The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Gang warfare, giant bulls and a human foetus... Which continent?

We are now just a 36 hour bus journey away from entering the USA and coming to the end of 6 weeks in Central America. We never really had any huge plans or aspirations for Central America. We just needed to travel up through it. If you read or watch anything about this continent it is most likely to be connected to emigrants chasing the American dream, violent drug cartels or the exploitation of land. I had read about all of the above and so was half expecting to come across harrowing scenes as we traveled overland from Panama to the US – exactly the same route as approx 350,000 metric tons of Big Mac patties, 600 tons of cocaine and thousands of desperate emigrants each year. In reality you mostly have to search your imagination to see such things and we have felt safe throughout the journey. That said it has had its moments...

On our first night in Central America we bedded down in an apartment in Casco Viejo in Panama City, eager to escape the crowd we had been traveling with for the last week. The apartment was located 100m short of the imaginary line between the tourist safe zone and the 'red (danger) zone'. It was a mere 5 minute well lit walk from all the hostels, shops and restaurants and so we were assured there would be no real difference. Heading back to our apartment on the first night we were even reassured to find the area littered with policemen and vans, admittedly they were arresting a guy, but it was better than nothing. Five minutes later with the door to our apartment clicking shut behind us gun shots were being fired right outside. Nick raced to the balcony, whilst I cowered behind him and found a gun fight going on between a gang and some police right where we had just been walking home. An interesting introduction to the continent. We later learned that due to the gentrification of the old town the gangs are being moved out of their slums in the old colonial buildings and unsurprisingly don't like it. Change has to come though and gradually the government will have their way and the gangs will have to go elsewhere; a problem that I'm sure encroaches on the majority of Central American cities as they become increasingly developed for tourism. Just as foreign investment pushes indigenous people off the land, it also pays for the gangs to be moved out of the cities. Its not surprising that somewhere along the chain someone kicks up a fuss.

After 10 days of volcano climbing, swimming hole dipping and marveling at the size of bull's balls in Panama we headed to Costa Rica: The only nation in the world without an army and the most stable of all Central America. Rich in nature, as its name suggests, and with an infrastructure that reflects the early investment of The United Fruit Corporation, it attracts lots of tourists. Luckily a fun filled touristy fortnight was what we were looking for and so we had a great time. That said, as with any developing country pitching for tourist dollars, aspiration crime is a big problem here and sad to hear about.

So it was at 3a.m. last Friday with only 9 days left before we enter the U.S, we boarded our first of two 'Tica' buses that would take us up to Guatemala City. Over 60 hours we crossed four borders and dealt with eight sets of immigration officials – not my favorite people at the best times. Expecting the worst, since it was the weekend before Semana Santa, Central America's biggest religious festival, it actually went remarkably smoothly. Every border became slightly more familiar, littered with toothless money changers, dusty dogs and huge women with ogre like faces and tiny legs trying to sell you their home cooking. Perhaps the most shocking part of the journey was the choice of films shown on the bus. Films ranged from violent to extremely violent, covering gang warfare in US prisons (Felon), child kidnapping (Man on Fire), and prostitution (Taken), child rape (Where the Heart Is) and a healthy dash of drug warfare. Not an obvious pick for a 1pm family bus trip through lands renowned for some of the above. Turns out that the most intimidating part of this bus trip was witnessing the Hollywood interpretation of the sun filled and peaceful lands we were traveling through.

Before we knew it we were in Guatemala, on a bus with no clutch winding up dusty roads to Xela. Guatemala is how I expected Central America to be. Instead of the rather bland good roads, large scale farming and modern towns of further South we were suddenly in highlands studded with small shacks, brightly clothed farming families and their green patches of crops. Entering Xela town square was also the first time we had seen any real history since Colombia. So despite another attack of bed bugs and a 24 hour virus that locked us both to toilets at various intervals, we lapped up Guatemala.

Highlights were two failed outings and one very successful one. After only half understanding people's directions in Spanish we failed to reach some mountain side hot springs, but found a mountain and ended up letting off some steam in a Guatemalan body building gym. We spent an hour on the exercise bike looking at a signed picture of a 80's aerobics instructor with a stars and bars thong wedged a little too far up her bum. Then, after missing a bus to a highland village we stumbled across Xela's biggest market. Packed to the brim with clothes, bikes, machinery, sausages, fruit, honey, etc this shopping experience made our Moroccan market adventures seem like a trip to Marks and Sparks. And then there was the successful outing: The Xela Natural History Museum. At first it was a bit of a disappointment as rooms were just filled with random old plants, broken typewriters and dusty football trophies. But then we found the treasure trove. Suddenly we were confronted by a creepy menagerie of every single stuffed animal you could imagine in some rather unnatural poses. After thinking that the miniature goat with 8 legs eating a snake was as weird as it could get we came across a small cabinet of pickled foetus'; rat, snake and... human. Bizarre, a little gross, but strangely intriguing...

After four days of such joys we hopped on two buses (both with various parts missing), a minibus and a collectivo taxi to San Cristobal in Mexico. The journey took us through the most dramatic scenery yet as the road spun through valleys, plunging into deep gorges and climbing back up to ridges bridging forested highlands. The border crossing was a little strange since everyone was dressed up as clowns or in wrestling masks for Semana Santa. Even the Mexican army were in holiday mood as they waved us through, rifle in one hand and snow cone in the other.

I am now sitting writing this from our bed in San Cristobal, looking onto a little balcony where Nick is sipping on a beer whilst reading Defoe. We spent the morning wandering around the plentiful churches of this beautiful colonial town, which prompted yet another debate about religion, its value, its corruption and why we both believe what we believe. After a siesta we went to watch a documentary about the rebellion Zapista movement in the Chiapas region of Mexico. The combination of a rather wooly rebellion manifesto, 'peaceful' demonstrators armed to the neck with guns and a confused indigenous people wanting both their traditional way of life yet access to brand new schools, hospitals and banks meant that we ripped plenty of holes in the film. I have rarely felt like such a pretentious snob and so we have planned to have a margarita and beer heavy evening and are listening to some Bon Jovi to undo such sins.

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