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.

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.