Archive for February, 2008
More salivating over clouds and buildings tomorrow.
That means Little Church apparently. Before the major onslaught of photos of Oscar Niemeyer’s work begins on this blog tomorrow, here’s a tiny taste; this place was built in 1958 with the tiles designed by Athos Bulcão.
Brasilia is, well, kinda mind-blowing. It’s so amazingly beautiful. The buildings, the planning, the way this it actually seems to work pretty well. More of that, though, tomorrow. Right now: some photos of the effects of the torrential rain here yesterday. The red earth in Brasilia leads to these marvellous Martian rivers colliding with the clear water rivers on the road, the colours swirling together under the tyres of cars.
Not written much about São Paulo so far. It’s a good place. Several people that I’ve met half-apologetically tell me it’s an ugly city, and to a certain extent it’s true; but, on the whole, the massive amount of tall buildings that seem to dominate the city are interesting for me. It’s not a New York-style organised mass of skyscrapers; more a mess of skyscrapers, but I like it. Again, as I’ve said before, it’s small details that are the most interesting. It’s the rain shower coming over the city, turning the distinct skyscapers to a watercolour grey skyline that looks – through squinting eyes – like an old British castle. It’s the dart-player style shirts of the costermongers, each with embroidered words and images on the back and chest. It’s the smile and one-word question, “Jägermeister?” from a barman who’d watched me get drunk on the stuff the previous night, wondering if I wanted to repeat the experience. It’s the beautiful, beautiful, really beautiful women. It’s meeting an Englishman and chatting about Peter Cook half a world away. It’s not getting mugged. It’s eating the most delicious cheesy bread roll things called pao de queijo (any British or German cheese/bread combination will never be enough in future). It’s over-flowing drains streaming down streets during a storm, making them look potentially quite kayakable. It’s giggling like a foolish child at naked statues in museums. It’s a fifty-something-year-old guy in front of me in the queue in a coffee shop saying something to me; and me telling him that I don’t speak Portuguese, and him replying that I should go in front of him, because he’s… meditating. It’s the lack of billboards (not only are the posters gone, but the billboards themselves have gone now). It’s the good cinemas with a refeshing lack of guff before the film itself starts. It’s finally understanding why people like sushi so much after years of shrugging ambivalence. It’s laughing a lot. It’s hearing “Cars” by Gary Numan in a bar and enjoying it more than I’ve ever done before. It’s eating tiny baked potatoes filled with gorgonzola. It’s thinking seriously – for the first time in my life – about maybe getting a tattoo and not knowing why this subconscious thought has grown out of nothing inside my brain into a proper consideration. It’s not taking many photos ’cause the person that stole my cell phone out of my backpack at Panama City airport was an idiot and stole my camera battery charger not the cell phone charger, and I’ve not found a shop that sells a replacement. It’s shoving my clothes back into my backpack and, in an hour or so, going to the airport to fly to Brasilia to see what a city on the moon might look like.
Well, so far, São Paulo seems lovely. The Jardins area where I’ve spend most of my time so far, is all very nice. Kind of like a slightly swankier version of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg area. Nice cafes, restaurants, clothes and book shops. It’s all been a swirl of stuff so far. Eating, drinking, and driving around; seeing large amounts of prostitutes (of both sexes); stepping ankle deep into a gutter full of water; going to the cinema (No Country For Old Men – pretty damn good); looking out of tall buildings at the massive amounts of city; walking around watching the pretty girls; enjoying the rain storm clearing up, and the clouds disappearing just in time for the lunar eclipse; and trying not to feel too scared about the nagging knowledge in the back of my head that this city can be dangerous.
My natural cautiousness and Juliana’s warnings (“don’t wear that t-shirt, don’t wear your watch, do you have any other tennis shoes [ie. cheaper-looking, and not Nike]?”) have conspired to make me not go anywhere remotely dangerous so far. I’ve been driven through possibly dangerous areas, but not set foot in them yet. But I’m not gonna let it get the better of me. I will go into the city centre, I will empty my pockets of anything that I don’t want to lose, and, goddammit, I will enjoy myself.
The natural follow-up to the Fun Boy Three post: a Bananarama post. They really were great at times, huh? And my answer to the obvious question: Keren at the time, but looking at them again this morning, Siobhan really is very beautiful.
Really Saying Something 1982
Cruel Summer 1983
Robert De Niro’s Waiting 1984
Love In The First Degree 1987
I Want You Back 1988
For no other reason than that I now have access to fast wifi; here’s some embedded YouTube clips of Fun Boy Three, one of my favourite groups from back when I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager. Plus, it gives you (and me) a little break from the “I did this, then I did this, then I did this, then something else happened, then I flew to somewhere else exotic” shite.
The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum) 1981
It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) 1982
The Telephone Always Rings 1982
Tunnel of Love 1983
Our Lips Are Sealed 1983
and here’s the Go-Go’s’ version of Our Lips Are Sealed 1982
So, if ever you find yourself in Panama City en route to Brazil, and you realise that you’ve not had a yellow fever shot, and you might need to postpone your flight to São Paulo, here’s my advice: don’t worry about it and just fly to Brazil. They don’t check. The immigration was cursory at best, and calling the customs disinterested would be offensive to people who are disinterested. I had my form filled in and ready for inspection, but the customs lady didn’t feel the need to stop chatting to her colleague and, without even looking at me, held out her hand for the form and waved me along with the same form without even looking at it as she flapped it in the direction of the exit.
It seemed to be a long flight. It was only six-ish hours, but I was already knackered from my Sunday evening of travelling, and spending twelve hours in Panama City airport. Sitting on the plane in my window seat with no air-conditioning for an hour wasn’t the perfect way to begin the flight either. For some reason, I forgot to change my preferences on Expedia before booking this flight. I do like a window seat on short flights, but for longer flights, they’re just a pain. I was sat there with no leg room, and without the chance to stretch a little into the aisle.
One of the stewardesses seemed to take a dislike to me straight away. You’d say she was quite attractive, looking like a cross between Kylie Minogue and Kim Gordon. When she was bringing the Brazilian immigration and customs forms around at the start of the flight, I asked if there was an alternate customs form that wasn’t just in Portuguese. She got chippy straight away and told me that “it’s nothing to do with us, it’s Brazil’s form, they decide which language it is in.” After that, everything she ever did – food, drinks – she seemed to be sneering at me. Thankfully the Brazilian guy sat next to me helped me out with the form.
I flew over the Amazon and Equator. Not that I knew it, though. There was just a bunch of clouds out of the window. I guess I might’ve seen a tributary of the Amazon, though. I did see Martian Child, though. Nice aeroplane film. I like John Cusack, and there was a tear in my eye at the end. Must’ve been a bit of dust or something, lads, honest.
A little air travel-based aside: am I alone in thinking people’s hands look a bit freaky when they do this (below) on a plane? And doesn’t it feel a little bit like they’re invading your precious personal space?
Cities tend to look the same when you arrive at night. Airports have the same stuff going on; the taxis might be different colours, but they smell the same; and the roads are all multi-lane highways that fly along past road signs for places you don’t recognise and unfamiliar store names on the side of big buildings. São Paulo is no different. Except when I got close to my friend Juliana’s place in the Jardins district, and then suddenly I began to notice that all the buildings had huge metal fences and guards. Security seems to be a big thing here.
As does crazy pronunciation of letters. My whole understanding of the Latin alphabet has been turned upside down. Hearing Brazilians talk is like listening to someone from Romania trying to speak Spanish: there’s the odd word you understand, but the rest of it is just a noise. When Juliana explained how to pronounce Brazil’s currency, the real, my mind felt slapped silly. I was, of course, not expecting it to sound like the English word “real”; more “ray-al” like the Madrid football team. When she told me it is pronounced something close to “hey ice” I kinda realised that I won’t be able to muddle along knowing a bit of Spanish.
Still, I can say caipirinha and obrigado, so what more do I need?
I don’t recommend this. I left Punta Gorda at 1.35pm (CST – same time zone as Chicago) yesterday, I got to Panama City at 11.30pm (EST – same as New York). I will get to São Paulo at 8.30pm (err, East Edge of Brazil Time? Whatever it is called, it’s two hours ahead of here; three hours behind GMT). I decided against going into the city to get a hotel room for the night. By the time I’d got through immigration and customs, via a shouty argument with a Taca Airlines employee regarding my bloody backpack’s buckles all being open and a bunch of pills and my cell phone missing (the pills were found, the phone not). She asked me to calm down, it wasn’t her fault, they take no liability for lost/stolen electrical items, etc. My point, made with a smattering of swear words, was that all these stupid security regulations mean that, at some point, it was bound to happen that I would remember to take my Swiss Army knife out of my carry-on bag, I’d remember to not pack too much scary dangerous liquid, but I would forget to do something else. This time, sadly, it was taking my nice LG Chocolate phone out of my backpack. Whichever cunt has it now – and I assume you’re a baggage handler – I hope you like the photo of Billy on the screen, you fucking thieving twat. It did all remind me of the episode of “15 Stories High” (a superb Brit comedy if you’ve not seen it) where the main character is told there’s no need for swearing at a check-in desk, and his reply was along the lines of “this is the exact perfect time for the need for swearing.” I concur. Still, I apologised to the lady for my foul language, and acknowledged that it wasn’t her fault, and went about my business. Which, depressingly, was trying to find somewhere in Tacomen airport to bed down for the night.
It wasn’t as horrible as I’d imagined it might be. The airport was very quiet, not many staff or passengers around, and I found an upstairsy bit which had no signs indicating that there were lots of seats or toilets up there, so there were very few people coming or going. Backpack and rucksack on the floor. Rucksack used as pillow (mmm, the comfortable headrest of laptop cables and duty free cigs!), backpack as surrogate girlfriend – something to hug on to.
Brendan had told me he’d slept a night at Charles de Gaulle airport, and that he didn’t recommend it. I met him and his girlfriend who I think was called Melanie at San Salvador airport. I was just about to ask in a bar there if there was anywhere to smoke, when I heard him asking a question including the word “fumar” and being instructed to go somewhere else. I skipped along behind him and asked if he’d asked what I thought he’d asked. He had asked what I thought he’d asked. They were Canadians, doing a year long stint of travelling, but taking a two week break to go home for a friend’s wedding. They’d just come from Belize, too, so we chatted about how we enjoyed it; Brendan admired my t-shirt (bought in Mexico City, it has the Star Wars logo in Spanish on it – Estar Guars); and I shared my freshly bought Marlboro Lights with them: all of us agreeing that the local Belize cigarettes were horrible. I left them a pack from my duty free haul, and Brendan bought me a beer to go with our lovely fags. A fine trade. We also traded URLs, ’cause we’re hipster travellers. Here’s theirs.
First attempt, I managed about 40 minutes of sleep. I listened to “Music For Airports” which was very nice. Far nicer than when I listened to it in Schönefeld airport. Got up, had a brief exchange with a guy sat nearby. It was one of those “huh, this sucks, eh?” exchanges. A bit of freshening up, then back to my floor-tile crib. A bit better this time: just over an hour. A bit of tossing, turning, and clock-watching later and I fell asleep again for about 90 minutes. It would’ve been longer had those pesky kids not been craving Snickers bars from the vending machine. The mechanical whirr of the coily thing, then thud! Three times. It woke me, but their chewy jabbering kept me awake. The parents of the little bastards seemed to not give a shit that someone was trying to sleep a few feet away, and despite their being a whole bank of empty seats forty-odd feet away, decided to sit where they could annoy the gringo. Thanks, fuckers.
A cat wash, brushed teeth, a change of shirt, a few last smokes, a bit of a pain where the toe bit of my flip flops has been rubbing against my toes, and a boarding pass later, and I’m heading through security. This is my second time through this piece-of-shit airport, and the second time my lighter has been taken off me. Berlin, Heathrow, Mexico City, Miami, Belize City, San Salvador: all of them have no problem with a Bic lighter, but this place seems to think it is special. The security guy seemed to speak perfectly fine English when he was asking me to remove my lighter, but when I asked exactly what it was that made my lighter so much more dangerous in Panama City than in Miami, he converted himself to an “I no speak Ingles”-guy. (If you want, you can imagine an extra paragraph of ranting about the absurdities of not supplying an area for smokers in departure lounges here.)
Still, there’s free Wi-Fi, which is more than a lot of airports give you, so I half take back calling this place a piece-of-shit, although there seems to be one cafe and three Lacoste stores which seems the wrong way around to me. Maybe I’m hallucinating. Anyway, I’m grumpy, so I will ask you one question: what exactly did Melinda Gates do to get her name at the top of the letterheads of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? I wonder if she actually does stuff, or is she Linda McCartney in Wings? Does blowing a really rich guy get you places? Oh, err, yes, it probably does.
Anyway, time to go and sit next to gate 22a and get on my flight. As i type, there’s a left-handed brother on the seat opposite me. But he’s one of those lefties that writes like he’s got a lobster claw instead of a hand, so I will give him a withering look for letting the side down.
Apologies for any typos, spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, ich bin sehr müde and a little bit cranky.
My last evening here was a good one: getting a little bit tipsy, playing Scrabble with two lovely American lasses, Marta and Nina. I didn’t win any games, though. I internally shuddered – like a true British English pedant – when Marta played the word “flavor” but things evened out when I managed to convince them that quim was a playable word.
The long journey begins now. I’m leaving from Punta Gorda airstrip in about an hour. And tomorrow evening, around 9pm local time, I’ll be in São Paulo; in the southern hemisphere for the first time in my life.
Sometimes it’s nice when the perfect song for the perfect moment pops up on shuffle on the iPod. I dunno why, but this one seemed to fit splendidly, as I packed the last of my clothes into my backpack, and locked the door of my room at Hickatee.
Hopefully, I’ll have a boring tale of a perfect journey to Brazil. But, being the modern world, anything that does go wrong automatically comes attached with the thought-bubble, “at least it’s something to blog about.”
Saw some more howler monkeys yesterday. Fairly close this time, almost directly beneath them. The alpha male was doing his gruff howling. Up close, you can hear all the little noises that get lost in the echoes of the jungle from a bigger distance. He sounded hoarse, like he’d been shouting and smoking all night; like he was your nicotine-soaked, yellow-moustached uncle wheezily shouting his way through a phone call from a creaky old ship radio somewhere in the Pacific, but – at your end – played very loudly though a Tannoy; like he quite needed a spoonful of honey or a couple of Lockets. Or something.
Aside from that, my Friday was another regular day. The sea was rough, and there was a nice breeze; I visited a gift shop called Fajina, which, I was disappointed to find out isn’t pronounced “vagina”; and I helped Ian lug a mahogany desk from town back to the cottages, and was pleasantly rewarded with some of Kate’s yummy egg sandwiches.
I saw what I think was an icebow, too. I’m not particularly up on what’s going on in the sky; I can just about find Orion and the Plough, but that’s about it. But, what I saw looked a bit like what is described in the Wikipedia entry for icebows: a halo around the moon. It looked pretty nice. Although, rather pathetically, I’d have swapped seeing it for seeing just one episode of Seinfeld. Oh, how I miss my Seinfeld DVDs.
And that was pretty much it. Actually, nothing worth blogging about. I’m getting quite excited about going to São Paulo now, though. I leave Belize tomorrow afternoon, fly the same old route via San Salvador and San Jose to Panama City, then on Monday morning, I’ll be flying over the Equator for the first time, and hoping for an upgrade, ’cause the thought of a seven-hour flight in economy is always quite a grim prospect, no?
I still don’t know what I’ll do with my time in Panama, though. I’ve got twelve hours between landing and taking off again. Take away two hours for check-in time, and more-or-less an hour to get through immigration and customs, and I’m down to nine hours of thumbs-twiddling. Do I splash out the US$25 each way for a cab to take me the half hour journey into town to stay in a hotel for what, in the end, will be about five or six hours sleep; or do I rough it in the airport where I will, undoubtedly, wish I’d spent the money on a hotel bed? There, really, is my answer.
In some ways, this – flying to Brazil – is the point where the trip begins. I only expected to be in Mexico City before heading to Brazil. My time in Belize and Panama were unplanned diversions, really, only visited because when I looked at flights from Mexico to Brazil, the cheapest one included changing flights in Panama City, which tempted me into spending some time elsewhere between Mexico and Brazil. And I’ve not had a guide book for any of my trip so far. I only bought one for South America, so I’ve had very little knowledge about the places I’ve been in. I did, of course, refer to what I’d written in Atlas, Schmatlas (still in all good book shops); and found that all I’d written about Belize was a paragraph of sarcasm about tourists trampling all over Mayan ruins, and that Panama is, apparently, an entirely man-made nation filling the gap between the Americas.
Sorry, this entry is really dull, huh?
Oh, I did get bitten by a doctor fly. That’s a tiny bit interesting. Right on the elbow. It swelled up a bit yesterday and was quite irritating for a while, but it seems okay-ish now. Little stupidly-named bastard. Still, who’s got an iPod, eh? Me or the doctor fly? That’s right, wing-boy, I can listen to any of Bruce Springsteen’s albums whenever I want!
And I’ve fallen in love: with talcum powder. It’s such a nice way, in this heat, to extend that post-shower period of feeling clean and un-clammy. They should make edible talcum powder. Strawberry flavour. Or maybe even coconut. So you can shake it all over and gulp down clouds of it, like when Sonic the Hedgehog gulps down the air bubbles when he’s underwater. And if I had a girlfriend, well we could… I think I’d better stop blogging now.
But before I do, here’s some photos of John and Papi the kinkajou. This morning was the first time I’ve seen him since he attacked me. Cute little bugger, you’ll likely agree, but this is as close as I ever want to get to one again.
A bit of a nothing day yesterday. Ian and Kate have been generous and allowed me to use their Internet connection even though I’ve not been staying at their place for the last few nights, so most of yesterday was taken up with catching up on the BBC and Guardian. In the evening, Bill, Robin and I went out for Chinese food. They are leaving Belize this morning, so it was nice to spend one final evening with them, and very gracious of them to allow me to join them. Let’s not forget it was Valentine’s Day on their tropical holiday; the last thing I’d want to do is have some beardy Brit tagging along.
After the food, we had one last drink, and I bid them farewell. One thing that has been amazing so far, is that I’ve met three lovely couples from northern California and Oregon, all of whom have offered genuine invitations to visit them on the possible west coast USA leg of my journey. That part of my trip is tentative. It all depends on money and my will to keep on travelling. But I do have this little fantasy of seeing all the Major League Baseball stadiums, and nipping up the west coast to see the Padres, Dodgers, Angels, Giants, Athletics, and Mariners’ stadiums is very tempting. Especially now that I’ve got three places to spend a night on a journey from San Francisco to Seattle.
Ian and I were discussing how much more genuine American invitations seem. Kraig and Barbara, Walt and Jenny, Bill and Robin: their offers all seemed sincere. When we Brits do it, I dunno, it just seems like our inherent hang-ups with seeming polite make the offers seem very insincere. Any of you Brits agree or disagree with this? I do wonder if it was just something that Ian and I happen to both think, but might possibly be untrue.
To finish, a little note about that new addition to the right hand column on this page, just under the map: I decided that the flow of these blog entries would probably be better if I didn’t feel that I had to remind you who each person was every time I mentioned a name. So if you’re wondering who the heck I’m referring to, just click over there and you’ll find an alphabeticised list of name with a short description.
After my first experience of snorkeling a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to get back out and do it again as soon as possible. So yesterday I went on another trip to Snake Cayes with Bill and Robin.
I skipped the bit where the guide showed us around the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, and just sat on the jetty watching a stingray instead. When we’d motored out to the cayes, and the boat had slowed down, my snorkel, mask, and flippers were on, and I was away. There was no panic, no second thought, I was just in there and snorkeling straight away. I hardly came up about the surface of the water the whole time. A couple of days of rain had made the water a touch cloudier than last time, but I still had fun.
I swam about halfway around the island. I followed a couple of angel fish around for a while, as they swam around the coral. All the time, I had my head down, looking directly below me. Then I looked ahead of me. Then to the left, and the right. I’d drifted into the middle of a smack of moon jellyfish (yes, that – apparently – is the collective noun). At that moment, their beauty was the last thing on my mind. I was in a stingy minefield, and I knew not how I would escape unharmed. I had to move careful. There was no room to get up the power to dive beneath them to safety. I bobbed in the water and gingerly took off one flipper then the other. I put my hands into them and used them as gloves and paddles; sweeping aside the jellyfish. One came at me from the right; I turned my head and, using my snorkel like a bull’s horn, bashed him aside.
I was out of the frying pan, but just feet away from the fire. Jellyfish behind me, but a greater danger in front of me: a Portuguese Man o’ War. The momentum of swimming away from the jellyfish was throwing me right towards his long stingy tentacle thingies. I was done for. There was no way out. Well, there wouldn’t have been had the last couple of paragraphs been true.
What really happened was I looked up, saw the smack of jellyfish a few feet in front of me, slammed on the brakes, spun around and swam away, gulping for air. When I looked back behind me, I noticed that they weren’t jellyfish, rather a bunch of small, transparent pieces of plastic floating in the water. It was, though, a good thing that I turned around when I did, ’cause Robin, who was in the boat, said I was swimming right in the direction of a man o’ war, and it was only about 20 feet away. Fascinating creatures they may be, but I have no desire to be that close to one again.
I like to think, though, that the jellyfish and man o’ war part of this blog entry would be a good story in the adventures of “Kinkajou” Robinson: idiosyncratic tropical explorer, on yet another daring mission to tame the savages, battling through the flora and fauna of British Honduras for Queen and Country. All in day’s work, Your Majesty; and yes, I’d love a cup of tea.
We stopped on West Snake Caye for a bite to eat, and I watched a crab struggle with the waves lapping onto the beach, as he desperately held onto a fish with one claw, and tried to eat chunks of it with the other.
We then went and did some fishing of our own. This activity can be adding to going to a bullfight, seeing the Pacific Ocean, kayaking, snorkeling, cave-swimming, as another first for me. I’ve never particularly had any interest in fishing. We dropped anchor, and I was handed a rod with a tiny fish and a weight on the end. I was instructed to let the line out until it went slack, then turn the reel thingy a little, so that the bait was just a couple of inches off the seabed. And it wasn’t too long before I felt a tug on the line. Oooh, exciting! I reeled it in. It felt heavy. I kept on reeling, I felt the fish pulling, but eventually a snapper, only slightly bigger than my hand came flapping on the line out of the water. Our tour guide Armando unhooked it and threw it into a cooler to flap around for a few moments before it died. I felt guilty. But I did it again. All in all, I caught three snapper that were worth keeping; threw a couple back into the sea, caught an ugly catfish, and a couple of others that I forget the names of. Not once did I try getting the fish off the hook, though. That looked like a grim task. It was hard enough for me to push the hook through the eyes of the bait fish.
Armando took us to see a little island that was for sale (US$40,000 for about a quarter of an acre), and then we returned to shore. Despite having some Mexican sun lotion with the number 80 on the front, I still got a bit burned. Must be factor 80 cooking oil, not sun cream.
In the evening, Bill, Robin and I went to a place called Emery’s for dinner. Never again will I complain about the service in cafes and restaurants in Berlin. Emery’s was just unbelievable. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion. It all began well enough – table, chairs, menus – but very rapidly tailed off. The waitress who brought us the menus when we initially sat down didn’t return for twenty five minutes. She serviced other tables, but she didn’t return to us. I could have laughed in her face when she finally came over and asked if we were ready to order. I think she was high on horse tranquilisers.
“I’ll have a cheese burger and fries, please.”
“No, beef burger. With cheese.”
“No, cheese. On a beef burger. And a Lighthouse beer, please.”
“You want a drink?”
“Yes, a Lighthouse beer.”
A further twenty minutes had passed before we got bored of spitting feathers and went up to the bar and got the drinks direct from the bar man. The food finally turned up, although I had to wait five minutes for her to bring me a knife and fork. Bland would be the charitable way to describe it. We finished up, decided against waiting for her to bring the bill, went up to the bar, paid, and for the first time in aeons, I left no tip.
Another fun-packed day was at an end. I read about two pages of Moby-Dick, then drifted off to sleep, imagining “Kinkajou” Robinson fighting a big whale. (Which, of course, isn’t true. It was just a more poetic ending that saying, “I brushed my teeth, itched my insect bites, and sweated and snored through ’til morning.)
Monday was a lazy Punta Gorda day. The sum total of my activities was visiting the post office, going to a cafe, and hanging around. The restaurant part of where I’m staying is called Mangrove Inn; the guest house part is Casa Bonita. As distinct places, though, they are separated only be a screen door. And the family’s living area (apart from their bedrooms and bathroom on the second floor) is also part of the guest house. It feels like I’m staying in the spare room of someone’s home. I like it.
The place – on the northern outskirts of Punta Gorda, in a village called Cattle Landing – is run by John and Iconie (pronounced “eye Sony”). John is a Canadian expat, who has lived in Belize for 17 years. He visited, went home, then came back, met Iconie – a Belizean – who was pregnant with her third daughter at the time, and they built a life together, raising the girls, and running a guest house and restaurant. One of their four dogs is called Saddam.
I’ve briefly seen the two elder daughters – late teens or early twenties, at a guess – but the youngest one, Cina (pronounced “keen-a”), helps out in the restaurant in the evening, so I’ve seen her a couple of times. Sixteen years old, always smiling, clever eyes, and the sort of girl that, one would imagine, has all the boys after her.
There’s one other guest at Casa Bonita, a Canadian woman in her early sixties called Pat. She escapes the Canadian winters, it seems, by coming to Punta Gorda. She has that settled-in manner that makes you think that she probably doesn’t do much more than sit on the deck, chatting away, smoking her cigarettes and having the odd coffee, juice, or beer. We spent a great deal of time talking about all sorts: Canadian, British, German, and American politics, the joys of the BBC and CBC, Belize, Belizians, music, and how one of her sons would bite her nipples when she was breast-feeding them.
Before dinner, I had a stroll along the sea front. Along the front here, every couple of hundred metres, there’s a little thatched palm-leaf shelter. Locals seem to pass the time there. Earlier in the day, as I cycled by, I said hello to a guy sat under the one nearest to Casa Bonita. He shouted hello and asked where I was from. I did a quick circle and stopped and introduced myself. He told me he was Johnny, and he introduced me to the girl he was talking to. He then said, “she’s a beautiful Spanish girl, huh?” (she wasn’t Spanish Spanish; she, I assume, had Spanish ancestors ages ago). She smiled an embarrassed smile. And it was a pretty smile.
Back to my evening stroll. I saw Johnny there again, and he invited me to sit down with him. Johnny is 49 years old, has a few grey hairs in his dreadlocks, and plenty of tattoos. He told me a lot of things. That he used to be a sinner, a bad man. He spent five years in prison in the US. Now he makes money here and there, and sits by the sea to pray and meditate. He then talked me through all his tattoos: a scorpion to remind himself to beware that people could sting; a spider in its web, because he likes to pull people towards him; the Taurus star-sign; and a thin black rectangle on his wrist which was “a secret.” The only tattoo he didn’t refer to was the one on his neck: I Love Doreen. I didn’t ask.
We chatted for ten minutes or so. A guy on a bicycle pulled up and Johnny told me he’d be back in a couple of minutes. They both rode off behind some trees and Johnny came back, like he’d said, in a couple of minutes. I don’t think I need to explain what was going on there, do I? When he returned, he asked me if I’d ever eaten iguana. I told him I hadn’t, and he said I should come around to his place the next night ’cause he’d caught two and it was delicious. (I didn’t enquire about the taste, ’cause you can almost guarantee that people will always say the same thing when you ask that question about virtually any meat: “a bit like chicken.”) In that flustery, English manner, I left my options open on whether I’d take him up on his offer, chatted for a little while longer, and returned to Casa Bonita for chicken pot pie, a few beers, and an early night.
I woke up gradually. Waking to the sound of dogs barking, drifting back to sleep; waking to the sound of a group of men on a morning run; drifting back to sleep; then waking again, and just listening to the waves on the shore. The day was already interesting, and it was only 6.30am. I went on to the deck, had a coffee and a smoke, as the other people in the house passed by, doing their morning things. Pat seemed a tad irked to not be the first person on the deck. Only a tad, but I guess if you’re a semi-permanent guest, a newcomer disturbing your morning ritual can be weird. Cina dashed past in her school uniform. Another daughter’s face appeared at the screen door and said goodbye. And Iconie asked me if I wanted breakfast. Yes, please.
Ten minutes later, a mountain on a plate was put in front of me; way more than the coffee and cigarette, and perhaps a couple of slices of toast that I’m used to. Fry jacks, scrambled eggs with lumps of spicy sausage, and beans. Fry jacks are a Belizian breakfast thing: kinda like a fried tortilla that’s puffy and crispy on the outside. I imagine it’s not particularly healthy. I got through as much as I could, though, ’cause I had a jungle morning ahead of me. As I ate breakfast, the sky over the sea, out on the horizon over Honduras, was dark. The water, though, was still a beautiful Caribbean turquoise. Slowly that changed and the sky and water eventually became two shades of grey as the storm got closer. It was a great way to eat breakfast, watching a thunder storm coming towards me. It got closer and closer, pelted the roof for ten minutes, and cleared up, leaving a gorgeous day behind for us.
The morning was to be spent rescuing orchids. Not a tourist activity, just something interesting for Bill and I to do, which would also help Ian out. But Ian, being a big girl’s blouse, doesn’t particularly enjoying being in a boat on the sea, and that would be the way we’d be getting to where we were going. So Bill and I joined up with Ian’s resident orchid experts Mr Shal and Mr Rafael, and we got in George’s boat (he of the kayaking and bird-watching adventure a fortnight ago), and we sped off north along the coast. Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up on a teeny-weeny beach, and it was our task to walk along the tracks that marked out the edge of other people’s land to look for dead trees that might have orchids. Mr Shal and Mr Rafael went off in one direction; George took Bill and I in another direction. He showed us the small concrete posts that mark the straight lines we’d follow, and he went off to look along another line.
Leaving Bill and I alone to find orchids. Errr, I can’t see any. And the ground was quite muddy, with puddles everywhere. Neither of us had shoes that wouldn’t get soaked should we step in a puddle. Bill chopped away at the jungle path with a machete. I smoked a fag.
And then I saw one. And then another. There was a big, dead branch that was suspended between another tree and some vines. I got the machete and chopped away at the rotten wood, and the roots and leaves of an orchid came off easily. Bill had a go at the other one with similar success. We’d broken our cherries. After that we were a bit more confident. The bugs and sweat that covered me were no longer an issue: we’d found some orchids, and wanted to find more. Which we did. Probably about ten in total. A decent haul for two total beginners.
After feeling good about ourselves and standing on the beach like real men for a while (one leg on a clump of grass a bit higher than the beach, hands on hips, occasionally removing our caps to wipe sweat from our brows), the others returned with their orchids, and we all piled into the boat and George decided we could go and catch some snapper.
Around the coast for a few minutes, then we cut inland, up a creek lined with mangroves, darting around corners at
what felt like great speed. George had quite obviously motored around here before. It felt like some half-remembered – probably fully-imagined – scene from Miami Vice. After weaving along for maybe quarter of a mile, we slowed down to a crawl, and George’s hands shot out to crab mangrove crabs from the branches. When he had about four or five, we stopped and put them on hooks and we were fishin’. Of course, when I say “we” I mean “George.” Similarly, when I saw “we” didn’t catch anything, I also mean “George” didn’t catch anything.
Back on dry land, I had a shower, and sat down on the bed to write what you’ve just read. I only had a chance to write a couple of paragraphs, though, before I heard Bill’s voice outside. Was I there and did I want to come along for another ride to Big Falls? Yeh, alright then.
When we were having a beer by the Rio Grande a couple of days ago, Bill and Robin had talked to the bar owner, and she’d told them of a friend who might also be interested in selling a piece of land, this time with a stretch of the river itself as one of the boundaries. They’d arranged to meet with her friend, and that’s what we were doing.
Hey there, reader. How you doing? Thanks for reading this far. You enjoying it so far? You’re past the half-way point. Fancy a YouTube break? There’s one coming up shortly. Maybe you might wanna nip and put the kettle on ready for that. Anyway, back to the words…
Candelaria was a tiny Mayan woman. (Not sure of the spelling, but that’s what it sounded like; candelabra with -ria instead of -bra at the end.) She had a chirpy little voice and a shy smile. As we crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, she told us that’s where he husband was found dead two years ago. Nobody knows what happened, and one of their sons found him. And that’s where he was buried, or as she put it, “that’s where I planted him.”
We picked up her second eldest son Enrique on the way, and we trundled off down one of the better dirt tracks that I’ve been on. The dirt track turned into a grassy track, and when he reached the brow of a small hill, we parked up and got out and went into the jungle. Candelaria was way beyond what you’d expect from someone showing a potential buyer a piece of land. She narrated the journey like a tour guide. This tree is called that, that tree we use to make this, and she talked a lot about all the work her husband did on the land. And it was so sad when she told us about her daughter: “it’s her third birthday this week. But she died.”
After a good twenty minutes of trekking, we came to the river. Their land goes from that bend up there, all the way past that bend down there. About 100 metres of river front, I’d say. We all took a break by the water, and then returned to the car. Driving back along the track, Candelaria pointed out a piece of land she owned by the roadside. A friend of hers is living there, but she wanted us to see the house. It was a very simple concrete rectangle with a tin roof and wood shutters. (That was your YouTube link.)
The woman in the house smiled at us, the three white people suddenly stood in her home, as she washed the infant in her lap. The puppy howled at us. The chickens ignored us. And Enrique offered to show us their orange orchard. When we got there, he insisted we try one. Bill got his manly knife out, peeled one, and sliced it in half. And, I dunno if it was the situation, sweaty and hot from a walk in the jungle, or the proud look on Enrique’s face when he offered us an orange: but it was the best orange I’ve ever tasted. My moustache and beard were covered in pulp and juice, as Bill and I gorged on three of them. Back at the house, Enrique offered us a drink. Not a Nescafe or PG Tips, oh no. He went to a tree, twisted off a couple of coconuts and chopped the end off for us so we could drink the water. These people were the best estate agents in the world.
As we left, the woman who was living in the house asked, via Enrique, if we wanted to buy some cherry tomatoes. We did. (And we ate them in a salad later that evening. They were great.) The final stop of the afternoon was Candelaria’s own home. A wooden building, thatched roof. She showed Bill and Robin the official papers for the land, and proudly took framed pictures off the wall to show us. He husband, her children. She showed us her eldest son’s high school certificate. She and Enrique looked so proud of Domingo for finishing high school, and it kinda made me realise how, in Europe etc., we all take finishing high school for granted. Candelaria had the same pride that British mothers would have getting a degree from Oxford.
Our time with Candelaria and Enrique was over. Robin and Candelaria exchanged phone numbers. Who knows if they will eventually buy the land. It would take a heck of a lot of work to clear even a small portion of the 40 acres to build a house there. But there was a twinkle in their eyes that suggested they were up for such a mammoth project. It’d be too much for me, I think, but then I’m a pussy with soft fingers. Bill’s a cattle rancher, though, so you never know.