A drop in the ocean

Day 29 - Utila

Diving in the morning conceded to pure recreation in the afternoon and evenings (for us at least, the truly hardcore dove morning, noon and night). Time we filled with large amounts of nothing, only the metronomic swing of the hammock marked its steady progress. Après-scuba indeed. Faces became familiar, familiarity became friendship. Nicola and Tania monitored our diving progress with enthusiasm, each success toasted with the clink of glass. We became part of a little community where, even if everyone did not know your name, they certainly knew your aim and common ground was reclaimed from treacherous waves. Life outside the island was fond but faded remembrance, what did we lack but the means to exist here in perpetuity? How long could a person spend in this permissive utopia where not a policeman walked the streets and resplendent stars lulled you to sleep under a haze of slumbering cloud. All writing ceased and it is only now nearly a month since arriving that I relay these experiences to paper. I feel it a disservice to those times to omit anything at all from the account and a disservice to the reader to disregard eloquent concision. Hopefully I strike a middle ground between brevity and indulgent boredom.
But we were not divers yet, we had a foot in the door, a toe in the water, certification was pending however. The sea's ancient threat stood between us and our unexpected ambition. Okay so perhaps the only way you can fail the course is to drown but the six of us weren't home and dry at this point. The rigs were assembled, equipment checked and rechecked, the boat bounced by the dock like a dog eager for a walk. Our little launch's only possible water entry method was the classic backward roll. I pitched headfirst into unsighted unknown and after a somersault in the water found the surface. We spun into our rigs with increased ease and prepared to meet a bottom more than feet from our fins. Descent brought discomfort, each metre down a fresh pain to the ears. They squeaked and squabbled with the unyielding pressure outside, while I swallowed and pinched and wiggled and writhed. Eventually I dropped to 6 and 12 and the full 18 metres (54 feet for you pre-decimaliens) permitted by my basic training. The surface was near and yet unnervingly far, the sun's beams struggling through the liquid.
Languorous kicks propelled us through the water, silver saucers of carbon dioxide floated upwards trailing bubbles in their wake. We swam along sheer walls teeming with life, a tangled bank of Darwin's wildest imaginings. Eagle rays flapped close over cow and drumfish. Little tetra of a blazing orange and sultry purple mixed with parrotfish of pastel while barracuda leered from dingy caves. Breathing returned to unconscious pace, a slight inhale lifting while an exhale dropped. Deeper! my adventure urged, but that is not for now. All was in control in this most improbable of places, fear's business lay elsewhere. The twists and turns of travel had thrown up no greater surprise than this. Eighteen metres of water atop our heads meant we were certainly not in our element but those to whom it did belong shared it with tranquility. We shared beer and elation on our return, all had passed, all were scuba divers. Collective spirits were soaring, our certification all the sweeter for having achieved it together. The drink slipped down like iced nectar, the sea was our oyster, our fish and our crab. Talking of a dive afterwards, the things you all saw, the things that some missed! was almost as good as the dive itself. Truly we are social animals, our pleasures shared are pleasures magnified. The girls teased us with predictions of Dive Mastery before the year's end. A little fantastical perhaps, but only a little. I filled my logbook with every detail I could gather - air pressure, water temperatures and conditions, depths and times, sites and sights. The satisfying thud of the Dive Master's stamp an approval of our exponential progress and indisputable status. The best left turn I ever made.

Surface tension

Day 26 - Utila

Tanks were parked along the dock, we were about to invade a land that was not ours. A crash course in theory left disjointed terms floating around our head - regulators, pressure groups, equalisation, first stage, second stage, beans, rice, fish. The aquatic life below, I imagine, surveyed these nervous, rubberised humans with weary familiarity. We were being thrown in at the shallow end but fears were nonetheless for it. Certainly strapping on 14 pounds of iron before swimming would seem counterintuitive at the least. Fins on feet I staggered to the edge like a drunken clown. Below, the sea, above, the sky, the thin sliver in between where we live our lives. Perhaps I dramatise but, with the intonation 'continuous breathing so your lungs don't explode' ringing in my soon-to-be squeezed ears, mistakes would be costly. At least there is a slight affinity with the water in my person, my amigo had no such love. From anti-aqua to nascent snorkeler and now wannabe scuba diver in only a matter of weeks is certainly not taking (water) baby steps. His would be the most challenging of journeys, goading those most compelling of fears - the ones we cannot entirely rationalise.
As the cool liquid enveloped, a kick brought me to the surface and, tapping my head to signal 'ok' I congratulated myself on mastering the first skill of falling into the water. Jim bobbed to my left, Tony to my right and ahead Team Japan, a pair of affable orientals whose names I, shamefully, never got. This was our first confined water, the deep blue sea lay beyond the dock end but for now we were limited to what and where we could stand. The first task en agua was strapping into our buoyancy control device and air cylinder, easy on land, like wrestling a beach ball off it. Sinking to the bottom, we knelt muted each person no doubt wanting to scream and shout, enthuse and decry this wholly new experience. Only our eyes and the simplest of gestures could communicate our wonder and wariness. Barely time to acclimatise to our underwater existence did pass before Arjen, our instructor, had us removing masks and spitting out breathing apparatus, necessary exposure of sense-shocking rudeness. We rose and fell in the water like apples at Halloween, our buoyancy control in its primordacy. Weightlessness in water was replaced by leaden struggle as we hauled ourselves out. It had been a first step into the clear, blue unknown and while feelings were mixed there was unanimous agreement that the beer never tasted better. Indeed, as we discovered, drinking and diving are inextricably linked, at least we were plenty experienced in one of the two.
The sociability of the diving world is widely noted and nobody looked upon these newbies with anything but encouragement and perhaps fond remembrance of their own certification tens or even hundreds of dives ago. Hierarchy existed, Dive Masters afforded a far greater status than open water novices but all was informal and egos did not widely abound. Persuading someone of the joy of it all, wanting them to see as you have, feel as you do may not be altruism but it's an honest service to the welfare of others. Would that we could all gasp in wonder at a world inverted.

¡Feliz navidad!

Day 23 - Utila

Rain lashed our island paradise, the waves tossed the boat nauseatingly from left to right. Passengers doubled over the side and we questioned our judgement. It wasn't like this in the brochure so lasciviously flicked through in my head. A sodden golf cart whisked us through the weather to a striking white wooden structure jutting out into the Caribbean sea. The verbose landlady (perhaps a better term should be invented for an island hotelier) delivered a filibuster of a welcome talk while previous recipients looked on with amusement. A piece of advice she did give was to acquire supplies lest Santa enforce a shutdown the following day. In need of personal hygiene but finding deodorant priced the same as a bottle of wine it was clear that that night would be spent stinking drunk (I already have my coat on). Walking back along the main street we dodged children on quad bikes and spied building after building flying the red and white flag of scuba. On Utila a driver's license would appear optional, a diver's license compulsory. All about people lounged in hammocks trading anecdotes of underwater fauna. On an island of natural curving lines I felt like such a square. This pair of part time snorkelers had little cache in a 'dive culture' that was more than surface deep.
And so it came to pass on the night before Christmas these people who lived far below the waves did entice, bribe and cajole us into their antithetical existence. Embolded by Nicaraguan rum even Michael showed little resistance to their stories of sea horses and tales of turtles. Promised life-changing experiences we promised a life-changing decision. The fact that this all took place in the strangest and most surreal place I have ever been in only added to the acquiescent euphoria. The bar gave little clue of the Carollean wonderland that lay beyond when we first ascended the stairs. After ordering a drink we were advised by the barmaid to explore out the back, adding 'don't mind the spiders, they're harmless'. I don't know precisely why I thought she was talking about some kind of joke plastic models but this view only lasted until I walked face first into a thick, glutinous web. As my eyes acclimatised to the dark surround and Michael fired up his torch, hundreds of multi legged shapes were picked out in the night. Thousands of beady little eyes stared unblinkingly back, motionless save for the lightest of breeze. The cardinal points had them to both sides and above our heads, surrounded but for a waspish trail of planks. We edged along this bridge into hell, crouched and cowed as though the Styx itself did flow beneath. The webs coalesced into one giant silken structure metres across, what chance a bug in this forest of death? Highly evolved and rational as we are a cool terror was maintained while we walked through our nightmares. The reward was a fairy tale land of rainbow spanning colour and visceral texture. Angular and smooth, swooping and straight, the senses engorged by its psychedelic beauty. We had stepped into the wardrobe, the looking glass was through. The human imagination is glorious indeed. The rest of the night passed in a sweet fog of dancing and dive talk as our new acquaintances whirled us here and there in a hedonistic rush. Morning found us be-hammocked already, watching the sun rise over the glossy sheen of our watery destiny. There would be ample opportunity for doubts later but for now it was bedtime.
The time had come for us to leave the island that you never leave, to push east through Honduras to countries distant and foreign. We packed our bags for the umpteenth time and set our stride to the main street in the direction of the dock. Not ten metres had been walked before we reached the crossroads. To the left lay Alton's dive centre, straight ahead the ferry. Do we walk on to the uncertain certainty of the road or take a turn to the left and a giant stride off a short pier?


Day 23 - San Pedro Sula

Christmas was two days away and, being enamoured by the idea of spending it on the beach with lobster for dinner, we turned in the direction of the Bay Islands off the coast of northern Honduras. Figuring it was worth the extra money to guarantee our dream we dropped $50 on a 'King Quality' bus, not a chicken in sight. It should, all being well, leave us within spitting distance of the islands by nightfall. The lesson that in Central American bus travel all is never well had obviously not been learned. $50 would appear to be no guarantor of punctuality nor indeed, ironically, of quality. We were late leaving due to a faulty aircon, the fact that the bus' gear changes sounded like an elephant being hit in the face with a cricket bat indicated that the problems ran deeper. Death was pronounced at 14:02, a couple of minutes past our scheduled arrival time and still a full five hours from destination. Even the loosest of itineraries with the most generous float time can be wracked and ruined by these tardy logistics.
A man in a bar once asked me 'why go?', 'why travel?'. It seemed both self-evident and yet unanswerable. I respected him for asking and gave him a reply that went something along the lines of '...finding my place in the world...', plausible yet somehow unsatisfying. Maybe I don't have the words yet to express what I already know. Maybe like in that book I already have the answer and its simply the question I am searching for. Travel can provide a great bounty of life enhancing experiences but can it fundamentally change us? Will I find a better me on the other side of the world? I suppose in a basic sense this trip is freeing me from the shackles of 'normal' life. Rousseau said 'everywhere man is in chains' but he may not have been referring to this precise situation. My father would see this as a wilful denial of reality, a vain and perhaps immature attempt to break rules as immutable as those of physics. He may well be right but he has also given me this license, both directly and indirectly, to try. The chains of the mundane are far easier to break than those of the mind however, should I succeed in the latter it would be the magnum opus of a thus far undistinguished life. If I don't, well I guess I'll have to learn to live with myself!
Meanwhile, our unscheduled pitstop had caused us to have to transfer to a battered old bus that happened to be passing, a further step down in quality. Gulliver sprawled over the back seats while I calculated our ever decreasing odds of making the coast in this suffering rust bucket. As I stared out of the darkening window while we struggled up a hill a beautiful blue butterfly fluttered past. Shading, smoking, rudimentary next to such elegant simplicity was a striking juxtaposition. We eventually arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' industrial capital (with all the aesthetics that implies). Our connection to the coast was long gone and the next necessitated a 4am start.  The bus terminal was also devoid of any nearby hotels which meant a 4km trip into town and additional pre-dawn complexities. Travel, you gotta love it!

Bordering on madness

Day 21 - San Salvador

For the sake of completeness El Salvador required a visit. It is, I am told, Central America's most densely populated country, its largest economy and yet is largely ignored by tourists. Hidden charms or a worthy swerve? We would find out. My enjoyment might be tempered by an unpleasant bout of traveler's flu though. The cough was ceaselessly unproductive while my nose streamed. My eyes stung to be open, stung to be closed. I bore it all stoically though and resisted the notion of gender-specific ailment. Our bus from Antigua was going along just fine until a large, solid bang consistent with an impact struck us. I suspect if we had actually run down an unfortunate Guatemalan pedestrian the delay would have been less than the burst tyre that actually transpired. We sweated in the dry heat as a herd of cows lumbered past in the opposite lane and the driver got to work on the wheelnuts with a blowtorch. Judging by the looks and mutterings of the locals this was not a common touristico stop-off. Soon the most cherished of sounds to a traveler, that of a bus engine spluttering life greeted our burning ears and we were back Salvador-bound.
The small matter of a border crossing now lay before us and it provided perhaps the most indelible memory of this particular hop, certainly the craziest crossing of my travels. Disembarking on the Guatemalan side we were swarmed by people helpfully pointing out an office round a nearby corner where we 'needed' to get our exit stamp. My passport was half out of my hand before I realised the lunacy of following these men of ill-intent Having negotiated that chaos we climbed back aboard the bus only to be followed by, in order, a legless guy (drunk), a blind man, several money changers, innumerable food and drink vendors and a legless guy (no legs). They filled the aisle in a jostling conga of chorizo, cambio and charity requests. San Salvador was our first capital city on this trip and exemplified many in this party of the world by being big, noisy, dirty and not a little bit dangerous. Frankly its nothing to write home about.

La luna negra

Day 17 - Antigua

The retrospective nature of these writings means there is a good chance you already know we made it but create an artificial suspense now if you like. Antigua was the colonial capital of all Central America until leveled by an earthquake in 1773. Siting the town between three volcanoes would seem to invite such destruction I would say. It still retains a handsome charm and, given its tourist draw, would be an ideal place to spend a few days and let the accumulated miles ease themselves from our sweaty, dirty bodies. The Danes pointed us in the direction of a hotel but rooms were hard to come by. After fruitless wanderings we took Michael's detested and feared option of a dorm. The fact that no-one shared it with us for more than one night can only be a coincidence. Antigua, in common with much of Guatemala (and I suspect, Central America), has issues with crime. Over here Security Guard is a job for life. From the guys at the bank with the sub-machine guns to the one outside the dollar store with a pump-action shotgun (certainly the weapon of choice here) there is no shortage of heat on the street. A little spot up on a nearby hill affords a fine view over the city. The book advises the company of a tourist policeman when walking to it so we didn't take one. Perhaps the robbers were on siesta, we were unmolested. The experience might also have given us a rather hubristic view of our climbing ability but more of that later. We took dinner in a delightful restaurant whose food sat temptingly in big clay pots. All along the lines of stew I struggled to follow the explanations of ingredients and simply plumped for the most appealing looking pot. One bite revealed the catastrophe of my choice. Liver. Just writing the world brings watery unease to my mouth and here I am chewing the ghastly organ. My appetite disappeared to be replaced by queasy discontent. It got so serious my taste for beer was even diminished. A memorable eating experience and probably the most expensive mouthful of food I have ever had. I think Michael has also decided he is not the unqualified fan of tongue that he professed to be, another indigestible choice. Happening on a raucous Irish pub full of Guatemalans dancing on tables was an improved course. A gringo trying the same thing took a bruising tumble off the bar. We had to return to Reilly's the following night due to the irresistible lure of a pub quiz. Our team swiftly expanded to 5 with Dale, Jessie and Justin too. And what a team it was sweeping all before it to win by a clear four and a half points. Our winning quetzals bought tequila shots for the losing teams with enough left for the victors to get throughly tired and emotional. Since my amigo usually handles the finances and had departed early the matter of an open tab rather slipped my mind before I too left. We would not be back for a third night. Breathing hard and impatient, lungs pulling at thin air. Feet slipping and hands bleeding. Down was far, up was further. Step by torturous step we climbed the volcano. Stunning views gave no comfort to our draining labour. I am not fit, my limbs have certainly seen better days and yet I was blasé about a challenge such as this. The foothills gave no warning of the desperate exhaustion that lay ahead, thousands of feet of it. But the summit grew no nearer, only steeper, and I felt I had no more to give. Pause, breathe. One more step. Dig in with your toes. Push up. One more step. The ground slipped beneath, magnifying the effort and slowing us to a figurative (and literal) crawl. I think a level of intoxication from the previous night sustained me through the first hour but the second one was Satan's playtime. Of course I'll say it was worth it with a rose tint even brighter than that of my cheeks but looking down into the brooding maw of a volcano is a worthy sight. No lava alas but hot, sulphuric fumes emanated from the rocks warning at what lay below. A passing cloud temporarily enveloped us as we sat panting with satisfaction and relief. The climb down is best described as like skiing without snow or, indeed, skis. The scorched, barren landscape gave a sobering reminder that the last eruption was only a year ago. Truly the most physically demanding thing i have ever done. Our last night in Antigua was a quietly pleasant one. We ate at a restaurant accessed behind the counter of a tiny convenience store, whose menu comprised just two items. Thankfully the Pepian de Pollo (chicken stew) was excellent and I ate heartily for the first time in days. We rounded off the evening in a venue where the barmaid committed the error of letting me make music requests. We'd probably still be there now if we didn't have an early bus to El Salvador.


Day 13 - Flores

A not insignificant amount is charged when you leave Belize, payment on entry would surely be a more reasonable system. We'd stopped in San Ignacio on the border the night before and received Guatemala pointers from a charming French girl named Lila. As soon as we'd walked across the border we were beset by Taxi Drivers and Bus Drovers bellowing "Flores!" and "Tikal!". Going alphabetically we chose the former. A familiar buzzing noise greeted our arrival into the town, the hairs on my travelling partners neck stood up. Tuk-tuks. His deep seated and impassioned loathing for the machines (or more accurately their operators) was salved by a few jars with some chickens. The Mayan ruins at Tikal were widely touted (and not just by the aforementioned) so a tour was booked for the following day.
We waited on pre-dawn streets silent but for the shrieks of bats diving in and out of the eaves. Our transport was exactly on (Guatemalan) time and we were soon heading north to a city reclaimed by the jungle. A hummingbird buzzed beside me as we loitered at the entrance while Occelated Turkeys strutted the dewy grass. Step pyramids rose through the mist their angular forms piercing the soft white vapour. We climbed one of the ancient ziggurats and looked over fogged canopy and distant (very distant) toucans. It takes a leap of imagination to see these ruins as a functioning, teeming city-state, the plazas thronged with people hundreds of years ago. What I'd give to step back just briefly to the golden age of Meso-American civilisation.
Next on the skimpy itinerary was a place in the mountains called Semuc Champey. Crystal clear water cascades down over turquoise pools. I swam a gentle stroke while looking up at steeply rising jungle all around. Already wet from a torrential downpour the cool waters washed the dirt of travel from my weary body. Our lodgings were perched above the river and once the electricity went off at 10pm a pitch blackness descended among with a present feeling of isolation. Danes lulled us to sleep with The Beatles greatest hits. The sun wasn't long up and we were bouncing down the mountains in the back of a goods van with the aforementioned Scandinavian songsmiths. Rocky roads threw us up and down, left and right until my senses were almost entirely loosened from me. Still, it beat for comfort the minivan from the other day packed to twice it's capacity, 30 people in a space designed for 15. We changed in the village of Lanquin to a more luxurious form of transport - one that had seats. Picking up a couple of South Africans the van sped off towards Antigua. Up into the clouded hills again we ascended, the roads a sticky mush from recent rains. Our driver decided speed would be our ally through these muddy passes even when the vehicle was fishtailing alarmingly from side to side. Near sideways and skidding towards the precipitous edge, I think collective hearts skipped a beat. Will we make it to Antigua or be a mess of expensively repatriated bodies on the valley floor? Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment!

Swimming with sharks

Day 9 - Belize City

Night was not Belize City's best side, black was not its colour. We fell in a parabolic curve down through Mexico, gravitating towards the little country sitting below the peninsula. The book helpfully outlined the places not to walk at night in Belize City - just about everywhere. We caught a cab with a German called Benton or Fenton or something and made for the Smokin' Balam Guesthouse. Our landlady also instructed us to 'be careful' and with nervous glances all around we walked to the main street in search of sustenance. We collared a copper to ask about gringo-friendly venues and though his suggestion of a bar down a dark alley was not taken seriously his advice to 'stay safe' certainly was, despite the fact that he should surely have a hand in that. Carmita's by the famous swing bridge was relatively friendly and a couple of buckets of Belikin (Belize's #1 beer, sorry, 1 beer) softened our angst. We had Lyndon's (after Johnson) undivided attention the bar being, as it was, bereft of other custom. We ended up having a pleasant evening perched out on the front step of Carmita's with the former president, the owner Alex and a guy called Jeff, they even invited us to a party the next day and 'party' beats 'high-murder-rate' in rock-paper-scissors. We did pluck up the reckless courage to visit the bar down the alley - the next day, in daylight. But not before a brief walking tour to Bird's Island, a tranquil spot where the city's literati chill. The island looked largely unchanged in the 50 years since Hurricane Hattie came through here and blew the capital 50 miles inland. As far as wildlife went - the birds, well I guess they went. There were two dogs angry at our transgression who made a barking beeline for us only halting their charge at the last minute. We left Bird's Island. Friendlier company was found at the aforementioned bar. JC was an imposing man who ran the security there and it seemed impolitic to complain when he helped himself to one of our beers. His right-hand man and girlfriend (one suspects she would be anyones girlfriend for a little US) also joined our libations but I was distracted from complaint by the large bag of weed JC had just placed into my hand. They were the Belizean Laurel & Hardy if Laurel & Hardy offered you drugs and prostitutes instead of slapstick comedy. As for the police? Don't worry about them amigo, they're all corrupt. We looked on from our hostel as a Christmas parade wended its way through the city in the distance. It must have wended its way through some neighboring countries too given the time it took to reach the spot on the main road where we had subsequently positioned ourselves. Joining us at Carmita's party afterwards was a tall rake of a rasta called Eldon who had come over from a nearby Caye (island, pronounced key) to feed tourists riddles, information on his sexual prowess and an endless supply of bullshit. The decision was made that if Eldon was here the island could only be the better for it and a visit was required forthwith. The Cayes are an hour and a world away from the city's simmering menace. As we bisected the mangrove forests our boat carved a great cross in the wake with a frothing geyser at its centre. The hankerchief that my fellow traveller had brought with him indicated a fundamental misunderstanding of the island's renowned watersports but I wasn't missing out on snorkeling the world's second largest barrier reef. We floated like weightless clouds above clear skies and sylvan fields of vivid, living rock while leopard rays flew slowly below. Bulbous spheres of Brain Coral with twisting mazes carved in their surface lay next to elegant fans caressed gently by the wind of current. Giant Grouper eyed us warily while shoals of smaller fish moved across the horizon like swooping flocks of birds. My breathing was slow and steady, my vision clear, I felt as if part of the ocean. Mountain ranges rose to my left and right, the valley floor seemed miles below but gravity held no sway. We circumnavigated the channel and drifted over undulating, brittle coral beds watching fish of a perfect purple dart in and out. Wrasse and beaked Clowns scoured the reef with sudden, jerking thrusts. We returned to our airy domain to explore further down the reef in search of its more.....emotive inhabitants. I dropped again into the temperate ocean with a note of anxiety quite absent before. Dark shapes swarmed the boat in a morass of fin and frenzy. Their slicing form evoked ingrained childhood fear, a two-note terror. But all they sought was food thrown from above, competing with Rays and greedy Petrels for the scraps of fish. Don't pull their tails or put your hand in their mouths and no harm will come, fair. Once the bucket was emptied and the fish had dispersed we clambered aboard our bobbing launch. It was exhilaration that took me as soon as I removed the mask from my face, a pure lightness of being. A wonderful experience only improved by the recounting. We leave behind an odd cultural melange of Menonites, Rastafarians and dear old Queenie staring up from every note.
Belize, interesting.

Into the West

Day 7 - Merida

We bid farewell to Hostel Rio Playa regretting that we didn't have time to bathe in their foot-deep 'swimming' pool even though, as notified by sign, diving was prohibited. Our early bus was of the plush (no really) ADO variety, I sense our standards of carriage can only decline as the trip progresses. We set our compass to Merida, the cultural capital of the Yucatan. First stop was Valladolid though for a brief excursion to the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam (Balam meaning Jaguar, Ek as in 'ooh ek'). A collectivo taxi with two Mexicans heading that way provided an economical connection. The Mayans put up some pretty impressive structures without the use of metal tools or draft animals and though most had crumbled the 29m pyramid still stood resplendent amongst the trees. The ascent was jagged and unforgiving and a slip could be painfully, bone-breakingly fatal. The view from the top, however, engorged the eyes with its vast verdancy. The climb down was more harrowing yet with our momentum towards a steep, staccato death. Visions of mine being another head bouncing down the stone steps were not easily put from the mind. But I leapt from the bottom step once I reached the bottom with a profound joy at still being alive. Cenotes dot the peninsula and are large cylindrical sinkholes filled with water, created by both natural forces and the hand of man. The complete lack of rivers or lakes in this part of Mexico made them life giving resources and a fixture on the tourist trail. The tour of Ek Balam's cenote we took was informative, interesting, entirely in Spanish. There is only so much nodding a person can do before it becomes apparent thye have no idea what you are on about. When our linguistic ineptitude dawned on our guide she....ploughed on with her script regardless. A colectivo with a couple of Czechs set us back on our way to the West. We were entertained on the bus by one of the Terminator films which, it should be noted, lose very little in their dubbing to Spanish. A hostel on the Grande Plaza gave us shelter from the storm (light drizzle). We took beers and endless tortillas outside a restaurant staffed by a waiter whose slow, deliberate delivery redolent of a sloth earned him the original sobriquet of 'Speedy Gonzales'. Above the pleasant woodwind of the house band he did manage to alert us to an evening of music in the nearby plaza which would be taking place the following day, Merida would have us for another night it seemed. The house band was certainly an improvement on the one in the previous bar whose oeuvre was limited to limitless variations on the same song. A Mexican Scouting for Girls if you will. They were supported by a wildly gyrating patron who, having abandoned attempts to be served another beer, took instead to flinging his arms and legs around in a blind, orgasmic salsa, a Mexican Bez if you also will. We took an open-topped bus tour (forshame!) around the city the next day. The commentary was, again, entirely Espanyol but the sites would only have been dangerous distraction from the very real hazard of low tree branches and power lines. Still, an enjoyable couple of hours was spent throwing ourselves beneath the safety of the seats. We wandered the market in the afternoon past stalls whose merchandise was nigh on indistinguishable save for one selling pets (or the freshest of meat if you incline towards racial stereotyping which, of course, I do not). Michael needed some persuading as to the impracticalities of bringing a puppy along for the trip. His dislike for bottles, finite taste for beer and disdain for lime was starting to limit his drinking ability (that and the humidity of course) so maybe the time had come to head South. The musical event was a bust by the way, we turned up in time to hear copious tributes to the benefactors and very little of what sounded like a decent chamber orchestra. Next stop Belize.


Day 4 - Cancún

I fervently hope that a runway is approaching us with the rapidity that we are approaching the tree-carpeted ground. Black waters have become turquoise and grey skies an endless blue. I've never seen so much jungle and I've been to the New Forest ferchristsakes. Summer had arrived in December. We had touched down in Cancún in the Yucatán Peninsula. A town infamous for being a magnet to alcohol deprived American teenagers in spring and all the exported debauchery that suggests. Our hostel was sited in a disused shopping mall, the escalators had halted long ago but the place did the trick and it was in short order that we were sipping our first ice-cold Corona. The trip proper had started now, 'journey' if you're of a more literary bent. I had been fighting a rather fatalistic state of mind for the past two days, a mind of dark and doomy imaginings. Now every edge was a precipice, every drain cover a trapdoor, the cracks were everywhere. It drives one to distraction, it will pass I hope. What I do know is that somewhere in the back of my head I am ticking off each day that passes without serious mishap, each one a success. We only spent one $15 all-you-can-drink night in Cancún lest its visceral temptations corrupt our mortal souls and ensure our places beside Beelzebub himself. I tend to feel, if not guilt, then a kind of dismay when i'm in these places. Not through a moral objection or anything so high-minded, certainly I revel in their honesty. Moreso a wondering why the Western world need seek foreign shores to indulge its more basic (and sometimes base) desires. Should we inflict our vomiting, screwing, screaming on our poorer neighbours who can't turn away such regular business as our privilege provides. What does that make them think of us? Is this what they aspire to? Next morning after a night near spent on grass we jumped (carefully alighted) the bus South to Playa del Calmer, sorry Carmen. It is a cheaper, quieter version of its brash Northern neighbour. Lonely Planet evidently hasn't stopped by in a while given that its first two recommended hostels were, respectively, a souvenir shop and a building site. We did find success on our third attempt however. The trip has gone with an ease sharply contrasting that we experienced in the subcontinent. Places are, by and large, where they are meant to be and the language sticks, muy bueno. I am glad to be here, India can wait. It seems though, as is our perennial habit, we have landed outside of tourist season. We found some fellow gringos in a swinger's bar but the streets were empty of human traffic by midnight. Perhaps excitement lies to the West...

Don't step on the cracks

Day 1 - New York

The cold, dark New York air hits our faces as we rise from the petroleum-scented depths of the subway. In a life of bright, hopeful beginnings and dim, crestfallen endings here is another of the former that asks for a wordy substantiation, a placement in the order of things and, perhaps like none before, a worthwhile reckoning. Or maybe I just squeeze my eyes shut and fuse the disjointed, the dismembered ends of this violent year into one seamless, happy whole. As we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge it provides as apposite a metaphor as any of the dreaming spires and brilliant lights that lie ahead.
Our curious cattle shed of a hostel (can someone please investigate the previous life of the Bowery Whitehouse and let me know?) grounds us and in the finest of tourist traditions we are shortly ensconced in an Irish pub called McSorley's supping God's love (B. Franklin, 1779). Sarah, Sarah, Simon & Matt ably straddle the dividing line of a common language regaling us with tales of their own travels while I treasonably decry our blessed Saxe-Coburg-Gothas. 36 beers stagger us but not as much as the $90 bill and less yet, eventually, than the jet lag.
The High Line Park and swirling mysteries of the Guggenheim occupy us the following day, the suspended emphemera of the latter fueling our conversations on the definition of art and the efficiencies of ice cube varieties, whilst in an Irish pub. My fabled injuries feel everyone of the hundreds of blocks they traversed but surely don't feel pain as keenly as the drunken Yank's head as it cracks off our tiled lobby floor. The culture continued on our last day (keeps us out of the bars) with another immodestly sized New York institution. The Metropolitan Museum uses the word 'art' in its most liberal sense to encompass its near-kleptomaniacal collection of everything from Picassos to copious amounts of cabinets. Surely if my mother ran a museum this would be it. The Num Pang Sandwich Shop restored us after a day (literally) in the Met while simultaneously redefining the Earl's greatest invention. I fell asleep looking up at the ceiling that wasn't there, by the same time tomorrow these boys will be hombres.