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."