2.11.09 Jutiapa, Guatemala
After a finger-smacking, lip-sucking breakfast of spicy beans and a chicken omelette (eggs 'n' chicken - it's a bit wrong, isn't it?) I say "ta-ra, chuck" to San Salvador and zip off to the Guatemala border. A smattering of forced optimism regarding how bad it'll be is richly rewarded. There are no helpers, no need for helpers, the weather's cool and nobody wants a hand-out. The whole out-and-in is completed in 45 minutes. Officials on both sides are chummy and helpful. Guatemalan cops have a reputation for trying it on, but we'll burn that bridge when we get to it.
If I was seven, I would go literally bog-eyed mental at the sight of the dinosaur pool at the hotel in Jutiaca. Because I'm 43 I tone it down a bit, and when I'm informed that the hotel doesn't sell beer I simply raise an eyebrow and puff out my cheeks.
Then I remember there's a hipflask full of Colombian Aguardiente in my luggage - thanks Tom for the flask - which seems to go quite nicely with Pepsi and ice.
4.11.09 Antigua, Guatemala.
Hopped-up on hell-terror and foamy-mouthed with the fatalistic death-worship of Catholicism they may be, but those Guatemalan buses sure are colourful!
The squitters - the runs, the trots, the ol' sepia fire-extinguisher, you know - reappear in Antigua after a months-long respite. It's not a major problem; more of a wry smile, "you again?" moment, and it certainly doesn't stop me blowing the froth off a few Gallos.
Gallo, or "Cock", if you prefer, is Guatemala's best selling brew, and while it doesn't taste fantastic, it does come in absolutely ginormous bottles. Cheers!
I suspect that, after 2 or 3 Gallos, I could listen to "More Than A Feeling" on a loop until the Day Of Judgement (next Thursday week, as if anyone cares).
15.11.09 Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Major Mike "Mad Dog" Anderson - ex RAF Search-and-Rescue, British (as opposed to English) to the bone - wins first prize in the "what's the coolest thing you can have strapped to the back of your bike" contest - a walking stick. It's a big BMW - we'll let that pass - and it also sports a British "Blue Badge", signifying that the holder is disabled and needs to be closer to the Sainsbury's exit than you do. Dodgy knees and really quite short legs notwithstanding, he's ridden the length of the Americas and continues to do so. His theories about why British potatoes hold their heat better than their foreign counterparts may be open to scrutiny, but his commitment to drinking beer and riding motorbikes is not. Major* Anderson - I salute you.
As a pensioner, I imagine he would appreciate Igor the Czech's t-shirt slogan:
Close to inarguable, assuming only those two options.
If not the way his bike is packed:
Where, in fact, is the actual bike?
The Major and I rendezvous in Antigua. It takes us a stupendous amount of Gallo, featuring both diarrhoea and vomiting, to come to the conclusion that it would have been better to call it "Draino". Any other Guatemalan lager causes only the usual problems, but there's something terribly wrong with Gallo. I swear on the holy bread of Jesus: I will never touch Gallo again, unless it's all they've got.
Major Anderson and I tootle off to the Mayan city ("ruins" is the wrong word) of Tikal. It's a 2 day ride from Antigua, and it's way beyond what I'd imagined. There's something very Doctor Who about it, partly because the huge temples look like thousand-year-old stone Daleks, and partly because it's just spooky. Tikal is one of those places where you find yourself walking round a corner and involuntarily saying "no fucking way!" every 20 minutes. Like Woking, but good.
Given that Mexico - North America by any reasonable definition - is the next stop, it might be time to rank Central American countries in order of good-ness. Factors at play include:
-jaw-dropping places to see
-cost of hotels and booze
-ease of border crossings
-friendliness of people
-corruption level of cops.
With all that in mind, and in reverse order, here it is;
In last place, Honduras. Mainly because of the cops.
5th: Costa Rica. Slightly too expensive.
4th: Panama. Good-ish on all factors.
3rd: El Salvador. A combination of easy borders, good cops and friendly folks.
2nd: Nicaragua. Let down by a tedious border, otherwise - good work!
1st: Guatemala. Fantastic in almost every respect.
*Mike may or may not be a Major. It just sounds good that way.
18.11.09 Antigua, Guatemala
As my left forearm metamorphoses from golden-haired willow sprig into fat, scarlet, insanely itchy rugby ball, I'm forced to hold back a spring tide of superstition. Superstition, as you know, is belief without evidence. Often reinforced by coincidence, it can sometimes take a Brain Of Steel to hold superstition at bay.
The bee, wasp or hornet that plugs my arm full of noisome agents during the ride back to Antigua is without doubt a barbarian and a maniac, but as I scream wordlessly at 70mph, reptile-brain assuming control of Her Ladyship, I think back one hour to the small, jade-green, harmless bug that was trapped behind my screen.
"Ignore it!" submitted Rationality.
"What if it becomes dislodged, and flies up your nostril?" argued the Fear Centres of my mind. "What if, following a sharp gust, it becomes embedded in your eye-socket, and is forced to nourish itself on the sensitive pink meat of your optic nerve?"
That last one does it for me. I attempt (at well over 60mph) to flick my emerald passenger off the screen. I'm wearing gloves - it doesn't go at all well, and there's smearing and death.
Sorry, sorry, sorry, I think, shuddering at the senseless waste of life while attempting to retain control of my vehicle.
An hour later - a little early for Karma, don'cha think - it's hornet time. 60 hours of horrible pain interspersed with spastic scratching follow. I'm certain it's a coincidence. Completely 98.5% certain.
This is hilarious in Omagh! Although even then you might have to be called Gormley, Conlon or Crowley to get it. Ha ha!
21.11.09 Huehuetenango, Guatemala
"How long you wanna stay? Like, the whole night? With sleeping?" asks the hotel manager in response to my request for a discount rate. What the dickens can he mean? Why would I not want to stay the whole... Oh! I get it. Perhaps, since it's called Hotel Pleasure, I should've guessed. The bedroom is a 1981 version of exactly what you'd expect. Someone's written "I love you Brian" on the headboard in mad-woman writing - all scratchy and black.
It seems very clean, but I'm glad I don't have one of those UV-light love-squirt detectors. Nice big private garage for Her Maj, though. An oil change, performed, importantly, with love, and a few other minor tinkerings have left the old darling running like a new kettle or a copper hat or something. 16,500 Latin American miles (for a clock-total of 51,500) and I want to run my hands over her opalescent curves and kiss her until my lips get all sore and dirty. Apart from the saddle.
Mexico tomorrow! Which is, is it not, effectively North America? AWESOME!
Met some lovely USA folks - two couples on two V-Stroms - in Antigua. I enticed them to a bar where they drank not enough beer but were nice 'n' chatty. After a while, I began to suspect that they might Love Jesus; there was a moment where I had to explain that I don't have a star sign, which didn't seem to raise the appreciative chuckles I'd been gunning for, so perhaps it's best they went home before I'd drunk enough Brahva (looks like Brahma - isn't) to start badgering them about empyrean matters. So many things I must remember not to bring up in bars when I get to the US.
So, one more day in Guatemala, and I've decided it's the best bit of Central America. Some of it is bad-fantasy-painting beautiful. If JRR Tolkien had been on the back this afternoon, he'd have died of burst eyes. Tragically there was nowhere to stop and take a picture of Misty Mountain Wonderland, but it was like being in a 1975 bedroom (without the yeasty smell). The only things stopping me from having a catastrophic psilocybin flashback were the impenetrable and unbreathable clouds of black smoke pumping out of the buses. The worst culprit today had a picture of Fat Stupid Jesus on the back. I'm not saying Jesus was fat and stupid; just that the picture was of a fat, stupid Jesus.
Worst Meal Of 2009:
While I remember, I should mention a brunch I had; Overcooked "Surprise" Liver in a Honduras petrol station (I thought it was going to be "meat"). Even though I was starving, it was inedible. It was, however, so disgusting that I had to keep picking at it to check it wasn't a joke. It was like a shit on a plate. Honestly.
23.11.09 Palenque, Mexico.
If you spent the late 1980's in Britain drinking newly-imported, skinny-necked 355ml bottles of Corona at 2 quid a pop, you were, quite transparently, a twat. A worthless, pink-shirted bozo, suckling at Lord Fashion's distended purple teat with all the grace and imagination of a speed bump.
Forgive yourself - everybody else has - and pull up a chaise-longue while I tell you about the 940ml bottles of Sol that are available in Roadside Bar Mexico, in this, the Year Of Our Lord 2009, for one pound and twenty-five pence. Try drinking one of these babies outta the bottle! They look, do they not, like particularly beautiful pregnant women. Stout with hope and promise!
To clarify - if you were a Corona or Sol bottle-sipper in Britain in the 1980's, you were a social and intellectual homunculus. If you continued into the 1990's, you were, and remain, a whey-faced boob, no doubt hectored nightly by your disillusioned, running-to-fat bride.
36 hours in Mexico's Chiapas region have passed, and I'm doolally with excitement about the place. After the skinny little isthmus of Central America, Chiapas seems huge, with endless directional options compared to the "keep going west-north-west" feel of the preceding six countries.
My first-impression-meter of a country has been tweaked by now to respond to these four stimuli:
1. What's the border like?
2. How much is the lager?
3. Wozzit look like?
4. Good or bad cops?
So here we go. The Guat/Mex border at Las Mesillas is the quickest and easiest I've been through anywhere. I recommend Sunday lunchtime. There's a sliding scale of deposits you "have to" pay on entering Mexico, based on the age of your vehicle, to deter you from selling it. 1998 = $300!
The customs guy tells me this is payable only in cash. I feign poverty, employing the "pockets-out" gesture. He nods and we continue with the paperwork.
"All done!" he smiles, after 10 minutes.
"Er - what about the $300?" I remind him, keen as beans to be legal (I've bought Mexican insurance off of the internob - if I'm stopped at the lights in Mexico without insurance and a juggernaut smashes into the back of me, whatever is left of me goes to prison, hilariously).
"Ah, sod it. Happy trails!" he responds in Mexican. What a country!
Onto point 2; I think 75p a pint is, in 2009, almost too small an amount.
Point 3; It looks bloody amazing. Bloody. Amazing!
And finally; I've been stopped once today (at one of four roadblocks), and they were charming, friendly and by-the-book; just wanted to see my passport.
4 out of 4. MEXICO IS AWESOME.
25.11.09 Escarcega, Mexico
I have to be in Cancun on Sunday to meet Naz, last seen in Buenos Aires. It would've been quicker to go through Belize, but sod that; it's $200 to get a bike in and the cop situation is supposed to be worse than Honduras. The "attraction" of Belize is the diving. There's only one sort of diving I'm interested in, and it doesn't involve an oxygen tank. Usually.
Puerile? For sure. Crass, offensive and unfunny? No doubt. My only excuse is a mood-swing caused by -
a/ 16 number twos in 24 hours (sixteen!)
b/ leaving the sapphire-canopied Arcadia of Chiapas for the flat, overpriced drabness of southern Campeche.
In Escarcega I inspect four hotels before giving in.
1. An overpriced sterile box.
2. Overpriced at $35, and full anyway.
3. A circa-1920 Parisian urinal disguised as a hotel with no parking.
4. Seems OK, until you notice that the TV was manufactured in 1968 (really - the channel changer is a dial) and they don't sell beer. Gaaaah.
A long walk up the road yields a bar - fine - that shuts at 6pm - what? - and a restaurant that sells beer but makes me walk four feet from my chair to smoke, even though it's largely outside. Booooh.
OK. That's out of my system. Tecate, Corona, Dos Equis and Modelo are all solid, workmanlike lagers (unlike Sol which I've decided is a little bit watery), and the latter comes in 710ml bottles, two of which seem to reverse the above-noted mood swing quite convincingly. Plus Man United lost 1-0 to Besiktas (I know!) at Old Trafford today. Ho ho!
What would you rather share the highway with? A juggernaut piloted by someone with a hard-to-come-by Heavy Goods Vehicle licence, the test for which involves an eye test and preferably a bit of psychological profiling; or a 34 year old taxi with "God Help Me" painted on the rear window?
28.11.09 Cancun, Mexico
Trade: di-methyl-hydroxy-loperamide. Street: Imodium. These pills are valued at two quid, and amazingly - against all intestinal logic - they work even if you've "got one in the chamber", acting like a rectal Super Slurper and turning a difficult, "can we go yet / dare I even check out of my room?" morning into a breeze. Hoozah for Big Pharma!
Two weeks in Cancun with Naz have slipped by, and I feel the urge to pass on some tips if you're headed that way.
1) Book the Grand Royal Lagoon Hotel in advance on the interplop for $27 a night, with every third night free. Balcony, room service, big room with triple bed, air-con, fridge, super-efficient cleaners, pool and Cancun's cheapest lager (15 pesos in the GRL bar; 54 pesos in a stupid Spring Break horror-disco up the road).
2) Just across the road you'll find the Intercontinental. Swan in like you own the place, and you can use their much bigger pool, sun loungers, beach and internet cafe for no money.
3) Fancy a spot of booze? Take a ride down the main drag to the Bel Air Collection hotel. There's a jacuzzi bar in the pool, where, if you play your hand subtly, you can arrive at midday and pay $20 to suck down as many cocktails as you can stomach before the pool bar shuts at 6pm. For my money, the stand-out snifters from the fairly extensive drinks menu are the Flamenco (it's pink - get over it) and the Sombrero (like coffee ice-cream with booze in it).
4)... I have to interrupt myself - I'm overcome with emotion as Campeche's Christmas Parade passes below my terrace-bar table.
The Nativity float has, frankly, finished me off. All the beloved characters are there - the, ah, Virgin, Mary; poor old Joseph; the porky little Christ-Child himself; the Three "Wise" Men; an elephant (?); Ronald McDonald; and somebody dressed as a 500ml plastic bottle of Coke. *cries*... Anyway:
4) Go to Isla Mujeres - fantastic beaches and everything's half the price. DO NOT hire a sun-lounger from the spiv on Playa Norte. He'll want 10 quid for an hour, and, as we've established, if you can convincingly pretend to be a paying guest at the Intercontinental, they're free.
...I must butt in on myself* again - the toilet in this bar has a sign over the sink suggesting you should wash your hands before, as well as after going to the lavatory.
Eh? I suppose if you'd just come in from making sculptures out of dog muck you'd want to wash your hands before, but under normal circs, what? I mean, why?
5) If you book a rental car to drive the 110 amazingly flat, straight miles to Chichen Itza and back, and the people at Budget "upgrade" you to a Nissan X-Trail, you should probably be aware that it does 100mph really rather easily, enabling you to get there in record time; but that on the way back, various dispirited Mexicans will attempt to throw themselves into its path; also that the headlight on-off switch operates on a hair-trigger principle, and that it's positioned on the end of the indicator stalk. Oh Christ.
Also that the name "X-Trail" does not, under Mexican law, imply any ability to negotiate a speed-bump above walking-pace without breaking it. It is, on balance, WAY more dangerous to drive an X-Trail sober, in Mexico, in the dark, than it is to ride an Africa Twin under similar conditions after a cocktail or "two". Not that I'm condoning anything blah blah etc.
Naz enjoys a pint of lager.
So - thanks for coming Naz! Well done us for still being alive, and Christ Damn You to Hell for beating me twice on the poker table.
I cannot believe it's nearly Christmas - again. Last back-end, as we say in Kent, I had garage pies and hot dogs for Xmas dinner. If I have to stab it myself, and cook it with a fucking cigarette lighter, I WILL HAVE TURKEY THIS YEAR.
How about that Tiger WooYAAAAAAAWWWWN! Really - does anyone (other than his wife) give a toad's pube?
You know when you really, really want a T-bone steak, and it's on the menu, which you saw 3 hours ago but weren't hungry then, and after 7 Coronas you ask to see the menu again, just to be polite, and, following 2 minutes of pretend-chin-stroking you beckon the waiter over and order the longed-for T-bone, and he says "Sorry sir - only New York steak", and you remember that the only other New York steak you've had in Mexico smelt like a dog's nappy, but you ate it anyway because you were literally starving to death, even though you'd been to the lavatory 16 times in 24 hours? That's why I'm going to Burger King in a minute.
And now the classified football results, read by Charles Hawtrey:
Fulham 3, Manchester United nil.
Arsenal 3, Hull City nil.
*illegal in Alabama
23.12.09 San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico
I line up the camera to get a shot of the "Beer & Tacos" sign just as Victor Bloody Meldrew lurches out of the doorway. He's a cantankerous American nut-job, 65-ish and bald as a toad.
"HEY! What d'you think you're doing!" shouts Baldy, closing the door marked Yuletide Banter.
"I'm taking a picture of that sign", I reply truthfully.
Bald Freak: "You better not be taking a picture of me!"
Me: "I wouldn't take a picture of you if you paid me. I'm taking a picture of that sign."
Bald Freak: "You should ask first if you want a picture of me! I don't want nobody taking no pictures of me!"
Me: "Well, if you quit yapping and get out of the bloody way, perhaps I can get on with taking a picture of that sign, you nutter."
Bald Freak (very angry now): "Ah, stick it in your ear!"
Me: "Stick it up your arse, you nutter!"
As you can see, Baldy ended up actually being in the picture, which clearly, without his intervention, would not have made it onto the internet. Stupid old git. Happy Holidays!
Songs I would pay a Mariachi band to play right now:
Electric Funeral - Black Sabbath
Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse - Aphrodite's Child
Jailbait - Motorhead.
Guitar chords for all three of these songs are freely available on the intersqueak, and I gots the money. Let's get to it!
The fellow at the next table has some back on him. Clad in supermarket leather, it's like that of a Basildon rhino. Wide? Sure! His shoulders are such that, were he to attempt to dive into the Manchester Ship Canal, he would get stuck on the edges. His woman is tiny and weak. If the situation should take an unexpected ugly turn, I'm confident I could neutralize any physical threat from her with reasonable speed. On the other hand, unless I rescue her from the Big Lad she'll be crushed to a paste. Below his terrible leather problems there are chinos and cheap slip-ons, on incongruously small legs 'n' feet. Ah cain't do nuthin'. He would shatter me with one punch.
Christmas Day, San Cristobal
Aside from the threadbare (to the point of being oven-ready) parrots in the courtyard, El Cocodrilo is an excellent bar, right on the main square and cheap like 1989. But! Whoever decided that the appropriate soundtrack to accompany a few lunchtime Margaritas on Christmas Day was Roger Waters, deserves a biro in the sternum. Unless they change the CD in the next 2 minutes, I'm going to hoick out my aorta and inexpertly garrote myself, leading to an avalanche of unfavourable Boxing Day headlines in the San Cristobal Trumpet.
A quick note of thanks to Roger Waters' mum, who emailed me just now to say that if she was forced to listen to Roger Waters on Christmas Day, she would be tempted to pour herself a large Bleach 'n' Tonic ("Swedish Mouthwash", she calls it). Subsequently her mail becomes increasingly garbled, and eventually so frighteningly obscene that I'm unable to quote from it lest the FBI are watching. Something in there about "kicking my own knees off". Chin up, Mrs W - we share your pain.
00.01, 01.01.10, Tuxtla Gutierrez
2.1.10, Tuxtla Gutierrez
If you look like you've never been within 500 yards of a hot bath, it's reasonable to assume - I think - that you didn't wash your hands the last time you dropped a deuce. So thanks buddy, but no, I'll pour it myself, and GET YOUR FILTHY PAWS AWAY FROM MY GLASS. Ahem.
What's that? Why don't I go to a different bar, if it's that horrible? Is that what you're asking? Well, having walked 22 blocks in every direction looking for one, I thing I can say with near-certainty that there fucking isn't one.
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