2 weeks ago I agreed to meet Clive in Utila on February 1st, I spent the first of those weeks in Oaxaca having a whale of a time and I spent the second week cramped onto bumpy, noisy buses. Well it’s not quite that bad, it went something like this.
Despite all I’d heard about Chiapas I’d only left myself two days in this southern state of Mexico, awash with the natural beauty of blue waterfalls (something Terri had seen on Bing.com and put on my To-Do list long before I came) mountainous lush green hills and remote coastlines you Englanders can only dream of mixed up with indigenous tribes, hippy “alternative” moderners and small town life. Fan-frigging-tastic!
However I had only two nights in a brilliant hostel in San Cristobal, the first as a CouchSurfer and the second at a discount rate for CouchSurfers. The hostel, run by Rob and Rebecca (Calling her the many names for Bex I have made me think of sister Becky several times a day ), was the first hostel I stayed in in Mexico and it made me realise that as great as couch surfing is it’s not necessarily better (or worse) than staying in a hostel.
CouchSurfing vs. Hostels
CouchSurfing is like living in the town for a short while, you follow the routine of your host which usually revolves around a job, family time and hanging out with friends. While they’re happy to advise you on and may visit some tourist destinations with you it’s not the focus of their lives. In a hostel, however, you meet other people in the same boat as you. With the same excitement to discover the town and visit the churches and museums. They’re travelling, so they have recent tales of plans made and plans changes and very up to date advice on travelling in places you may be planning to go.
La Posada del Abuelito
Rob and BeckyBoos were also travellers who have just settled down to run a hostel for a bit, combined with the knowledge of all their guests they have a huge wealth of know-how to share and a passion for sharing it in front of the open fire available to guests at night. They’d already booked me onto a tour to some Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages they’d heard good reviews about when Rob came and said he was in the progress of putting new tour together and would I like to come for an experimentary price. This new tour was to some other, less visited villages, a cemetery and a coffee plantation, a little pricier but included a coffee plantation!
We left at 10am, picked up outside the hostel in a minibus. There were 6 of us, plus the tour guide (and driver), his brother and his sister in law who were coming along for the lift home, since it was their family plantation we were to visit.
After about an hours drive we hopped out to see the cemetery. At first it looked like any Christian cemetery with a scattering of graves of various sizes and decorations marked by crosses. However with a little explanation we learned that the cross represents the 4 cardinal directions (and the 4 corners of the Mesoamerican universe) and the colour of the cross tells you how old the person was when they died. I forget the specifics, but it was something like blue under 18 year olds, red for 18-65 and white for over. At the top of the the hill stood a small forest of huge crosses, built bigger each time the Spaniards managed to pull them down.
Back on the bus for another hour and we were in the second village, there were a few people about nattering in their local language walking here and there. I had a short wander while Rob went off in search of food, returning 10 minutes later having been served by a woefully unfriendly shop assistant. We snacked on tortillas with beans and a tinned tomato sauce, actually far tastier than I make it sound.
On the bus again for another while, I’ve actually forgotten all the specific times so when I said an hour previously I just meant some time. The third village we spent just as little time but it was far more interesting. High up in the mountain in the village square was a church the Spaniards had built before the villagers said “No Thanks” and kicked them out. The building is now used both by those who did take up Christianity and by the locals who now use Coca-Cola for their ancient “Burping up the evil spirits” rituals, sitting huddled around a candle just behind the rows of pews.
Our final destination as to the coffee plantation, another short schlep on the bus with a photo opportunity en route had us in the middle of nowhere. On the far mountain you could see a highway climbing up the side, but in every other direction was trees and more mountains. We crossed the fence at a small opening and followed our guide down, and down. After going down and along, passing some cow, crossing a river, closing a gate behind us, entering the next village and ducking under some bushes we came across a few small buildings and lots of coffee bushes.
We started at the start, as is usually a good place to start, and learned about collecting the coffee beans, removing the husks (later used for fertiliser), cleaning them and drying them. We met the bushes and the fruit trees planted between them to add flavour to the beans (citrus usually) and to control the temperature and humidity (often mango).
After a lengthy and enjoyable lesson we were invited into one of the buildings – which turned out to be the kitchen – for some freshly made tortillas and bean soup and, of course, a nice cup of coffee.
After walking back up to the road, where the minibus had been waiting, we had a well earned snooze on the 2 and a half hour drive home, watching the sun set as we arrived back in San Cristobal.
Back on Track
Moving swiftly on from San Cristobal I threw 450 pesos at Rob and hopped in the Minibus which arrived for me the next morning which would get me to Antigua, Guatemala one way or another. A little risky, perhaps, but I had faith in Rob and it turned out to be a fantastic trip. I was in the small van with a couple of Dutchies, two Israeli electrical engineers (who were living in Canada), a Swede and a few more I’ve unfortunately forgotten. That’ll teach me to leave blog-writing so late eh?
We snoozed and chatted for about 6 hours until we reached the border where we were churned out and each fumbled our way through the stamp giving office before being picked up effortlessly on the other side by another guy and minibus our driver was pointing at. I’m in Guatemala!
The second bus was equally comfortable and had the atmosphere of back ally cafe trying to be a pub. The hours passed with the odd toilet break before we were suddenly split! At one of our toilet breaks a 4×4 truck pulled up next to us and some body swapping went on. We swapped our Israelis – bound for Xela – for a couple of Frenchies and continued on to Antigua.
We arrived shortly after sundown, when asked everyone called out where they wanted to be dropped off and the driver did the rounds. I wasn’t sure since my communication with Guate had been a bit vague, so I stuck with the Swede and told sent one last text with where I’d be. I was just finishing up the last of the 5 type of Guatemalan beer I was working my way through when he and his sister entered. 2 years of waiting, I could finally deliver the hug I’d offered Guate last time he was in London!
They stayed for another beer, I mentioned I’d read about a place selling “Israeli Falafel” and suggested it would be a good place to catch up with an old friend made in Israel. Sweden joined us (Not quite in place of Mr Hermansson!) for what turned out to be a tasty plate of humous and falafel balls.
The next day Guate took me to two very good museums on the Maya (one nearly resulting in an expensive copy of the Popel Vuh and the other massively fuelling my desire to do some weaving), the night was spent in a busy but nice bar meeting Guate’s friends. My plan is to return and spend most of April here while I get some work done, and I can’t wait to be hanging out with these guys every week
The last leg
At 4 in the morning, after a measly 2 hours sleep, I woke Guate and hoped he still felt up for driving me to the bus station. Lucky for me, he did! I bought a ticket and waited the extra hour for the bus – the lady on the phone had said 5, the lady at the station said 6. I sent Guate home to finish his sleeping, made a failed attempt at buying some bread and boarded the bus.
That was a long, long bus. The book said 8 hours, the guy next to me said 6. 11 bumpy, noisy, smelly hours later with a few toilet stops at paperless (and in one instance waterless) shacks and a short visit to immigration as we entered Honduras we alighted in San Pedro Sula. I was blessed to have made friends with a French Canadian lady who had some idea what was going on, and so directed me to the next bus (which she was also getting, though alighting earlier).
This bus was far nicer, quiet and comfortable enough to get some sleep. Upon arriving in La Ceiba – from where I can catch a ferry to Utila – I shared a taxi to a hostel with a French couple, the Banana Republic (listed as the “only decent hostel in La Ceiba”) was full according to the guy at the door, but surprise surprise the driver knew a guy who had a brother who’s friend ran a hostel “right on the beach”. He didn’t mention it’s also in the western side of town, which is run by gangs and you are advised against visiting. The hostel was comfortable, and at that time of night I didn’t notice the lack of a kitchen and the Internet.
I spent the next day in La Ceiba looking for some bits Clive had asked me to pick up (Black Duct Tape and a 12v Battery Charger), being Sunday everything was closed so wandered around the town before I moved to the now completely empty Banana Republic Hostel. I have nothing to say about La Ceiba, the Parque Central was boarded up, I spent a couple of hours online in a petrol station and the rest reading about the handful of nice places which are all closed on a Sunday.
Finally in Utila!
Getting to Utila was far easier than I had feared from that office chair in Coatepec. With a lot of help from Lonely Planet and a good bus network it was easy, if uncomfortable at times. After popping to the electrical store for Clive I caught a bus which delivered me to the 9am ferry. At 10:30 I met Shell, from Reading, in Captain Morgan’ss Dive Centre – the most unnecessarily friendly place – where I could hang out, leave my bag, enjoy a nice glass of cold water and borrow a phone to call Clive. I had an hour until he arrived, to I set about finding the 650USD for my boat contribution. With a few Limperas from each ATM and a few from the bank teller and some advice from Shell I found the guy who changes money and was all ready.
Hanging out back in Captain Morgan’s Dive Centre I used their Wi-Fi to update my Google Latitude to keep the mother happy and very soon met Tom. Soon to be my favourite Israeli aboard the boat, she had joined Clive a few days earlier and soon thanked him for finding a Hebrew speaker for her.
So here begins my adventure with Nuthin Wong, the 50″ Chinese Junk from Canada.