Amapala, Honduras

Amapala, Honduras

The narrow mountain highway has to make way for three cars at times, as we are sporadically over-taken by pick-ups and jeeps managed by drivers with poor judgement of distance and a tearing hurry. It’s easier to understand now why we’d been given so many varying answers as to how long it takes to get from the city to the coast; if you drive at break-neck speed and are unfazed by pulling out and overtaking the space-hogging lorries, holding your breath as you pass the hairpin bends, like thread through a needle, you will certainly arrive quicker.

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We take a more gentle pace for most of the route until we get more confident and match some of the Honduran drivers with a few equally reckless manoeuvres. The highway here is always a feast for the eyes, and just looking about you provides constant visual stimulation.

The slow moving truck in front, sagging beneath its heavy load and belching out black smoke, carries more than cargo. There are foot passengers standing close to each other, tightly squeezed and jiggling up and down, with the bumps in the road, wind in their hair. It looks a bit precarious and I fear for their safety as they lurch around a bend, some of them losing their balance.

Vibrant palms and thick forest with varying layers of foliage spill out into the road and tap the glass windscreen as we pass. Well paved asphalt gives way to crumbling terrain with treacherously deep chasms that are more than mere potholes; deep wells that would snap the bottom of your car if you weren’t quick enough to swerve the wheel out of harm’s way. In some parts of the road it’s like traversing the surface of the moon.

Beyond the reckless driving, the slow spluttering trucks and the neglected road surface, you have to pay attention to any other hazard that might unexpectedly cross your path; a chicken, a stray dog, a blindly roaming herd of sleepy cows, donkeys chomping at the grass verges, sheep, pigs, and farmers crossing the road with their ox and cart.

It evokes a deep contrast of feelings in the soul. In the blare and the buzz and frenetic pace of the city, you forget that deep in the lush jungles of Central America, peasants are working the land with beasts and ploughs, as they did centuries before. The simplicity, yet harshness, of the daily grind in the unforgiving steep terrain.

A young boy holds high above his head a metal prong speared with something it takes my mind a while to identify. Fried “lagartos” (lizards) are for sale with spicy jalapeno sauce. A giant yellow butterfly floats past and the sun streaks through the mist in two straight rays that cut through the undergrowth.

DSCF0749As we deviate from the main road towards Amapala, the mountains fold into flat lands of rice fields and corn plantains. The land is more remote here and I can’t help but notice it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen another car. We gasp as we turn the bend and the ocean glimpses in sight, dotted with green luscious islands and breath-taking dormant volcanoes, covered in dense forest, rising out of the Pacific.

Not exactly sure of where we are going or what we will find when we arrive, we roll into the little village, gateway to isla del tigre and Amapala, where all of a sudden there are clusters of people selling quesadillas, pupusas, soda and cell phone credit; some things have developed in recent years.

A stout lady with a wide nose and thick jaw, and a red tunic covering her clothing runs towards us with surprising speed for her bulk, and signals to us where we can park the car. Not having any better indication, we followed her instructions and left the rental car outside this lady’s mother’s house behind some gating, where “it would be safe” for the night, while we took the boat to the island and found lodging there.

As we stepped out of the car the heat hit us like a slap in the face as she began to explain to us the different options and prices of transport to Amapala and how things worked around here, confiding in us that, if she were in our position, she would go straight to hotel Miramar. She pauses and widens her eyes emphatically, explaining that that way we could save a few lempiras.

Anko asks if she has a cell number we can reach her on, clearly a little apprehensive at leaving the car here. She stops and stares deeply at him until her face breaks into a beaming grin and she lets out a loud cackle, explaining that she has never been allowed to purchase a mobile phone.

Apparently her husband is the jealous type and doesn’t appreciate her receiving calls from random strangers. But, she does give us her name – Delia – and inclines her head towards the old lady with the face full of wrinkles, rocking on the chair outside the house; that is her mother and she never goes anywhere. The car will be safe with them.

Placing all our trust in this jovial lady, we follow her to the dock, where two young boys scamper towards us and offer to take us in their boat. We strike up a deal, far more beneficial to them than us and the little engine chokes into life. We clamber aboard and set forth towards the island, the gentle breeze in our faces providing relief from the constant unrelenting sun. This part of the Pacific is nestled between green and fertile mountain islands and the water in places has the deep florescent color of the jungle reeds.

There are some women washing clothing by the waterside, scrubbing up and down on a steel board with bars of soap, one of them looks up and grins as we pass. Wooden shacks and barren blackened beaches provide a stark contrast to the pristine houses, rising out of sweeping palm forest, fronted by expansive windows, sun glinting on the glass, and private swimming pools at the back. This is a land of cosmic gaps between the rich and the poor, the staggering disparity at times almost absurd.

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We ease into the little bay docking at the orange hotel all but hidden by the imposing jungle behind. A dark skinned man with sleepy eyes and a loose ponytail stood in the doorway and with a relaxed smile shouted out “bienvenidos” as he welcomed us inside.

He explained to us the layout of the island, the prices and the (some-what) limited services of the hotel, in a painfully slowly manner that made me want to finish his sentences for him. I ask a question and think he hasn’t heard me, or hasn’t understood, as too many seconds pass before he answers.

The delayed reactions and impossibly slow speech is quite a trait of Amapala, as we discovered. The pace of life is slower; the hot sun obliging you to walk with less haste; the lack of urgency an inbuilt quality.

As we follow him up the steps to the rooms, Anko points out a dead scorpion about 8 inches long on the ground. The dense forest around the hotel seems to hum with insect life and little geckos dance across the ceilings, clicking to each other in their curious song. I close my eyes for a moment. I’m standing on a small piece of earth somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, off the mainland of Central America with barely any civilization around.

The young boy with the lazy eye and even slower speech hangs off the steering wheel, one elbow out the window as he takes us to “playa grande” where we can take a dip, get a beer and nestle our toes between the volcanic sand. Anko asks him what he does for fun and if there are many girls his age on an island such as this. After a painfully slow pause, he lets out an embarrassed laughter, “no” he laments, there are however, lots of “homosexuals”.

I swear I think this was probably the last thing I expected him to say, as we grind over the stony roads, past cheerful, bright yellow three-wheel taxis, a little stone church, a smattering of small stores and sleepy old ladies rocking in their chairs on the streets. I am trying to imagine a love parade procession here and somehow, just can’t.

He lets us out at the beach at one of the rather dilapidated “chiringitos”,(the closest thing to a restaurant here) that line the thin stretch of sand. Tin or straw roofs propped up by wooden poles, with gentle waves lapping at their base.

DSCF0760We drop down our packs at a plastic table and I jump up to dip my toes into the warm water. I look back at the collection of shaky buildings. As rustic as it may be, “playa grande” is not without its charm. If you can get past the dirty appearance of the water from the black sand and the various unidentified floating objects brushing frequently against your skin. From the water, looking back at the thick jungle jutting into the ocean, I am mesmerized. I do a half-turn towards the horizon; the looming volcano shrouded with cloud at its peak is El Salvador.

We order large plates of fried fish and camerones (shrimp), washed down with cold cerveza and lime, hot sauce and platanos, served with a plastic fork and no knife, making it impossible to eat without having to grab it with our fingers and gnaw the delicious flesh off the bones.

The sand felt good underfoot and the ever-present sun burned through the straw roof. The stress of the week and constant pressure to perform is forgotten for a while as the sounds of the jungle mix with Latin pop beats and the shrieks of giggling children bathing and frolicking in the sea.

A mangy dog lies beneath my feet, scratching its ear with the back of its paw, flicking fleas in my direction. We decide it’s time to get up and move, and walk further along the beach before launching ourselves into the water, just floating for a while, drinking in the scene.

As we get out and walk along the beach, four sting rays are lined up on the sand. Looking back at the water we realize what we’ve been floating next to without realizing. It’s time for another beer and we pull up at a chiringito packed with families. There were people eating, chatting and children playing football, the goal posts delineated with wooden sticks.

DSCF0776I’m aware of a presence behind me as I turn around to be met with a wide smile and a pair of deep brown eyes. A small boy, Carlitos, lathered in thick sun cream. We become engaged in conversation and he tells me his age (4) and that he prefers swimming to football. I tell him that I come from England, a place far away, and ask him if he knows where it is. He contemplates for a while before nodding his head rapidly and explaining that you have to take a boat to get there.

We are suddenly joined by his brothers and sisters and cousins, who form an inquisitive group around us. They start to count in English and know some of the months of the year. The little girl, appropriately named Linda, is so beautiful with her soulful eyes and earnest answers , and I wished I could take her with me, and as we left she threw her arms around me, not wanting to let me go.

As we stroll through the town on the way back to the hotel, the cobbled streets were filled with little houses, most of whose inhabitants were outside perched on their chairs, enjoying the evening breeze. Some women were preparing steaming hot tortillas with a variety of fillings in different colored pots on a large wooden table. I stopped in a pulperia to get some water, which is sold her in plastic bags, a cheaper packaging than a bottle . I am not quite sure how to hold it as it slides through my fingers, like a water balloon.

DSCF0784We hear thunder rumbling ominously in the distance and the storm clouds, jet black against the back drop of the jungle, threaten broodingly, flickering now and then with rays of lightening. We barely make it back before the storm breaks, emptying the sky with a ferocious downpour. We sit and watch as the rain soaks the earth and the violence of the storm in all its glory plays out on front of our eyes. A praying mantis crawls up the wall and the lights flicker with insects. Nature in all its glory and we are in its territory.

We survive the night and the morning dawns bright and calm and we start off the day with a “plato tipico” which definitely gives a full English breakfast a run for its money. Refried beans with platanos, egg, rice and tortillas certainly sets you up for the day.

The car has been safely protected as promised and as we pull away from the frantically waving and grinning Delia, I feel somehow in some way that I will be back here again one day.

Just a Journalist Loose in Central America

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It’s certainly different. I’m guessing there are few jobs in which you get to sit down with the Minister of Education in one moment, and the manager of a casino in the next. We discuss remedies for a country with an average time spent in school of five years per person and a union of teachers that aren’t sufficiently incentivized to comply with their 200 days a year in the classroom. Payment is a problem of course. The “change in government” or “military coup” (depending on your viewpoint), left the country bankrupt and you can certainly see where the priorities truly lie.

Our interview with Education takes place in a temporary office by a shopping mall, as the last tropical storm that passed through the region, Hurricane Agatha, a few weeks back, tore down the top two floors of the offices of the Ministry of Education, located in the poorest district of town. Some ministers have it easier than others.

With our suitcases in the left luggage room of our hotel, we just had time for perhaps the worst meal I’ve ever eaten (and that is saying quite a lot) in TGI Fridays in a nearby shopping mall. The over-zealous North American franchise just doesn’t quite work here, as the numerous servers with ridiculous uniforms of stockings, over-sized hats, badges and stripy shirts wonder around, attentive to just about everything except the 3 tables between them. I flashback to when “Euro Disney” hit Paris with it’s peppy, snappy, all day smile culture and fast food outlets; the concept of which was totally lost upon the sullen French.

From there we make our way to the Majestic Casino. Having just spent ten minutes in the back of the stiflingly hot car, I feel like my face is literally melting, as we negotiate our way inside. Entering this establishment is quite a feat, and we have to pass through the security guards with AK47s and knock surreptitiously on the bolted doors to pass. The interview is conducted in a haze of smoke.

It’s a mixture of sensations frankly and I haven’t had enough time to adapt. Sometimes I just feel overwhelmingly guilty. As I look around the grotesquely over-furnished offices and listen submissively to the same vapid rhetoric from insipid politicians about eradicating poverty and sharing the wealth.

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I spent such a frustrating morning today trying to schedule interviews with largely corrupt or targeted businessmen that frankly prefer to keep a low profile. Out of more than 100 phone calls I successfully confirmed 2 appointments. “Fijase que sigue almorzando” (he’s still at lunch); coo the receptionists with a rhythmical Latin lilt that makes it impossible to stay angry at them.

Still, lunches that last three hours, phone calls that are directly cut off, being passed to the wrong person, or worse, given the wrong address, gets a little tiring after a while. It’s also a curious thing in Honduras that no one has a proper address. Not once have I been given a name, number and street. It’s always “3 blocks west of the white river, between the blue house and the petrol station” or “next to the shopping mall above the Central bank”. I don’t think anyone uses the actual mail here. You would have to obtain a very big envelope, with the description “left at the brick building and before the police station, after the banana seller, Tegucigalpa, Honduras”.

The truth is it’s a hard slog if you try to go it alone here. In countries like these you are nothing without who you know and if there is no one to open the door for you then it will be slammed in your face. In their tightly knit communities everything moves by contacts and there is nothing like a nod of the head from the appropriate minister to let you in.

The escalating drug problem north of the border in Mexico is only exacerbating the outlook for the future here. Moving the filth from one region to another, re-routing the drug runs through Central America. How else can you explain the announcement of the closure of the international airport of Tegucigalpa for one week? (In fact it was only 24 hours in the end). Apparent holes in the runway sounded about as plausible as British Rail’s “leaves on the line” and I think that few people were fooled. The enormous jets that landed in the middle of the night loaded with cash told a different story.

You certainly get to mix with some of the most disgustingly privileged people on earth, as they slump back in their leather sofas, stacked high with plush silk cushions, bleating on about all the triumphs realized under their leadership. Feather-filled pillows, an old-style library, various elaborate artefacts, a Honduran flag and a panoramic view of Tegucigalpa.

Apparently there’s a popular saying that Columbus said to the people of Honduras “no hagan nada hasta que vuelva” (don’t do anything until I get back) and that’s exactly what they’ve done. But with over 65% below the poverty line, natural disasters, out-of-control epidemics of diseases and a wealthy class of European descent that isn’t willing to share the power, it’s so hard to see a resolution to this problem.

I admit I wrestle with my own prejudices. I am automatically opposed to the people we see, without hearing what they have to say and it makes it hard to find a thread of common ground between this largely nepotistic, right-wing, undeservedly advantaged society.

Still, it’s a constant learning curve, as stressful as it can be. We sat down with one of the most influential businessman in Honduras, who inclined towards us and explained the truth (or at least his version of it) behind Zelaya’s abrupt removal from power in the middle of the night at gun point almost exactly a year ago.

It’s depressing, but you find out quickly that there is very little difference between the right and the left. Whichever party allows the business men to exploit the people, pay the least taxes possible and attract foreign investment without internal political PR disasters; the better. If you know whose pocket to grease, then it really is fairly indifferent which undeserving puppet is put in power.

The best part of my day is kicking off my heels, letting down my hair, talking to the people in the street and walking to the supermarket. A man with no shirt and a carton a strawberries balanced above his head asks me if I want to buy. I smile and say not this time but ask him if he knows of a pharmacy nearby. Not only does he explain, but he leaves his cargo and walks me to the end of the street, making sure I don’t get lost. His life has been so different from mine, but in this brief exchange I feel a common bond. Because at the end of the day, as ugly as it can get, people are people wherever you go.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

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Still fresh in our minds is the memory of the horrifying journey to get here. For most of the journey the speedometer nudged 170k and the driver
slowed down only once to point out a dead body on the roadside, lying beside the mangled wreckage of a car.

So, less than 24 hours later, contemplating the world’s smallest plane (with just 5 seats) and a pilot with alcohol on his breath, I started to wonder if we are not being just a little irresponsible.

The engine splutters into life and we racket along the runway, finally ascending the open sky. I’ve never experienced flying in a plane with the windows open before. There are boxes of coke cans under my seat and the controls just in front.

The scenery is stunning and we feel every whisper of breeze and shuddering of the plane’s wings. Mystic and brooding tepuis (flat table mountains) and roaring waterfalls fill the windows. It’s exhilarating.

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Canaima (the town closest to the falls) could possibly be one of the most striking places on earth, with waterfalls pounding into a lagoon with a reddish tinge to the water, caused by an agent in the soil. The first day of the trip we will not see the falls, but progress up the river in a wooden boat and visit lagoons and smaller falls along the way.

Our party comprises the two of us, a late-middle aged couple from Aruba – Baba and his wife – and three elderly Venezuelan ladies. We have not chanced upon the party trip. The camp is basic in the extreme and when we arrive after dark, soaked through to the skin after a long journey upstream in driving rain, there is no electricity.

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There is also no alcohol and our cigarettes have been sacrificed to the elements and are limp, wet and broken. There seems little to do after we have eaten and we crawl into our hammocks at about 8.30. The deafening throb of crickets and other cries from the surrounding wilderness feed my over-imagination and the most sleep I can snatch is in periods of minutes
and marked by curious lucid dreams.

The camp´s dog decides to plant itself directly beneath my hammock and begins to lick its bottom and scratch its fleas into my ear. Not wishing to disturb my fellow hammock dwellers, my feeble whispers of “shew, shew” go unnoticed. The dog stays put. I am forced to resort to some loud expletives and slapping movements with my hands, which provoke a gnashing of teeth and a hurt whimper as the mangy creature limps off.

Ciara is now awake and we both dissolve into a shushed giggling fit as I explain the dilema. The rest of the night passes more or less like this. There´s nothing like a good night´s sleep. And that was nothing like a good night´s sleep.

Stiff and weary at about 6.30am, we cannot bring ourselves to get under an icy cold shower and we pull on the still-damp clothes from the day before. I ponder what effects of sleeping in a banana shape are having upon the elderly among us. They are beginning to look a little worse for wear and bleary-eyed.

We pack ourselves onto the boat and make our way upstream to the falls. We have to cross several rushing rapids on the way up, which pound the boat and scratch the motor. I´d always wanted to try white water rafting, but I´d supposed it would be in a raft. Not in a beaten-out, over-sized canoe. The trip up the river is a test on our aching bottom and back muscles, as the wooden bench offers not one once of comfort. The life vests now double up as seat cushions and the lesser-able begin to look progressively more peaky and grey.

But the thick, green vegetation and rushing red river, peppered with frothy white rapids, keep our minds occupied. At last we catch a glimpse of the falls, obscured by the dense jungle, tall, proud and imposing. It is now that our group splits into two – those who will tackle the hike to the falls, and those who will wait at the bottom. It is not particularly strenuous, but littered with thick tree roots and low-hanging branches. The path becomes increasingly steeper as we advance to the falls and the insects more bountiful, as we slap and shriek and swish our way up.

Suddenly they are revealed. Staggeringly high and pouring into the lagoon at their feet. The beauty and impressiveness of the Angel falls is not in the volume of water, thundering angrily, like Niagra, but more in the sheer size and staggering steep height.

Bathing in the icy-cold pool at the bottom and staring up at the cascading water is a phenomenal, almost sobering experience. We sigh contentedly before hiking back down to a hearty lunch of chicken and mashed
potatoes.

On the return to the camp, the rain sets in and doesn’t stop for the next 15 hours. Volumes of water dumping from the sky, relentlessly bashing us in the little boat. Our party are looking fairly grim. As darkness falls, the thunder and lightning become increasingly aggressive. We spend several hours playing cards to pass the time until we can sleep. Both of us are now bored and more than ready to leave the jungle and see some civilization. Its getting desperate.

We are now scraping for ways to entertain ourselves, inventing new games, such as – how many life vests can you put on in under a minute – and – how many games of shithead can we play before losing the will to live.

Staring out at the ceaseless rain and unbroken darkness, it does feel as if even God himself has forsaken this land. Even the dog has jumped ship. It
literally flung itself into the river and swam for freedom. That night I sleep even less, as images of flash floods causing land slides fill my brain and I am convinced the camp will be washed away.

As we load our aching bones onto the little plane once more, it is with enthusiasm. This time to satisfy our overwhelming desire for a decent shower, massage, and general de-jungling session. I ache to see a car.
Hear the sounds of a city. Drink a beer. Neither of us are jungle girls. We both have a pair of high-heel shoes in our backpacks. It is time to hit the
dance floors of Brasil. The southward journey continues…

Hunting Anacondas, Los Llanos, Venezuela

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It’s something like 7 O’ clock in the morning and I’ve already had a hearty breakfast of platanos, eggs and cheese. I’ve seen the huge orange sun rise up over the plains and, as I crawled out of my hammock, found a curious, spiky green caterpillar beneath me. At home, I don’t achieve anything much before midday. In Venezuela, I am standing in a swamp, heart-in-mouth, hunting for anacondas.

It’s one of those things you do when you’re on vacation, although you’re not really sure why. Propelling yourself over a cliff edge or scaling a lofty mountain suddenly become more appealing when they are handed to you on a glossy flyer or sold to you by a ruthless tourist tout.

Something like 15 minutes passes before we here a cry from the small group of llaneros “ANACONDA!!!” I watch with fascination and fear as these young, wild-looking boys begin to wrestle with the 7-metre-long reptile, calling at us to come closer. In our group of about 7 or 8, each of us manages to hold a section of the 120 kilo creature which, shedding skin, leaves a souvenir on my back.

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To cool down and clean anaconda skin from us, we are taken to a river to swim, which meant propelling ourselves from a 4 meter high rock in to the murky waters below. I felt ashamed of my fear as the accustomed, adventurous “tour guides” back flip and dive bomb in to the pool.

I breathe deeply, screw my eyes shut and launch myself into the air, landing with a less than elegant splash. I felt relief flood over my body until I looked up and realized that the rest of my group had declined the chance of a dip, electing instead to lance nylon wires, barbed with meat into the waters. I wondered what they were doing until I saw the wire pull and a razor sharp toothed piranha struggling as it is pulled out of the water.

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I don’t know if I’ve read about this somewhere but, is it a good idea to swim in piranha infested waters? Night falls and out come the musicians, playing their famous jigging music, jorope. The young llanero who has been undressing me with his eyes all day will not take no for an answer and we are first up on the dance floor.

It’s actually quite fun and fueled by just enough shots of rum, the company claps and cheers as we dance for hours, quite the stars of the evening. He looks my deeply in the eyes and asks me if he makes me nervous, saying that he will protect me from the anacondas and crocodiles, when what I need most is protection from him.

Declining his offer of an “adventure” under the stars, I go to bed giggling. Next stop… Isla Margarita. I’m in need of a few piña coladas to soothe the aches, pains and bite marks from my time in the wild.

Epic Border Crossing on a Shoestring From Honduras to Nicaragua

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Although by now we should have been seasoned professionals at crossing borders in Central America, they still filled me with apprehension. It wasn’t the thought of the unknown that made me hate border crossings; that was the most exciting thing about entering a new country. It was more the fact that wherever there was a border, indeed, wherever there was a tourist, there was also a rip-off merchant lurking in the shadows.

It was inevitable that these two things went together. They seemed to always come out and try to hit you when you’re at your most vulnerable, when you don’t know where you’re going or what the currency is worth. Running so dangerously low on money at this stage, in one sense, we had less to lose but, because of that, every time we did lose anything, or over-pay for something, its loss was felt more sorely. And with our backpacks appreciating in emotional value every day from all the souvenirs we had picked up, I became less and less willing to hand them over to the bus workers and watch them disappear from sight onto the roof above.

After yet another morning of me having to play “alarm clock Nazi” and Tony doing his usual “shifting-into-reverse-gear-mode”, I eventually managed to hustle us out of the hotel. A little late, but in time to make the walk to Mi Esperanza bus depot (or so we thought). After last night’s torrential downpour, which caused a power-out (and some of the most violent thunder I had ever heard) the morning was far from cool, even at 8.30: in fact it was sweltering hot. The walk to the station was not ‘cuatro cuadras’ as we had been told, but more like fifteen.

We hurried along the dusty, busy streets, descending further and further into the worst district of town in the Capital of one of Central America’s most dangerous countries. With the weight on our backs, we sweated and were told “si, recto, recto, recto!” every time we asked for directions, assuring us that we were on the right track, even though we appeared to be getting nowhere. After at least 20 minutes of walking (and several near-death experiences attempting to cross the hectic streets), we eventually saw a bus swinging around the corner, bound for Choluteca.

“That’s the bus!!” I closed my eyes and let out a howl “it must have already left.” Fearing an hour of waiting on the pot-holed sidewalk by a taco stand, being stared at by passing alcoholics and crackheads, I started to whimper. Tony took the initiative and started frantically waving his arms in the air. The bus pulled over on the other side and we (rather recklessly) managed to navigate our way across the street, darting in and out of cars.

“Es para Choluteca?” I panted at the bus driver. “si, si, si” he yelled back, and we bundled ourselves on to the bus. It’s hard to describe the sense of relief that washes over you every time you succeed in securing yourself a seat on a bus or finding a place to stay after hours of travelling in a foreign country. It’s something like the few seconds after awaking from a nightmare, where you realize that it was just a dream, and that you don’t actually have two heads after all. When that backpack is lifted from your shoulders and plonked down on the seat in front of you, a mental weight as well as the physical one is lifted from your shoulders. I sat back in my seat and panted. Tony winked at me “alright babe, we made it.”

The bus began to make its way painfully slowly along the same road we had just struggled down, as it stopped every few minutes to let people off. I didn’t notice any thing out of the ordinary about this, until Tony asked “why are people getting off?”

“what do you mean, why are people getting off? It’s a bus. It stops”

“No, but it’s going to Choulteca, so people wouldn’t be getting out here in Tegus, would they?”

It was then that we realized that the bus was actually coming from Choluteca, and we had to endure a tedious loop through Comayaguela’s frantic back streets and markets, before changing buses at Mi Espiranza’s other depot, about four blocks away from our hotel. Beyond the initial irritation about having to walk unnecessarily along the bad streets with our luggage, as long as we were safe, the only real nuisance about this unexpected scenic tour, was the hour that we lost in time. It was to be the blue print for the rest of the day.

We prepared ourselves for the three hour journey to Choluteca which (although closer to three and a half), passed without any major incident, and involved the usual vendors leaping on every time we stopped, selling anything from flash lights to clothes to Coca Cola and full blown comidas.

I noted with interest the subtle changes in culture from country to country, down to the very simple things, such as the way they speak, or the food they eat. A taco in Mexico is soft and small, an enchilada, similar to a taco, but a bit longer and a quesadilla usually just plain cheese sandwiched in between 2 tortillas (although, if they were feeling creative, it could involve an assortment of ingredients, such as onions, peppers, and meat).

In Honduras it’s not the same. An enchilada is what a tostada is in Mexico (a crispy shell topped with meat and cheese). A taco is larger and baked, giving it a crunchy texture, the quesadillas they were selling on this particular bus were another thing entirely. Strange cookie-like objects that caused the jaw to ache after several bites, laced with a sweet, syrupy gel. I think they’re the kind of thing you would get used to and eventually even like if you spent any length of time in Honduras. I couldn’t quite claimed to have reached that point yet. But seeing as these appeared to be the only snack on offer, and with both of our stomachs rumbling, we decided to part with a couple of limpiras, and put up with an aching jaw.

We arrived at Choluteca, and boarded a microbus for Guasale, the border town to Nicaragua. Although our luggage was on the roof, and the spitting rain drops and black clouds threatened to drown our packs, we luckily made it to the boarder with dry luggage. As the bus pulled into Guasale and I climbed out, I was encircled by at least six men with bicycle taxis and dollars and cordobas, all pulling and harassing me into changing money with them and choosing their vehicle to take us to the frontera.

After about five hours of travelling, it was utterly over-whelming and I had to grab my backpack from the clutches of more than one over-eager bicycle men. I changed some money and waited for Tony to get out of the bus. Five minutes of chaos ensued, as they yelled their prices at us and tried to explain why their’s was the best way to get to the border. I had to keep pleading “uno momento, uno momento” and stepping back while I caught my breath.

After the ripping off incident at the Mexico/Guatemala boarder, I was determined not to be had again. Eventually, we chose one guy to take us there for 10 cordobas, and I foolishly tipped him one US dollar (which more than doubled his original price). But with four countries and four currencies inside of a week, I was perhaps understandably a little confused- in fact, my brain was fried.

Anyway, we were at immigration. Feeling pleased and surprised that we were not charged on exiting Honduras, our spirits fell when we discovered we had to pay UD$7 to get into Nicaragua. And they only accept US dollars, which, considering how many miles away we were from the United States, seemed quite bizarre to me. Anyhow, that’s the way it was and we were forced to change seven dollars worth of cordobas back into dollars (having just changed them moments before) and Tony lined up in the bank while I chatted to the security guard in my best broken Spanish.

If I thought Honduran Spanish was a little hard on the ear, then Nicaraguan Spanish is even more so. They meow when they speak and miss the ends off of words, which is terribly confusing with prices and numbers (something we had tried so painstakingly to learn).

A few stamps later, a few dollars poorer and another sweaty walk to the bus station, we were bundled on to another bus. This was a “Leon express” bus which only cost 15 cordobas and would omit having to change autobuses and Chinandega.

With our backpacks safely behind us on the bus (infinitely more comforting than strapped onto the roof and out of sight) and both seated, we awaited the departure of the bus. We sat and waited. And waited. And waited. As the sun streaked through the windows and the bus became more crowded, I had the sensation of being a fly trapped in a jam jar. I also needed the toilet. But it would only be another 2 hours to Leon when we eventually got going. I could wait. I looked out of the window at the dusty, dirty area where buses congregated and under-fed horses and over-fed pigs mingled about with the people. Our sixth new country.

During the wait (of not far short of an hour) we were at least kept entertained by the chaos around us. I was awe-struck by the number of fat people (most notably women) with huge behinds, in this poor country where much of the population could scarcely afford to feed themselves.

As they attempted to squash past each other up and down the bus, on more than one occasion did two huge asses become tightly wedged in between two seats in the narrow corridor of the bus. And then a very large lady, with an even larger basket on her head hauled herself into the bus with all the effort of a man attempting to pull an over-size truck up a hill.

Her purpose, and therefore the purpose of her basket was explained a few moments later when she produced a pile of tortillas and began to slaver them with sour crème and onions, rolling them up into plastic bags and handing them around the bus. I have to say, they would have been slightly better had they been a little warm, but, not having much in my stomach, it was not an unwelcome snack. And still the damn bus stood stationary.

Being left with a plastic bag of sour crème and onions on my lap, I was faced with a predicament. Of having it soak through onto my lap, or following the example of our fellow passengers and tossing it out of the window. Being, at some times, almost anal in my disposal of litter, it was a hard choice to make. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and let it drop down the side of the bus into the seething pile of pig shit below. “I’m really sorry” I thought. I wasn’t sure exactly to whom.

The engine spluttered into life at last and within a few moments, we were finally on our way. We had scarcely covered two or three kilometers when we encountered a policia road block and the bus was forced to come to a grinding halt. Pandemonium reigned, as armed police jumped onto the bus, checking for goods and forcing people off.

Apparently, the bus was laden to the gills with goods brought in from Honduras. Goods for which the owners had evaded paying the duty on. We wondered what they could be checking for at first- drugs? Weapons? Counterfeit money? I stared up at the “PELIGROSO” skull and cross bones pesticides around us and at the bag of the lady with the sweaty, hairy, fat armpits beside which was chocked full of tablets, and decided this must be what they were after.

But after they ushered more passengers off of the bus and found more of what they were looking for, I realized it was more cans of pop and boxes of chips. The pesticides and dubious-looking tablets were not even afforded a second glance. These are such strange countries.

After nearly an hour, a slightly lighter bus and most of the passengers reboarded, we again attempted to set off for Leon (the police apparently satisfied). I breathed a sigh of relief until we were flagged over again after scarcely pulling away. The policia waved at the driver to stop and the whole of the bus started yelling at the driver to carry on and ignore the police.

He nearly did until out of no where another police car appeared. Bigger police with bigger guns (AK47s) boarded the bus. Confiscationg more boxes, ordering more passengers off. We sat and watched as the people started playing games with the police. Waiting until they were on the bus, to throw themselves over our seat and fling bags and boxes out of the window at their friends. The woman with the sweaty arm pits kicked her bin liner of prescription drugs under our seat. Surrupticiously, Tony pushed them under the seat of the fat arsed lady in front.

After a couple of hours of delay (the time was now a quarter to five) the bus was ordered to return to the border. With admirable speed and strength, we managed to haul our backpacks out of the seat and squish past the obstacles in the path of the exit (one of which included and armed policeman) and jump out of the moving bus.

“FUCK!!!!!!!!!” we both resounded. Our skin was sticky and wet and I could feel sweat beads coursing down my stomach. There was now no way we would make it to Leon before dark and I had lost count of the amount of times we had promised each other not to arrive in a strange city after dark again.

Standing on the side of the Nicaraguan highway, with our packs at our feet and rain clouds beginning to form, I felt suddenly a long, long way from home. And still I needed the toilet.

We hadn’t been waiting too long however, when a bus for Chinandega rumbled along the dirt road and we were able to squeeze ourselves onto it, with our packs hauled on to the roof. As I melted into the seat, whacked out from heat exhaustion and frustration, I made a little mental deal with God. He was allowed to let the rain saturate our baggage, as long as it was still there when we reached our destination. The rain drops fell. He at least was keeping his part of the bargain.

Ten minutes into the journey and we encountered our third police road block. Absolutely everything, it seemed, was conspiring to keep us from reaching Leon. At least this bus was relatively empty of goods and we only had to wait for a few minutes while objects (probably including our backpacks) were hauled off of the roof and checked. We were on our way again.

Sharp pains were beginning to form in my stomach from holding my pee too long. It had been hours and it was to be at least another two before I found a bathroom. I am sure that my expression on that bus must have been one of absolute misery as we bumped and swerved our way along the pot-holed, unpaved road, every movement jiggling my bladder.

The sun set dramatically over the volcano, painting the sky with vibrant pinks, reds and oranges. I would have thought it devastatingly beautiful, had not it’s presence indicated the imminent darkness. Many bumps, swerves and stops later (and at one point a dangerous over-take which saw us sandwiched in between two huge lorries) and we finally rolled into Chinandega. Our luggage was there- and it was covered too.

I left it with Tony and went off in search of a bathroom, in a nearby cantina. I took a deep breath and walked in. My entrance was greeted with silent stares of pairs of dark eyes belonging to men with too much drink inside of them. I walked up to the bar and asked for a baño. I was pointed through some beaded curtains.

I walked straight into a large room of pool tables, gambling, and horny men. A gringa in the midst of a huge, men only cantina. I pulled at the dilapidated door of the baño and was greeted by a man sitting down taking a shit. I immediately slammed the door.

Suddenly a plump and kindly old lady arose out of the hammock she had been occupying and came to my side. She was gentle and grandmotherly and spoke to me in broken English, most of which I couldn’t understand, about her family in Texas.

She banged on the cubicle door at minute intervals, yelling at the man in Spanish to come out. He grunted back momentarily in reply. She vanished. I was left with fifty pairs of eyes boring into me.

She re-appeared with a roll of toilet paper and a smile, then turned back to the door of the toilet and proceeded banging again with great force. Eventually, the man came out and grunted something under his breath. The lady went in and before she would let me enter, she grabbed a bucket of water and poured it into the bowl. “It’s OK now”. She handed me the paper. I closed the door and relief flushed over me as the liquid flowed from my body and my stomach pains began to subside.

As I went to leave, I walked over to the lady and thanked her. She gave me a hug and wished me safe and happy travels. I felt like crying at this point. Her kindness overwhelmed me. As I emerged from the cantina, I found Tony speaking in English with some Nicaraguan guys outside. They were so friendly and so cool and pointed us in the direction of the micro bus to Leon. We thanked them and walked off towards the bus, and as we did so, one of the men ran up behind us and pointing again as to where we should go. These people were so friendly and so kind, and I couldn’t believe that we could have found such shining lights in a day such as this.

Forty-five minutes in a microbus, one taxi ride, and a short walk later, we finally reached Casa Ivana, our sanctuary in the dark streets of Leon. Twelve hours to complete a four hour journey. I lay on the bed and closed my eyes. Against all the conspiring odds, police blocks, boarder crossings and potholes, we had made it through one of the most testing days of our trip.

No Shirt, No shoes, No shit, No problem

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Out of the corner of my eye I could see the two men under the tree. Horizontal and relaxed, shaded from the penetrating midday heat, one chewing on a long blade of dry, brown grass, the other pulling on a cigarette.

“That’s total evidence of this tropical climate, that tan you got right there baby – you look like syrup,” the first one drawled, removing the straw from his mouth.

His friend sat up and a large, lazy grin spread across his face, wrinkling his thick, jet-black, skin. He pushed his dreadlocks out of his eyes, cooing, “I like the way you walk baby – why don’t you come over here?”

I received their comments with a mixture of mild irritation and amusement. The men here are forward. The beer and cuba libres flow freely and the Caribbean sunshine goes to the head like an intoxicating drug.

Strikingly set apart from its Latin neighbors, Belize, home to a diverse mix of people and cultures, often feels like several different countries at once. The Creoles (descendants of the African slaves and British pirates who first settled here) speak the official language of English with musical lilt, Caribbean flavor, and poetic license.

Spanish is the first language in the north and some towns in the west, where the Maya and mestizos (persons of mixed European and Central American Indian ancestry) concentrate. Garfunas (of South American Indian and African descent) dominate the south, and small pockets of Europeans, Chinese, East Indians and North Americans also make up Belize’s improbable population, adding to its unique charm and character.

Creaking and bumping into Belize City by bus is truly a feast for the eyes. Chaotic and bustling with activity, loud voices can be heard selling oranges, pineapples, cigarettes, jewelry, clothing, and, as I wouldn’t put past some shady Belizeans, their own grandmothers.

Whether they’re trying to sell something, help you out, or scam you, the colorful language and facial expressions used by the friendly Belizean people always bring a smile to the face. “Honey, you could die three times and still come back,” responded the boat hand when I asked if my ticket to Caye Caulker was good for the return journey.

The cayes are numerous islands that bask in the shallow warm waters of eastern Belize. The essence is on relaxation, with street signs on the pedestrian Caulker reading ‘Go slow’, ‘Hesitate… you are here’ and, my personal favorite, ‘Betta no litta’.

The sound of reggae beats and smells of charcoal grills fill the air. Beach huts and ramshackle hotels dot the length and breadth of the caye (about four miles long and only 600 meters at its widest point) and brightly colored hammocks swing from palm trees.

Five star luxury it isn’t. Caye Caulker is a poor man’s Caribbean. Shrubs and roots pepper the white sand, and there are few places to swim or sunbathe because of mangroves and lack of space that is not covered by grass or buildings.

Yet despite this, Caulker maintains a certain amount of charm and character. Serving mainly as a jumping off point for the coral reefs, it’s largely uncrowded during the day. Those who remain on the caye can be found swinging in hammocks or diving off the jetty into the deep waters at the ‘split’ (so-called because of Hurricane Hattie that literally split the island in two in 1961).

Over the years, Caulker has suffered the wrath of many powerful and dangerous hurricanes. This is evident in structural damage to flimsy beach side hotels. Many palm trees lie broken or bent along the shoreline, and Caulker’s most popular swimming spot, ‘the split’, is testament to the devastation a fiercely whirling hurricane can wield.

The islanders who live here are familiar with the tropical storms that ravage their home every year. Living in fear of a hurricane large enough to raise their houses to the ground means that their houses are little more than a few slats of wood nailed together, as if the less ostentatiously they build, the less they will have to rebuild when the time comes.

Children run around with dirty noses and huge smiles. The older ones launch into triple back flips off the jetty, throwing themselves into the air, daring each other to jump higher or further, or splash louder. Theirs is a lifestyle handed down by parents who have witnessed how fragile life can be. No one here takes themselves – or anyone else – too seriously. There’s a sign hanging outside the Sand Box bar which reads:

“No shirt,

No shoes,

No shit,

No problem.”

On the third night of my stay, I went to the Sandbox and unexpectedly witnessed the capabilities of a tropical storm firsthand. I watched as the ink-blue sky was suddenly illuminated by a fork of lightning, followed by a rolling boom of thunder. I saw the black silhouettes of the palm trees swaying against the backdrop of the night and felt the power of the wind.

The rain poured furiously. Sheets of water fell from the sky, blowing sideways into the bar, as it was caught by a heavy gust of wind, drenching those inside within seconds. The bar tender ran towards the door and pulled down the wooden hatches, winking at me.

As crash followed crash, and the intensity of the rain continued, I asked a local near me about Hurricane Keith – the last major hurricane to rock the island. He chuckled as he described the noise of the wind and the ferocity of the rain.

“I heard that wind and it was like he saying ‘I got a whole lot more where that came from!’” He stopped suddenly and looked sombre, his face taking on a deadly serious composure. Gesturing towards the hatches, which were rocking fiercely in the wind he said, “this sound just like Keith.”

My horrified face must have been a picture, because he took one look and let out a loud, belly laugh. “Honey this bar wouldn’t be here no more if this was another Keith!”

The next day, wandering lazily along the caye, the sun was out and the puddles had drained away. Food stands and tour operators were open, and tourists and locals were swimming in the clear waters again.

Deciding it was time to go out on the reef, I was bombarded with offers. Huge, brightly-colored banners plastered with underwater pictures are displayed outside every store, and it is hard to see much difference in the services offered.

My concern was that I would end up on an overcrowded party boat and have to compete for space and equipment. I began to examine some of the flyers I had picked up before noticing a small painted sign reading ‘JUNI’ in white letters on the side of a beach hut.

A man of about 60 was gently rocking on a chair on the balcony, looking down at me with an expression of faint amusement.

“Are you Juni?” I asked. He nodded calmly, fixing me with an intense gaze. At last he said: “If you’re looking to go out on the reef, I have something very special going on out there.”

I liked his soft brown eyes and the coral cross he wore around his neck. I liked his calm manner and knowing expression. He was the type of person whose presence made you feel safe and I decided to go to the reef with him.

Although nurse sharks enjoy a placid reputation and are rarely provoked, I was nervous as we sailed into Shark Ray Alley and I could make out the shape of one swimming beneath our boat, the magnifying quality of the water making her appear huge. Juni had timed our arrival just as the powerboats, heaving with sunburned bodies, were leaving.

He threw out the anchor into the green waters below and, in his unhurried manner, turned to face us: “I am going to tell you a story. You will never have heard anything like this before.”

As he stood on the edge of the boat, he looked like a mythical character, serious and earnest. “Almost ten years ago I was in my boat when I came across a female nurse shark that had been speared by a fisherman.” He spoke softly, as if confiding a great secret.

“She was weak and bleeding. So I brought her some food and stayed with her for a while. The next day I went back and fed her and stayed some more time with her. I went back every day and, after three weeks, she was up. She was better. She swam with me all day.”

He paused and looked round at each of us, as if to make sure we were listening, and then continued. “One day I noticed that she was getting fat. I called her gordita,” he smiled: “I did not realize that she was pregnant.”

He went on to tell us of how she had two babies and, although one of them died, the other had three babies of her own. For ten years now Juni had returned almost daily to swim with his sharks.

As beautifully as he told the story, I could’t help but feel cynical until we spent a couple of hours with his shark family. On that day, just three of them came, the grandmother and two of the young sharks. As soon as Juni splashed into the water, they were by his side. They followed him closely, and we followed Juni.

Every movement he made, they moved with him. When he rolled over and when he swam, they did too, playing with him as he turned them over and stroked their undersides.

Juni beckoned to me underneath the water and I swam close to him. He nudged one of the baby sharks toward me and I patted her back. Her skin was scaly, like the rough surface of a cat’s tongue. Juni turned her over and I held her in my arms for a moment and stroked her soft belly.

Swimming with these sharks gave me an insight into how intelligent and peaceful they are. Each beautiful, graceful movement they made and their acceptance of us was touching.

I was unnerved only when they speedily changed direction, making a sudden U-turn, and three meters of shark swam towards me. Their two barbels (thin, fleshy, whisker-like organs on the lower jaw that sense touch and taste) hanging low, like teeth, provoking an irrational fear of sharks instilled in me from watching Jaws many years ago.

But there was no malice in these sharks, just an inquisitive playfulness. When Juni led us back to the boat he gave the sharks one last pat on their heads, and a morsel of fish each before they swam off away from the reef and out of sight.

Watching the sharks go, I realized that I had never felt such a close affinity with wild animals before, and it was elating. A smile appeared on my face that refused to fade.

As we sailed back to the caye with the warm air blowing in our faces, I noticed the name painted on the side of Juni’s boat – Trinity. I asked him why he had chosen this name. He smiled and said “My boat, my ocean, my sharks… my trinity.”

Juni was a man who needed nothing more in his life. The wooden slatted beach hut, lack of family, even a home that was rapidly being built upon and blighted in the name of tourism, mattered little to him. Out on the blue horizon are his family. On his boat is his home.

Caulker was evacuated just two days after I left. The strong winds of Hurricane Chantal, with gusts of up to 100 km per hour stopped just short of being a classified a true hurricane, whose winds much reach over 119 km. I thought of Juni, and the words he had spoken through a wide smile: “I like hurricanes, they control the gringo population.”

El Paso 2001, the Journey Begins

El Paso 2001, the Journey Begins

The bus trip was long. I had watched out of the window as leafy green scenery gave way to dry soils and rolling hills of parched brown grass and, eventually, to desert. For forty-eight hours we had both been dying to get here, but now that the moment had come, I wished that we could continue observing our surroundings from behind the secure vantage-point of the coach window.

For the last two days we had been as if in a time-capsule. The outside world now seemed frightening and I found El Paso, with its dusty streets and foreign people, intimidating.

There was a knot in my stomach as we descended from the bus and went over to collect our backpacks from the hold. I had the distinct feeling that we were being watched and turned to see a group of dark-skinned men sipping beers in the café opposite the bus station, nudging each other and gesturing in our direction. One of them made a kissy face at me. It was difficult to pinpoint which of his features was the least attractive; the gut that spilled out over his shabby brown pants, or the fact that his fly was unbuttoned.

I stared the other way and wrestled with my pack to secure the straps over my shoulders. After so long of being cooped up in a small seat, my limbs felt weak and I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry it far in the desert heat.

So this was El Paso. Not exactly the homey Texan city that I was expecting. The kind that I had seen on adverts for fajita kits. America seemed to have given way to Mexico even though we were still north of the border. Without warning, everyone around had turned into Mexicans, including those travelling with us on the Greyhound.

As we made our way towards the centre to find a hotel room, the heat began to penetrate. Anton furrowed his brow, pointing at the guidebook, “According to this, there’s a hotel on East Stanton Street that’s really close to the bridge. I think we should go there. It doesn’t look much further.” He took off his cap and rubbed his head; his dark blond hair already scorched by the sun, had turned several shades lighter. Although he was tall, his frame was slight and his arms slender and I wondered if he had more difficulty carrying that weight than he let on. I smiled and dragged my feet along behind him, the reality dawning on me that this would be the first of many such treks.

I caught sight of myself in a shop window. I looked rough. My uninspiring shade of hair colour, which can sometimes look almost blonde, in the right light, was mousy and stuck to my head in places. My backpack was nearly as big as me and caused me to sweat under the arms on to my sleeves. I really needed a shower. The cooped up conditions on the bus had certainly done me no favours.

Shop workers and people strolling by mostly ignored us, although I probably eyed them with suspicion. Two days on a Greyhound bus was more than long enough to encounter some of America’s finest. Like the curious girl in front of us, travelling from Seattle to North Carolina (about a five day journey) with her pet fish in a small Tupperware container. Or the alcoholic with the pungent smelling feet that nearly had herself ejected from the bus for steeling beer from a Chevron station, outside of Sacramento.

There were two would-be gangsters on the final leg of the journey, calling everything and everyone a “motherfucker”, and the argument that took place between a fiery Latina and an even fierier black woman was particularly entertaining. The whole bus party was unable to continue its journey because the insistent black lady had decided that she wanted the Latina lady’s seat. Sheer size gave her the upper hand and, eventually, she won, actually needing two seats to accommodate her large form.

For want of anything better to do (reading made me feel queasy) I had spent most of the duration of the journey trying to decide whether there was no truer representation of American life than this, or whether the Greyhound simply attracted all the oddballs and screwballs within the States. Perhaps the rest of America was comparatively normal and it was here on the buses that Jerry Springer found his contestants. It had certainly been an eye-opener and had made us both more aware of our belongings, and of our sanity.

El Paso is a well-laid out city, like the kind you could expect to find anywhere in North America, but there is an impoverished feel to it. Dollar clothing stores and fast food outlets line the sidewalks, and grand, modern buildings overshadow the falling down mini markets and laundries.

Loud voices speaking Spanish filled my ears as we walked passed a thrift store. Two women were involved in a heated discussion, about what I could not tell, but their husbands stood in the background exchanging amused glances.

After several wrong turnings, we reached the ‘Gateway’ hotel. Colourful beaded curtains were hanging at the entrance door and, apart from a modest sign, there was little to distinguish the place as a hotel. We walked into a room, where three men were seated – two at a sofa and one at a table – smoking cigars. They stared at us penetratingly and without warmth. Our eyes turned to the man behind the reception desk who greeted us in English, asking which type of room we were after and for how long. All I could concentrate on was the fly that had landed on his eyebrow. He made no attempt to remove it and I had an overwhelming urge to slap it off with my hand.

As we walked up the stairs with the key we heard laughter and I could feel their eyes boring into my back. I had not used my self-taught Spanish yet and Anton had no knowledge of the language, armed with only a small phrase book; we knew the next few months were going to be interesting. Although I had not quite prepared for it to be like this on “the safe side” of the border.

It was still early, something like 8.30, but I felt as if we had been up for days already and, as soon as we put down our bags, I jumped onto one of the beds. I lay down and stretched, feeling every fibre of my body lengthen. I surveyed the room. The carpet was a faded threadbare red and the fan above oscillated slowly and squeakily, its attachment to the ceiling a little precarious.

I lit a cigarette and watched as the smoke was caught by the wind from the fan and made little serpent motions. Anton was experimenting with our water purifier at the wash basin. The water came out warm and brown. I got up and went over to the window, pulling back the barely-there net curtains and looking down on to the street below. A fine layer of desert dust hung in the air. It was more visible on the other side of the street where the sidewalk was drenched in the morning sun. The streets were busy with people going to work. A bus heaved passed under the window and two children cycled by.

I let the curtain fall and withdrew into the room, suddenly overcome with tiredness. “Voila!” Anton produced a blue plastic cup filled with water. I looked at it with moderate suspicion.

“Do you think it’s safe? I know the guy in the store said that you could filter puddle water with it, but… it’s warm.”

“I dunno, but I’m thirsty and if we get really sick we can always sue.” He took a sip and passed it to me. It had a slightly clinical taste, which must have been the iodine. I lay on the bed looking up at the ceiling, concentrating my energy on the rotations of the fan. I heard Anton saying he was going out to buy some water. My head hit the pillow before he returned.

Strange dreams invaded my sleep. Images from the bus journey – I was still on the bus but we weren’t going anywhere until everybody ate five hamburgers. Then the lady bus driver turned into Anton and he was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He seemed to be speaking another language. I woke up. It felt as if I had slept through the night and awoken to a new day, but the clock said that it was quarter after three. Anton was not in the room. There was a note on the table:

“Gone for a look around – back soon, A.”

I shrugged off the wave of sleep I still felt and took a sip of the warm water beside me. I could hear the Mexican men downstairs in the lobby and I wondered if they had been there all day. I took off the clothes that I had been wearing since we left Vancouver and jumped in the shower, which seemed to saturate everything in the bathroom apart from myself, on whom it dripped and spluttered. I washed the two-day grime out of my hair.
How I remembered watching the Wrigley’s chewing gum commercials when I was younger – the ones that took place on the Greyhound. Then they had seemed so exciting and romantic, as a killer blonde in cut-off denim shorts and a tight T-shirt shook her full head of hair smiling sexily at an impossibly ripped and handsome stud. A wry smile came to my face as images of our travel companions sprang to mind: a psychiatrist’s dream (or nightmare, depending on your point of view).

There was a knock at the door – it was Anton with a coffee for me. I received it gratefully. “There’s free Internet access in the library. I just sent an email to Paul to let him know we’re ok.”

Paul was a mutual friend back in Canada, cynical, doubting and thoroughly expecting us to fail. “You don’t speak Spanish, you don’t have enough money; you don’t even know which direction to head in”. Paul had racked up a list of reasons why what we were doing was utter folly. “I know we’re heading south,” I protested, and Paul just laughed in that patronising way of his that always made me feel totally ridiculous. Underneath it all I knew it was because he was worried. He even forwarded me (and I swear this is true) a web link entitled “comebackalive.com”.

I could not help but wonder where all of Anton’s energy had come from, as I gladly sipped the coffee, rubbing my eyes. “So what’s it like out there?” I enquired. “It’s weird. The library was cool and there’s a square where I sat down and had a drink. But I went into a store to buy some smokes and the woman serving didn’t speak English at all.”

“I know, it’s like we’re there already, isn’t it? I suppose it’s a good way of easing us into crossing the border. I think I’ll go and have a look around too. Are you hungry at all? Maybe I’ll try and grab us something to eat.”

As I left the coolness of the hotel room, the heat outside hit me like a slap in the face and the desert air blew into my nostrils. The town square, as Anton had said, was where people sat and congregated. I was handed a pamphlet about Jesus as I walked passed.

I suddenly felt really hungry and decided to look for a supermarket. I made it my goal to find a grocery store, or at least somewhere to buy the ingredients to make a sandwich with. As I walked leisurely up and down the streets, taking in the sights and smells of the city, I was whistled and catcalled at, stared down and even questioned where I was going. It is amazing the difference it makes walking down the street alone, or walking down the street with Anton. I knew there would be a lot worse to come though; Mexican men had somewhat of a reputation to uphold.

After about an hour of wandering in the heat I decided to give up – there was no supermarket in El Paso. I bought a packet of chips, two apples and some rather hideous-looking iced cakes from a lady in a mini market, who managed to serve me without looking at me even once. She did not look at the cash register either, but managed to carry on her animated conversation with the man slouched over the counter, who looked a lot like the one who had blown me a kiss earlier.

Feeling sleepy and in need of shade, I made my way back to the hotel. The roads were strangely quiet. The sun had crossed to the other side of the street. My stomach twitched with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The eerie whistling of a western movie theme tune rang through my head and I felt that at any moment the sheriff would come around the corner with his gun in his holster.

The sun set rapidly at around 7. We discovered a fire escape on our floor and heaved opened the door. From there we watched as the sun sank down, leaving a streaks of reds and purples behind it. We sat at the top of the rickety staircase staring across the border, just a few blocks away. The slums of Ciudad Juarez were twinkling on the hills.

The dark shades of evening disguised the uneven sidewalks and shabby shop faces. Crumbling facades of buildings and dusty streets were air-brushed out of the picture. From this distance and in the flattering light, the sparkle of lights from the hills looked pretty; almost Christmas tree-like. The harsh, stark daylight was gone. Tomorrow we would be over there.

Back in the hotel room Anton fiddled with the television, which was one of the most antiquated I had ever seen, with a dial knob where the channels had to be tuned in. In shades of green and red we watched the only channel available – the news in Mexico. In Guadalajara, there were flash floods and we saw pictures of people splashing each other in the streets, with water up to their knees; in Oaxaca there was a student uprising (about what we failed to decipher) and in Mexico City there was a piece about a shooting.

We turned it off and took out a deck of cards from my pack. We were both strangely subdued. “You know what?” asked Anton, “that’s a real country, with real people and real problems. It’s not like Canada the wonderland anymore. It’s for real.”

“What are we doing?” I asked half laughing, half serious, with a sudden desire to be back in Paul’s apartment, digging him in the ribs about being so worried. I had a lump in my throat. We had our dinner of chips and iced gooey things, and washed it down with some iodineised water. At least I would lose some weight on this trip.