef here!" I like a bit of banter. There was an elderly American sat opposite me on the panga who had been rabbiting on non-stop about the differences between British and American English as we'd left the harbour on Big Corn. Not banter...more taking the piss. I'd bitten my lip and kept quiet as he'd mocked our accent and apparently odd expressions, everything bar our reputedly bad teeth. He soon shut up as the first set of waves hit us, and the boat dropped steeply behind a foaming crest of sea. He soon seemed keener to hang on to his Nicaraguan wife's hand as she fed last night's dinner to the fish over the side. I smiled at him and commented in a jolly fashion that it was certainly an interesting ride: eyes set on the horizon and the safety of the island, he didn't reply. But, feeling his wife's pain, I told her to try and watch the distant horizon to the side of the boat, as she'd start to feel better. Watching the waters around you as the boat is pitched and tossed is a recipe for violent seasickness.

We finally reached the shelter of Little Corn's outer reefs, and flat water. The boat sped toward the darkened island and a spattering of bright lights. A crowd of black faces awaited us on the dock: porters and touts, local boys scanning the passengers for lone young women, and among them my goatee-sporting Italian friend. "Despicable Crawford!" he shouted with a wide grin as the panga drew level with the wall and we clambered out. A bearhug, and he took my small pack from me, leading me off into the descending, fecund night, the lilting strains of country and western from a distant bar competing with a raucous insect chorus. He'd reserved a room for me at Three Brothers, an economical place run by a large and affable black fella named Randy. I liked him immediately. He's well-respected on the island and Stef told me "Your stuff is safe here, there are no burglaries at the fucks with Randy." Stef showed me to my room...the best one upstairs with windows on two sides, ensuring a breeze from somewhere. "This was my room last season, and my girlfriend Lisa's when she first arrived. Mike from the dive shop also stayed here. So we've all had a shag on your bed" he grinned, patting the mattress. Thanks for that, mate. Very cosy.

"This place is not a paradise" Stefano warned me as we walked back out to one of the tiny bars on the main pathway running parallel to shore. He gave me a brief rundown of Who's Who on the island: who to avoid, who not to trust. It was safe for a man to walk anywhere at night, but a woman should always be escorted home. Two weeks before my arrival there had been an attempted rape; a German woman walking alone in the darkness along the path connecting the two sides of the island had been attacked from behind, only avoiding a serious sexual assault when she bit the hand of the man trying to gag her as they struggled in the undergrowth. Horrifying. And it's not a rare occurrence: there are rapes every season on these islands. The lack of a police presence seems to lead some local men to think that they can almost get away with murder. My good friend Fletch came to this island with his wife Caroline some years back. He was swimming while his wife went back across the island to get her camera. On the way back she was robbed by two youths waving a rusty machete: one confident but his compadre nervous and wide-eyed. It didn't take long for a line-up of likely suspects to be paraded in front of my friends, the head man having quickly been informed of the robbery. Caroline picked the culprit out immediately and, though she recognised the clearly terrified accomplice amongst the men, chose not to identify him as she had the feeling he'd been bullied by the other into committing the attack. The head man told the robber to go to the house of his grandmother and await the police, who would come from Big Corn in two days' time. Caroline was distraught with fear: she'd just fingered this criminal to the authorities, and now only his granny stood between him and possible revenge? They left the island a week later, and were greeted by a police sergeant on the harbour at Big Corn. He took them to the airprort via the station to show them his handiwork: the youth was handcuffed in a cell, his face a bloodied and bruised mess. "Look what we did to your robber" he said proudly. The Fletchers were, understandably, shocked and appalled. Rough justice had not been demanded. And so, in a nutshell: be friendly to the locals but don't be too trusting; don't mess with the local women, as a charming Englishman had recently left the island with a broken jaw; don't let your definitely-not-an-island-girlfriend walk home alone. Sobering words from the Italian.

And so I settled into island life and a pleasant routine. The staff and instructors at the shop made me feel at home immediately, and it was nice to be diving every day. I was helping out Gary, one of the local divemasters, when he had a group too large to handle: I'd just hang back from the divers and try and keep them together when the odd one drifted off on their own; when a diver or two got low on air, I'd surface with them whilst Gary continued the dive with the remainder. We worked well as a team, and I really enjoyed it. When Stefano had courses to teach, I'd assist him. Usually it was Open Water or Advanced students. I'd been teaching beginners with my BSAC club in London, so I found it easy. I also helped out Jennifer, a half-Colombian girl, who was teaching at the shop.

Two Argentinians turned up one day wanting to take the Open Water course, and I expected to help out Jen in teaching them, as she was next in line on the rota. Adam came out of the shop and asked me "You can teach in Spanish, can't you?" I gulped. Taking on my first students solo was one thing...teaching them in Spanish was quite another. I was scared. But then, a friend of mine once said, when I told him I was daunted at handling a design project many years back in London "It's good to be scared." Get out of your comfort zone and push yourself. Sink or swim. So I bit the bullet and nodded. I introduced myself to the Argentinos, outlined times and what we'd cover the next day, and went home to my notebook and Spanish dictionary.

As it turned out, Martin and Luciano were ideal students: intelligent, quick to learn and didn't need to be shown anything twice. The two weeks of rain that I'd been accused of bringing with me from Blighty had muddied the waters: visibility was vastly reduced underwater. On the first day we had to take the boat to the north of the island where the water was clearer, but we had to deal with big waves and water movement, which made demonstrating and evaluating skills very difficult. Luckily for me, the confident Argentinos took all in their stride and actually enjoyed the challenge. Big grins all round as we sped across the bay back to the dive shop. The three days flew by. Each night I'd make notes in Spanish, trying to second guess any problems or questions for the following day's exercises. By the time the lads completed the course, my confidence in both the lingo and my teaching ability had soared, and I felt like I'd achieved something. The feeling you get from seeing someone take to something you love, as I love diving, was every bit as fulfilling as I'd expected. And my Spanish diving vocabulary had certainly tripled.

Aside from the diving, which is a little tame for my tastes as there are no wrecks or deep sites, life on Little Corn was relaxing. Ideal after a hectic summer working in London. I spent most of my time with the big Italian, smoking and putting the world to rights as we usually do. Hanging out on the stunning beaches on the north side. There were parties when we broke our self-imposed booze ban. One night with a group of English girls was particularly memorable for the fact that we drunkenly went skinny-dipping when the bars closed. A dive guide from the other shop, an American named Preston, realised that his clothes and wallet had been stolen while he was in the ocean barely ten yards away. Local thieves apparently wait in the darkness for such opprtunities. I'd had the foresight to leave my clothes where I could easily see them. The next morning one of the girls was rueing the theft of her dress, until Preston revealed that he'd drunkenly assumed that it was a sarong when he'd located it in the dark, and had staggered home wearing it. Torn and out of shape, it was now unrecognisable as an item of womenswear. A story for the grandchildren, at least? Once the girls left the island, things quietened down considerably. I'm surprised the bars didn't go out of business. A local asked me if all English girls were as crazy as these? Pretty much, I told him. I almost pissed my shrivelled liver out after a week with them.

Not everyone on the island was amiable. On arrival I'd met a scruffy, rangy scarecrow of a Spaniard named Nacho. He ran a kite-surfing school on the island, and was the boyfriend of Lorna, one of Adam's instuctors. I liked Lorna, but something didn't feel right about him. And I'm usually a pretty good judge of character. I had offered to help out Adam with the dive shop website, in return for my work experience. The Spaniard wanted help with his website, too. But his New Best Friend act, and offer to teach me up to Instructor level in kite-surfing, felt hollow and false. He seemed all talk. Besides...he barely worked enough to help his girlfriend out with the rent. I didn't trust him as far as I could throw him and, when I wasn't forthcoming with help on his site, he soon stopped speaking to me and we avoided each other. Until the day before I left, when his resentment obviously boiled over and he approached me in a local bar.

"I'm glad you're leaving, man" he said glassy-eyed, in his pidgin-English.
"Thanks. Me too, Nacho."
"Yeah...because I don't like you."
"That's good, Nacho. Because I wouldn't want you to" I replied.
He paused.
" I'm glad you're leaving..."
"I heard you the first time..."
He was obviously looking for a fight. Much as the chap needed a good punch in the face, I don't leave England to look for fights on foreign shores.
"You're a fake traveller, man. You don't have any local friends."
"That's nice, Nacho...thanks."
Nacho has island friends, alright. They all share his cocaine and beer, which his girlfriend subsidises. Genuinely heart-warming friendships, those. Lasting, lifetime bonds. A human leech covered in leeches: poetic."You don't know anything about the culture here" he helpfully pointed out. If this loser thinks that hanging around the same bars on a tiny Caribbean island every single night and sharing his coke out with his sycophants is culture, then he likely has no desire to visit the British Museum, the Louvre or any of the Americas' ancient ruins. He'd be tempted if they have bathrooms with a nice flat surface, though?
"OK, Nacho...let's agree to disagree, shall we?"
Nacho could clearly start a fight in an empty room.

A fellow next to me asked what the problem was? I said quietly to him that I'd tell him all about it later, as I was conscious that the cokehead was stood over me and, me being seated, I was vulnerable to a bottle over the head. I was primed and waiting for him to make his move and didn't want to be caught unawares. He shouted at me and accused me of talking about him. I told him to just stop talking, that we should leave it. As Lorna looked over worriedly, I asked her to call her dog off. He continued to rant, and I asked him if all this bitterness was due to me not designing his website? Talk about kicking a wasps' nest: he was not a happy chappy. I chose to leave him with that and walked away before it all got out of hand. The next day even Pelon, one of his friends on the island, said that he was out of order, and that he'd seen a darker side to him that evening. Apparently he's uspet a few locals recently and needs to watch his back. Doesn't surprise me at all. Biggest idiot I've met since that pillock in Thailand. Lorna is way too good for him. She'll wake up one day, I hope.

So...I made some friends on Little Corn. I made an enemy. And I lost two things on this beautiful island: one of which I was very happy about, and one which broke my heart. Due to not drinking beer for several weeks, a pact myself and Stefano made, I lost several pounds in weight. But, throwing an anchor from a boat with wet hands, I also lost a silver ring I'd bought with money that my Grandad had left me when he died some years back. Despite spending three dives alone searching for it, the sea had claimed it. Gone forever. But then, there is nowhere else I'd rather have lost it than the sea. And I could just imagine the shake of the head, wry smile and the exasperated "Jesus, lad..." he used to give me when I did something wrong as a kid. Sorry, Grandad...