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.

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