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.

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Location: Home, United Kingdom

You all know who I am, I assume.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Palenqué

I'm afraid it is another post about Mayan ruins, which I bet you're tired of by now. I'll keep it brief.

Palenqué is in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, a state which is historically and ethnically Mayan, as opposed to the Aztec, Zapotec, Toltec and Olmec stuff I'll encounter as I get further north. It's best ruin in my opinion was the large Temple of the Inscriptions, which was the first (and still is the most important) burial chamber in Mesoamerica (the Mayan area). It's a big pyramid temple like most of them round these parts, but inside this 'un they found the remains of a Mayan Priest-King and a whole load of other paraphernalia, including a jade death mask which is on display in Mexico City.

Anyway, twas all very nice.



I'm now in San Cristòbal de las Casas, a place invaded by Zapatista guerrillas in 1994. Not to worry, though, despite them being a little bit stirred up of late the foreign office says it's fine for me to be here, and last time said paramilitary group came round these parts tourists were generally photographed by them...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Crocodiles y un otro Juventus

Since travelling alone things have taken a refreshing turn for the bizarre, as will hopefully become clear.

Shortly after I wrote my last post I got on a bus bound for Orange Walk, in northern Belize. The reason I was going to this small(ish) town was because it would afford me the opportunity of spending the next day taking a boat trip down the imaginatively-entitled (can't trust Spaniards to name anything) "New River", through some jungle, to the Mayan ruin of Lamanai.

While other Mayan cities mysteriously declined after about AD900, Lamanai continued to prosper. Even after the conquistadors arrived its location in Belize, a country the Spanish didn't really care about, meant it was left relatively unscathed (except for a bit of church-building). Only when a load of British pirates decided to pack the buccaneering game in and start a sugar mill nearby did it fall apart, the European diseases ravaging the population. The sugar mill was an abject failure, too.

What wasn't a failure was my river trip. Leaving aside the Mayan ruins, about which I have written in the past and will in the future (suffice it to say they were dead good as usual), the real highlight was the wildlife (more mosquitos not included). During the journey I saw several crocodiles (one really big one, estimated by locals as being between 7 and 15 feet long depending on who you talk to), a turtle, some bats, several iguanas, lots of birds and a coatimundi or two. At the ruins themselves howler monkeys were visible (and extremely audible). All in all it was fantastic, except for the previously mentioned (and more previously lamented - see other posts) ravenous mosquitos.



My day didn't finish with the joys of wildlife spotting in the jungle, though. Oh no, it was to get much more weird than that. On the evening of that same day, as I was about to go out and get dinner, the woman who ran my hotel asked me if I wanted to go to the local karaoke bar with her and her bloke to celebrate with the rest of the town because their football team had won the Belizean championship the day before. When you get an offer like that, you can't really refuse, so I didn't.

The football team is called Juventus, and they even seem to play in the kit of the Italian giants. And I don't just mean they also play in black and white stripes, I mean they actually use Juventus kits, presumably bought from a market somewhere. What's even more astonishing, though, is that most of the locals are totally unaware of the existence of another Juventus outside of Belize. They think that their Juve is the only one.

The story around Juventus (or, as they're known in terrible weekly rag The Belize Time, "Benny's Juventus" - not sure why) is that they used to be the best team in Belize, and won the Championship several years on teh trot. Then their players all decided they should be paid more money, and since the club couldn't afford more money, they all up and formed a new team based in Belize City. So Juve went under (from what I gather). But a group of young locals decided they wouldn't have that, and formed another Juventus team. And after a few years, they have now won the Belizean championship. All this I was told while waiting for the team to arrive in their 4x4 with the trophy, poised and ready to take some photos which I could "sell to papers in the States" as the woman running my guesthouse put it (no matter how many times I told her I wasn't from the US bus from England - it was like a reversed version of the way in "For Whom The Bell Tolls" all the Spaniards call the Septic main character "inglés").

The woman was actually really quite annoying. Fair play to her for inviting me out, but she had one reason and one alone for doing so, and that was so that I would buy all of her drinks that evening, and those of her bloke. So it cost me a fair amount each round, and thus I drank pretty slowly. Then she decided I was taking her and him to Corozal (another Belizean town) the next day where they were going to show me a nice time. Of course I would be paying for all that too. This ended up in me skipping town the next day and hopping on a bus bound for Mexico, like a fugitive in a film, except crossing Mexico's southern border not the northern, and running from a forceful old woman, not the cops. As for the drinks, I got a load of them bought for me later by a gaggle of Belizean twenty-somethings with whom I ingratiated myself. Which meant that I finished the evening crying with laughter standing outside a cheap food shack watching a couple of Belizean girls dancing provocatively with a crazy old tramp to loud music pumping out of the 4x4 we were driving around in. Madness...

Anyway, back to the team, I did indeed get lots of photos of the players with the trophy (as if I had any choice - the old woman was extremely bossy), so if any papers happen to read this, and want the snaps when I return to Blighty, just let me know...



My crawling exit from Orange Walk came at half ten on the morning of the 27th (Belizean time). It preceeded a long journey to Palenque in Mexico, where I now find myself, having arrived here at three thirty am on the morning of the 28th. But it wasn't too bad - I wasn't travelling all the time. Most of the time I was waiting around in Mexican border town Chetumal, which meant i got to watch Batman Begins on the cinema. It's pretty good, in my opinion. Nothing really interesting happened during my journey, except that while I was waiting for the sun to come up in Palenque bus station so that I could safely go and find a hotel, the open air building was suddenly swarmed by a load of massive winged insects. It was cool - everyone had to run away until they turned off the lights and thus enticed them outside (sort of). Still, homo sapiens had the last laugh - when I left several locals were picking up downed bugs and putting them in bags, with a view to cooking and eating them later.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Mosquitos and Manatees (and Farewell and Goodbye, mis amigos)

Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of mainland Belize, is where I've been the last few days. The island itself is beautiful, despite a lack of enjoyable beach. There's clear blue Caribbean water as far as you can see, and blazing sunshine all day. There are also, however, the worst mosquitos in the world.

We stayed there three nights, and yesterday, half way through our second full day I paused to count the number of bites I had on my arms and legs. While bite-counting isn't an exact science, due to swelling and other factors, I obtained a figure of 110 bites accrued. Added to bites on my face and back, I estimate that I must have in the region of 150 mosquito bites. Agony.

Not only were there thousands of mosquitos on Caye Caulker, but they were some sort of super-skeeter. Mosquito repellant had no effect on them whatsover - one fellow tourist told me she had sprayed 100% DEET all over her and still been bitten everywhere. But I could top that: I got bitten through my clothing. The little arseholes managed to penetrate both T-shirt and trousers.

When they bit, they didn't just do it subtley and fly off. Oh no, these bastards bit with a pin prick of pain, and remained there, sat on your skin, sucking away for some time until they'd finished or you swatted them. That was in fact the only decent thing about them: their single-mindedness at least made them easy to swat, after they'd settled on your flesh that is.

All told, the experience of being driven out of bed at 6am in a blind panic because I was being bitten too much is not one I particularly want to repeat...



However, there's more to Caye Caulker than mosquitos and a pleasant Caribbean island experience. There's also the possibility of going on a snorkelling trip, which we did yesterday. Long-time readers of this may remember that I went snorkelling a fair bit the last time I was on a desert island, on Caqalai in Fiji. That time you could just walk in off the shore and swim over a coral reef. Here you needed to go out on a boat trip, so it was more expensive. But, as will become clear, it was also much, much better.

The boat took us to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, an area of sea in Belizean waters that is a protected wildlife reserve. It's over a channel in the reef (which is, incidentally, the largest in the world after the Great Barrier in Australia). Our first stop was one point of this place. We stopped over the reef, so the water was only around 4-5 feet deep. Looking over the edge of the boat, you could see a big school of large grouper fish, 50-75cm long each, and a Nurse Shark, which must have been 4 feet long. Wow.

We snorkelled around there for a while, then went across the channel to the other side of the reef, on the way spotting a large Manta Ray swimming along the floor of the sea. Cool. Then we came back to the boat.

I thought that was pretty cool, but that was just the start of the day. Next stop was at a place called Shark Ray Alley, also a part of Hol Chan. This was aptly named: there were lots of Nurse Sharks swimming around, some getting up towards 6 feet long. We could snorkel close to them, watch them feed off the bottom of the sea, even see the remora fish attached to their fins. There were also big Stingrays, getting up to a metre across. It was fantastic.

But the best was yet to come. Our last stop was at a place called Coral Gardens. We got in the water and followed the guide around a big patch of coral. Suddenly our guide indicated for us to stop, and pointed ahead. Through the water up ahead was a big grey object. As it swam closer it became clear what it was: a manatee. It glanced up at us, then swam on below, passing directly underneath me, at a distance of around 4m. We swam around the reef, and as we came back towards the boat it we came across it again. As we all floated there, it swam up to us and curiously investigated. So it was that I was able to be less than a meter from an endangered animal in its natural habitat.

It must have been around 3m long, and was covered in thick grey skin. Thickset in the middle, its strange body tapered to the tail, which was a great big featureless paddle. It was amazingly graceful, and yet somewhat ponderous in its nature. Seeing it was one of the best things I've done on this trip. Truly fantastic.



Right now I'm in Belize City, but it's not that great and there's not much to see, so I expect I shall go to the bus station in a bit and catch a bus to Orange Walk in north Belize.There I'm planning on going on a riverboat trip through the jungle to some Mayan ruins. If that comes off, I will of course report all about it here.

A final note, though: Today I parted company with my two travelling companions, Si and Trev. They're going back home a couple of weeks after me, so they are going to the Yucatan to bum around on the beach, while I intend to follow a straighter course for Mexico City. After nearly eight months in Trev's company, and six in Si's (on and off), it's going to be weird being on my own. I'm going to miss them...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Tikal

You know that bit in Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope (or, as to it I shall hereafter refer, Star Wars) where the Death Star is going to blow up the Rebel base? I've been to that very base. No, I haven't travelled to a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Today I went to Tikal, a famous Mayan ruin site and the location for filming for that very Rebel base (side note: does anyone in the film actually say the name of the planet said base is on? All I remember is that it's not Dantooine).

Smug points next time I watch Star Wars aside, what was the point of me visiting another Mayan ruin? Well, even leaving aside the point that Mayan ruins are great and I'm not yet bored of them, Tikal is miles better than Copan. There are more temples, and less intricately carved Stelae (sort of like tombstones with carvings of gods and rulers on them; very nice if you know what you're looking at, kind of samey if not).

Not only are there more temples, in fact, but they are also better: Taller, more varied, more impressive on every front except for carvings. Also, and this is the trump card, there's no need to go on a jungle walk in Tikal: you're permanently in the jungle. The temples are surrounded by it on all sides. The only time you're out from the green canopy is when, ascending the steep stone steps of a 1400 year old pyramid temple, you break through the top levels of foliage and emerge, blinking in the dazzling sunlight, for a breathtaking view across miles and miles of green, literally extending as far as the eye can see in all directions. Plus you can also see howler monkeys, parrots, peacocks (on the ground, admittedly, not visible from the top of a temple), eagles soaring overhead and other temples poking above the trees like (overused cliché metaphor alert) islands in a see of green. It's fantastic.



Right, don't expect to hear from me for a while: I'm off to Belize, where I shall be relaxing on a tiny island in the Caribbean and not speaking Spanish - Belize, having been formerly owned by Good Ol' Blighty, speaks English. Well, Creole and English. Maybe I'll pick up some patois...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Copan

The Mayan civilisation, unlike other indigenous civilisations from the Americas, wasn't wiped out by the Spanish particularly. They killed a load, sure, but by the time they arrived the real big players in the region had been gone for centuries, and all that was left of once-mighty cities and states were a few villages and lots and lots of jungle.

What caused such a rapid decline isn't sure, and as usual in these circumstances scientists opt for a 'mix of causes' answer. Here in Copan, the accepted theory appears to be that they got too big for the resources in the local area, over-strained the environment, couldn't make enough food for themselves and thus became somewhat fragile. Then in came combination of causes (disease, war, etc) and out went the Mayans.

Left behind was the heart of their city. Between around 500 and 800AD Copan was a big player in the region, in charge of lots of other Mayan sites. The valley had thousands of people living in it. In the middle of all this, the elite rulers (and they were few and powerful, as per in these cases) built temples, ceremonial ball courts and monuments to their glory and that of their ancestors and the gods. And lots of altars on which human sacrifices occurred. Today we went to see the moldering remains of these vast stone constructions.

Actually, they're in fairly good nick. The jungle around is sprawling and massive, and contains real life wild scarlet Macaws, as well as Capybara, both of which species were today observed by me. It's been cleared back from the ruins, though, and so the large ziggurat-style step pyramids are clearly visible. They make an impressive sight against a backdrop of green. Not as impressive as, say, Angkor Wat (and in my eyes, it is a competition), but nonetheless quality. Plus it's been ages since I saw anything like this. Actually, the last thing probably was Angkor...

Such a dearth of ruin-sighting won't be repeated now, however. Tomorrow we're off to Tikal in Guatemala to see another Mayan site. Such things will be a repeated presence in the last five weeks of this trip.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tela

The Caribbean is the warmest sea in the world - it's official. Or at least it seems to me to be warmer than any other sea I've yet encountered on my travels. You know (girls look away now) when you walk in to the sea and get that shock factor when the cold water hits your crotch for the first time? Doesn't happen here - water's so warm that there's no shock. Fabulous.

So, here I am in Tela on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Not only is the sea marvellous, but everyone's fairly friendly and laid back and the place we're staying is great. We've got our own mini-apartment, featuring kitchen (complete with rubbish electric oven that gives very powerful shocks if you cook without wearing rubber gloves, but you can't have everything), cable TV (yay! rubbish american programmes! it's just like being at home!), hot shower, fridge and (holy of holies) air conditioning. Believe you me, a mop-haired white boy like myself badly needs aircon in these climes!

So it's the usual, beach bumming by day, un poquito de ron (a little bit of rum) by night. What a life...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

El Lago de Nicaragua y la Isla de Ometepe

Though I am now in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras (like most Central American capitals it's a noisy, smoggy slum crammed between surrounding volcanic peaks) the last few days I spent in the idyllic surroundings of yet another volcanic lake.

This time it was el Lago de Nicaragua, the largest inland lake in Central America. We were staying on the biggest island, slap in the middle, la Isla de Ometepe. The island is constructed out of two volcanoes, and is extremely dramatic when viewed from a boat on the way there.

We stayed in a room right by the black sand (read: dirt) beach. To be honest, the actual possibilities for beach-bumming were slim to none, since though the water was volcanically warmed it was also not very clean and then floor of the lake was covered in rocks that were hard to negotiate, especially not being able to see them due to the aformentioned lack of cleanliness. The higlight of the area, though, was the Green Lagoon nature reserve, a lot of jungle and in the middle, a green lagoon (duh). This meant lots and lots of birds of all shapes and sizes, and also monkeys. Unfortunately it also meant insects galore. So many insects that the strip light and sink outside our room resembled a Papa Roach video at night. This must be where all insects are born, before heading out to the rest of the world.

It wasn't all bad, though - saw some massive great vultures sitting in trees, and various other interesting birds and creepy crawlies, and the boat trip out there and back was pleasant.


Tomorrow we'll probably head to Tela, on the Caribbean coast, for some real beach action.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Lago de Apoyo

Today I went to another volcanic crater lake, this one entitled el Lago de Apoyo. At 6km by 8km it's only little (by the standards of these things), but it's also extremely beautiful.

Bright green jungle foliage comes right down to the water's edge, locals wash their clothes and swim in the lake, howler monkeys bark and holler in the tress, kingfishers catch silvery squirming mouthfuls of food, and on one edge stands The Monkey Hut, a large wooden hut serving as accomodation (for those who want to stay here for a while) and base for tourists. Since we were only daytripping, we made the most of our time, meaning I've spent around four hours today floating in a large inner tube in the centre of calm, warm (volcanically heated) water listening and watching birds and animals in the sun. Wonderful.

I also spent some time crying with laughter at the antics of my mate Si, who attempted several times to go from lying in to standing on his inner tube, without success. The balancing issues were too tricky, but what his manoeuvres lacked in grace and succes they more than made up for through the repeated sight of a man overbalanced and falling head first in to the water yet again...

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Granada and León

Granada and León are the two oldest cities in Nicaragua. For centuries they've been in competition. Traditionally the main city for the Liberals, León used to be the capital, which resulted in various wars between it and historically-Conservative Granada, including American imperialist General William Walker (ha ha... Willy Walker) once being hired by León to sack Granada, which he did and then proceeded to take over Nicaragua (and attempt to take the rest of Central America too), before being captured by the British Navy.

In more recent times, after the capital was moved to Managua (between the two, you see), Nicaragua has still not quite been 100% peaceful. There was a little matter of a revolution, and an attempted counter-revolution, and... stuff. To be (slightly) more precise, the Sandinistas (like the Clash album of the same name) overthrew US-backed right-wing dictator Somoza, and were in turn nearly overthrown by the US-backed Contras. The US has had it's grubby fingers in a lot of pies down here. Anyway, while León was Sandinista town, Granada had more in common with the Contras.

I'm currently in Granada, having spent the last few days in León, and I can confirm that they're both very pleasant. Like most Central American towns, they have a lovely central plaza, a big cathedral, various smaller churches and a general sense of faded colonial grandeur and history to them. And not much else, really. Pleasant, rather than great.

As for which is better, well that depends what you want. Granada's cathedral is nicer on the outside, León's on the inside. León is unbearably hot (I was sweating profusely while playing cards outside in a shady courtyard at half ten at night), Granada unbearably humid. Granada was burnt to the ground by William Walker, León razed by Somocistas during the civil war. They're much of a muchness, to be honest.

Come to think of it, this whole thing could have made a half-decent parable about the general similarities of politicians from both sides of the spectrum... Oh well, too late now...