Monday, 23 May 2011

Hasta Luego, Guate...

MY LASTING MEMORY of Guatemala? The sun rising over the temples at Tikal? Dramatic, but no. A lazy afternoon in the Parque Central, Antigua? Very pleasant...but no, not that, either. It would be too much to ask for one of those to be the most vivid image I can recall. Instead, the sight of a homeless man at the side of the road to the border, coat over his face, trousers open and furiously masturbating, was the horrific snapshot burned into my retinas. I'd actually thought him a corpse as we rounded the bend, him lying half out of a bush on a patch of wasteland near a cement factory. I quickly realised that his circulation was fine, thanks very much. Now we've all been there, haven't we, boys? It's early in the morning, and cracking one off sometime eases the pain of getting up for work. In fact, my mate Ferg once told me that the best thing about working from home was that he could have a cheeky wank in the afternoon before the wife came home. And getting paid for it? But out in the open at the side of a dusty road? It's not even like he was an exhibitionist, having covered his face with said coat. Bizarre. So thanks for the memory, chico. I wouldn't say you despoiled your country in my eyes, but you've certainly given me a few nightmares.

Guatemala, like most Latin American countries, is a country of contrasts: shiny SUVs cruise by desperate families in the gutter; ready smiles hide the harsh realities of living in this beautiful, violent country; it's difficult to marry the surroundings in a tranquil town like Antigua with the horrific images in the newspaper from Guatemala City, less than an hour away. Daily murders, beheadings, the ever-present drug war. Femicide is also a major issue here, and the statistics are staggering: 97 women have been murdered in the first two months of 2011. In one newspaper I read, there were graphic images of a fruit-seller shot dead for refusing to pay a $20 protection fee to a gang; a young girl found butchered in an industrial area of the city; a woman with her head crushed by a paving stone in Chichicastenango, apparently murdered in broad daylight. Is there something in the latino psyche which deems brutality like this acceptable? It seems a part of daily life here, and nothing shocks the locals.

When in Caye Caulker, Belize, an English diver Kneehead got chatting to had summed up Guatemala: "In a word, mate...fackin' dirty..." While the country is certainly poor, and rough round the edges, I find his summary a little harsh. It's a beautiful place with many natural wonders, stunning vistas and a warm welcome from the majority of the population. I've been told there are more glares than smiles in some places off the beaten track, but we can't bemoan a little hostility from people living for a year on the same money we earn in a week. And we're obviously not welcome everywhere. But I really enjoyed this country, and know that I'll be back.

The Hippy Hippy Shakes

I HAD BEEN told that you really have to see San Marcos La Laguna to believe it. You certainly do. It's a tiny village on Atitlan's shores which attracts a certain type of person. And I got a glimpse of that type of person on the boat over from San Pedro. I noticed I was the only person wearing trainers, whereas everyone else was wearing those sandals which make you look like a German sex offender; most of them made from hemp, probably. And it seems I'd forgotten my brightly-coloured, ethnic shoulder bag. Thankfully, it's only a short hop across the lake. Any longer, and I'd have felt queasy, and not from the motion of the boat. A crusty woman with matted hair was waxing lyrical about the "special energy" of the place to all who'd listen. Which pretty much meant everybody in the small boat. As she droned on, and I attempted to zone out, her toddler bounded across the bench to her and lifted her tee-shirt. I didn't know where to look as the little mite began sucking on a tattoed tit. Grim. She didn't bat an eyelid as the toddler suckled away, kneading her other breast with his podgy hands. If the shore hadn't been a few hundred metres away, I'd have jumped overboard and swam for my sanity.

We pulled up on a small, rickety wooden jetty. I think I was off the boat before it came to a halt. Heading up the narrow pathway I was accosted by a local boy, who said he could show me the way to the village centre. I thanked him, but said I didn't think I would get lost on the three pathways. This didn't deter him, and as we passed a fruit stall he'd tell me I could buy fruit there. A little further on, and he helpfully pointed out that I could buy books in the bookstore. Enough was enough. Thanking him again, I said I wasn't looking for a guide. He stopped, snorted, and regarded me from under his furrowed brow, hands on hips. " propina?" Cheeky bugger. I wasn't tipping someone I'd been politely trying to lose for the last ten minutes. He kicked up some dust in a huff and backtracked to the jetty to find another sucker.

I hung a left down an arid path, walking slowly and taking in the hand-painted and drawn signs for various things. Soya shakes. Lactose-free milk. Taste-free cookies. Fun-free lives. Various types of non-invasive treatments for anything ranging from stress to cancer. First back rub I've heard of which kills tumours? I was shaking my head at some other nonsense posting when the crunch of gravel drew my attention to someone's approach. A long-haired man with round glasses and a beaded necklace (de rigeur in these parts) was walking towards me. I half expected a talentless, screeching Japanese woman to be scuttling behind him. Where's Mark Chapman when you need him? As he closed on me, I saw he had the sign to beat all signs hanging around his neck. I cannot speak, as I have taken a vow of silence. Brilliant. I fought the urge to laugh as he nodded and passed. It looked almost more of a fashion accessory than a serious statement. Let's face it, if you really wanted to avoid talking to people, you'd rent a cave on a mountainside for a few weeks? Far easier than walking round looking like a pretentious pillock.

I'd walked round the village twice, so headed out to the rocks. Climbing along the path, I reached the point where it's possible to leap into the lake from a wooden platform. I hadn't brought my shorts, so had to be content with watching. It's a pretty long drop, and I was wincing as a couple of the lads there jumped in with their feet apart. One clever clogs decided to take a run up and do a forward flip; hitting the water feet-first, his momentum saw him slap the water face-on. There was a collective gasp as everyone waited for him to surface. Surface he did, red-faced and in visible pain. Served him right, show-off.

Not even the pair of naked blondes sunbathing at the water's edge could keep me hanging around, though. The last straw came in a cafe on the perimeter of the village. I'd stopped for a cold fruit juice, and couldn't help but overhear a conversation a couple of tables away. One of them was explaining that Inshallah meant "if something is kind of destined to happen", and then someone used the C-word. No, not that one...the Cosmos. I shuddered involuntarily. Sighing in surrender, I noisily drained my glass with the straw, and headed for the jetty and the relative sanity of San Pedro.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Lake Of The Irish

THE LATE WRITER Aldous Huxley once wrote that Lago De Atitlán, mere hours from Antigua, was the most beautiful lake in the world. I respect the man's writing but, as he was off his mash on LSD most of the time, I chose to reserve judgment until I'd witnessed the place for myself. As let's face it, a quarry in Scunthorpe would probably look good on acid. As the minibus meandered down the hillside to San Pedro La Laguna, the lake surrounded by volcanoes certainly looked picturesque enough. But I've have been interested to know what Aldous would have though of tripping along the shores of lakes Windermere, Coniston, Garda or Loch Lomond? He might have re-arranged his Top 5. But it's a nice enough place to hang out.

Surrounding the lake are the volcanic peaks of Atitlán, Tomilán, San Pedro and Cerro De Oro. It's estimated that the lake is 4500-8500 years old, and is the deepest in Central America. One disputed theory is that the lake bed in actually a collapsed mega-crater. I wouldn't sit around arguing about it, but it's certainly vast. The waters suffered from blooms of cyanobacteria in 2008 and earlier this year, causing government warnings about the safety of swimming in the lake. It didn't seem to deter many people, although jumping off a cliff with legs akimbo stopped one English lad doing it again. I chuckled as I watched him swimming back to the rocks with a grimace; it certainly was a long way down. Feet together, my son...feet together.

I've never been one for Irish bars, especially when not in Dublin. But Clover in San Pedro is an exception. It's not full of flags, Beamish and Guiness's low-key, and the food is great. The permanently half-cut owner, Paul, is a great lad, too. I'd stuck to the excellent samosas for most of my stay, and had to laugh when I asked Paul what the chicken curry I'd just ordered was like. "Ah bollocks, that's the shittest thing on the menu...I've been meaning to take it off for ages. I'll go see if I can change it for you." He came back with a shrug and told me it was almost done, so I was stuck with it. You've got to admire a man that honest, as he was was pretty shit.

Atitlán is swimming, literally pickled, in alcohol. It's not just the presence of a few Irishmen, simply that there's little else to do. I was worried I'd end up pissing out my shrivelled liver by the end of the week. You don't need an excuse to drink, and it's always an early start. The town is linked by a few small roads and tight dusty paths. A bunch of good places to imbibe, live music, decent food and a half-decent pool table means it's easy to get waylaid. And drunk. I met another Irishman named Rob who I hit it off with straight away. He reminded me a little of Liam Neeson. Together we drank ourselves into stupors, smoked ourselves senseless and hammered all comers at pool. Apart from Henry, that is...a local lad who grows his own weed, and gets better at the game the more stoned he becomes. I can't complain, as he graciously took me up to the roof every half hour to let me sample his new strains. We also caught Match Of the Day live, which is just about the only taste of home I need when away. A couple of cans of Boddingtons and fish and chips from Victoria Park wouldn't have gone amiss, either.

Due to Antigua's relative expense, the cheap bastard Israelis tend to head for the lake after a day or two. So I was dreading a miniature Jerusalem-On-Sea, especially as Bognor Kim had told me he'd seen plenty heading down there. But, he'd also told me, they keep themselves to themselves. On my first day wandering around the dusty paths, I discovered that he wasn't kidding. There's an Israeli hostel with an adjoining restaurant at the far end of town. Surrounded by high bamboo walls, they've even constructed a bridge over the pathway to give immediate access to their pool without leaving the premises. This place couldn't be more of a ghetto if a bunch of Germans ringed it with barbed wire: the inhabitants never leave. Fine with me, mindyou...the only ones I ever saw outside of a bus were a trio of crusties who hung around the main junction, spending their days juggling and making ethnic bracelets. What a life.

I enjoyed wandering the local part of town, on the hill above. There was a lovely woman who made fresh juice drinks in the shade of a church, and I made a point of sitting and chatting to her during the siesta each day. Only the basic conversations: home, family, travel and the like. But she was easy to understand, so very good practice for me. It was after one such break from the sun that I wandered back to the main pathway and came across a local legend. A sign proclaimed "Tony's Book Exchange: Over 3000 books". I had a recently finished Murakami in my back pocket. Surely I'd find a decent swap here? The door was locked, and I peered though the grimy windows. Stacks of yellowing books everywhere: on the floor, on tables, along sagging shelves. In the middle of the shop, a pile of rags shifted and resettled. I tapped the window, and a squinting face peered in my direction. A figure reluctantly arose and shuffled towards the door. Tony, a Dutch expat, let me in. Another customer followed me in and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. I didn't listen in, scanning the shelves for something readable. Almost three thousand crimes against trees. I sighed heavily as my eyes dismissed the Crichtons, Grishams and Cusslers adorning the shelves. Books from the 60s and 70s I'd never heard of, some unreadable due to the mould infesting the middle pages. There were one or two of interest, but only ones I'd previously read. Walk into any bookshop in Asia, and you are going to be there for hours, spoilt for choice. Deciding which book to take can be a painful choice, as you'll find books you've been meaning to read for years. It's no coincidence that the majority of travellers in Southeast Asia are European, as you can discern this from the choice of books on offer. The majority left here seem to be "beach books" and "easy reads" picked up in US airports. Losing interest in the books, I took in Tony's surroundings in disbelieving horror. His bed was a pile of rags in the middle of the shop; the kitchen was part of the open-plan room, the hob brown with grease, various pots and pans encrusted with filth; dirty cutlery scattered across every surface, including the floor; a cat squatted atop the worktop, finishing a long-abandoned meal. What happens to a man to enable him to live like this? I never got to know Tony's story, but have no doubt he's a very intelligent guy. Rob was on his pub quiz team, and there wasn't much Tony didn't know...which led me to believe that he's got a basement full of decent books tucked away somewhere. But Murakami was staying with me, in the meantime.

Visit the lake, and another local character you'll meet is Little Juanita. She's at least 60, and at least 4 feet tall. On any given night she's wandering through the bars at just the right time, in her indiginous dress, a wicker basket of cakes and cookies atop her head. With an infectious smile as wide as the Rio Dulce, this old lady is absolutely adorable. She loves to give you a hug and a kiss when you buy her baking; I've not seen many people warmer. She knows everybody, and everyone knows her. A genuinely happy character. And her baking isn't bad either, let me tell you.

Downtime In A Colonial Jewel

AS THE SUN begins to drop behind the Acatenango volcano, the town slows down. I take another rich mouthful of Guatemalan coffee, and watch life lazily take its course in the Parque Central. Elderly locals sit on painted benches beneath lovingly manicured trees, elegant and cool despite the sultry afternoon heat; groups of youths vy for attention from the self-conscious, coquettish young latinas congregating amongst the equally pretty flowers in the square; child shoe-blacks, hands soaked with the polish of years, ply their trade to a background music trickle of the fountains; in the cool, shadowy archways of the municipal building, homeless beggars sleep amid the activity; a breeze catches, whispering leaves mix with the burble of chatter. The only other sounds the roar of the espresso machine, the clatter of hooves on cobblestones as buggies pass by and the laughter of liberated schoolchildren running from class.

There can be fewer towns more beautiful than Antigua De Guatemala. I knew within minutes of arrival that I would stay awhile, and that I would return. I like to get to know a place, befriend a few locals, eat and drink in regular spots and pass the time of day with them. Having a coffee from the same roof terrace day after day, observing the volcanoes. Simple pleasures. Routine is missing when on the road, and it's sometimes nice to actually just be in a place.

Antigua was once the capital of the Americas, and it shows. Earthquakes and time may have faded her beauty, but still she oozes class. The Conquistadors brought Spanish culture and architecture with their bitter victory. I lost count of the days I was content to aimlessly wander the cobbled streets, marvelling at the adobe buildings lining the streets; bell towers and acrchways; strong colours and washed-out pastel adobe, ornate barred windows and heavy, iron-studded wooden doors. Ancient, derelict, tremor-damaged structures sit adjacent to well-tended properties in stunning contrast. Shocking pink bougainvillea flowers cascade from roof terraces. Falling in love with a house became an hourly occurence, as open doorways gave glimpses of shady, peaceful courtyards off the street. I've not seen a town this photogenic since Cartagena, Colombia.

I fell into a pleasant pattern over a fortnight: coffee on Fat Cat's roof terrace in the morning, watching mushroom clouds in miniature erupt silently on the distant Acatenango, the other peaks slumbering; authentic French crepes before an afternoon of Spanish tuition with Mayra, finishing with Scrabble for four, another tutor and her Brasilian charge joing in...obviously the teachers won every time, getting creative with the slang, I suspected. I'd found a great place to stay, El Jardin De Lolita, run by a dotty old lady who could talk for Guatemala, and her sons. I took a room with a communal terrace which was almost private, my room being at the end of a second floor row. It overlooked the garden populated by all manner of caged tropical birds. With views of volcanoes on all sides, and plenty of shade in which to read, write and generally contemplate my good fortune in being out here, it was very easy to get stuck.

At the far side of town sat my usual haunt, Cafe No Sé. I loved this scruffy little place. The first room is tiny, tea-stained walls covered in signatures, scribbles and doodles. A cute bar sits in the corner, while musicians perform in the other. It's very intimate. On passing into the back room, a long bar sits on the right, miniscule tables to the left. Candle-lit and atmospheric, I enjoyed many an evening here; reading a book or drinking with the locals. I was at the bar one evening, a little worse for wear and chatting to a Canadian bartender, when a local man to my right turned and said "Eres de Liverpool?" I laughed. In England, most people take me for a Mancunian, as I have a Lancashire accent with a Scouse lilt. It amuses me how foreigners pick up on my Merseyside heritage where my countrymen fail to. In fact, leaving a Thai island a few years back, I said my goodbyes to a delightful Thai couple who'd been very hospitable; as I left their cafe, I overheard a elderly German fellow asking them "Ist he from Liverpool?" He was old enough to have been around for The Beatles and Liverpool FC's dominance in Europe, no doubt. Stranger still for this Guatemalan, Julio César, to pick it up, though. As he turned to face me in the gloom of the bar, I noticed that he was blind. Perhaps this accounts for a more acute sense of hearing? Despite speaking no Inglés, it turns out that Julio is quite the Anglophile. My Spanish helped by a few beers, we chatted about his favourite bands, which hilariously turned out to be Duran Duran and The Cure, both of whom I grew up with. He even knew that the former had taken their name from a character in Barbarella. I was impressed, and we chatted for a good hour over an almost drinkable Chilean red. Wandering home with a smile on my face that night, I mused on the wonders of travel. You just never know what, or who, is waiting for you around that next corner.