Thursday, 25 October 2012

Upping The Game

I DESCEND QUICKLY through a blizzard of plankton, gripping the line to prevent being swept away by the current. The force of the water has me horizontal; liquid flight. As we drop deeper the water clears a little, but the ceiling of plankton above us turns day into night: it's pitch-black. With barely three or four metres of visibility, we hit the wreck which looms into view. Hanging onto to the rusted, anemone-encrusted hull, I take my bearings and unclip my primary light; its powerful beam illuminates and colours my surroundings as I catch my breath and take a moment to compose myself. Cold. Dark. Limited visibility. At 28m below the surface, and in these conditions, we have to be on the ball. I find it difficult to figure out exactly where we are on the wreck, and nitrogen narcosis fogs my brain. But my hands are no longer shaking. My buddy, David, swims alongside me; we constantly check on each other, shining our lights on our hands frequently, thumb and forefinger making a circle to signal OK. If we lose sight of each other in this darkness, it means an aborted dive and a fraught ascent alone. We pick our way carefully across the debris; a bright blue fishing net appears out of the inky night, strung out between sections of the twisted ship. I point out this potential hazard to David with a sweep of my beam and he acknowledges that he's seen it. Becoming entangled at this depth, in midnight water, is the stuff of nightmares. As we swim across the wreck I spy several holes and doorways that would tempt me in better conditions, but on a dive like this could spell my end: I'm an adventurous diver, but not a stupid one. Each passing minute I cover up my torch and look up to make sure I can see the faint green light from above, ensuring we haven't entered the wreckage unawares: seeing solid metal above us will set my heart racing…no-one wants to be lost down here. Twenty five minutes in, and it's time to ascend. Securing ourselves atop the hull, David inflates a marker buoy I have clipped to a reel and we send it racing to the surace to indicate our position to the waiting boat. We slowly move upwards into light, him checking our ascent rate with his computer while I reel in the line and keep an eye on my own depth. Before long we're at the Safety Stop, spending three further minutes ridding ourselves of the nitrogen bubbles we've accumulated in our systems. Floating atop the surface in a gentler environment, we signal to the boat that we're ready to be picked up.

This pretty far from the lagoons of the South Pacific and their gin-clear warm water, or Indonesia and its 40m visibilty; there are no sun loungers to relax on between dives as there are in the Red Sea. It's very different to my experiences so far. Diving the UK is almost a different sport. More equipment is required: drysuits, thermal undergarments, gloves, hoods, 3-litre "pony" bottles with enough air to get you to the surface should a regulator (your scuba mouthpiece) free-flow air due to the cold. It takes some getting used to. I completed drysuit training dives earlier this year, and getting used to the restrictive feel of one takes time…but it's worth it for a far more comfortable dive. Back at my local dive club in Hackney this summer, I took a course to become a BSAC instructor. The practice will do me good before I return to the road and teach the PADI courses. And with diving you never stop learning, which is one of the things I love most about it. Ironically, the quarry at which I took the course was in the North of England, and one of my old stomping grounds. It was strange to be diving it, when previously we only ever used to be up there as youths, smoking grass and listening to music after the Acid House parties of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I'd come full-circle.

Mickey Gee, one of the club's longest-serving members, is of the old school; the kind of diver who'd be leaping into the deep with a set of spanners to dismantle a wreck back in the old days. Naughty. He used to chide me when I first joined, telling me that I was just a holiday diver until I'd dived the UK. I can now see why. My dive buddy from my Philippines and Truk Lagoon trips, Smasher, said that if you can dive these waters, you can dive anywhere. She was also right. British divers are a different breed, and those who start their careers here before travelling to warmer climes must find the seas of Egypt and the like a walk in the park by comparison. It can be tough. You need to be a hardy type.

There is the DIY element to begin with. This is not a case of turning up at a foreign harbour and being shown to a spot on a sun-drenched boat, where your kit is ready-assembled for you. It's more a case of driving a few hours to the coast at dawn, filling your own cylinders with air at 9am, grabbing a fried egg butty and a coffee before keeping warm on a chilly September morning by loading the converted trawler with the necessary equipment. As the boat leaves the harbour, divers have to find space to kit up on a crowded deck, sometimes in rough seas. After a cold water dive, getting back on board a boat can be a challenge in choppy seas; then the whole process begins again, but in reverse. Soup, tea and sandwiches restore body heat between dives; fleeces, hats and gloves help maintain it. Eating pumpkin curry and fried fish, clad only in boardshorts, on the sunny deck of a Philippines bangka, is a vivid though distant memory.

My first dives were in a freezing quarry on the Welsh border at Vobster, and quite a shock to the system as my last immersion had been in the Méxican Pacific. On coming out after a bleak, murky dip, I could hardly speak as my face was so numb from the cold. My drysuit was worth every single penny, insulating me from the 5ºC water. A few weeks later I dived the wrecks of the City Of Brisbane and the Indiana, off the coast of Dorset and Newhaven and Littlehampton respectively. They were uninspiring, and the drift dives we did with the tides after these dives could only be likened to swimming in chicken soup…you could hardly see a hand in front of your face. It wasn't really grabbing me, it would be fair to say.

A week later saw me travel several hours away to Cornwall with a few members of the club. Glorious sunshine heralded a superb week on and off-shore. The diving improved, we spotted a basking shark, and I got plenty of depth-progression dives in as a warm-up for my main target for this year: the German WWI shipwrecks at Scapa Flow in Scotland. Porthkerris is a lovely spot with beautiful shorelines and quaint local pubs, the pace of life a world away from the hectic bustle of London. Fresh fish is welcome on my menu any day of the week, and with my mate Matt around, it is virtually guaranteed. I sat atop a rocky outcrop with him one afternoon when diving was done, and in forty minutes he'd managed to cach fourteen mackerel: they just kept coming. His girlfriend Lindy scrambled up a cliff to pick fresh samphire to complement it. I fired up the beachside barbecue and we proceeded to enjoy what was the freshest, tastiest fish I've ever tasted. Straight out of the sea and onto your plate. So that was me rather content. Washing the fish down with a cold beer in the sun, I remarked that UK diving was better than I'd imagined, and that I could get used to it. Matt laughed. "Enjoy it, mate…it's not always like this."

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Mérida Christmas

I CHOSE THE quiet colonial town of Mérida as my last stop specifically to avoid the festive season. I despise Christmas, I really do. Some folk say it's the one time of year family can get together and enjoy each other's company. But can't a family do that anytime? Mine certainly do. Besides, I'm an atheist; I didn't believe in him first time around, so a second coming would leave me nonplussed. I am the bastard son of Scrooge (he was doing well until the end) and the Grinch. That will all change when you have children, I hear you say? Like that's going to happen anytime soon? Besides…my kids would likely be sat on top of an Indonesian volcano over Christmas, or swimming in a Philippine lake...not stuffing their faces with turkey and moaning that they didn't get the Playstation game they wanted. Anyway, you get the idea: I'm not a fan.

Mérida wasn't quite the escape from festivity I wanted. Quiet enough indeed, but it never fails to amuse me to see people of different cultures having a red-clad, white-bearded Santa Claus in their shop windows, fake snow sprayed all around the corners. Most of them have surely never seen snow? Thankfully the music wasn't the same as ours: the Salsa cover versions of our carols was bad enough, but if someone had played Slade's offering, I'd have been contacting my nearest cartel member for the loan of an AK-47, likely opening fire just as Noddy screams "It's Chriiiistmaas…"

Miserable in Mérida? Not quite; it could have been worse, but there was no way I was going to spend a night in Cancún…it was enough to fly in and out of there. And to be honest it was tickling me to wander the streets of town watching Mexicans carting home Xmas trees over their shoulders while pulling their kids behind them on sledges with tiny wheels instead of blades. All this in 30º heat. I didn't see any plastic snowballs on sale between the be-baubled palm trees, so that could be my next business idea right there? I could be worth a million pesos by the time you read this.

I had a couple of days before flying, and wasn't as short of time as I'd initially feared. Having pictured myself sprinting across tramac after a taxiing British Airways flight, it was nice to have the time to relax and reflect. I found a very good bookshop close to my hostel and added several titles to my growing collection: the Three Book Rule (for weight) I have whilst on the road can be broken on the way back to the airport. Old t-shirts were ditched to make room in the pack.

Wandering the back streets away from the other tourists thronging the town, I tried to absorb as much Méxican atmósfera as I could before leaving. The potholed roads and broken pavements; faded pastel-painted houses with patches of crumbled plaster exposing wooden ribs; crimson bougainvillea spilling from wrought-iron railings embracing small balconies; blindingly white, freshly-laundered sheets suspended on lines across the streets, snapping in the wind; the red dust blowing across my path as another Beetle sputters and coughs by me; raucous whoops and cries from the darkened interior of shady cantinas; a proud old man in a worn yet immaculate suit; laughing children running by on their way home from school, all billowing white shirts and red kneckerchiefs. 

I feel a real affinity with this country and its people. I've been welcomed with open arms. And in some cases with beer and mescal. The people I've met, native and ex-pat, have conspired to hold me back…clinging to me and preventing my return to England. México makes sense to me, and four months hasn't been anywhere near enough. Guatemala was stunning to look at, with its lakes, rivers and cobbled-street towns; El Salvador was a real latin whirlwind experience like no other; Honduras wanted to kill me; the other countries I skipped through without really feeling them. Having started my trip a year ago on the Yucatán and skirting the country to Belize, I knew I'd seen nothing of the real México. Like-minded travellers I met on the road in Central America had all said to me with a knowing smile "just wait til you get back up to México". They were right: this country has a hold on me like no other: it folded its arms around me and has refused to let go. I could have spent the whole year here and not seen enough, my experience was so rich. I made fast friends in DF, and some random ones on the street; I found a brother in Colima; a family living on the beaches of Michoacán showed me real Méxican warmth and spirit; the people of Mazunte and Zipolite welcomed me with smiles and generosity. There really is nowhere quite like México. Every corner different: a wildly varied land of jungle, desert, lakes, canyons, colonial towns, huge cities, raw beaches and mountains. I feel I've barely scratched the surface, and its inexorable lure will draw me back sooner rather than later. The warmth of the people; the riotous colour; the simple vibrant joy in being alive…queiro más, por favor.

And so to another bus station; sat atop my dusty pack, killing time with a battered paperback and watching the world go by. I like to people-watch as a town wakes up, but I was exhausted. I'd had my last prolonged Spanish conversation with an affable taxi driver in the early hours, and tipped the cheery chap well to get his day off to a good start; he'd wished me luck. With ten minutes to spare I was slinging the bag into the hold of a jalopy and climbing aboard. We picked our way through traffic, the outskirts of town giving way to flat landscapes and the fast roads to Cancún. As we headed to our transfer point, the tiny station in the Quintana Roo, I got a glimpse of the horror I'd thankfully avoided. Cancún is a town devoid of spirit, vitality and joy. It's ugly pyramidal hotels line the strip of beach in the far distance as you gratefully hit the road to the airport, soulless concrete monuments to excess. I'd sooner walk the backstreets of an Acapulco slum than spend time on these Margarita-soaked beaches amongst oiled people beached on their sun-loungers, waited on hand-and-foot by some poor Mexican who wouldn't be allowed to set foot in the complex were he or she not working there. Not my cup of darjeeling at all.

Despite my reluctance to leave, I couldn't wait to get on the plane once inside the terminal. Harangued in the shops by calculator-wielding shop assistants braying about tax-free and precios bajos, I was suffering sensory overload. For the two-week holiday maker, this may be fine, as there hasn't been much of a transition between western life and the other way. But I'd been peacefully eating fish tacos and relaxing in the Oaxacan sun barely a week ago…this was all too much. And the prices for food were obviously set for those who didn't know any better; a meal and a drink at an awful fast food chain was almost $20. I gravitated to a small kiosk and chatted in Spanish with the Mexican lady, buying a couple of sesame seed bars to keep me going until the plastic airline food was served later on. She asked me where I'd been, and said that she was pleased I'd enjoyed her country. After I complained about the extortionate food prices in the airport, she heaved a sigh, smiled and paid me a back-handed compliment: "Very expensive. It's for the gringos, no?"

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Three Seasons In A Day

IT WAS WITH no less than a Herculean effort that I managed to tear myself away from the crashing surf and blissful sunshine of the Oaxacan coastline. Mazunte, and its people, had been very good to me. But for some days now, breakfast had been accompanied by map, pen and paper. I was considering returning to DF and seeing the gang there, before getting an internal flight to Cancún to catch the plane to London but, with the approach of Christmas, I daren't risk it. A headlong dash by bus from the capital, had there been no available flights, would have been three solid days of horror. Besides, no-one likes backtracking. And so my best option looked like a 5-day trek across Chiapas to the Yucatán peninsula via the Mayan ruins of Palenque. I'd seen that many piles of old rocks on this trip, another wasn't going to hurt.

I could hardly bear to look back as the truck pulled away from Mazunte; an easy place to get attached to...I'll return someday. It was easier to pass through the shabbier Angél, especially considering my near miss with the potentially murderous taxi driver and his sinister female accomplices. After arriving in Pochútla, I left my pack with a couple of Swedish lads at the bus station, and set off in search of something vaguely edible for the long haul to San Cristóbal De Las Casas, perched high up in the Chiapan hills. But the dusty enclave doesn't cater for the traveller or his sensitive palate; you've more chance of wandering through the Vatican without spotting a paedophile than you have of finding a bacteria-free meal in Pochútla. So I bought some fruit and prepared for the mobile fast.

A familiar face awaited me back at the station: Hector. He gave me a big hug; he'd been busy with a German lady he'd met during my days in Zipolite, and I hadn't wanted to disturb him. As such I'd missed him to say Goodbye before I'd headed back to Mazunte to spend my last few beach days on one I could actually swim at, without the sight of old mens' scrotums swinging in the breeze every whichway you turned, or the risk of drowning. Neither is a pleasant end to a trip.

Darkness fell as we picked our way through the streets and headed for the highway. I pulled my hood over my head and used my jacket for a pillow as I tried to get some sleep. The Mexican child behind me had other ideas, and proceeded to give the back of my seat a good shoe-ing for the next eleven hours. If he hadn't been so cute, he might have been a dead Mexican child by the time we reached Chiapas.

After the sweltering Summer climate of the coast, the Autumnal chill of San Cristóbal came as a bit of a shock to the system, though a welcome one, as Autumn is one of the things I miss about my native England whilst on the road. We climbed down from the bus in the early morning light, vapourous clouds hanging about us as we retrieved our bags. Hector suggested breakfast as we trudged through the silent, cobbled streets, the sun rising in a brilliant blue sky behind us. I should have known better: what Hector likes for breakfast is rolled between papers and smoked; so we ended up at his friend's place getting started. After an hour I decided I had to eat, as I was on another bus uphill to Palenque a few hours later. I bid the ponytailed chilango a fond farewell, and told him I'd see him again.

I'd passed up the chance to buy a copy of the Mexican classic Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo, when in Oaxaca, and regretted it. So I was pleased to find a copy in the town before getting on the bus. Sitting in the zócalo and watching the town awaken as I perused my purchase, I was approached by a young shoeblack, aged around ten years old. He sat on the wall alongside me and gradually shuffled closer. Nosing at my book, he asked me what it was. I showed him the cover and asked him if he knew of it. He said he'd never read a book: he didn't go to school. Ah. The poor lad. He introduced himself as Carlos. We shook hands. Pointing at my battered black Converse, he suggested they needed a clean. Though unable to argue that point, I told him he'd have trouble polishing cotton, and that these holed shoes had a prescient date with a London dustbin. He suggested I could give him a peso anyway. I handed him five for his cheek. I was duly informed that a sandwich from the shop across the square cost twenty pesos. I thanked him for the information, but told him it was important in life not to buy friends. He huffed loudly and told me that he knew of a good shoe shop where I could buy some better footwear, and that it would be nice of me to buy him a pair while I was at it, as we were friends. Cheeky little scamp. I gave him another five pesos as I left the square and told him it was for him, and not his parents.

The bus departed on time with my relief: the further I could get in the first two days of this headlong rush to Cancún, the better. We weren't far down the road before I saw why this route was nicknamed the Vomit Express. The coach lurched and groaned around hairpin bends, clattered over potholed tarmac and shuddered as it climbed and climbed, the trees around us subtly blending from pine to palm as we crested the peaks and headed back down towards sea-level and the jungle of Palenque. Within two hours of our departure, people were staggering to the toilet at the rear of the vehicle. I was sat right in front of the cubicle, having only bought my ticket shortly before departure, and was treated to the rich, stomach-churning stench emanating from the cramped space each time the door yawned open. A chatty Mexican next to me was bearing the brunt of the dribbles and barely-suppressed spewings a people passed. A family across the aisle were struggling: two kids puked, followed not long after by Mamá, who filled a carrier bag with an impressive liquid belch. "Only Papá to go" I quipped to my Mexican neighbour who cackled in appreciation. He put up with a lot, to be fair; an impossibly-cute toddler nearby was projectile-vomiting with every lurch of the bus, it seemed, splashing my companion before grinning at him in a fair impression of Regan in The Exorcist. He took it all, quite literally, on the chin.

Another child, all pigtails and curly eyelashes, popped her head over the back of the seat in front several times before plucking up the courage to demand "What colour is your house?" I told her that, in England, not many people paint their houses, and they were mostly made of unpainted stone or brick. Incredulous, she asked me "Why not?" I told her that that was just the way it was. "But why?" Her mamma shushed her and grinned apologetically at me. The frowning little face disappeared again. I smiled to myself; and wondered why so few of us paint our environment as colourfully as the Mexicans. It would certainly make the drab English Winter I was about to rendezvous with that much more bearable.

After the distinctly cooler climate in San Cristóbal, it was strange to be in Spring in the jungle only hours later: Palenque was pleasantly warm again. I waved cheerio to my bile-stained Mexican pal as we headed off in different directions. A passing minibus took me up to the edge of the tacky town and a small jungle lodge a short walk from the ancient ruins. I was alone in the bus, and had a brief conversation with the driver. It's when you chat to locals in the countries you visit that you realise how lucky we are to be in a position to travel; some of them have barely seen their own country; I'll never take the privilege for granted. The man told me he'd only been to DF once in his life, and we both laughed when he asked me where in his homeland I would recommend for his next holiday.

Palenque is a small but impressive sight, but I felt as if I were visiting under duress because it would be criminal to bypass it on the way to the culturally devoid Yucatán. I wandered around its quiet jungle setting under the impression I was just ticking another box; but after a year of travel through the Americas and its ruins, I almost had a right to be jaded. Besides, something else equally primitive was bothering me. Look away now if you're squeamish.

On the bus journey from Pochútla, I'd had an odd sensation in my guts. An intermittent wriggling which I put down to (and prayed it was) indigestion. But it happened too frequently, and too close to the back passage for it to be anything else than parasites. Surely not, I thought? But then, the delightful threadworm can be picked up anywhere on the road. And as I thought back to the filthy mattress I'd been sleeping on in the stilted hut in Zipolite, I was pretty sure I'd identified the culprit with a shudder. The huts weren't the cleanest I'd stayed in, and I couldn't really picture the one-armed proprietor dragging those mattresses up and down the steps to give them a beating and airing very often? I felt sick as my guests writhed. Some Googling later, I'd found exactly what I required and headed for the farmácia. My embarrassment was tempered by the fact that it's a common occurrence in travellers; that and the fact that there was nobody else in the chemist's when I entered. I was thankful for that small mercy, as I hadn't been this nervous in a pharmacy since buying condoms as a teenager (like most young men, that likely involved going into the shop four or five times til you timed it so that the old crone served you, and not the pretty young girl, and several purchases of lip salve or chocolate bars before retreating from the counter with a burning face). A middle-aged lady as wide as she was tall stood behind the counter. I unfurled my piece of paper and showed her what I wanted; she scrutinised it through thick glasses. "Ah, si…" she nodded, turning to reach up across the shelves before plonking a small packet of tablets on the counter. I counted out a few pesos. "Entonces…tienes los gusanos en su culo?" she asked matter-of-factly, jabbing a thumb at her behind with a quizzically arched eyebrow. I laughed at her Mexican straightforwardness and told her "Si, señora…I have worms in my ass."

Monday, 2 July 2012

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out On Death Beach

THE LITTLE PICKUP truck bounced along the potholed road beneath a midday sun devoid of pity. I sat up front behind the cab, grateful for the rush of fresh air as we picked our way along the road. Brilliant azure alternated with brilliant green as the canopy of trees flashed above us. We slowed to a halt every hundred yards to pick up more passengers en route to Zipolite: hawkers laden with wares, locals heading for town, bronzed surfers beach-bound. A latino climbed in at one stop. I thought I was feeling the heat until I saw this fellow. He swept his long hair back from his face, tying it behind his head. His tee-shirt was soaked with sweat; his face shiny with it. He looked over at me. I winked and grinned.

"Pretty hot, eh?"
He puffed and nodded "For sure."
"Where you from, man?"
"Mexico City."
I laughed "And you can't take this heat? Some Méxicano?"
"Fuck..." he wheezed, shaking his head. "It's fucking hot..."
I offered my hand.
"Mucho gusto."
"Y tu tambien..."

We chatted awhile. It takes a smoker to spot a fellow smoker, and Hector soon asked me if I wanted to come by his place on the beach and sample some hash; he'd come via the mountain village of San Jose Del Pacifico, home to the infamous Maria Sabina, High Priestess Of the Mushroom. In the 60s the likes of Jim Morrison of The Doors made a pilgrimage there to meet her and get high. Oaxacan mushrooms are reputed to be amongst the best in the world. I was tempted to head up that way myself, but Travel Fatigue had set in. But hey, give me a beautiful beach, a ball of hash, fresh fish tacos, home-made ice-cream and good company...I'm going nowhere for the forseable future, hermano. Besides, Hector had passed through and collected enough hash to keep a small army of pot-smokers going, he assured me.

Our bus ground to halt again. A lithe, handsome young black man jumped in, dragging a large package with him. He gave a broad grin and asked us how we were doing in a broad, lazy Californian accent. He was a chiropractor on his way to the Pina Palmera, a non-profit centre in Zipolite which helps disabled people with their problems; these range from people born deformed to those suffering after road accidents, as well as the old and infirm. Friends of his were volunteering there, and he invited us along for a look.

On reaching Zipolite's main junction, we bounded out of the truck. The centre was less than five minutes' walk away, set amongst beautiful gardens and thatched, whitewashed concrete huts. We followed a path to a large open-plan hut where chirpopractors from a multitude of countries were giving their time to help these Mexicans, some of whom had travelled as much as a hundred miles for treatment. Sitting there for half an hour and watching them work reaffirmed my faith in human nature. They were doing an amazing job. I laughed with one Mexican man as his younger brother was being treated. Mentally as well as physically disabled, the cheeky little bugger kept grabbing the tits of the Norwegian girl treating him. She'd gently remove his hands and continue, only for him to reach for another handful seconds later. His brother caught my eye and raised his eyebrows several times. We were both thinking the same thing, I guessed.

The American called my name and waved at the table. He got me to lie face-down and relax while he checked my spine. Rolling me onto my side, he folded limbs, pushed, popped and cracked things I'd always believed shouldn't be pushed, popped and cracked. He finally told me to lay on my back and completely relax. He took the weight of my head and rolled my neck around, fingers probing and testing.

"OK...I think your neck needs a litte adjustment. Would you like me to do this for you?"
This sounded a little like an informal legal disclaimer to me.
"It won't hurt, you just relax, and I adjust your spine for you..."
So I'm laid there, surrounded by disabled Mexicans, my head (life?) in a stranger's hands. The question I really wanted to ask was, obviously, unutterable: I won't end up in a wheelchair, will I? I closed my eyes and relaxed.
"Do it."
This could have been the end of life as I knew it. A fleeting vision flashed through my mind: my being wheeled down a ramp from a 747 at Heathrow while my parents asked me how I could have been so stupid. If I was to spend the remainder of my life in a wheelchair, you can believe that my level  of bitterness and general hatred of the world would be up there with Lieutenant Dan's in Forrest Gump. There was an audible click as he quickly twisted and pulled my head in one fluid movement. A cold sensation washed up and down my spine; my head tingled.

"All good?" the upside-down face above me asked, grinning?
I waggled my fingers.
Scrunched my toes.
Swung my legs off the table and sat up.
All still working.
"All good" I smiled back, nervously.
"You ready for that smoke, chico?" Hector laughed.
"Oh yeah..." I took a deep breath "...definitely."

It's always fortuitous to meet someone like Hector whilst on the road; the local who knows the best places to eat, the secret bars, the nicest stretches of beach. He lives on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala these days, but comes here to stock up on good hash while renewing his visa at the same time. Kill two birds with one stone(d). Leading me through town towards the beach, we stopped at El Chaman, a juice bar run by some bearded fellas he knew. I ordered a Vampiro at his urging, a delicious mix of ginger, honey, various fruits and a dash of beetroot. I'd never been a fan of beetroot when younger, but the stuff in 70s and 80s England was always the pickled variety in a jar: nasty. Eaten fresh it's a different, and delicious, story. I started eating it again a few years back. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that I once spent an anxious Sunday afternoon in my London flat, disturbed by the dark red contents of the toilet bowl that morning. It was a few hours before I remembered I'd had beetroot with my salad the night previously; so it wasn't blood in the toilet and no, I didn't have bowel cancer. That was a relief, I can tell you.

But enough English Toilet Humour. We followed the sandy path onto the beach, avoiding the hot patches. Zipolite's beach stretches out across a 2km arc of golden sand. It's a walk through shallow water to the breaking waves, but this beach is not an ideal one to swim on. Circular currents and a deadly undertow have claimed many lives over the years. Red flags designate the safe areas, and zealous lifeguards patrol the area; these have been called into action 180 times between 2007 and 2009 alone. A week before I arrived, a newly-wed man had died in Mazunte...apparently drowning through a cramp. Being in such a beautiful place had clouded his thinking, and he had reportedly eaten lunch with a couple of beers before deciding on a swim. A tragic tale, and I can't imagine how his poor wife felt, widowed within days of marriage. And in such a lovely place.

The story made me think more about sudden death abroad. For the tourists the incident will be talked about for a while afterwards, but the holiday goes on. The locals may feel it more. A life passes for someone, but the world continues to turn. The dead man is forgotten; sometimes sooner than is seemly. I recalled my Dad telling me about the man who'd died, despite Dad's best efforts in swimming out to rescue him, on the Welsh coast some years back. People on the beach had continued enjoying their day out despite the man going under and not resurfacing, his body claimed by the sea for some days afterwards; some even sat on the sand enjoying their ice-creams and cold beers as the coastguard helicopter swept up and down the shoreline searching for signs of the unfortunate man. Shameful. The beach should clear itself within minutes as a mark of respect, in my opinion.

Hector's place was a palm-frond covered wooden shack on stilts, one of fifteen in a row right on the beach. We climbed the steps, the whole structure wobbling. Sat out of the breeze, the sun baked us. We slapped on some of the sunscreen we'd bought from the small shop at Pina Palmera: they re-sell half-empty bottles people leave behind for a few pesos. A great idea, I thought. My eyes lit up as Hector showed me his stash. A huge bag of grass, and several balls of pungent-smelling Oaxacan hash. "Oh man" I grinned "I need to be your neighbour." He rolled, and we looked out to sea. Silent for a while, it was a few joints before he spoke.

"They call this Death Beach" he said. "Best not to swim here."
I told him I'd heard that it could be dangerous, and would be swimming in the small cove at the north end of the beach, not on the main strip.
He nodded.
"I hear a man died a few weeks back in Mazunte?"
"Yes. A few die. They don't respect the sea."
"And not many are given a second chance."
He shook his head.

My head was buzzing nicely from the hash. I asked him where the owner lived, and set off to see if there was a bungalow for me. The one-handed dueno was a friendly chap, and we haggled til we reached a price we were mutually pleased with. He'd asked how long I wanted to stay, and grinned at my open-armed shrug. Quien sabe? I knew the Mexicans from the cities would be arriving in the next few weeks for their Xmas holidays, and I wanted to be away before then. I'd heard enough stories of people being hit by cars driven on the beach by drunken Mexicanos at 4am. Besides, I had a plane to catch in Cancún. Unfortunately.

I returned the next morning, having said my goodbyes to the Mazunte gang. I'd miss this place, and the La Isla owners. They made me promise to return. And I keep my promises. I was happy to see my friend Elias on the way out, a small Mexican I'd watched a few English football games with. He'd given me a very warm welcome when I first arrived in Mazunte. I'd only enquired at his house after seeing a sign advertising Barcelona v Real Madrid. It had been just for his friends, but he insisted on sitting down and chatting, sharing the leftover ceviche with me. Lovely bloke. And another who made me promise to come back as he waved me off.

It turned out that myself and Hector would, literally, be neighbours: I had the hut next door. I lugged my gear up to the base of the steps. An old American dude was sat besides his car, and awning tied to the stilts of the bungalows, him beneath it on a canvas chair. Stark bollock naked.

"Eyup, mate" I greeted him, maintaining careful eye-contact.
"English, huh?"
"Why you gotcha clothes on, man? We're in Zipolite..."
I laughed.
"I'm modest. Besides...I've got a grower, not a shower."
He chuckled. "Nobody cares here, just let it all hang out..."
I could see that.
"Don't forget the sunscreen" I told him as I climed the rickety stairs.

Since to 60s and 70s, Zipolite has been a name synonymous with hippies and American counterculture. Around town you're more likely to hear strains of the Doors, Grateful Dead, Beatles or Stones than contemporary music. Suits me fine. The old hippies, and some new ones, have been coming here ever since, but there doesn't seem to be much new blood as far as the nudists go. And certainly not many females. It seems to be a crowd of old duffers walking around with their ballbags swinging in the breeze. Some brazen; some comically but respectfully covering their offending parts when local women pass them on the beach. One fellow in particular was adept at it: the handkerchief would come out when the women walking towards him were within 20 yards; as they passed, the hanky was passed around the waist to cover the arsecheeks for 30 seconds until they were a discreet distance away and normal service would be resumed. Nice of him to make an effort, I thought?

I dozed on the beach one afternoon, a sheltered cove to myself. I'd read, drunk mango juice, swum awhile, and had nodded off in the sun. I rolled over onto my front to continue reading my book, and cast my eyes up the beach to the treeline. My retinas were seared with the sight of a middle-aged man's hairy arsehole and nutsack, flopped on the sand between his outstretched legs and below the twin peaks of his hirsute bum cheeks, not five metres away. I groaned aloud. Why couldn't I have been gazing up at some curvy, cocoa-toned Méxicana nymph in a bikini, patches of sand clinging to a peach of a derriere, raven hair blowing in the breeze? Life's not fair, is it? It certainly put me off my fish tacos, I can tell you.

And so another evening over. Another amazing fish dinner for peanuts. Another joint of some of the finest Mexican hash, to rival the Indian and Afghan varieties in Amsterdam. I swung in my hammock watching the sun go down, blowing scented smoke at the insects buzzing around the dim, naked bulb at the apex of my roof; the wind whispered to me through the palms, telling me secrets. I read the graffiti inked and carved into the wooden walls and ceiling of the hut. Hippies. Surfers. Lovers. Loners. Drifters. Hundreds of people here before me. Thousands. Just the hut, the vibe, the sunset and the battered bed in common. I thought of the couples who must have shared this view before me, retiring to bed after a heady mix of sun, surf, smoke and beer. And all that would come later, their night just beginning. Where was the beach nymph when I needed her? I allowed myself a wry smile, pinched out the joint, doused the light and retired for the night. Tomorrow is another day.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Taxi Driver

SOMETHING FELT WRONG as soon as we got into the car. Call it a sixth sense, a nose for danger; it just didn't feel right. I’d walked up to the junction at Zipolite’s main road with Alan, a fellow Englishman. As there were no ATMs in the village, we’d have to get a ride to the nearest town, Pochutla, to withdraw cash. On reaching the junction we saw a waiting taxi; he started his motor and approached us slowly.

The taxi cabs in México run in one of two ways: either you hire them privately, or they operate as a collectivo, in which case the driver will pick up other passengers along the route to maximise the profit on his trip, and you all pay a set fare. We had chosen the latter option. Security didn’t seem to be an issue in this corner of the country. Or so we thought.

We discussed the price, and the taxi driver asked us if we were going to use the ATM? We were. Two women crossed the dusty junction and climbed in. Alan looked at me and nodded. He got into the passenger side and I got into the back with the two women, sitting on the right behind him. A third woman joined us, and squeezed in alongside my compatriot in front. The driver heaved on the wheel and with a crunch of gravel we turned out into the potholed road, heading for Puerto Angel. The young woman in the middle next to me offered me a piece of her orange; I smiled and politely declined.

The taxista had addressed us in heavily American-accented English when he pulled up, and I guessed that this guy had been educated in the States, or at least spent a good deal of time there; he’d exchanged a few terse remarks with the local women as we’d been getting in. They seemed familiar to him. As we drove I noted that he hadn’t asked where the women were going, and I queried, in Spanish, if we would be first out and how far away the town was? He studied me in the mirror as he answered, and I noticed him make eye contact with the woman who sat beside me.

There was something in his manner that I didn’t quite like. I made smalltalk: was he local, and where did he learn such good English? He gave me vague answers and, realising that I knew enough Spanish to understand them, didn’t speak further to the two women. Slowing a little, he took out his cell phone and sent a couple of text messages. I watched the beads of sweat trickle from his temple, across his pockmarked cheek, disappearing into the open neck of his shirt. He seemed a little agitated. The woman next to me read a message and typed a reply; a minute or two the driver was checking his phone again, and eyeing me in the mirror. I watched the sea from my window and told myself to calm down...that I was imagining things.

We hit the outskirts of Puerto Angel, the next town on from Zipolite. Remembering that there was also a bank here, I asked the driver to stop. Myself and Alan jumped out to check, but the ATM was out of order. When we returned to the car, the woman from the front seat was gone. Alan had the front all to himself, and I took the seat in the back again. We set off in the direction of Pochutla.

I had significantly less room in the back than I’d had five minutes previously. The young woman had shifted over, and her legs were pressed rather firmly against mine; she was almost leaning into me. She texted on her phone. A few seconds later the driver was checking his and looking at me in the mirror. In my peripheral vision, I could see the woman turning to look at me every ten seconds. I returned one look and smiled. She didn’t smile back, turning away. Her face was hard, emotionless. It occurred to me that she resembled Marta, the machinegun-wielding Colombian from the chainsaw scene in Scarface. Not a good look. I was looking ahead, but could see her turning to regard me with the same frequency. Whenever I turned to look back at her, she would look over her shoulder, out of the rear window, then back at me, before looking to the driver. I noticed her nostrils were flaring wide; she was breathing heavily, so much so that I could hear her. Her leg muscles were tensed, like a cat; a coiled spring. She leaned away and whispered something in the older woman’s ear. The latter reached into the handbag on her lap, and left her hand inside it. Strange. Her companion looked out of the the opposite window when I caught her eye.

My heart was thumping so hard by now that I was sure they could hear it. I folded my arms to stop my hands shaking, and also to give myself some protection. My elbow was in a good position if I needed to use it. I felt almost as if the young woman was purposely not giving me much room for manoeuvre. She shifted in her seat, moving closer still, looked again out of the back window yet again and then back at me. Was I just being paranoid? I tried to convince myself that this was the case, but the behaviour from this trio had set alarm bells ringing. She checked behind her again and again. I could feel the blood pounding in my ears.

We neared the edge of town and picked up speed. The driver gripped the steering wheel with both hands. My mind was reeling; a dry copper tang filled my mouth: the taste of fear. Ahead of us was another taxi and a truck which had slowed right down. I spotted the speed hump. And my opportunity. “Stop the car…stop the car!” I shouted. The driver whirled round at me, confused. “I’m going to be sick!” I told him. It had just popped into my head as the thing most likely to get a taxi driver to pull over. Instinctively he halted, and I flung the car door open, leapt out. I pulled open the passenger door. Alan, bewildered “Are you alright, mate?” he asked. “Get out, Al” I told him. He looked confused “Just get out” I insisted. He obeyed and I gave the driver a few pesos, trying to appear normal. He said nothing, fixing me with his gaze, the muscles in his clenched jaw pulsing. The two women stared. As the taxi pulled away at speed, they both turned and leered at us from the rear window, like grinning ghouls in the flashing sunlight flickering across the glass. All very, very sinister.

My heart rate slowed and I caught my breath. I reassured Alan that I was OK and told him that no, it wasn’t car sickness, merely a ruse to get the driver to stop. I relayed to him what had gone on; he said he’d been oblivious to it all in the front of the car. I felt like I’d behaved foolishly and apologised for my paranoia, but he told me that it was better to be safe than sorry: they could well have been preparing to rob us. It happens. Maybe it pays to be a little paranoid?

This incident was, for me, a wake-up call against complacency. Despite the amiable people I’d encountered so far, this was a stark reminder: in México, not everyone wants to be your friend.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Dreddlock Holiday

MUD SUCKED HUNGRILY at my feet, squelching between my toes as I tiptoed through the shallow, brackish water towards the sandbank. A muffled roar sounded from over its crest, a dull rumble as the impact of thousands of tonnes of water transferred its kinetic energy through billions of pieces of silica. The early afternoon sun was burning hot across my shoulders as I emerged from the trees; three young boys mended a weighted net, preparing to fish the shallows. A blistered, peeling, pale blue fishing boat sat atop the rise. Mazunte's beauty was revealed all at once; her beach curled away to my left, a half-mile to the far headland. Small islets of rock broke the surface of the ocean around this headland, the water churning white as the waves rolled over and around them; larger islands further distant burned bright white in the sunlight they were so encrusted with the white guano of the sea birds that wheeled and screeched around them. I walked a little further, the grin cracking my face; few places inspire love at first sight quite like Mazunte. To my right the beach narrowed around a small headland; beyond it was the main beach surrounded by small cafés and bars, small houses dotting the cliffs and hills above. I sat in the sand and watched a couple of Méxicano youths skim-boarding, silhouetted in the glare of dappled light dancing on water. With my eyes closed for a moment, I enjoyed the rumble, the boom of sea bullying land, the serpentine hiss as water retreated and was sucked away from between particles of sand.

"Señor...señor..." I opened my eyes. A small boy of five or six was regarding me, all tousled chestnut hair and chocolate eyes. I peered over the lip of the bucket he was carrying: it was filled with small plastic boxes. "¿Que tienes, chiquito?" I asked him. "Tacos de pescado" he smiled shyly. The boy's mother had caught him up by now, she walking more slowly in the heat; crouching beside me, she removed a large basket from atop the sarong wrapped around her head. As she prepared my four tuna tacos for the princely sum of two dollars, we chatted and I complimented her on her guapo young son. She beamed her thanks. The tacos were stuffed with guacamole and chilli, and she bid me a good afternoon as she handed them over, packed the basket and headed away. I waved and told her I'd see her tomorrow. And the day after. I'd no sooner finished my tacos, fingers painted green with guacamole, when my next visitor arrived. The old man laboured down the beach, immaculate in a smart pair of trousers and pressed white shirt, a white Panama hat casting a strong shadow over his sun-beaten face. He pushed a small wooden wheelbarrow before him. It contained a small urn. He nodded a greeting as he got closer. "¿Es helado, señor?" A beatific smile creased his face as he proudly presented me with two small samples of his ice-cream. "Si." This was a man confident of his merchandise. He had every right to be, it was incredible. Learning Spanish has not always been easy, but it's well worth the effort to be able to have a chat with a friendly local. Though he spoke no English, I was able to find out that Alvaro had given up a job that he wasn't happy in, and had been making the ice-cream in his house for fifteen years. He's 70. His working day starts at 4am, and he has fresh helado ready to go by ten o'clock. Laughing, he told me that not even his wife gets up so early. I'd come to try a few flavours over the next few weeks, but the first one I tried was the best. Walnut. Creamy. Delicious. Alvaro proudly informed me that he sells out every day, and I'm not at all surprised.

Alvaro left for another waving customer. My hands sticky with ice-cream, I got to my feet and sauntered down to the water, waiting for the foaming waves to recede. I waded in, the cool water soothing my hot skin. Duck-diving, I swam through the green silence for a few moments before sufacing to float on my back, arms outstretched and facing the sun high above the cliffs. I had little more than a month of the trip left, and I already knew that I was going to spend the majority of that time here.

Mazunte is a tiny Pacific coastal town an hour or so south of Puerto Escondido by local bus. From the highway stop of Punto Angel, it's a further fifteen minutes by collectivo along a palm-fringed, potholed road. I've not visited a more relaxed place in the Americas. There are no police stationed here, and they visit the town infrequently; the locals seem to police themselves. As a result, the place exudes a very relaxed vibe, obvious when you see the people enjoying a joint or a pipe with their lunch. I would pass many a peaceful afternoon enjoying the view across the bay while building myself a spliff to accompany a fresh Americano.

Alex from Colima had recommended a new hostel near the ocean. La Isla was run by two couples: two Argentino lads and their German and Russian girlfriends. Pablo ran the kitchen, his girlfriend Kathy the bar with Alicia while Lissi did the DIY and played with the three dogs which lived in the hostel. There was a fourth dog, a puppy I renamed Hendrix after he ate half a bag of my grass and spent the next eight hours stretched out asleep beneath a hammock. I love dogs, and have met few who haven't returned my affection. I think they recognise a fellow simple being. The foursome running the hostel all left Playa Del Carmen after a few years of working over in Quintana Roo state. Kathy, being a dive instructor like myself, misses the place and the hustle and bustle. But life in Mazunte is more relaxing, and far more Méxican, than being over in Playa. After a holiday in the town, they'd decided to return to build a hostel and start a new life here. They are easy company, and are going to do well, I am certain of that.

There are probably more dreddlocked white people here than anywhere else in México, and you all know my opinion on those Plastic Rasta types. But I'll take these over gangs of pissed-up Aussie surfkids. Besides, the majority keep themselves to themselves; bar one rude individual who would wander into the cafés and approach your table while you were eating. "Bracelet?" she asked me simply one afternoon, her chunk of woven bracelet-clad bamboo shoved in my face, between my open mouth and my food-laden fork. I briefly studied her manky single lock of matted hair, tufts of black, protruding armpit-hair and filthy fingernails before holding up a piece of my lunch and indignantly answering "Falafel?" She huffed and walked away without a word. Pig-ignorant. There was a cake-selling crusty on the beach every morning who I warmed to, though; his infectious grin indicated a happiness at being alive in this place. Besides, he wasn't pushy, and only had one small, manky dreddlock: the rest of his head was shaved.

Alex had mentioned that he had a holiday coming up as I'd left Colima; said he might come down to Mazunte for a few days. So I was pleased when he emailed and said that he was on his way. He arrived dusty and worn-out after 1500km and two days astride his BMW bike. I wasn't surprised he was mentally fatigued, as those roads from Oaxaca, with their speedbumps, patches of gravel, broken tarmac and packs of deranged dogs in the tiny villages lining the route must have been testing. I was pleased and relieved when he finally turned up. And even more pleased and relieved when he revealed that he'd brought Chinese Japanese with him. Unfortunately he couldn't fit Julieta and Teresa on the bike, but we made do. For the next few days life repeated the pattern that I'd happily sunk into while living in Colima. Except that we had the beach on our doorstep.

Mazunte is an important point on the map for anyone interested in yoga and holistics. There's an abundance of health food shops, bakeries and massage centres. So along with the yogis and bean-eaters, there are bound to be a few New Age oddballs knocking around. I certainly came across a few. We took a walk up the hill to Punta Cometa one afternoon. This headland to the north of the town is the best point from which to watch the sun end its shift. A small crowd was ranged across the clifftop watching the crimson ball in its final moments. The peace was interrupted by a fat, bald and shirtless westerner with a wispy, manicured beard, who took to banging a small drum with monotonous regularity. Alex raised his eyebrows at me, and I suggested we could maybe push him off the cliff? The Frenchman was in agreement, especially when Buddha began blowing into a conch shell at the sun's very last moments. If you want to add a bit of atmosphere or drama to such a moment that's fair enough, but listen to it on your iPod and leave everyone else to enjoy a contemplative moment in peace? I'd liked to have shoved the conch where the sun doesn't shine...he'd have been obliged to eat plenty of beans before getting a note of it after that.

The night previously at our hostel a group had celebrated a birthday. A tall, bespectacled American man had serenaded them on acoustic guitar. While the guy was pretty good, he'd been playing louder and louder, turning to everyone else's table in wide-eyed glee and screaming out his songs in a "Hey...look at me...aren't I wacky and crazy?" kind of way. No, mate...but you're really fucking annoying. We'd been having a pleasant chat until he'd turned up. He was like a creepy, manic Jack Johnson. He arrived on the cliff now, and made his way around the groups offering shoulder massages. But not the, it was the men he wanted to get his hands on. This strange man rocking up and offering to rub their boyfriend's bodies appeared to perturb one or two, and distrusting glances were thrown his way as he tried with the next couple. Alex voiced my thoughts. "Let's leave before he gets to us."

On the way back to wooded hill above the town, there is a set of natural steps down to the rocky foot of the headland. In one tiny corner here is a natural jacuzzi, surrounded by cliffs: it's a basin pool worn into the stone through centuries of erosion. The waves surge through a tiny gap between two expanses of rocky wall, overflowing violently into this pool with a burbling roar of white foaming water. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's like being in a huge natural washing machine. If visited at midday, there is a small suntrap in which to dry off and relax. It's a serene spot, and barely visited; I was lucky enough to have it all to myself.

All too soon, the Frenchman's visit came to an end. Once more, I didn't feel too blue at his departure; I have a feeling I'll be seeing him again within the next year. It's funny how you can meet someone while travelling and click with them immediately. I felt like we'd known each other far longer than five weeks; that we'd be friends for life. He's OK, for a pinche Francés. As he revved the bike and departed in a cloud of dust, he told me that Colima would be waiting, and to give him some notice before I came back so that he could have a room ready. I'll be taking him up on that.

With Alex gone, I decided that I'd have a change of scene. Time was running out, and I wanted to see a few more beautiful Oaxacan beaches before my departure to wintry London. And just down the road from Mazunte was a legendary spot that I just had to hit. I packed my bags and made ready for a morning departure.

Lost Amongst Men Without Hats

PUERTO ESCONDIDO TRANSLATES as Hidden Port in Spanish. And to be perfectly honest, if it had remained hidden then I wouldn't have missed out on much. It's a sizeable seaside town populated by drunken Australian surfers barely-tolerated by moody locals. But the rowdy behaviour of the former probably accounts for the attitude of the latter. I'd been forewarned by several people about this, so I wasn't completely taken aback on arrival. The Aussies, like the Israelis, generally travel in packs and congregate in the same locations. This isn't all bad, as you know which places to avoid; they don't stray far from their hostels, unless it's too buy more booze. In no way am I knocking all Australians here. I've met some pretty cool ones on this trip, but none of them were travelling with fifteen mates in tow.

The town itself surrounds a gaudy high street which runs parallel to the main beach; the usual bright lights, noisy neon-lit bars and crappy souvenir shops. It is within the convenience stores on the main drag that you'll receive the rudest service in México. I shopped in one regularly the first two days in town, and was unfailingly polite. The young lad working there was chatty, but his mother was a different kettle of fish; a sour face like a bulldog licking piss from a thistle. She'd flatly ignore me and my daily greetings, which was bad enough, but the last straw came when she put my change on the counter, ignoring my outstretched hand. Now I'd observed the inebriated antipodeans staggering around in her store at all hours of the day, but felt offended to be tarred with that particular brush. I left the premises under a dark cloud, vowing not to give her my custom any longer; I'd shop elsewhere. But then I decided to go back in the next day and, when she asked me for twenty pesos without taking her eyes off the TV behind me, I just slapped the coins loudly on the wooden counter, inches from her palm. Manners cost nothing, and treat other people as you expect to be treated in return?

So it seems that tourists are barely tolerated here, some locals appearing to resent the fact that they rely on us for their livelihood. Sean and Susy, the surfers I'd spent some time with in El Salvador, had warned me about the aggressive atmosphere in the bars and clubs of Escondido. And they weren't wrong. You'd be quite foolish to try chatting up a pretty Méxicana in this town: you'd probably get your head kicked in. I've not met locals so hostile since the exchanges of pleasantries San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua. In the low season things seem to simmer on a reduced heat, but I wouldn't like to be here for the high season or the dreaded Spring Break when American youth descends on the bay. Puerto Sangre, I'd imagine?

But head ten minutes north out of town, via the coastline walkway which hugs the cliffs, and you come to the beautiful bay of Playa Carazalillo. This shallow strip of beach is barely a hundred metres long and ten metres deep, and is an oasis of calm. No unwelcome hassle from hawkers here: the ones who ply their wares are friendly, and remember if you've said No when they return in the other direction. Besides, the food they're selling usually means that you say Yes. When I wasn't buying from the beach vendors I ate regularly at a tiny, ramshackle café at the bottom of the 176 steps from the street above. The fish tacos here were delicious, crispy, stuffed with chunks of fresh avocado; I sometimes ate them twice a day, they were so good. Floating on your back in the cool sea, facing the cliffs and contemplating that first afternoon beer, is a simple pleasure not to be underestimated. It was easy to while away a few days here. The sunset looks best from the steps, and after it had disappeared I'd have a quick passing chat with the artisano selling bracelets and the like at the top. His name was Fabio. He was 40-plus, and Méxicano...not the usual crusty Israeli or Argentino you see in that line of business. He'd given me his sales patter the first time I'd passed. "Yeah, I've been here a few yearss...I have an American girlfriend, she looks after's not an easy life...some days I have a few pennies in my pocket, some days I don' know...I just gotta keep going, thanks to you're from England? God Bless England, man...yeah..." The wistful look out to sea which accompanied this pitch, and his sun-weathered, gap-toothed smile, may have worked on young surfer babes, but I saw through it. And he knew that, and grinned wider still. A nice guy, Fabio...but I'm not buying a bracelet.

They say that the world is a small place. It is. I met a lad from Adelaide who was bemoaning the fact that the town, especially our hostel, was crawling with Australians. I told him I imagined it would be like myself arriving on the Costa Del Sol in Spain. Horrific. We had a quick chat, as my sister has lived in his hometown a number of years. He was from the same neighbourhood, and mentioned that he was a teacher. I jokingly said that I bet he'd tell me next that he taught at my nephew and niece's school? It turned out that he had, and knows them both well. Funny.

The Aussie asked me about the diving in Escondido, and I told him to give it a wide berth. I'd spent a morning out in a fish-stinking boat a few days before, diving two of the worst dive sites it has been my misfortune to visit. I won't waste breath, ink or web space on the first. The second had been a pile of rocks around the corner from the main beach, with very limited visibility and nothing of note to see. I was actually pleased when the dive guide started getting cold, as it was an excuse to end the dive. The owner had told me that a couple of days previously she'd seen mantas and a whale. Where? On a TV documentary? Talk about being led up the garden path; the guide said he'd seen one whale, in the distance, in a year of diving here. Now you can't guarantee anything in diving. When people ask if they'll see sharks or the like I'll always say that it's like planning a trip to LA and wondering if you'll see Brad and Angelina? might. But, on the other hand, you might not. But I don't like being bullshitted. And word of mouth can work both ways as far as recommendations go. So Puerto Dive Center won't be getting any more of my hard-earned. And I won't be sending any travellers their way, as I do with the Argentino guide, Nico, who showed me the cenotes in Tulum with five amazing dives.

Considering that I'd imagined getting work here, I had to laugh after these two dives. I could hardly bring myself to log them, they were that bad. It's a measure of their bleak dreadfulness that my first thoughts as we headed for the bottom was that I would have to wash and dry my equipment for this shit? Not the indicator of an enjoyable dive. Back at the shop, after the owner enquired after how my day had been, I'd told her that the visibilty was terrible, the guide suffered from the cold, we cut the second dive short and that'd we'd seen nothing much in the way of wildlife. Her response? A beaming "Perfect!" Not really, dear. But never have my money.

So after the gear had dried (mercifully quickly), I was packing up again. I was heading for a quieter spot that had long been marked on my Mexican map: the beachside town of Mazunte.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Song Of The Siren

IT WAS ALMOST impossible, but leave I did. Eventually. I had almost left a few weeks before; Julian, the Australian fellow with whom I'd driven to Guadalajara, had passed through Colima in his truck. He was heading for the Michoacán coast. But he'd turned up a day earlier than expected and wanted to leave the next, as he was on a tight schedule; I wasn’t prepared to rush off. So I'd stayed. Maybe I'd miss out on some amazing experiences, but you make these decisions and you stick by them. The time came when I realised I'd have to get moving, though. Being at the beach in Michoacán had amplified the seductive whisper of the ocean: I wanted to get down to the Oaxaca coastline and dive. On the way I'd catch up with my Austrian friend Karina in Guanajuato, have a brief sojourn in México DF and see Oaxaca city.

I'd packed the night before, and was showered and ready to go by midmorning. Niki had refused to say Goodbye the night before, saying that I was going nowhere. He came back from work, saw me sat in the garden and laughed before he noticed the two packed bags stacked outside my room. He groaned, I grinned. "You'll have to roll your own joints now, amigo." Alex kindly offered me a lift to the terminal, and Niki and Pajarito came along. I usually hate farewells. It upsets me to leave people I've really connected with. But my heart was less heavy at the fact that I know I'll be back to Colima one day. I’ll visit Niki in Munich. I could look up Rudi & Bruno there, the two gay guys I spent Xmas 2008 snorkelling in Thailand with...they live in the same city. I'm sure they'd be delighted to watch Niki eat an ice-lolly? They’d likely even pay for it.

The boys departed, tooting the horn and shouting abuse out of the window of the truck. As us Europeans tend to do. I entered the terminal laughing to myself, to the bemusement of some of the locals; I don’t suppose many of them are dropped at the terminal by friends and family, who then depart with shouts of “I think you are a fat bastard!” from the car window, in French-accented English? Charming. No decorum, the French. Savages, one and all. It wasn't long before I was on a bus headed for Guadalajara. I thought of the friends I’d made in Colima and smiled to myself. I’d miss them, and was glad I’d turned up in the town at random. It amused me that I'd arrived thinking I'd be out of there in a few days, and had spent a full month in their easy company. Colima feels right to me, and friends back home, when I'd expressed doubts about staying in one place so long, when there were so many more places to see, had told me to stay if it felt right. It did. But I was also slightly relieved to be back on the road and heading for the unknown.

I daydreamed until we reached the city, delighting in the scenery. There was a half hour to kill before my connection to Guanajuato. I wandered the terminal and hung around near my departure gate. A rotund man of around 50 years of age struck up a conversation, asking if I was American? Nope. We got chatting. He was México-born, but brought up in the States; back for a holiday. His parents still lived here, and he was going to Puerto Vallarta, where he had a timeshare. I chuckled and told him I'd been there, but it was far too Americanised for me...I was here to see México. He laughed too, and said he understood completely, but that it was safe and secure, and that he just wanted a beach to relax on. Fair enough.

Like most Americans, or in this case Améxican, he was shocked when he'd asked the whereabouts of my friends, only to be told I was travelling alone. He said México was dangerous and that I should take care; his jaw hit the floor when I said I'd ventured through Honduras and spent a month in El Salvador. "Are you crazy?" he asked. “Only on Tuesdays.” People don't seem to realise how simple independent travel really is. The big step is doing it the first time and, yes, it can be daunting. But once done, you can never go back. Ever. He was fascinated by my tales from Colombia, but said he was surprised that they had tourism there. If he hadn't been so old already, he told me, I might have inspired him to give it a try. But he said that he'd stick to a Margarita and a steak on the beach. I laughed, shook his hand and told him my Guanajuato bus was pulling into the terminal. "Guanajuato?" he said, doubtfully "Be careful up there, my friend." I smiled and told him that there'd be more gringos than locals in that place, and so I wouldn't be there long. He waved with a grin and a shake of his head as I climbed into the bus.

I arrived at my destination in the early evening. After the warmth of Colima, where a degree drop in temperature one evening had prompted Alex to say it was a little fresh, and Niki had replied, deadpan, that he might even have to go and put a tee-shirt on, Guanajuato was a shock. I could see my breath in the air, for pity's sake? Wouldn't be hanging around here long, I thought. If I wanted to be cold, I'd be back in bloody England.

A beautiful town on an impressively rugged seat of arid rock, Guanajuato nestles in a tight, winding valley five hours North of the capital. Sitting on one side of the crevice and looking down into the centre of gaily-coloured buildings, the place is surprisingly quiet. No drone of traffic assails the ears. This is the beauty of the place, due to the genius of its design: beneath this UNESCO city snakes a network of tunnels where the traffic passes, unheard, below the feet. Cars, buses and trucks are infrequently seen when walking about town. It's incredibly peaceful. Myself and Karina spent an hour on the hillside enjoying the peace and picking out our favourite-coloured buildings. The vista plays tricks with your eyes, making it difficult to have a sense of perspective or depth-of-field: the view can look completely flat at times, it's quite bizarre.

Two days was enough here, and the three of us headed back to the capital. Aline was due to leave for Nicaragua, and I was heading for Oaxaca. It felt good to get back to DF, I'd missed the beating heart of México: its dirt, holes in the pavements, graffiti, traffic fumes and excitement. A couple of nights out with some familiar faces, and I was ready to make a move. I got a reminder never to be complacent when Aline was robbed mid-morning at the computer fair downtown. She'd needed a battery for her laptop, and had heard that they could be bought cheaply there. Personally I'd have taken the serial number of the required battery rather than carry a computer to a bustling marketplace. She'd been handing it to a stall-owner to check when a thief ran by and knocked her over, snatching the laptop and disappearing rapidly into the crowd. It happened so quickly that she didn't have time to be frightened, and thankfully she was downright annoyed rather than traumatised by the experience. Tough girl. It was made all the worse by the fact that she'd had a Macbook stolen from a locker at the hostel we'd all been using barely a week before. Just bad luck. And bad people.

There were plenty of parties upcoming in DF, but I knew that if I didn't make a move then I'd be there another fortnight; it's a great city that you really need to spend some time in if you're ever out this way. So I was on my way by lunchtime, and arrived in the old colonial city of Oaxaca late that evening.

I love a pretty colonial town as much as the next traveller. But I've been away a year and have sampled the delights of Antigua (Guatemala), Quito (Ecuador), Suchitoto (El Salvador) and the Casco Viejo district of Panama City. So I'm kind of colonial citied-out. Jaded. Oaxaca, had it been visited earlier, may have blown me away. I could hardly be bothered to take photographs, which is very unlike me. Of course, it's a beautifully-kept place...but there's just far too many gringos for my liking. I like a town where I can sit in a faded old square, sip a coffee from an independant shop, read my book in peace and have a brief chat with a few locals. Not one where I'm being pestered to buy a hammock every five minutes. In the central plaza of Oaxaca I sat and had one coffee, a shit one from an "Italian" chain at that, and counted nineteen vendors or beggars constantly breaking my peace and quiet. It's beyond belief. I'd been promised great vegetarian food in the town, but I failed to find it.

And so, walking around town, I was overwhelmed by something building up inside of me, akin to a panic attack. But it wasn't a panic attack at all, it was more that I just couldn’t be arsed, and was getting the urge to flee. It was late afternoon and I realised that, if I wanted to see the ruins of Monte Alban high above the town, I would have to move fast if I wasn’t to be trapped here for another day. I located a shuttle company and took the last bus uphill. Alone with the driver, I had a pleasant chat on the way up; his family and job, my family and travels; and, of course, the obligatory exchanges about English football, El Chicharito and (my hatred of) Manchester United. Diego liked his job, and it was easy. It also paid fairly, and allowed him to bring up his daughters comfortably. We discussed the number of westerners in the town, and he told me that there are 5000 permanent ex-pats living there. I told him that this was a good enough reason for me to want to spend my time elsewhere, as I came to the country to learn Spanish and get a feel for México: the real México, not some sanitised gringo version. “You must leave tonight” he cackled.

Monte Alban's ruins are not the most spectacular you'll see in the Americas, not by a long way; but the setting is tranquil and it's a nice escape from the town. Indeed, it is so quiet atop this hill that sounds from the valley can carry: voices and music drift on the wind from below. Being so still, it's a good place to sit and take it easy for an hour or two. The makeshift scaffolding around one of the central pyramids somewhat marred the view. And a laughing local I spoke to told me that it had been left that way for the last few years; the few restoration workers I saw laughing and chatting in the shade were a good indication of the current workrate. Mañana, mañana.

I returned to town, sat in the square with a final constantly-interrupted coffee, and then booked a shuttle for the following morning on my return to the hostel. Ordinarily I would have been happy enough on the bus but, with the winding, mountainous road to Puerto Escondido taking 11 hours, a mere 6 by minibus seemed a better bet. A good many people make this journey overnight, but I had a feeling that the scenery was going to be worth seeing, so set off midmorning.

I wasn't disappointed. The dusty outskirts of Oaxaca gave way to green hills as we climbed in altitude. The roads were as bad as expected; potholes and hardly-visible speed humps slowed us, and I was hardly surprised that the bus took twice as long. Temperatures dropped as we sped ever higher, and each bend revealed another incredible, never-ending view of mountains and valleys. The delicious, fresh scent of pine drifted in through the open windows. Drives like this make me happy, and it was a pity that darkness would fall before I could see the ocean.

We stopped in a village that time forgot, the driver telling us that we had twenty minutes to eat. Nothing looked appealing, and I made do with a milkshake and a packet of peanuts. It wouldn't be the first time. I was amused to see a few locals sat around watching a repeat of a recent English football game featuring Everton, my boyhood team, and Stoke City. It was a little bizarre to be sat in a run-down café in a no-horse town in southwest México and catch the back-end of a match from home. Less of a surprise that Everton were losing.

One of the women from our bus was eyeing me. When I looked over she informed me that my headphones had been a little loud on the first leg. I laughed and said that she should have let me know and I would have gladly turned it down? As we climbed back into the van, she took this as the starting point of a very, very long conversation: she talked my bloody ears off. She was around my age but twice my size, and told me she was single and worked in a hotel in Huatulco, a few hours from Escondido. And that I should visit. She insisted on giving me her number, and seemed unhappy that I didn't have a phone. She grilled me for the next hour, the high point of which being her question on what an atheist temples looked like? After a while my neck was aching from constantly looking to my extreme left, hoping me being wrapped up in the view would prevent further conversation. Or maybe I should have just gently put her off by informing her that I make it a rule never to date girls with arms hairier than my own? Would have been rude. But effective.

We were less than two hours away when we were treated to the very strange sight of a man in a tee-shirt running along the mountain road carrying a flaming Olympic-style torch, with a support vehicle of sorts trailing him...though this one had a huge, candle-ringed shrine to the Virgen De Guadelupe atop it in a glass case. It turns out that this festival is celebrated every year, with teams from every town and village church competing to win the race to the sea with the eternal flame. They'll run from one point to the next before passing on the torch to the next runner, accompanied by a raucous din of blaring music and roared encouragement from the vehicle's PA system. Faster, you bastards. As an atheist since primary school I'm constantly flabbergasted, and thoroughly entertained, by the lengths the followers of the Catholic faith will go to in proving their devotion. Though it has to be said that this event looks far less painful than the self-flagellating procession you can witness in the Philippines around Easter, the devotees walking the streets to the harbour, whipping their own backs raw and bloody with chains before throwing themselves into the sea. Barmy.

It was with some degree of relief that we crept into the barrios of Puerto Escondido. The religious lunatics had thinned out to a trickle, and the chatty Méxicana seemed to have run out of steam. She asked for my number, and I scribbled down some numerals. She won’t be getting a date, but she’ll certainly know the exact time in London.

I was shattered, and rubbed my eyes. A hostel bed was going to be welcome, and I was looking forward to getting straight into the sea the following morning. Shelter found and secured, my head hit the pillow and I was away with the fairies.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Home From Home

I ADMIT THAT I felt the twinge of doubt within half an hour of arriving in Colima. We'd waited outside the El Litchi hostel for a full ten minutes before a shuffling old Chileno, a guest, opened the door to let us in through the iron gate. There were no signs outside; no reception area; no information at hand; no staff. Was this really a hostel? I left my bags beside a table and chairs at the far end of the enclosed garden space. The Chileño suggested we come back later when Alex, the owner, was around.

A walk into the town was mooted. Heading out of the olive-green building's entrance, dwarfed by a huge rubber tree, we turned right downhill. Passing few people as we approached the main plaza, I began wondering if I'd made an error in coming here: the place was dead. I was already checking my mental map of México to decide where to head for next. Two nights and I'd be out of here. After all, despite ringing the area on my map, it hadn't been anywhere near the top of my list of places to visit. But it had only been a few hours out of Guadalajara, so it wouldn't be a long trek back.

But the place was pretty enough. There are two central plazas with well-kept gardens, hemmed in by the usual arrangement of pastel cathedral on one side and arched colonial grandeur on the remaining three. The high street is barely four hundred metres long; starting suddenly at the far corner of the main plaza and running by the town's only department store before ending abruptly at the parque central, in front of the post office building. It's a decidedly low-rise town, and a solitary concrete monstrosity blots the skyline. Martín pointed beyond town to where the volcano stood. If we could have seen it through the afternoon haze, that is? These empty streets and invisible geological wonder were certainly making me wonder what I was doing here.

Martín took me to meet his Mum at the family's fruit shop, and after a brief chat we headed back towards the hostel. Traversing the deserted main street, he explained that his town was always like this on a Sunday, as people generally stayed home with their families. This explained a lot. In fact England's towns were once like this on the day of rest, too...before the odd department store and supermarket started a trickle of Sunday commerce which would become a flood of shopping madness. Now a Sunday is no different to a Saturday in my home country. It seems a shame we've lost that peace and (relative) quiet. Before we took the gentle hill to El Litchi we came across an elderly couple in the street, sat on small stools in front of a red-and-white-checked tableclothed stall. On it were two large earthenware jars bound with bandage at their spouts. The leathery old man tipped his white hat and stood as we approached, bidding us Buenas tardes. He poured a drink, red in colour, into a small cup. Martín explained that Tuba is made from the sap of the stem between tree and fruit of the coconut tree. In this case, berries had been added to flavour it. The gentleman asked me if I'd like peanuts? Sure, I smiled, but was open-mouthed when he dumped a handful of said peanuts into the drink. I'm used to having a few peanuts with a cold beer, but I'd usually consume them separately? The Méxicanos grinned at me and nodded their encouragement. It was surprisingly good. I grinned back and assured the old man that he would see me again.

Arriving back at the hostel I met Lucy, a permanent resident, who taught at the local college. She'd been in Colima a while, having left North Carolina behind in search of a different life. I got a quick tour of the place from her, and she explained that the place was in its infancy. Having been used to a certain amount of organisation...receptionists, orientation and maps of places on arrival in most hostels...disorganisation was all new to me. But it wouldn't kill me.

Alex, the Montpellier-born Frenchman who ran the place, turned up. We smiled and shook hands. The product of a French mother and a North African father, he'd grown up on the Mediterranean and was understandably laidback. This likely explains why the hostel is the way it is? Mañana, mañana. He'd travelled México extensively over the years, and had lived in Monterrey for a while. But having met a woman in Colima, he'd decided to move there. They'd since split up, but amicably share custody of their cute and precocious daughter Naima. She's 6, a robust bundle of chubby cheeks and a mass of curly hair; already speaking French as well as her native Spanish, and rapidly picking up words and phrases in English. Niki, a German lad of 22 who was staying there on a work placement, was also teaching her words in his native tongue. But life is too short to learn German, even for a little girl. I took to calling her pajarito. Un pajaro is a bird and, in Spanish, dropping the -o and adding -ito (or -ita if the noun is feminine) makes it little bird or birdy. She kept asking Alex why I would call her this, and he explained that it was a nickname. After a while she took to calling me pajarote; the -ote ending denoting something big. So I was big bird. Naima thought that this would stop me calling her pajarito, and questioned her Dad as to why being called big bird hadn't put me off? "I think he likes it" he told her. I did.

Myself and the Frenchman became easy friends. We share a similar outlook on life, have both travelled extensively and have similar tastes in music. Although Alex hates the 80s, a period in which he says music died. Full of shit on that one, I keep telling him. But it's nice when you can hang out with someone with a passion for good music, even if they did have their fingers in their daft French ears for a decade. And music wasn't all we talked about; he's one of those rare people you can have a rambling discussion with on just about anything. Except cooking, of course...what do the French know about that?

We decided that we'd visit the volcano's best viewpoint two days after I got to Colima. It wasn't visible from the centre of town that morning, and I was a little dubious and asked if we shouldn't wait for a clearer morning? Alex said it should be fine, and we set off with Niki in tow. We stopped for lunch on the way, in a tiny village at the volcano's foot. Being sick to the back-teeth of tortillas by this time, the food was uninspiring to me. I went to play with a wolf-like dog rolling around in the dust while my companions ate. After having its belly stroked, it was eagerly licking my hands and forearms. It was at this point that I noted its lower fur was matted with a bright greenish-yellow gunk, discharged from its penis. Obviously I recoiled in horror, gagging. As our table was on the way to the bathroom, I thought it only polite of me to recount the tale and point out the dog's problem while Alex and Niki tried to enjoy their pea-coloured soup...without gagging. Seeing as the volcano was still invisible when we got to the viewpoint, yellow pus coming out of a dog's cock seemed destined to be the cultural highlight of my afternoon, unfortunately. You can't have it all, can you?

Alex asked us that evening had we ever played Chinese Checkers? We hadn't, so he taught us this relatively simple but fascinating board game. It's very addicitive, and we played it for hours on the first night. And the next. And the following night. The set we were using was only cheap and badly made in China. So I told Alex I'd look for a nice hand-made set in Hong Kong on my next Asia trip, should there be one. We were both horrified when Google revealed that the game was, in fact, an 1800s American invention; refined and the board reshaped by the Germans. Our mental images of ancient Mandarins sat around smoking opium and stroking their beards soon evaporated. Shame.

We were introduced to Alex's girlfriend Teresa one evening. Very beautiful though pale for a Méxicana, she reminded me a little of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Lucky Alex. She has a long pair of legs that could make a grown man cry. But Alex has no need to cry, because he is allowed to touch them. Now, Tere likes a smoke, as does her diminutive and sultry best friend Julieta, who came round to visit with her one night. Julieta is a morena Pocket Rocket if ever I saw one: small but perfectly formed. And a lovely girl, with the cheekiest smile I've ever seen. She rolled nearly as many joints as me, too...which was quite impressive. Very cool chicas, the pair of them. Alex brought out the smoky, amber mezcal (far superioir to tequila) which he sources from a local brewer: the locals getting the best stuff from the rear door of the factory, sold in metal jerrycans. So these early evenings ended in a cloud of sweet smoke and a warm fug of mezcal. And hours of Chinese Japanese, as Teresa inadverently re-christened it one evening, to much good-natured laughter.

I was having a pleasant time with the gang. The two days I'd initially estimated turned into a week. I was in a dorm, but alone, so effectively had a private room. And Alex's rates are very good. The atmosphere in Colima was pleasant; it's the kind of place where the locals don't see too many tourists, so you get the occasional stare (and the occasional "Go back to your own country" Lucy told me), and people leave you be...although they are more than happy to chat if you strike up a conversation. I enjoyed wandering the streets at random, edging deeper into the various barrios with their pavements lined with orange and lemon trees. There was an excellent seafood café nearby, where I regularly ate platefuls of shrimp for less than $5, as the puzzled waitresses continually asked me why I was in Colima. A routine is sometimes nice when on the road, and a regular coffeeshop is alwas good; mine being full of mosquitoes, the happy abuelita running it always gave me one of those electric tennis-racket devices to kill the ones bound to annoy me as I walked in each midmorning. Eight blocks away was a basic open-air gym and basketball court. After a couple of visits here I befriended a few locals who invited me to play football with them. It felt like I really was settling into life in Colima. Méxicanos to hang out and play football with, a Frenchman and a couple of witty and amsuing lady potheads to take it easy with, and an ever-increasing circle of mates to go out partying with at salsa club 1800? You could certainly say that I was enjoying myself. I was gradually meeting Alex's inner circle, too. I judge a man on the quality of his friends, I told him...and his are a fine bunch.

That weekend, Alex was at a loose end. His ex-girlfriend had Naima, and his job teaching French at the University didn't involve weekends; Tere was working. So did we fancy going to a very nice beach in nearby Michoacán State? They were already on my map so yes, I certainly did. Alex, Niki, Lucy and myself packed the truck with a tent, beers, cigarette papers and water. We hit the road. There are so many army and police checkpoints in this country that travelling with grass can be a little risky. I know people that do it, but respect the fact that Alex will not: he has a lot to lose should he be caught. As we sped through the lush green valleys of Colima towards the coast, he told me he knew a fellow we could try in a village a few miles beyond where we'd be staying.

We arrived late afternoon and cruised through the ghost-town that was now Maruata. The fact it was off-season, and that a hurricane had ripped through here barely two months previously, meant that hardly anyone was visible on the streets. It made Colima on a Sunday look hectic. The rough wooden-walled, palm-roofed shacks which had survived the winds were still boarded-up. No surfers in sight. Nothing. A local told us that there were no dealers around at the moment. So we took another road to the man that Alex knew. A shallow river meant that we'd have to leave Niki and Lucy in the car and make our way on foot. As we paddled across, the Frenchman briefed me.

"I don't like this'll have to deal with him" he told me.
"Oh?" I queried.
"Last time I came he told me to go fuck myself."
"And what did you say?"
"I told him to go fuck himself..."
"And then...?"
"He told me to go fuck my mother..."
"I told him that I'd go fuck his mother on the way to fuck mine, as I knew where she lived."
He was silent a moment.
"So he stormed back into his house, then came out and pointed an automatic rifle at my head. He was high on DMT. It kind of got out of hand" he deadpanned.
I couldn't wait to meet this chap, obviously.

Considering I was expecting a demented Méxicano Rambo, the guy was fairly nondescript: quiet, small and in his late 50s. Alex waited away from the house while the man wandered off to his stash. Thankfully he returned with a bag of nice-smelling green marijuana...not a loaded AK47. But then, why would he? Leave the ill manners to the French, I say.

We doubled back and arrived at Palma Sola, our destination, as the sank into the ocean. A small settlement lay before of us, one small house with an open kitchen beneath a palm-frond roof held up by poles of felled trees. The family living here were sprawled about watching TV, some in hammocks, the rest on the floor. Alex had been here previously, and went to make arrangements with them. As things had been slow, the small cabaña the family rented out was offered to us very cheaply, and the family would cook for us. We unpacked and made our way down to the beach barely 30 yards beyond. I've seen some stunning beaches in my time, but this one was ours alone. Crystal clear water pounded the golden beach, and we were quick to change and get in for a swim before the light faded. Ceviche was prepared for us, and we saw the sun off with a few beers. Obviously the Chinese Japanese set had been brought, and joints were rolled as the mezcal flowed. It's the simple pleasures in life.

Alex had mentioned a beautiful girl in the family, whom he'd seen when last here. When the father of the family came and joined us on the beach the next morning, he asked about her. The man indicated a toddler on the floor of the kitchen; he said that the child was his grand-daughter, but that his daughter had left for Manzanillo immediately after the hurricane, unable to cope with the sudden loss of her husband. Alex asked what had happened to him. The old man looked out at the surf and said simply "The sea took him." All eyes glanced seaward, and we fell silent.

As lunchtime approached, we were asked if we'd like lobster for lunch. ¿Y porque no? The old fella wandered off back to his home, and we expected some kitchen activity to begin. But no: he came back with a mask and snorkel perched on his head and carrying a pair of fins. No doubt it was going to be the freshest seafood I'd ever eaten. As it turned out, lobster wasn't really my cup of tea...but at least I'd tried it in its prime condition. The tail I can deal with, but cracking claws and sucking the meat out of joints? The German and myself left such savagery to the French and American contingent.

Sunday disappeared all too quickly, and we packed and made ready to leave. Alex brought the bill over from the family. It was more than reasonable, so much so that we would have felt guilty paying it; we gave them a 50% tip on top, which amounted to around $15. They were delighted with this. Tourism levels are never high in Michoacán as it is, due to the danger from the narcotraffickers; the recent hurricane meant that any extra we could give people was bound to be appreciated. And they were good, honest people. I hope I'll see them again one day.

The afternoon light was disappearing fast as we travelled back, the truck speeding through tunnels of trees connecting above us from both sides of the road; the sun closer to the sea at every rocky point we passed before plunging back into leafy twilight; the sounds of the Doors accompanying us all the way. I hadn't listened to them for a long time, and it was perfect. A couple of hours later we were hitting the limits of Colima. And then we were home. I say the word home because, when you stay at the hostel, it feels like like a hostel than it does staying at a friend's house. Alex was flattered to be told this, and said it is exactly how he wants people to feel. Though I'm sure one day it will be a retirement home for mezcal and pot addicts with Chinese Japanese addiction issues. And I'll likely be a permanent resident. A contented one.

I'd been planning to leave the following day, as I'd been there a week. I'd seen all there was to see as far as the local sights go.
"So" said Alex over a mezcal "you're leaving tomorrow?"
"Supposed to be" I replied.
"Chinese Japanese, then?"
"Chinese Japanese" I said, pulling a packet of skins out of my pocket. "Rack them up, then..."

I didn't leave the next morning, and told the Frenchman that I'd be around a few more days. He seemed pleased. Two days later as I was getting up, he asked me if I could ride a motorbike? I answered affirmatively, but said I was rusty. So he said we were going out for the day. I took his 250cc and he went ahead on his BMW 650cc. We left Colima and headed out down the freeway (terrifying) in the direction of the coast again, but peeled off in the direction of the small village of Madrid. Our route was a loop back to the hostel, and on one country stretch, Alex was quite excited to be able to point out the volcano in the distance. Ironic that we could see it from bloody miles away at this point. The hurricane's edge had caused massive flooding in this part of the state, and we stopped for ceviche in an area which had been changed by the course of the floodwaters...including a road bridge completely washed away. It had been a great day out. We got back to the house tired, dusty but happy. Though I reckon my Old Dear would have had a heart attack if she'd seen the speeds Alex had me doing to try and keep up.

Another week passed; another self-imposed deadline to leave also passed. It became a bit of a running joke. I'd kiss Julieta and Teresa goodbye after a Sunday night, telling them I'd see them next time I was in México; they'd laugh and say they'd see me tomorrow. And they were right several times more, as I just couldn't bring myself to depart. You should never force yourself to leave somewhere just because there are other places to see, and it's foolish to rush around a country on a sightseeing is about far more than that. I was very happy in Colima. Considering I did little more than visit a nice beach, wander round town and read my books in the park with a coffee, drink and dance at 1800, visit the depressing Colima Zoo quite by accident (a dark day...I never imagined feeling pity for a crocodile), play a board game I'd never heard of while smoking myself (well...Alex) senseless and attempt to kill myself using a motor vehicle, I had a great time. Another friend of Alex's, a girl named Elia, became a friend of mine after meeting at a party in a rented house (she told me there were no more nightclubs as too many people got shot, so they threw these private parties instead); if I spend any more time in Colima I'll see her regularly as she shares my love of cinema. I know I'd also see a lot more of Armando too. He'd called me into his tiny studio one morning and showed me his work, and we attended a play put on by children wearing masks that he and his friends had created; half of Colima turned out for this in the beautiful old teatro. I was impressed. And each time I attended a Tursday salsa night at 1800 I got to know more great people. I even got on with Niki most of the time, despite us fighting like cat and dog occasionally; me labelling him with the nickname Gestapo due to his constant questioning didn't go down too well. It was a bit like having an annoying younger brother around at times, but he was a good kid. He needs to learn Spanish and roll a joint now and again, though...lazy German. Sitting in the square of the neighbouring town, Villa de Álvarez, soaking up the atmosphere amongst smiling local families and eating a paleta (famous local ice-lollies) I frequently wondered whether I could actually live here? I was beginning to think that I could...very easily. Incidentally, you have to try the paletas. Alex had taken us to the well-known square, and we'd quickly become hooked: it became something of a weekly pilgrimage for us. Though we couldn't bear to watch Niki eating his, it appeared he'd been watching too many porn films...myself and Alex felt physically sick at the sight, and asked him if he was sure he was straight?

We had another day out on the bikes, Tere being keen to show us the region she'd grown up in. It was a long way out, and even more beautiful than the route myself and Alex had taken the previous week, terminating at one of the most beautiful waterfalls I've seen in a long time. It was dark as we arrived back in town, and the pair took me on an unfamiliar ride, past the turnoffs for the hostel and the town centre. We pulled up in a small park, where hordes of children were running around, laughing and screaming. Making our way through them to a lit area, I could see a dark shape among them and a smile began to creep across my face. It was a huge boulder...the famous Piedra de Lisa. Legend has it that anyone who slides down the stone will one day return to Colima. I climbed atop it and slid down it's smooth surface with a few open-mouthed kids in my wake. At the bottom Alex and Tere grinned and hugged me. "Now you have to come back" they told me. I laughed. "Who said I was leaving?"