Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

Location: Home, United Kingdom

You all know who I am, I assume.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why I hate land borders

I'm now in León, Nicaragua, having travelled from San Salvador. It took us two days to get here, during which time we had to change buses no less than 6 times and cross two land borders, the El Salvador-Honduras border, and the Honduras-Nicaragua border. I thought it would be a good time to elaborate upon my hatred of such international necessities.

Every time we ever seem to be crossing a land border, for a start, it's mind-blowingly sunny. Land borders being what they are, they are always godforsaken dives: a few shacks, overpriced drinks, very little shade, and lots and lots (and lots) of dust. You have to heave your bag across anywhere between 500m and 3km of no man's land between countries in blazing sunshine, sweating like a pack mule, knowing all the while that you've got more hassle and a bus to look forward to when you cross the imaginary line.

The people at borders come in to three categories. Firstly, fellow travellers, either honkies like us or locals. The locals push in front of you because they reckon (often rightly) that being so foreign you'll block up the line and take ages whereas they can be dealt with quickly. All very well unless there are loads of them. Which is usually the case. Honkies like us are a pain in the arse too, because as mentioned above it often takes ages to process them. Plus for some reason westerners find it very difficult to wait patiently, and have a tendancy to start complaining loudly when made to hold on for a while. That's fine, but when a fellow gringo starts trying to involve me in a conversation about how badly organised the system is, I don't want to comment - they've got my passport, and they've got guns. Plus it's a land border: I have no rights.

Secondly there are the officials. These also fall into two subtypes. There are your border guards, surly, silent types with guns and a look in their eye that says "shoot to kill means what it says". And there are the bureaucrats, typically found behind a pane of glass with a tiny hole in it. They then mumble instructions at you so you can't hear. They are the ones who take your passport, give you a form, stamp your passport on page 29 when all the other stamps are between pages 4 and 15, take back the form and stuff the carbon copy of the form in your passport rather than staple it in thus seriously endangering your chances of keeping that vital bit of paper for another land border later. They then take a certain amount of money in dollars from you, and more than likely a few more as well for "stamping fee" or "ink tax". They'll probably then try to underchange you.

Fianlly, the hustlers. This general category covers pretty much everyone not mentioned above from the moment you step off one bus in the first country until you reach your next bus in the second. They try to carry your bags (for a fee), carry you on a bike/scooter/pedalo (for a fee), get you a bus (for a fee), change your money (for a... you get the idea) , sell you drinks/food, get you accomodation - in short, they hustle you for all yor worth, generally making the whole experience even more rushed and sweaty, and meaning it's impossible for you to just stop and relax even for a second. On the plus side, they do provide you with the answers to any questions you might have, since these borders are rarely equipped with adequate signage.

Still, only three more (Nicaragua-Honduras, Honduras-Guatemala, Guatemala-Mexico) to go now, if all goes to plan.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Volcán Santa Ana

The day after my previous post appeared, I went up a volcano, as I had indeed predicted. The fire mountain in question was Santa Ana, the highest one in El Salvador at a height of some 2250m, or perhaps more, depending on who you believe.

However high it actually ¡s, it was certainly in the clouds. At the peak, visibility was approximately 4m, thick sulphurous (not sure how you spell that) smoke mingling with standard airborne water vapour. Combined with the total lack of life it was very otherwordly. All around we were surrounded by scree made up of cooled lava, resembling brick, and available in red, yellow and black. Slightly further down the volcano there were strange plants that looked like something from Lost in Space, but up at the top nothing lived except strange orange wasps and red beetles that looked like they had also been formed by liquid magma.

It was impossible to see in to the actual crater due to the smoke, but you could look down it's steep sides and think "better not get too close, as this scree's really slippery and I'm wearing sandals". I had in fact stacked in a few moments earlier and grazed my leg. Fortunately I didn't go clean over the side and disappear in to the smoke.

Got down with no harm done, humbled and amazed by the experience. Totally unreal.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Lago Atitlan, El Salvador

Lago Atitlan is a huge lake in the highlands of Guatemala. It used to be a volcano cone, or an area where there were a series of volcano cones. However, in this part of the world, geography is frequently a series of cataclysmic events, rather than a series of samples of rocks with scientific names (like at home). In this case, the whole area collapsed in on itself a a result of some subterranean volcanic shenanigans, and the resulting crater (technically it's a caldera, apparently) filled up with water. Thus: Lago Atitlan.

Oh yeah - the water. Arrive in Panajachel (as we did) mid-afternoon in the wet season and it's not hard to realise where all the water comes from: the sky. It was absolutely bucketing down when we got there. The water was running down the roads to the lake in rivulets two inches deep on each side of the road. It does this every day, or every afternoon at least.

Still, that does affor the possibility of getting up earlyish (ugh) and getting a boat across the lake to one of the other villages. In our case, Santiago Atitlan. It's very picturesque and so forth, and there's a market, which is... well... to be honest, at this point I've realised that pretty much all markets in the world, no matter the affluence or political system of their parent country, are fairly alike in certain ways. Busy, mildly interesting, good if you want something specific and can be bothered to find it. But not actually that wonderful in themselves.

This realisation, combined witht he numerous faux-ethnic tat stalls en route to the market, and of course the rain, meant we didn't stay too long in Santiago Atitlan.

A few days later, and I'm now in Santa Ana in El Salvador. Tomorrow I shall ascend a volcano, about which I may write depending on whether I can be bothered or whether anything else happens. Hasta luego...

Oh yeah, one last thing. Watching penalties on the internet is no fun at all.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Más fútbol y un poco Inglés

It is a shame I'm not staying with a family containing a man who likes football, especially as last night me, Trev and Si went to see the Guatemalan cup semi-final second leg match between Xela (yay) and Communicaciones (boo). Xela were 3-1 down from the first leg.

It started badly as after about five or six minutes their best defender (judging from the last game) number 14 was sent off for a deliberate handball in the box, and a penalty awarded to Communicaciones. Fortunately it was a bad pen and the brilliantly-named keeper (el portero) Fernando Patterson saved it.

Unfortunately not too long later, after about twenty minutes or so, Communicaciones made up for that by scoring from open play. So Xela were 1-0 down, 4-1 down on aggregate, and had had their away goal cancelled out. Not to mention the numerical disadvantage they were at.
However, they didn't give up, amazingly piling the pressure on the team from the capital, and actually scoring! 1-1 on the night, 4-2 to Commu on aggregate.

Then Commu had a defender sent off for what I assume was backtalk to the ref, since it wasn't a foul. As I'm sure you can imagine, football here tends towards the chaotic at times...

So, at half time, it was 1-1, and both teams had ten men.

Five minutes in to the second half a Commu defender handled in the box and promptly also received his marching orders. There were now 19 men on the pitch, 10 for Xela, 9 for Communicaciones, and Xela had a penalty to make it 2-1 on the night.

Before it could be taken, the ref had to spend ages arguing with the players and generally sorting out the chaos. During this time one noticed that the Xela keeper had made his way up to the opposition's box. Long way to go to get involved, I thought. Then I realised: he was taking the penalty! This was of slight concern, as he had already revealed himself to be Lehmanesque with the ball at his feet. The stadium fell into a hushed silence. El portero stepped up, calm as you like, and slotted the ball in to the corner of the net. 2-1 on the night, 3-4 on aggregate.

The 9 men of Commu weren't beaten yet, though. Bravely they attempted to hold on and thus win overall. Particularly effective was the right winger, a black man. He did the usual hold on to it by the sideline and try to draw a foul type affair, and was good at it. I only mention that he was black because of the crowd's disgraceful reaction to him, shouting "mono" (monkey), "tu madre es una puta negra" (your mother is a black whore), and making monkey noises. Disgusting.

The match drifted on, the pace taken out of it by Commu, and it looked like Xela were fading out of the competition, until the last minute, when a corner from the left was nodded in by a sub striker for 3-1 on the night and 4-4 on aggregate. Absolute madness erupted in the stands, as I'm sure you can imagine. It was brilliant.

Indeed, the fantastic exuberance of those scenes was only beaten around thirty five seconds later, when, deep in to injury time, Xela scored again, making it 4-1 on the night and an unbelievable 5-4 on aggregate. What a match! The crowd went absolutely bonkers, everyone hugging each other and shaking each other's hands, jumping up and down, throwing flares and fireworks on to the pitch.

The final whistle went and the players sank to their knees, thanked God, cried etc etc. Smoke from flares and fireworks drifted thickly in the air, partially obscuring the sight of kid after kid braving the barbed wire-topped fences around the pitch in order to run on and get closer to their heroes on such a night. The ref was led off surrounded by the obligatory riot police (always happens at the end of games here) against a backdrop of ranks of hardcore Xela fans, waving flags and sparklers, jumping up and down, singing their hearts out. The captain and best player, Brazilian number 8 centre midfielder Iwerton Paes, ran to the edge of the pitch and climbed the fence part of the way to be closer to his adoring public, trailed by a group twenty children like the wake of a comet. It was marvellous madness.

Here's hoping they do well in the final...

Yesterday as part of my Spanish course, I went to a local school and spent an hour teaching Guatemalan children to speak English. I'd be lying if I claimed it was an entirely positive experience, but it did give me an idea of what conditions are like for people growing up here in one of the poorest countries in Central America. There were 40-45 children in the class, I tried to count at one point but they were packed in tightly so it was difficult to be sure. None of them had dictionaries, which makes teaching language a bit difficult.

Fortunately, I only had to teach them to conjugate English regular verbs, and help them with their pronounciation. Doing the former really made me realise why people say English is such an easy language to learn: the regular conjugation is almost absurdly easy. You take the infintive of a regular verb (we used "to read", "to write", "to talk" and a couple of others) and... er... remove the "to". In third person singular you add an 's'. So it's [I write - you write - he writes - we write - they write]. Compare that to the Spanish equivalent, which is approximately [yo escribo - tú escribes - él escribe - nosotros escribimos - ellos escriben] and you can see that in foreign languages verbs change a lot more!

That sort of simple stuff was what we were doing, getting them to fill in the blanks of sentences such as "The teacher ____ on the blackboard", and then getting them to repeat the sentences after me in order to correct their pronunciation. Unfortunately, in a class that size, with my control of Spanish, you have to get them all to repeat at once after you, which only helps those you can already do it - those who can't just don't say anything. Still, what can you do... I did my bit. And to think I considered it ridiculous when there were 35 people in my German GCSE class in school. At least we had dictionaries...


Just to let you all know I shan't be directly affected by the hurricane about to sweep through El Salvador because I am in Quetzaltenango, in the north of Guatemala. Though there was a mild earthquake here last night (cool).

So, to recap: hurricane too far away to hurt me. Don't clog up inbox with panicky "oh my god are you ok?" e-mails. Gracias

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Fútbol y Español

Anyone not remotely interested in football should concentrate purely on the central portion of this blog, as the start and end are related to the world's greatest sport. Just to let you know.

Last Saturday night myself and mis dos amigos went to the Estadio Mario Camposeco in the fair (well, alright, extremely rainy, as tis the season for precipitation and we're in the mountains) city of Quetzeltenango, called Xela (pronounced Shay-la) by pretty much everyone, a shortened form of it's Mayan name. Our purpose? To watch Xela FC play table-topping Guatemala City side Municipales (booo!).

With only a couple of games to go in the second half of the supremely confusing Guatemalan league, Xela were third. If they beat Municipales and results went their way, they could go up to second and thus be more likely to get in to the semi-finals of the play off system. Or something. Told you it was confusing. Anyway, the bottom line was that Xela needed to win.

When we got to the stadium it was absolutely sheeting down with rain. It remained pretty wet throughout the evening, lightening up as the night drew in, but still spotting from time to time. Good job I brought a raincoat!

The ground itself was a reasonably small affair, not one of those enormous Latin Amrican Hyperdromes you see on TV. For that I shall have to wait until Mexico City, where I may go to see the Estadio Azteca. Ths was a different kettle of fish. In terms of how built up it was it reminded me of a non-league English ground. There were no facilities, just pitch, and stands. Oh, and I mean stands. This was not a stadium that would have passed the Taylor report. The terraces consisted of a series of concrete steps, each large enough to sit on. There were thus four or five rows, reaching down to the front row, in front of which was a wire mesh topped with barbed wire. Between that and the fireworks thrown around the place, it was exactly how you'd imagine it to be - kind of like Football Italia, but without the ultras (thank goodness).

I'd be lying if I claimed that the match itself was agreat spectacle from the point of view of the footballing purist in me. Conditions (never have I seen a pitch so waterlogged) and a general lack of skill prevented that from being the case. But it was a great display when it came to that other important aspect of football, passion. The players ran their hearts out.

Xela went 1-0 up to furious cheers from the home fans (otherwise known as all the fans, there being no Municipales presence that I saw) after about twenty minutes courtesy of a delightful free kick from their best player: a class act, the captain and central defensive midfielder, wearing number 8.

Ten minutes later, though, things went sour - Xela's lazy playmaker number 10 was sent off for stamping on an opponent. That left seventy minutes for los chivos (Xela's nickname: the goats) to hold on against opposition superior in both numbers and skill. There followed a display of guts and giving the ball away reminiscent of a certain national team dear to my heart, as a brave rearguard action came in to play.

An hour and something later, and the local side had done what England failed to in the quarterfinals of the last major international tournament, and held on to a one nil lead. Victory! Great stuff...

And now for something completely different...

As you may or may not already know, I am currently staying with a Guatemalan family in Quezteltenango and participating in an intensive Spanish course. Five hours of one on one tuition a day, and I still can't conjugate verbs quickly enough...

The family stay is less exciting than it sounds. My house is inhabited only by a grouchy old woman who rarely speaks. She told me off yesterday for drinking too much tea, in reply to which I very nearly launched in to an explanation of my nationality and the rights thereof, but decided against it. Besides which my spanish wouldn't have been equal to the task! Anyway, at least the old dear cooks great food, and at least I'm not alone in the house with her ' there are also a couple of other honkies staying there, so it's pretty good. Unlike mi español...

We now return to our regular scheduled talk about football...

I've spent an enormous amount of time looking, and it appears that I am going to be unable to watch this year's FA Cup Final here in Guatemala. This means an event traditionally nerve-racking enough anyway will this time be even worse because I think I'm going to have to keep up to date with it via that most hellish of media, the live internet text update. Aaaaaargh! So spare a thought for me on Saturday...

Thursday, May 12, 2005



I am now in Guatemala - you know, that country just south of Mexico. Spent the first couple of nights in the capital, Guatemala City, where the weapon of choice for shopfront security guards is a pump-action shotgun with a pistol grip and a large number of extra shells in the clip. That´s not the only gun you'll see, mind you - you can also glimpse big pistols and if you're lucky enough to walk past an army van like we did, you can even spot big kalashnikov type assault rifles. All good clean fun I'm sure.

We were staying in the posh suburbs, anyway, near the airport, so it wasn't too much of a worry except when we went in to town to look at the Parque Central (big central square thing) and its attendant civic buildings - the Palacio built by a former El Presidente and the Catedral. Nice and plush it all must have been too.

Now I'm in Antigua, a honk-crammed tourist town with cobbled streets and orange and yellow buildings. Needless to say Americans (as in those from the USA) love it. It is genuinely pleasant, mind you, resting as it does in the shadow of three big volcanos. All dormant, so don't worry.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Goodbye USA

Well, I could write this post about a lot of things. I could write more on the staggering Kafkaesque beaurocracy of the US Health System. But I eventually got my antibiotics, albeit at some cost, so I don't want to gripe overly.

I could write about how rubbish Tijuana is, providing neither real nor fake tourist sleaze, and no sense of the real Mexico either. But I shall be returning to Mexico and I don't want to get off on the wrong foot.

I could write about the horrors of staying sober on cinco de mayo, a big celebration night in these parts. But I shan't because it's not good form to mention the drunken indiscretions of one's friends in such a public forum as this.

Instead, I dedicate this post to the girls in (of all places) Starbucks round the corner from my San Diego hostel who at 6 o'clock this morning with insomnia driving me nuts served me a cup of tea with a smile and a friendly chat.

Next time I feel anti-yank I shall try to remember them. They aren't all bad.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

San Diego Zoo and You Won't Believe It

I spent yesterday at San Diego Zoo, one of the biggest and best zoos in the world, or so they claim. And to be honest they're right to claim such things, as it is indeed a marvellously impressive place. They've got animals coming out of the wazoo (well, that is where they come out), from Polar bears and Pandas to Orangutans, Otters and a Komodo Dragon, there's nothing they don't have that you'd want to see in a zoo.

Of course, me being me, the highlights of my trip round the cages were various beasts answering calls of nature in various ways: for example, capybaras and tapirs were in the same cage, but also had their own little enclosures off of the main cage to which they could go for sleep or peace and quiet. While we were watching, a capybara and a tapir had a row, and the tapir, in response to being snarled at by the world's largest rodent, strolled over to the capybara's hutch deal and proceeded to block the remaining big rats in their mini-cage with a moat of urine. Hilarious. But not as funny, needless to say, as the sight of a pair of Orangutans 'wrestling', or a Rhino getting rather 'excited' while eating his (and believe me, it was certainly male) food.

Now on to You Won't Believe It. Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen, once again I have tonsillitis. I wouldn't mind if I was actively catching it from other people, but no, I seem to be getting it from nothing and no one. So, after contemplating going home for some time this morning, I decided "bollocks am I going to let this thing beat me" and I rang up my insurance company. They e-mailed me a list of doctors in the local area that would serve me, and I headed off to one of them to get more (and hopefully this time considerably stronger) antibiotics. It was quite a walk to even the closest of the doctors' places, but it wasn't too bad because so far (touch wood) I've not got the disease too badly, just got a nasty sore throat with white spots on it rather than full-on raving delirium. I got there in the end, and went to the reception.

The woman there inquired which doctor was mine. I replied I didn't know, I'd just been told by my insurance company to come. She informed me it wasn't a walk-in clinic, and so I couldn't just see a doctor. I responded that I didn't know about that, I'd just been told by my insurance company to come. She inquired which was my insurance company. I told her that it was a British insurance policy. She asked me for my card. I countered that I didn't have a card, but that my company had said to get her to ring it for the relevent details. She told me that she wouldn't ring, because I needed a card.

At this point she took a phone call from someone (something else I hate, but let's not get sidetracked). When she got off the phone she seemed surprised to see me still there. She laid down the law: she wouldn't ring, because if she did they'd need to know my details, and she didn't know my details. When I told her I could give her my details if they asked she refused. So I've had to come back here to my hostel to try and find another doctors'. I will then have to ring up said place and no doubt have a row (side note: Americans don't use the word 'row' - how strange) with them about my insurance. Who knows, perhaps in the end I will get some sort of service, and perhaps become cured.

This is why we need to keep the NHS, rubbish though it may be: at least you don't have to pay through the nose for such bureaucratic incompetence.