Juggling machetes

Another girl. Another goodbye. Another boat blasting away across the ocean. Familiar feelings: emptiness and relief.

***

In my hostel in Copán Ruinas I’d found an old copy of a magazine promoting tourism in Roatán in the Bay Islands. Inbetween adverts for realtors, diving schools and bars with all-day happy hours were some revealing items of local news: There had been four brutal slayings in Roatán in the past month. A tourist had been stabbed after a drunken row in a bar. A security guard had been assaulted and shot with his own weapon. Pirates had knifed the captain of a catamaran that plied the route between Roatán and neighbouring Utila. And the owner of a waterfront restaurant had gunned down one of a gang of thugs who were firing machine guns at him from a speedboat after an argument over their bill for breakfast.

I decided not to visit Roatán. Instead I headed back into Guatemala. But danger seemed to follow me like a spectre. It haunted the streets of Antigua. the old colonial capital. It hung like the mist over the emerald highlands of Cobán and Lanquin and Semuc Champey. And it swept like the wind over Lago de Atitlán, the place that Aldous Huxley called the most beautiful lake in the world, and where I saw a bloated, drowned boy being dragged from the water.

This spectre took many forms: heavy drinking and head injury, slippery waterfalls and shallow plunge pools, flooded caves and wind-tossed waters, electrical storms and reckless encounters, bandits and feral dogs.

***

Guatemala City seemed no less dangerous. Of late there’d been a spate of robberies on the streets and even on the buses. This crime wave seemed driven by political instability, police corruption, drugs and desperate poverty.

Entering the city, the bus soared over lush, litter-strewn valleys which were topped by substandard housing and crisscrossed by disused railway bridges. At traffic lights near the city centre, a man juggled machetes for change.

In the city centre, cheap concrete shops and houses rubbed shoulders with colonial churches, art deco villas, brutalist office blocks, glass-walled malls and the huge neo-gothic “police palace”. Several buildings bore graffiti accusing the government of genocide.

On a hilltop by Lago de Atitlán I’d met Charlie, a documentary film-maker. We’d talked about crime in the country and he’d pointed out: “People don’t realise, security isn’t something you can buy in Walmart”. But in Guatemala City, in the face of a failing police force, security seemed to be one of the few growth industries: Almost every business had a private security guard with a pump-action shotgun stationed outside.

Outside the cathedral I met my couchsurfing host, José, an eccentric 48-year-old gay man with an interest in collecting orchids. José lived in Zone 10, an upmarket residential district. His apartment block was set in pine-shaded grounds and had a swimming pool at the back. His home contained a jumble of ethnic artifacts, orchids and flamboyant hats.

José proved to be an excellent host and guide. The following day we drove around the city in his black air-conditioned SUV. It was a Sunday and the city was quiet, except for the streets around the zoo, where hundreds of people had turned out to welcome 12 Humboldt penguins to the tropics.

We visited three museums, a contemporary art gallery and no less than four shopping malls. One mall had an excavated Mayan tomb in the basement. José told me that this mall had been built by a gay plutocrat in an attempt to hide funds from his ex-wife’s lawyers.

A second mall contained a restaurant boasting the largest aquarium in Central America. Here we ate hamburgers whilst sharks, rays and a maintenance man in scuba gear swirled around us.

Perhaps most extravagant of all was a mall in the form of a whitewashed mock colonial town. It stood on a hillside above the city, and featured a clock tower and even a church. Only “phase one” of six planned phases had so far been completed. José hinted that the mall had been built with the profits of narco-trafficking, as part of an elaborate money laundering scheme. Nearby was the City of God, an evangelical complex including a religious mall and the largest auditorium in the country.

***

After my weekend in Guatelmala City I headed to Rio Dulce, a port on Lago de Izabal which serves as a safe haven for yachts during hurricane season. Here I visited a Spanish fort by the lake, then spent two days cruising downriver. The journey was beautiful, the river meandering through dense jungle and steep-walled gorges hung with bromeliads and tangled vines.

The river eventually emptied into the Caribbean, and I disembarked at the port of Livingston. Here I spent an afternoon hiking along the coast to the waterfalls known as the Seven Altars. The white sand beach was scattered with litter: a burnt-out sofa; ruined boats; hundred of thousands of plastic bottles and flip-flops; piles of broken bait fish. Big black vultures fought over rotting scraps. That night, in a hostel by the dock, backpackers passed around a tea caddy full of marijuana which had been left by smokers crossing to Honduras and Belize.

At seven o’clock the following morning I took a lancha across the Bahia de Amatique towards Belize. As we set out the skies were darkening. Lightning flickered on the horizon. Heavy rain began to fall and the sea became wild. About halfway across the bay the boat’s engine cut out. Adrift, the boat was tossed about by the waves. After an anxious few minutes the captain managed to start the engine again, and we completed our journey.

In the port of Punta Gorda in Belize I changed some money and saw a familiar face: The queen looked back at me from the Belizean banknotes. Her gaze seemed cold and disapproving.

Formerly British Honduras, Belize has remained English-speaking and a member of the Commonwealth. It is also by far the least populous of the Central American nations. On the bus north the national radio station Love FM played reggae music mixed with adverts, public service broadcasts and personal announcements: Mrs Nellie Flowers of Ladyville had passed away quietly in her sleep. She would be greatly missed by her family. Mrs Doris Smith of Orange Walk had a microwave oven for sale.

Three hours of this saw me arrive in Hopkins, a sleepy Garifuna fishing village now surrounded by some of Central America’s most exclusive resorts. In Hopkins I spent a few days windsurfing, relaxing and eating mangoes fresh from the tree. Drinking in a bar there, I met a Yorkshireman called Twatrick. He had long ginger hair on one side of his head and half a straggly beard on the opposite side of his face. He told me he was camping in a nearby forest and living off donations he received for his artwork. I bought him a beer and he gave me this picture:

tatu 001

I could have spent longer in Hopkins, but for the weather. Thunderstorm followed thunderstorm and one day it rained for 19 hours until rubbish-strewn water swirled beneath the stilted hostel.

I headed further north, sharing a bus with Rastafarians, ethnic Mayans and Mennonite farmers. In Belize City I checked into a cheap guest house, where I was offered a child’s bedroom with school shoes still lined up by the door. The next morning I was planning to return to Guatemala, but as I ate breakfast in a shabby reggae bar by the swing bridge over Haulover Creek, I noticed that the sun had come out and the sky was clear.

After breakfast I caught a water taxi to Caye Caulker, where I spent four glorious days kayaking, swimming and swinging in a hammock. I also took a sailing trip to Hol Chan marine reserve, where I swam with sea turtles, nurse sharks and rays. One evening I bought a bucket of fish from the dock and had a sunset barbecue with some new-found, transient friends.

On the fifth day I woke to rain and shame. It was time to leave. From Belize City I headed west to Flores in Guatemala. From there I planned to visit the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, before crossing the Mexican border for the last leg of my journey.

No doubt the spectre of danger would be close by my side.

***

Sorry for the lack of pictures this time… I lost my phone which was also my camera. I will write more soon. I guess my next post here might very well be my last!

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