Thursday, 28 April 2011

Paranoid Gringos

IF YOU BOTHER to learn a little Spanish while travelling the Americas, it goes a long way: you'll find that the negative label of Gringo doesn't appy to you any longer. The wide grins you receive from the locals when chatting to them, even in broken Spanish, makes it worthwhile. As an Englishman, I feel we ignorantly expect foreigners to speak English; our school system wrongly allows us to drop languages altogether at high school. The limited French I recall has certainly helped me learn Castillian, and also made me wish I'd followed Mr Walton's advice, and not given it up at 13. When I have kids (if, more like) then I'll ensure they're bilingual. I meet plenty of Europeans who speak three or more languages, putting us to shame. The picture of the English abroad isn't helped by a recent article I read online, about ex-pats living in Spain; they have English cafes, bars and every other amenity you can think of to save them the trouble of integrating or learning a language; it's pig-ignorant, quite frankly.

So I've taught myself a little over the years. Michel Thomas has helped, and Madrigal's Magic Key To Spanish has been indispensable. I try to read the local papers with the help of a dictionary (Guatemala's El Diario, with multiple lurid double-page spreads of drugs and murder, is enough to put me off breakfast) and use shops and cafes owned by Spanish-speakers when in tourist-saturated areas. Besides becoming a diving instructor, improving my Latin lingo is my main aim for this trip. I'm getting there; you know you're improving when you can make people laugh in their tongue. They'll go out of their way to be more sociable and help you, as they appreciate the effort.

This region is awash with Americans, and you don't meet many who bother to learn Spanish...despite them having a massive latino population. I've met some pretty cool ones this trip, but they're a rarity. In fact, as far as the locals are concerned, you're American until you open your mouth; they dominate the tourist market out here. Europeans speak at a massively reduced volume compared to them, too...why does everyone in the bar need to hear your conversation? It's not like many of them are interesting.

I've been sat in several coffeeshops in Guatemala and witnessed plain ignorance. One middle-aged woman was trying to order lunch there, and was mouthing her words slowly, while leaning over the counter towards a puzzled waitress. "Don't you people speak English?" she asked, incredulous. "They don't even speak English..." she said to her husband, who whistled through his teeth. I was sat next to another couple one morning, who had asked for the bill by rubbing fingers together and saying "How much?" Delightful. The waitress gave them a figure in Spanish, which was met by bemusement and a request for repetition. After a minute of confusion, I turned and said "It's sixty-five..." I wasn't being clever, merely trying to be helpful. But she ignored me and turned away. When her husband returned and asked if she'd paid, she told him "I don't know how much it is." Eventually the waitress had to write it down for them. Imbeciles. Did she think I was running a scam in my local cafe, where I translate prices and include a fee for my services? The waitress rolled her eyes at me as they left.

The other thing which strikes me about several US travellers is their paranoia and limited (or blinkered) world view. When I told one the other day that I was heading for El Salvador next, he asked me where it was. Next door, I told him. While island-hopping in Belize, a trio aboard a privately-chartered catamaran were flabbergasted that we'd come down from Cancun. They told me I should stay out of Mexico. When I asked why, they said "Drug murders." Oh. Didn't see much of that in Cozumel. The north of Mexico can be dodgy, and I'm not about to visit Juarez anythime soon...but we had no problems whatsoever. Even the Lonely Planet scaremongers sometimes, and we all know which nation publishes those guides? By far the funniest were a couple we met at the Tikal ruins. Finishing dinner, a wide-eyed woman approached us and asked how we'd got to the site. When we told her by bus, she began quizzing us as to what kind, and was it a local bus? Turns out that her and her fella wouldn't travel in shuttle buses, as they had the word Turismo plastered across them; which obviously meant bandits would jump out of bushes at the side of the road and gun everyone down. As a result, they were still wandering around trying to find a way of there hours later...conferring with each other in whispers and nervously approaching various locals. They're all in on it! They're going to get you! If you're going to get robbed, you're going to get robbed. No point worrying about it all the time. I think that if I was shitting my pants that much, I'd feel safer just not leaving the house...maybe just watch Whicker's World re-runs, or something? Judith Chalmers never got mugged.

And just try talking to a Texan about US involvement in right-wing coups in developing countries over the last 40 years. I read The Shock Doctrine, a superb expose by Naomi Klein. Milton Friedman, the Chicago School Of Economics and the CIA have all been involved in creating misery for millions of people in developing countries, while lining the pockets of Western multi-nationals. From Indonesia, where Suharto's western-sponsored takeover triggered the deaths of 140,000 people, to Chile in the 70s, when a democratically-elected president was effectively murdered by a right-wing coup backed and instigated by the US. Argentina and Brazil suffered from western make-overs to their economies; people lost jobs and plunged into poverty, social services were cut, and trade barriers broken down...leading to cheap foreign imports and the decline of national industries. These were then bought up at knockdown prices by western businesses when they collapsed. In Argentina, thousands of people were "disappeared" by the police state in the so-called Dirty War. The brutal secret police would turn up in the dead of night in their trademark Ford Zodiacs (supplied free by Ford, naturally) and take people away to be tortured and murdered. When the country's car producers collapsed in the face of western competition as trade was thrown open, guess who generously bought their plants for peanuts? The book is equally fascinating and repellent. The IMF and World Bank are exposed as the profiteers they really are. After loaning Brazil billions to get off her knees in the 70s and 80s, the head of the Federal Reserve raised the interest rates in the States, effectively doubling Brazil's debt overnight. Can't pay us back? No problemo...just sell us your oil and mineral reserves. Corporate piracy.

So there I was, arguing with a Texan diver named Jeremy, all buzz-cut and brawny arms. He didn't want to listen, and was horrified I was suggesting the CIA had blood on their hands. This fool was arguing that the US invaded Iraq to get Saddam's WMDs. I started laughing, and pointed out that war makes money for Halliburton, and the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney laugh all the way to the bank. That's why Vietnam went on so long; why the Lusitania was allowed to be sunk by a U-boat to bring America into WWI; why Pearl Harbour was allowed to happen to allow entry to WWII, despite Australian intelligence cables to Washington informing them about a huge Japanese fleet heading for Hawaii. Jeremy got off his bar stool, informed me of his origin, and told me I didn't know who he was connected to. He was taking all this very personally, despite me pointing out that I wasn't knocking Americans per se, merely those making money out of human misery. I stopped short of using 9/11 as an example, as he already seemed ready to start brawling with me. His next point was that they learned Colonialism from the British. Was this an excuse, I asked? Shouldn't lessons have been learned? And I suppose by that, I could say we learned from the Spanish and Portuguese? He told me that I was the most antagonistic person he'd ever met. I think I was getting to him. His next rant was all about how the US "saved your asses in the war". I thanked him, and said we were relieved to have finally paid off the money we owed them in 2006...61 years after the war ended. He then informed me that someone had to be the world's policeman, pointing to the threat from North Korea. He didn't appreciate me telling him that a Swiss company sold them the nuclear technology; the sole American on the board? Donald Rumsfeld.

Jeremy didn't speak to me at the dive shop the next day. And, shockingly, he didn't ask if he could borrow Naomi Klein's book, either. Ignorance, like they say, is bliss.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Hotel Peligroso & The Dawn Of Time

AND THERE WAS ME thinking the Fonz was dead? Apparently not: alive and well, running a small hotel in Flores, Guatemala. I got quite a shock when I walked into the place and saw him. Then I realised it couldn't be him, as the Fonz was always smiling. This grumpy old sod looked like he was twenty years into a life sentence. We informed the Fonz we'd like to take a look at the rooms; with a raise of the eyebrows and a heavy sigh, he shuffled off up the stairs. Everything seemed to be an effort. I can't recall the name of the place, but after a few hours we'd renamed it Hotel Peligroso (Hotel Dangerous).

After the bus journey from the border, I was keen on a shower. It wasn't the hottest, and I was casting doubtful eyes at the dodgy-looking wiring above the shower head. Now you can ask my Dad, or any of my mates who've shared a flat with me, and they'll tell you I take ages in the shower. But I wasn't long in this one once I began to smell burning plastic. Conscious of Guatemala's reputation for electric shocks in the bathroom, I was out of there in less than a minute. Gingerly drying off while stood on my flip-flops while casting suspicious glances at the shower, I put some distance between myself and any water on the floor, trying to instantly forget the fact that electricity can leap through space, anyway. I mentioned it to Kneehead, but I believe he took it as exaggeration. He was in there a few hours later and I got a whiff of plastic again, followed by curses from him in the shower. Apparently the plastic tape around the wires had begun smoking, followed by a bright red glow above the shower head as the tape melted. He was out of there even quicker than I was, much to my amusement. We agreed we were leaving for Tikal in the morning.

Flores is a tiny little island in the middle of a lake, connected to the surrounding land by a causeway; the last point in Central America to fall to the Spanish Conquistadors in 1697. The short road is one-way, and as a result it's a Guatemalan Grand Prix of tuk-tuks, taxis and motorbikes going as fast as possible; not the quietest place. A quick walk around the town and a few drinks, and you've seen and done it. Besides, the four of us were too excited about seeing the ruins at Tikal to be hanging around. Dodging the tout who'd been hanging around, telling us sold-out stories to make us book with him, we went and booked transport for the next afternoon.

After the tat stalls in and around Chitchen Itza, Tikal was a pleasant surprise: there is absolutely nothing besides well-kept ruins and jungle here. We arrived late in the afternoon, soon enough to get in to see the sunset from Temple IV. This is the vantage point for two other nearby pyramids, as seen in Star Wars. One side was covered in scaffold, as the structure was undergoing renovation. Several guides and guards were sat at the top, and one said we could climb through the scaffold to see the sunset, for a bribe. It wasn't much, and through we went, along with a few photographers. I was chatting to the guide for a while, when Kim Bognor's knock-off Adidas bag from Belize began to disintegrate on him. Both straps had gone, and he was trying to tie it together. I chuckled, amused he'd had it less than a week, and said to the guide "Hecho en China?" while gesturing at it. Kim sniggered and cast his eyes left. I followed his gaze and swallowed a laugh when I saw two Asian photographers looking over at me. They looked Japanese. Or Korean. Hopefully. Still, if you'd make the stuff properly, I couldn't make detrimental remarks about it, could I?

The guide informed us that, if we wanted to see the sunrise at 6.30am, we could arrange to meet him and pay the guards off; the park only opens at 6am. Not enough time to get up to Temple IV and climb it, unless you sprinted and knew your way. He wanted 150 Quetzales, but I'd heard you could just pay the guards on the gate Q50 at 5am...no need for a guide. The Bognors and Kneehead were up for it, but our mate Motorbike George wasn't up for an early start. Lazy beggar...come all this way and not see the sunrise? No need for an alarm for us, I assured Kneehead that his nocturnal noises would no doubt have me up at some point.

The Bognors hadn't had much sleep. When I crept through the tented encampment to make sure they were up, there was a horrendous snoring coming from one tent...no-one could have slept through that. They hadn't. Bleary-eyed, they were ready in minutes. Guards bribed, and we were on our way into the pitch-black jungle. The previous day I'd taken a path which had skirted all the other ruins, and led directly to Temple IV. Nicola said we should go that way, but Kim and Kneehead argued for going right through the ruins, as they'd done. They assured us they knew the way; they clearly didn't. We were wandering at random for a while, just a crappy map and scant signage within the park to guide us. I'd stupidly forgotten to bring my torch, leaving it in my big bag in Flores. Kim's light wasn't very strong, and began dimming and flickering at one point. He switched it off to swap batteries, and luckily I had a cigarette lighter to illuminate the scene. If not, and he'd dropped the batteries, we'd have been buggered. With the light out, you couldn't see your own hand in front of your face. I was hardly reassured when Kim told me he'd bought the torch from a Pound Shop in Bognor Regis.

Eventually we reached Temple IV after a spectral walk through the mist. Nicola had clung to Kim, telling us that if the light failed she was going to start screaming hysterically. I'd never seen her so tactile. We scampered up the wooden stairs to the summit, and sat on the topmost steps of the pyramid. Out in front of us were expanses of vast jungle in every direction, shapeless in the pitch darkness. The outlines of the other temples were barely visible. So we sat and waited, soon joined by around 20 other people.

The sky turned deepest purple as light crept from behind the horizon. Outlines of distant trees appeared gradually with the light, swallowed in lakes of morning mist. This was the cue for the howler monkeys to begin the dawn chorus, roaring their message across the jungle, marking territory. Primates from miles away called back, their cries echoing through the dark; surrounding us. The sun broke the horizon, graduated blues replacing the purple above the foliage. No-one spoke. This felt like the beginning of creation; nobody wanted to spoil this intensely atmospheric moment, each of us alone with our thoughts. As the boiling orb crested in the distance the misty lakes receded; shadows retreated. All were smiles as we broke ranks to head back down. I've seen some amazing sights in the last three years, but this was right up there...a special, dramatic experience.

The ruins sprawl over a huge area, and it takes a full half day to see them all. Machu Picchu is a dramatic setting, but I think Tikal tops it, in my opinion. The jungle setting; the intact ruins themselves; and that amazing sunrise. We bumped into Motorbike George an hour later, and had to describe what he'd missed. He didn't care, he said he wouldn't get up at 4.30am for anything. More fool him. (I've bumped into George again recently, and he'd taken his new girlfriend up there to see Tikal and still didn't manage the sunrise)

We wandered over to Temple V and climbed some rickety, near-vertical wooden stairs. I don't normally suffer from vertigo, but this gave you those butterflies in the balls as you reached the top. It's a great view from there, but a hell of a way down if you slip. I don't know about you, but the only problem I have with tall buildings, waterfalls etc is the nagging urge I get to jump. It's nothing suicidal, more the notion that I have some degree of control over life and death from there; I could simply step off and soon cease to exist. Blackness. Nothingness. It sounds odd, I know...and I've only met one person in my life who has had similar thoughts, too. No need to have the men in white coats waiting at Heathrow with a big butterly net or anything, though...honest.

I started heading down the ladder backwards. A woman was making her way slowly up the adjacent ladder, when some idiot decided to climb up the one I was descending, so as to overtake her; a little reckless when we were all a good 90 feet off the ground. I shouted that he was going up the wrong ladder, but he simply climbed back across to the other one, completely ignoring me as he barrelled past at a cretinous speed. Getting a good look at his attire and sandals as he passed, I made an educated guess as to his nationality. Later, at the base of the temple, everyone was feeding the ravenous monkey-like creatures. George had seen me fuming on the ladder, and he asked the nearby sandal-wearer where he was from. "Israel" he said. "That figures" said George, as he turned back to us. (Incidentally, two intrepid travellers I know from the Philippines emailed me after The Unmentionables posting. They'd been in a tuk tuk in Luzon once and, mid-conversation with the driver, he turned round and said "I hate Israelis." Jon Boy asked him why and he replied "Because they never want to pay me.")

So, in summary. Fonzy: not dead. Tikal: incredible. Guatemalan showers: most dangerous since Belsen. Israelis: zero social skills and 90% horrible.