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."

4 comments:

Megan said...

WOW I wasn't expecting that! I'm glad you got that taken care of. When I first was in country in Iraq I too got a parasite from the drastic change in my diet and it was horrible FORTUNATELY I didn't have worms in my ass but I did have them tearing up my stomach. Hope you made it to the Phillipnes? email me your address I'll put you a letter in the post. :)

old8oy said...

Hey Megan. Nice to hear from you again. You well? Parasites are not nice, are they? Sounds like you had a rougher time than me...I can imagine the ones you pick up out there are pretty hardcore ha ha! I'm still in London for a little while longer, but will be away soon. I'll mail you my address. Sorry that it took so long to write back, and that my handwriting is so appalling. Speak soon...

Gianni said...

Hi Warren,

Another unusual story, did you find this in the lost luggage? You must be clearing the decks, ready for another escapade. Good hunting, stay clear of the 'Great White'.

John

old8oy said...

Hiya John. You well? North End were disappointing this weekend...bloody awful game.

And yes, I'm a few stories behind, will be trying to get up to date before my next trip in a month. Clearing the decks indeed, I need to escape the English Winter.

Keep in touch, mate...

Warren