So things have been pretty cool of late. The trip has become more of a vacation and I might even say that it’s been fun. Previously I would have thought that “fun” was one of the least appropriate words to describe this experience…
Let us begin where we left off- in San Salvador. I met up with a friend of a friend and I had the opportunity to be normal for a while. There have been protracted periods during the journey where I haven’t had anyone to talk to (outside ordering food and sorting
accommodation). It’s nice to talk.
After the capital, I stopped at Santa Ana, on my way into the final mountain range. My visit coincided with the town’s annual
celebrations. The main street had been closed off for a huge procession. Floats with beauty pageant winners crawled along, flanked by the police department in their finest dress and banner-toting LGBT activists.
I learned from a guy in the hostel I stayed at that there are certain establishments in El Salvador where beer is sold at cost price (so long as you purchase sufficient quantities). These places make money from the “vomit tax” they charge people who throw up. The price per chunder is listed on the menu, alongside the drinks prices. I learned about this too late in the day and sadly wasn’t able to experience it myself. I can picture the scene clearly, though- the drunk men, fancying themselves modern day cowboys, wearing hats, boots and sporting six-shooters… and brawling. Oh if only I had seen it all.
As I headed into the hills, my little legs went into overdrive. There have been a few days where I’ve just wanted to keep cycling. And this was the case as I cycled into Guatemala. I had planned the stops I was to make on the way, but when it came time to leave the saddle for the day, I pushed on. It’s kinda like playing “just the tip”. I told myself that I would just cycle another 10 miles to the next town… and then ended up ploughing right on through, not stopping for miles after.
The helmet my mum bought just before I left is now somewhere in Guatemala. I cycled off one morning without it. I had gone downhill (some quite decent hills, too) all morning until the moment I realised I didn’t have it on my head. The honest truth is that I couldn’t be bothered to go back and get it, but I guess I’m gonna have to think up something better than that to tell mum. Perhaps I’ll say I wore it all the way to Cancun and then donated it to some poor helmet-less kid in Mexico.
This most recent leg of my journey has been more social than most. I met two guys at Rio Dulce who were travelling together to a town up in the hills- and I was convinced to leave my bike and take a bus for a mini-vacation from cycling. It was pretty nice to travel without effort.
We slept at a place called Lanquin and took a day trip to Semuc Champey (riding in the back of a pick up truck, holding on as it rocked all over the place). The site is a series of pools flowing into one another, with little swim-throughs or waterfalls joining them. These pools form a bridge over a fast flowing white water river. We met a German guy who had been before and returned with a specific purpose: to hot box an underwater cave formed behind a waterfall. It was a pretty cool cave.
I got dowsed in chemical spray when crossing into Belize. Which was kinda awful.
At border crossings, I generally try and work out how the new country is different from the last. The contrast between Belize and Guatemala is the most pronounced in the region. Everyone in Belize speaks English and the vibe is very solidly Caribbean, even inland. On the ride through the country, I passed a Rasta-coloured wooden house built in the shape of a car (complete with hubcaps nailed to the walls where the wheels were painted on). Prominently displayed outside was a sign reading “Trespassers will be persecuted”. There was also an election campaign poster with the words, “I am coming, I am coming hard!” written underneath a the image of a fist grasping a flag pole. It’s even funnier if you say it with a Jamaican accent.
I arrived at Cayo at the end of my first day cycling in Belize and stopped at a juice stall where a boy was watching one of the early Harry Potter films. The lime juice was quite simply delicious. Little ice crystals evidenced that it was on the verge of freezing, but not quite there. When I paid the kid, he walked away with my money and then came back a minute later saying “I don’t think that you know how it works in this country….” and then went on to explain that the exchange rate was $2 Belizian to $1 USD and that I’d given him too much money. Which was sweet.
That night I went out for a few pre-dinner drinks and was drawn to a shadier-looking bar than most. Before long, my bear-magnet powers had done what they do best and I was talking to 72-year old Marion (known to all and sundry as “Grandpa”). He had a grey beard, whose coverage was patchy at best, and a belly that hung from his shoulders like a whale strung up by its tail. At first I was drinking the local beer, but, as is the way at most dive bars I have spent time in, the drink of choice is really the rum and coke. In New York, I used to watch the old ladies come in to a bar and carefully count out their quarters and dimes, adding up to the price of this drink. So rum and coke was (obviously) what Grandpa was drinking and it was what I quickly moved on to… and I proceeded to get absolutely Slam Dunk Drunk. Which I think I need to do once in a while. One of the barmen was called “Jesus” and Grandpa got a lot of pleasure out of asking random people in the bar if they had seen Jesus… and then introducing them to the barman.
Dive bar conversations are mostly formulaic (in a way that I find comforting). It’s generally the old timer doing most of the talking with me occasionally agreeing or posing questions to keep up the flow. I will learn about family (genius daughters, good-for-nothing sons-in-law, famous brothers) and generally also about time spent in the army or the navy. From time to time there are England-related anecdotes… the time when, in their youth, my drinking companion had been part of a shooting competition at Bisley, etc…
The next day I got up and cycled across the country to the coast and caught a boat to a little island in the Caribbean called Caye Caulker. It seems to be the done thing. I met people from the last hostel I stayed at in Guatemala… I also met a couple who I initially saw in Semuc Champey, and then later met in a Burger King by Tikal. Solidly on the gringo trail here…
The island is very chilled. The snorkeling is good- as is the seafood. I rented a fishing rod and failed to catch anything from the sea. I still had a pretty good time of it all though, as the bait that I had bought made some friends- the local kids. One girl, who must have been about six, claimed to have caught a barracuda using just some fishing line, a small hook and chopped up dead-bait. The sea birds came in and hovered directly above our heads as we cast out the lines. If you threw fish up into the air, the birds would catch it mid-flight, scrabbling and fighting over it. They even swoop and take the food out of your hand. The most plentiful of the sea birds here have sharp, angular wings and look like direct descendents of pterodactyls.
After a morning fishing, I went back to my shack (which is basically a garden shed) and took off my sopping shirt, placing it on top of the power wire for the permanently-spinning fan. I got an electric shock. It took me a second or so to realise what the hell was happening. Then, I decided to prod the shirt off the wire with my rubber flip flop. This was actually also wet- so I was shocked again. Eventually, my guidebook served a purpose and when I emerged from the room I received an inquisitive look from one of the guys sitting outside- for I must have been cursing quite loudly.
In the evenings, most people head down to the bar at the end of the island. One night a local man explained what goes on in the water the sun sets over. He detailed, in confidence, the mating habits of some of the fishes (kiss face to face and then turn around and
boom-boom-boom). The crabs are also said to dance with joy at seeing people in the water. We humans apparently entertain them immensely. The guy did a very convincing crab dance to demonstrate.
Not much longer left really now. I have cycled more than 3,000 miles to get where I am. Tomorrow I head to Mexico… and then I should be in Cancun in a few more days.