Notes from plane seats and the odd airport lounge

Published: April 22nd 2016
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The lead up to this holiday was fairly hectic, with tenders to be lodged and deadlines to be met. The last week was particularly tiring, with long work days interspersed with sporadic holiday organising. Still, we made it in the end. The night before we left was incredibly quiet without Jasper, Oliver and Mia, but we were able to relax. With good planning and an early night, we were wide awake at 3am on the morning of our long-haul flight from Hobart to Antigua (Guatemala) via Sydney and Dallas.

We are covering three countries in this trip – Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. It’s a part of the world we have not yet traversed, and by careful design and planning on Ren’s part, we’ll be in Mexico City for my 50th birthday. This is a trip we have been discussing and planning for a while.

Mexico – this alluring and distant place has been in the back of my mind since my mid to late-teens. I remember reading an article in ‘Australian Surfing Life’ where three surfers travelled to Mexico and spent a few weeks driving the coastline and discovering empty beaches with amazing waves. They’d surf all day and then camp on the beach, eating tacos and drinking Mexican beer into the night. For a young teenager in Tasmania it was the ultimate dream, and I’d often find myself daydreaming about Mexican beaches…

Mexico also featured in a couple of songs that were a big part of my childhood. ‘Hey Joe’ was a staple for Tasmanian bands in the 80’s, and we were no exception. Most bands covered the Jimi Hendrix version, and I loved Deep Purple’s version, but I’ll never forget the day a school friend played me Roy Buchanan’s cover of the song. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. I was mesmerised by his guitar playing – so much so that I ended up buying the same type of guitar he played. However, the song’s lyrics were disturbing. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but the concept of shooting your wife and then running away to Mexico isn’t something to be taken lightly.

Hey Joe, where you gonna run to now?
I'm goin' way down south
Way down to Mexico way.

Hey Joe wasn’t the only song about running to Mexico after shooting someone. Steve Millar Band’s ‘Take the Money and Run’ was another favourite song of mine, and we covered it for a short time in the late 1980’s. Great song, but shooting a guy while robbing his castle in El Paso – and then heading down south with his money – is not something to be celebrated. Still, I can’t help but like the song.

Mexico was a land of extremes for me as a young teenager in Tasmania. As a young surfer, it was an exotic destination that I dreamt about visiting. As a young guitarist, it was a place where people ran to if they needed to disappear. And as a young Marx idealist, it was a place to be avoided if you were on the wrong side of the Communist Party.

I was fascinated by the exile of Trotsky, and by the fact that he eventually found himself in Mexico. The world is different now, but I found it hard to believe that on the orders of Stalin, Trotsky could be hunted down and assassinated (with an ice pick) in Mexico City in 1940. When I first watched Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, I remember feeling angry when Snowball was banished from the farm, and it was only years later (when I came to study the book) that I discovered Snowball was loosely based on Trotsky. I think my Marxist tendencies started early. 😊

We watched ‘Frida’ as part of our research for this trip. The 2002 film is a fantastic biopic on the life of surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Frida was married to prominent Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and we’ll definitely be visiting the works of both artists on this trip. I didn’t realise Frida had an affair with Trotsky when he was in Mexico. Geoffrey Rush seemed to be a strange casting for Trotsky in the film, but he was convincing (as he always is). A great film and a great story.

But probably more than anything else, the strongest allure of Mexico goes back to my reading of Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’. The book had an incredible impact on me. The mezcal-fuelled decline of protagonist Geoffrey Firmin in the small Mexican town of Quanhnahuac was mesmerising. The entire story covers a single day – the Day of the Dead fiesta in 1938. The town is overshadowed by two volcanoes, and Lowry uses the symbolism so well. I borrowed Lowry’s ‘abyss’ metaphor in so many of my own lyrics, and I even included a short story about a bridge ending mid-air across an abyss on the inside cover of our first self-titled cassette.

So when I look back over the past 50 (well almost) years of my life, I am so excited to be travelling to this exotic place that held such meaning in my early years.

However, Mexico is a long way off yet. We are travelling through Guatemala and Belize for the next couple of weeks! The downside of travelling to Central America from Tasmania is the distance – it is so damn far! We woke at 3am, boarded our flight in Hobart at 6.30am and arrived in Sydney at 8am. After wandering Sydney’s chaotic international terminal for five hours, we finally boarded our flight to Dallas at 1pm. This is meant to be one of the longest flights in the world. The crew were fantastic, as was the self-serve galley chock-full of snacks and soft drinks. The food wasn’t great, but it was a massive plane (Airbus A380), so there were a lot of people to cater for. My beef and pepper pie with potato galette and crushed peas sounded better than it tasted, and Ren’s spiced crusted kingfish with chermoula eggplant and capsicum relish was dry and overcooked.

As we slept, the flight time disappeared, and on arriving in Dallas we felt pretty good (even though we had been travelling for more than 24 hours). We wandered through Fort Worth Airport and couldn’t believe how relaxed and laid back it felt compared to Sydney. This was the first time we’d been to the US, so Texas was as good a place to start as any. The cowboy magazines in the news-stands reminded us we were in southern US, as were the ‘Butt Burner’, ‘Texan Tail Torcher’ and ‘Fire in the Hole’ hot sauces we were so tempted to buy.

We boarded our flight to Guatemala City at 5:30pm. We had been travelling 30 hours, and we still had a three hour flight and one hour drive to get to Antigua. We were seriously looking forward to a shower.

There are no words to explain how excited we were about starting our 2016 trip! Our journey will start in Guatemala, after which we’ll cross the border into Belize, followed by another border crossing into southern Mexico, and we’ll finish by exploring central Mexico.

We were on our least favourite flight out of Hobart on the morning our journey began – the dreaded 6am flight, which meant a 3am wake up alarm! Even though we catch this flight regularly, we still get a bit nervous and set three alarms…just in case.

Jasper, Oliver and Mia had already been taken to their respective holiday retreats, so the house felt horribly subdued and empty with no kitty footsteps thumping into the kitchen demanding breakfast, and no expectant Kelpie puppy dog eyes looking in through the bedroom window, waiting for their morning walk. For the last few weeks before we left, we had been dreading leaving our furry ones. It seems to be getting harder with every trip, especially as Jasper seems to be getting more clingy as she gets older.

We had really enjoyed beautiful autumn weather and bright autumnal colours for the last few weeks, and driving to the airport it was obvious that the mornings had started getting darker as we hurtled towards winter. I realised that it will be a bit of a shock when we come back in the depths of winter.

The Hobart Airport wasn’t as busy as we’d expected, so we breezed through and ‘people-watched’ until our flight to Sydney was ready. We were flying most of the way with Qantas, so our luggage had been sent straight through from our Hobart-Sydney domestic flight to our international flight to Dallas Fort Worth. Our stop in Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport was leisurely and mostly focussed on changing terminals and deciding what to have for lunch. Even though we’ve both used the Sydney domestic airport a bit, this was only our second time in the International departures area. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t fabulous either and I’m not a fan. The terminals were haphazard and more focussed on commerce than passenger comfort. The five hour wait between flights passed slowly and I was already tired before we’d even left the country!

The Sydney-Dallas leg of the flight was uneventful, but the longest non-stop flight we’ve ever caught at nearly 17 hours! As far as I know there are only two flights that are longer – the newly launched Emirates flight from Dubai to Panama City at 17.5 hours; and the just announced Qatar flight to Auckland at 18.5 hours. We were travelling on an A380 and were disappointed that we’d left our flight booking too late to get upper deck seats, but really, it was a comfortable plane regardless. I did the usual things to pass the time… listened to the new Rufus album (Bloom) on repeat, ate too much (even though the food wasn’t fabulous – my overcooked kingfish dish was a crime against seafood), drank too much, slept, wrote, slept some more, and periodically raided the galley for snacks. 😊

This is one of the few multi-country trips I’ve undertaken, and we’ve been in overdrive trying to plan and organise the trip. I’m ashamed to say that I knew so very little about Central America’s history and culture until now. Apart from parts of their histories that were covered in the spice and slave trades, none of my school curricula saw fit to educate me on Central American history or geography. So here’s what I’ve learnt in my recent readings… Archaeological evidence suggests that Mesoamericans lived in the space now occupied by Mexico, Guatemala and parts of Belize for thousands of years. The early history of Mexico is based on indigenous tribes – the Maya and Aztec Empires probably had the most impact on the region. I’m looking forward to exploring their ancient ruins, as well as getting to know their traditions through the present-day food and culture of their descendants.

The Spanish arrived in the 16th century and nearly 300 years of ruthless treatment (that usually goes hand-in-hand with colonialism) of indigenous people followed. Mexico won independence from the Spaniards after the War of Independence, but the Mexican-American War, followed by Mexico’s Revolution, brought more conflict and bloodshed. After decades of economic hardship and political uncertainty, it seems that Mexico is finally catching a break and experiencing improved economic conditions. Even though I’ve read that Mexico is benefiting from a free market economy, and growth of the tourism and agricultural industries, the financial inequality within the country still seems to be a large issue.

Mexico claims to have one of the richest and oldest cultures in the world. Despite each region having unique customs, cuisines and dialects, it seems that the Mexican national identity is very strong. More than 80% of the population identify as Catholic, and it appears that Pope Francis’ visit in February has given Catholicism a new boost, especially as he voiced concerns over corruption in government, poverty and the drug trade.

More than a few people raised a concerned eyebrow when we told them we were travelling to Mexico. Even the people who said ‘wow!’ or ‘that sounds amazing!’ had eyes that said ‘are you insane?’ I suppose present day Mexico has a bad reputation that’s not entirely unfounded. It didn’t help that two Australian surfers were found dead in their campervan about the same time we started talking about visiting Mexico. However, despite Mexico’s ongoing struggle with narcotic-gang warfare and corruption, the southern regions have remained relatively unscathed. We won’t be going to any of the notorious narco-war ridden northern States. The only area we’ll be travelling to with ongoing safety issues is Chiapas, where the Zapatista Movement have been trying to draw attention to their cause by targeting tourists. However, we’ve deleted a few sights off our ‘must see’ list in the affected area, so (hopefully!) we should be avoiding any dangers. Mexico City also still has its fair share of violence, but from what I’ve read, there’s an ongoing clean-up (with varying degrees of success, depending on which publications you read).

We are really looking forward to getting to know Mexico by exploring its history, experiencing the vibrant street culture and eating as wide a range of food as possible. We will hopefully escape the clutches of ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ (a cousin of ‘Bali belly’ and ‘Delhi belly’) while doing so. Mexican food was the first to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Cuisine, and that excites me no end. More than a few of my favourite foods such as chocolate, maize/corn, avocados, tomatoes, beans and chiles (note my Americas spelling of chillis 😊) are native to the area.

Similar to Mexico, Guatemalan culture is a lively mix of Spanish, European and Maya customs and languages. Although most of the population is Catholic, I have read that there are still groups who have strong links to ancient Maya rituals and have fused this with Christian practices. Even though Guatemala has been exposed to foreign cultures (albeit to a much lesser degree than Mexico), indigenous customs seem to be more prevalent, especially in rural villages. I’m looking forward to experiencing the unique Guatemalan customs and way of life.

After Guatemala gained independence from the Spanish, it continued to suffer at the hands of dictators and rebels via coups and civil war, enduring genocides, economic hardships, violence and displacement. Eventually democratic rule was established, and the consensus is that Guatemala’s economy has improved mainly due to the strength of the local agricultural and tourism industries. Guatemala has also been at the mercy of many natural disasters, and the statistics say that over 50% of Guatemalans still live under the poverty line. The valleys provide perfect conditions for farming of coffee and other cash crops, but volcanic eruptions, frequent floods and landslides have made farming a challenging activity. Guatemala is supposed to have been one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, with large zones of rainforest, cloud forest, woodlands and mangroves, but that was before over-logging and deforestation dramatically diminished the forests.

Before planning this trip, I knew even less about Belize than I did about Mexico and Guatemala. Bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea, Belize was also part of the great Maya Empire before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish weren’t as successful in colonising Belize as they were in the rest of the region. However, in the 17th century the British successfully colonised it and Belize became a part of the British Empire (as British Honduras).

During the slave trade, many African slaves arrived to work in the timber (mahogany) industry. British Honduras enjoyed relative economic prosperity until the 1930s, when a damaging hurricane hit the colony and falling timber prices caused the industry to collapse. British Honduras was officially renamed Belize in the 1970s and granted independence in the 1980s.

Like Guatemala, Belize is a land incredibly rich in bio-diversity. It’s estimated that more than 60% of Belize is covered in forest. Thankfully, they seem to have learnt from the mistakes of their neighbours and have created preserves and national parks to protect their flora and fauna, including 500+ bird species! Belize has the lowest population density in Central America, and this may explain the lower strain on its environment. I was also happy to see all the literature agrees that there’s a high level of racial acceptance and tolerance between the different ethnic communities. Sadly, all is not rosy in Belize. It has a heavy foreign debt, a high unemployment rate, more than 40% of Belizeans live in poverty, there’s a high rate of HIV/AIDS and a growing involvement in the Mexican and South American drug trade. The involvement in the drug trade is reportedly escalating gang violence in places like Belize City.

Well, there we have it – thanks for sticking with me through that summarised regurgitation of all my pre-trip reading. I apologise to those of you who are familiar with this part of the world and may have already known all that…but that was mainly for the benefit of many of our Australian friends and family who wanted background information. 😊

It’s probably obvious that I’ve been in research heaven while preparing for this trip. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that my inner research junkie went well into overdrive too. I’ve spent countless hours noting detailed walking routes that included the most popular tourist sites as well as lesser-known spots, I took copious notes on what to do, how to get there, and where to eat. Not surprisingly, the ‘where to eat’ section is the largest – from tiny street carts that we may never find, to authentic market food stalls, to urbane modern cuisine, and everything in between. All those hours of research has helped me set the scene for this trip, and I’m beyond excited to now actually experience it all for myself.

Anyway, back to our flight. When we booked this flight with a transit stop in Dallas and were told that we needed a US visa, we were understandably confused. Being a transit stop, we weren’t leaving the airport (ergo the term TRANSIT). Turns out since the 9/11 bombings, any person arriving in the US has to be put through the rigours of their immigration processes regardless of whether they are actually visiting the country or merely transiting through. So we still had to get our visa, go through immigration, go through security, show our passports and boarding passes to multiple people, before finally boarding our onward flight to Guatemala! Oh, what I would have given for a good old fashioned transit lounge…even one of those tiny prison-like ones with small hard seats and smelly carpets. Anything would have been better than that pointless and laborious process we went through. On the plus side, for a massive hub, Dallas Fort Worth Airport was relaxed and friendly – and nothing like we’d expected based on stories we’d heard.

But onto more joyful things, we are now on-board our American Airlines flight from Dallas to Guatemala City – the third and last leg of our journey. The airline didn’t impress us at all, but we were just glad to be getting closer to our final destination. Our total flying and airport time for this trip will end up being just under a whopping 29 hours, with an estimated 33 hours from door to door! It is our longest travel time on a trip to-date, and that’s even with the best connecting flight times we could find.

The next time I write I will be on Guatemalan soil, hopefully with a tortilla in one hand and a Guatemalan coffee in the other.

See you in Antigua!


22nd April 2016

Three countries and three journeys!
With Drew's nostalgic trip down memory lane (when young, a surfer friend and I did wander the Mexican beaches, camping, eating fish tacos and drinking Dos Equis), and Ren's incredibly comprehensive research (food carts and local coffee!), you two have already had a couple of holidays! I look forward to the fruit of this research along with some surprises. And what a perfect holiday to celebrate half a century! Ole!
23rd April 2016

Re: Three countries and three journeys!
Thanks Tara. It has been a great start to the trip, and we really can't believe it's taken us so long to come over here... the first of many trips to this continent for sure.
22nd April 2016

Planning for your trip seems to have been half the fun...
as it is for me. I look forward to reading about your adventures!
23rd April 2016

Re: Planning for your trip seems to have been half the fun...
Bob I just can't help myself, I really do love researching and planning trips. Sounds like you understand :)
23rd April 2016

Blimey, what a journey! Well done on surviving the epic 33 hours door to door, definitely longer than any I've ever done (I think 22 hours or so may have been the most), and also for getting through US customs and immigration...! Also very impressed by the amount of pre-trip reading you do before your travels, very interesting, and also helping me to prepare for my own trip this summer. I hope you're enjoying a tortilla and Guatemalan coffee as we speak :D
24th April 2016

Re: Blimey!
We are most certainly enjoying the coffee and tortillas! We are still early into the trip, but we can't believe we haven't come here earlier...I have a feeling you will love it :)
24th April 2016

Your first blog was fascinating--loved the literature and musical connections that have fascinated you for so long Andrew, and Ren your potted history of the country was great--so easy to understand.
24th April 2016

Re: Mexico
Thanks Aileen. It's nice to finally be here after all the planning, thinking and talking we've done about this trip...
24th April 2016

Planning, planning
So what do you use for planning? a simple notebook or something computerised. I've just found Onenote and am trying this out for our next trip.
24th April 2016

Re: Planning, planning
Andrew is a big fan of OneNote, but I haven't fallen in love with it yet... I use a combination of word and excel files, but I probably need to switch to OneNote too :)
24th April 2016

Mexico the ultimate dream, happy birthday Andrew
Any time Ren has a hand in things you can count on extraordinary research, a solid plan, lots of food and fun. Hopefully you'll have a drink to Roy Buchanan, Steve Miller and musicians in general. I hope you get a new instrument for your birthday. The collection must continue to grow. Laughed at your impressions of Dallas. We hope you will let us host you when you come to the U.S. -- Ren as always you've educated me and given me a list of new books to read and movies to watch. We are familiar with this part of the world history but enjoyed additional facts you included. Thanks. Waiting for more.
24th April 2016

Re: Mexico the ultimate dream, happy birthday Andrew
Thanks Merry! We wished we had the time to spend some time in Dallas, it was a bit of a shame to spend so much tome getting there and not seeing the city. Andrew's definitely on the lookout for new musical instruments... we've set aside a few days to do some foot work for it :)
24th April 2016

The ones you leave behind
It is so hard leaving your four legged family, we can really feel for you guys and understand the pain, but travel can be a strong and hard love. Cannot agree more with you about what a crap airport Sydney is, seriously rubbish and most eating places having limited opening hours. Great history review of the countries and nice to see someone putting the detail into the blog, we just love the research. Looking forward to the next entry.
25th April 2016

Re: The ones you leave behind
I love that you understand our pain about the fur babies :) I seriously love doing travel research, it's how I spend our time between trips. Hope you guys are travelling well, I've booked marked your blogs to binge read when we have better wifi.

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