Posted by: elgringoperdido | January 21, 2011

All things Asian in the Big Apple, pt. 1

And so, I have decided to write some sort of travel blog on this grand tour as well. I do have a certain knack for writing walls of text but will perhaps try and limit my posts a little bit more. Don’t think it will work, to be honest. I really like to write quite detailed descriptions of events, places, feelings and impressions. Leaving too much out creates texts that lack soul, and especially in a travel blog there are few things more boring than “First we went to Z, then to place Y. Y was better because there were popcorn”.

Anyway; this trip I will be going overland through five countries by using local buses, cars, camionetas, boats, walking, by mule – and perhaps the odd personal carrier. Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and a bit of Bolivia is the itinerary of choice. I started off with a quick stop (4 days) in New York City, which is a place I’ve dreamt of visiting for most of my life. This post will be about that. Right now I’m down on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and I cannot walk outside at this hour since it is noon and my bleak Scandinavian skin will burn away. Anyway…

The trip started out with a weird incident on Arlanda Airport. I was standing in the toilet queue in the mens room and three females walk in. Which was sort of strange but all the other toilets were crowded so it wasn’t that out of order. The one other dude who was standing with me in the queue had a complete fit, though. He started screaming at these girls for being in the mens room. And threatened to take out his… if they didn’t leave. OK… then he started calling them bitches and stuff. Crazy thing to do for a person from one of the less confrontational cultures on earth… but I guess now even we are going cosmopolitan and globalized and all that.
And then, once again, I left the land of snow and ice. Transitted on Heathrow and celebrated my first visit on the British isles with a traditional English lunch consisting of potato chips and a beer. Great. Shortly thereafter, I was on an American Airlines flight to John F Kennedy Airport, New York City. Even greater.

My first impression upon landing and passing immigrations was that I had no idea where to go. Of course, the idea of printing out the adress of the hostel hadn’t even crossed my mind. And I was told there was no internet cafe around JFK either. I did know my hostel was on Manhattan somewhere, so I figured just taking the subway to Times Square and hope for the best would be a good idea. The classic, silver chrome metal giants rolled in, and I was on my way. The subway passed through some classic Brooklyn areas before the train went underground which was kind of cool for a rap aficionado like myself.

When I exited the subway at Times Square, I deliberately didn’t look up until I was all the way up the platform to maximize the experience and get a clear view of being around some of the tallest skyscrapers on earth. Mind you, the highest building I had seen before this was like Hötorgsskrapan in Stockholm which bears more resemblance to a windmill than to, say, the Bank of America Tower.  It was, of course, a surreal feeling. I guess everyone feels the same way the first time they get to Manhattan; a Lord of The Rings-like feeling where you feel so amazingly small and the sidewalks feel like walking on a tread in a vast forest, surrounded by thehighest trees imaginably. Impression overload. Hard to catch on photo, though…

Manhattan

I went into a nearby college library and asked to use the computers to get the adress of the hostel. Then, I hailed down a cab right outside and after perhaps the shortest cab ride ever, I arrived; I was about two blocks away from the hostel door. The location was excellent; just one street away from the absolute centre of Times Square. Checked into the dorm, and then I hung out for a bit before going to China Town to grab something to eat. Got out and there were Asians all over and signs in Chinese  so I figured I was at the right place. Had some great, fried noodles with seafood in it and a Chinese beer with that. 8$. I was now officially back on the road.  The carbohydrates  took its toll, and soon I found myself back at the hotel. A powernap turned into 15 hours of sleep. I needed it…

In the dorm were two  friendly Japanese guys. One, Yuichiro, had quit his job in Japan to go travel, escaping from the inhumane working hours of corporate Japan. Like 07 – 21 every day and then extra work outside of schedule. All of the time I was there, he was down in Greenwich Village looking for spots from Sex and The City. Like the houses of people from the series and stuff. He had a special guidebook in Japanese for Sex and the City-related places to visit. He told me had been trying for almost two whole days to find the house of Carrie in the series, which was apparently several houses of which some were nowhere to be found. The other guy, Daichi, had lived in San Francisco for two years and spoke spotless English. He was doing the usual tourist things.

My friend Susan had told me about a great Japanese restaurant down in East Village so the first thing I did was to go down there and look for it.  I did have the adress but it was kind of hard to find. Ended up just walking around, which was great. East Village is a really cozy place to walk around, it had this sort of bohemian feel to it which reminded me a little bit of the Grünerløkka area in Oslo. There were lots of cool clothes stores and restaurants, and I got a really nice slightly oversized vintage shirt for like 30$, so I was happy. Then I had a big sushi plate and listened to an American dude having a date that was going terrible a few tables away. Being filled up and amused I went on down to the neighbourhood of Tribeca which is to the southwest. Walked around, bought a NY Mets baseball hat (getting addicted… to hats) and had some Dunkin Donuts.  Also saw this weird skyscraper that didn’t have windows and was just like a huge piece of stone shooting high up in the air. Someone told me it was a TV-tower…

 

Then I went down to Ground Zero which wasn’t anything to see really, just a big construction site. Right next to it was Century 21, a clothes outlet that lots of people had told me about beforehand. I didn’t find anything of interest, there was just alot of tacky mint green shirts with feathers and shit, and boring clothes in general. Times Square after dark was cooler. Alot cooler. The surreal feeling I had got when I got out of the subway arriving returned. All the huge billboards and shit. The classic cliche saying that everything is bigger in NYC is just so true. When I got back to the hostel, I had a (real) powernap and then went down to the common room to see what’s up. Some Dutch dude that was really cool, his brother and his American girlfriend were going to a comedy show down the street, so we decided to team up. Turns out it was a bit of a ripoff, tickets were OK cheap but then we were forced to buy expensive drinks at the show – they hadn’t told us that. The show was pretty good though!


This is one of the new skyscrapers they are building at Ground Zero

After the show, which as I mentioned involved a few cold ones, I really felt like partying. Tried to persuade the Dutch dude to ditch the girlfriend who wanted to go sleep and come with me to do some drinking fun instead. I almost succeeded – but when we were just about to go, the girlfriend showed up in the hostel common room and gave him the evil eye. So he obeyed, and went back to the room. Whipped…. luckily, the Japanese dude really wanted to come, so I didn’t have to go  fiesta all on my own. I had been told there were some good drinking holes down in East Village, where I had already spent most of the day, so we went there. I’d been told of a place called PDT (Please Don’t Tell) which was a club/bar that was supposed to be really good.

My friend had told me that the club had no sign and that you needed a password to enter. So we asked people on the street for directions and those who knew gave us clever smiles and pointed us into this small hole-in-the-wall hot dog place. We entered, and for a moment we thought we were completely lost. There were a counter, and benches where people ate hot dogs. However, there was one detail that made us a bit suspicious. A small glass door to the side hid a very small phone booth room, which contained nothing but a big, red telephone. Shortly after, we saw someone enter the phone booth, pick up the phone and say something. Then what happened? The teak tree wall inside the phone booth slid to the side, and inside there were music, strobes and tons of people. The guy entered, and then the secret door closed once again and it all looked like a phone booth again. Only in New York City!

So we figured that the password was to be told to the person on the other side of the telephone line. Big problem – what is the password? Can we ask all these super-trendy New York people or will they laugh in our face and think we are stupid tourists? We really wanted to get in so I swallowed my pride and asked a girl that looked friendly. As an answer, she just gave away a clever smile and said nothing. 0-1. My Japanese friend asked someone else and got the same answer. So we just had a hot dog each, and went to some other bar and did shots. Bummer…

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Posted by: elgringoperdido | February 11, 2010

Duckin’ gunshots & dodgin’ earthquakes in El Salvador

I had a great time in El Salvador. There were some minor flaws but diving from high waterfalls deep in the jungle in the west, hedonistic partying in San Salvador and surfing on the Pacific coast were all highlights that I’ll remember for a long time. Keep reading, I’ll tell you all of it!

First, some words about El Salvador. It is mainly known in Europe and the U.S. for guns & gangs as it the birthplace and centre of one of the biggest and most violent street gangs in the Western hemisphere, Mara Salvatrucha or MS13. It was formed by Salvadorian immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s to protect themselves from Mexican and black gangs in South Central, L.A.

It grew to be one of the most wide-spread gangs in the States, after a while also accepting other Central Americans like people from Guatemala, Honduras & Nicaragua. When gang violence escalated in the early 90ies, America “solved” the problem by expulsing gang members to their original countries, which obviously led to enormous social problems since it is quite obvious what people will do who are career criminals and get sent back to a country where they have never lived before nor speak the language.

MS13 graffiti in San Marcos, El Salvador

El Salvador was troubled even before this happened, but it was far from being as poor or underdeveloped as Nicaragua or Honduras. Now, with gang violence and mafia organizations thriving, it is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world; currently being number 4 in the world when it comes to intentional homicide rate. Although, as in the rest of Central America, the vast majority of all crimes are commited by gang members, on other gangs and rarely involving foreigners. I never felt threatened in El Salvador whereas some isolated cities in Guatemala and most of Honduras felt pretty dodgy. Violence is escalating rapidly in the region right now and noone really knows what country is the worst right now…

El Salvador is obsessed with security. Huge amounts of the country’s economy is spent on security features, someone told me like 20%. One layer of barb-wire is not enough; two or three layers and a high-voltage electric fence is normal for a normal house for a family in San Salvador. Every store, from Wal-Mart to Hermès has an armed guard outside and even our hostel had its own shotgun-wielding vigilante.

Quiet neighborhood in San Salvador

"Please leave your weapon by the entrance of the store, thank you"

One would presume this is normal procedure in a country like this, although the real reason is a bit more interesting. El Salvador had a civil war that lasted quite a long time, ending in 1992, and after that the Republic had alot of unemployed men with no education and tons of guns. Solution – let’s hire them as security guards! Clever solution, but expensive. I was a bit jaded after Honduras, for various reasons, and wanted to start off by doing something else than messing around. I felt like hiking, for some reason. Got into El Salvador and went straight to the second biggest city, Santa Ana, cause around there was supposed to be lots of cool stuf to do.

Welcome to America. The mall was the size of Granby Centrum back home, but had McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Wendys, Dunkin’ Donuts  and Pizza Hut. Fantastic, I was in heaven! As everyone knows, I’m an aficionado for fast food, and this was exactly what I needed after all the beans and rice and beans and rice and chicken I’d eaten the past months, probably enough to feed a small African country for a year.

Got to the hostel that was supposed to be the most popular in town and it was… empty. Got a bit worried since I’d heard that El Salvador is by far the least visited nation in Central America, and I hadn’t seen a single tourist since the border. Luckily, after just a few minutes an older American man dropped by. Talkative, as most Americans, we had a long conversation and decided to team up for climbing the volcano of Cerro Verde the next day. In a bit, an Israeli-British girl and this really cool American surfer dude dropped by – we had a group. Had some beers and talked abit about rap with the American dude, he was from Queens and liked the same kind of rap as I do so we had a lot to chat about.

The  older American was in his mid-60ies I guess, had worked all his life as a firefighter while at the same time raising three boys, so he never really had vacation or time off work for all his life – thus, he went backpacking, but 40 years later than everyone else. Which is really cool, of course. He was living off his pension and travelling all around the world with focus on Latin America. We were hanging out like normal friends and he did everything that we did, age really doesn’t matter.

The next day, we got out to the spot early in the morning. We had to wait for a few police officers to come and accompany us, since they’ve had some problems with robberies and assaults on the way up this volcano. Got our police escort and started walking. The hike was kind of strenous since volcanoes are sort of… steep and all that. But it was also kind of nice to get away from everything and enjoy the amazing views and fresh mountain air. We got up to the top and in the middle of the volcano crater was a turquoise-green sulphur lake, damn cool.

I asked the guide: "Can I swim here?" and he replied "Yes, you will be able to swim about 2 seconds and then only your skeleton will be left" note to self: sulphur lakes are baaadass

I'm kind of camouflaged in this picture, let's play Find Rasmus

After this, we all moved to the small mountain village of Tacuba, near the border to Guatemala in western El Salvador. It was a quiet village but with some gang graffiti which I photographed of course.

18th Street Gang, second biggest gang in El Salvador

The next day it was hiking time again; I had heard that there were waterfalls to be jumped so I had to go there, whatever it may cost!

Bosque El Imposible is a natural park and this is where we went. It was a real mess to get there, took like 5 hours of straight walking there and 2 hours back, but it was kind of nice to get out to nature as well, and the landscape was stunning. Got to the waterfalls, some of them were definately not safe to jump from due to stones sticking out so refrained from a few, but it was really really cool. Dove from a 11 metre waterfall cliff! Got a video to prove it, too! Will upload it when someone gives me the password for a Youtube account, I can’t start one since I don’t have a cell phone so cannot activate it! Anyways, the trek was super-tireing but it was so nice to get back to the hostel and just… chill. And feel like you’ve earned it. A few beers and good conversations followed.

Hockeyfrilla

Hmmm...

The next day I went straight to San Salvador, and immediately liked the place. I like big, Latin American cities. The more dirty, hot, chaotic, loud – the better. San Salvador is the second biggest city in the region after Guatemala City, sporting about 2.2 million people. The feel of it is slightly different from other big cities in the region, it is hard to describe but it feels much more like a real, modern city.  There are some very nice areas, really clean and safe even at night. Big, U.S.-style malls where stylish, fashionista-Salvatoreños and Salvatoreñas spend weekend days strolling around are very wide-spread. Burger King every 100 metre, I think I ate every meal at a fast-food restaurant for about 4 days in a row…

Went there mostly to party, was really in that mood where you are tired of volcanoes and picturesque-places and just want to give in to the vibe. Met up an old friend, a British guy, who I’d hung out with for a bit back in Guatemala. We did some seriously crazy partying, went to the most expensive club in the whole country of El Salvador and we were the only foreigners there, everyone except us were super-rich local kids and there were lots of shady-looking guys in the VIP with tattoos and Tony Montana-esque Panama hats and white shirts. Wasted shitloads of money and got home at half past five in the morning but it was worth it for sure.

From the nice parts of San Salvador

What to do in case of an earthquake... you see these everywhere. Lots of earthquakes around here... San Salvador's been razed a few times, if I'm not mistaken. Think it was in 2001 that there was a really serious one, a guy told me that the streets were like waves in the sea going up and down. There were two small ones when we were there but didn't feel anything.

Downtown San Salvador, they told me not to flash around my camera here but just had to take some quick shots of the real El Salvador, dirty

On Friday, my British friend didn’t want to go out so I forced some Argentinian girls at the hostel to go out with me. They just wanted to have a beer or two so we went to this live-gig joint and watched a completely insane Ska-concert. Salvadorians do know how to party, that’s for sure. I was afraid the whole venue would be trashed, but it survived I guess. Kinda cool to see that a place like El Salvador can have a Ska-scene… not what one would expect, I guess.

The only real tourism El Salvador can be tributed to the surfing scene on the Pacific coast. Allegedly, the country has the best surfing in Central America so lots of Yankees come there since it is quite cheap to fly for them. I wanted to try surfing out, the last time I tried it was in the Canary Islands and I managed to break the board in half the first lesson. Wanted to avoid that this time…

Got to El Tunco, which is a quiet fishing village about an hour away from San Salvador. It is not that beautiful but really chill, quite cheap and has big waves. Had a lesson which was probably the worst surfing lesson ever – what he did was to push me into a few waves, basically. Didn’t learn much but instead got severily raped by swells and could barely walk the next day. But still fun, I love any water activity by heart.

Also met this Canadian guy Phil I hung out with back in Monterrico, Guatemala, the guy who had bicycled from Canada to Guatemala in just two months, ditched it and started travelling by bus instead. Really cool guy, works as a treeplanter in the remote forest up in Canada. Also met a group of American guys and some Irish girls, hung out alot with the latters. Other than that the hostel was pretty much empty – El Salvador isn’t Guatemala, that’s for sure. Surfed and chilled for some days.

Met this Swedish guy who had such a dream job. He owned a grocery store in the village, but didn’t really seem to work much there, mostly lying in his hammock outside with his insanely good looking Salvadoran girlfriend or down at the beach surfing… or partying in San Salvador. Gah… some people live the good life for sure. In general been thinking of staying for a while lately… get a hostel job or something, just work to stay afloat and not go home… I really don’t want to go home at all, not for a long time… if there is economic possibility I will stay for sure… will update you on what happens with that, anyway.

Surfing is so hard, probably the sport with the steepest learning curve I’ve ever seen. I barely got to stand on the board while in El Salvador, right now I’m alright with standing and all (in Nicaragua now) but it has been alot of blood, sweat and beers to get there. But it’s great fun to be out in the water, you can chill when you want to and just watch the waves or the sea for a while… or paddle like crazy and try to catch some waves…

Went back to San Salvador that weekend, did some more good-ass party. Met these wild Israeli guys who where all crazy in partying… lots of fun stuff happened. Also met some cool German guys that were more like day-time hanging out people. Too bad I didn’t get any contact information for any of the above, would definately want to meet up again at some point.

All done for this post… writing from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua right now… hope all is well back home, here it is grrrrrrrrrrrreat. Take care!

Posted by: elgringoperdido | February 3, 2010

Rain & Rum on Utila, Honduras

Ok, another post… I have been very lazy.

Utila is one of the cheapest places on earth to do diving and since the sea and being under water in general (umm.. that sounded a bit weird) always has been a great interest I decided to go there in order to do my PADI Open Water Diving certificate. Someone I wanted to meet was there as well so I decided to go even though weather reports predicted 10 days of rain coming.

Somebody told me once that after about 2 days weather reports are only correct in 30% of the cases, and predictions more than like 5 days forward is about as secure as foretelling weather by looking at reindeers intestines (Example from real life! Heikki Vesa, a weird character, every year tries to predict the Swedish summer weather in the national newspaper Aftonbladet by doing this. He fails every time)

Hence, I wasn’t really put off by the what the weather reports said. I also figured I wouldn’t really be affected, since I was going to spend most of my time there under water… I’ll put it like this:  I was wrong. Very wrong.

Utila is a cute little island. As opposed to most of the Caribbean, to my surprise the population was not predominantly black. The locals are white, slightly British-looking and are, apparently, ancestors of pirates that sat their foot on the island about 300 years ago. Official language is English and in general it feels very different to Honduras in general.The locals also speak Creole, only when talking to each others though. It sounds like pirates Ttalking, I even saw this one guy who looked exactly like the cartoon pirate guy Popeye, complete with a pipe and everything.

Not that it has that Caribbean feel that, for example, Belize has, though. It’s just… different. The absence of beaches may be a contributing factor, I guess. The only thing you can really do on Utila is dive, and party. It is quite small. So dive, I did.

Had a few days of chilling before starting, though. Nothing really extravagant happened, we went out one night to an all-you-can-eat-and-drink BBQ party, which was quite fun. Elle told me she would drink me under the table, I guess you can get a slight idea how that went, and who was under the table a few hours later… one simply does not out-drink a Swede (unless you’re Finnish or Baltic).

Found a coconut, and made a perfect crack in it to drink from it. Felt like Robinson Crusoe for sure.

I shopped around for a bit in order to find a dive school that suited me. There are like 15 on the island, and the prices vary quite a lot, too. In general it was cheap, but not quite as cheap as I had hoped. I took the cheapest one I could find, and it cost about 250$ so like 1700 kr. I’m not sure how much it costs back home, but probably more than double it to get a fair idea. Apparently, if you  come during low season, you can get it as low as 200$, which is a joke considering to how much you learn, how much you get to do and how fun it is.

The course started by us having to sign alot of papers saying that the dive school is absolutely not responsible for any kind of injury etc, signed this in a slightly shaky way since it had just struck my mind that my travel insurance does not cover diving accidents. Turns out it wasn’t much of an issue, really. In diving, security is rigorous; I have never done any education for an activity involving so many security procedures. If you follow all instructions – and don’t panic, ever – it is probably one of the safests sports around.

After like half a day of theoretical lessons, we finally got out to sea to train some basic skills. The sensation of suddenly being able to breathe under water is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. Will definately dive again in the future even though it is a really expensive hobby. Our teacher Pamela was very professional and we were also accompanied by two so-called Divemasters  – I’m not entirely sure what to call them but sorta like instructor assistants or something. We were four in the group – it was me, a really cool Swedish guy (first Swedish guy I meet on this trip, actually), this American dude who is one of the most hilarious persons I’ve met on this trip, and a girl from New Zealand. So, basically three instructors for four students – very good.

The two mentioned last had some problems with equalizing (basically the same thing as when you are flying, blowing out your nose while holding it to equalize air pressure) so they couldn’t go down to the 5-metre down sand patch where we were going to do the training. When the American guy finally managed to get down, he almost instantly panicked and inflated his life vest while on the bottom which makes you get to the surface very quickly and this can be very dangerous. He also repeated this at least one more time at a much deeper place which freaked out the instructors like hell, but it was fun to watch. I’m not blaming him – diving is actually a bit scary, especially when you go deep down. The NZ girl had some issues as well, don’t know exactly what it was but I think it had to do with fear as well.

After this skills-dive, we got to make our first real dive at this really cool coral reef spot. We saw alot of cool, aquarium-style fishes with amazing colors and vibrant patterns. This course is very intense so at this first dive we actually went down to 12 or 16 metres which I felt was perhaps a bit quick. When we had been down for a bit, I was breathing from my regulator but all of a sudden felt like coughing. Got a bit freaked out and thought I had gotten an asthma attack or something, but I managed to stay calm and after a while everything felt normal again.

A glimpse of sunshine

Scuba unit ON!

After this second dive, we went back to shore. I was so cold, definately the most cold I’ve felt since the last time I spent winter in Scandinavia, in 2007. Took the whole night to warm me up again. Thing is, when you’re diving you’re under water for so long that almost regardless of the water temperature, you will experience some freezing when you get back up. That the wind was blowing at hurricane strength (or not not really… but strong enough) added to the heavy rain didn’t really make it better.

The next day the rain was too heavy so the diving boat couldn’t even leave the shore, but the day after we went right back at it. Theory for a few hours and then out diving again. We went to this really cool spot called Black Coral Wall, don’t really know how to describe it except for that it is, well… a black wall of coral. Sort of like a mountain side where you are swimming on the side of it. I met a few of the diabolical creatures that I encountered in Belize – moray eels – and they were of course as aggressive and evil as always. The next dive included some emergency training etc, and after this we were all certified as Open Water scuba divers! We celebrated with beers etc.

It kept on raining cats and dogs but I managed to have quite a good time anyway. Met quite alot of cool people, and all of a sudden there were tons of Swedes around everywhere. In general I had the idea I don’t like to meet people from my country when I’m travelling, but recently I’ve come to senses on that. What’s nice about travelling in Central America is that as opposed to what it seems like in Thailand and related destinations, you will never find that half or even a fourth of the people in your hostel is from Sweden. Although, it is actually really nice when you actually do. I always feel that a few inches of my personality goes lost when I am talking in my second t0ngue, English. When I’m with nationals, I suddenly feel that everything I’m trying to stay gets across all of a sudden, even very fine nuances. You also share the same cultural heritage, watched the same tv-shows, etc, which prepares for interesting conversations.

Sunset over Utila, Bay Islands

We were going to this water tower to watch the sunset but we were met by this sign

I had stayed on the island for about 11 days and that was really enough for me. I sometimes get this island fever thingy, where small islands feel smaller and smaller the longer I stay on them. Thus, I fled (once again). Travelling on the early 05.30 boat, I eventually managed to get all the way to the Salvadorian border far down south in one day. It was about 12 hours of travel, but worth it. Honduras is nice but something I will leave for another trip – it’s interesting but the attractions are, as I may have mentioned earlier, not that different from Guatemala, and the country itself feels fairly bland in some ways. Might come back one day, though. On the bus I met a really cool guy from Honduras who had lived in the States for like 11 years and I showed him some Swedish hiphop and all that. Came to this quite dodgy border town on my own quite late at night and had my first night of watching TV since I left home.

On it was some sort of Honduran game show – it was some sort of bizarre dating program, there were like 10 girls, and 3 guys, and then the guys had to choose which one they wanted to kiss after the girls tried to convince them to choose them after doing stuff like talking about their dream partner as well as doing a striptease show. Then the guys had to chose who they did NOT want to kiss, until there were only 1 girl left for every guy. Then everyone kissed the girl they had chosen for themselves and the show was over. Sometimes Latin American culture is very very strange.

A perfect breakfast, Honduran border to El Salvador. Litchie fruits, Cantaloupe-melon, fresh mango, a banana, an apple, a newspaper with the latest, grisly murder stories from Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, good views, and... first and foremost, THE SUN!

The next day I crossed the border without any hassle. One nice thing about El Salvador is that they are using American dollars as their national currency, which makes it much easier to keep track on your budget etc. Not like I did follow my budget, still, but well… in theory it is easier!

Will write one big post about my adventures, ups and downs in El Salvador. Right now, I am writing from an internet cafe in Leon, Nicaragua. Just got here yesterday, gonna do some party etcetera. From now on, will try to write blog posts about once every week, since these last two posts have been abit hard to write since many details have passed my memory a long time ago.

Also I guess it is more fun for you guys to read stuff that is happening right now and not a month ago.

Holla!

Posted by: elgringoperdido | January 19, 2010

Volcano beaches & moustasches

We did the whole bus journey from Flores, northern Guatemala, to Antigua in one go. It was a 12 hour bus journey since we were too greedy to pay 5 euros extra to get there in 9 hours instead. What a bargain. Oh well, on the 30th of December, I was back in Antigua, Guatemala in order to celebrate New Years there with some of the fellas I’d gotten to know back at the hostel.

Antigua bus station

Rediscovering an old hobby – fireworks – I got a bit overexcited and ended up wasting about 40 euros on it, but it sure was worth it! Got some cool movies of it but can´t upload them as of now. The most exciting was the German dude who tried to impress bypassers by instead of putting the rockets in glass bottles held them in his hand. Oh well, if people want to blow their hands away, it is none of my business, really. Black Cat hostel was completely jammed with people, every bed was taken and it was great fun for the most part of the night. At the time I hadn’t really encountered alot of Swedes during my travels and I was really surprised to meet a girl at the hostel who was from Sunnersta, Uppsala which is not more than a few kilometres from where I live. I wonder what the chances are on that, keeping in mind I had met like 10 Swedes altogether at that time.

Some bad events happened that night, nothing serious at all, but I will keep them to myself. I had an early night, getting home at like 01.30 in the morning. Even though when on the road life mostly rolls by in a smooth, steady pace without much issues, even when long-term travelling bad events, days or even weeks will inevitably occur.. 95% of my time spent during this trip has been excellent, but I have also occasionaly met dissapointments, lies and even deceipt. People you like will stay when you are leaving or go when you are staying, etcetera. The reason why this is inevitable is that you met tons of new people all of the time – many will grow to be your friends but there are also some that you will absolutely not click with at all. It’s not really a Nobel prize conclusion, but I do believe that all relations with other people, good or bad, will make your personality grow in one way or another.

Early on New Years day, I felt like Antigua was a finished chapter for me. Said bye to everyone and went to the bus station without really knowing myself where I was going. In the end, I decided that some beach time was on the agenda; the Pacific coast of Guatemala is located just a few hours south of Antigua, and followingly I decided that was where I was heading. Monterrico was the name of the place. I should have taken a shuttle bus or something since I wasn’t really suited for chicken bus travel that morning, being atrociously hung over and tired from getting just a few hours of sleep. The bus journey was OK until I had to change buses in Escuintla, the biggest city on the Pacific side of Guatemala.

On the chicken bus from Antigua - Escuintla. Look closely and you can see that the left volcano is erupting smoke.

It said in the guide book that Escuintla was slightly dodgy, but it says that about a lot of places in Guatemala, so it didn’t really put me off going. I got off the bus and immediately the simming, 32c humid heat hits me like a sledgehammer. Antigua is situated up in the mountains so jeans are perfectably suitable. Since I came from there I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and a pair of jeans. I died, basically. You could really feel the tension in Escuintla: instead of begging people would come up to me and practically demand money off me. I could see tourists weren’t everyday business there, people were staring and some crook-looking fellas tried to strike up a conversation with me. I kept on going and went into the police station to ask for advice. When they told me that the city wasn’t even safe on the main strip during daytime I decided I wasn’t gonna stay around for long.

Got on some sort of pickup heading to Monterrico and the first thing that happens is that some junkie/hobo sit down beside me and tries to force me to pay his ticket. I gently dismiss this and after some arguing with the other passengers he jumps off, giving me the eye and dragging his finger across his throat, signalling he wanted to kill me or whatever. It was actually the first time during my travels someone threatened me, and of course it was slightly scary. Anyway, the truck started rolling and I had an interesting conversation with a fellow passenger about his country, differences between there and Europe etc. I find it really interesting to talk to locals, even though it may at times be a bit hard to get under their skin and away from the common greetings and impersonal topics of discussion. It is quite obvious why – you wouldn’t really share your life with someone who just happens to sit next to you on a bus. Sometimes when you are travelling in this area, you are stunned by how little these people actually know about the surrounding world. They aren’t stupid, that’s not what I am saying, but you can really see what it actually does to people when they aren’t literate enough to read a newspaper. And they are poor – most people I’ve met hasn’t travelled more than a 100 km in any directions during all their lives. If someone at one point visited Honduras for the weekend, they are considered globetrotters. People drop their jaws when they hear about how I am travelling around the area, covering 9 countries in 4 months. The differences in what people can do with the money they earn is stunningly different from one place to another.

I came to Monterrico and immediately liked it alot. Monterrico is a classic beach weekend destination for local people from the capital city, Guatemala City, and has not yet become that popular among foreign travellers. I don’t think I saw a single foreigner the first day there. Somewhat of a change from Antigua, gringo magnet nr. 1 in Guatemala. Lots of people from the capital had been there for New Years Eve and as such the whole village was entirely filled up, finding a hotel room was like finding a needle in a haystack. After about two hours of searching, in the 32 degree celsius heat, I managed to squeeze myself into an overpriced hotel room in the outskirts of Monterrico. There was nobody there so I settled for some solo action. Met some cool guys at a restaurant and went out to a bar with them the same night. It was great fun and just what I needed at the time.

Two, three, four days passed by. I got a dorm bed in the only hostel and met some really cool Canadian treeplanters that I hung out with. The next day came some nice Swedish chicks we also hung out with. Days were filled with laying on the beach (which is made out of Volcano rocks so it isn’t that beautiful, really), eating good and socializing. Good times. Got some tan as well.

The Pacific side of Central America is very different from the Caribbean side, one of the differences being that the Pacific side has huge waves, which the Caribbean does not have. I like waves so I like the Pacific! The waves were like 2.5 metres tall so barely swimmable but we did it anyway. If you know how to swim and you aren’t drunk and don’t panic if you meet a rip current, you’ll probably be fine for the most part. I re-tried my old hobby of bodyboarding, too, and smashed myself even more. Later, we learned that some drunk Guatemalan drowned on that beach the same day… in general, it is wicked how people die all the time in Central America. Already seen 2 dead bodies.

We got to see when they let hundreds of these little fellas out into the sea from the beach of Monterrico. It was done during sunset so it was quite beautiful.

I’d like to talk more about Monterrico but there simply isn’t space enough. In conclusion, it was great fun, and I’m definately going back at some point in life. After this, I wanted to get up to the Bay Islands of Honduras pretty quickly, since I was meeting someone there (Elle). Had a quick visit at the ruins of Copán, west Honduras, it was cool since the ruins were really ornate and well-preserved, as opposed to the other ruins I’ve been to around here. Leaving Copán was somewhat of a relief – now there are no more ruins to see in C.A.! It sure is cool but it does gets very tiresome after a while.

I met some interesting people too. A French guy, probably in his late 50ies, had sold everything he owned and gone on a 2 year trip to Mexico/South America. He was already one year in, and didn’t regret his choice a single bit. Inspiring when people do that kind of stuff even though they may be caught up in the whole carousel of jobs, children and houses. Early the next morning, I set off to La Ceiba, in order to get to the island of Utila, Bay Islands already that afternoon The weather was shit, it had been raining for like 5 days and was going to rain for the next 10 as well. So the boat was cancelled, leaving me stranded in La Ceiba. It really felt like a dodgy place.

La Ceiba, Honduras

While Guatemala is usually considered the most violent country of Central America, during my month there I heard surprisingly few stories off bad stuff happening to people. In Honduras however, I stayed for like two weeks and heard tons of bad stories. Perhaps just by chance, but the country in general felt alot more tense than Guatemala in my opinion. People are slightly whiter, talk rougher Spanish (alot of rolling RRRR:s) and you see fewer women in traditional clothing. All men wear moustaches and probably like 40% have cowboy hats. Otherwise, Honduras is more or less the same as Guatemala. To me, already early on while planning the trip, it appeared to be the least interesting country in the region and to be honest, I didn’t really change that viewpoint after going. Oh well, back to La Ceiba.

It is supposed to have the best nightlife in Honduras but I really wasn’t in the mood to try it out. Got some weird infection that just wouldn’t go away. Made me feel tired and weak. I thought it was Malaria or Dengue Fever but to my dissapointment I guess it was just a cold of some sort. Also, as I said the town didn’t feel safe at all, constantly felt like someone was watching me from behind. Luckily, the next day I got on the boat to Utila… but more about that in my next post. See you!

Second post in a short time, since I barely got halfway-through what December had to offer me in ways of travel in my last post.

As I mentioned the last time I wrote, I was suddenly struck by an urge to spend my Christmas in the Caribbean, after hearing that terrible song on the radio.  Alas, so I did.  Big worms for early birds – at 07 in the morning the speedboat from Livingston, Guatemala headed out with destination Punta Gorda, Belize. Belize is not an island – going there by boat is simply the easiest way to cross the border from the south.

Belize is vastly different from the rest of the countries in Central America. It is the sole country in the region that has English as an official language, since it was a British Colony up until 1981. It used to be called British Honduras. Large parts of the population is black or of mixed race, and thus it is also one of the most racially diverse places I have visited so far.

Not like Mexicans or Guatemalans in general express much of a rush in daily life, but Belizeans certainly take this to another level. Everything, from everyday conversations to serving times in restaurants, is carried out at a slow, Carribbean pace rarely seen in above-mentioned countries.  Even the locals look on life seems different – gone is the seriosity often seen in for example Guatemalan people – and in comes a distinct, playful outlook on life that is reflected in many situations, from road signs to the attitudes towards soft drugs. For good and bad.

We arrived at Punta Gorda and my first impression was a feeling of dissapointment – I had thought that it would be more radically different than it actually was. Most of the population were Mayan and Spanish seemed to be the predominant language. However, I quickly understand that this was to due to the fact that this was… a border town. Stupid me.

The plan was to get straight to the Caribbean paradise island of Caye Caulker in one day, something that on the map seemed like an easy task but – as always – didn’t turn out that way. We (I was at this moment together with the Welsh dude, a Dutch girl and a guy from Zaragoza) missed the bus  to Belize City, which also led to us missing the last boat due to Caye Caulker that day, leaving it impossible to get to Caye Caulker before Christmas Eve. We shrugged our shoulders and decided to spend the night in Placencia, a peninsula some hours north of the Guatemalan border. It was supposed to have OK budget accomodation as well as some nice beaches – it was settled.

While on the bus, I was as always (not good) paranoid about my bags and kept on giving a glance at the back of the bus to make sure noone took my bags with them while squeezing out of the jam-packed bus at any of the bus stops. An old man saw my worries and told me off by saying: “Dont worry, mon! Here in BELIZE we treat tourists well!”. Allegedly, Belize used to have a very bad reputation regarding crime but also when it comes to general unfriendliness of the inhabitants. Much has been done, and is being done, to combat this and apparently it is going fairly well. As a curiosity, there is actually a radio station that starts every show with the sentence “Remember, Belizeans, be nice to tourists!”

We arrived in Placencia and it was quite a chill vibe. We got the cheapest possible accomodation and it cost equivalent of 30 skr or 3 euros a night. The house was virtually falling apart and there was no security what-so-ever – we really got to regret choosing this place in the end. But more on that later.

Chilled out cat in Placencia

A burger and the official Belizean beer - Belikin, mon! Placencia peninsula.

We went to the beach, it was fairly nice but if you start your beach tour of Central America on beaches like Tulum, Mexico or Isla Mujeres you really push your expectations up. On the beach we met a really peculiar fellow who certainly lived up to the myth of the Carribbean man. He spoke Patois (Jamaica-esque English) and his job (his only job, I reckon) was to walk around the beach and sell rum-spiked coconuts to tourists. Nothing wrong with that though – he could clinch a coconut in half with one hit – except that he had some trouble keeping his fingers from the rum himself. Basically his job was to get drunk on the beach all day, every day which seems like an excellent occupation. Him and his collegues would also try and talk up all the Western girls that happened to sit at the beach – the usual beach-bum activity. Seemed chill. He told me had clinched over 3 million coconuts in his life, most while working as the official coconut-clincher at a cruise ship.

The night went by smooth – I was too tired to do anything like drinking beer. When we woke up in the morning, we discovered that someone had been inside our room. The Dutch girl, Monique, had been half-way asleep, half-way awake and saw this guy looking into our rooms from the terrace. Then, she saw the same guy standing beside her bed. She thought it was someone who had moved into our dorm room so didn’t really react about it. Her alarm on her cellphone rang but she put it on snooze. Next thing she knows; there is no cellphone. This idiot had entered our room, where we all sleeping (four people!) and grabbed it from her, right next to her head in the bed. I guess you have to look for a ballsier thief. I mean, he must’ve understood he would get beaten up or something if we would have caught him red-handed. Luckily, I didn’t lose anything myself.

We set off early to get to Belize City before noon, where the boat for Caye Caulker was due. As a nice Christmas lunch, I had some sort of local specialty. It was a rodent of some sort, not sure which one, not sure I want to know. Hope it wasn’t rat. I’m not gonna fall for the cliche when eating weird meat and say it tasted like chicken – it tasted more like pork.

After a 45 minute boat ride, we arrived at Caye Caulker. It is really as close to the image of a Caribbean paradise as you can possibly get. White sand, palm trees and reggae playing everywhere. I’ve always wanted to go to the Caribbean so this was like a mini-dream coming true for sure. I was so happy to meet up with all the crooks I had gotten to know in Antigua, nicely enough the Quebec-Canadian guy Hugo reserved us dorm beds in advance, without us even asking for it. We got the last ones in the hostel – it was jam-packed with backpackers who had the same idea of an ideal Christmas as we did.

At the hostel we also met one of the girls who worked at the Black Cat in Antigua, who was there unknowingly of our arrival. Nice coincidence.
Caye Caulker is a really nice place to chill but there is not really that much to do there. I forgot to mention, but Belize is an incredibly expensive country compared to Guatemala or even Mexico. Most prices are equivalent or higher than at home, and then Caye Caulker is supposed to be cheaper than other parts of the country.

We passed this island while going to Caye Caulker, on the boat. Oh, I want to buy that house. Monetary gifts, anyone?

I guess "Betta no litta" means "Don't throw trash" in English

Don't know what the French-Canadian was up to in this picture. It looks suspicious, whatever it is.

When we were chilling and drinking beer at a beachside bar on Christmas Day, this guy appeared out of nowhere and started toasting reggae versions of various Christmas carols. He was not paid by the bar or anything, I think he just turned up randomly. There were alot of... characters on Caye Caulker.

Basically, if you want to do any activities in Belize, you’ll have to get ready to splash out.  I didn’t really do much activities while there. We mostly hung out, drinking beer and eating (fairly) cheap lobster. Not much to complain about, really… but not too much going on, either.  The only activity I did was to go on a snorkle tour on the nearby Barrier Reef (the second biggest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia), it cost me a lot, but it was worth it. We got to see lots of cool fish and I also confronted one of my biggest fears; that of Moray Eels (muränor).

Moray Eels are basically the most evil animal on the planet, it has no real purpose except of being vile in general and looking like something out of Jurassic Park. We saw a huge one, big like a damn Boa Constrictor, and of course it approached our tour guide as soon as it saw him, most likely in order to inflict a lethal bite or worse. The diabolic…. thing did not succeed, though. We also got to touch sting rays, that was fresh, I had like 15 of them around my ankles. It was a bit scary though since these fellas got huge stinger tails and the Australian national idol of Steve Irwin was killed by one in a bizarre accident some years ago.

We stayed in a hostel called Tina’s Backpacker Hostel in Caye Caulker. The hostel had the rumor of being a great party place, which I’m not sure if I can agree on, however we mostly hung out with ourselves since we were like 6 people in the group, usually then you’ll stick to yourselves for abit.

Tina’s is OK except for the fact that there is a thief at large there. Virtually everyone I’ve met who went there got stuff stolen; our room was OK though since there was almost always someone there. I won’t conclude there is an insider at work but when stuff is constantly stolen from dorm rooms that are locked with an individual key and the reception keep saying “it’s the fourth time this week people get shit stolen” and the staff shows absolutely no interest in helping people who gets relieved of personal belongings in their hostel it really indicates something fishy is going on.

Christmas in general was quite chill; the exception being Christmas Day when we all got presents from Hugo, the guy from Quebec. The Aussies were Jewish so obviously they got Jesus dolls and other Christian attire. I got a waterpistol, which I quite immediately filled up with cheap, Belizean rum attacking street dogs, random people passing by but of course mostly my own throat. We had a great time.

On the 27th, I left for the mainland with my eyes set on crossing into Guatemala again to see the great ruins of Tikal, and after that going down to Antigua again for New Years. Before crossing the border, I had a really cool experience at the Belize Zoo. It is supposedly one of the best zoos south of the US, it has only local animals but since these include stuff like pumas, crocodiles and jaguars it is pretty darn amazing. The cages are not really that closed off so you basically get close enough to the animals to touch them. In theory I could actually pet the jaguar through the net: most likely not a wise idea, though.

This may be the same type of animal I ate in that restaurant in Belize City on Christmas Eve

Typical Belizean humor... =D

You ain't gonna mess with this fella. Jaguar, big as hell.

The lens through the cage, 30 cm from a Puma

On the bus I met a Swiss girl, and together with two other girls we crossed into Guatemala the 28th. As usual the customs officials tried to make us pay a bribe to enter the country, but we refused and after some hassle they let us through. It is really one of the smallest things you can do when visiting a developing country – not to pay any sort of bribe. You really shouldn’t contribute to that if you have the language ability and time to refuse it.

We went straight to El Remate, which is located really close to the the ruins of Tikal, which is usually regarded as one of the best if not The best ruin site in Central America. We went on a tour, the tour itself was dissapointing but the ruins were not; it is truly amazing to see 70 metre tall buildings and pyramids that were built so long ago and since then have been lost in the jungle. What you want to do is to get there real early, so you avoid the tourist crowds. We went up at 5 in the morning, and thus we had the ruins mostly for ourselves for like an hour or two, which proved to be enough to avoid most of the Sombrero-wearing American tourists.

Alot of text for about a week of travel. As before, I try to be as detailed as possible, since this blog is really more for keeping my own memories of my travels written down for later reference, and not so much for other people. Still, I am really glad you are reading it, and keep commenting and liking on Facebook and here!

See you soon,

Rasmus

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