Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Everyday People.

Raul and I travelled through Belize from North to South, crossing the river border with Mexico in Chetumal and arriving via a mixture of hitch hiking and buses to Punta Gorda the gateway to Guatemala. The journey took us about three weeks. We both had our priorities – Raul’s (as always) was to spend as little money as possible, mine to connect with the locals as something more than just another tourist. In a way one goal led to the other. As we hitched lifts, fished for our food and camped for free we discovered a culturally diverse and proud nation with welcoming and open people and I realised that it's not always about visiting the most spectacular places. Sometimes the best memories come from the simplest of things.

The border between Mexico and Belize is a slow moving river called the Rio Hondo where alligators lurk and drooping trees drag finger tips in the murky green water. Crossing the steel bridge spanning the gap between the two countries Raul and I are kept busy trying to rid ourselves of yet another unwanted straggler. This one is trying to convince us to give him our passports and $10 each so he can get us our entrance stamp for Belize. I am almost deceived by his friendly charm, singsong Caribbean accent and helpful demeanour – but by now I’ve seen too many of his kind to fall for his tricks. I’m trying to think of a polite way to tell him to leave us alone, Raul on the other hand is having nothing to do with it and he abruptly tells the guy where to go.
At the Belizean immigration office we line up behind a strange looking family, the men sporting Abe Lincoln style beards under wide brimmed hats, work shirts, leather boots and denim overalls. The women wear long dresses over old fashioned leather shoes and bonnets tied up under their chins. Raul and I exchange a sideways glance – these guys look like they just stepped off a horse carriage from the 1920’s. Where were we?
A little later with passports stamped and stomachs grumbling we manage to hitch a lift to the first settlement: Corozal - a sunny beachside border town made up mostly of bus companies, money changers and tour operators. The friendly man who picks us up points out the remains of a Mayan fort on the hill behind town - forlorn and lost to ruin like so many others, yet somehow managing to hold a sense of  stubborn pride within its crumbling walls.
After getting dropped off in the centre of town we find some deep fried chicken and greasy chips in the lazy, shady plaza. Groups of young Latino men in baggy shorts and basketball boots escape the heat of the sun under large trees. Smoking cigarettes and passing bottles concealed in brown paper bags, they look at us with mild curiosity as we pass. A black man in a business suit hurries past, impatiently swerving around our lumbering backpacks and pushing into the bank. A police man cradling a shotgun stands under the tall yellow church, sweeping a disinterested gaze over the people. I get the feeling that today is a day just like any other for these people. In a way it is for us too - although we’re surrounded by strange accents, new sights, and a different way of life to wrap our heads around, as a backpacker you are faced with these changes all the time and you quickly learn to roll with the rhythm.
The highway south out of town runs directly beside the ocean. It’s my first sight of the Caribbean and it’s as clear, blue and sparkling as I had imagined it would be. Tufts of palm trees sprout from the golden sand to nod and sway in the sun. Locals on bikes smile and greet us as they pass, their tyres cutting tracks in the feathers of wind-blown sand which stretch across the tar-seal.  This town and its people seem to have not a care in the world and the mood is infectious.
Lazing back on our packs, we half-heartedly attempt to hitch hike for about an hour before giving in and waving down a bus - an old blue beast which roars and lurches, trailing a plume of billowing exhaust smoke behind it. We lug our backpacks on board and squeeze into a seat behind an old black lady who nods us a warm greeting. Across the aisle is another family like the one we seen at the immigration office - a middle aged couple with two blonde haired boys. They sit in silence as we chug along the long, flat and straight road, gazing solemnly out at the countless rows of sugar cane marching to the horizon. We later learn that they are Mennonites; a Christian based religion with origins in Germany who have set up a farming community here in Belize. Like the Amish but not so strict, they follow an old fashioned way of life and keep to themselves.
Belize’s lax immigration laws have made it a culturally rich and diverse country, with people emigrating from Europe, Asia, Central, South and North America, and the Caribbean islands. These newcomers combine with the local Mestizos (of mixed European and Indigenous descent), the Crioles (of solely European descent), the Garifuna (of African descent) and the Indigenous Mayan to produce a colourful and tolerant nation, the like of which you won’t find anywhere else on Earth.
Arriving in Orange Walk Town, the second largest settlement in Belize, we stop in at a small store to stock up on a few things. I ask the Criole woman behind the counter if she knows of anywhere we can pitch our tent for the night. Why of course, she replies, we can camp on her neighbours lawn just across the road. I'm a little taken aback by the generosity, but Raul jumps in and acccepts the offer enthusiastically. We buy a couple of beers and pull up some chairs in front of the store where we then pass the evening talking with the store owners David - a small olive skinned man of about fifty with grey hair cropped short over a narrow featured face and skinny arms with fading tattoos sprouting from under his clean white singlet - and his wife Maria - thick curly brown hair, big glasses a flowery blouse and a loud musical laugh. Their two teenage daughters also join us - Geri and Rebecca - intelligent, pretty and full of questions.
As the sky darkens and the street lights blink on Maria produces a small fold-out table from the house. Soon people from the neighbourhood appear to buy tickets for tonight’s lottery draw. Maria chats away cheerfully as she rips the numbered tickets out of a book and scribbles the person’s name in biro on the stub. She greets all of her customers as friends, trading the latest gossip and asking about their families. It is obviously a weekly ritual she enjoys thoroughly.
Using a screw and some glue David fixes my guitar which broke on the bus and I strum a few tunes. He shows us pieces of jade carved into the shapes of faces and animals, explaining slyly that they have been taken illegally from nearby Mayan ruins. Leaning in close with a mischievous glint in his eyes and a hint of rum on his breath, he tells us that he knows where there are much more of these precious ornaments and that he plans to export them overseas on the black market for lots of money. His wife and daughters roll their eyes as though they’ve heard this plan a thousand times before. I sit back and smile, watching the family’s good-natured bickering and laughter.
It’s amazing how quickly one adjusts to new experiences. The life of a backpacker can seem a little strange and daunting at first, but after a short time the border crossings, the hustlers, the buses and the constantly changing environment become something to be taken in stride. So much so that at times you need a taste of normality just to remind you what life is like back in the “real” world. I've seen some amazing things in my travels - some of the most beautiful scenery this planet has to offer - but sitting outside a simple neighbourhood store with these genuinely friendly people, listening to the the squeals and laughter of kids playing in the distance, watching women push strollers through puddles of warm light cast by house windows as the smell of a familys dinner floats on the warm evening air is one of the most memorable experiences of them all. For me it is a welcome return to every-day life - a life which at times seems so far away from the nomadic existence of a backpacker. I’m grateful for this touch of normality, grateful that we have been welcomed with open arms and open minds into this loving and warm environment and grateful for being reminded of the beauty that can be found in the simple things in life.
Later as Raul and I are lying in the tent, we hear footsteps and hushed voices approaching. I open the door to find Geri and Rebecca standing with hands full of tinned food and chocolate bars for us. They unload their treasure and wish us luck on our journey. We are leaving early in the morning to Caye Caulker, a small island of golden sand, mangrove trees and coconut palms off the coast, so we won't see them again. We thank them profusely, say good bye and I zip up the tent. Rolling up my towel which I use for a pillow I shake my head in wonder at the welcome we have been given to this country. The generosity and warmth the people have shown us has been amazing, and it's only the first day. With basically the length of the country left before us, I have to wonder: what other colourful characters will we uncover in this unexpected jewel of the Caribbean, Belize?

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Curse of the Gringo Trail.

The jungle – at once dark, dangerous and mysterious, vibrant, colourful and alive. It’s an environment which has always intrigued me and Chiapas, Southern Mexico is where I get my first taste. It is nothing too adventurous, more of an appetiser than an all you can eat buffet, but it is jungle all the same and an experience I will never forget (although maybe not for all the right reasons). Following a recommendation from a heavy lidded young Mexican we met on the beach in Zipolite my new travelling companion Raul and I are headed to El Panchan - an assortment of businesses set up to cater for the large number of visitors to Palenque National Park and it's world famous Mayan ruins.

“Panchan!” the bus attendant calls, snapping me out of my window gazing daze. I elbow Raul gently in the ribs, waking him.
“This is us bro.” I say unfolding myself from the cramped corner of the van. As we draw to a halt I clamber awkwardly over the other passengers and stumble out the door. Stretching myself to full height I can almost hear my spine creak. Mexican mini buses are one place it definitely does not pay to be tall.
The attendant passes our backpacks down off the roof, swings back into the passenger seat and the van roars off leaving us blinking, bewildered on the side of the road. Well I guess this is welcome to the jungle, I take a look around. The first thing that strikes me is the noise. The high pitched ringing of a million singing insects resonates through the heavy, damp air, so shrill and loud it's as if the sound is coming from between my ears. The dark tar-sealed road, lined on either side with tangled walls of dense vegetation, disappears in a haze in both directions. Emerald green parrots swoop and squawk under a sky hung low and grey.
A lone wooden sign promising camp sites, cabins and restaurants leads us through a gap in the trees and down a dirt trail. It soon opens up to reveal a small selection of wooden buildings tucked in amongst the jungle like an ewok village. Pan pipe music floats from the speakers of an open air restaurant. Huge trees tower above like moss covered sky scrapers. Shooting up into the sky they spread their enormous branches supporting entire eco systems within their grasp. Birds dart busily through their hair, bright red squirrels scramble up their sides and electric blue butterflies flap at their feet. Leaves the size of coffee tables droop to the ground around us like shiny green horses bowing to drink, flowers spark splashes of red and yellow leaping out from the deep greens and earthy browns. After the cramped conditions of the mini bus I suddenly feel small, dwarfed by the immensity of nature, like I’ve stumbled onto the set of Honey, I shrunk the kids! Life sings from every space, it fills my lungs, my senses and my heart races with the beauty of it.

But before I let myself go Tarzan, our first mission as always is to find somewhere to sleep. Travelling with Raul has opened my eyes to a new level of frugality. He has been travelling for some time now and has learnt the importance of saving money when you can. He settles only for the cheapest option available sometimes searching for hours to save a couple of bucks. Whether it be for food, accommodation or a bus ticket - every penny counts. I know it’s something I can learn from, but sometimes it drives me crazy. Luckily on this occasion our choices are pretty limited. We find two Israeli lads to interrogate. Quivering under Raul's stern one eyed gaze, they point us in the direction of a place called Mono Blanco where we find room for my tent and a hammock available for Raul. It’s simple and cheap with a young crowd. Perfecto.

Mono Blanco, what an interesting place. Smack bang in the middle of the jungle with airy wooden cabins, hammocks strung under thatched leaf roofs, smooth cobbled stone paths and streams chuckling throughout - it's hippy heaven. A place for bare feet and bongo drums where fire pois and face piercings are the norm - so much so in fact, that over the next few days it begins to feel a bit like a freaky fashion contest. Almost as if some of the people are trying to out-hippy one another and if you’re not dressed in multi colours, sporting a crazy haircut and/or a face full of metal then to them you are considered an outsider. 

There are some people, mostly Mexicans, who love this place so much they have decided to stay and I can’t say I blame them. They survive by performing at night – fire dancing and playing music – or by selling their handicrafts, spreading them out on tie dyed sheets outside the restaurants. It’s the kind of life I admire, but unfortunately the stigma of tourists being nothing more than a source of income stretches even to here. In a place like this, free from the confines of modern society, one might expect a more open minded and welcoming environment but I get the impression I have been immediately put into a box, categorised and dismissed as just another guide book gringo. Ironically it seems that while coming here to live free from society's prejudices, they have created their own.

An idle chat about jade with a young artesanista after he notices the greenstone hanging around my neck soon turns into a full on sales pitch. When he realizes I’m not going to buy anything from him the energy changes and he packs up his wares grumpily, muttering something under his breath which I don’t understand. Déjà vu. I am beginning to tire of this kind of encounter. I know there is more than just money which can be exchanged between me and him, but how do I get past this barrier? It kind of takes the shine off being in such a beautiful place.

Maybe it’s the curse of following the gringo trail, visiting places where tourism is the main source of income. I know there a lot of people who travel just to tick the boxes, the type of people who take a photo, buy a souvenir then jump back on the bus and claim that they’ve “done” it. I’ve seen them in New Zealand, people who travel through the whole country in a month, trying to see everything but in actual fact seeing nothing at all. I suppose that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller. Sadly, with a lot of tourism there’s no real cultural exchange taking place just business transactions. It’s impersonal and the locals get used to dealing with us as potential clients rather than as friends.
When Raul and I visit the Mayan ruins of Palenque (he insists that the entrance fee is a rip off so we sneak in through the jungle) we go early and have the place pretty much to ourselves. For two magical hours we wander the ancient city, peering up at the huge pyramids backing onto the trees. They stand as silent and still as they have for 2000 years like rocks awash in a river of raucous jungle noise. We stoop into cool, echoing caverns tracing our fingers over the strange carvings on the walls. Climbing one of the steep stair cases for a better view, Raul tells me about the high priests who used to sacrifice unlucky villagers by chopping off their heads, rolling them down the stairs to the cheering crowds below. This sounds a little like Hollywood history to me, but it adds to the impression so I go with it. As we stand at the top of the stairs an incredible noise like a huge sliding steel door roars out from the jungle’s depths – howler monkeys, often heard but seldom seen. If you didn’t know what was making that noise it could be quite terrifying.

Looking out over the ancient city, I can imagine the Mayan people of 1000 years ago going about their daily business below. It’s almost as if I can see their ghosts. Kids chase each other through the trees laughing, old men sit on the stairs talking about the weather, women carry clothes to the river to wash. What would they say if they could see me standing here now? This strange white man in the funny clothes?
As the day wears on the crowds begin to filter in until before we know it we are surrounded. Pretty soon it gets to the point where it is impossible to take a photo without a random head or hand invading the frame. With the pyramids now crawling with people and human voices drowning out the jungle noises the spell breaks and the ghosts of the Mayans vanish. It is time for us to go too, not only from the ruins but time to travel onwards to our next destination.
From here I had originally planned to cross into Guatemala like most people do, but Raul has managed to talk me into checking out Belize - the only English speaking country in Central America. Without the language barrier it will be easier to have genuine exchanges with the locals and by going there we will be escaping the main flow of tourist traffic, a prospect I am beginning to find more and more appealing.
So tomorrow we catch a bus to Chetumal the border to Belize and our gateway into Central America where the next chapter of my story will start. A chapter which will take me from tiny Caribbean islands to the mist covered peaks of Honduras’ highest mountain, from coral reefs shimmering with tropical fish to bat filled caves in the highlands of Guatemala. All of these wonderful places to explore, but what I really hope for is a connection with the people, a deeper connection than what I’ve found so far. I hope it’s waiting for me in Belize.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Making friends.

When I arrived in Zipolite, I made the rookie mistake of wandering down the street with my backpack, looking as if I didn’t know where I was going (which I didn’t). I hadn’t learnt this lesson yet, but the trick is to walk with purpose, at least pretend you know where you are headed - that way you’re less likely to attract any unwanted attention. As I wandered down the paved road running parallel to the beach, the atmosphere was very relaxed. Locals sat outside their stores chatting, bare foot kids kicked a soccer ball around, dogs stretched out in the shade of palm trees.
A guy noticed me walking aimlessly down the street, sweating in the incredible heat. He approached and smiled, introducing himself as Eduardo; he was about 40 years old with a goatee, sunglasses and a baseball hat. He welcomed me to his village and then offered to help me find a place to sleep. Well, that’s nice I thought, what a lovely, friendly little town this is. He took me to a hostel on the main road, a dirty, smelly place with unfriendly patrons – but according to Eduardo “the cheapest in Zipolite”, plus he said he could get me a discount. It wasn’t exactly the type of place I had expected to find, and even with the supposed “discount” was not all that cheap. I asked if there was anywhere I could camp, maybe on the beach? Both hostel owner and Eduardo shook their heads. After some urging from Eduardo that this was the best I would find, I reluctantly agreed to stay. The sun was so hot, and my head heavy from too many tequilas the night before, (my new found friends at Puerto Escondido weren’t about to let me get away quietly, making my plans for an early night out of the question) I just wanted to lie down for a while. Eduardo then took me aside and explained that he was out of work, struggling to find a job and asked if I could please give him some money, ahhhh of course, now I see. I gave him a few pesos and said good bye. I went into my ply-wood walled room and dumped my heavy pack on the dirt floor. It was like an oven. I flicked on the fan which cranked up like a Boeing 747 but for all the noise produced a pathetic amount of wind, and lay down on the slouching, uncomfortable bed. After about an hour of restless sleep I grabbed my towel and headed to the beach. Eduardo was waiting for me on the street, an empty beer bottle and some cigarette butts beside him - I see my money went  to good use.
 “Where are you going?” he asked
“To the beach.” I replied.
“I will come with you.” Well, ok, it’s a free country I suppose. “But first, would you like something to drink? Maybe a beer, I know where to get ice cold beer - the cheapest in Zipolite.”
Actually a cold beer would be nice, it was still terribly hot. So we went to a small store across the road, I bought two beers and we pulled up a couple of plastic stools and sipped them outside on the street in the shade. Eduardo would not stop talking, telling me about this secret beach he knew about, and all the reasons I was lucky to have met him. I finished my beer quickly and started to say good bye, hoping I could leave him behind. I was beginning to tire of his company. I didn’t get a genuine feeling from him, I was starting to see that this relationship was based on me giving him money, and I felt stupid for falling for his “helpful local” routine.
“Wait, I will take you to this secret beach, come on, it is beautiful.” Yea, yea the most beautiful in Zipolite I’m sure, “You won’t find it by yourself.” One thing I have to give him credit for - he was persuasive.
“Ok, let’s go.” I reluctantly agreed. We walked to the beach, along a clear well-travelled path, and when we arrived, there were probably 10 people there, all males, all nude. Riiiight.

“What do you think? Beautiful, no?”

“Um yea, nice uh, rocks… well I’m kind of hungry I think I will go get some lunch.” As soon as I said these words, I regretted them.

“Ok, what would you like to eat? I know a great restaurant, blah, blah, blah…” I was not in the mood for this guy, but he hadn’t really given me a reason to tell him to get lost. It was incredibly hot, I was dehydrated, tired and hungry - maybe I was being unfair to him. He was unemployed, lonely and bored; it could be he was just trying to be helpful. Alright, I’ll give him another chance. We ended up back at the hostel, sitting at a plastic table out the front, dogs sniffing at our feet, eating chicken and rice and drinking another beer. So this is the “great restaurant” he was talking about? He finished his beer, ordered another, then asked if I could please pay for his lunch and drinks. Ok, that’s it. What had this guy actually done for me so far? Taken me to this “fantastic” hostel, “top secret” beach and now this “great” restaurant, all of which I could have quite easily found by myself. I could see he just saw me as a cash machine, now how do I get rid of him? That’s when Raul showed up. Overhearing my accent he asked me,

“Mate, are you a Kiwi?”
“Yea bro, where you from?”
 He joined our table and we drank a beer together, talking and laughing. Eduardo was clearly becoming frustrated at not being able to understand what we were saying, he kept trying to interrupt. Raul looked at me through his one good eye as if to say “Who is this dickhead?” I just shook my head.
“Where ya staying?” he asked me,
“Right here, out the back”
“Oh yea, is it nice?”
“Far from it, man.”
“How much?”
“Hundy.” ($10 NZ)
“Mate, I’m crashing on a hammock at this other place right on the beach for 40, or you can chuck your tent up for the same price.”
I looked sideways at Eduardo; we were talking too fast for him to comprehend “Old mate here told me there was nowhere to camp.”
“Well screw this guy, grab your stuff, I’ll show you where it is.”
That was just the motivation I needed. Eduardo was not happy, neither was the hostel owner, but they had lied to me so I didn’t feel guilty about leaving. I grabbed my stuff, paid for the food and beers and got out of there. I thanked Eduardo for his “help” but didn’t tell him where we were going.  He seemed a little offended, but no doubt he would soon find another tourist to leech off.
Arriving at the other place, I thought “Now, this is more like it.” There were other travellers, hammocks, music, a bar, a place for my tent and a nice, relaxed atmosphere. All of this directly on the beach and open to the breeze.
This was where I spent the next three days, waking up early when the heat in my tent became unbearable and moving to a hammock, reading a book or watching the waves, chatting with other travellers or listening to my iPod. Local ladies walking down the beach balancing buckets on their heads would pass by, selling anything from tamales and tacos to fresh fruit and cold beers.
I would occasionally take a stroll down to the more popular end of the beach, where the water had less of an undercurrent, for a swim. The good thing about Zipolite is there are no big resorts, night clubs or high end tourism. It is a pretty liberal place with a laid back hippy atmosphere, a place where reggae music and ganja smoke float on the ocean breeze, palm trees sway and stress melts away. It was a good life, but I soon became restless. Other travellers’ stories of the jungle in Chiapas made me hungry for something more adventurous. I wanted to see monkeys and parrots, I wanted to swing from the vines like Tarzan. I also wanted to get away from the oppressive heat. I felt my batteries had been sufficiently recharged, and I was ready for the next chapter. I now had a travelling partner in Raul, we were headed in the same direction so decided to go together. Little did we know we would be travelling together for the next six weeks, all the way down through the length of Belize and to the paradisiacal Bay Islands off Honduras’ Caribbean coast

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Back to the Ocean.

Finally, after 3 months land locked in a barren desert, I have made it to the ocean. After two brief stops - the first in chaotic Mexico City and then beautiful Oaxaca - the call of the ocean became too much and I jumped on a bus and headed to the beach. Now here I am, bobbing happily on a body board off the coast of southern Mexico, the sun on my back and my flippered feet flapping in the clear blue water beneath me. I am in Puerto Escondido, a popular gringo hangout on the Pacific coast. I'm back in the ocean and I couldn't be happier.

As to be expected the locals are claiming most of the set waves, leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps. It’s competitive here, people come from all over the world to surf this wave, and the atmosphere is a little hostile. But I am happy just to be back in the oceans cool embrace, rising and falling with her steady breathe and gazing out to the horizon, patiently waiting my turn. It’s hard enough to get out here anyway; although they don’t look so big from the shore, these waves are known in the surfing world as being heavy, powerful and unforgiving. Even the little ones are strong enough to hold you under for a few seconds.
The main beach of Puerto Escondido - Zicatela - is a long stretch of fine sand lined with restaurants and bars. I guess I came in the off season, or maybe the violence in the north has lowered the number of tourists here. Whatever the case, this place seems a little abandoned, the shops and restaurants are far from busy and all along the beach row upon row of empty deck chairs recline in the sun, waiting like open hands. Nevertheless it is still a popular destination for surfers and backpackers, neither of which I suppose are willing to pay to use a deck chair.
I see a peak rolling in wider than the others; this one’s got my name on it. I paddle hard to get into a good position, keeping my eye on the wave which has reared up to about two metres in height and is still growing.  I point my board towards the shore, looking over my shoulder and up at the giant gaping mouth as it starts to suck me in hungrily. The wave lifts me up, it is much bigger than I expected and I’m still a little deep of the take-off, the lip of the wave starts to curl in front of me. But I’m committed, I can hear the voices of my surfing friends back home “paddle, Cookie, paddle!” I kick with all my might and lean forward, teetering on the crest, my heart leaps as I peer over the drop. This wave is a monster, but I urge myself forward. With a last burst of energy I manage to push myself over the edge. I free fall down the face for what seems an eternity, then when finally my board hits the water again I lean hard into the wave and pull up with all my strength. The rail of my board slides, slips and then barely grips the wall of water. I look ahead down the length of the wave, urging myself forwards. But the wave is too fast and I can see it is about to close out on me. I try to carve higher and gain more speed, but it’s too late, the monster overtakes me with a roar like thunder and I’m enveloped in its furious grip. The board is ripped from my grasp, I am thrashed around like a rag doll in a tumble drier, then plunged deep into a silent darkness. Once the madness has passed, it takes me a second to re-orientate myself. I kick and kick towards the light, my lungs bursting, until finally I emerge gasping for air and grasping for my board. I pull at the leash on my wrist, but my board has abandoned me, I can see it, bobbing along happily still on the wave, headed to shore without me. Thanks for nothing buddy.
I manage (after a couple more rinse cycles) to swim to shore and I slump down heavily on the beach. The sun is low on the horizon and soon it will be sinking behind the hills where the main part of town is situated. I have been here for five days now, and haven’t seen any more of this place than my hostel, this beach and the road that runs parallel to it. Apparently there’s some other nice beaches around but I have been having a good enough time at this one - body boarding, swimming, reading and relaxing.  It is so good to be beside the ocean again. After three months spent further away from the ocean then I had ever been, I realised how big a part of my life it actually was. I love the mountains, I love the forest, but I think there's no better way to recharge your batteries then a trip to the sea, specifically the Pacific, in a way it's like having a physical connection with New Zealand
My hostel is right across the road from the beach, about 50 metres from where I now sit. When I arrived the owner, a jolly, long-haired, bare-chested mexican, welcomed me and showed me a dormitory. He led me over the suspicious pool of water creeping out from under the bathroom door and into a dark and dingey room smelling of surf wax and body odour. A lazy fan stirred the muggy air reluctantly and a fly droned around the room occasionally banging his head against the mildew stained walls. The metal bunk screeched like a frightened piglet when I sat on it, and the mattress was dirty and lumpy.
There was just one other occupant in the room, their sleeping outline barely visible through the sagging mosquito net. A pair of board shorts hung on the bunk bed, a towel on the floor and two surf boards leant against the wall.
I was then taken to the “kitchen” - a wobbly water-logged bench with a crooked sink, a dribbling garden hose for a tap, and a rusty gas burner - and the "bathroom" - a closet with a door that didn't shut properly and a drain which just didn't, hence the puddle spreading out the door.
“How much?” I enquired dubiously.
“7,000 pesos.” At just over $5 NZ it was cheap and nasty, but I didn’t plan on spending much time in the hostel. I was here to get reacquainted with my old friend the Pacific Ocean.
“I’ll take it.”
The owner Simon speaks perfect English, in fact he used to be a sports reporter for a television news channel in the US. It’s hard to imagine this now with his long unkempt hair, unshaven chubby face, large belly and raggedy shorts, but this guy used to be somewhat of a celebrity. After a few years in front of the camera he got tired of the stressful life in the north and moved back down to Mexico to open this hostel. He isn’t pulling in much money, but he’s his own boss, he lives across the road from the beach and he meets travellers from all over the world. He is a very sociable person, laid back, well-travelled and with many a story to tell. The perfect hostel owner, now all he needs is the perfect hostel cleaner…
One thing I’ve found while backpacking is if you can put up with the smells and dripping taps, often the dirt cheap places are where you will find the most interesting people. And this place is no exception. My roomie, Matsuo a surf board repair man from Japan, has worked hard for the past few years and now has enough money saved to travel round the planet surfing the best waves in the world. He speaks very little English and no Spanish, but he has a good, very calm energy, and we can quite happily sit in silence and watch the waves for hours. There’s Marcus the long, blonde haired surfer from Germany, stuck in Mexico because of the volcanic ash cloud floating over Europe from Iceand, he has travelled all the way up from Chile on chicken buses with his two surf boards - a feat I respect greatly knowing how hard it was for me backpacking with just a guitar. He has been to New Zealand, and likes drinking beer so, needless to say, we get along just fine. Then there’s Roberto the artesanista from Chile, who works with wire, shells, stones and beads, crafting bracelets, necklaces, and rings to sell on the street, this is how he funds his travels, and Eduardo from Guadalajara, Mexico with his bag full of random trinkets, sculptures and souvenirs he brought with him from the city to sell here, the first thing he did when he met me was place a small donkey carved from stone in my hand, “Un regalo” (a gift) he said with a smile. These two are true wheelers and dealers, great company, and there’s never a dull moment with them, they’re full of life and great ideas - but let’s just say they’re not the type of people I would lend my car to.

So many different people from all waks of life, each on their own path and this dirty hostel is the only place you will find all of them under the same roof, sharing a meal, a beer, swapping stories and travel experiences, inspirations and philosophies before carrying on their way.
As I watch the sun disappear behind the hills the waves lap gently at my feet, inviting me for one last ride. But I’m tired and hungry, and headed to Zipolite in the morning - a smaller beach further along the coast. According to my guide book it is a laid back hippy hang out. Sounds like a good place to swing in a hammock for a couple of days and take a little time to bathe in the energy which flows from the Pacific Ocean before going Indiana Jones and heading deep into the jungle of Chiapas the doorway to Central America and home to Palenque, an ancient city left all but abandoned by the mysterious Mayans. What lies in store for me down there I can only imagine, but I guess there’s just one way to find out.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A foreign land.

From the mountains, fiords and glaciers of Patagonia, my next trail building contract took me to the barren desert of Northern Mexico. In this totally unfamiliar environment I realised how much I took for granted back in New Zealand, and it dawned on me that maybe Fred Dagg was right when he sang "we don't know how lucky we are, mate."

"How much further to the top?"
It's Dan, I can tell by his voice that he's only a few metres behind me but a wall of thorny branches blocks him from view. "Well, surely we must be at least half way up by now." My reply sounds less reassuring than I intended.

We are in the middle of a steep, tight canyon choked with thorny bushes, in the desert of Northern Mexico. We encounter these ferocious trees every day while cutting trail and have dubbed them "piranha bushes". Usually there's space to manoeuvre around them but here they bristle all around us, their thorns grinning.
What an alien place this is, so different from anything I’ve experienced before – in terms of the environment, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego aren’t massively different from parts of New Zealand, but here, this is like another  world. And the differences don’t stop with the environment. 

Two months ago, in a bike shop in San Antonio, Texas, when I told the attendants that I was going to cross the border to build trails in the North of Mexico they couldn’t believe it. “Are you crazy man?! It’s super dangerous down there.” I dismissed the comment as a typical American over reaction - close minded Texans who have been exposed to too much Fox News fear mongering. I took my new bike and wheeled it out the door, leaving them shaking their heads behind me. Turns out I was the ignorant one.
Because the truth is, a war rages in North Mexico. A war fought between drug cartels that battle for control of supply routes into the US. In the past five years almost 40,000 people have been killed. The police here are the most corrupt in the world (while New Zealand’s, apparently, are the least), the politicians, if they’re not in the cartels pockets, are too scared to make a stand, those who do are often gruesomely executed, as are the journalists who are brave or foolish enough to tell the truth. The criminals are the ones in power here, and they rule with terror and ruthlessness, attacking super markets, churches and even pre-schools to instil fear and maintain control. Can you imagine living in a place like this?

Working at Rancho San Enrique - a cluster of unassuming buildings adrift in a sea of sand and cacti - 5 hours drive from the closest town, we are able to carry on blissfully ignorant of the war which crackles and burns around us. Our main concerns out here are the bike trails we are building, what the weather is doing and how many beers are in the fridge. The only obvious sign that things aren’t completely stable in these parts is the military check point we pass through to get here and the giant machine gun mounted Humvee which occasionally rumbles down the road, packed with young soldiers armed to the teeth.
For the past two weeks we have been cutting a track in the shadow of Taco Canyon, a huge rift cutting deep into the sun-baked mountains which define the Northern border of Rancho San Enrique. Often, while leaning on my rake (discussing work of course), my eyes drift up to the head of the sheer sided valley and I notice a big crack in the cliffs. It looks like a good way to get up to the tops, from where there must be some amazing views out over the desert.  Dan, Kieran and I decide to give it a shot one afternoon. Our plan is to walk up the canyon to the bottom of the crack and then see if we can use it to access the top. We jump in the Kubota, a small 4wd buggy, and drive it down the long sandy road. Cacti whip the windscreen as we go.
We follow the road straight to the gaping mouth of the canyon then plough into the soft and slidey gravel of the valley floor. Soon boulders like giant, pale dice block our path. We leave the Kubota ticking in the shade and, taking our packs of water and snacks, continue on foot. We clamber over and around these massive, smooth, cool grey rocks, tyring to steer clear of the thorn bushes which snarl and scratch from the cracks. After about an hour we reach the base of the gorge, the sun high and harsh in a burnt blue sky, and we gulp back more water.
Apart from the obvious military presence, there are other, more subtle signs that life here in North Mexico is far from easy. One day I was talking to Louis, one of the local labourers who I became friends with, we were outside the house watching  the sky blaze with another stunning sunset, chatting about nothing in particular, when I asked him whether he had ever seen any gang violence in his home town. I can still remember how his eyes glazed over, as if hardened with some memory of his past. He suddenly became evasive and made an excuse to leave. As he walked away I had to wonder at what those eyes had witnessed.
It was then I realised how different we were, Louis and I. No matter how much we got to know each other, there was always going to be this invisible barrier between us. Our histories were just too different.  I had grown up in one of the most peaceful countries in the world, somewhere where you can trust the police, where the violence on the TV news takes place in another world, far away over miles of ocean. For him it was right outside his front door.
The going doesn't look easy. It´s a steep and narrow ravine, tangled with thorn trees and boulders. From here we can see to the top and it looks a long way off. Wouldn't it be nice to go back to the ranch, get out of the sun, put our feet up and crack a cold beer? Certainly, but we can't go back and tell the 12 other boys that we didn’t give it a shot can we? No way Jose.
We slowly work our way up and once amongst the boulders it's a matter of guessing which thorny alley-way will take us the furthest. The walls creep closer and closer on both sides as we climb higher, until the sky is just a narrow ribbon above our heads. We look in envy through the sweat in our eyes at the clear and open blue space. A jet black raven passes in front of the sun, his shadow sweeping over us.
"How much further to the top?"
I have no idea.

The more I think about the situation with Louis and I, the guiltier I feel. What did I ever do to be blessed with this life - getting paid to travel around the world building mountain bike trails? Do I really deserve it?  Here I am, a tumble-weed gringo blow in, earning ten times as much money as him and riding around on a bicycle that he could never afford, while he toils and sweats under the harsh desert sun for peanuts, hundreds of kilometres from his wife and kids. For me this is just a short stint, a small taste of life in the desert, something to brag about to my mates when I get back home. This is his reality.
As we push through the bushes, the thorns tear at our skin, snatch at our hair and clothes. I never expected things to be this hard. For a long time it seems we are making no head way at all. We are getting tired and running low on water. But then the piranha bushes begin slowly to thin out, the river of sky over our heads widens and suddenly we emerge, scratched, sweating and dirty, onto the mountain tops.
I remember one evening when I was having another chat with Louis. The sun was low on the horizon, dousing the craggy and barren mountain range behind us in electric golden sunlight. I was telling him about a hike I did in Tierra del Fuego, trying to explain the strange landscape of frozen lakes and glacier covered peaks. Shaking his head in wonder, he asked me questions about the cold, the ice, the wildlife. Then he asked me if I was going to continue travelling after my stint here. I was kind of reluctant to tell him, I didn’t want him to resent me for having these opportunities he would never have. In the end I told him my plans to travel south through Mexico and into Central America, then fly to Europe to work and travel over there. His eyes lit up, I could see how excited he was for me. He was saying how cool that was going to be, and how he would love to go to Europe. There was no resentment or jealousy, just admiration and excitement.
From up here we can literally see for miles. An ocean of desert laid at our feet, dissected by dead straight roads heading determinedly into oblivion. In the distance we can see spiralling chimneys of dust tracing their toes in the sand, heads swaying like cobras. Great pale faces of rock rise sheer out of the earth like icebergs. Dan, Kieran and I stand in silence, surveying the foreign land we find ourselves in. Three kiwi lads surrounded by a harsh wilderness of scorpions, coyotes and rattle snakes, marooned on an island of peace in the midst of a war we will never fully understand.
Louis' unexpected reaction made me think. In life everybody is dealt a different hand, and it’s seldom a fair deal, but what really matters is how you play your cards. I have been blessed with a good life, and I can’t let shame or guilt stop me from playing my cards the way I want to. Seeing the way people live over here has opened my eyes to a grim reality – it’s a cruel world – but it has also made me realise something else, that to not make the most of each and every opportunity is not only an injustice to you, but an injustice to all the people who will never get that opportunity themselves. If Louis knew I had passed up on seeing the world because I felt guilty for receiving the opportunity, he would think I was an idiot.
When I return home, I will definitely appreciate our green and tranquil little country that much more. But for now I think I will wander a bit further, open my eyes a little wider and see what more I can learn from this crazy, cruel but wonderful world. After all, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.