Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
Eric and I have known each other electronically for about four years. He and his pal Ted used to run a Web site called Pitchers and Poets. It was a good thing. With me also having a baseball site, we ended up exchanging emails, all three of us. I was emailing my pal Pete about baseball a lot, too, and eventually, the streams crossed and we ended up having a four way email conversation about baseball and hot dogs and jumping frogs and, once in a while, Albuquerque.
Eric and his girlfriend Janelle moved to Mexico City in October. This was the first time we had met in person. Eric is a writer. He likes baseball. He lives in the same city as me. One day, we got to chatting about the Serie del Caribe (Caribbean Series, an annual baseball tournament held between the winners of the winter leagues in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela). It’s held in one city from one of the four participating nations on a rotating basis, and this year it was Mexico’s turn, and would take place in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, about a three hour drive south of the Arizona border.
We both wanted to go. And because he writes about sports (amongst other things), and I often draw baseball-related stuff, it wasn’t a huge leap for us to come up with the idea of up pitching an idea to someone of he and I working together on a co-authored text and images thing about the series.
At the time, I’d recently done some infographics for a new Web site called Sports on Earth. So I emailed Emma Span, the editor I’d dealt with, explained our idea, and would they be interested.
They were. Hurrah. We noodled around for a while, didn’t get our shit together, and eventually started looking for flights, accommodation, and Emma got on the case regarding press credentials for us, even though the Serie del Caribe Web site clearly stated that the time for applications was over.
Hermosillo is a city of about 800,000 people the 20th largest city in the country. There only seemed to be a couple of flights from Mexico City that weren’t booked up, so they were a wee bit expensive. Accommodation proved to be an even bigger issue: we checked and checked and kept finding hotels fully booked for the whole week. We were essentially Mary and Joseph.
When we did come across a hotel with rooms, they were super expensive and only renting rooms for the whole week of the series. We were only gonna be there for four nights, but it looked we might have to stump up the cash for seven just to not end up sleeping under a cactus. With only about ten days to go, we had some good fortune: my friend Adria is from Hermosillo, and her mother was willing to rent out her spare rooms to us for the duration of our stay.
Getting press credentials seemed to be very Mexican in its organisation. I love this country, but it can be frustratingly inefficient at getting things done. Eric and I would be two of very very few gringo “journalists” at the Serie del Caribe. We were there for Sports on Earth, a site put together by USA Today and the media arm of Major League Baseball. A few days before we were due to fly, Emma mentioned that things had started to look a bit more promising. And the day before we left, she told us we should — should — have passes waiting for us at the ballpark. We got the name of a contact at the stadium to help us if needs be. Splendid.
Baseball is popular in Mexico. But only in certain parts of Mexico. Mexico City is one of the parts of the country where it is not particularly popular. We have a team in the summer league, but attendance isn’t great. And this city has three popular teams in the top flight of Mexican soccer. Very few of my friends knew that the Caribbean Series was happening in their country. At the departure gate, though, we saw baseball caps and jackets. People on our flight were going to Hermosillo, like us, to watch baseball.
A couple of hours in the sky, and we were walking through an airport where even more people were dressed in baseball garb. People stood around, waiting for luggage, waiting for rental cars, in hats and jerseys of Mexican, Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and American teams. We had flown from Ciudad de Fútbol to Ciudad de Béisbol.
Hermosillo may well be small compared to Mexico City, but it’s also big. Very few buildings have more than a ground floor. In fact, the only time we had to climb or descend more than a short flight of stairs was when we had to go up to the press box* at Estadio Sonora, the baseball stadium. And because of this, the city sprawls in the desert fairly significantly. It was a long taxi ride from the airport to where we were staying. A taxi ride that had the driver on his cell phone several times talking to a colleague, asking where exactly the place we were staying is.
* I’ve been in press boxes at baseball stadiums before. Once legitimately, and a few times on stadium tours. The Estadio Sonora had a press box where one would expect, up and above home plate, but because the Caribbean Series had way more press members than would be there for future games at the park (the stadium is brand new and will be the home of the local Liga Pacifico team, los Naranjeros de Hermosillo, the Hermosillo Orange Growers), it had been extended to include a long row of high tables and chairs around the top edge of that level of the stands.
The house we stayed at was lovely. Our host, Carmen, was really friendly and a great cook. And there was a terrace which was a great place to spend the mornings, drinking coffee and working on drawings while hummingbirds darted back and forth to the feeders hanging from the roof. After a chicken lunch (pretty much our only non-cow meal of our time there) we were back in a taxi heading back across to the other side of town to the ballpark.
As mentioned, this park is new. Up until the end of the Liga Pacifico season a few weeks ago, the city’s ballpark was Estadio Héctor Espino, named after a player nicknamed “The Babe Ruth of Mexico,” conveniently centrally located. Estadio Sonora is a long drive for the good people of Hermosillo. A long straight road, punctuated by temporary police checks. At the end of that long road is a statue of Héctor Espino. The only place to go from there is to take a left turn, on to the approach road to the stadium. Lots of parking lot areas, and in the distance, the brown roof of the park.
Outside the park, we began our search for the press credentials that were supposedly waiting for us. We asked at a gate, they sent us around the corner. We saw a couple of women who looked like they worked there, and asked them. They made a quick phone call, and told us to go to another gate. We chatted with someone on the other side of the gate. They didn’t have our specific passes, but, rather than being super strict or jobsworthy about things, gave us general reporteros passes; passes we used for our whole time there.
And what a lovely park it is. I’ve only been to a handful of baseball parks in Mexico, but I’ve looked at photos of a lot of the other ones, and the Estadio Sonora seems to be by far the best in the country. It’s like a nice minor league park. More or less 20,000 capacity. The roof is my favourite feature. It’s irregular, but not annoyingly wacky like Frank Gehry’s stuff. It has subtle peaks echoing the mountains that you can see from everywhere in the city.
We arrived in time for the second game of the day, Mexico vs. Venezuela. Cleverly, the Serie del Caribe schedule had Mexico playing in the evening every day. People who bought tickets got day tickets, allowing them access to the afternoon and evening games, but attendance for non-evening, non-Mexico games was tiny compared to the totally packed stadium in the evenings. And that evening, we were there for what was by far the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a baseball game. Strikeouts were cheered like it was a World Series game. The people clearly loved baseball, and clearly loved being there to watch Mexico play baseball.
When I say Mexico, though, it’s not really a national team, in the way that a Mexican team would be in a soccer tournament. The winning team of the Liga Pacifico was the Yaquis de Obregón (who play in another city in Sonora, Ciudad de Obregón). They were Mexico’s representative in the Serie del Caribe. Same goes for the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Venezuelan teams (Criollos de Caguas, Leones del Escogido, and Navegantes del Magallanes respectively). All but the Venezuelan team wore uniforms with their nation’s name on the jersey. Eric did some research and found that, for some reason, Venezuela didn’t stump up the cash for uniforms, so the Navegantes wore their own uniforms.
For most of our time there, we did the same thing with our days. We’d arrive before the first game, head straight up to the press area, and work on our drawing and writing. It was nice and cool and shaded up there, a good view of the field. Pretty much the perfect office: I could draw and watch live baseball at the same time. I very much enjoyed the experience of having a pass on a lanyard around my neck, and using it properly: working. It was good to have deadlines, to know that I had to do three drawings a day. And it was good to collaborate with Eric, too. Normally when I do work, the client tells me what to do with varying amounts of leeway. But this time, we were on our own. Our only brief was to capture the experience of the Caribbean Series. It’s a credit to Emma and Sports on Earth that they trusted us to do something that wouldn’t embarrass them. And I think we worked well together. It was nice being able to show Eric a drawing, and he’d find something to write about that fitted with it. And it was nice for Eric to say, I’m writing about such and such, you think you can find something to draw?
So after the first game, the press area would fill up with Mexican journalists, and the Wi-Fi would slow to a snail’s pace, and that was our cue to finish up our work, and get down into the park, and do the research-y part of our assignment: to experience the Caribbean Series. This is a fancy way of saying that we were gonna get a beer and hang out watching baseball. One thing we soon learned is that, despite having access to the whole park, the best place for us to experience the series, and in many ways, to experience Hermosillo, was to head straight to the bleachers, to the cheap seats. Seats in other parts of the park were numbered. And the games were sold out. We’d occasionally sit down for a while, and eventually have to move when the seats’ ticket holders turned up. In the bleachers, it was general admission. And we didn’t sit down once. The fun was to be had stood behind the back row of bleachers, where people milled around, and went to get more Tecate.
Every night, we would find ourselves suddenly chatting and laughing and drinking with strangers. People would hear us talking in English, give us a glance, catch our eyes, and off we would go. It was fantastic. The people in Hermosillo are amongst the friendliest I’ve ever experienced. We had beers bought for us. One guy in particular, grabbed my shoulder to prevent me going to buy beers, because he couldn’t have a visitor paying for his own beer. On our last night there, we met three lovely people, Jesús, his brother Luis, and his girlfriend Angela. After knowing them for about four innings of baseball, they took us for tacos, they let me get out of the car to throw up in the middle of a street, and they went out of their way to drive us home. That’s hospitality.
After having a couple of months where I’ve been generally feeling kinda shit about life, it was wonderful to have four days away from Mexico City, in this wonderland of béisbol, carne asada, and incredibly lovely people. I can’t remember a time in my life where I look at photos of myself and see a genuinely relaxed and happy person there. Hermosillo was amazing, and I can’t wait to go back for some Liga Pacifico games in the winter.
My friend Eric Nusbaum and I spent four days in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, where we watched a load of top notch baseball being played at the Serie del Caribe (Caribbean Series). Eric is a writer, I is a doodler, so we combined on five articles about our trip for Sports on Earth.
I will never tire of the feeling of waiting for a bus to go to a town I’ve never been to before. Leaving Placencia featured a lovely way of doing it, too. The place where I was staying was a few hundred metres from the end of the 20-odd km long peninsula, and the bus I’d be taking would go to the end, turn around, and pick up passengers along the way. It took nigh-on an hour to travel the length of the peninsula; so many people were scattered along its length, we were stopping and starting constantly. Most of the passengers were heading further north than I was, to Dangriga. I was getting off before then. When I bought the ticket form the conductor, I asked him to let me know where to get off so that I could get to Hopkins. He ignored my request, but thankfully, the guy sat behind me had heard me ask, and told me when to get up.
Hopkins is about six or seven kilometres off the highway. The bus stopped at the junction, I hopped off. There was an old guy stood around. I asked him if there were any buses soon. “In a few hours, yes.” So I started walking. I’d been warned about this, but figured it doesn’t hurt to ask. I plugged in my headphones, turned on “The Wall” and stomped along the side of the straight, sandy, road. I’d been told that the best way to get from the highway to the village was with a passing vehicle. It was hot. My shirt was drenched, and sweat was dripping off my face. Ten vehicles passed by before, about 40 minutes into my walk, and, as it turned out, about halfway along the road, a truck with an open flat back part (what are these vehicles called?) pulled up. A guy sat in the back gestured for me to get in. I took out my headphones, threw my backpack over the back door thing, and jumped in. The guy and I had a wee chat. He told me I’d come to the right place to relax. He was friendly. We stopped at a junction, pretty much the only junction in the village. The guy and I said goodbye, he wished me a good time in his town, and I chatted to the driver while another passenger got some stuff from the store. He asked where I wanted to go. A friend had recommended a place to stay. The driver, Johnny, told me it was nice there, and dropped me off right outside. Not to be, though. They were closed during the off-season to do some renovations, but the woman swinging in a hammock recommended another place a bit further along.
I traipsed along the road, ten minutes later saw the sign for Tipple Tree Beya, and walked up the stairs to ring the bell to see if there was a room. There was a room. About 40 dollars a night. Splendid. Two nights please. The room was one of three that faced out towards the sea. Small wooden rooms, with wood slats covering bug screens for windows. And a hammock on the deck out front. Perfect. After spending the last hour or so sweating buckets, I just dumped everything, put on my shorts and went out for a swim. Swimmy swim swim. Brain is there going, “hey relax, dude.” And it was nice. Two days here in Hopkins, then off to the western border, nip across to Guatemala to see Tikal. A couple of days there, then back up to Chetumal to fly back to Mexico City. The couple in the room next to mine were a lovely German couple. You really couldn’t ask to be sharing a hammock-y deck with nicer people. Spent some time in the hammock as the sky got darker, drank a couple of beers, and I was in bed by 11pm. It was still hot. I opened the window slats at the front and back of the room; no need to turn the fan on when there’s a lovely ocean breeze there to keep me cool.
With the windows open, a new room, thus new bed, I woke up around 5am. Just in time for the sunrise. The sky was all pink and dark purple. I walked down to the water’s edge. The husband of the woman who runs the place was raking the sand. He has the best job ever. Every morning, he does something nice and gentle and repetitive like raking sand while the sun rises over the ocean. Plus, he told me, it’s good for the back to spend some time each day walking backwards. Advice I have failed to heed, simply because I don’t have any beaches nearby, and walking backwards down the street would be mental. I had my iPod in my pocket, so I tried to draw a quick drawing of the sunrise. I did another a hour or so later. I did another 30 of them during my stay in Hopkins. It became a lovely ritual. To stop, have a look at the see, really look, and that flat block of water beneath that airy stuff changes colour so often. (Those drawings can be seen here.)
I had breakfast at a place called Innies. It looked a bit crappy from the outside. A concrete building painted pink and yellow with some kind of shower-strength leak coming from somewhere on the upper floor. Like a lot of restaurants in Belize, the glass doors and windows were tinted glass, so you can never really tell if they are busy or even open. It was open. Terrible instant coffee with what I think was condensed milk. I ordered an omelette, which came with beans and fry jacks, a local thing that’s basically like a puffy tortilla. The omelette had Cheez Whiz on top; a little daunting, but my gosh, it was delicious.
Lounge in the hammock, listen to music, read a bit, watch the grackles flying around, and squawking at each other. I like them. I like how strident they look when they walk, like, I’m. Going. Over. Here. They were brave, too. On the edge of the deck in front of the rooms were bowls of water for us to wash the sand off our feet. The grackles would hop up the steps and onto the edge of the bowl, drop big seeds in there to wash them, fish them out and fly off to have their snacks. Swimming, hammocking, swimming, hammocking. At one point in the sea, I realised that I only had a few vacation days remaining. Could I really be bothered to trek all the way, on three buses to get to the western side of the country to cross into Guatemala, change some money for a couple of days, come back, re-change money, just so I could spend the last day on buses all the way back to the northern border with Mexico? Nope. I chatted to the owner, two more nights please. Bingo. No more things to think about until I had to actually stop being on vacation. I borrow a bicycle and went for a ride to see what the rest of Hopkins was like.
I headed north, and after about 20 minutes of leisurely cycling, found myself at the top end of the village. On the beach, at a bar called Driftwood. I’d been told about this place by a guy who runs a bar/restaurant in Placencia, and it was as good as he’d said. They do pizza. Really good pizza, actually. It was pretty dark and empty inside. The guy who runs the place came out from the back room. I told him there was a few dogs, including a mean-looking pitbull/mastiff mix outside the door. He thanked me, cos she’d got out of his garden, and told me the dog was a sweetie. He gave me a menu, a beer, and I went and sat outside where the bar area has an open window and a, y’know, bar with stools. Not poop. High backless seats. We had a chat. He was, I guess, early 30s, originally from the northwest of England. The three dogs outside were all his and his partner’s. It was nice, in this country with so many stray dogs, to see people adopting some of them. One of them did a weird dipping-the-head motion every ten seconds or so. Apparently he’d had distemper, and the dipping was a tic he’d developed since then. He was a cute, friendly dog, though. A few afternoon beers and I was nicely buzzy. Cycled back to my room. Did a bit of swimming, hammocking, reading, and was truly knackered. At twenty past eight.
There was a big thunderstorm during the night. The whole room lit bright by the sheet lightning. Early to bed, so up before sunrise again. Same as the morning before. Watched from the water’s edge, had a wee chat with the raking man, did a couple of drawings, and then made a coffee in the drippy drip machine, after the Germans had given me half a packet of coffee that they didn’t need when they left in the morning. Back out on the balcony, and I had a chat with my new neighbour, a British woman from Newcastle. She could talk. I’d barely said hello before I was knee deep in her life story. Not that she wasn’t pleasant, you understnad. Although she did use the word “Chinaman” once.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but sat with my flip-flopped feet in the sand outside the pizza was a problem. I was bitten to fuck by sand flies. Mean little bastards. I estimated that I had about thirty bites, but when I counted, it was over seventy. Itchy. So very very itchy. I had a walk to go to a coffee place a bit later, they had Wi-Fi, and my willpower was weak. As it happened, when I got there, there’d been a power cut throughout the village, so no Wi-Fi, but I did get a coffee that had just brewed. I asked the teenage-ish girl who served me where I could get some cream for my sand fly bites. When she saw that both of my calves were covered in bites, her eyes widened and she said, “O! M! G!”
I walked back towards the room/hammock/sea. Stopped off at a place called Iris’ for some breakfast. Other guests from my place were there. We chatted. Dutch. Nice enough people. She was allergic to loads of things so ended up eating air for breakfast or something. Back to the same old swimming/hammock ritual for the remainder of the morning, until I fancied a change, so went for a wee ride up to a bar called King Cavassa Club near the centre of the village; that is, near where the road out of town is. A few beers in the sunshine, while the bored but pretty young woman who served me flicked through TV channels.
More swimming, and I think I got to the point, after two nights in Hopkins, where I was actually relaxed. In the water, not really swimming, my feet barely touching the sea bed, though, not thinking about anything other than the waves that I’d rise up to crash into a little bit. Kept on doing this. And after I’d been out there for 15 minutes or so, I saw a pelican dive bomb into the sea, and he/she righted him/herself and gulped down a fish. This was about 15, 20 metres away. I was bouncing as the waves pushed me up, the pelican just stayed still and let the waves pass underneath. The waves, though, were pushing him/her towards me. He/she didn’t seem to care. I stayed still, kept my arms under the water, and eventually, the pelican was about two metres away. It was amazing. we were that close to each other for maybe ten seconds. Then a few flaps of the wings, and he/she was off to get more snacks.
That night, the non-relaxing crept in. I woke up several times in the night thinking that I’d missed the sunrise. I hadn’t. It was still dark every time. Another lovely sunrise, though, slightly tainted by some guy a couple of house down using a circular saw before 6am. Another incredibly lazy day. Back at King Cavassa Club for lunch (stewed chicken, rice and beans). While I was there, a Hungarian family wanted to know when the next bus was. They asked in Spanish, and the waitress didn’t speak Spanish. She tried to tell them that the last bus of the day would leave at 2pm. It was 1.55pm. They somehow managed to have a vacation here without speaking English. They didn’t understand that they needed to get their arses into gear. The bus stopped across the street, so it’s not that far. But they’d just bought coffees. I got up in there, told them the story in Spanish, and they gulped down there coffees and got to the bus on time. I feel that that should be enough to get me into heaven if this God character really exists. I got up to pay for my lunch, and saw the guy I’d first met on the back of the truck when I came into Hopkins. He smiled, and said “Hello, Craig.” He remembered my name. I had not remembered his. We had a little chat and said goodbye. As I cycled back, I was heckled by a kid, “Hey, straight hair!” He and his friends giggled like crazy.
My last night in Hopkins, early to bed, awake at 4.40am. Plenty of time to make coffee and enjoy the sunrise one last time. Hopkins is a beautiful, sleepy place. Could happily have spent another week there. But it was time to leave. On the 7am bus. It was already packed. There are only a couple of buses a day, so, y’know. The conductor was young-ish guy, baggy jeans, a basketball vest over a t-shirt, Miami Heat cap, and, awesomely, a Hannah Montana backpack. It took about an hour to get to Dangriga, the next big town, where I had to get another bus. Stood outside the station, having a smoke, this guy comes up to me and asks if I wanted to buy some DVDs. He had about ten in his hands. I didn’t recognise any of them.
Then he offered me a CD, “It’s by P. Diddy!”
He asked for a cigarette. I gave him one. “Can I have two?”
“Can you give me a dollar so I can get a burrito?”
Tired of him, I just gave him a one dollar coin. A cab driver nearby rolled his eyes and asked why I gave him money. I shrugged.
The guy came back and said, “A burrito is two dollars.”
That’s not my problem, so, “Sorry.”
He then made sure I noticed that his blue shirt was a Snoop Dogg shirt. He pointed to the logo on the chest, then turned around so I could see a cartoon dog drawing on the back. He held out his fist. I bumped it with my fist. And then he left.
The bus from Dangriga that would take me to Belize City via the capital Belmopan was not a school bus. It was a Greyhound bus. With air conditioning, and seats big enough for adults. It was luuuuuuuuuuxury. Never in my life did I imagine a Greyhound bus would feel like luxury. A very pleasant journey. I enjoyed it on the way south, and I enjoyed it again on the way north. There was a sun halo for a while, too. But I needed to piss like a race horse by the time we arrived in Belize City. Off the bus, straight to the filthy bathroom. Utterly disgusting. I had my backpack on, so there wasn’t space to stand at the trough with two people already there. Had to use a stall. There was some sort of foul-smelling casserole in the toilet. I daren’t touch the handle to get rid of it. There were casserole stains on the wall, too, that seemed to have been put there with the intention of writing something. Graffiti told me that this was “THE SEX BATHROOM.” Other graffiti described things that could indeed happen in a sex bathroom, and in a country where most people are not white, there was graffiti that demanded that N-words should leave Belize. The floor of the bathroom was wet. I was wearing flip flops. I would spend the remainder of my journey wondering what the hell hideous things my feet now had crawling on them.
The next bus I needed would take me from Belize City all the way to Chetumal, across the border in Mexico. And as luck would have it, it was right there, filling up with lots of people. I nipped ’round to the back of the bus to avoid the queuers at the front. One spare seat, right at the back, next to the pile of luggage. I dropped my backpack on top, sat down, and spent the rest of the journey wedged between a whole load of luggage and a small old man with awesome, yet quite greasy, long hair. By the time got to Corozal, the closest town to the border, there were just a handful of people left on the bus. Me, an old Mennonite couple, a mother and her two toddlers, and a couple of German backpackers. We trundled towards the border. We all got off the bus to get out passports stamped exiting Belize. Back on the bus into the queue of traffic over the bridge that separated the two countries. As the bus sat there in the queue, we all got off and walked to go through Mexican immigration. The guy there barely looked at my face, didn’t say a word, scanned my passport, and I was back in Mexico. Eight-and-a-half hours on buses, and I need a place to stay. I had no idea at all where I would spend the night before my flight back to Mexico City the next day. But the bus passed a couple of places near the bus station. First one I went to, Costa Azul, was cheap, just 19 dollars a night. And I soon saw why. Basic. No towels. Less than half a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. Horrible lighting. Plastic coated remote control. The people who worked there – seemed to be an extended family, various members of which were behind the reception desk at various times – were all really happy. To each other. Whenever I needed to ask a question, they suddenly stopped smiling and answered in a monotone, bored, manner. After all the travelling, I had no real desire to spend my one night in Chetumal doing anything other than watching telly with the air conditioning on. I’m not proud of myself, but I got a pizza from the Domino’s down the street, and settled in, watching “Hitch” and “Rush Hour 3.”
And that, aside from the scanning machines not working at Chetumal airport, and having my backpack searched by hand like a man artificially inseminating a cow, was my vacation.
The bus from Punta Gorda was, like most buses in Belize, an old U.S. school bus. It was hot as hell in there while we waited to get going. But, the journey north was only a couple of hours. I was heading to a place called Independence. When the bus pulled into the “station” (what seemed like someone’s driveway), there was a guy, as is often the case, targeting the tourist and insisting I take his taxi. Sometimes, I’ll go with it, but this time, I was in the mood for a walk. I had to get to a place where the water taxi would go across the lagoon to Placencia. I said no to taxi man, and walked. In the wrong direction, as it happens. I was walking in the exact opposite direction. Stupid, really, to think I would know where I was going in a town I’d not been to before, but I have a compass on my watch, and assumed that because Placencia is directly east of Independence, I’d be walking towards the water. Wrong. The lagoon curls around, so I should’ve not been heading south and east, but north. It was hot. I bought a bottle of water, chatted with the lady in the shop, and she told me where I needed to go. By the time I got to the water taxi place, I’d missed the 12pm water taxi.
The place was called Hokey Pokey. I bought a ticket for the next one, at 2.30pm. Two-ish hours to kill. Couldn’t really be bothered to go back out to the town and explore, so I sat there in the covered waiting area, as it started pissing it down. Which made me glad I’d missed the noon taxi: I would’ve got absolutely drenched. There were a few other people in the waiting area. A couple of them looked to be expressly ignoring the sign that said “NO LOAFERS.” The woman who was running the place looked like Proposition Joe. There was a Jackie Chan film on the ridiculously loud television. Everyone there, myself included, was entranced. The film was about diamonds or something. At the end, a hovercraft drove over one of the bad guys and all his clothes came off. Prop Joe found this hilarious and shouted, “his batty red!” Aaah, how the time flew by. Eventually, one of the loafers got up and shouted “Come on!” which was our queue to board the boat. We bombed across the lagoon, my enjoyment of the lagoon tempered slightly by having to hold onto my cap to stop it flying off. (My hair was just a mess underneath, and I was already feeling a bit self conscious after a less than satisfactory encounter with a mirror in the morning.) Twenty minutes or so later, we pulled up where water met some wooden planks supported by wooden poles, and it was time to find somewhere to stay. I’d been told of a couple of places that were reasonably priced, and headed off looking for the one that sounded best.
After a bit of a walk, I found the Sea Spray hotel, about 35 U.S. dollars a night. The Mayan receptionist was pretty and smiled a lot. Made me a little melty. The room was simple: bed, shower, toilet, unplugged fridge, fan. But it was only about about 20 metres from the sea. It was situated on the Sidewalk. The Sidewalk is technically a street because it is, apparently, in the Guinness Book of World Records as the narrowest street in the world. It’s about four feet wide. No cars would be able to use it. And there are signs saying that cycling is against the rules, so, not very street-y. I dumped my shirt, put on a clean shirt, and headed off. Walking down the Sidewalk, I heard “Hey white boy!” from behind me. I ignored it. “Hey brother from another mother!” It was an old-ish guy with dreadlocks. We exchanged general pleasantries, then he asked if I liked Bob Marley? I told him no, sheepishly. He wished me a good afternoon, turned around and left. (Later in my trip it dawned on me, after being offered a handful more times, that he was probably going to ask if I wanted to buy marijuana.)
Time for a beer. Went to the first place that would sell me beer, an open-sided bar called Barefoot Bar. They had Wi-Fi. So, moth to flame, iPod whipped out, and I started checking things. A few emails, some Twittering, some Facebookery, and checking on baseball scores. It was kind of like when you give up smoking, and then you have a cigarette, and it’s just rubbish. Tastes crappy and you’re full of self loathing. Really, what had I missed? Nothing.
I have said it before, and I will undoubtedly say it again, but white people are funny when they are travelling. Not all white people, tends to mostly be younger folk. In my experience, Belizean people are friendly, and will say hello on the street. You get into the habit of doing it, too. Walking along the Sidewalk, I passed a white guy, mid-twenties. I said hello, he glanced at me like I’d called his mother a whore and looked away. Dude: you are not an explorer. This is a tourist town. Seeing other white tourists may be spoiling your delusional thoughts of having discovered a pure gem in the wilds of Central America, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a cunt.
After a good, solid, twelve hours sleep, I was up and at ‘em. There’s a coffee shop in Placencia now, called Above Grounds. It’s on stilts, so y’know, ho ho, funny name. Sigh. Decent coffee, though. Went there every morning during my four-day stay in Placencia, and spent my time using the Wi-Fi, and drawing. The next couple of days were pretty much all based around swimming in the sea, drinking, eating, lying down, repeat. The swimming schedule was retarded by not putting on sun block early on in my stay, and having to stay out of the sea when it was really sunny, and having to coat myself in aloe vera at all other times, but now, a few weeks later, I’ve still got a nice bit of a tan, so, swings and roundabouts. One of the benefits, though, was it meant that when it was really cloudy, I’d go swimming. One time, it rained while I was in the sea. That really is one of life’s greatest things, I think. Getting your head down as low as possible in the water and watching the water bounce Tic-Tac-shaped drops back off the surface.
I only spent two days at Sea Spray, they were fully booked for the next two nights I’d planned to stay, so found another place. A bit closer to the shops, bars, etc., a bit farther from the sea. But it had air conditioning. And I used the hell out of that. Not ordinarily a fan of air conditioning. I’ve never lived in a super hot part of the world, so my view of AC is probably different to someone who lives in, for example, Phoenix, Arizona, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to live my days like that. Cold home, cold car, cold office, only ever experiencing the real temperature in short bursts. But, I did spend the whole of my Saturday night with the AC on, lying on the bed in my pants, watching movies on the telly.
My brain was beginning to think it’d be nice to be back in a big city again. But, brain: you’re a dick. I wish I could properly relax and get rid of those thoughts. I did a decent job of suppressing them, but they still found their way through the gaps now and again. And as the holiday went on, the thoughts got fewer and farther between. And that really started properly, as I left Placencia. I waited on the road outside the hotel, jumped on the bus heading north, and an hour or so later, I was off the Placencia peninsula, heading up the highway, toward Hopkins. Which we will discuss in the next underwhelming blog entry.
Punta Gorda is a town. I’ve just sat here looking at those five words for a good ten minutes. It was going to be a longer sentence, but in the end, I just added a full stop. It is indeed a town. A fairly sleepy town. I had the express intention of doing nothing on my holiday. I wanted to do nothing but sleep, eat, drink, walk around a bit, do some drawing. And Punta Gorda was the perfect place to begin that. I purposely didn’t ask for the Wi-Fi password at the place where I was staying or elsewhere in Punta Gorda. I didn’t want to know. And that lack of access was delightful. Back here in Mexico City, because I have taken to using my iPod touch as the clock in my bedroom, the first thing I do pretty much every day, is press the button, check the time, and before I put my glasses on, before I do bathroom stuff, or have coffee, is check email, Twitter, Facebook, blah blah blah. It’s rubbish. Easily solved obviously: put my watch by the bed instead of the iPod, but when things are there, they’re more difficult to ignore. Being away from the Internet for five whole days was fantastic.
And waking up in the jungle was fantastic, too. Waking up in the jungle heat, the smell, and waking up to the wonderful coffee they serve at Hickatee Cottages; just spending the start of my day sitting on the verandah in a shirt, shorts, and flip flops, watching hummingbirds humming. Next up on my great lazy adventure: a walk along one of the jungle trails around the back of the cottages. Jungle is ace. Yes, there are tons of insects and you get sweaty and a bit uncomfortable, but I love that when I walk around, there is so much there, so much to look at, and to be aware of, that my brain stops whirring with other stuff. It’s not overly dramatic to say that there is a chance, when in the jungle, that you could die. Of course this is true about the street outside my house, your house, everywhere; but in the jungle, there are creatures that could injure or kill you. Knowing that however unlikely it is, there’s a chance that there could be a jaguar out there, is quite thrilling. I saw lizards, plenty of birds and insects, I could hear the sounds of howler monkeys. The trail, though, was kinda swampy after the rain in the night, so it wasn’t as long a walk as I’d hoped for. So it was back to the room for a shower, and then hopped on a bicycle to ride into town to find somewhere to watch the European Championships final.
I ended up at the northern end of town, at a bar called Waluco’s. This was the only time during my stay that I knew anything was going on outside of my immediate environment. I sat at the bar, had a few Belikin beers, chatted with the guys sat next to me. They were Dan and Antony. They were old school friends who still meet up for a drink now and then. One of them worked in construction, currently building a hotel further north in Placencia, the other was recovering from a stroke. He was only about my age. His right arm was pretty limp, but he was getting some movement back in his hand. He spoke about the work he did before his stroke as if he really missed it. He drove (piloted? captained?) cruise ships. We watched Spain beat Italy, I paid as little attention as my mental brain would allow to the scrolling baseball scores at the bottom of the screen. We bought each other drinks. In fact, a guy who dropped by to pick up some takeaway food was in a good mood and bought the three of us beers on his way out. An afternoon of drinking, a bit of a fuzzy head, a cycle back to the cottages, some drawing, dinner, and the realisation that when I was having breakfast in shorts and flip flops, I’d been bitten by a doctor fly.
The doctor fly, called a yellow fly elsewhere, is a vicious little fucker. Over the course of my two-week holiday, I was bitten eight times by doctor flies. Each time, the same reaction: the area around the bite starts to feel a bit tender a few hours later, then itchy, then starts puffing up like a balloon. I’d been bitten twice that first day in Punta Gorda. The bite on the top of my left foot was blowing up so big that the next morning, I couldn’t fit my shoe on. One of the other guests gave me a couple of Benadryl. I took one, and after having been asleep for nearly nine hours, felt sleepy again and spent another five hours in bed. I went out for a bike ride in the afternoon. No destination, just a ride around. Some guy asked me if we’d met early near the Catholic church. Nope. After ten minutes or so more riding, I saw him again. He introduced himself as Ivan, telling me he was sure we’d met. We hadn’t. I rode off, and later found out that Ivan is wont to do that with tourists. If I’d've stuck around chatting, he’d have tried to scam some money out of me. On the dirt road back to the cottages, there were loads of dead, crushed crabs. Apparently, they live inland and take the trip to the sea quite often. I saw a couple of them scuttling across the road on their back feet. Not walking like crabs normally walk. I’ve never seen crabs go two-legged.
Next day: nothing. Just did some drawing, some reading, a little walk, some insect bites, heat rash, a blister on my foot after not putting socks on before my walk. Same thing the next day, my last day in Punta Gorda. Spent a good chunk of the afternoon drawing on the iPad, listening to music, getting bitten by insects. It feels weird to be experiencing this after being a professional illustrator for over ten years, but those few days in Punta Gorda really made me love drawing more than I have ever done before. Specifically drawing from life, not from photos. It’s something I don’t do very often. And something I should do a lot more. The insects were getting pretty hardcore about halfway through the drawing I was doing, so I took some photographs and decided to finish up in my room, but it just wasn’t the same. The colours were, of course, different, and the jungle-y garden looked different. (The drawing I was doing, btw, is the third one from the top here.) So I covered up as much as possible, covered the rest of me in aciete de citronela, and went back out there. Half an hour later I was done. And so were the doctor flies. A couple of bites, one on the hand, another on the thin area of skin between my jeans and the hem of my t-shirt that must’ve been exposed for a few seconds.
I would be leaving the next day, so packed up my backpack (I like being organised and ready to go), and about to take a shower, stood looking through the window at a couple of awesome woodpeckers pecking wood on a tree behind my room. They had red heads. They were lovely. Kate, Ian, and I went out to have a few beers and some food at a place in town called Asha’s. It was a wooden place on stilts over the water. It was nice to spend some time with them away from the place they run, and work at seven days away. There’s a joy in having friends in places around the world. It’s great to know you can go and visit them, catch up, and that. But it’s always sad knowing you won’t see them as often as you’d like.
Next morning, I said goodbye to Kate, and Ian gave me a lift into town to get the bus to my next destination.
Belize is a country I have come to know relatively well, in as much as one can know a place by being a tourist there. I just returned from my fourth trip to the country, and have now spent a total of six weeks in the country. There are times there when I wonder why the hell I keep going back. But there are also times when I imagine that I’d enjoy spending a longer chunk of time there to let the place really sink in. (The lack of decent Internet speeds, and the measly 30-day tourist visa are probably the main reasons for not really bothering to investigate what it would take to spend three or four months there.)
The last time I visited, I looked for flights direct from Mexico City to Belize City, and there were none, so ended up taking a ridiculous route via El Salvador and Costa Rica. This time, I did what I should’ve thought about doing before: flying to Chetumal, about 4 hours south of Cancún, and about 10 km from the border with Belize.
In the last few months, I’ve taken brief trips to Puebla and Oaxaca, and both times, enjoyed that feeling of having my backpack on, going to the bus station and waiting then heading off. I enjoy bus stations. They’re totally better than airports. That first day of my trip, though, had the potential to be a relatively stressful one. I didn’t have much wiggle room when it came to flight or border crossing delays if I was to get to the Corozal (the closest “big” town across the border) to get a bus to Belize City that would allow me to get the last bus of the day to my ultimate destination, Punta Gorda, right in the south of Belize.
The trip started off in the worst possible way: my upstairs neighbours (I don’t know their names, but lets call them Cunt and Twat) were having one of their idiotically loud parties. Despite previous complaints, and an assurance from them that they’d give me prior notice to any more of their parties, they keep on failing to bother. I’ve been in this apartment for three-ish months. They’ve had seven all-night parties in that time. And I’m not talking about a regular loud-ish party; I’m talking full-on massive sound system and lights, and going on until well into the next day. It was already 1.30am when I got home from having a few drinks with friends, so no point in even contemplating the possibility that they would turn the music down. I turned right around, and went back to my friend’s house, had another couple of beers and got three-ish hours sleep on the sofa.
For some reason, I decided to not take a taxi to the airport. Took the subway. A bit of a delay on the first two connections. A bigger delay on the next one. Arrived with about ten minutes until the flight closed. Got through the queue to check in with the gracious help of people in front of me in the queue. (The airline I was using doesn’t have individual desks for specific flights.) Exhale. The flight spent a wee bit too long waiting to get onto the runway, but in the end, it was a smooth one, arriving in Chetumal on time.
The airport in Chetumal is small. And, the good thing about those airports is the way you walk off the plane down some stairs and you can feel like the Beatles or a president for a few moments. Plus, arriving in a town on the Caribbean coast, you get the brilliant blast of heat. My backpack was one of the first on the carousel, out the door, “taxi!,” and straight to the Mexican side of the border. Got the exit stamp on my passport, then did what I’d been looking forward to ever since I booked the flight: walked across an international border.
There’s about a kilometre or so between the place where you enter/exit Mexico and the place where you enter/exit Belize. The Mexico border dudes are closest to the border. Just a hundred metres or so walking along the edge of the road until you are on a bridge crossing a river, the actual border between the countries. On the Belize side, there’s a few food places, a shitty-looking mall and a casino. I guess you’re technically in Belize there, but as I’d exited Mexico, and not yet had my passport stamped to be allowed to enter Belize, where am I at that point? I mean, if Belize were to refuse you entry, and then Mexico did the same when you tried to return, what would happen to you? Where would you be?
Something else that exists before you reach the immigration thingy, is taxi drivers looking for business. Friendly guy honed in on me, telling me he’d take me to Corozol for 20 US dollars. (In Belize, US currency is valid. One US dollar is equal to two Belizean dollars.) I bullshitted, told him a “friend” had told me it was 20 Belize dollars. He said he’d split the difference and take me for 30 Belize. After we’d agreed on that, I found out he wasn’t the driver. He was just the pimp. A Latino guy was the driver, and his pal, an old fella with greying dreadlocks sat in the front, me in the back. They drove me to the immigration point. This was a few drive through areas, like toll booths, and an office off to the side. I got out of the cab, went into the office. I was the only visitor in there. The immigration guy asked why I was there. Holiday. Noted that I’d been before. I love it here. Asked about the London Olympics. Don’t really care that much about it. Then we had a wee chat about the Belizean team. He didn’t know how many athletes would be going. (I just checked: they have just three competitors attending: Kenneth Medwood in the men’s 400m hurdles, Kaina Martinez in the women’s 100m, and Eddermys Sanchez in the men’s 66kg judo.) Kinda got the feeling he would happily have had me standing there chatting for ten minutes. A quick buzz through customs, and I’m back in the cab, chatting with the two chaps. Both of them awesome. We talked about the Queen’s jubilee. Belizeans seem to love her, and I found out why. Back in the day, Guatemala wanted Belize. They thought it belong to them. British Honduras as it was then known, had its borders protected by British troops. Thus, the Queen-lovin’.
The worrying about the tight wiggle room with getting to where I wanted to go turned out not to be anything to worry about. I was well over an hour early, had a Coke at the bus station, and got on the 11am bus from Corozal to Belize City. Buses in Belize are old American school buses. Like the ones you see in films. They don’t have a huge amount of leg room, or luggage room (it’s all just stashed in a wobbly pile at the back where one of the seating benches is missing), and they’re not overly comfortable. And they have music playing really loud. (During the journey we heard a lot of reggae. And in the middle of all this proper reggae: “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base.) The bus set off, but we’d not got more than half a kilometre before we were stopping to pick up another passenger. This was repeated quite a lot. If you want to get the bus, you don’t need to go to a station or a bus stop, you just stand at the side of the road and get on.
The bus stopped in Orange Walk, the only major town on the route to Belize City. It filled up to the point where there were ten or so standing passengers. A guy sat next to me. An Indian guy who’d been living in Belize for a couple of years. I could tell, as I sat in the window seat, that he kept looking at me. Like he wanted to talk. And when I glanced over at the other side of the bus, he started chatting. I took my headphones off, had a brief get-to-know-you chat, who where why what. He asked about night clubs in England. Pause. Then he asked if there were any “naked clubs” in England. I told him, that, yes, there are places to see naked girls dancing in England. He told me there were none in Belize. I asked him if there were naked clubs in India. He looked shocked that it was even necessary to ask such a question. No, there were not any naked clubs in India. Then he rambled a bit about the conservative nature regarding such things in India, and out of nowhere, told me the law was very harsh in India regarding rape. Err, what the fuck!? There was a moment where I wondered if I was sat next to a rapist. The conversation was very stop-start. We’d discuss a topic, be silent for a minute or so, then he’d come back with another question.
“Have you ever had sex with a black girl?”
I have not.
“Don’t do it in Belize…. baaaaad.”
Pause for a minute.
“Have you ever had sex with a Mexican girl?”
I have, yes.
“Did you pay for it?”
Three hours after leaving Corozal, the bus pulled into the station at Belize City. It’s not the nicest place in the world, the bathroom was disgusting, and I got the feeling that straying too far from the outside of the station would have me walking around neighbourhoods that I shouldn’t be walking around. I’d missed breakfast, only had a mini packet of crisps and a coffee on the plane, so ate a burrito at the bus station. It was about 90% tortilla which was welded to the greaseproof paper it came wrapped in. An hour or so later, the bus heading for Punta Gorda pulled in. There was the polar opposite of an orderly queue to get on the bus. A couple of younger fellas jogged to the back of the bus to open the back door and bypass the queue. I followed them and got a seat. The bus pulled out of the station, rammed full of people. As we got onto the street, someone outside the bus was shouting at the driver to stop. A girl of maybe 11 or 12 was running to jump on the bus. One of the passengers shouted the girls name. It was her mother. She’d gotten on the bus without one of her children.
Soon after we left Belize City, about eight hours since I left my apartment, I started to get that feeling. That lovely travelly feeling. My mind was emptying of all the normal stuff. Just staring out of the window at the landscape, the houses, the small villages. We headed inland first to the capital, Belmopan, and then back through a more jungle-y landscape towards the coastal town of Dangriga. It was lovely looking to see jungle again. There’s very little in life that makes me feel something inside like seeing jungle. There was obviously no air conditioning on the bus, and with the windows open, the smell of another country, another landscape blew in. A smell of heat, humidity, trees and plants, smoke from fires in villages. The bus was half empty after we left Dangriga. Now heading more or less directly south, this final part of the journey was long and dark. After being on a full busy bus all the way from the very top of the country, with ten or so remaining passengers heading to Punta Gorda (the most southern town of any size), it was really beginning to feel like heading to the last tube station on the line. Which it was. Around 9.30, the landscape became familiar. The barely-lit highway turned into yellow sodium-lit street heading into Punta Gorda, a town I’ve been to three times before. It was a feeling like that when, as a child, you fall asleep in the back of the car, and wake up when you are nearly home, and you know that you will be in bed shortly. I got off the bus in the centre of Punta Gorda, got in a cab, and head a couple of kilometres out of town to Hickatee Cottages, where I’ve stayed every time I’ve been in the town. It was fantastic to be back, to see Kate and Ian, my friends who run the place, again. Sixteen hours of travelling, and I was sat on the verandah, having a beer, chatting away. And then, it was time to sleep. Sleep in a lovely small cottage with the jungle all around and a thunderstorm that shook the building, and rain hitting the leaves of the jungle. When I can’t sleep normally, I’ll go to YouTube and find one of those rain sounds videos, dim the computer screen, and fall asleep. I did not need YouTube, I had the real thing.
It’s been a couple of week since I got back from Belize. As part of my efforts to not spend much non-drawing time using my electronic devices, I made notes about the trip with a pencil in a notebook. Thus, it’s not just a matter of copying and pasting blog posts about the trip. But, that’s kinda nice. It means I read my notes, and relive things a little, extending the vacation feeling just a little bit. More about the trip over the next week or so.
More finger painting here.
Drawing done whilst flying over the Campeche coast on Saturday.
More finger painting here.
On the last day of my holiday, I decided to cross the border back into Mexico so I didn’t have to rush around super early in the morning, trying to get back across the border in time for my flight from Chetumal back to Mexico City. I stayed in a very cheap place (£12/€15/US$19 a night). The room was accordingly shite.
More finger painting here.
A gloriously sleepy town. Yesterday, I put up a bunch of drawings of the sea and sky at Hopkins (link). Here’s some others. You’ll notice the door in the last drawing is kinda wonky. The door itself wasn’t wonky, it’s just my shitty drawing.
More finger painting here.
Placencia is a small town at the end of a penisula of the same name. It’s a fairly relaxing place. I enjoyed drawing there.
More finger painting here.
Hickatee Cottages in Punta Gorda, Belize is one of my favourite places. It’s a great place to spend some time. I spent a fair amount of my time there drawing. Here’s what I did get done.
(There isn’t really a red creature with horns at Hickatee Cottages.)
More finger painting here.
I did 32 drawings of the sea and sky, done at various times over four days, when I was in Hopkins, Belize last week. Mostly drawn whilst lying in a hammock. You can see them all here: http://flipflopflyin.com/hopkinsseascapes/index.html
I spent the last fortnight in Belize. It was my fourth trip to the country. Didn’t take so many photos this time, but I did a lot of drawings. I’ll do a couple more blog posts about my trip, including those drawings, but for now, here’s some photographs.
Crossing the border between Mexico (right) and Belize (left) on foot:
The jungle trail after a night of heavy-ish rain at the wonderful Hickatee Cottages in Punta Gorda:
A downpour at Hickatee. It was wonderful:
Belize seems to be full of signs trying to get people not to litter. Most of the signs rhyme:
A chicken looking at mangrove:
The road to Hopkins. There aren’t many buses from the main Southern Highway, so I’d been advised to hitch a ride down the four-mile road. Ten vehicles passed me by before, 45 minutes into my hot and very sweaty hike down the road, a very pleasant young man called Johnny gave me a ride:
The view from Tipple Tree Beya, the guest house where I stayed in Hopkins:
A backpacker hostel in Hopkins. Only 50 cents a night:
Clouds being cloudy:
Rush hour, downtown Hopkins.
Virtually all of the buses that transport people around Belize are old Blue Bird school buses. This is the one I took from Belize City back over the border to Chetumal, Quintana Roo.
More finger painting here.
I’ve not travelled around the country as much as I’d hoped in the time that I’ve been in Mexico. Still not been to the coast, not been in up north at all, but I spent a few days this week visiting Oaxaca. It’s a pretty place. And hot. Kinda too hot to do much, frankly. I was there from Tuesday afternoon until Saturday lunchtime, and it was tough to have the energy in the baking-hot weather to do more than one thing a day. Normally when visiting places, I’m pretty get-up-and-go about stuff. Not in Oaxaca. It seemed to get hot around 10.30-11am, and it’d stay that way until sun down. Sight-seeing was exhausting and sweaty.
I’ve been having itchy feet recently, and when I was at the big bus station here in D.F. a few weeks ago, I really got the urge to go on a long bus journey. When I was doing my travelling around in 2008, bus journeys were something I really enjoyed. I love the feeling of having a less-abstract concept of the distance you have travelled. I could’ve paid a little bit extra and taken a one-hour flight, but that’s no fun. Six hours of Mexican landscape was what I wanted. Sadly, though, the window seat I booked was covered with a patterned part of the bus company logo.
Right, seriously, bus companies: listen up! Nobody gives a shit about your logo if it’s covering the window. The word window pretty much means something that you can look out of. If you cover that up, you are completely and utterly disrespecting your customers. So for six hours, I had to look out of a thin sliver at the front of my seat area which wasn’t covered in a dotted red pattern. For about an hour of the journey, the bus winds through some mountains. I’m not overly good with heights, and seeing just a thin sliver of very-low metal barrier in front of a huge drop did nothing for my enjoyment of the journey. I put my head down and watched an episode of Game of Thrones on my iPad and waited for flat land to re-appear.
I was visiting my friend Sam. He lives in the north of the city, up a hill with small houses painted in bleached bright colours, and narrow cobbled streets. Getting to and from the downtown area involved waiting on a corner, any corner, and hopping on a bus. As in Mexico City, the buses in Oaxaca would likely fail most road-worthiness tests in other countries. They are loud, too. Not just the vehicles, that on the cobbled uphill streets occasionally sounded like parts would fall off; but the music, too. The buses seemed to be privately owned, not part of a company that runs things. So each bus driver does what the heck he wants when following his chosen routes. That often means playing music or having loud conversations over the radio. And one time, I saw a driver using his cell phone. Nice. Plus the buses often have a salesman. Some guy who’ll sit in the front passenger side seat and shout the destination of the bus to people on the street, drumming up trade. And because these are private buses, they want as many passengers as possible. This is often frustrating if you are already on the bus. In busier parts of the city, the bus will kerb-crawl while the guy shouts out of the window, hoping for one more passenger.
What I saw of the downtown area is fairly compact. It’s pretty, too. Sam recommended a coffee shop, Café Brujula, and I began every day there. Delicious organic cappuccino, which I took to go, and would sit in the shadow of a big church, back and arse against the nice cool stone, hiding from the sun. Sight-seeing was slightly retarded by the presence of a big protest by teachers in the city centre. The whole of the Zócalo and its surrounding streets were full of people, tents, signs, and tarps strung over the roads to shade the protesters. They wanted stuff. Not sure what. They’ve been there for a week or so already, apparently. It all seemed quite sedate there, just people sat around not doing much. Mostly not teaching children. It did make it very tough, though to see what one would normally see as a visitor. It was slightly frustrating, but, y’know, the teachers and their students’ educations are more important than me missing out on seeing a nice store or museum or something.
The timing of my visit was to coincide with the Diablos Rojos, my local (and favoured) baseball team, playing a series of three games down there. I won’t go into detail, just that you can see some photos of the lovely ballpark over at Flip Flop Fly Ball.
Anyway, onto the important stuff: the stuff that went into my mouth. Food and mezcal. Oaxaca’s food was delicious. It didn’t really help the lethargy I was experiencing because of the heat, either. Big lunches every day. Mole amarillo, mole negro, mole colorado. All fantastic. calendas (spinach-y leaves stuffed with queso Oaxaca), swordfish sopes, and tacos de chapulines. That’s grasshoppers. A small plate of hundreds and hundreds of fried grasshoppers. Grab a tortilla, and a couple of spoons-worth of grasshoppers, some guacamole, some salsa. Roll that shit up and mmmm, mmmm, mmmm! Delicious.
Likewise, the Mezcal. I’m a fan anyway, but on Friday night, we went to a wonderful place called Mezcaloteca. An appointment was necessary, and duly made. When we arrived we had to ring the doorbell to be let in. Inside it was beautiful. A dark wood L-shaped counter with green bankers lights dotted along the bar, and old drug store-style shelving filled with bottles of clear or brown liquid with white labels. We were there for a mezcal tasting. For 100 pesos (£4.54/€5.62/US$6.98) we each got three shots of different mezcales. The guy stood with us the whole time, explaining which variation of the maguey plant were used for which mezcales. Our first two shots, we both had one a piece, but for our third shot, he poured two different mezcales out that we were both to try. One of them was 20 years old. The other was, I think, 15 years old. One of them, there were only 75 litres produced, the other, only 50 litres. They were both amazing. And there’s a moment when you are taking a sip of something that there is so little of in the world, a moment when I felt very honoured to be drinking it. After our three shot tasting, we wanted another drink, so he allowed us to split another three shots for extra tasting. Should you ever be in Oaxaca, I thoroughly recommend going there. It was the best thing I did while I was there.
For the homeward journey, I had a better view. I sat on the other side of the bus so I could see the mountains that I missed on the outward journey. And, it didn’t look that scary once I could see it all. It’s a beautiful place, Mexico.
(Some of the photos used above were taken with the iPod. The iPod camera is kinda shitty, thus the ropey quality. Annoyingly, though, I’m often too lazy to get my camera out of my bag when my iPod is right there in my trouser pocket.)
Here’s a bunch of drawings that I did whilst on a bus to and from Oaxaca this week. I kinda like doing drawings of things viewed from a moving vehicle; stops me getting too bogged down with details. There’s one drawing done of a store in Oaxaca, too. I did that one while drinking a delicious paper cup of coffee, sat in the shadow of a church, hiding from the baking-hot sun. Anyway, here you go.
More finger painting here.
There’s something very appealing about old futuristic houses that are in a less-than-perfect, slightly crumbly, state of repair. This is in Puebla, Mexico.
The below was written as notes into my iPod on Saturday. I’ve not really done much to it other than tidy things up a touch.
62 quid. A return ticket from London to Lincoln. Seems excessive, that.
The company that operates the train that goes that was gives you 15 minutes of Wi-Fi use for free. It’s free all the time if you are a first class human being. I, though, am a second class citizen, so only 15 minutes. Well, there would’ve been 15 minutes had the sign-up process for the free Wi-Fi not had been like applying for a bank loan. Honestly, all you need to do is ask me if agree to your terms and conditions, which, I will say yes to without reading, and then I tap the CONNECT button. Easy. Why do they need my address?
The girl sat next to me, in the window seat was read “The Outsider” by Albert Camus. The man sat next to her in the aisle seat was playing cards on his iPod touch. She won the battle of intellects.
There seems to be a lot smaller areas for luggage than I remember trains having.
Some guy walked by: very difficult to tell if he’s got body odour or has just eaten or been near to a warm Cornish pasty.
Change trains at Peterborough. My first taste of non-London UK. Chatty girls working at the train station coffee shop. A stag do of men on the other platform. All in fancy dress: a couple of soldiers, one guy as Hulk Hogan, another as Mr. T, and one in a shiny blue leotard with a Union Jack wrapped around his shoulders.
A teenage kid with his mates dropped litter, and one of his mates chastised him for doing so: “there’s a bin just there!”
A guy getting on the Peterborough to Lincoln train with a New York Yankees fitted hat with the word “Trevor” stitched on the side in a gothic font. When we got on the train I asked him about it. All he said was, “got it done in the States.”
Did a couple of quick drawings on my iPad, looking out of the window. Interesting to do something like that, with the light changing so fast. (There’s no Wi-Fi at me mum’s house, so I can’t put them online at the moment.)
I turned off the podcast I’d been listening to. I didn’t want my first experiences of being back in my home county tainted by thoughts of the specifics of the current baseball news. Listened to some Baxter Dury instead. Music that could enhance the Englishness. (After Baxter, I put on MGMT’s second album. That’s an album I adore. Way better than the first album. One of my favourite records of the last couple of years. But it’s also an album I totally associate with Mexico. I have listened to it a lot in Mexico City. And it does feel a little out of place for the mental diorama I have laid out for that record. That diorama had sunshine and a t-shirt, not clouds and cold toes. And I do have cold toes: the ankle level air vents on the train seem to not be pumping warm air, despite the date being 17th December.)
An old lady that looked very much like a snowman got off at Sleaford.
Sat at that station for twenty minutes. Dusky light turned dark, whitey-blue signs turned sodium orange as we waited for another slightly faster train to overtake us.
It wouldn’t really be dark were it not for the cloud cover. As we left Sleaford, as the town’s outskirts gave way to fields, the true scale of the Lincolnshire skies showed itself. Just a huge 180 degrees of grey. And just above the western horizon, a long thin slash of peach-coloured setting sun. The hugeness of the Lincolnshire skies is my favourite thing about the county.
And what to do when I arrive? I’d told my mother I’d be arriving home a couple of days later. I hate surprises. Hate is way too strong a word for that. And I get the feeling that saying you hate surprises is the new “I hate clowns.” But, I am surprising my mother. Terrible. But, as the train trundles along a track as bumpy as former DDR autobahns, I’m wondering if I should go and have a pint first. Just sit in a pub and let the Lincoln accents soak in for a while. I imagine I’ll delete these words from the blog post if I don’t go for a pint. And that makes it all the sillier that I am writing in a way that is acknowledging the presence of a reader.
The train pulls into Metheringham station. This is a village I’ve not thought about for a very long time. Frankly, I can’t picture it in my head either. But then, I do have problems with remembering names of places. Plenty of the towns in Lincolnshire, or towns I visited on childhood holidays are mapped out quite well in my brain, but the signs and names don’t exist. I lived in Lincoln for 22 years of my life, yet I still can’t tell you the name of the street where Ritzy nightclub is.
The darkened reflection of my face in the window. And the train seats, too. They soon begin to become punctuated with rectangles of yellow kitchen and living room light from houses that back up to the track; the occasional street light, and eventually the street lights on raised ridge to the north of Lincoln.
Then the lights of Monks Road and the industrial estate between that street and the train, and above it all the cathedral, illuminated, always there like a very fancy, yellow cherry.
Off the train, to the Jolly Brewer. A pub that I spent many nights in during my late teens and early twenties. Accents! Accents! A shock to hear my real accent being spoken back at me by the woman behind the bar. A couple of faces that I recognise in the pub. Not people I know, just faces. Older. Craggier. I ask for a pint of Kronenberg. “Pardon?” Even in my hometown people don’t understand me. I’d often thought, in Berlin or in Mexico, it was my pronunciation of things, but really, I guess it’s because I often mumble quite quietly. “Insomnia” by Faithless was playing in the pub. I have gone back in time.
I drank the pint quickly and left. Wandering slowly to the bus station, I look at faces, but the wrong faces. I look at the faces of young people to see if I recognise them. But there’s no point looking at those people. They were toddlers when I lived here. I should be looking at the middle-aged people.
It’s cold, yet there are a significant amount of young men and women in inappropriate clothing. Thin sweaters. Girls in mini skirts. Legs marbled red and white, the way cold British skin does.
I head to the place at the bus station where the bus going near to my mum’s house leaves from. Except it doesn’t any more. There’s been a change around. I walk around looking for the right place. I listen to “Smile” by the Beach Boys, a record that I fell in love with (well, bootleg tapes I fell in love with) when I lived here nearly 20 years ago. It reminds me of wanting to leave Lincoln, which felt funny, standing waiting to get the bus to my mum’s house.
The guy in front of me in the queue has a tattoo on his neck. It says BLAND. No words. I’d already seen a FATHER neck tattoo, and a bit-too-big green and black neck tattoo of a hand grenade.
“A single to Larne Road, please.”
“One pound ninety.”
Which is a 4.09km journey. If you take that price and apply it to a flight from Heathrow to Mexico City, it would mean the 8,919km flight would cost £4,168.84. So now you know.
I don’t go to many football (soccer) games these days. Only been to two this year so far: in July, I saw an MLS game between Toronto FC and FC Dallas, and on Wednesday, I saw the FA Youth Cup third round tie between Arsenal and Derby County. Youth, in the context of the Football Association means under eighteen years of age. Arsenal’s youth team play their games at Underhill Stadium in Barnet at the northern edge of Greater London. Handily, the stadium is about a cigarette’s length from my mate John’s house. Which is very handy for him, being an Arsenal fan. It was just £3 to get in. There aren’t many spectators at that level of football. Only one stand was open, and a significant amount of the seats were taken up by squad members of both sides. John pointed out that former youth players, current first team squad members, Emmanuel Frimpong and Ignasi Miquel, were in attendance. For me, as a Liverpool fan, I was more interested in the fact that former Liverpool player, current Derby County manager, and son of Brian, Nigel Clough, was there. After the last few years primarily watching baseball, it doesn’t really feel natural any more to be watching football. The 45 minute halves go by really quickly. A crappy hot dog and crappy hot chocolate at half time. But it was enjoyable, despite the cold weather. It was 0-0 at full time, so our cold toes were subjected to 30 minutes of extra time. Derby scored midway through the first period of extra time. And players were hobbling around; it seemed like half of them had cramp. If finished 1-0 to Derby, another quick cigarette, and we were home, toes slowly warming.
Last weekend, I met up with my friends Ian and Andy in a pub in Bethnal Green, in the east end of London. An aborted attempt to meet up earlier turned out well: he had a spare ticket for Saint Etienne’s Christmas party thingy, at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Should you not be British or not know what a working men’s club is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_men’s_club. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club was a lot nicer than the one pictured on Wikipedia. We put our coats in the cloakroom (I wonder what percentage of items placed in a cloakroom are actually cloaks these days? Gotta be less than 0.001%, I’d say). There was a brass plaque on the wall in memory of some man whose name I forget, and whose exact role at the Working Men’s Club I also forget. But it was nice to see. Up some stairs, and into a decent-sized room. Probably a couple of hundred people in there. Ian got us all in with his magical piece of paper with some stuff written on it. Our names were checked off a list, and we were all handed a compact disc (St. Etienne’s “Xmas ’11 EP,” which, as I’m sure you will have already guessed is a limited edition thingy, only given to people in attendance at the event), a poster (that I gave to Ian to do with as he please; it would never survive un-fucked up in my backpack), and a raffle ticket (mine was number 202). The event was not a live show, but Saint Etienne were DJ-ing, playing their 100 favourite songs. Which I was kind of glad about. I like some of Saint Etienne’s music – “Avenue” is a wonderful song, and Good Humor was a decent album – but on the whole, I don’t really think they are a good as their own idea of what the band should be is. And Sarah Cracknell’s voice annoys me after more than a handful of songs. They do have good taste in music, though. When we arrived they were already well into their list. 10CC’s “Rubber Bullets.” A belter of a song. New Order’s “Ceremony” was next. It would be a good night if that quality continued. And it did. Bowie, Gainsbourg, Gentry, Wonder, Whitney Houston (“It’s Not Right, But It’s OK” is fantastic, but sadly, I was downstairs in the room with a pool table and a ping pong table having a fag at the time). One lovely thing about the night was the age of the people there. My guess would be the average age was definitely mid-thirties. Plenty of folks my age, too. It felt nice to be amongst people in the same age group. There was a pleasantness to the evening which was partly due to that, and partly due to the people who would be Saint Etienne fans. Whilst smoking, strangers would invariably end up chatting. At the bar, there was none of the usual scramble to be served first. Plenty of “you first.” And back to the chatting I mentioned the other day: it was just lovely to have a good natter with people. Spent a while talking to a couple of Ian’s friends who’d had pretty interesting lives, had a wee chat with a girl at the bar. She had lovely cheekbones. All interspersed with plenty of abrupt pauses when a new song came on: Oooh, “Porpoise Song”! T-Rex “Get it On,” Barry White “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More,” My Bloody Valentine “Soon,” Frankie Knuckles “Your Love.” After a handful of Newcastle Brown Ales (a beer I’ve not drank for many, many years), it was time to start glancing at my watch. Being the 24 hour city that it is, I knew I’d have to be leaving around 11pm to get the last Tube train home. Number 13 on Saint Etienne’s top 100 was “Sons of the Stage” by World of Twist. An absolutely wonderful song. But it would have to be my last. Time to say goodbye to a lovely night out, say goodbye to my lovely friends, say goodbye to lovely new people I didn’t know a few hours before. I found out from Saint Etienne’s Twitter feed that “Rock On” by David Essex was their number one. If you scroll down to the tweets they sent on 11th of December, you’ll see the whole list.
I had a few hours to kill on Thursday afternoon. I had a wander around central London, kinda pretending to be a proper tourist. I had a Marks and Spencer Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, bacon, and cranberry jam-type stuff). It was lovely. Better than the Pret a Manger Christmas sandwich I had a couple of days ago. I will be trying to eat as many different sandwich shops’ Christmas offerings as possible. I sat down to eat that on one of the stone benches in Trafalgar Square, staring at the rather-underwhelming Christmas tree, the illuminated-by-different-coloured-lights fountains, and a big ugly thing that’s counting down to the London Olympics. Apparently, the London Olympics is two hundred and twentzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, oh I don’t care how many days it is until it starts… I went into Sister Ray, a record shop on Berwick Street that was previously the location of Selectadisc. Still kinda looks the same inside. And still smells like a proper record shop, it smells of protective plastic sleeves and cardboard record sleeves. It’s a nice smell, an evocative smell. But, sadly, I have lost the skills needed to browse in a record shop. It’s been too long since I last did it. I flick though the D section, looking for the recent Baxter Dury album. It’s not there. I half-heartedly look at other sections, but I just don’t have that desire in me any more. Which isn’t a nice thing to realise. For most of my life, I’ve adored record shops, I’ve adored buying things that I knew nothing about, just because the record was on a good label and the sleeve was nice. CDs started the rot, but iTunes has completely ruined it for me. Damn you, Apple.
I went to get a coffee, not because I wanted one, really: mostly because I wanted to use some free Wi-Fi, to check email on my iPod. Just wandering around, doing nothing. Checking my watch. To the New Era shop to see if they had a baseball cap that I would like. They didn’t, and I had enough restraint to not just buy another for the hell of it. Back to Trafalgar Square to have a mooch around at the National Gallery. I’ve only ever been inside there once to properly look around. I think the great thing about that place, though, apart from the fact that the collection is owned by British public, is it’s a good place to go if you’ve got half an hour to spare. I’ve been in there plenty of times to do just that. It’s just a nice place to be. The wooden floors are nice, the different-sized rooms, the layout which means you can kinda lose yourself, but not enough to be lost. And it’s a fabulous collection. And if you go again and again, you can bypass the famous pieces with small crowds around them and check out paintings you’ve not really noticed before.
I walked through Charing Cross station. There’s things about daily life in London that I’d forgotten I used to do. Waiting in the concourse of a train station, looking up at the big boards to see which platform my train would be at is one of those things. But yesterday, I wasn’t doing that. I just walked past the hundreds of people doing what I did pretty much every week day for four years. I walked down the passage that runs along side the train tracks, over the footbridge across the Thames. It’s a beautiful view at night. The South Bank Centre loos great, the skyline to the east is pretty, lights reflecting off the river, and big red buses going across Waterloo Bridge. I sat by the river for a while, resting my feet, listening to podcasts about baseball. Had a wander down past the London Eye, had a good long look at the House of Parliament, up along Whitehall, and over to Covent Garden, to a Canadian-themed pub called the Maple Leaf. Felt a bit funny to be in a bar with Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Blue Jays jerseys on the wall having so recently been in Canada, and never seeing a pub like that. I met my mates Mark and John, and we got a wee bit drunk, chatting the night away. We saw Mike Leigh and Tim Roth coming out of a building, moments after Mark had wondered what it would be like to live in that building (it was squeezed between two pubs). Drinking and chatting and laughing. On the Tube home, a couple of girls sharing one pair of headphones sat down opposite us. They seemed to be having a fun night. One was Spanish, the other Hungarian. The Spanish girl was harassing the guy sat next to her. She kept talking to him, put her legs on his knee. All the time, he took it in his stride, never once taking his white earbuds out. He was a good sport. John and I said goodbye to Mark. We kept on chatting all the way home, where I plonked myself on the sofa, watched a bit of Bullseye on one of those channels that shows old stuff, just trying to drift off to sleep because my head was spinning a bit.