Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 8th April 2011

The beginning of what was to be a very long day didn't start promisingly. "I feel sick" announced George. We were sitting on our rucksacks by a Caye Caulker jetty, waiting for the 7am water taxi to Belize City, the first of a variety pack of transport options we were to sample that day.

Despite the water taxi bouncing with increasing violence over the Caribbean, when it deposited us at Belize City George's nausea appeared to have diminished, and we jumped in a taxi bound for the airport. My heart sank as the driver told us he was going to take us on a guided tour of the city, and then asked what time our flight was. George lied and said it was an hour earlier than it was, but the tour began anyway. Fortunately this wasn't, as I had suspected, a convoluted way of taking us to his friends' shops and restaurants (like a crooked Avis driver had done in Delhi). Instead he simply pointed out the points of (vague) interest that cropped up on the way (some government buildings, a sports stadium, a boys' school, a girls' school) and it turned out to be a pleasant way of seeing a city that received wisdom states is too much of a dump to bother staying the night in.

There's not much to do in Belize City airport, so George and I spent much of the time messing around on our iPhones as we waited for the plane. This is one of our two top ways of killing time. The other has been playing "Shithead", but George has been reluctant to play following my historic winning streak in Caye Caulker. I haven't seen the pack of cards for at least a week. After about 3 hours' wait, we were flown to El Salvador (an hour's journey) where we waited yet again, this time to board the 5 hour flight to Los Angeles.

The queue for immigration at LAX seemed to take almost as long as the flight there. But by the time we got to the front of the queue we were virtually waved through (at least after submitting our finger prints), a very different experience to my ordeal at Wayne State Airport in Detroit some years ago, where I was removed to a separate room for questioning. Customs was a breeze, and then it was on to the Hertz shuttle which dropped us a few miles over on the other side of the airport (it is massive, thank God we didn't attempt to walk to the car rental lot as we had briefly discussed). Night had well and truly fallen by the time we tracked down the correct car parking bay and came face to face with The Beast.

We booked the rental car on the Hertz website some months ago (a rare example of our forward-planning on this trip). Not being a particularly numerically-orientated person (i.e. my maths is exceptionally poor) I didn't bother looking at the dimensions of the vehicle we were to hire. I'm also not very automobile orientated (i.e. I know absolutely nothing about them) so engine size, cylinders, wheelbase, meant nothing to me, as little as height, width, length. Instead I just looked at the picture on the website and went for what looked like a nice compact SUV. The Chevy Traverse is, in reality, an absolute monster. Behind the front seats there are two further rows of seats, and then a boot. In terms of width, it is akin to a transit van. George flat-out refused to drive. I climbed in. It was lovely and new, with helpful features like rear camera display in the rear-view mirror and that beeping thing that tells you when you are too near an object (invaluable in a tank like this - what a shame it only works for the front and back, not the sides). Despite these features, I was still bloody terrified, but not as terrified as George who, as I thundered out into the the LA night desperately trying to listen to the woman's voice purring out of the SatNav, gasped and shrieked and exclaimed at every turn, stop, start and near-miss.

We made it though, down to Venice Beach, and a car park, and a hotel, and, at last, bed.

149 - posted at 02:12:59

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Tuesday 5th April 2011

I feel a bit silly now, getting so worked up over seeing one measly turtle in Roatan. In our snorkelling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the coast of Caye Caulker in Belize we bobbed around with loads of them - along with dozens of rays, barracuda, a huge and terrifyingly confident groupa and plenty of other fish of various shapes sizes and colours, all going about their daily business over Belize's barrier reef. Hopefully a record of this menagerie will be on the Underwater Instant camera we bought - that is if it really was waterproof, and if I didn't put my thumb over the lens every time.

The snorkelling trip consisted of 3 further dips off the side of the boat, in different spots around the reef, one of which was in "Shark Alley", where we shared the water with a few nurse sharks, some up to five foot long, all sinister long bodies and opaque blue eyes.

Caye Caulker itself is a Caribbean island, just under 2 hours by boat from Belize City. It's much smaller than Roatan - there are no cars, only golf carts bumbling up and down the sand streets. We stayed in a guesthouse very near "The Split", where a hurricane split the island in half about 30 years ago. The guesthouse boasted its very own deck, extending into the sea. In an attempt to escape the sun's furnace I jumped from the deck, intending to swim around the side of the island and through the Split. After experiencing initial problems owing to the water only reaching up to my shins, and consequently swimming with the seabed brushing my chest, I reached deeper water and swam around to the small artificial beach on the side of the Split (which, owing to the bar at one corner is Spring Break central ("SPRING BREAK!")). I then turned to swim back and found myself in a bit of difficulty. Battling against a very strong current, I just about managed it around the corner of the island, but then found myself splashing around in a choppy and cruel sea. Spluttering and coughing up sea-water I labouriously made my way back towards the deck. After 20 minutes of struggle, seriously worried I could go on no further, I felt I had no option but to tread water for a few minutes, in order to recover my dwindling strength. I put down my legs, only to find myself standing in waist-high water. To complete my humiliation, I found a sea louse sticking to my foot when I climbed out.

Caye Caulker also offered us lots of cocktails (after too many of which I gleefully drew all over the tables and walls of a pizza joint that encouraged the practice), excellent pizzas (see above), playful local dogs and unbelievable amounts of almost unbearably hot sun, at least for our timid North Atlantic complexions. This nourished my/our innate laziness, and apart from our snorkelling excursion we did very little else in our five days there, even ruling out a kayak excursion to the mysterious far side of the Split, where crocodiles lurk in a lagoon, and boa constrictors hang in the trees. Our North Atlantic, or at least Anglo-Saxon, attitude may have also rendered us slightly aloof, on an island where people are forever cycling past trying to get you to buy some cashews, or beads, or lunch at a particular restaurant, or cake (although The Cake Man's cake was amazing), or, and most persistently, tamales - "HOT Tamales, I got HOT tamales, chicken, vegetable, pork TAMALES". At first we felt obliged to politely decline, but over the days we simply ignored the constant solicitations, muttering instead to ourselves, "I don't want any fucking tamales. What the hell are tamales anyway?"

Caye Caulker

148 - posted at 19:30:03

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Friday 1st April 2011

San Ignacio in Belize, just past the Guatemala border, has to be one of the friendliest towns we've troubled over the last two months. Admittedly communication here was easier than in other Central American countries or Argentina, because English, not Spanish, is the official lanaguage in Belize. This meant an end to my halting and self-conscious Spanish and to George's resolute insistence that she is no good at lanaguages and should therefore be absolved from either trying to understand something or having to make herself understood. It was only when reading up on Belize a couple of days before crossing the border that I learnt that Belize had been a British colony until 1981 - as usual, my general ignorance continues to startle and worry me.

The centre of town contained a couple of good and cheap restaurants, a small bar behind which an excellent mixologist made me too many Long Island Ice Teas, and Pop's restaurant, a little cafe up a side street, which we were told served the best breakfast in town. My over easy eggs and toast leant weight to this opinion. After making short work of them I attempted a scribbled drawing of the place, including a surreptitious sketch of a rotund ruddy faced man with white hair and a beard. I showed my picture to a local a couple of days later and he confirmed that this was Pop himself. I wasn't sure whether to be more pleased that we had been in Pop's presence or that my scrawl was actually competent enough for someone to recognise who was in it.

I'm not sure George was as keen on San Igancio as me. At one point she decided to go for a stroll around the streets on her own. She came back a short time later complaining that it was impossible for her to go around alone because of the unwanted attention she got from men ("Hey lady", whistles, stares etc).

We stopped in San Igancio because we wanted to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal (or "ATM") caves outside the town. This is a cave network in the middle of some jungle where numerous Mayan artefacts have been found. To get there, we hiked along a pleasant jungle path, wading through a river a couple of times, before getting to the mouth of the cave. There we put on our helmets, complete with head torch, and jumped into the water that fills the mouth of the cave, before swimming and climbing up a rock ledge inside. I have to be honest - I was more excited at the swimming, wading, squeezing through narrow holes in rocks, crawling up gushing channels of water etc etc that took us deeper into ATM than the Mayan history involved. But then, as if it couldn't get anymore Indiana Jones, we walked across a almighty stone chamber, deep underground, covered in glittering cauxite, eldritch rocks formations, stalactites and stalacmites, to find, amongst the ubiquitous broken Mayan pots, a skull lodged in the floor. And then another one further on. And then, deeper in still, an entire Mayan skeleton, furred in calcium built up over the hundreds of years its lain there.

The caves are very popular with tourists. However, our guide manaufactured it so we were the last into the caves that day, and so also the last out. As a result, as we took our leave from the gaping skeleton and begain the 20 minute swim/squeeze/scamble/slip/wade to daylight, we left the caves in total darkness and silence (apart from the occaisional drip). The best thing of all was to still to come through. We reached the stone ledge at the mouth of the cave, and I jumped in the pool to swim out. As I swam, I looked back at George splashing around behind me, so entranced by the excitement and novelty of the place that, as she spluttered through the water, she couldn't take the grin off her face.

Actun Tunichil Muknal

147 - posted at 00:39:32

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Tuesday 29th March 2011

Unfortunately I wandered off Roatan with the key to our little cottage still in my pocket, something I only realised as we were gliding back to the Honduran mainland on the ferry. Consequently, it accompanied George and me on the buses we took across the north of the country to Copan Ruinas, a small, attractive town, that the guidebooks invariably describe as "colonial". This means that it has cobbled streets, pretty, if slightly shabby low-rise villas and lots flowers and greenery poking through cracks in said cobbles and villas. The taxis are tuk-tuks, one of which rocketed us through the streets, bouncing up and down the steep hills in squeals both of breaks and George.

We were lucky in Liberia (Costa Rica) when we rocked up in town to find a Sabenero festival in full swing. And so we were in Copan. In the town square that evening, hundreds of people milled around, amongst steaming food stalls and, constructed in the middle of the square, a faux Mayan temple. Two men dressed only in loincloths and Mayan headgear stood awkwardly on the structure, while dreadful "new age" synthesizer music crackled out of a PA system.

The Mayan theme and our visit to the town were inspired by the Mayan ruins that lie just a kilometre outside Copan Ruinas. We walked there the next day and clambered over the ancient stones. A few small pyramids are dotted over the site (I observed one female tourist climb to the top of one, and sit cross-legged bowing occasionally, obviously attempting to commune with the ancient race who practiced blood-letting and human sacrifice) in between huge tree roots, and rubble, but it's the amazingly preserved hieroglyphics that are the real draw. Faces, skulls, animals and baffling pictograms are etched all over stelae, the tumble down buildings and a giant staircase.

We encountered the Mayans again a few days later in Guatemala. We were staying in a small lakeside village called El Remate in a cosy thatched bungalow. George's iPhone alarm cut into the darkness at 5:00am. "This was a dreadful mistake" were her first words as we struggled to get out of bed to meet the 5:30am minibus to Tikal. But it wasn't. The minibus got us to the Tikal site at around 6:15. Rejecting a guide we strolled into a deserted ancient city. The Mayan ruins at Tikal cover a huge area filled with magisterial ruined plazas and giant pyramids that poke up through the jungle canopy. We wandered around, climbing the tallest pyramids, admiring the view and then getting giddy with vertigo when we realised how high we were. As we fulfilled our Indiana Jones fantasies, the jungle woke up around us, birds letting off bizarre squawks, howlers monkeys groaning, and the odd spider monkey swinging around.

By the time we were ready to leave the park was starting to fill up with more visitors and tour groups, and the magic of having the place to ourselves had dissolved. But while it lasted it was amazing, and as we passed the incoming tourists on our way out we wore our best smug faces, knowing we'd had the best of the place.

Temple V, Tikal

146 - posted at 19:44:41

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Monday 21st March 2011

Apart from the complete absence of Lilt, Roatan is exactly what I would have expected from a Caribbean island: sparkling clear water, chaotic sandy streets, white beaches, a slightly self-conscious doctrine of "relax" and jerk chicken. It also boasts a population of expats and regulars who are fiercely proud of their adoption of "The Island", and we were involved in and eavesdropped on regular conversations establishing an interlocuter's credentials when it came to Roatan. Such an attitude rubbed off on us quickly, and, on occasion, it was with disapproval befitting grass-roots locals that we watched hundreds of tourists disgorged from the cruise ships swarm over the beaches.

The stay on Roatan felt like a holiday from our travels. We stayed in a too expensive hotel, with ocean views, swinging hammocks, a help yourself bar and tasty breakfasts. We wandered the little streets, eating lots, drinking cocktails, admiring the sunsets and listening to a soft-rock covers band. But best of all we went snorkelling over the coral at the end of West Bay.

West Bay is a huge white sanded beach. Most of its length is taken over by the guests of the resorts that line it, but at the end, where the coral is, and where there are fewer people (because the resorts and their sun beds don't stretch this far) we laid out our beach towels and headed into the sea. The water was incredibly clear, and populated by all sorts of fish, of all sorts of colours (the names of all of them a mystery to me). They clustered around the coral in large shoals, darted around on their own, or hung in the water in handfuls, completely ignoring us (apart from the one that bit George on the finger). After 100 metres or so, the coral abruptly dropped away and the seabed plunged to about 20 feet below us, but it was still perfectly clear and like being in a very deep swimming pool, albeit it one with a sand floor and through which squid and other weird creatures made their way. Back, nearer the shore, I spotted a couple of barracuda, menacingly motionless, and, best of all, a huge water turtle languidly flapping along, a couple of small fish attached to its shell.

I also had a traditional British roast on the beach, the ingredients being the sun, woefully inadequate factor 10 and my skin. After one day, my frazzled back was extremely sensitive, and my subsequent snorkelling had to be in a t-shirt, and after 2 days I was kept awake at night by the awful prickly itching. But itīs just not a holiday without some serious sun damage.

Roatan Pool

145 - posted at 21:30:18

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