A Horse in the Road, Honduras

A Horse in the Road, Honduras

My eyes were glazing over from staring at the screen of my laptop too long. I lifted my gaze for a moment, just in time to see the horse that filled the windscreen; the wretched creature’s eyes widening with fear at the car hurtling towards him.

There was a sickening scrape of tires on the gravel and time played in slow motion as the petrified animal scrambled out of our path, the thick blanket of banana trees loomed ever closer and the vehicle zigzagged from side to side, like a rally car.

Amidst the chaos I could hear someone screaming and then realized a split-second later that it was me. Time was temporarily distorted; decelerated as if watching one still frame of a camera after another.

At last the driver jolted awake in time to slam his foot on the break and we skidded to a stop, my head lightly banging the seat in front, the dust clouds rising around us and the smell of burnt rubber and dirt filling the car.

The dense green foliage swayed in the breeze and there was a sudden anti-climatic silence, but for a few birds cawing in the distance and the humming of the radiator. Two campesinos bearing machetes, cutting down crops a few feet away, were staring agape with a mixture of concern and bemusement written on their faces, as they beheld the dented rental car enveloped in a cloud of dust, with a horse flinching in its wake.

This wasn’t the first time I had the feeling that I might die in this part of the world or that my vehicle had swerved off the road; at least this time there was a line of banana trees to break the fall.

In Guatemala, when our bus nearly lurched over the edge of a cliff with a blown tire, we tilted sharply to the right, the whole bus balancing on two wheels as the sheer drop below beckoned.

I saw my life flash before me to the sound of merengue music and a rosary dangling from the rear view mirror; along with several chickens, bags of tamales, rice, and brightly colored pinks, reds, oranges and yellows of the Mayan women’s clothing. It seems there will always be an animal present each time I brush with death to share a terrified glance with before we pass into the next life.

After assessing the miraculously limited damage and saying our prayers and a few hostias we continued back to Tegucigalpa. I don’t think I even blinked for the rest of the journey, eyes rigidly fixed on the road ahead, lost in thought about how I’d come to be here, working in a country like this where a simple journey could turn into several hours, on a constant look-out for bandidos, or gaping crevices in the road and stray animals that wondered into the path.

Working mostly 12 hour days, running around in three inch heels giving interviews, breakfast meetings at 7 am, night-time appointments in coffee foundations on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, imagination running wild as the gun shots in the distance felt uncomfortably close.

The daylight began to fade as we finally approached Comayaguela, the gateway to the city that also happened to be the most desperate part of town and not where you wanted to be after dark, lost in this rats nest of dead-end alleyways, closed streets, road blocks, one ways, crack addicts, thieves, ghosts of people with vacant stares, shoeless children with gammy eyes, houses without roofs, shops without doors and far too few police to maintain order.

Nerves on the edge of a knife, I’d been awake for almost three days and tomorrow we had an early meeting with the Minister of Communications, an ironic misnomer due to the fact that he was the hardest man in Honduras to get hold of.

How would I go in to that appointment as if nothing had happened today; as if I wasn’t exhausted and my clothes weren’t damp and dirty shoved into a rucksack, my suit jacket left hanging on its perch from Friday night, that felt like an eternity ago now.

Still… how else would I be spending Sunday if I were anywhere else but here? What’s the point in being alive if you aren’t reminded of your own mortality from time to time? Even if it is by a horse.

Dirty and Chaotic – Give Me a City Like Madrid Anytime

Dirty and Chaotic – Give Me a City Like Madrid Anytime

I make my way slowly along the cobbled streets snaking down to Oporto. It’s an explosion of colors and sounds. Bright fabrics hanging from market stalls, elaborately embroidered scarves and blankets, table cloths and intricately painted Spanish abanicos.

Día del San Isidro and the Madrileños are out in force. Crowds mingling, conversing cheerfully and soaking up the spring sunshine. Everywhere my gaze goes there’s something else more tantalizing to hold my interest. Children laughing and playing, gnawing on candy canes and florescent green and orange toffee-covered apples. Playing catch and jumping through skipping ropes.

There are women and men dressed in traditional costume. Poker dot dresses buttoned up to the neck and laced with frilly full petty coats, fanning out above their knees. They have flowers in their hair, which is pulled back austerely with jet black clips. The men wear berets, strategically placed over one eye and flowers in their breast pockets.

A swishing of materials; a clacking of castanets, every now and then they break into dance, stomping their heels on the pavement and circling their partners with smoldering eyes.

In parque San Isidro there is a make-shift fun fare. The sun is shining at last, heating up the icy air. The grass is strewn with people drinking sangria from plastic glasses and nibbling on patatas bravas, meat on skewers, sausage rolls, and sticky popcorn. All the talk of “crisis”seems far away in the face of such an abundant feast.

The Spanish really know how to enjoy themselves and today it’s the patron Saint of Madrid that is responsible for the throngs of people and general merriment. There’s something on offer today for every pallet.

To the left, refrigerated containers bursting full of muscles, crabs, octopus, and other interesting-looking sea creatures. To the right, little stands selling bollas of bread the size of tires, loaded with dried fruits and nuts. The largest paella dish I have ever seen, enough for a banquet of hundreds, is a blend of ingredients – chicken, rabbit, rice, peppers, vegetables and squid. Too big to place on a table, the paellara has a stand of its own.

This is a true slice of a traditional Spanish fiesta. Yet as we wind our way up the narrow streets to La Latina and rest our weary legs in a small plaza next to a softly trickling fountain, we were served tinto de verano (red wine with lemonade) by a smiley, gap-toothed Colombian waiter. That’s what I love about this city. For much as it preserves its glorious Spanish-ness; festivos, bull fighting, flamenco, football, and incessant smoking; there is diversity here.

You hear different languages in the street as you walk around. There are gatherings of international communities, Irish bars and Latin American hangouts. You can escape the constant hardness of the people with a mojito in a Cuban bar off a tucked-away side street. Escape is sometimes necessary here as the Spanish come off as rude; their patience thin for people who don’t know how to order a caña.

You have to shout what you want as loudly and abruptly as possible, with no effort to smile and never saying please. One moment of hesitation will invite a loud huff from the waiter. Before you can say vino tinto, he’ll be at the other side of the bar serving someone else who does understand the system.

This general unhelpfulness is endemic in Madrid and spreads beyond the tavernas. Shop assistants, in the main, are sullen and intolerant. They sling your purchase at you whilst chewing loudly on gum and looking in every direction other than yours, determined not to make eye contact.

Commuters have absolutely no etiquette on the metro, as they squeeze and force and, at times, stomp over you to get a seat on the train. And it is a rare thing for someone to offer help as you struggle up flights of never-ending staircases with an over-sized suitcase.

The argument of Spanish food being the best in the world, for me is wearing thin. I challenge anyone to stand up in defense of a plate of fatty oreja (pig’s ear), ensalada russa (potatoes and frozen vegetable salad, at times even complete with beads of sweat as it’s been in the sun too long) or greasy bowls of potatoes and ketchup accompanied with stale bread.

However, protest as I do, I have to confess that I secretly relish the complementary chunks of bread and salami and salted crisps with slivers of sardines on top in the numerous old man bars. Where everything is thrown on the floor and you feel the crack of peanut shells beneath your feet as you walk in.

I relish the exhaust fumes from traffic heaving through the streets, the grit of the metro and the tired faces that stare listlessly ahead. Street performers that burst into your carriage and opportunistic vendors that cluster outside the entrances selling umbrellas at the vaguest promise of rain, or fans, when the heat starts punishing. The noise, the din, the chaos and the overall human interaction that embodies pure… life.

Ahhh. Give me a city like Madrid any day.

A Slice of Paradise in Costa Rica

A Slice of Paradise in Costa Rica

What I love most about Costa Rica is that I find myself in the strangest of places. It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on a broken bench in a football pitch in town called Paradise (Paraiso to the locals).

I think I’ve been to Paradise before, not this version of it, but some equally misnomered neglected backwater town in the outback parts of Latin America.

This certainly isn’t my idea of Paradise – a stifling humidity that makes clothes stick to a sweating body like a second skin; the kind of mosquitoes that buzz loudly in your ear before taking a bite; a couple of pulperias (local stores), sodas (restaurants – sort of) and a bar called Las Vegas, where there will be a free baile (dance) this evening – certainly the highlight of the year.

I’m afraid to say that every Costa Rican village looks the same to me – largely uninspiring places with the obligatory football pitch, iglesia, one bar and a pulperia. They all share at least these four common ingredients, although sometimes you might hope to find a ferreteria (hardware store), or perhaps an extra bar (maybe even one with naked ladies).

The houses are modest and small – the majority with simple corrugated iron roofs and walls made out of basic plywood, all different colors, with an aging relative rocking slowly on an easy chair on the porch or fanning themselves with a magazine.

Driving though these villages makes one feel somewhat like a celebrity, for everyone stares with a mixture of unabashed curiosity and hope – for something that will momentarily relieve the boredom and monotony that must make up life in the scarcely populated and oppressively hot interior.

We stop for a coffee in a small store that’s barely opening its doors. It’s a little after 8 am in the morning but soon these plastic tables will be full of people breakfasting on gallo pinto, frijoles, huevos revueltos and tortillas. It’s a hearty breakfast of rice, eggs and beans that doesn’t appear on my radar in such tropical climes and least of all at 8 am. We settle for a tepid black coffee, slapping away the flies that land on the sticky tabletops and in the bowls of sugar.

Today there is a bicycle race to raise money for the children’s Christmas party and Luca is going to do the short circuit (which is 10 km instead of the adult 60 km) on his unicycle. As he peddles back and forth on the spot to keep his balance the people giggle and point.

The president of the town’s youth club asks if she can take a photo of him for their page on Facebook – surely this bizarre foreigner with the Polynesian tattoos and one wheeled bicycle will be spoken of for many a year to come.

We wait anxiously for the start of the race. It’s 9.04 and the kick off was supposed to be at 8.30am. Apparently we are waiting for a family to arrive from Santa Cruz – I really should be used to Latin American punctuality and informality by now but the heat is starting to intensify and I’m a little tired and ratty.

There’s a DJ cranking out tunes from the early 90’s, offering cold beer and sporting a pair of neon sunglasses. It takes an iron stomach to start the day this way and so far there are no takers.

At last they announce the start of the race and it’s a somewhat scrambled affair and not quite clear if the adult and children’s circuits start at the same time or not. As Luca peddles off behind the group I marvel at the speed with which he manages that one-tyred apparatus and how he sits on that horrifyingly uncomfortable-looking saddle.

I look around at the somewhat shabby collection of entrants and doubt that all of the candidates will manage the full 60 clicks. One man in particular has a gut spilling out over his Lycra cycling shorts, getting in the way of the saddle.

As they leave I find myself almost completely alone – the only person left in Paradise – on the edge of the football pitch, a few stray dogs scratching their fleas around my ankles and a little cloud of pesky insects above my head.

The bar opposite suddenly cranks into life, going into direct competition with the DJ on the stand, blasting out their music even louder, so I now have two cringe-worthy variations of Cumbia crackling out through blown speakers, fighting to be heard.

Apart from that the village is practically empty. A mother and child sit down near me and the driver of the Cruz Roja ambulance is eyeing me up salaciously from his van. I yawn as I slap an ant off my toe and a mosquito from my thigh. Costa Rica isn’t all about beach and surf and wildlife. Sometimes you need a little trip to Paradise to remind you how most people live here.

The Last Days of Summer, Buenos Aires

The Last Days of Summer, Buenos Aires

 

It’s early and there are few people on the street. An old man hobbles by with a dog that pulls insistently on its leash, looking more like it’s walking his owner than the other way round, and a jogger pants by, earphones firmly in place, determination in her eyes.

Working from home I forget how slowly the city wakes up and how long it takes for the shops to winch open their shutters and the day of commerce to begin. The supermarkets are closed and the small neighborhood businesses show no signs of life, lights turned off and cerrado signs against the glass.

A car pulls abruptly out of a garage, missing me by inches as I walk, the driver unconcerned as I cast him a filthy look – car trumps pedestrian every time.

The leaves are starting to turn as they do at this time of year and the chill in the breeze brings the beckon of winter. The long sunny days splashing about at the pool and lazing on the river will soon be behind us as another season draws to a close.

Season by season, chapter by chapter, line by line, my life in this city is an open book. Some pages are missing; ripped out, never to be read again, while others I revisit from time to time, remember the moment they were written, the characters within them, the color of the sky or the smell of the rain.

As I pass along a part of the street I haven’t for a while, where I used to walk with Bruno, my heart jumps as I see the old English-style book store, Las Mil y un Hojas still there and the real estate agent where I rented my first apartment.

So young, so unaware of the years I would spend here and the people that would cross my path; that my dog would end up living in the USA (the same traveling spirit as his owner), or that I would find myself back here, eight years on, looking into the window at the apartments on offer.

This morning I can’t help but feel nostalgia for the last days of summer and the inevitability of time. Everything ends sooner or later, for as hard as we try to keep it slipping from our grasp. Arturo’s pizza place where we all used to meet; my loft in Cañitas; the three days I didn’t eat before defending my thesis and the friends that carried me home afterwards all slid into the past without my control.

The parties in penthouses; basements and campos, recitales and recuperation; the doctor that asked me out for dinner during an appointment and the ambulance driver who gave me his phone number; the corner of Libertador where I was knocked down by a car, and the German restaurant that’s now a Carrefour.

Teaching English to bankers that wanted to date me; taxi drivers who robbed me or took me on scenic city tours; asados with amigos and drunken philosophical debates… all the facets of life that happened to me here and only here all gone now never to be repeated.

This is the only part of the world I’ve lived in long enough to create lasting memories, as an adult anyway, and these familiar places I walk past make me feel older.

You can never have it all because you have to let go to allow somebody new to come in – and know when it’s time to let others continue on their paths.

I’ve been left in Buenos Aires and I’ve left people behind, but something always draws me back. And when I’m away I take comfort in knowing that the leaves will change color in the autumn and the pavements will be wet in the morning, that the bookshop will still be here and the city sleeps in until late.

Discovering Lima, Peru

Discovering Lima, Peru

As with so much of this exasperating yet alluring continent, the glaring divide between the impoverished and the wealthy is markedly felt in Peru, perhaps nowhere more deeply accentuated than here in the capital of Lima. Impossibly shiny, cloud sweeping skyscrapers rivaling those of downtown Miami, stand firm next to centuries-old churches and crumbling cathedrals. Smartly dressed Limeños and tourists enjoy pisco sours and imported wines on the terraces of some of the world’s finest restaurants, against the backdrop of a sprawling shanty town (pueblo joven) looming in the distance up a mountain.

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Behind the security guards and iron railings on their windows, a well-to-do couple sit back in the reclining chairs of their luxury apartment, enjoying the latest Harry Potter movie on a plasma TV screen as the cry of “tamales” from a wizened old lady outside, bent over her wicker basket is muted by the very best in surround sound home cinema. A mayhem of multiple types and sizes of public transports rattle by, the ticket collectors wolf whistling and frantically grabbing at the attention of passersby, yelling out the bus’s destinations and scooping up as many passengers as possible, whisking them into the moving vehicles to a spluttering of exhaust and beeping of horns.

“Dios está conmigo”(God is with me) and “Jesus vive” (Jesus Lives) are just some of the lettering painted onto the sides of their brightly colored vehicles, a constant reminder that the Catholic church reigns strongly in this corner of the world. The Good Lord is worked into as many sentences as possible and travelers will find themselves blessed regularly throughout their day here in their interactions with the Peruvian people.

Lima is a fascinating city breaking so many stereotypes of Peru as a wild and rugged, underdeveloped land suitable only for the most intrepid of travelers, prepared to brave the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, camping gear in tow. A far cry from the mountainous regions, where the locals feed on wild cuy (guinea pig) and clans still live on floating islands in Titicaca made from lake reeds, coastal Lima is in many ways a throbbing modern metropolis.

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Construction of high rise apartment blocks is abundant and the swanky neighborhoods of Barranco and Miraflores propel the visitor at any moment to downtown North America, and then the next to a Parisian corner of tucked away restaurants, bars and art galleries. The abundance of museums, theaters and cultural events make up for the looming sea fog that hangs over Lima for the greater part of the year, turning everything damp and cold and enveloping the city with its grayness.

From the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Arqueologia e Historia, that captivatingly recreates Peru’s rich millennial past in archaeology, history and culture, to the Museo de Arte exhibiting an impressive array, from striking Peruvian prehistoric collections and first human discoveries to bold contemporary pieces, art and history lovers will delight in Lima’s hidden treasures.

Although the best way to appreciate this thrilling, multi-layered city has to be through its cuisine and everyone’s tastes are catered for. With some of the most exciting fusions of flavors taking place in Peru, attracting up-and-coming chefs from all over the world, Peruvians’ understanding of the delicate balance of spices and necessity for a little piquante here and there is unrivaled in many other parts.

Comedores and casual-style restaurants serve up a midday “menu” which includes two or three courses and a glass of chicha morada (black corn pulp) or some other soft drink. For 3 or 4 dollars you can fill up on a plate of ceviche and lomo saltado (pan fried pork and vegetables with rice) or a soup and fried chicken or fish, all cooked in exquisite sauces and, despite the price, still attractively presented on the plate with painstaking attention to detail.

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For those calling for a little more refinement, the chic restaurants behind illuminated fountains and frosted glass windows serve up international cuisine with a Peruvian twist, from seared tuna steak, to citrus curries and tasty and abundant portions of salads with a variety of vegetables, brightly colored and with a real, fresh, earthy taste, not purchased and imported out of season, nor wilting and sad-looking with the brown lettuce leaves shoved to the bottom.

Downtown is a historical treat of colonial buildings with some Arabian details in the balconies and roofs, mimicking Granada’s Alambra and demonstrating even more of the cultural diversity and many races and influences that have left their stamp on this city. From the Spanish to the Chinese, English, Americans, German, Arabian and Japanese, all have fused into what makes Peruvians today, each culture bringing with it the best and the worst from their lands.

Trendy young office workers communicate with blackberries and I-phones, fluent in text speak, Twitter and Facebook, mixing Spanish and English and managing to hold a perfect conversation with their companions while sending an email with one hand. Well dressed and well versed on current events in the rest of the world, they are astute and ambitious, educated and hardworking, driving Peru’s digital economy forward.

Away from the buzz and along the malecon, or “sea walk”, lovers take a stroll to the parque del amor (the park of love), where the stunning monument to Rodin’s the kiss sculpture is illuminated at night in a flame of lights and the intricate tiling on the benches, beautifully cut flowers and impeccably clean pathways follow the coastline that falls away into the sea below.

Losing yourself in the backstreets (although not too far from the populated areas) you come across some of the most interesting places of all – spectacular markets bursting full of spices and smells, and varieties of fruits and vegetables that have never made it to European shores. Potions and lotions and medicines for impotence, aphrodisiacs, herbs to clean kidneys, ripped off brands of clothing, electrical goods, carpets and tapestries, Tupperware and cleaning products, just about everything is available under the arches of the Mercado Central.

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Not far away from the centre you stumble across an incredible Adobe ruin, Huaca Puclana, an ancient pre Inca site made entirely out of clay. Sadly, it has been split into two by a road, but is still amazingly well preserved despite falling victim to the march of progress in a time before protection legislation was in place. There aren’t many cities in which you can see modern day skyscrapers, 16th century churches and archaeological sites from circa 200 AD in a matter of only minutes.

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Just a few days is not nearly long enough to enjoy everything that Lima has to offer, but it certainly gives you a taste that inevitably leaves you wanting more, confirming for me that Peru is about so much more than the Inca trail and the Nasca lines.

Revisiting Nicaragua

Revisiting Nicaragua

As we cross the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas the raindrops begin to fall. We pass a solid queue of trucks with their engines turned off, drivers sleeping in the back. The lack of a pedestrian footpath means that we have to walk in and out of the cars and their fumes, the surface underfoot muddy and slippery in the freshly falling rain. Our flip flips speckle dirt up the backs of our legs and a couple of taxi drivers and money changers tow behind, eager for our business.

In a few short moments we would be entering Nicaragua – it had been more than ten years since I set foot in what was then a poverty stricken country. The scars were still raw from years of internal conflict and civil war; the economy crippled by a US trade embargo and refusal to recognize the democratically elected left-wing Sandinista government.

Throughout the cities, there was a feeling of sadness. The shop windows were dull, the beautiful colonial churches and courtyards neglected or overgrown; tree roots bursting through the pavements; garbage lining the gutters; paint peeling off the walls. Although the same mystic wisps of cloud descended on the pastures at night and the bright sun shone in the sky every morning, there was a prevailing sense of listlessness.

I had never seen so many people in one place with appendages missing – amputated because of disease, a lack of access to appropriate medical care, rights in the work place, or the wounds of war. I never forgot watching one broken man as he hopped painfully up and down a street heavy with traffic. He had just one leg and one fully functioning arm, from which he balanced his crutch and dented tin cup that he rattled, tapping against car windows, pleading for help.

We had learned quickly from the better-off people in the region the need to develop a callus around our hearts and look the other way, stare sternly back in their faces, or simply glide on by. My heart though, still lurched with a mixture of compassion and guilt in the face of so much human misery, and the sense of desperation that weighed heavily on the air.

There was a little boy in ragged shorts and a filthy T-Shirt huddled under the roof of a shop. He asked me for some change and I gave him the cold shoulder. I heard him burst into tears behind me and turned to see him slump against the wall; it was too much for me to bear, he couldn’t have been more than six or seven.

None of the loose change in my pockets or time spent trying to console him would ever make up for his pain and the harrowing impotency that washed over me in that moment and stays with me to this day. How could I possibly tell him that everything would be alright as he stood before me painfully thin and barefoot in the street, any chance of a childhood playing football in the park or acting out at school stolen from him forever?

If I think too much about it the weight of the world hangs heavy on me and I find it hard to breathe; the faces of the little boy, the one-legged man, and the countless other poor souls I’ve exchanged a brief moment with along the road are still fresh in my mind.

But eleven years is enough time for the world to change just a little. In 2001 I didn’t even own a digital camera – the rolls of film in a Ziploc bag took up valuable space in my heavy pack and I had to wait for four months to see if the photos I took came out. The Nicaragua I knew was a few weeks before 9/11 and the horrific terrorist attacks that would dominate global foreign policy and separate the West further from the East. A black man got elected to the White House and an earthquake almost devastated Japan. The internet has gone from being superfluous to my life to the very thread by which it hangs; how I communicate with my family and friends and earn my living.

The wind of change now blows here and Nicaragua breathes a little easier than it did before. Fewer illegal immigrants smuggle across the border over the river into Costa Rica and today – on this particular day at least, despite the gathering clouds – the fields look greener than they did in my memory and the crops grow higher than before. As we cross the first few miles past the border, the land is filled with giant white wind turbines, soaring majestically out of the earth, sustaining it with clean energy; this is a country investing in its future.

The flatter terrain gives a feeling of space that you don’t find in Costa Rica, between the rampant jungle and luscious hills, real estate developments, and hotel blocks. We pass all the typical scenes of ox and plough, herds of cattle in the road, chickens squawking across the path and wizened old ladies rocking in armchairs on their porches – all the little nuances of Central America that bring a smile to my face. There are stands offering sandia (water melon) by the side of the road and quioscos selling fast food; the smell of sizzling meat fills the air.

When we reach Granada, it’s just as it was before, only different somehow. My heart jumps at the site of the yellow church I remember taking photos of and the lake front where I had sat in the grass with my best friend, contemplating the meaning of life – so young, so unaware of all that would pass between then and now.

Today, Granada is a city alive with commerce; buzzing with shops, hotels, and bars. This particular weekend the people are in full on preparation for carneval and some local celebratory fiestas, the streets teeming with garish mannequins at every turn. As we sit outside on the patio of one of the many restaurants that now line the cobbled pedestrian area where cars used to pass, loud drums are banging, people dancing and the energy of youth and excitement electric in the air.

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Wherever we walk there is something else more interesting to see – a primary school with smiley faces painted on the wall, intricate roofing of the delicate buildings; provocative political street art, and brightly painted old US school buses (or “chicken buses” as they are familiarly known) that we had traveled on before, almost meeting our deaths while teetering on the edge of a Guatemalan mountain pass; an exploded tire catapulting us off the road.

The horses pulling cheerful carriages giving tourists a city tour aren’t as thin as they were before and their clip-clopping on the cobbles as they pass fills my ears. Leafy trees line the sidewalks bursting full of mangoes, dropping to the floor with their weight and children pass by giggling and playing in the afternoon sun. Spiky, florescent pink fruits – picaya – are on offer from a wooden cart with two bright green budgerigars atop, plumping up their feathers.

Artists, musicians and students fill the brightly-lit plaza, now safe to cross in the evening, and the bars overflow with customers laughing and drinking long into the night.

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Stray just a little from the main streets and you see a different side to this booming city. The poorer districts hang their washing on the lines and their humble homes are not as robust or polished as the tourist attractions which, although beautifully painted at the main entrance, are graying and in need of maintenance on the side roads.

Stray dogs roam about the streets, especially towards the poorer end, and every time we leave our hotel we adopt one for the day, faithfully following us around for a few pats on the head and a ruffling of the ears. Clearly, steel is a commodity on sale on the black market here, for almost none of the manholes are covered and if you don’t watch where you step at all times there is nothing preventing you from breaking a leg or disappearing underneath entirely.

We go into the market, just to look around. I had also promised my Nicaraguan maid that I would get her some sandals, seeing as they were so beautiful here. The tacky plastic shoes on offer were not really to my taste but I knew that they would make Janet happy and, as we move up and down the different rows of the small but well-stocked market, we also pick up some homemade hot sauce for me and a bag of cacao for drinking chocolate.

The fresh produce section is as it always is in a Latin American market – pigs’ heads stacked up on a table top, dripping with blood, huge blocks of sweating white cheese covered in flies and a small comedor filled with workmen feasting on impossibly large plates of rice and beans and an indistinguishable kind of meat. A fat lady wipes her hands on her apron, leaving a dark hand print; a mixture of animal blood and human sweat.

As we emerge from the market and set foot in the street again the rain comes quickly and without warning, turning the uneven street with gaping manholes into a river in minutes. I shriek as the plastic canopy of a shop fills and dumps cold water down the back of my dress. We fall about with laughter as we try to dodge the chasms in the street and share an umbrella blowing inside out in the extreme conditions.

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The next day dawns bright and clear and at 8 am the sun is too strong to sit in as we breakfast outside in the courtyard of our hotel, next to the swimming pool and under the shade of a banana tree. Eleven years ago, on a desperately tight budget, we had slept in converted prisons, rooms with no lock on the door and blood stains up the wall, “bathrooms” where the shower was a bucket, mattresses crawling with lice, and hens pecking outside, visible through the cracks in the wall. I smile as I’m served an enormous bowl of fruit and muesli, natural yogurt and fresh ground coffee – back then we lived on bread rolls and avocados.

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We take a boat on the lake of Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca) to see some of the 400 or so islands sprinkled about these waters. They once belonged to the indigenous people but somehow in the march towards progress have fallen into the hands of nifty real estate firms and mostly sold off to wealthy foreigners, like the rest of Central America.

We pass one island where local fishermen and their wives still live. It is shabbier than the others and crammed full of wooden constructions that look something like homes. They smile as we pass.

Our “guide” – the skinny youth in charge of the boat – doesn’t know any pertinent facts about the lake, such as its size, or depth, or status among other fresh water lakes in the world, but he does know who is who in island real estate. He enthusiastically points to a luxurious island belonging to the owners of the main Nicaraguan brewing company, another of a Texan and one, rather kitsch-looking, reddish-pink house with stained glass windows and a miniature stone iglesia (church) owned by a couple of playos (homosexuals), he giggles as he says this.

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I let my fingers dangle into the water and feel the sun on my face pleasant afternoon breeze. Nicaragua, it’s good to be back.

Marrakesh Souks, Morocco

Marrakesh Souks, Morocco

 

The afternoon sun beats down, high in the hazy sky, masked by a thin veil of sand, like the faces of the women who walk mutely past, hidden by the abaya. Against the backdrop of the mighty Koutoubial mosque, with the dusty smell of desert air and the twang of an Arabian beat on the radio, the visitor to Marrakesh is at once transported back several centuries in time, where the townspeople gather to sell their wares in the marketplace and black crows circle menacingly overhead.

The beeping of a scooter and splutter of a car exhaust is enough to jolt anyone back into modern day Marrakesh, where it is unusual to see the women so completely covered up. The sombre black Arabian abaya that leaves only a narrow space for the eyes is traded, in the most part, for a fashionable pair of jeans and some kind of light fabric to cover their hair, styled up with flashy fashion accessories.

On the street outside, a young girl with over-sized dark sunglasses and a Gucci headscarf clings to the backseat of the bike, as her male companion stretches out a leg to slow down, narrowly avoiding collision with a donkey and cart, laden high with carpets.

A loud speaker cranks into life, penetrating the air with its bleating call that cuts through the hustle and bustle for a moment. “Allah Akbah” (God is good) it wails, as the Imam summons the men to worship for the third time that day. They stop what they were doing and flock towards the mosque, leaving their sandals in a huge pile outside.

It’s hard not to feel a little daunted when entering the Place Jamaa el Fna at the gateway to the souks. Souks (if you didn’t know) are Arabic markets selling any kind of wares you can imagine, from live animals to fresh vegetables, antiques and modern electronics, I-Phone holders and belly dancing outfits.

Pungent aromas of a thousand varieties of perfumes pressed from exotic flowers and berries invade the air, mingling with deeply aromatic herbs and spices, piled high in vibrant reds, yellows and oranges. Lovers of hot food will quickly fall in love with “harissa” a Moroccan chilli as common as ketchup that makes the tongue tingle and the chest burn with its heat.

Leather bags, shoes, glass works, ceramics, carpets, candles, paintings, hardware items and fake football T-shirts from every country around the world; almost anything the heart desires is on offer in the souks at prices to fit everyone’s budget and haggling skills.

Nothing has a ticket and the initial selling price will correspond proportionally according to how uncomfortable you look, what language you speak, and how much of a cool head you can keep. A poker face is an absolute must. Appearing completely disinterested and noncommittal also helps the Dirham come tumbling down.

The heaving market square steams with palpable intensity, as every merchant that passes fights for the wandering tourist’s attention, signalling, whistling, waving and even grabbing to come into their stores, flashing sinister smiles that quickly evaporate into loud curses when they fail to make a sale.

It can be hard to maintain composure as 360 bedlam unfolds before your eyes. Narrowly escaping the clutches of a beduin with a camel who wants to pose for a photo can lead you to fall straight into the path of a snake charmer, cavalierly circling his serpent uncomfortably close to your face.

For a brief respite from the intensity of the souk, tourists can head to any of the numerous cafes bordering the plaza where they can sip on Moroccan tea or simply replenish their water supplies. None of the restaurants in this area of Marrakesh serve alcohol as it is illegal within 100 metres of the mosques dotted about the corners of the plaza, so an ice cold beer to quench the thirst is unfortunately out of the question.

Looking down from the vantage point of a balcony at the bizarre melange of competing characters is an excellent way to get your bearings and drink in the sights and smells around you. Bewildered tourists and quick-witted merchants, men and women dressed head to toe in traditional costume next to German tourists with bare shoulders and legs, donkeys and carts barely avoiding the people as they whiz past without reducing their speed.

Snake charmers teasing slippery creatures out of baskets with the mesmerizing sounds of their pipes, fiercely persistent tattoo artists, traders, touts and street performers all mingle with beggars that spit and curse at those who refuse to give.

A trip to the souks of Marrakesh is not for the fainthearted. Pushing firmly past people, learning the correct tone in which to announce a loud and firm “no” and an enthusiasm for playing them at their own game will see the locals begin to break upon your determination like waves against the shore.

The more you look like you know what you are doing here, the less they will approach. Years of experience has taught them to instantly smell both fear and money and they are quick to hone in upon the twitchy blond tourists with guidebooks, or elderly foreigners with furrowed brows, clutching their maps in hand.

The mysterious sounds of Middle Eastern music wind out of the individual stalls, the mesmerizing notes dance on the air, mingling with the inimitably strong smells of leather, fried beef, and perfumes that mask the body odor for the most part (although all the layers of clothing, steaming foods bubbling out of little carts and portable stoves, throngs of people pressing together and a searing afternoon heat make the stench of sweat unavoidable at times).

As you enter into a tunnel of fabrics of authentic clothing, belly dancer costumes and curtains of silver and beads that chime and rattle as you pass, the souks become increasingly inviting and seducing.

Tiny cafes about two meters wide are filled with men playing cards amidst a rising halo of smoke from their cigarettes and the hookah pipe. Health campaigns about the ills of tobacco apparently haven’t reached these lands and any establishment you enter (including the airport) you will do so to a cloud of smoke.

Women busily make khoubz, round flat breads typical in Morocco, beating the dough hard against the surface and flipping it up into the air. A mouth-watering aroma emanates from a little counter covered in tajines, the national clay dish in which almost all of the traditional meals are served, from cous cous, to spiced chicken, beef and vegetables.

A large-bellied man leans against a small stall, conversing loudly with its owner who stirs something briskly in a steaming, bubbling pot. Talking with your mouth full is quite common here and scenes like this can fascinate the viewer, as they simultaneously eat while tossing snail shells onto already large piles forming on their plates.

Skinny young boys rumble past, pulling carts full of impossibly sweet, crystallized pastries and candies of all different colors, pinks, greens and reds, topped with pistachio nuts and chunks of sticky nougat. A mother with a baby strapped to her back in a blanket walks by and all the while you are invited to come into each seller’s stall.

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As the sun starts its descent in the desert sky, tingeing the walls and doorways with pink, the souks take on a different aspect, as you wind further inside the labyrinth, turning a corner that is suddenly quiet and ducking under a hidden little archway that leads deeper and deeper into the network of alleyways and away from the heavy streets and sellers behind.

The detail of the carvings and paintings on the bricks are so well preserved, with archways covered in elaborate tiles and beautiful Arabic patterns. The noise of the souk above is muted, the hustle and bustle paused as you hide below the mayhem in one of the city’s underground arteries and let your imagination run wild contemplating the centuries of history and people that have passed through these lands.

There is such a powerful energy about Marrakesh; the backstreets of the Media contain the whisper of the desert and the souls of its ancestors, hidden within these walls. This is definitely a good place to get lost in.