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.