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Archive for July, 2009

Tour…and Relax

So began a week of tourism at a blistering pace, covering a large proportion of Belize from the sheltered environment of the tinted windows of a rented 4WD, exiting occasionally to engage in activities and to eat and sleep. Boat rides to offshore tiny islands, rope swinging over rivers, swimming through caves by the light of headtorches, watching thunderstorms across the bay from the shelter of a top floor bar and general abuse of our vehicle on the long and winding dirt roads ensued.

By the time that Tim (whose photos I have stolen and am displaying above; thanks very much for that) flew from belize city airport to return to the world of work in the UK (a world that now felt more or less completely alien), I was feeling decidedly anti-social and in need of some alone time; it is mildly surprising to me that I have steadly become more averse to constant contact with others over the period of weeks, and certainly accentuates the point that I would find it very difficult to travel for any great length of time with the same group of people, finding great value in personal space and solitary time.

Thus I found myself crossing the border between Belize and Guatemala feeling strangely welcomed by the prevolence of Spanish, which had been steadily rotting in the back of my mind, and the general chaos and dirtyness of what seemed to be a slightly more genuine slice of Latin America. Parting company with the Whitaker sisters after a fairly gruelling overnight bus ride to Guatemala City, I bumped the hours away on a chicken bus to Quetzaltenango (fortunately also known as Xela) with no particular plan other than to drop a book off with a fellow ex-teacher before heading on to the Promised Land of El Salvador.

After a ride from a very amiable but completely inept taxi driver to the seeming unknown location of ex-teacher Abi (despite assuring me that he knew the spot right up to the point where we drove away from the curb) and meeting a very friendly and welcoming bunch upon arrival at said mystery location, it became abundantly clear to me that for the first time in a while, I really wanted to put my feet up and stew in one place for a while, and hence became the latest victim in the spider web that is Xela, where people come to stay for a couple of
days and wake up one day to find that months have passed.

Xela
29th July 2009

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Gwan Snarklin

The Belizian Cayes, and in particular Caye Caulker, did everything that they could to cultivate and sustain the Caribbean stereotype. Life never raised above a saunter, everything was haphazardly contructed of misaligned wood and one of the girls in our party was duly informed by local pedestrians that she was “wahkin like a champion”.

Inadvertantly pursuing the textbook experience further, we booked onto a snorkelling trip towards the outer reef provided by Ragamuffin Tours. The twenty or so tourists that gathered at the alloted departure time, ranging in skin palette from light brown to pink were split into two groups, each of which were dispatched to a 40ft wooden sailing boat. Our bright red vessel for the day, the Ragga Queen, was helmed by Captain Raf who gave the sort of safety briefing that would start convusions in UK health and safety exectives and shortly afterwards we motored away from the jetty.

Within minutes the Captain turned on the stereo, surprisingly to reveal that the music of choice was…reggae. “Does anybody nut like de reggae?” he asked the assembled passengers. No response was elicited. “Well den,” he continued, “if nuhbody like it, tell meh and I turn it up.”

The whole experience turned out to be absolutely fantastic. Over the course of the day we were dropped into three different uncrowded spots, allowing us to glide among shoals of fish that seemed completely indifferent to our existence, nurse sharks that snaked over the shallow bottom hunting out unfortunate fish and scrapping unashamedly with one another for the remains some feet away from us, manta rays, a solitary manatee (much to the delight of our female contingent, and the disgust of Tim, who was looking the other way at the time) that mournfully flapped off into the distant underwater twilight, and a colourful and strange array of coral.

The abundence and variety of marine life was astounding, especially for a place where the through traffic of unskilled snorkellers must have been enormous, and the potential for destruction and exploitation of the natural resources huge. Without ever seeming uptight, the staff on the tour gently sheparded us between and around locations without relenting to the measures that seem to be repeatedly resorted to in order to sate tourist greed; there was no evidence of infrastructre around the reef, or of littering. It also never seemed that we were being herded along a well trodden route, recipients of a fairly sanitized and templated tour, the presence of our fellow boat passengers never being felt as overbearing and the quantities of dive boats at sites never exceeding a couple.

Somewhat sun fried and giggly from the strong rum punch that we’d been supplied with and steadily drowning in after the last dive, we arrived under sail to the jetty from whence we came. All drunken promises to exact a rampage upon the town in the evening rapidly disintegrated as the effects of a full day in tropical sun and the booze set in, sending us to our beds in our small, lopsided wooden shacks at a disgracefully early hour.

Caye Caulker, Belize
18th July 2009

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An Executive Means of Travel

As we got further from the Mexican border, the tension in my shoulders started to ease, even though it would turn out to be some days before I would let my guard down and start trusting locals again. Via a blissfully simple entry into Belize we rattled along a baked tarmac road to the dusty bus station of Corozal. Realising simultaneously that everyone spoke English and that we had an extra hour to hand due to the time difference, everything suddenly became very possible and we realised that we could be on the tiny island of Caye Caulker to meet our friends within a day.

Quickly compromising economy, we decided to fly the fifty miles or so to the island instead of waiting for the water taxi the next day, and were shuttled in a battered car that had pretensions as a taxi to the local airstrip, where a light aircraft stood waiting by the hut that constituted a waiting lounge. “Looks like yeh plane is reddeh” the taxi driver said, as we dumped our bags by the side of the plane and paid the price or our urgency. Within minutes we were crammed behind the pilot, the only passengers on board and feeling like royalty to have our own aircraft laid on for us. These feelings quicly evaporated, however, as the aircraft bumped along the runway and shook itself into the sky causing one of the other passenger seats to worryingly crashed sideways onto the floor.


The aircraft quickly rose, and the ground dropped away behind us to reveal electric blue water thinly covering the black outline of coral reef, dark patches of cloud sliding across the surface of the water. As we watched tiny boats below us draw white trails out behind them and small islands come and go hundreds of metres below, Mexico already seemed like a long way away. We landed in nearby San Pedro after a fairly ridiculous twenty minutes to change planes, joining a mixed group of Belizians, ex-pats and tourists and, after handing in our seemingly pointless giant red laminated cards bearing only the information “BOARDING CARD”, rapidly took off and passed the last leg of the journey which ended on a bumpy landing on the Caye Caulker airstrip. The only two to get off the plane, we shuffled down the sand track to the “arrivals lounge”, basically standing outside a shack, until our luggage was untangled from the aircraft and trolleyed to us. It was, all in all, the closest impression of a commercial airline infrastructure that I have ever seen.

Exiting the airport by way of a white sand path, we soon encountered a huge Belizian lady proudly driving a golf cart, the local laternative to standard vehicles and taxis. Thus we found ourselves, some four hours out of Mexico, facing backwards down a sandy Carribean road bordered by brightly painted wooden stilted buildings and clinging to our possesions while our driver cheerfully swung the golf cart around the twists and turns of the island, taking us closer to what I could already feel would be a very refreshing change in direction from the last two weeks.

Caye Caulker, Belize
17th July 2009

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A Fond Farewell To Mexico

After a stirling turnaround by the British Embassy, the passport found its way back to our eager hands within a couple of days of arrival. So excited to finally be leaving Mexico, and even more so Chetumal, we rushed back to our dingy hotel to collect our belongings and get out of town before doing damage, either to ourselves or others.

Bowling along to the border in a taxi, spirits were high with the immanence of escape until, regrettably, we reached the border. Exiting the taxi at the Mexican exit stamp booth, I asked the taxi driver to wait a second with our belongings while we got stamped and transferred to a bus. Straight away we were descended upon by a smooth talking Belizian who dressed close enough to be a priest, in black with a white collar and the obligatory crucifix dangling from his neck, who proceeded to try and rush us through the process so that he could accompany us in a taxi to the other side of the border, a journey that turned out to be some 15 minutes long and would have, under his reccommendation, cost us 350 pesos compared to the somewhat more economic 20 peso fare for the bus.

Making it clear that we didn’t need his assistance, language or religion, we arrived at the window to the booth, where an obese sour faced Mexican official bulging from within a sweat stained uniform checked our passports and decreed within seconds that my paperwork was not in order and as Lou had no entry stamp in her brand new passport we would have to return to Chetumal to pay the necessary charges. When I explained in my most restrained way that it was simply not an option to go back, he pounced with the inevitable proposition that he could “forgoe the hassle” with a simple payment of 400 pesos. Our pseudo-Christian friend stuck his head into the fray at this point to helpfully suggest under his breath that he was an undercover cop, and that we should play along so that he could gather evidence.

We were completely at the mercy of the Fat Official; under no circumstances would we return to Chetumal, and he knew it. With steam spiralling from my ears, I held out two 200 peso notes which he insultingly ignored for a while, busying himself with papers on the other side of the cubicle while muttering to himself about the outrage of being asked for a reciept for the costs incurred. The tiny exit stamp was placed in the passports, lacking the aplomb that I would have hope 400 pesos would have paid for, and I stormed away from the window to confront our taxi driver who, insensitive to our recent travails, had decided to charge us double the agreed fare for a 10 minute wait. My Spanish was suddenly released from its bonds of English decency and I let fly in a tumbling cascade of obscenity at the injustice of it all, sparing a little something for the Belizian “undercover cop” who was sidling around us trying to carry our bags and asking for some money “for the effort”.

Lou sheparded me onto the bus as I scowled at anybody who I could make eye contact with and as we rolled across the border, finally, into Belize I reflected with a degree of sorrow that the last taste in my mouth of the place that I called home for 6 months was made bitter by corruption, greed and self indulgent opportunism.

Corozal, Belize
17th July 2009

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One Very, Very Good Reason to Visit El Salvador


Chetumal
15th July 2009

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Trouble for Big Blue

With the reflections of human impact on ocean environment still prevalent in my mind, a couple of pertenant things landed in my inbox, which did very little to improve my mood; the first an article from one of my favourite subscriptions, the National Geographic writer John Bowermaster about the recent effects of rampant “eco” tourism on an increasingly fragile Galapagos Islands, and the second about the latest sensationalist film about the destructive power of humans on natual resource, this time covering the effects of overfishing.

Always slightly grumpy about the haphazard and fairly diffuse of the “eco” label by tourism outfits, this latest dispatch serves to distance me yet again from seeing intelligent, sustainable and considered tourism as a possiblity. Check out the trailer.

Hailed as “The Inconvenient Truth About the Oceans” by the Economist (a debatably good association), the film “End of the Line” was released on June 12th and seems to be garnering a fair amount of interest. Based on the book by Charles Clover, the film looks at the effects of the commerical fishing industry and, draws some fairly sobering conclusions.

Despite best efforts and a nice relaxing break in Bacalar next to the impressive Languna de Siete Colores (Lake of 7 colours), morale is low and we remain keen to cross the border and escape to Belize, where necessary but gloomy revalations about the capacity of humans to systematically ruin things can be shelved for a while.

Chetumal
15th July 2009

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Killing Time

So, after an excruciating day of trailing around Palenque town performing administative duties required to eventually get a new passport from the British Embassy in Cancun, Lou and I wearily put ourselves on the next bus to the captial of Quintana Roo, Chetumal. This dusty and soul-less town sits on the border with Belize, and would form our base for time unspecified as the dynamic forces of the Embassy processed Lou’s passport application. After a single night, we realised that we would probably end up killing and eating someone if forced to spend a full week waiting in the same place, thus hiring a car and driving with enthusiasm towards the Carribean coast.

Our point of escape, with no particular form of planning, turned out to be Mahahual. Arriving on a blustery and overcast day, we were greeted to the sight of a deserted town bordered by acres of dead mangroves on one side and a classic carribean sea on the other. Two days was about all we could handle in our slightly fragile state, frustrated by our forced improsonment in Mexico by circumstances; the strangeness of the town was, in our particular state of mind, a bit too much.

Mahahual grew fast from a small fishing village into an overflow point for the more famous beaches to the north of Playa Del Carmen and Tulum, also developing a healthy passing trade in backpacking tourists. Things were going nicely until Hurricane Dean hit in 2007, flattening the entire town and tearing the life out of the mangrove forest that consequently delivered a crushing blow to localised marinelife and ecosystems. Since then life slowly recovered and Mahauhual regained some form of income as a cruise ship stopover, with up to 5000 people simultaneously flooding the tiny town at sporadic moments to come ashore, engage in drunken debauchary along the seafront and return back to their cabins after some hours. This, no doubt, was instrumental in breeding a very predeatory feeling to the place; one could not escape the sense that the locals watched you like hawks as you passed; not through curiosity, but sizing you up to see how they could get what they needed from you before you left.

Speaking with Evan, a young Texan expat with verbal diahorrea who was the proud proprietor of a new local bar/restaurant/cabaƱa setup, another sobering revalation came to pass. At the point of our initial arrival we drove up the coast in a bursting desire for exploration, and noticed a fine skin of rubbish littering the ungroomed aspects of the shoreline outside the main seafront in town.

“I’ve picked up some of the rubbish to check the labels when I’ve been wandering around the beach sometimes,” explained Evan, “And it always says that it was made in a different country; China, Cuba, Europe, the United States. It never says ‘Made in Mexico'”.

It was saddening to realise the global impact of negligence in such wide scope, and got me thinking about the footprint of human activity at a time that was already more gloomy. Turning the car around and heading back inland, we once again began the search for a place to put our feet up for a few days, recuperate from our traumas and wait.

Chetumal
11th July 2009

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