Friday, 31 May 2013

Death Race 2013 & Déja Vu

I WATCHED sunny Little Corn recede into the distance as our boat headed for her bigger sister. My sadness at leaving was tempered by the fact that Stefano was along for the ride, as he had to renew his visa. On arrival in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua you receive a 90 day visa. But this is not renewed as you cross any of their mutual borders. This is due to the CA-4 trade agreement which apparently makes things easier for the four countries to do business. I began reading about it so as to be able to explain it better, but almost fell asleep after the first paragraph. Suffice to say, all you need to know is that it's a royal pain in the arse if you're in El Salvador and your visa is running out: you need to either traverse Guatemala to get to Belize or Mexico, or pass through Nicaragua to get to Costa Rica...leave and come back in. The bane of the Central American traveller's life; well, that and gangs of Israeli backpackers.

A larger boat awaited us at Big Corn for the 60km sail to the southernmost tip of Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Us being amongst the first aboard, we had our pick of spots in which to sling a hammock. The vessel soon filled up with travellers and locals making their way to the mainland. Towards midnight, our filthy boat chugged and smoked its way from port and headed out into open ocean. I watched the lights of the island diminish as I swung in my hammock with the rhythm of the waves. Folk bedded down wherever they could: on packing crates, families amongst heaps of blankets on the deck. Space was at a premium. Some old bloke had crept beneath Stef's hammock, making it uncomfortable for the Italian as he kept bumping into him as the boat gently lurched from side to side. I had to laugh at his obvious annoyance, as he's always accusing me of being the grumpy fucker. I was soon regretting not changing into my jeans as the wind picked up: it got cold. But bearable...I've been colder on long-distance buses in Thailand, to be fair. I nodded off into sleep.

I was amongst the first to wake, dim light and a lack of water movement rousing me: we must be on the river now, I thought. The sky was purple, and the silhouetted trees on the banks drifted past like Rorschach ink blots on tranquil lilac waters. I was transfixed, watching the small bow waves from the boat spreading out in perfect parallel lines, rousing the birds and small animals living amongst the waterside undergrowth. Beautiful. Akin to scenes from Coppola's Apocalypse Now, of Martin Sheen's gunboat as it stole upriver towards Colonel Kurtz and his heart of darkness. Far and away my favourite boat ride. As the light grew, several others shared this stunning dawn. A Nicaraguan man at the stern peered out at the river from the railing; turning, he caught my eye and nodded. I gave him a big grin back and raised a hand. I soon dropped the hand and grin, quickly looking the other way, as I realised that he had his cock out and was taking a piss over the side. I'd thought we were silently sharing a special moment: I don't want to know what he thought? Most passengers were now beginning to stir. Local women with kids brushed their teeth, rinsing with cups of water and spitting into the boat's wake.

We reached the river town of Rama soon afterwards, a hive of activity. Stevedores began unloading cargo; touts shouted taxi fares and times; passengers scrambled to the first to the buses. A thin line of soldiers advanced on us as we walked uphill from the dock, they searched bags and boxes. My mouth went dry, as I had a little grass stashed. But these boys are after cocaine traffickers, nothing more. A cursory check, and we passed through.

I'd savoured the boat ride, and the time to reflect, despite the awful tales of toilets ankle-deep in vomit I'd heard from other travellers. Little Corn had been good to me; I'd got the experience I'd needed to find work as an instructor elsewhere. It had been a great place to unwind after ten months working and saving in London. I'd still been able to see Match Of The Day every week, courtesy of Adam. Top man. But the regular instructors had begun turning up at the shop, and work had begun to dry up for me at the bottom of the food chain. Island paradises and beaches are all well and good, but I need to be occupied...there is only so long I can spend smoking weed and reading books on a tropical beach. Time was up.

The bus to Managua was, by contrast, pure hell. It took forty minutes for this jalopy of an old American school bus to creep out of town. I am not exaggerrating when I say it stopped every fifty yards to take on more passengers, cargo and vendors selling the same crap as the last lot thirty seconds since. All manner of tat, unhealthy food and other nonsense. An hour into the journey and an evangelist boarded and began preaching against the gringo and the U.S. government. The white man was a devil, apparently. "So the Pope is a devil, too?" Stefano tossed over his shoulder at the man. I winced. Some woman nearby was loudly praising Jesus and going into raptures. The pair of them blessed some kids nearby. A woman stood in the aisle next to my Italian friend was dripping some white gunk from a carrier bag all over his feet. The driver of the bus was blasting a variety of awful soft rock hits from the tinny radio: you know it's bad when Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse Of The Heart is actually a highlight of the selection. Three or four hours later (I can't remember exactly, as I was busy trying to hang myself from the headrest with my own belt by this time) we rolled into that charmless shithole of a capital city: Managua. No-one likes hanging around here if they can help it. Two friends of mine were robbed a few weeks later at an intersection outside of town by three men wielding machetes, one pointing a pistol at their heads. An unpleasant place devoid of interest and character. "Bus to Granada?" the Italian asked me. Yep.

So we escaped to Granada. Then to the border the next day: passports stamped and another 90 days on the visa. Stefano had had a torrid time here last trip, when he went to the border with Maxy, a mutual friend. The border guards had tried it on, insisting that they had to pay a bribe if they didn't want to stay in Costa Rica the "obligatory" 24 hours before re-entering Nicaragua. Not speaking Spanish, Maxy had been confused by all this. They'd ended up crossing back into Nicaragua, and telling a guard that they'd already paid his friend, who was 100 yards away, the tip and giving the distant man a wave which he confusedly returned. They were across no man's land before the Costa Ricans realised they'd been had.

We returned to Managua after a night in San Juan Del Sur. I said hasta luego to my friend at the bus terminal. I never feel too sad saying goodbye to the Italian, as we both know that we'll find one another on the road again before long. I headed for Leon, close to the border with El Salvador. This was all old ground I'd covered in 2011. Nothing was new, and I had trouble rousing any sort of enthusiasm to see any places nearby that I'd missed first time around. And the Nicaraguans aren't the most welcoming people; I've met friendlier Honduran gangsters. So I was booked on a shuttle to Guatamala pretty soon afterwards.

One place I had been looking forward to returning to was Antigua de Guatemala. My favourite town on my last adventure, I was keen to spend a little more time here and return to my Spanish school. Though I had an ulterior motive. Whilst working in London in September last year, I'd been too occupied with some pretty tedious designs for a very corporate client to notice the pretty girl three desks in front of me, she having her back to me all day. It was only when I heard someone speaking (a kind of) Spanish with the Irish girl to my right that my ears pricked up and I looked around in curiosity. And there she was: a tall, slender, raven-haired, green-eyed vision. I made sure I bumped into her in the kitchen when she went to make tea (I'm a creep, I know). Her name was Jennifer. She gave me those rare butterflies in the stomach for the first time in twenty years. A fellow hispanophile, she'd lived in Colombia for six months; a travel writer, she was looking to return to the Americas a little after my departure date. Just the kind of woman I'd been looking for. But, having recently come out of a brief relationship with a broken heart, she wasn't in the market for another one. Timing, as ever, can be cruel. But we agreed that it would be nice to cross paths in Guatemala.

The drive to Guatemala, through El Salvador, was truly frightening. We switched vehicles at the Salvadorean border, and an elderly man was to drive ten of us to Antigua in a minivan. Night had fallen, and the man's driving soon began to concern us. He was continually drifting across the line into oncoming traffic, and several of us shouted warnings to him as he swerved back again to the blare of horns. We approached a bridge at high speed, and I asked him in Spanish if he could please slow down, as he was scaring people. Me included, I can tell you. We narrowly avoided a concrete pillar at the edge of the bridge, and the dark chasm below it flashed by in the headlights. The man was sweating profusely. He pulled over at a tiny row of shops soon afterwards, and bought some pills and water. I explained that I would be happy to drive if he was feeling unwell? He was having none of it. We continued at the same pace. Several cyclists and other drivers almost met their end as he swerved all over the road. One of the girls in the back started crying. It seemed that the more we panicked and asked him to slow down, the faster he went...he obviously wanted rid of us. I had to laugh at the Australian lad who'd bagged the front seat next to the driver. He'd been quite smug about it in the beginning but now, feet braced against the dashboard and hand on the windscreen, he didn't look so pleased with himself. Indeed, had there been a crocodile-infested pool alongside the van right at that moment, I wouldn't have bet against him jumping to comparative safety.

I almost did an impression of the Pope on arrival: I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss Antigua's cobbletones. But I made do with telling the driver exactly what I thought of him and his dangerous driving. To think that my Mum worries when I'm diving, visiting border towns or heading out into the desert? If you're going to die on your travels, it's more likely than not to happen on the road. Amphetamine-fuelled drivers on 18-hour routes; dilapidated buses; bald tyres; landslides. You name it, I've seen it out here and in Asia. They drive at such insane speeds, and without seatbelts, that you are positive Physics is not on the curriculum in their schools.

And so I happily settled into old routines in this familiar town. Coffee at my favourite spots in the morning. Sunny terraces for healthy breakfasts and smoothies; Spanish tution in the gardens of the Antiguena Spanish School; the odd mezcal of an evening in the candlelit Café No Sé, reading a book; burritos at Porqué No? I'm quite sure that my 21-year-old self would have been horrified at reading of his sedate future? I stayed in a dorm at a hostel initially, but the genial atmosphere and nice bunch of people were spoiled somewhat by a fly in the ointment named Kaly, a middle-aged Indian woman from Coventry. Far and away the strangest, darkest and nastiest person I've met on my travels. She came across as a harmless oddball to everyone at first, but soon changed when drunk. Like Jeckyll and Hyde. Conversation amongst a group could be changed for the worst by her deliberately obscure ramblings. And talk about begging? Scrounging cigarettes from people, poncing drinks and watching you make breakfast before asking "Can I have a little bit of that?" became a bit tedious after a while. She had a drunken rant at another girl at the hostel one morning, and accused her of keeping her up all night, invading her head with "dark energy and negative vibes". Truly bizarre. A travelling sociopath, no less. I had a word with her, and said that she couldn't behave in this manner. I told the staff at the hostel that they were in danger of losing everyone there, as people had had quite enough and spoke of leaving. The Guatemalan women seemed scared of her and would only go as far as telling her that she couldn't stay beyond the weekend, as her room was reserved for someone else. Kaly came to apologise to us as a group, with a contrite speech for each of us. But enough was enough for me...I was leaving if she wasn't. Life's too short.

So I returned to El Jardin De Lolita, a small hotel where I'd roomed previously. I got my old room, and it felt like I was home as I sat and watched the sunsets from the roof. When Jennifer rolled into town a few weeks later, life had assumed a tranquil rhythm. She took classes too; I hired a motorbike and we toured the smaller surrounding towns. I took her to see the Mexican singer Lila Downs perform in the gardens of a derelict convent for her birthday. We hung out in my favourite spots and discovered new ones. Pleasant time together, but it was blatantly obvious that she needed time on her own this trip. Así es.

A friend of Jen's turned up, a girl named Liz. We all met up in a coffee shop facing the Parque Central. As well chatted, it was obvious that Liz was thinking the same as myself: that we'd met before. Mutual friends in London, work perhaps? No. But I thought I had it. "Have you ever done online dating?" She laughed. It turned out that we'd met for a date in the Prince George, one of my favourite local pubs back at home. "Must have made an impression on each other, then?" she laughed. Liz was a funny one. She didn't mix with other travellers and rarely went out alone. Constantly complaining of her tight budget, Jen ended up paying for her concert ticket and more than one meal we had together. It annoyed me. She couldn't pay for her dinner one night, and her friend stumped up again. Jen was understandably irked the following day when Liz told her that she'd had an amazing massage for only £20...Jen's daily budget. That's not a true friend, in my book.

The coincidences continued. I left my room one morning to see a familiar face outside the room next door: the singing American woman from Sayulita that I'd met when last in Mexico. It had been fifteen months since that drive to Guadalajara, several hundred miles away. She was as surprised as me. And I didn't know it then, but four months later in Mazunte I would recognise the gait of a bald Canadian fella I spent a week smoking with up in Puerto Vallarta, several states north. He was walking downhill with a Mexican friend. "Carl?" I asked, flabbergasted. "The English guy, right? Vallarta? Fuck!" It's a small world, indeed.


And so what of the green-eyed one? Well...my heart is in Mexico, and I could hear her calling me north. Jen was heading south: she had unfinished business with Colombia, her place. She stressed again that she wanted time to be alone, and little things I picked up when we were together indicated that I wasn't really for her. So Mum can keep that hat in the box...no need to make that cosy family of moths homeless just yet? But it was a good couple of weeks together, and Antigua will be all the more special to me because of that. Jennifer would have been that rare thing in the life of a footloose wanderer like me: a plan-changer. This is both the beauty and sorrow of travel: you will meet people now and again that you want to get closer to, but they are more likely than not travelling in the opposite direction. Physically or emotionally, or both. What can you do but follow your own path and wait for the stars to align? I just hope it's not another twenty years before those rare butterflies get another chance to spread their wings.

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