Published: December 2nd 2009December 2nd 2009
The last few weeks have been rather eventful since my last entry. I learnt to love Roatan. The latin american experience I was looking for (whatever that is anyway) I discovered would never be found. The history and culture of the island are more routed in Garifuna traditions than Latin American ones. In fact the locals I met and spoke with did not see themselves as Hondurans at all. The Garifunas are descendents of African slaves that were left on the islands in the 1600s. The people of Roatan were warm and friendly. I was constantly invited to have dinner at people's houses. The local food on the island is great. Lots of fresh and perfectlly spiced seafood, ,fried plantain, rice, beans and the best coconut cake I have ever tasted. Their hospitality was greatly appreciated as at points I felt like I was the only traveller in West End!
I spent just over a week with my friend Vicki who was completing her dive master course. We stayed in a run down house on the outskirts of the jungle. The house was not without charm and despite the mosquitos, bed bugs and lack of hot water, I became quite attached to the delapidated building. The views out to the sea, the surrounding rolling green mountains and the crystal clear night skys more than made up for the lack of home comforts. Over the course of the week I completed my open water and my advanced certficiations. I fell in love with diving. The tranquility and peacefullness that comes with being 30 meters under the water cannot be rivalled. It´s like a form of meditation. The coral was stunning. We floated around giant walls of pastel pink green and blue. Parts of the coral looked like they had been dusted with particles of silver and gold. Each part of the coral a living breathing organism, working in perfect symbiotic harmony. It felt like a great privilege to observe life under the seas. There was also an abundance of fish of evey colour; giant groupers, creepy looking moray eels, cartoon like puffer fish, elegent angel fish, neon blue shrimp. I was however not lucky enough to encounter a turtle. I shall have to wait to fufil that dream.
After my diving fix, I decided to head to Copan before I bankcrupted myself, feeding my addiction to diving. Copan is near the border of Guatemala and was to be my stop over point before crossing the border to Guatemela itself. Copan is a small, pretty town at the foothills of beautifully lush green mountains that are so ubiquitous in Latin America. To my knowledge the town of Copan exisits only because of its proximity to the great Copan ruins. The ruins are the site of a major Mayan kingdom which exsited from the 5th through 9th Centuries. I spent an evening in this picturesque town before heading to Antigua, Guatemala. The drive from Copan to Antigua was breathtaking. Quite literally as Antigua sits over 1 500 meters above sea level. The journey took us from rolling hills and valleys of every hue of green I would need a thesuarus to do it justice, to much more arid and dusty mountains. I watched the sky turn from a perfetc sky blue to a neon orange, the horizon spiked with the silhouette of smoking volcanoes. I met a couple of really friendly Americans who happened to be staying at the same hostel as me. They were meeting a girl from Zimbabwe and they asked me if I would like to join them for the evening. I enthusiastically accepted. To date I had not really come across many other travellers. I think people may have been scared off by stories of civil unrest in the aftermath of the coup. Personally the only difference I notcied was that the hostels and traveller hotspots had beocme ghost towns. I hope that this changes as Honduras is a beautiful country and the people of Honduras need the money that is generated from tourism now more than ever before.
On arrival at the hostel I bumped into a girl I had been diving with in Roatan. Neither of us had planned to go to Antigua so we were equally shocked and suprised to see one another. It was great to see another familiar face and to add to the coincidence she happended to have met the Zimbawean girl that the Americans had been planning to meet. We hit the town, stopping off to grab some street food before ending up in a Irish pub. There was certainly nothing Irish about this pub but it was good fun. The music was pretty awful, though the odd guilty pleasure got me dancing. We tried to get into an after party as all the pubs and clubs close at one in Guatemala. We followed the directions we had been given to this illicit club but as we arrived so did the police. Weirdly they did not break up the party but instead prevented others from entering the venue. Five burly policemen guarded the door with mean looking machine guns. They love their guns here. You see men with guns everywhere. Outside shops, restaurants, banks, I guess anywhere there is lots of money to be had. If an establishment can´t afford the security they have prison like grilles over their windows and sometimes around the whole shop. Comically there are lots of "no gun" signs outside bars along with "no smoking" signs. Defeated by the men with guns we wandered back to the hostel. The next day I caught a shuttle bus Xela where I was to begin my Spanish course. The rest of the group had signed up to climb Pacaya, an active volcanoe they actually allow you to clamber up and wander around amongst the molten hot lava! As crazy as it sounded I vowed to come back and give it go myself.
Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala and from what I had read and heard a more genuine Guatemalan place then the picturesque cobbled streets of Antigua. Antigua is certainly geared for tourists but it is beautiful. Pastel coloured colonial buildings, crumbling churches, beautifuly manicured gardens, even the Mc Donalds has a fountian in it! Xela on the other hand is a big, dirty sprawling city. And it is cold, really cold. Xela sits almost over 1,000 meters higher than Antigua hence the colder climate. I got to Xela just as it was getting dark and got dropped off at the school. I was greeted by the owner of the school and was told to wait for the mother of the family that I was to be staying with. Diana the mother of the house, walked me up a steep crumbling road to her house that was to be my home for the next four weeks. She introduced me to her childen, all girls. They stood in a line and each introduced themsleves to me, a bit like that scene in Sound of Music with the Von Trapp family. I was relieved as they seemed like a really warm and friendly family. I also was relieved to learn that two other girls from Canada were also staying in the house.
The following week was hard for me. My teacher was really good and since she could not speak English I had to speak to her in Spanish. By the end of the week I could actually converse in Spanish! My host family were also great. The girls were so sweet and lovely and Diana was wonderful. However, both the house and the school were right on the outskirts of the city. It was a good 20 minute walk into town down rather desolate streets and I didn´t feel comfortable walking down them on my own. It was also icy cold and there was neither central heating nor hot water in the house. There was this stange electrity conducter contraption that you could place into a basin of water but I was too scared to use it. It did not seem safe to stick an electricty conducter into a vat of water to heat it up. The two Candian girls were also planning to leave at the end of the week and I knew I would be lonely without them. By the Wednesday I had decided to leave Xela and head back to Antigua on the Friday.
My time in Xela was not without its highlights. I visited beautiful hot springs, drank delicous rich hot choclate in a bohemian cafe, went to a swiss restaurant at the top of a mountain and watched the city twinkle beneath me whilst tucking into a cheese fondue and mulled wine. I also learnt a lot about myself. That may sound contrived but it´s true. I found out that I like home comforts a lot more then I was previously willing to accept. I am never going to be a hardcore traveller who hitchhikes around the world with only one sarong, living on a diet of deep fried crickets, sleeping in a makeshift hut in the jungle. I miss hot water and clean kitchens. I have discovered that I am fussy eater. I forutnately (or unfortunately) put this down to the high standard of cooking I was used to from both of my parents growing up. I found myself struggling to force down tepid rice with non descript vegetables of no flavour. Whilst other travellers embrace the street food, I found myself worrying about the hygine of the food. Just how long had that chicken, lettuce, tortilla been sitting out in the sun for? I am scared of a lot of things;Territorial dogs, birds (this fear was compounded by my encounter with a toucan at a bird sanctuary who swooped down beside me and began to drill peck at my foot with it´s hooked beak!). I am also not a fan of bats as I discovered when one flew into my room and began erratically flying into walls. I have also become more cautious. Whereas before I perhaps naievely trusted eveyone I now approach encounters with new people with a degree of caution. Whereas I used to believe that people are more good than bad I have come to think that although this is still true many people in the world live in such desperate circumstances people do what they can to survive. I have realised just how lucky we all are to have been born in the UK. We have access to clean drinking water, an education, a welfare state, a roof over our heads. Too many people in this world will never know these things.
Before heading back to Antigua I signed up to trek Central America´s highest volcano. Tajumulco soars over 4,200 feet into the sky. This adventure was sure to be a real challenge...