Fractura del Tobillo / Holed up in Guate


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Published: July 8th 2015
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E fractured her ankle. There was nothing dramatic or spectacular about it. We were on the edge of Guate, hitchhiking out, walking along the highway to find a better spot when I saw her suddenly double over and begin to cry. She said she heard a crack and my immediate thoughts turned towards her hip whilst my heart began racing; it wasn't until a minute or two later when she explained it was her ankle that I breathed a miniature sigh of relief. She had stepped on a stone and twisted her ankle. Quite severely though, clearly, as she is now laid up in Zona 3, Guate, with Couchsurfing host Alejandro. I am sat at a hostel in Antigua.

We were leaving Guate for Honduras, hoping to reach the Carribean island of Utilla within a couple of days. Despite E's injury happening before we'd even really got started, she was strong and brave enough for us to make it to our first port of call: Puerto Barrios, an unmitigatingly bleak Carribean port town 250km from Guate and just a few kilometres from the Honduran border. We made it there with a combination of rides and local transport. It was nine
Cute dog at Earth Lodge.Cute dog at Earth Lodge.Cute dog at Earth Lodge.

It was slightly less cute with its snout smeared in blood after eating one of the guest's pet bunny. Slightly.
hours of uncomfortable seating and hobbled walking, trying to keep E's ankle as comfortable as possible. In retrospect the sensible option would have been to return to Guate immediately, considering we were only on the outskirts, but for some reason that didn't cross our minds at the time. Perhaps we were being optimistic and expecting just a bruise or a sprain. Perhaps we were being naïve in not paying greater consideration to the injury. Either way it was pretty obvious E would need to attend a hospital by the evening as, laying in bed at Hotel Europa 2, we saw that her foot had swollen dramatically. If the condition hadn't changed by the morning, we would take a coach direct to Guate and head straight to a hospital.

About 190km from Guate and still another couple of hours from Puerto Barrios, whilst sat in an uncomfortably overcrowded minibus and watching Erika's face occasionally cringe with discomfort, something strange occured. I looked out at the window and we were in England. The landscape had an strange resemblance to the English countryside: everything from the lay of the fields, their hedging or fencing in, the shape and size of trees, to the flatness of the land and hues of green and brown throughout. Even the levels of light were strongly reminiscent of English spring evenings. The only incongruity was a giant fucking mountain in the background. The Freudian idea of "der unheimlich" ("the uncanny"), a feeling of strangeness resulting from something familiar struck through with unfamiliarity, reared powerfully for me here. Yet whereas in Freud's thinking this usually led to a sickly or even horred reaction, unexpectedly seeing England beyond the windows of a minibus seven months after leaving the country created in me wonder and a sort of minor nostalgia. This happened once before: when I was in Australia, travelling the Great Ocean Road between Melbourne and Adelaide, stopping off somewhere midway and noticing that the cliffs and coast and clouds and colours looked and felt eerily similar to the coastline around Falmouth, Cornwall. The ability of the planet to have places half a world away from each other feel almost identical is remarkable. I wasn't alone in recognising the similarities between this part of Guatemala and the English countryside - E said it too, with a slight hint of homesick blues.

So by the next morning the swelling had settled but the pain remained. Thanks to lots of help from E's mum and her contacting our travel insurance company for us, asking questions and relaying details and all that, as well as Alejandro's immense generosity in agree to let E (and I) stay there until she healed, we decided to hop on the Litegua coach back to Guate. Seven hours later we were at Hospital Universitario Esperanza and getting the ankle looked at - after 35 minutes of wrangling about payment and insurance. This was our first first-hand experience of non-socialised healthcare and it wasn't nice. Thankfully Erika's injury was relatively "minor"; heaping financial worry on top of serious physical or health ailments must be awful. Some x-rays, consultation, and 3600 Quetzales (around £350) later and we learned that Erika suffered a small, clean fracture through the sticky-outy bit of her ankle. It could have been a lot worse. It could have been her hip. Nonetheless E is now fairly immobile for another 4.5 weeks out of a six week recovery time, her leg in a space boot and walking with crutches, taking pain killers and trying not to accidently hit her foot against things.

For the first week or so I stayed in Guate too, ostensibly to help her out around the house though it quickly became clear that she didn't need so much help. E is a versatile and very capable person! But there were things she needed help with, small things, and I have been doing what I can to help with those. I must admit, though, that those seven or eight days brought me to an uncomfortable realisation that I am not always so selfless, that the independence I value in myself has a vast drop off in quality when it makes helping others out emotionally difficult, and that it is possible to feel occasionally begrudging even with the person I am closest to. Or perhaps it is because of the closeness that negativity arose. Either way, it is ugly.

All the more reason then to get out of the house. I explored parts of Guate including Zonas 3, 1, and 10, as well as headed to what was supposed to be a metal/punk gig at La Maga on Friday evening. As E mentioned in her previous entry, the warnings of danger about Guate seem exagerrated. I can believe that in years past those warnings were true but the permeation of armed security and militarised police throughout the streets today has likely played a large part in reducing instances of muggings, robberies, and worse. Exploring the streets by day felt no less safe than any other city I have been to, and even the 20 minute walk from the (boring and definitely not metal/punk) gig in Zona 1 to Alejandro's flat in Zona 3 by myself, close to midnight, didn't feel too bad because the streets are large, empty, and well lit. I am sure bad things do happen to tourists and locals alike but the amount of danger warnings about Guate do not reflect my experience of the city. It's those stones of distrust again. Guate is not a pretty place. It is, by and large, a grey functional industrial city with pockets of wealth that have a bit more green in them. This comes with an upside though: the lack of a large tourism sector - unlike Antigua or Lake Atitlán for example - means it feels more genuine. It really is just people playing, working, living their lives. Returning to Antigua on Saturday was a bit of a shock because there were so many white people! So much English, French, German, and Hebrew!

My enjoyment of Guate is also due to Alejandro. By trade he is a visual producer and by hobby a maker of social documentaries with a collective called Cuatro Caminos. He is interesting and kind and good humoured, easygoing, helpful particularly with Erika, and sometimes even takes us out with him. One evening he took us with him to Parque Central as he captured footage for a promotional video to be used by a social justice movement in Guate, for example, and E said that on Saturday night she went with him to some sort of swanky wine evening. Our experience of this place would be more barren without Alejandro, I think.

I came back to Antigua on Saturday to see more of the city than I did the first time I was here, during which most of my time was spent outside of the city in a mountainside hostel called Earth Lodge. I have. Mostly bars to be honest, though I also walked up Cerro de la Cruz and the (massive) market as well as wandered the outskirts in search of nothing but the opportunity to wander. It's a nice city, a typical colonial town with both indigenous and mestizo cultures, and in many ways feels similar to San Cristóbal in Chiapas although less raw. I think I prefer the rawness. In an attempt to make the most of being stationed here for longer than expected I will continue visiting bits of the region, beginning with a visit to Honduras this weekend though rather than heading to Utilla I will stay on the larger, more touristy island of Roátan. After that I will likely head to the far north, to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal, and maybe check out the colonial town of Xela although I think I may have had my fill of 16th Century catholic churches and old Spanish architecture.

As you may or may not know, our original plan was to continue overland until we hit Panama whereupon we would need to find some way around the Darién Gap. This was a growing concern of mine because the two paid ways of traversing it - flight or boat cruise - were costly, and although hitching a ride on boats is possible it is supposed to be difficult and can take up to a week. On top of this we needed to be in Bogotá by August 10th in order to meet our mystery guest, meaning a rushed but doable dash across Central America. The fracturing of E's ankle has changed those plans significantly. Because she needs to rest up we will now stay in Guate until August 8th, when we fly directly to Bogotá. On the downside it means we miss Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama; on the upside it means no faffing around trying to scab a free/cheap ride around the arse end of Central America. Crucially, the overriding factor is a successful healing of E's ankle, which thankfully fits snugly into the amount of time we have available. I don't think there could be a better person than Alejandro to help us with it.

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