Archive for February, 2008
Aaaah, it’s nice to be back at Hickatee. (I know I’ve linked to them a couple of times before, but I really do recommend them heartily. Especially if you live in the US, cos it’s such a short flight from Miami or Houston; and Punta Gorda – and what I’ve seen of the whole Toledo district – really is a lovely place to come.)
There’s another American couple staying here at the moment. Again, from Northern California. Bill and Robin. They’re a fun couple to be around. Mid-fifties. They are looking to buy somewhere around here, and, within an hour of my arrival, had invited me along for the ride to go and see a piece of land in a village called Big Falls.
We all piled into the pick-up and set off. Bill’s a cattle farmer, owns a ranch. I’ve never heard the word “acres” so much in one day. He has a very nice lilt to his voice; puts me in mind of Bob Ross. I like how they use each other’s names all the time when they talk to each other: “Would you look at that, Robin?” “Isn’t that something, Bill?” And when Bill wants to say something is broken or finished he uses the phrase “ready to take a shit.” For example, he lost his glasses in the jungle and said, “It doesn’t matter, they were ready to take a shit anyway.”
We took a few coconuts from a tree ’cause nobody lives there so they’d have just gone to waste, and we drove into the main part of Big Falls. I say “main part” but really it just seems to be a few houses on either side of the highway near the Rio Grande crossing. We stopped next to the river and had a couple of beers at the bar (a simple place: concrete floor, wood railings, thatched palm roof) and chatted with four cute-as-can-be Mayan girls who came along when they saw the gringos and asked if we wanted to buy any arts & crafts. They stood around, just smiling at us, asked our names, and then asked for money.
Back in Punta Gorda, and we went with a couple of other guests and Ian (the co-owner of Hickatee) to Mangrove Inn. You may recall that this is the place with excellent food where you walk through their living room to get to the terrace dining area.
The guy who lives there, John, warned us that his pet kinkajou wasn’t in the house, so if we saw him, to let him know. Kinky Jew? No, Craig, “kinkajou.” A couple of minutes after we all sat down, the kinkajou appeared. Kinkajous are part of the same family as raccoons. But they’re a lot cuter. He seemed nice and inquisitive and, cautiously putting a paw on my shoulder and sniffed my armpit. He then went over and put his paws on Robin’s shoulder and sniffed at her hair. Over he went to Bill and licked at his beard.
He then came back to me. Seeing he was a friendly little thing, I leant back and he sat on my lap and had a good sniff of my groin before climbing up my chest to sniff and lick my beard. I started to try and put my hand on his back and – in that super slow-motion you get, like when you see a car accident – he hissed and his head reared back and then: aaaaaaaarrrgh! His two big fangs are plunged deep into my cheek. My glasses go flying and he gets in a couple more vicious bites.
Blood is pissing in rivulets through my beard. John and his daughter whisk me off to the bathroom with a bowl of ice cubes and load of serviettes. I’ve never seen someone as apologetic as John at that moment. He over-apologised in that way that people do; rephrasing the same set of words to emphasise again and again that they are so very sorry. Dinner was on the house.
When the worst of the bleeding stopped, I went back to the table, found my battered specs (which have been held together with super glue for the past few weeks, anyway), and the conversation went into that weird lull that happens when something unexpected has occurred. Lots of concern for my well-being, lots of re-telling of the event from all angles; there was in fact, a shot heard from the grassy knoll.
Thankfully, with the kinkajou being a pet, I don’t need to get any shots, John reassured me emphatically; and anyway, I’d had a rabies shot before I left Berlin, so there’s no need to worry, Mum.
I spent the rest of the evening with my glasses resting forlornly on the table. It’s very rare that I’m without my specs. The world closes in around me. I can only see about seven or eight inches of clarity without them. And when I’m in that bubble, I tend to quieten down. I think my quietness dampened the spirits around the table a touch, which was a shame as it was – kinkajou attack aside – a nice evening.
But, apart from a few red marks and a bit of bruising, I’m fine, and because of the last-minuteness of my return to Punta Gorda, there’s no free rooms for me here at Hickatee for the next five nights, so, I’ll be getting back on the bicycle, and staying in one of the guest rooms back at Mangrove Inn. And I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on the bloody kinkajou.
Part of me is disappointed with myself for doing it, but I flew back to Punta Gorda this morning. I was a bit paranoid about the whole yellow fever stuff; too paranoid to explore other parts of Panama, and I wasn’t particularly enjoying Panama City. So, because I can’t fly to São Paulo until the 18th, I decided to come back here. It was way too tempting to resist. It’s good to be back.
The average toll for using the Panama Canal is, apparently, US$54,000. I like to think they have to pay in cash like on toll-roads.
Over the past few weeks, in Mexico, Belize, and Panama, I’ve noticed one overarching theme: they all love that Jesus.
And whenever I see a big church, a crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi, or someone crossing themselves, the same thing always pops into my head: what Grace says to Ed Rooney about Ferris Bueller:
Oh, he’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.
I slept like a log last night, and things seemed better this morning. But, as often happens at times like this, it doesn’t take much to knock my mood back down again. The atrocious service in the hotel’s restaurant was one thing, but their “continental breakfast” was something else all together.
Which continent has two shiny bread rolls, a mini-tub of butter and apple jam as its breakfast? (Names like “continental breakfast” make me chuckle, though. How very British it seems to decide that a croissant with jam represents the whole of that continent which we seem to begrudgingly be on the edge of. See also Swiss roll, Turkish delight, French stick [can’t be arsed to pronounce “baguette”], continental quilt [in the pre-“duvet” days], Danish pastry, Spanish omelette, etc.)
I was determined to enjoy myself, though, so I got out on the street, looking for a cab. Here, they seem to honk their horns at people who are walking along the street to see if you want to hire them, or maybe it’s just the sunburnt tourists they do it to, I dunno. I signalled that I wanted the cab and he stopped. There was already a passenger in the back. This seems to happen quite a lot; taxis stopping to pick up people who might be going in a similar direction. I told him I wanted to go to Miraflores Locks, and he said something and waved his hands like, “I’ve gotta take this lady where she’s going first.”
The new leitmotif of my time in Panama is the dishing out of Tic Tacs in cars. Everyone, aside from Marie, wants one. I’ve done it in three cars so far, and they’re always a hit and I’m rewarded with smiles. Smiles are good. We drop off the lady and speed along the motorway to the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.
(Backtracking a bit, and going off on a tangent: what the hell is it about hot countries and people honking their car horns? I mean, I know it happens in Britain and Germany; but here, in Belize, Mexico, Turkey, Greece… they’re all at it!)
So, the Panama Canal. I must admit, even though I’d not planned to come to Panama at all on this trip, the Canal is one of the things in the world that I’ve wanted to see but thought I’d probably never get around to. I paid the eight dollars, watched the ten minute introduction film and went up to the fourth floor viewing platform. Just as I got up there, there was a big Korean ship laden with huge wind turbines entering the locks. A voice kept coming over the public address system giving us a commentary, in Spanish and English, all about locks, the canal, and the ship itself. Apparently, it was a Panamax ship; a ship that is the maximum size it can can be to still get through the Panama Canal.
It inched its way into the first lock, and the locks did what locks do, just on a fairly grand scale. The whole process seemed to take about half an hour or so. Then the ship slinks along into the Miraflores Lake, through the next set of locks and then across the country to the corresponding set of locks on the Atlantic side.
After a brief look around the canal exhibit, I left to go and find a cab back into town. A bunch of men were waiting outside the visitor centre, all shouting “¿Taxi? ¿Taxi?” Like the one strong sperm that fuses with the egg, Elvio was the guy who got me into his cab. Nice guy. We stumbled through in broken Spanish and English. He pointed out this big hill, Cerro Ancón – one that I’d seen from the sea front near the hotel – where you had a good view of the whole city, so he asked if I wanted to go up there. I said I did, and it was pretty cool at the top.
Especially the chap and his kids who, seeing my Yankees cap, smiled and said “New York! New York!” I don’t have the Spanish skills to say, “Well, actually, gentlemen, I’m from Lincoln in England; live in Berlin, Germany; but my preferred baseball team is, yes, the New York Yankees.” So I said “Sí!” instead. They watched me taking photos, and one of the kids indicated that I should take a photo of them. So I did. I showed them the result, they seemed happy, so I present it to you here.
I’m quickly coming to realise that this travelling lark isn’t at all about seeing canals, museums, or howler monkeys: it’s about other people. I’ve not been doing this long, but I’ve had so many beautiful moments with strangers. It really is excellent to not know who you’ll pass some time with next, but know that you inevitably will.
So, Elvio points out buildings in the distance for me, going way beyond being a taxi driver. Still, the cynical Brit in me was a tad suspicious of how this was all going to end. With my wallet a lot lighter was my suspicion. But, I’d never have bothered going up that hill had he not suggested it, so I was happy he had.
Back in the cab and he takes me where I’d originally asked to go: Casco Viejo, the old part of town I briefly visited the other day. I wanted to have a better look around. We pulled up outside a church, and he suggested I have a look around, and he’d take me further. Fearing the enormo-cab fare, though, I thanked him and told him I wanted to walk around and, bracing myself, asked “¿Quanto es?” Just twenty dollars. You’d pay more than that to go a few miles across London.
A walk around, a spot of lunch, a bit of rain. I passed the presidential palace, where there are armed guards and herons(!) patrolling the entrance. I tried to ask one of the security guards who checked through my bag as I came close the palace if the president actually lived there, or whether it was just an old ceremonial thing. He didn’t understand, and I couldn’t say it in Spanish. So he just asked where I was from. I told him England, and his colleague said, “Manchester? Chelsea?” I told him “Liverpool!” and did a rather dumb double thumbs-up move. (Boring football stuff: it does amaze me a little bit how quickly Chelsea have “penetrated” the global market. Apart from the Mancs’ shirts, I’ve seen more Chelsea shirts than any other English team’s shirts. Although, rather oddly,
I did see a builder today in an Aston Villa shirt.)
I ambled back towards the hotel, through some sort of port area. Filthy. Stinking of fish, oil, diesel, stagnant puddles, dead birds, and piles of garbage. The only smell that wasn’t entirely offensive was the perfume of the prostitutes; though I doubt I’ll be being that particular brand for my Mum’s birthday.
I mentioned yesterday that a lot of manhole covers seem to be missing here. Coincidentally, that observation and the glum feeling I’ve had about my last few days collided, when I saw this one.
I noticed something move inside the hole. It wasn’t a rat (and fuck me, they’ve got some big rats here; it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve seen a couple that were as big as cats). It was a man’s legs. Moving around, as if shifting in sleep, on top of a piece of cardboard inside the two foot high area beneath the hole’s entrance. I was walking past, taking a photograph with my Pentax, wearing my Nike trainers, Levi’s jeans, Lacoste shirt, and New Era cap. He was trying to sleep in a stinky, dirty hole used for I-don’t-know-what. Feeling sorry for myself about “having to” postpone my flight to Brazil. Yep, now I feel like a shit.
I don’t mean that in the “I need a poo” sense, you understand. Although, come to think of it…
I learnt a lot today. Simple things, really. I learnt that in Panama City, manhole covers are optional at best. I learnt that Hollywood’s continuing portrayal of Latino men as shady characters isn’t always true. I learnt that FC Barcelona are by far the most popular football team in Panama City if replica shirts are anything to go by (Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, and, sadly, the Mancs are fairly popular, too.) And I learnt that you really can’t beat the smile of someone who is happy to have helped you.
Yesterday, something dawned on me. When I was talking to the Australian couple, they told me they’d been forced to spend a bit of extra time in Panama waiting to get their visas for Brazil sorted. A cricket ball dropped in my stomach, and when I got back to the hotel, I frantically checked the Brazilian Embassy’s website. Phew! Brits don’t need one. But what Brits do need is a certificate saying they’ve had a yellow fever vaccine. Fuck.
Stupid, stupid, so very fucking stupidly, when I was getting my shots, I’d not considered the possibility that my travel plans might deviate from the simple Mexico City/São Paulo/Montevideo/Buenos Aires plan, and take me into places where yellow fever is “endemic,” which it is – apparently – in Panama.
Bugger bastard shit wank.
So this morning, I went off to find the British Embassy. Jolly good it was to be in there, too. Felt right at home. Nice cup of tea, some biscuits, and a quick game of croquet before having some Pimms by the pool. Not really. It was like being in any office on the fourth floor of a big tower, except with a bit more security. The very helpful lady there gave me the address of a place to get a vaccine, and reassured me that, as long as I don’t go into the rural, exceedingly humid areas of Panama, I’ll be safe from yellow fever here.
Back at the hotel for a couple of hours to wait for the clinic to open. I asked at reception if they could call a taxi for me. She lifted up a couple of pieces of paper, as if to pretend to be looking for something, and then with what could be the world’s most bored look on her face, said “No, I don’t have a taxi number.” For fuck’s sake, woman, this is a fucking hotel! How the fuck can you not have at least one taxi company’s phone number!?
Being forced to ignore the general advice for travellers in this part of the world (call for a taxi, don’t just grab one off the street), I grabbed one off the street. Hollywood Latino Badguy was the driver and started blathering on, and I kinda got worried that he might not be taking me where I needed to go. But, of course, he did take me where I needed to go. He did fleece me on the fare, though, claiming to have no change for a $20 bill, more or less getting a 50% tip.
The place where he’d dropped me was the place where the people of Panama City come to get their jabs. It seems a fairly efficiently run place. Go to the cash desk in one building. Five dollars, please. Go over to the other building, where they write your name on a yellow piece of card. Take that piece of card to a nurse, she stamps it, and sticks a needle in your arm.
She needed to tell me something, though. Aaah, problemo. No hablo español. She keeps saying “No marisco, no marisco.” Sorry, luv, I don’t understand what marisco is, but look, I have a dictionary, perhaps you can look it up. Now, I don’t speak Spanish, but I do know that when I hear a word like marisco, the best place to look for that word is in the M section of the dictionary. She opened up, flipped to H, and started going towards the front of the dictionary, past G, F, E…
At that point, a guy knocked on the door. I’d noticed him in the queue behind me at the cashier place. When I say I noticed him, what I mean is that I noticed the girl he was with. Early-twenties, quite slutty-looking, teetering on stilettos, huge fake breasts barely staying inside her dress. The nurse asked the guy if he spoke English. Yes! He did! Result. He told me not to eat any seafood (marisco) or drink alcohol until Sunday. And if I get headaches, not to worry, it’s just a side-effect of the vaccine. He smiled at me. The nurse smiled at me. The girl smiled at me in that way that says, “I know you were looking at my tits.”
Back outside, and there again is the man who was enthusiastically waving me to my destination at each stage of the money-paper-injection transaction. He was a middle-aged guy in a filthy t-shirt, moving around like Manuel off “Fawlty Towers.” I gave him a couple of dollars and a cigarette and he told me where to stand for a taxi.
The deal here seems to be, you wait until someone arriving in a taxi gets out. I was in for a long wait. No traffic along the street whatsoever. Then Mr. English-speaker and Tits pull up in their fancy, big, white-with-blacked-out-windows car. The passenger side window descends, and Mr. English-speaker turns, says something to Tits, then smiles at me and says, “You need a ride?”
I jump in the car, introduce myself, he tells me he is Roberto, and I turn and smile at the girl in the back, she smiles, and I tell them which area I need to go to, and we’re off. My mouth tasted like a baboon’s arse, so I got my Tic-Tacs out, took one, and offered them to Roberto. He took one. I indicated to pass them to the girl. He asked Marie if she wants one. I understood her reply; she didn’t want one because it contained sugar. One point nine calories, woman, one point nine! You’re still gonna get adoring looks on the beach in Rio if you eat one Tic-Tac, luv. I didn’t say that, of course.
By this point, it’s quite clear by the way that she talks to Roberto, and the way the back seat is strewn with all of her belongings, that Roberto is her driver. Is she rich? Is she famous? I don’t know. But, she was civil to me, Roberto was friendly, and they dropped me off right outside my hotel, which was exceptionally nice of them. I wished him a good day, her a good time in Rio, and came up to my room to swear loudly at myself in the mirror.
Why why why didn’t I get a fucking yellow fever jab in Berlin? Why? The notes on the embassy website say it must be taken at least ten days prior to arrival in Brazil. My flight leaves in four days. All of the entries in the log book back at the clinic, I noticed, were for people travelling to Brazil, so they must be pretty strict about it. And even though my friend there seems to think I’d be okay to risk it, I’m not brave enough to arrive at São Paulo airport and be swiftly turned away.
So I check the details of my booking on Expedia, and send them an email. It seems that, for a fee, they could change my flight, but I’d still have to contact the airline to confirm it. I remembered that down the road is a Copa Airlines office, which I passed yesterday. So rather than replying to Expedia’s email, I went for a walk.
Now, the Internet is great. The Internet has been very good to me. I wouldn’t be on this trip had the Internet not allowed me to publish my work for you folks and clients to see. It gave me a way out of the music industry just at the right time, and I look at my good friends back in London who still have fingers in that pool, and fear for what they will do when the inevitable happens and they all get fired ’cause no-one at the big record companies has worked out how to make money via the Internet.
And, of course, the Internet has made this trip so much easier. Log on, find a flight, book it, and you’re off. Problems can be solved relatively easily. And, without wishing to get all sentimental on you, doing this web log has made me enjoy the trip a lot more. It’s lovely to read your comments and emails. God knows that if it was someone else, I’d be reading all this thinking, “Flash fucker, swanning around Latin America…” It allows me to stay in touch with my friends and family, too. (And my Mum has told me tha
t she’s started reading the blog; which worries me a touch, ’cause I really shouldn’t be using words like “tits” and “slutty” and “cunt” in her presence. Sorry, Mum.)
My point, though, is this: no matter how essential the Internet is to me, it can’t actually smile back at you. It can try, like this : ) but it can’t do it with the eyes. When I went in to the Copa Airlines office and, with the weight of the last few days dragging my face down, asked how much it would cost to postpone my flight for a week, the woman behind the desk looked at me and said, “Nothing.”
I was shocked. That didn’t seem right. She asked when I wanted to change it to. I told her from the 11th to the 18th of February. She printed off a ticket, saw the almost tearfully happy look on my face and beamed at me. Fucking hell, that was truly one of the most magnificent things that could’ve happened at that moment. I was so unbelievably happy. It was a tiny matter, and I wasn’t expecting to have to pay too much, but it was just that one potential hassle had gone so smoothly, so much better than I’d expected. I had a lump in my throat.
It’s been an exhausting day, mentally. I haven’t the will to go and explore Panama City this evening. I’m just gonna sit down, enjoy the wifi, and email some friends back home. I miss them.
Well, I’ve never seen a mannequin with boobs like this before.
I guess this post wouldn’t be complete without embedding this video:
I had my first cup of coffee since Tuesday morning today. This, in dog years, in bloody ages for me. But it was ruined – ruined! – because the lady who made my cappuccino put cinnamon on top. I loathe cinnamon. Dust of the devil. But I feel so very alone with my loathing. I surely can’t be the only person who hates cinnamon, but everyone who I’ve ever mentioned it to smacks their lips in a mmm-mmmm, it’s lovely manner. Help me! Anyone else share my disliking of cinnamon?
So, Panama City. The things I knew about this place before I arrived can be counted on one hand: There’s a canal; it’s where John Darwin was hanging out for a while; it’s where Mo comes from; and I knew about Noriega. (You really would think I’d know more about these places, considering I wrote an atlas, wouldn’t you?)
Obviously, I’m here now, and it’s a steep learning curve. I went to the hotel reception at lunch time, asked if they had any sort of map of the town, and, err, sorry, no. So I just walked the two blocks towards the ocean. It seems like in the immediate area around the hotel there’s a [collective noun] of hospitals and clinics. Helpfully, and somewhat ominously, there’s also a bunch of funeral parlours. And I walked past several people with obvious mental illnesses. It was quite a sad sight.
At the waterfront – where I’m seeing the Pacific Ocean for the very first time – there’s just a bunch of black rocks, some black birds, a fair amount of garbage, and several gazillion litres of murky water. To one side it looks all modern and skyscraper-y; to the other all old and colonial Spanish-y. I choose to go in the direction of the old stuff. Shortly after that, I saw a white-skinned couple who were rather obviously tourists: taking photos, and a Lonely Planet guide in hand. Keith and Claire were from Adelaide, and seemed only too happy to chat in English for a while. I walked with them past the rather grubby dock area, and wandered around the virtually deserted fancy old bit.
I couldn’t find an ATM, so I left the Australians to get on with their sight-seeing, and because I only had $8 in my pocket, I couldn’t risk getting a taxi. So I had to walk all the way back alone the sea front road and on and on to where all the skyscrapers were. By this time, I’d eaten virtually nothing for 24 hours, and despite still feeling a bit grotty, I was hungry.
Once I’d found an ATM, the first restaurant I saw was the Hard Rock Cafe. Never been in one of these before. I got to see one of Richie Sambora’s guitars AND eat a cheeseburger. Hopefully tomorrow will be a bit more interesting.
Lots of flying to do yesterday, lots of take-offs and landings. And lots of little things that annoyed me. The flight from Punta Gorda to Belize City was fine. I was sat in the seat behind where a co-pilot would’ve been, so I had a pretty sweet view. Until the plane made the first of its four stops on the way to the capital, where some dickhead American dude with Bono-ish shades and one of those faces that’s begging to be punched came and sat down next to me. Looking for both ends of the seat-belt, he was half-talking to me, “It’s gotta be somewhere…” and at that moment, he found one end, then looked at me, and sang “…over the rainbow!”
Thankfully, he didn’t sit next to me for more than a couple of minutes, as he then leant forward and asked the pilot if he could sit in the co-pilot seat. Now, I’m a tad jealous that he got to do this, but then, I’m way to politely British to even consider asking the pilot such a question. Anyway, I no longer had a dickhead sat next to me; I had one sat in front of me. Taking photos constantly. His arms blocking any nice view I had as he snapped away and kept looking back at what I assume was his brother, and smirking.
Soon enough, though, I was in Belize City. My tummy had been rumbling the whole journey, and, I must confess, I did break wind once or twice. But I put it down to a sudden switch of cigarette brands. I’d taken a whole load of Camel Lights and Marlboro Lights with me to Punta Gorda, but in the last 24 hours, I’d run out and had to resort to smoking one of the local brands, Colonial. They’re a bit rough for my taste, and, like I said, assumed that they made me feel a bit dicky.
A quick trip to the gents once I got off the flight and, well, I don’t need to go into too much detail. All you need to know is that the next person to come into the gents said “Phwoooo-weee!” very loudly. That was the first of five visits before I got my next flight. And I had serious reservations about taking the flight. I mean, I knew that if the seat-belt signs were on during the flight, I’d need to defy them and dash off or I’d soil myself there and then in seat 3A. And that seat number is why I didn’t consider it too much: I’d been upgraded for the one hour Taca Airlines flight to San Salvador. Frankly, though, aside from the bit of extra room, I can’t see why anyone would pay for business class on such a short journey.
Fairly nice view out over El Salvador as we came in to land at dusk. And if the airport is anything to go by, El Salvadorean women are mmm-mmm-mmm mighty fine. Still, all I really saw of San Salvador was the inside of the toilets. I had an hour and a half to wait before my next flight, so I asked the Taca Airlines guy if I could change my window seat for an aisle seat, ’cause of my “predicament.” That sorted, and feeling a tad more confident about not shitting my pants on the flight, I went for one last celebration dump before boarding began.
I’m sat by the aisle, next to some cunt who spends the whole time shuffling cards, plane takes off, and before the seat-belt signs go off, I spy two blokes coming from the front of the plane towards the toilets at the rear. Now, I know it’s a cunty move, but I did it nonetheless: I un-buckled and dived in front of them. And a good job, too: seconds after locking the door I was throwing up like nobody’s business.
By the time I was through, I had the evil, red-eyed, pasty-faced look. And still the stewards on the flight didn’t seem to understand that my request for water was quite urgent. I was feeling so dehydrated, and the Taca dudes were, if truth be told, lacking in training. I’ve seen those docu-soaps about airlines, and they’re meant to look after you if you’re feeling a bit ill. But all I got was sneers when I asked for three water re-fills of the mini-cups.
All this got to me by the time I arrived in Panama, and for the first time in ages I was chuntering away to myself like a loony when the ATM would only allow me to take out $50, and the Coke machine wouldn’t accept any of my notes. I collected my backpack to find that, for whatever security bullshit reason, it had been gone through. Nice of whoever that was, in whichever city that was, to not bother closing any of the zips or buckles when they were done. It’s some sort of minor miracle that half of my belongings aren’t littering the hold of the plane.
The hotel where I am staying is supposed to lay on a transfer bus. Was it there? Was it fuck. So I get a cab and I’m being driven around Panama City at midnight, not knowing what the hell it is I’m doing here. Why did I randomly pick Panama City? I know nothing about this place. All I know is they’ve got a canal down the road.
Since I woke up this morning, I’ve not been outside yet. No idea what Panama City looks like, apart from the rectangle of view from my hotel window, which looks, well, average at best. Which is more than can be said about the room itself. Amazingly, the hotel has wifi. Which blows my mind considering how shit everything else is. The door looks like a shoulder could knock it in, it’s got paint all over it, as has the plastic chair. The mirror is broken, the pillows are like porridge in a sack, the soap is as thin as an After Eight mint, the curtain is filthy, and the only power outlet is seven feet up, next to the bracket holding the TV. Still, it’s only $25 a night, so what – really – was I expecting?
My last morning in Punta Gorda. Suffering from some nasty sunburn on my calves that I must’ve got while snorkeling. One last little adventure early on when we all went down the road to an area of land that’s been partially cleared by loggers, to collect any remaining orchids. The humidity’s pretty high today, the highest it has been since I arrived.
One of Hickatee Cottages’ staff, Mr. Rafael, with an orchid.
Barbara, Kraig, Jenny, and Walt.
I’ll be sad to leave, it’s been really lovely; but the next part of my journey begins this afternoon, when I fly up to Belize City to catch a plane that will take me, via San Salvador and San Jose, to Panama City, arriving there around midnight.
Next update from there.
Last night I had that most masculine of pleasures: watching other men work, with my arms folded, occasionally chipping in with some comment or other. Kraig and his wife, Barbara had locked their key in the room, and, unfortunately for them, it was the only room without a spare key. So I got to stand there on the verandah, smoking a fag, as two men tried to pick the lock, then take off the hinges. Neither of which worked. So Ian resorted to the tried and tested way to get in somewhere: a crowbar.
It was a fun end to a fun day for me, and probably a frustrating end to a fun day for Kraig and Barbara. We all did the same activity, along with the other American couple, Walt and Jenny: snorkeling.
We saw a bunch of dolphins, and tried to take photos of the dolphins. I took about 20 photos of flat sea, and got just one semi-decent photo of a fin.
And we saw what I believe was called a flying fish: this little fella who skimmed along the surface like one of those super-duper speedboats trying to break the speed record.
Half an hour on the boat and we came to the Port Honduras Marine Reserve station thingy on Abalone Caye. The whole area of cayes and sea just north of Punta Gorda is a protected area, and at this station, with their big scary dogs, is where three chaps work (two weeks on, one week off) making sure there are no fishermen or coral poachers doing naughty business. He showed us around, told us what sort of stuff they did, and then we paid him for the visit, which did rather seem like simply an excuse to get tourists to donate $10 to the ongoing project.
I managed to get a good photo of Kraig’s rainbow ponytail while I was there, too.
Then it was on to Snake Cayes, two beautiful tiny islands (West and East Snake). The first thing we saw as we approached West Snake Caye was a bunch of pelicans. Some floating around, others flying and then diving to catch fish.
We slowly motored around to the east side of the caye, and put our masks, snorkels and flippers on, and away we went. It was my first time doing this, and I panicked. Water was flooding into my mouth, I was snorting up my nose. I felt shit. I came up for a bit of air, gasping and spitting, and tried again. This time it was even worse. I tried a third time and I could feel the panic kicking in the moment my face went under the surface. I swam back to the boat. Scully, our tour guide, talked me through things a bit more and got me relaxed. There was a moment, though, where I seriously considered giving up, and it was only the thought of sitting in the boat watching the others snorkeling for the next couple of hours that got me back in the water.
This time I remembered to breath out as I went under water. The first thing I saw was a spotted eagle ray. It was if the sea was telling me that snorkeling – not sitting on the boat – is what I should be doing. It was a magnificent creature, probably about a metre and a half across, and only a few feet away from me. A few minor adjustments along the way, the occasional gasp for air, but I was fine; letting the movement of the sea move me around, with the odd flip of my flippers and I was seeing tons of beautiful fish and coral.
After an hour or so, we came around the the beach on the west side of the caye and stopped for some lunch. A traditional Belizean lunch of Tuna sandwiches, Coke, Pringles and an Oh Henry! bar.
Some hermit crabs were also eating lunch, a whole bunch of them, cunningly disguised as a bunch of shells in the photos, sucking down a fallen coconut.
Back on the boat, we pootered over to East Snake Caye for some more snorkeling. This time the water was a tiny bit rougher (it tends to get like that here the later in the day it gets), but a whole lot clearer under the water. And Kraig lent me his fancy under water digital camera to take some snaps. I should now admit that I’m not sure if any of these photos are mine, or whether they are all Kraig’s, but he said it was okay to use them.
It was a stunning day. And Walt found a huge pink shell on East Snake Caye when we stopped there briefly to catch our breath before coming home.
It was still only about 4pm when we got back to the cottages, so after we all relaxed for an hour or two, we all gathered at the bar and had a jolly old evening. One of those lovely things where we’d all had a shared experience and enjoyed each other’s company over food and drinks.
After a couple of days alone at the cottages, there are now two couples in the other cottages. Both American, both from the same part of the US: Oregon and the northern bit of California that is virtually Oregon. All of us wear glasses. All of us men have beards. It’s a beautiful thing. One of the men even shares my name; although his is spelt, rather bizarrely, Kraig. (His parents decided that all their children should have names beginning with K after naming him Craig; so it was changed when he was an infant). Kraig and his wife seem to be old hippies, and are thoroughly pleasant to be around. (I even enjoy the huge belches I can hear Kraig doing in their room next to mine.) The other couple arrived this evening and seem similarly pleasant.
One of the local tour guides was doing a day-long trip with a holidaying family today, and there was a spare place on the trip so I tagged along. The guide was called Bruno. A German from Stuttgart, he’s lived here for ten years; gave up a job in banking, married a local woman, and started a new life. Those of you who used to watch the Italian football on Channel Four in the UK will know what I mean when I say he looks a fair bit like James Richardson. We got talking about German football, and Bayern München in particular, and it turns out he knows Jürgen Klinsmann ’cause Bruno used to be a Bundesliga referee. He’s also got a very strange accent. It sounds like he’s learnt most of his English since he’s been in Belize, as he’s got a Germanic version of a West Indian accent.
The family I went on the trip with were from Oregon (again). An early-to-mid-forties couple with 17 and 15 year old sons. The mum, a chatty interior designer; the dad… I don’t know what he did, but he had a Disneyland cap on which was thoroughly out of keeping with the personality of him and his family. The younger son was taller than the older son, but he wore braces on his teeth. Death Cab for Cutie t-shirt. Both of them seemed like the sort of sons all parents would love to have: quiet, intelligent, interested in the places their parents were dragging them around.
We all got in Bruno’s minibus and trundled off along the dirty, bumpy roads to Nim Li Punit, a fairly small site of Mayan ruins. I know I should be impressed by all this stuff, but I’m just not feeling it. Yes, building these things on top of hills was impressive, but being told all the stuff that they think went on is, for me, a lot more impressive than the sites themselves. I’m not really a fan of ruins of any sort, really; but the speculation, and information that has been found is kinda cool.
More impressive for me was seeing the six-inch track of earth that had been cleared by leafcutter ants, as they went back and forth, presumably cutting leafs and taking them back to their big ol’ ant city.
Back in the bus, and we’re bumping along until we come to Coleman’s Cafe. Run by an East Indian man (with some gold teeth and an infectious smile) and his wife. Decent food, fantastic hand-written signs.
Half an hour or so of bumpy, bumpy, bumpy along a road of varying quality, past electricity-less villages, and we’re at Blue Creek. A beautiful, err, blue creek. Fifteen minutes of walking up along the side of the incredibly tempting river, and there in front of us was a big cave entrance.
One last smoke at the entrance, headlamp strapped on, and I’m taking tentative steps along the rocks the water, and I’m about to take my first ever breast-stroke of cave-swimming. And it was amazing. One of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. We went about half a mile into the cave. Swimming where it was deep enough; walking with knees bent, up to our necks in water, across the rocky cave floor when it wasn’t; and resting on rocks, or by holding onto rocks when necessary. All the while, the distant sound of rushing water was getting closer.
It was really nice to do it with these people. Bruno was a great guide. He made us all relaxed, with sparing warnings about possible dangers, but not making us too nervy. And the Oregonians were protective of each other, as you’d imagine, and we all helped each other out with “ooh, watch for that rock”-type stuff, and hands extended to pull people up across slimy rocks. It was a lot of fun.
When we reached our destination, there was a four metre high waterfall thundering into a big pool. There were gorgeous shapes where the power of the water has worn down the limestone: there were stalactites, of course, but also stunning curved and fluted areas; huge whale-tail shapes; bulbous stone icebergs.
All of this was still only illuminated by our headlamps, except if we turned them off, way up high in the cave was a tiny dot of light coming from another entrance. More experienced caver swimmers could go far deeper into the cave than we did, but that would involve packed lunches inside waterproof rucksacks as it’d be an all-day affair.
Back outside the cave, I had a little swim in a pool at the entrance. Catfish and some other little fish (which I forget the name of) all darting around. I sat there on a rock in the pool, up to my chin in water, as still as possible as the fish came within centimetres of me. How do you describe how wonderful that is?
Back at the minibus, there was that most simple of pleasures waiting for me: a set of clean, dry clothes, which I enjoyed all the way home while I wondered what I’ve been doing with my life so far. Why haven’t I been out kayaking, cave-swimming, and the like? And what the hell have I been thinking is so good about sitting at home watching television? On that note, I better go and get ready for today’s trip out to the Cayes to do some snorkeling.
A few days ago I mentioned the friendliness of everyone in Punta Gorda. That is a tiny exaggeration. There are young men and boys, young women and girls who don’t say hello or wave, but that can be put down to the cool, aloof, surliness of youth. There are some older (mainly Mayan) women who don’t acknowledge me, either. But if there’s one specific group of people who won’t make any effort to show friendliness, it’s people just like me.
Young (18-40) Westerners who are here doing what I’m doing: either travelling around or specifically visiting southern Belize. We see each other’s white face and our hand stay un-waving, our mouths stay closed and un-smiling. I wonder why this is. Is it a two-way thing? I think not. I’m not the world’s greatest of smilers, but since I’ve been here, the friendliness has made me aware that I should be friendly back and I do try and make eye contact and turn the corners of my mouth upwards. But I get nothing in return. Is it just me?
Or is it, as I suspect, and as I suspected when I was in a small town in southern Mexico a couple of years back, that the presence of another white European or North American backpacking doofus ruins our illusion that we are discovering a beautiful central American place all my ourselves? Our illusion that we are somehow not “tourists”? We may be doing something that is a big event for us, but, really, there’s so many people doing this right now, today, tomorrow, next week, every week; it’s not really that big a deal. It’s just a few hours of comfortable flying away.
But maybe I’m over-analysing it. Maybe they all see my face and think, what the fuck are you looking at, four-eyes?
With all the activities of the last five days, I seem to have failed to put many photos of Punta Gorda itself up. Rectification begins below.
After a fairly full, activity-packed Wednesday, Thursday was lovely and relaxing. A leisurely breakfast; a very slow cycle into town; a slower cycle around town, from the south end where I’m staying, all the way to the north end, where I stopped, sat down and drank a Coke in the shade. I cycled back through town – I think I could’ve walked faster – and had a spot of lunch. Cycled a bit further, had an ice cream.
When I stopped at Morenco’s for the ice cream (it was fucking delicious), a guy, probably in his thirties, and definitely in a San Antonio Spurs vest, said hello. I returned the pleasantry, paid for my plastic (vending machine-style) cup of vanilla ice cream and asked if I could sit down with him at the one table in the shade. I told him I was Craig, he told me that he was Allan Valentine, “with two Ls; I’m the local hustler.” We had a brief chat about American sports and he was on his way without trying to hustle me. A bit more cycling, a swim in the sea, and my day was virtually over. It was only about four o’clock, but the laid-back life is really kicking in.
Malcolm and Cybil have moved on to bore people in another part of Belize, so for Thursday and Friday, I’m the only guest at Hickatee. This has been lovely. Ian and Kate have been treating me like a visiting friend more than a guest. When I insisted that there was absolutely no point in preparing the three-dish menu just for my evening meal, they suggested that maybe we could all go to a restaurant called Mangrove Inn instead.
This place, to use a tired cliché, has to be seen to be believed. We walked up some stairs to the first floor of a wooden building right on the northern edge of town, and suddenly, you’re in someone’s living room. There’s the husband watching “Lost” on the sofa right in front of you. There’s the family kitchen and dining room, and through the screen door on the balcony are a couple of tables. And it was by far the best food I’ve had in a restaurant here. Delicious rice and beans, mouth-watering jerk chicken, and a divine lemon pie for afters.
And today was just as much fun. Ian had a few errands to take care of in town, so I went along with him. We popped in here, popped in there. Had a chat with this guy, that guy. I heard gossip about local politicians (there’s an election in Belize in the near future, so there’s lots of rumours of vote-buying and various other forms of corruption). I heard about when seaweed will be delivered. I heard about all kinds of everyday stuff.
We then all went up to a fancy-yet-a-tad-dull resort up on a hill to eat. Fantastic views of the jungle; rather ordinary food. While we were there, we could see the rain clouds in the distance. Slowly they got closer, and for 15 minutes, we had a nice cooling shower. A walk down the hill to the Rio Grande where we sat for a while, took in the view, and listened to the chain-saws of loggers in the distance. On the way back up, I saw and heard what I’d been wanting to see and hear since I’ve got here: howler monkeys. A troop of them up in the trees. Big ones and baby ones. And the noise! Not a howl, more of a guttural roar. Very like the sound used in “Jurassic Park” for the dinosaurs. It was wonderful. Really wonderful. Sadly my camera isn’t so wonderful, and I only have these crappy shots.
My day of fun with Ian and Kate continued when we took a drive out along the road beyond their place to Boom Creek, a tiny Mayan village (ten or so houses) by the edge of the Moho River. It’s difficult for me to keep writing about all this stuff without saying lovely, fantastic, splendid, beautiful; but it all was.
The only not-beautiful thing is seeing where pieces of jungle are being cleared by loggers, often illegally logging. In the photo below you can see the low-level jungle trees and plants being cleared so that when they start chain-sawing the bigger trees, they fall to the ground rather than getting stuck half-way in the smaller trees.
People need wood, of course, but here’s a fine example of the damage that would be done by chopping one tree down (below). They wouldn’t be just chopping down one tree; there’s another tree that has taken root on its trunk; a fig plant, grasses, orchids and ferns. And that’s just what we could see from the ground; and ignoring the insects, birds, and monkeys affected. Tsk, y’know, someone should, like, do something. Sermon over. ‘Cause it’s dinner time.