Thursday, June 05, 2008

Guerrillas, Freemasons, Rastafarians and me: 60 days in Central America

I was just too tired to meet Subcomandante Marcos, masked revolutionary/spokesperson for Mexico's Zapatista movement, (EZLN). Besides, he's notorious for standing people up. My trip was already Jewel of the Nile-meets-Blood Diamond, and I wasn't going to go trekking blindly through the backwoods of Chiapas, after a 24-hour bus ride from Mexico City, to add a documentary to the mix. I needed to catch my flight home and sleep for a very, very long time.

It was nice of the Italian indie film-maker to invite me along, especially since this was potentially the most important event of her career, an interview she'd been trying to arrange for months. I'm sad to have lost the web address she gave me. Now, unless she makes it big with her film, I'll never know what I missed.

The whole thing was hush-hush, but I guess she trusted me because, weeks prior, I'd accompanied a group of Mayan Guatemalans to Honduras with Rights Action. We'd been interviewing human rights lawyers, health professionals and locals about environmental and health problems in areas where the Canadian company, Goldcorp Inc. operates (which had plans to expand in Guatemala).

I was pissed off, because (a) meeting kids with heavy metal poisoning sucks, and (b) all Canadians own stock in this company because our pension plan invests in it, and (c) I had no answer to the Honduran reporters' question, "Why does Canada allow this?" (Read here for the full story and pictures.)

While I complain a lot about Honduras - it being the only country in which I've been shot at AND accosted by pubescent boys (a veritable one-stop-shop for travel hazards) - after seeing what Canadian companies do there, as an unofficial ambassador I think I had it coming.

Off-duty after a final chaotic press conference, and with another month of travel ahead, I set out in search of my luggage, lost by the airline nearly two weeks earlier. Their nearest office was in neighbouring El Salvador, where I suspected my backpack might be. Getting it myself was my only hope I realized, when an airline rep asked to confirm that Honduras was indeed a city in Japan.

Just inside the border of El Salvador, with $5 in my pocket, I realized my bank card is only accepted in its major cities, and I wasn't anywhere near one. That made travelling alone and without a credit card all the way to the capital, San Salvador, a helluva lot more interesting.

First, I bought bags of water (the cheapest, not tastiest), bread and a few tomatoes, then I counted my change and hopped a decommissioned U.S. school bus-turned-public transportation (the cheapest, not safest) confident that, in a country with a per capita income of $2,656.90 (2006), I could make the trip on less than $5. Eight buses, ten hours of informal Spanish lessons, a few ounces of baby puke on my arm and several half-hearted marriage proposals later, I arrived in the capital with change to spare.

I was still doing the I'm-so-hardcore-I-rock-so-hard-at-cheap-travel dance at the United Airlines office when they delivered me my backpack (which, filthy and torn, clearly had a rougher trip than mine), and quickly switched to the I'm-so-smart-I-found-my-bag dance.

Intending to kick back and relax in tiny-town Tacuba, before meeting a friend in Guatemala and heading to Mexico for a friend's wedding, I ended up playing tour guide instead.

Habitat for Humanity had a new group of keeners in the area, and the family-run tour company was all out of English-speaking guides, so they asked me to co-guide and translate for a five-hour hike in Parque El Impossible - a great opportunity to pretend I know more than I actually do, and convince innocent do-gooders that everything in Central America is poisonous, for my own amusement. "¿Que dijiste?" asked the real guide.

Having firmly established my "in" with the family, I spent the next two days running errands in the back-country along the Guatemalan border where their helpers lived, and balancing first-hand accounts of the recent civil war from both guerrillas and soldiers. At the end, they offered me a job, so I left patting myself on the backpack.

Fast forward through two weeks of bus-travel, marred only by the presence of a Christian youth group, vomit, fire, mudslides and a suspected pedophile on staff at The Spring hotel in Guatemala City. We made it to Mexico in time for our friend's wedding, where she now lives with her artisan husband, a witch. Apparently, it runs in his family.

Among the wedding guests was her new friend, a relatively famous Belizean artist (a Nicaraguan refugee, whose family sent him to Belize when he was nine, after a nasty run-in with a land mine that claimed a toe, part of his sternum and a playmate or two). Always a sucker for the insider's view of a country, I accepted his invitation to Caye Caulker (where he was working on commission for local moneybags) to help with customer relations, my specialty. So, I packed a few things, and we caught a bus to Crazytown. I mean Misogynyville. I mean Crackcocainetonshire. I mean Belize.

I knew before we left that he was a Freemason and an alcoholic, but not that he was a temperamental, paranoid ex-Rastafarian and barely recovering crack addict with connections and debts to Belize's most loathsome. No, I didn't know any of that until I got there. But so goes Central America. If not for his straight-edge Japanese wife and her ass-kicking mastery of martial arts, he'd be lost.

"Don't ever, ever tell anyone what you are about to see," he demanded one evening, after a long day of painting and complaining that, for a woman, I was too bossy, and then carefully arranged an altar for some sort of Masonic ritual. What happened next was so overwhelmingly ridiculous to me, that I opted to just cover my head with a towel and wait it out. The crescendo of barks and moans made it difficult to think anything but this: If guys like this can actually tap into the powers of the universe, that explains a lot about the current state of the world.

I thought that a few times during my stay on Caye Caulker, and I didn't sleep well. Partly, because I had a healthy fear of everyone I met, and partly because the caged parrot outside my hotel room made sex sounds from sunrise to sunset, occasionally throwing in a "pretty bird" for good measure. The parrot knew the island's vernacular. I was surprised it didn't try to sell me drugs.

When I left, I did so declaring that someone would have to kill me to get me back there, and promptly regretted saying it out loud. Stopping only for Chinese food in the Free Zone (between the borders of Belize and Mexico), I caught the restaurant owner shoving wads of cash into a stuffed animal, averted my eyes and ordered the Belizean favourite, fry fish [sic].

The next day, I took a few antacids and jumped an internal flight from the army base in Chetumal to Mexico City, to make the final milk-run home to Canada, and that's when I met the ecstatic Italian filmmaker at my hostel. While I knew meeting the masked revolutionary, Marcos, would be an "experience of a lifetime", I wasn't sure I needed another one of those so soon. Not to belittle the Zapatista movement, but I opted for a long, hot shower instead.


Bob Stein said...

Such a versatile line, this "Don't ever, ever tell anyone what you are about to see." It only got a few column inches out of you, but those are precious. I must practice saying it straight-faced.

Kate Savage said...

Yes! He should probably have said it more on this trip, but a Masonic ritual is as good a time as any!

Wyliekat said...

Someday, I'm going to have to dig far enough back into the archives to figure out what exactly it is that you *do*, besides have well-written accounts of hair-raising travel experiences.

Kate Savage said...

First, thank you :) Thank you.

While I'd love to force you into the dark alleys of my blog, partly to validate having spent so much time writing it all down, I'll make it easy for you. Or, is mystery better?

Maybe I should just write a real "profile" description.

PR. I'm one of those behind-the-scenes PR people who write speeches, website copy, letters etc., and I take odd jobs and short contracts (avoiding 9-to5 as much as possible), tally my cents and run. Then, like in this entry, I do little things like accompany Rights Action and assist that nutball artist with customer relations (you can imagine how challenging THAT was! Holy crap. Yet, still better than a job in a high-rise downtown.)

The corporate thing did NOT work out for me. I started wearing jogging pants and sleeping all the time, until my friends organized an intervention, I put in my notice and two weeks later, found myself in Mexico.

Haven't figured out how to stop, really :)

Wyliekat said...

Odd that we're in the same industry. Or maybe it's not odd. But yeah - I've done that. Still do, though it's much more corporate than what I used to do (Politics. Don't ask. Ugh.).

I'd love to try and do more freelance stuff as well, but the market here just isn't big enough. And at the end of the day, I haven't the energy to pound the pavement for stuff.

So yes - jealous. Very jealous.


Kate Savage said...

Oh! Funny!(And I am tempted to ask, but will do that at YOUR homebase!)

Don't be too jealous. It's sometimes my head I'm pounding to the pavement.


I'm Kate... said...

You are such a bad ass! I love your travel stories. I've been to Honduras, but under military protection. The airport was sketchy for sure, and the 30 min bus trip to the airforce base was the bumpiest ride I've ever experienced. I saw plenty plenty of "Jesus for President" spray-painted signs - but no close calls with bullets whizzing by. Very interesting country though....

Again, GREAT POST!!! I, too, am jealous!! :)

Kate Savage said...

Wow! What a compliment! Thanks, Kate. It's fun to put everything that happened in one trip together in a story. It was, really, quite the trip, though.

Bad ass.

I am just going to repeat that to myself, over and over. :)

Military protection? What the heck were YOU doing there?????