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Tijuana, Batopilas, Tegucigalpa, Medellin, Iquitos: just some of the exotic, strange — and at times downright dangerous — destinations passed through on this riotous overland odyssey through Americas central and south. It’s a savage journey that takes Mark from Los Angeles to the Amazon — through Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras, through Nicaragua and Costa Rica and Panama, through Colombia and Ecuador and Peru. On his ride into the dark south of the Americas: a failed revolution, a spewing volcano, a drawer of cocaine; and a surreal succession of encounters with an assortment of characters normally avoided — Scientologists and shamans and narcos. He risks his freedom, his sanity, his life. By the end, he at last finds a point to it all: he goes far to find…
PALENQUE TO GUATEMALA CITY
A man the size of two men, biceps as thick as my neck. He’s at a desk, on a chair large enough to be a throne, staring at me squirm on the sofa. My butt is sticky with sweat from the faux leather. His henchman, who forced me to come to this dingy room, is stood beside him, doubling the sullen eyes on the prey. Door closed. Blinds drawn.
“Pay,” he says, his expression emotionless, the perfect poker face.
I say, “I’m not paying.”
The more I protest, the less English he speaks, the more bullying his attitude. He soon speaks only Spanish.
I glance at the door: I could make a run for it. But the door may be locked, and I don’t know where I can run to. I’m in the middle of nowhere, on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. And on the other side of the door are men with guns.
The room grows smaller with each second, slowly crushing my defiance. But I have some left: “I’m not paying,” I say again.
He scowls, says, “No pagas, no te vas.” Don’t pay, don’t leave. Said with an absoluteness that permits no argument.
Gatekeeper is used as a metaphor; he’s a literal one, in charge of this gate out of Mexico. He won’t let me leave until I’ve paid £20 for a tourist permit. But I paid when I entered the country. He knows I’ve paid: it’s impossible to enter Mexico without paying. Under the pretence of officialdom, I’m being mugged. He knows I know there’s nothing I can do about it. He’s the judge, the jury. If I continue to refuse, he’ll tell me to sod off. It took me four hours to get here. To get to another border crossing, I’ll have to return to Palenque and travel four-plus hours south from there — where I may have the same issue. Or he’ll plant drugs on me. Not a sizeable amount — it wouldn’t be believable for me to traffic against the northbound tsunami — but a gram or two he could get away with.
“Can I pay by card?” I ask.
“Can I get a receipt?”
I pay. I’ve no choice.
I call him a twunt as I’m leaving, wrapping it up with a Merry Christmas — “Feliz Navidad, you twunt.” — to avoid suspicion. It’s a safe insult, I think — surely he won’t know that? Then I panic that he’ll Google it, so I quick-walk off — as fast as I can go without running — past pickup trucks with cargoes of people, past loiterers primed to prey. Over the line into Guatemala, it’s time to do, not dwell. The country behind is dumped, forgotten in favour of the new, its flirting and promises. Fickle like that are travellers, promiscuous.
From the border at El Ceibo, a minivan to Flores in the north of Guatemala. The station there is a frenetic jigsaw, its many pieces in motion. Dust rises from wheels and footfall; people cover their face, cough and splutter. Some spit, some piss on walls. Shoeshiners struggle for silk purses from pigs’ ears; the shinees on wooden thrones, paupers playing princes. A guard outside a shop — one selling day-to-day items not diamonds — shotgun slung about his neck. Pilfer a pack of Oreos: BANG. You’re dead. I’ve no such protection. It’s a sad state of affairs when you’re worth less than a pack of Oreos. Cries of “Aqua, aqua. Fruta, fruta.” Others stick their head in minivans to peddle socks and batteries, medicines and fireworks. Someone’s selling a framed picture of a woman posing sexily on all fours, a waterfall photoshopped in the background.
I board a minivan bound for Sayaxche, south of here on my screenshot of a map of Guatemala. The distance on the map isn’t far, but the terrain between there and here is unknown. How long it will take, I’ve no idea: an hour or seven or twelve. I don’t mind. Days like these on the road are some of the best on a trip like this; thinking and observing, channel-surfing, catching glimpses, flashes, bits. I’ll ride until darkness draws down a veil, then bed down until sunrise. Where I don’t know; I’ll deal later with detail. No need to stress: always a town of some sort or size, always a hotel, a store. I won’t sleep on the streets. I won’t starve.
The van is buggered. One window cracked like a snowflake, stuck with sellotape. Strapped to the roof are suitcases soiled by the decades; also bicycles and sacks of all sorts, tied tenuously in place. My bag is on my lap. Any bigger and it would need to go on top, exposed to thieves, to the elements. It’s the litmus test for those who say they travel light: if you’re not comfortable with your bag on your lap for hours, it’s not light. Seats soon full. Plastic stools put in the aisle — soon full too. Several stand. One with a chicken; a live one, its feet and beak tied. Quetzales go out through windows; plates of tacos come in. Others buy fried slices of bananas or strawberries coated in chocolate. Crumbs tumble from mouths, adding to those already on the seats and floor. I’d pity the person who had to clean this van if such a person existed. We cruise about town with the door open, scouting for extras. Somehow squeezed in, another four children and three chickens. A butt nudges my face; a baby sucks a breast, close enough for me to suck the other. A girl sings Christmas-sounding songs. I’d prefer a Christmas-sounding silence. All but me are locals. My blue eyes give away that I’m not of this parish, that I’m a wanderer wandering, but no one’s bothered about my presence.
I’m taking a locals’ colectivo — rather than a tourist shuttle — to hide in plain sight. Desperadoes, I reason, are less likely to hijack a minivan of paupers than a busload of foreigners. Still, to be on the safe side, I have money stashed all over: various pockets and parts of my bag — even down my sock. A thief might empty my pockets and take my bag, but steal my socks, surely not. Paranoid? Maybe. But with reason: Guatemala is ranked as one of the twenty-five most dangerous countries in the world. It’s fifth for gun-related deaths per 100,000 people. Weapons are abundant; gangs operate unchecked. An assassin can be hired for less than £100. Police are overwhelmed: A force of 30,000 for a population of seventeen million. 90% of homicides remain unsolved. The past scars the present: endemic violence a legacy of the civil war that ravaged Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. Torturing, kidnapping, murdering. The police, the military, the government as guilty as anyone. At the end of the war, an amnesty was granted for even the worst crimes. No one was accountable.
As bad as it is in Guatemala, it’s far worse in Honduras — twice the murder rate of Guatemala. And El Salvador — three times. I’ll have to pass through one of those on my route south through Central America.
Out of Flores, a tropical landscape unblemished, as green and wild as Mother intended. The largest settlements barely stretch back from the road they straddle. Hardly a building is higher than a storey. Huts for homes, shacks for shops. Walls of wood; roofs of steel, of thatch. Some are concrete, bland and grey as the day they were built. Homes to be lived in, not looked at. To the residents, these communities are coloured and intricate, but what can I see in a passing second but that which is obvious, and what is obvious is poverty. It’s more like India than Mexico. Mexico was more like the US than here. Breadline living, basic as can be, is the norm for Guatemalans: 55% live in poverty; 29% in extreme poverty, on less than £2 a day.
The road dead-ends at the bend of a river, the Rio de la Pasion. “Coban?” I ask the driver, the next town on the map.
He points over the river.
A motor canoe ferries me across. On the other side is Sayaxche, a town of dusty roads running at right angles, of bumpkin commotion and bumbling disorder. Vans come and go; none set for Coban — their destination known via a sign in the windscreen or the shout of the driver. There’s no ticket booth, no timetables. Purgatorial waiting ensues. It could be an hour, could be three. I may end up sleeping in Sayaxche. This is travel: A series of faltering transitions. Uncertainty is what you sign up for.
After a time, a driver breaks from yelling a destination that begins with R to ask me where I’m going.
“Coban,” I tell him.
He doesn’t understand.
I tell him again.
He still doesn’t understand but tells me to get in the van.
I get in.
Coban doesn’t begin with R, but I don’t have to go to Coban. What is it to me but a strange name on a map? On this journey of long-distance aimlessness, wherever I am is where I’m meant to be. Each place is as worthy as any other. So on I go, on the move towards an uncertain destination, a destination that’s only a destination until it’s reached; then it becomes a departure.
After two hours, the van stops at a crossroads. The driver tells me to get out.
“Here?” I ask, gesturing at nothing. We’re not in a town, not even a village.
“Si,” he says, and more I don’t comprehend.
I get out, hope the part I didn’t understand was that vans to Coban, or to somewhere, will drive by, pick me up.
A van does soon come, from the direction the previous one sped off to. It stops for me. “Coban?” I ask.
It’s packed beyond capacity, of course, but I jump on board anyway, not wanting to chance getting stuck at this spot. This van also has a cracked window; the difference is that it’s the windscreen, the width of it. The interior panels are missing; the sliding door at times slides itself open. The only thing in good shape are the speakers — blasting eighties synth-pop. The driver’s in a rush — they all are. He tries to overtake a truck on a bend, failing to see another oncoming at full throttle. Catastrophe narrowly avoided. He does the same again at the next bend. And this with a phone to his ear. The woman beside me starts a conversation, asks me where I’m from, what I think of Guatemala. My review of Guatemala is a thumbs-up. It was either that or a thumbs-down. It’s difficult to be nuanced with your thumbs.
This leg is on a remote stretch of road through Alta Verapaz, the greenest and wettest region in Guatemala, where on steep slopes sprout coffee and cardamon; through villages of indigenous communities: women wearing brightly-hued blouses, babies stashed in slings on backs. A man leads a mule laden with firewood. Livestock wanders loose. The road rises and falls as it passes the densely-forested mountainscape — summits masked by mist. The rain just falls, obscuring the driver’s view; as does the steaming of the windows. With the rain, the steam, the crack, and the stickers of Christ, visibility is 10%. The relentless downpour drenches bedraggled villagers who trudge roadside through muddy puddles that are fast forming streams, turning crater-sized potholes into swimming pools. None of the villagers carries an umbrella; a few use bin bags as cagoules.
Coban is drab, of no note; and Salama, the next stop, nondescript if you’re generous, dreadful if you’re not. A place to come to go, and the next place to go is the capital: Guatemala City. A bus this time, not a minivan; a so-called “chicken bus”, to be precise: a decades-old school bus, a hand-me-down from Big Bro up north. At the end of their shelf life in the States, they’re sent south for a new lease of life as a psychedelic-painted death trap. Besides a coat of paint, this one’s jazzed with cuddly toys and a sound system that could hold its own in Ibiza. An eclectic playlist: sugary ballads to pulsing techno. Why bus drivers insist on playing dancefloor bangers, I don’t know. No one on a bus wants to dance. What they spent on the sound system, they should have spent on the suspension: my organs are rearranged. School children weren’t meant to be driven at such speed. Haste to race ahead of other buses — to be first to pick up passengers — and also to thwart attacks: Gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 govern here. They enforce extortion schemes; charges levied per bus per week. Pay or die. Passengers are at risk as well, which is why the UK Government’s official foreign travel advice for Guatemala includes: “Avoid travelling on public buses (repainted US school buses).”
The sun has set by the time I reach Guatemala City. A murder rate fifty times that of London. And even that is understated: The police don’t count it as a homicide if a victim leaves the crime scene alive but later dies from the injuries. I want to hop on a bus to Antigua, 45 km away, but this is the northern bus terminal, and all the buses here go only north — where I’ve just come from. I ask at the information counter about hotels near the station. They say there are none, that I need to get a bus to the city centre. I board the bus they tell me to, the Transurbano; the others on board are mainly blokes, expressions chiselled to fuck-you. Scummy suburbs sprawl, dimly-lit shantytowns tacked onto slopes, run-down buildings, rusting vehicles. Heads pop up and peer, then quickly disappear, like urban whack-a-mole. Sinister weasels scuttle between cinder block boxes, skulk in the shadows. I’m close to panic: One of the deadliest cities in the world, and I’m riding a bus at night, no idea where I am.
Half an hour passes with me staring through the mucked window at signs that don’t speak to me, thinking I can’t get off here, or here, or here. I’m still hoping for a Starbucks or McDonald’s — something that signals it’s a safer spot than others — when the bus stops and everyone gets off. It’s the last stop. No choice but to walk, but to where? Asking randoms where to go will show my hand, out me as lost and alone to them and anyone around. Fine in a rural town in the day, not in a homicide hotspot at night. If I hail a taxi, he’ll ask which hotel, and I’ll say any hotel, and he’ll think I’m a mug ripe to rob. And he’d be right. So I stand on a corner and look up the four streets, assess which has the most life, and walk down that one. I do the same again, and again, and again, follow the flow of people; past beat-up buildings and glowering doorways and gutters choked with garbage and shops that have their fronts barred like cells; past scraggy mutts and scrawny children in scruffed clothes, their glassy eyes focused on the faraway. Street stalls take up a chunk of the sidewalk, causing knocks and bumps. I brace for a brush of the pocket, the sly steal; ball my hand in a fist, ready to strike. Twice I’m asked for money; one moves his hand down the back of his jeans. A knife, an itch: I don’t wait to ask; I run.
I see a hotel — Hotel Reforma — as shite as a hotel can be; I head for it. In the foyer is a waterless fountain; a Christmas tree, somehow wilted even though it’s plastic. The room is a film set for a suicide. A lightbulb blinks sallow light on a soiled bedsheet, a 2009 calendar hangs. Television bolted down; toilet roll holder padlocked. Through papier-mache walls: voices, music, horns, dogs, and the dull thud of a football being kicked — at one point, a hellish scream. Anything, though, at this time, will do. If all they had free was a dog basket in the backyard, I’d say, “Looks great; which corner do I crap in?”