Friday, 27 February 2009

We love happy minutes!

Is Jackson, Mississippi, the friendliest city on earth? Based on our experiences, yes it is.

Our introduction to Jackson started on a super note when our Couchsurfing host, Lizzie Wright Super Space Ship (her stage name) happened to be in New Orleans and gave us a ride from our hotel door straight to her house.

She kindly took us for lunch at Mama Hamil’s, a fine example of the flavours, fat and bounty of Southern cookin’. While choosing between turnip greens, creamed corn, chicken dumplings and ribs, Tom said hello to the man in the chef’s hat in the kitchen. This turned out to be Bob - the fourth generation of Southern cookin’. He introduced us to Mama (generation number three) and she introduced us to all her friends. I felt a bit bad on Lizzie as she had to go back to work, but we weren’t allowed to leave until we’d exchanged contact details with Mama and promised to track down her distant love, “Somewhere near that museum,” in London. We were presented with a bottle of homemade barbecue sauce and left stuffed full of incredible food and hospitality. I don’t think they get many folk from out of the country around these parts.

My suspicions were confirmed as everywhere we went people met us with genuine interest. They wanted to know who we were, why we were in Jackson and wished us a good trip n’all. In a salsa class my painful footwork was quickly forgotten when I opened my mouth. A random guy who’d heard me in a coffee shop earlier stopped me in the street with a, “You gone and changed your pants,” introduction. And when we took our limping laptop to the local computer co-op, they have it a 'tweak', asked, “Where y’all from,” and let us go on our merry way without a fee.

Back home I might view such friendliness with suspicion - you just don’t do that in London. But having already met so many kind people in the States this was just taking it to the next level.

Sneaky Beans was the next level. The staff in this incredibly friendly coffee shop were fascinated by our trip and didn’t charge extra for a large, rather than small, tea, recognising that it was indeed only a bit of extra hot water. Such logic and charm. I’d seen the pants guy in here, Tom met the owner and chatted to most of the customers and a girl we’d met at a Zydepunks gig the night before buzzed over to say hello.

While I was blogging in Sneaky Beans Tom sneaked off for dinner. He came back beaming but looking a little confused. He’d just been bought dinner by the man in Lenny’s Subs. They’d just been chewing the fat over an Italian meat sub and when it came time to pay he just wouldn’t hear any of it.

Jackson is truly amazing. Free barbecue sauce, free tea, free computer fix, free dinner and so many genuinely friendly people. As the words of Lizzie’s latest song twinkle, “We love happy minutes!” and in Jackson every minute was happy. “Y’all come back now!”

Bookmark and Share


Thursday, 26 February 2009

Lonely Planet Travel Blogger Awards 2009 - Vote WISM!

We have been shortlisted in the Lonely Planet Travel Blogger Awards 2009. Hurrah!

A big Thank You to everyone who nominated us in round one - now we need your support again in round two.

In this final round of the awards the winners will be decided half by public vote, half by a panel of experts, so your vote counts!

Winning an award would give a huge boost to our efforts to promote the joys of slow travel and provide information to others who'd like to try it themselves so please vote for us.

To do so simply visit the awards website here, select '' in the best travelogue category and press vote. Thank you very much!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Fat Tuesday

The toilet queue in CC's Coffee Shop consisted of a red indian, a giant baby, a man in a pink silk tuxedo and top hat, a woman with a rubber ring around her waist, a real policeman and a male nun. Mardi Gras Tuesday is indeed fat, if not phat. It is Lost Vagueness on a city scale.

Outside the streets of the French Quarter were a hazy cocktail blur: two white trash girls posed against a dustbin lorry, a group of pirates played ten-pin bowling in the street, a man with eight nipples was feeding eight plastic babies and an alien on a bike cycled by. It was a Monty Python daydream.

I was on the verge of exhaustion having spent five nights on the beer and mezcal begging for beads. For beads is what Mardi Gras is all about. On Fat Tuesday I had to summon my last golden beads of energy to enjoy the mayhem. Tired, I had risen to the sounds of Mardi Gras TV. Watching all those people screaming for beads made my bead addiction twitch and I had to get out on the street.

Canal Street was rammed. Families had set up camp with chairs and so much picnic food that even Yogi Bear would struggle to get through it all. The Zulu krew parade, celebrating its one hundredth year, was advancing down the street, the people on the floats chucking out throws. Throws are the coveted beads or, on the bigger parades, better. The Zulu krew is famous for its golden coconut throws. I don't know what came over me but I became fanatical about catching throws. It was pathetic. There I was, a grown woman jostling and jumping above the eight year old infront of me to get those beads with a special glowing medallion or a giant plastic toothbrush. I had become a bead whore. But in my defense, so had the whole town. In the end I gave the kid the toothbrush, but I was hanging on to my beads! For someone who doesn't like Made in China, useless, plastic tat I was possessed. I needed beads, and no matter how many you have you always want more. I didn't need the beads quite as much as my bead-hungry friend Dan, but I still wanted beads. Collectively we grabbed 20kg of plastic beads, which are now being distributed at Dani Gras in The Saloon, Minneapolis (reuse, recycle etc.).

We tried various techniques to get beads thrown at us. Laying on the English accent and pleading seemed to work. However, the men on the floats wanted boobs for special beads and they were getting none of that, thank you very much, I'm British don't you know. No matter what Angela and I did (apart from bear breast) the boys always got more beads, even Drew, when he didn't want them. Tom was the Bead King with the winning method of doffing his flapcap madly in the air and proclaiming, "I say, excuse me, can I trouble you for some beads perchance."

On Fat Tuesday the beads were flying: From floats, balconies and locals handing out beads to the beadless. On the infamous girls-gone-wild Bourbon Street girls were going wild. Boobs were being flashed on the balconies and in the street in exchange for beads.

Music flowed down the streets. The parades were full of school marching bands and the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny were full of second lines. These impromptu brass bands strike up a jazz beat in the street and you can tag along waving a handkerchief, umbrella or just grooving.

Mardi Gras is all about consumption - beads, beer, hurricanes and hot dogs. It is beautiful to see a city so alive after such a recent tragedy, even having the gall to have cocktails named after it. Mardi Gras is exhausting all consuming - perhaps that's what makes it Fat Tuesday. I was warned before I went that I would leave with my tail between my legs, and that I did.


Friday, 20 February 2009

Louisiana - Bubba this, Bubba that

Another day, another city, and another regretful farewell to a town tempting us to stay and dawdle.

We were even sorrier to turn down the many kind offers from Austin’s friendly locals.

These ranged from borrowing our host's beautiful E-Type Jaguar and cruising the backroads to ‘going out to the ray-aanch' with another local 'getting loaded n’ going hun’in armadillos with my AK-47 and crazeee shee-eet. ‘

Another time.

Now we found ourselves in the company of another friendly local, a jovial local journalist called Kate, heading for the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and even more excitable than us.

We zipped along a quiet country road, past pecan plantations and water towers, their spindly shapes sticking out of the earth like grounded sputniks. Large hawks on sat brooding on fenceposts and the smell of skunk hung in the air.

We headed east, past ranches studded with oak trees, their bare branches silhouetted against the pale early morning sky. It was strange to be back in a world of seasons; oddly familiar and comforting.

We stopped at a roadside café, filling up on kolaches, Czech pastries, and 24 oz buckets of coffee, before hitting the road once more. The freeway rose up ahead of us and we ascended the flyover, its pillars baring the lone star insignia.

Back to the billboards:

“Get the trucking job you deserve”

“18 wheeler wreck? 1-800 Lawsuit”

“Cowboy. Your all -American dealer”

A couple of hours later Houston hove into view, its skyscrapers glistening in the sunshine, greased in Texan oil. The fourth largest city in the US, it took a good hour to pass through, and still Texas stretched on and on.

The scenery had changed by now into one dominated by petrochemicals, a land of oil refineries and chemical plants, powering the economy and poisoning the residents.

Flames shot from the top of tall chimneys; others billowed plumes of white smoke. We kept the windows wound up and grimly considered the fact that not for nothing is this region nicknamed ‘cancer alley.’

Finally the border came up and our first sight of a confederate flag, flying proudly from a house. Solong Texas, hello Deep South. Or rather, so Kate reliably informed ’Where Y’at?’

I was eagerly anticipating visiting Louisiana; it's a state with a distinctive identity all of its own, quite seperate from its neighbours and the US in general.

Food is always a good indication of such changes and, round these parts, the menu had turned distinctly fishy.

It was ‘Bubba this’ and ‘bubba that’, just like Forrest Gump had told us, before we pulled into Steamboat Bills for lunch.

Shrimp gumbo, crawfish pistolets, po-boys and drinks with more ice than a Greenland glacier. The accent was different too, with a liberal peppering of ’y’all’ in every sentence. This was cajun country.

Suitably sated, we picked up our first beads for mardi gras, the cherished souvenirs thrown out by floats and begged for by the crowds (purple for justice, yellow for power, green for faith) and headed on.

Lake Charles offered more refineries, along with rusty train trucks at sidings carrying ‘high grade octanes’ and the odd 'nodding donkey' pumpjack sucking up oil beneath the swampy surface.

Above them stood adverts for ‘’ and 888-IKE-CLAIM-4U’. Burning carbon and unnatural weather events: was the irony lost on them?

The freeway turned into a huge elevated section, soaring over swamps and bayous, Foot-thumping cajun music blasted over the radio and I started to mentally revise my French vocabulary. How do they pronounce the French words around these parts?

We soon sped over the Mississippi, a large bridge affording us views of state capital Baton Rouge, the capitol building in the foreground, flaring gas behind.

Lara changed the frequency and a preacherman came across the airwaves, mellow Hammond organ in the background.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniels in your hand” he smoothly purred, his speech speeding up as he continued, “it doesn’t matter if you’re about to snort a line of cocaine. Jeeeeeeesurrzz’ll save yer!’

He had worked himself up into a frenzy by now.

‘Hallelujah! Hot dang he luuuves yer!’

We left these reassuring words hanging in the swampy air behind us and headed on to New Orleans, ‘The Big Easy’.

Another raised freeway, this time water all around us. A cluster of tall buildings rose up out of it some way ahead: New Orleans.

We swept down off the flyover, their posts now bearing French-style fleur-de-lys and into the French Quarter.

Already the party was in full swing, and the parades were up and running. Time to gather a few more beads and, somehow, find a bed for the night.

“My friend can put you up”, Kate offered “We’ll put you in the bordello room“.

Welcome to New Orleans. Happy Mardi Gras!


Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Mission Mississippi: From mouth to source on a shoestring

Back in the U.S. of A, this time without a fistful of dollars. After eight months of glorious global travel our coffers are running on empty. With two months of travel ahead of us in one of the most expensive countries on our trip it’s time for a new tack: Mission Mississippi. We are going to travel from the mouth to the source of the Mississippi, with a few detours either side, spending as little money as possible.

Our first visit ten weeks ago showed us how kind and generous people can be in the States. Couch surfing and Craig’s List rideshare are our new best friends. As are all-you-can-eat buffets and thrift stores. Travelling on the cheap will not only help to spread our few remaining dollars, but will also spread the love, taking us to people and places we wouldn’t otherwise experience. We are going to milk this land of bread and honey and seize all the opportunities it affords, cheaply.

Couchsurfing is a global community of travellers and hosts connected by an almighty website and a desire to meet new people. You can search in most towns and cities and find from a handful to an army of people who are offering a couch (or bed if you‘re lucky) for free. That’s right - free accommodation! It’s a reciprocal deal and we will host travellers on our couch when back in Blighty.

Many Couchsurfing hosts are more than just a crash-pad. Like Hollywood resident and comedian Austin Blank (watch this space) who took us to hamburger joints, pizza parlours, sports and titty bars and gave us a real insight into the Los Angeles film and television industry.

Craig’s List
is a list of online classified adverts where you can do pretty much anything frompurchasing a parrot to hiring a handyman. They also have a rideshare section. Not knowing what would happen we posted an ad on the Los Angeles Craig’s List asking for a lift to Phoenix. Within hours strangers were replying offering their services. We ended up in a car driven by a mouldy microbiologist (or at least the socks on the dashboard and peanuts on the car floor were moulding) squeezed in with a college student who hadn’t been to sleep that night and a retired chap called Dick.

This merry carload knew how to work the system and do it cheap. We had lunch at Costco, wandering the aisles and filling up on the plentiful tasters. We learnt how that you can just wander in to a Holiday Inn and help yourself to breakfast, whilst making the most of their power sockets and wireless internet. We were also offered a bed by kind Dick. He lived in a retirement neighbourhood surrounded by six golf clubs - a part of America we simply wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Based on these experiences I believe that Mission Mississippi will succeed. We have a few friends to stay with along the way and I look forward to meeting more through Couchsurfing and Craig’s List. Travelling on the kindness of others will be a little more challenging, a bit more Internet dependent and whole lot more fun. USA on a shoestring here we come!


Off with the panama, on with the cowboy hat

Our time in Mexico was running out and Uncle Sam was calling. It was time to start the long journey back up north.

Goodbye to Campeche and the Yucatan. Goodbye to heat, humidity and hungry mosquitoes

We gleefully turfed out items from our overloaded backpacks, kit for the tropics we no longer needed: worn-out swimming trunks, sandals and sun cream, insect repellents and panama.

Our bus took us through the night through the states of Tabasco and Veracruz, sticky, flat and dotted with stubby palms, and back up into the dry, mountainous spine of the country.

Through the thin morning air we passed Mexico's tallest peak, Citlaltepetl (‘Star Mountain’), 5611 metres high, its summit crowned with snow, before sweeping down into Puebla, a city of 1.9 million.

We lunched in the zocalo, a bargain comida corida in one of the many grand old colonial buildings gracing the centre of this city with a reputation as the most conservative, Catholic and ‘Spanish’ city in the country.

In the shade of the square below shoe shiners perched on their high chairs, balloon sellers touted for business and large coaches passed by, the large banners hung on their radiators indicating their passengers were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, clearly gathered here from all over for a convention. Hardly anonymous.

I consulted the map and immediately wished I hadn’t: sixteen hours on a bus and yet we were now even further south and east than when we’d left.

Thanks to the enormous coastline of the Gulf of Mexico we had to head in the opposite direction, skirting around it, before we could head north and west.

We soon got to correct this, heading again further north before quickly becoming sucked into the massive urban vortex that is Mexico City.

It seemed to take hours to cross, battling through thick traffic and choking smog before finally the air cleared as we rose up onto a dry high plateau where the traffic thinned out and parched yellow fields and pale green cacti replaced the dense concrete jungle.

We sped past a long high ridges of rock dusted with snow and blocks of small houses, identical and compact. Each roof was equipped with a squat plastic water tanks, like rows of black wheelie bins.

The scenery became wilder as we climbed up higher. Pine trees grew in the cool mountain air and houses perched precariously on craggy slopes.

The rocks all around us looked hard and unyielding, their sharp edges defying the efforts of man to bend nature to his will.

It seemed an unwise place to build a city but that’s exactly what we found as rounded yet another bend in the road and Guanajuato lay stretched out below us.

Soon we were plunging through the subterranean streets, amazing roads carved out of the rocks under the picturesque city through skills acquired by plundering the rich silver seams in the mountains nearby.

Songs of praise greeted us through the walls of our hostel as the faithful gathered at the church next door, a suitably cleansing soundtrack to my morning ablutions, before we headed up a hill for views over the town.

As the sun set evening shadows crept up over the hillside, gobbling up the little concrete houses, a riot of colours against the dry brown earth.

The road called again and we headed further north, changing at Leon, a city seemingly composed of car showrooms, Pemex stations and American fast food restaurants.

On and on, up onto the bone-dry high plateau of the central highlands, a land of rocky mesas and bluffs where black vultures patrolled the clear skies and the sun beat down relentlessly on the low scrubby bushes.

Aguascalientes hoves into view and our tubby driver stopped to change a tyre and take on some more cargo. A pick-up backed up and three beefy looking blokes hopped out, one of them sporting a splendid, cascading mullet, shining with grease in the bright sunshine.

They unloaded several crates of an undefined product into the bowels of our bus, the driver looking on a little apprehensively. We were back in drug-running country, and checkpoints were becoming more frequent.

At one the heavily armoured soldiers broke with their customary laid-back approach and boarded our bus, insisting on searching all our bags, promptly yours truly to indignantly mutter under his breath about the Magna Carta, the infringement of civil liberties and besides quite what would this skinny English chap be carrying.

I stayed tight-lipped as the soldiers alighted only to be replaced by a gaggle of vendors. They swarmed on board, hawking refrescos and sugary snacks, a poor old-timer in tow, holding out his plastic cowboy hat and begging for change.

This particularly millinery curiosity, is very much back in evidence now we’re back in the north. Though they crop up all over the country, making for ceaselessly tempting photo opportunities they only really come out in numbers where the air is cooler.

There were seven of them last night in our restaurant in Zacatecas, crowded round a table, their owners brooding beneath them, fingering their moustaches and talking earnestly in low voices. It looked an important meeting, perhaps about corn prices.

Or perhaps, as Lara suggested, they were revolutionaries, following in the tradition of Zapata and Villa.

Zacatecas, our last stop in Mexico, is a city which welcomes you, as our guide at the local silver mine put it: ‘with open arms and a heart of silver’.

It seemed to live up to its promise; we found ourselves being frequently greeted politely by complete strangers in the street and cars always seemed to stop for us to cross the road.

It’s a city of grand buildings, great thick slabs of stone with a pinkish hue, many ornately decorated by silver barons who made their fortunes in the surrounding hills.

Again it feels different to further south. There’s no grid-pattered streets of colourful low buildings here - instead it looks a little more like home, with winding streets and tall, elegant buildings where shop names are framed rather than painted on.

More importantly for us we’re back in the land of gorditas (’little fatties‘), delicious little tortillas sliced in the middle and stuffed with cheese, beans and cactus.

Up north once more we are back on high-protein diets and we bid a fond farewell to the tropical fruits which we gorged ourselves on further south.

People up here seem to be bigger; it is uncanny how they seem to increase in bulk the closer we get to the US border, walking manifestations of the strong links we have seen throughout our trip between diet and topography.

Glowing away in our bellies the gorditas warmed us up nicely as we beat a path back to our hostel, shivering in the cold night air, the altitude (the city standing at some 2500 metres) and latitude leaving us struggling to reacclimatise.

It’s only going to get colder from now on as we head further north. Time to break out that nice warm cowboy hat once more...


Saturday, 14 February 2009

Pirates, discos and bagels: The joy of budget accommodation

We’ve covered a lot of Mexico in the last three days - 915 miles to be precise. We’ve moved from the sweltering flat lands of the Yucatan to the mountainous silver towns of the north. Spending so many hours (27 to be precise) watching dubbed films on buses is tiring business. We have therefore been lucky to find some gems of places to rest our weary heads.

We started in Campeche, a pastel crayon coastal town of blistering heat (too hot even for me to sunbathe), where the Maya traded before the Spanish invaded and pirates pilfered. We were staying in the Hostal de Pirata (I won’t translate). We were greeted by a skeleton in complete pirate costume, a chest of skulls with googly stuck-on eyes and two empty rocking chairs eerily rocking. How very apt. The owner was, however, not a pirate (he merely extorted 270 pesos (£13.50) for a night’s accommodation) but an architect. It was therefore a little unexpected to find ourselves stepping over one another in a tiny box room only a metre larger than a double bed with just a sliding screen separating our ’living’ space and the bathroom. The room was hot, and having the windows open only made it hotter. So we closed them and turned on the fan, which creaked like a pirate’s plank.

The hostel was creatively designed, albeit not with space for backpacks in mind, with a wonderful roof terrace. The views across the city to the sea were incredible, although it was too hot to even stand at look at them. To take refuge from the heat we would hide underneath the palm leaf shelter on the roof or stand in the street. It was too hot to be inside. Even though most windows in Campeche don’t have glass, only bars, even the locals found it too hot to be inside. So instead we all stood outside our respective pastel coloured doorway watching each other trying not to move for fear of breaking out in a sweat.

It was a relief to get on our air-conditioned bus and bed for the night. Bedtime viewing was Are We Done Yet? featuring Ice Cube building a house. If an ex-gangster rapper DIY film dubbed into Spanish isn’t enough to send you to sleep nothing will. I slept surprisingly well waking outside a restaurant near Veracruz where I stood watching forlorn cows (the ones with droopy ears) chew maize stalks before getting back on the bus and watching a film about Italians going to the New World to swim in milk with jumbo carrots. Or was I still dreaming?

We got off in Puebla, delirious and not looking forward to, but desperately needing, our next bed, which was in the only hotel with rooms available from the ‘basic’ range touting ‘dingy, dungeon like rooms’. Puebla doesn’t do hostels - the guide book descriptions led us to believe that you either get hell holes or the Hilton. We were therefore rather impressed by the Hotel San Miguel. It wasn’t a dingy dungeon at all, but instead a decorous disco palace. It was a time warp and we had just walked into the 1970s. The Hotel San Miguel had a lot of brown, a lot of Formica and a lot of gold trim. It was a treat. The lobby and lift played the Bee Gees and similar disco hits around the clock, moustachioed Mexican men lounged around on faux leather sofas smoking cigarettes and the lift had large clunking buttons that popped out when you arrived on your floor. I had one of my best night’s sleep of the whole trip here - the room was quiet and the floor length, brown curtains blocked out all light, we even had a (brown) reading lamp. For World in Slow Motion, this was hotel luxury.

Hotel San Miguel is not representative of Puebla. We shimmied out of the door and into a very sophisticated city. Puebla held onto Spanish tradition longer than most Mexican cities and you can see it in the buildings. They are tall and grand, many with ornate and tiled facades and wonderful arched colonnades. Scattered around the streets are seventy Catholic churches and the tallest cathedral in Mexico. With the highland altitude this city definitely felt cool in attitude and clime.
We were up and out early the next morning on a Primera Plus bus to Guanajuato. By choosing a different bus company we were hoping for a different selection of films (I’d actually seen the milk and giant carrots one before with ADO) and weren’t disappointed. Following a BBC wildlife documentary (oh yes!) we were treated to an Indian film - The Namesake. Irritatingly the bus arrived before we found out how the film ended. Such are the hazards of bus travel.

Guanajuato, as we discovered on arrival, is also known as the City of Kisses. No wonder then we had had such difficulty in booking a room on Valentine’s Day. So that is how we came to stay in a bagel bar, well not actually in it, but above it.

Again, slight trepidation upon arrival - there was no hostel entrance, just the bagel bar. Were we going to stay in the store room amongst sacks of flour? Was the hostel heated by boiling bagels? Such was our joy then when we were shown to our room, or should I say apartment. We were the only people staying in a grand old building with floor length windows and wooden shutters with a choice of three showers and a kitchen.

Bagel Cafetin is a gem of a place at only 250 pesos (£12.50) a night. It is stuck on the side of the Templo San Francisco - that’s it glowing on the right in the picture. We awoke in the morning to the sound of congregational hymn singing and the chiming of church bells. Very Sunday.

Luckily we hadn’t gone to bed late the night before, too tired from Digital Video Bus movies (DVB for short) and needing to escape the romance of the City of Kisses. Guanajuato is the most beautiful town we have visited in Mexico, with narrow streets, overhanging balconies and immaculate plazas it feels positively European. A very suitable setting for our romantic Valentine’s dinner of chorizo tacos on a bench. We did steal a kiss in Kiss Alley though, along with the other hundred or more couples queuing to get their picture taken (we refrained). Kiss Alley is so called due to two forbidden lovers who took rooms on either side of this street which is so narrow that their balconies nearly touched and they could sneak furtive kisses. They got caught of course.

The other alley way excitement in Guanajuato is the callejoneadas, which literally translates as alley-men but is nearer in meaning to wandering minstrels. This merry band of velvet bedecked musicians wander through the streets playing instruments (including a double bass) like Pied Pipers, with a merry band of tourists following behind. We tagged along until the point when they asked for tickets, then we scarpered. We wouldn’t be able to understand the stories and jokes anyway, and besides we wanted to get back to our bagel beds.

All three towns have been picturesque, all three accommodations quirky and accommodating and all three showers the best in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. We’re off early again tomorrow to sample Omnibus de Mexico’s film selection on the way to Zacatecas where I have high hopes for the Hostal Villa Colonial.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Yucatan - It ain't half hot

Excuse me while I melt. It’s hot. Ridiculously hot.

As I tap away on our laptop, writing this on a rooftop overlooking the historic port of Campeche, the wind whips around me as if someone’s pointing an enormous hairdryer in my direction, basting my body and slowly cooking me in this merciless heat.

There’s no escaping it. Down on the street the heat bounces off walls, incinerating our bodies with casual brutality; inside in our room it hovers just above our bed, making a mockery of the feeble efforts of our ceiling fan, noisily protesting its way to its last pitiful rotation.

I fan myself with my panama, glug down another gallon of water and remind myself that this isn’t for long; within a few days we’ll back heading back up north and suddenly diving for our fleeces once more.

High thirties to single figures in a matter of hours: such is the nature of Mexico’s varied climate and topography.

And I feel instantly cooler when I consider the climes awaiting us beyond that when we leave the tropics and return to the temperate zone of North America, a world of seasonal weather where many of our destinations next month currently sit freezing their proverbials off.

With this in mind we’ve made the most of our last bit of warmth as we’ve travelled across the steamy hot flatlands of the Yucatan peninsula.

A week before we crossed the border back into Mexico, leaving the piece of paradise they call Belize.

It was, naturally in this part of the world, a most relaxed procedure, Belize providing surely the most friendly border officials in the world and Mexico the most laid-back, where soldiers lounged against sandbags and tried to stifle their yawns.

They weren’t expecting to see any action, unlike their ancestors up the road at Tulum, where the ruins of an ancient Mayan fortified city crumble slowly on gnarled limestone cliffs above the Caribbean sea.

It’s in an almost impossibly beautiful location: palms swaying in the sea breeze as beautiful azure skies gaze down upon fine white powder sand which looks as if it’s been provided by Johnson's baby powder.

Onto it lap the inviting turquoise waters of the Caribbean, where waves break just offshore onto the reef and beyond, the waters stretch out over the horizon towards Cuba and Jamaica.

It stands in stark contrast to the tourist honeypot of Cancun, where half-built hotels await the end of the global ‘credit crunch’ and the offshore island of Isla Mujeres offers wall-to-wall triple T (tacky tourist toot) to hoards of wealthy Americans.

Disappointed, we swiftly bowled along the well-worn route to the mighty ruinsof Chichen Itza, arriving at dusk to a spectacular demonstration of quite why the former inhabitants chose this particular location.

The sun, a large blazing disk of orange sank below the purple horizon as the moon rose up opposite, it’s huge full face casting long shadows onto the walls of our posada.

We stood in wonder the next morning at the site, taking in the astronomical knowledge of the Toltec-Mayans who built this city.

The Pyramid of Kulkukan stands as a physical manifestation of the Mayan calendar, its stairways, platforms and top adding up to 365 days; the triangular shapes on its slopes cast shadows which, on the exact dates of the Spring and Autumn equinox mimic the path of a serpent creeping up and down the steps.

How did they achieve this? Some answers lie in a mighty impressive observatory which allowed them to track celestial bodies with great accuracy, giving the ability to measure time and determine important dates such as when to plant crops.

We gazed into the spooky depths of cenotes, natural limestone sinkholes, many of which connect right out into the sea, and which functioned as sacred wells for the Maya where they deposited the their dead.

And we visited the Maya’s own sports stadium, the ball court where two teams contested a form of proto-football and losing captains were sacrified (an honour, apparently - try telling that to David Beckham).

Once more we pondered on the fate of this incredible civilisation and the origins of the apocalypse that wiped it out.

A newspaper headline predicted similar catastrophes for our own contemporary civilisation as we entered Merida, ‘apocalypsis economico’ it screamed above usual gristly images of the aftermath of the latest police gunfights with drug gangs.

It wasn’t the first blood to be spilt in the capital of Yucatan state, where the buildings echo the long years ofSpanish rule and often serve as grim reminders of the horrors of their occupation.

In the city’s zocalo the Cathedral stands, built on the site of the Mayan’s former temple, the locals forced to build it out of the temple’s stones.

Across the square stands the remains of the former home of the Montejos, the notoriously brutal conquerors of the region.

The 16th century frontage remains, complete with a charming depiction of two Spanish soldiers in pointy helmets, brandishing halberds and trampling on the heads of subjugated Mayas - a rather graphic remainder, if any were needed at the time, of the consequences of any further resistance to Spain.

Still, they called the local beer after the infamous family (and rather agreeable it is too).

Other, rather more pleasant legacies have been left behind by the Spanish, from the colonnaded walkways and beautiful buildings to shaded plazas and intricately tiled walls and tables.

It’s incredible to think that these were not all a direct legacy of the Spanish themselves but rather the result of influences themselves acquired from centuries of Moorish domination in southern Spain.

North Africa in Mexico, via Moorish warriors and Spanish conquistadores, over the course of many centuries.

Not to be outdone the natural world managed to dazzle us as well, a visit to the coast of the Gulf of Medico at Celestun allowing us to explore the shallow waters of extensive mangrove-fringed lagoons.

This delicate ecosystem holds an abundance of wildlife, from ospreys, egrets and herons to crocodiles, white pelicans and kingfishers.

Stars of the show though are the flamingoes, some 15,000 of them, all dressed in the most outrageous, vivid shades of pink and orange, strutting about like anorexic Pat Butchers.

Already baking the thermometer ratcheted up still further, topping 39 degrees. No wonder the local Maya dress so lightly, the women wandering round in what resemble flimsy nighties, embroidered at the square-cut edges and all of them white to reflect the sun.

Heading back into town we passed through thick clouds of smoke drifting across the road, their source the fires blazing away on either side of us. No-one seemed unduly concerned - par for the course in these parts.

Further up the road the bomberos trundled past, seemingly in no hurry to dose them out.

We headed on south, making for the state of Campeche. Our bus passed little roadside cafes selling tortas and tortillas, and rickety shacks selling colourful hammocks made of locally-grown sisal.

We drove through little towns where squat, moustachied men pedalled front-laoding rickshaws through the small streets, and stopped at more army checkpoints where bored-looking soldiers chewed gum and casually checked bus and baggage for drugs and firearms.

A private yawned as he poured over bulging sacks of vegetables and battered suitcases. He earns a great deal less than the men of the drug barons; so much for the ‘war on drugs’.

Criminals past greet us as we enter our present location, the old town of Campeche, the ghosts of pirates stalking the streets they once terrorised in the pursuit of Spanish gold, silver and other plunder.

The attentions of buccaneers, Englishmen such as Drake, Hawkins and Morgan amongst them, compelled the Spanish to fortify the city with great bulwarks and battlements. They now encase a dense grid of narrow little streets, where colourfully-painted houses stand with their doors open in an effort to cool their interiors down.

In the sticky night air we slipped along the smooth pavements in a bid to cool ourselves down.

A policemen wobbled past on an old bicycle, his armour padding and machine glinting under the streetlights, wandering dogs barked at each other and a small electric van crawled past, delivering the ubiquitous five gallon water bottles to thirsty households.

We peeked inside them, the windows we pass by affording fleeting insights into others lives. A different scene played out in each one: raucous locals downing cervezas in a noisy bar; a lonely woman sitting in her dingy front room, with only religious icons for company; a family at a table, crowded round mole and tortillas .

Each room glowed with a green fug cast out by television as a football match played out between Mexico and their deadly rivals, the USA. A World Cup qualifier, the match has been billed as the ‘guerra fria’ - the cold war.

Shouts of encouragement and desperation echoed along the streets as the plucky boys in green went down lose 2-0. Sven failed again.

Back up on the roof, the keyboard feels as if it’s melting and I start dreaming once more of the cooler climes of the north. I hear it’s minus 20 in Minneapolis…


Monday, 9 February 2009

A Merry Mayan Dance

On a hairdryer hot night in Merida, Mexico, we stumbled upon what was billed as a ‘traditional Yucatan dance’ being performed in the plaza principal. But with a saxophone, a maypole and bottle of beer hats, this wasn‘t quite the traditional I was expecting.

Given that many of the locals are descended from the Maya, I, in my ignorance, was expecting something, well, traditional, perhaps with some drumming and colourful feather adorned costumes. What I saw, in contrast, was decidedly more eclectic. Perhaps this can only be expected in a region that was conquered by the flamenco dancing Spanish and even entertained the odd maypole-dancing English pirate. What we witnessed was obviously the new traditional dance of the Yucatan.

The girls were dressed in white nighties embroidered with gaudy, bright flowers with white high heels on their feet. The boys wore white shirts, trousers and sandals. On their heads it was panamas for the men and flower covered combs and hats for the women. Not quite as risqué as Strictly Come Dancing, but still pretty dandy.

The music was joyful brass band oompa; the kind that bounces you up and down for a while and then starts painfully pounding your brain.

The first few dances were decidedly Spanish in influence; I’m no Arlene Phillips but I’m sure I spotted a bit of pasa doble and flamenco in there. The girls coyly used shawls until the dances moved on the ’painted ladies’ section when they started shimmying. I was confused.

Then the fun really began. They brought out bottles of beer and continued to dance in pairs with the full bottles balanced on their heads. As if this wasn’t enough, they moved on to dance with trays of beers on their heads and then repeat the same dance standing on a box. What were they going to do next? Break-dance on one hand whilst balancing a full minibar on their heads? Not quite, but nearly as odd. They brought out a maypole! There it was in its multicoloured ribbon splendour looking entirely out of place in a sweltering Mexican plaza. But the dancers knew how to use it.

Where did these traditions come from? Did the Maya traditionally wear panamas, play the trumpet, balance beer bottles on their heads and dance around a maypole? Did the Maya really shimmy? Watching this confused all my notions of what traditional is in Mexico.

Did the collapse and suppression of the Maya totally wipe out their dances, or did the European invaders simply create new traditional dances? Can you create new traditions or is that an oxymoron? How many times do you have to do something before it becomes a tradition? My mother one day declared a new family tradition - tinned fruit and condensed milk for pudding on a Sunday. The tradition lasted the whole of three weeks. Does that count?

It was fascinating to watch history through dance, demonstrating how when traditions collide they create new tradition. However, history tells us that Mayan and European traditions and culture didn’t exactly see eye to eye. Even in the square where the dance was being played out history had previously danced its merry dance. The current catholic cathedral is built on the site of a Maya temple, and it was forced Mayan labour using the stones from their own temple that built it. On the other side of the square is the Montejo house, home of the Spanish conquistadors, with a tasteful façade of Spanish soldiers standing on Maya heads. Perhaps the drumming coming from the other side of the plaza was a protest song and not just some stoned hippies treating us to their bongo beats.

I’m intrigued to know when this boozy, floozy oompa stomp became a Yucatan tradition. It must have evolved over the centuries, but I want to know how did the original inhabitants, the Maya, traditionally dance? Then, if, as the Maya calendar predicts, the world ends in 2012, what will the next traditional Yucatan dance look like? A fusion of a drunken tourist two-step, techno-merengue twist and big band bounce, perhaps. And just what will they balance on their heads?


Thursday, 5 February 2009

How to…get from Belize to Mexico

Belize is a perfect holiday destination; sunny, exotic and friendly. Although there are only two main roads across Belize, we found it easy enough to travel around, well set up for tourists. However, when leaving Belize to go to Mexico we fell for a bus scam. So as a tip - don’t buy your bus tickets to Mexico from the Belize City Marine Terminal.

Two daily buses leave the Belize City Marine Terminal for Mexico - the San Juan travel agency minibus at 10:30am and a large ADO bus at 12:00pm. We bought a bus ticket from Belize City to Tulum, Mexico, for $30 USD from one of the many agents in/around the Marine Terminal offering tickets for the same price on the same bus.

We opted for the early bus. The ride was smooth, passing through tempting jungle and rivers and signs to quaint sounding places like ’Orange Creek’. We would have loved to stop but time and money didn’t allow. Instead we arrived in Mexico at Chetumal bus station, late, but expecting to carry straight on to Tulum.

At this point the San Juan bus driver disappeared, and when we went to the ADO ticket office we were told our bus ticket was not a ticket, just a voucher. We swapped it for a bus ticket that cost $10 less than the price we’d paid for it. We were then told that the next bus to Tulum was sold out and that we’d have to wait for two and a half hours for the next one. Humph!

So there was no direct connection in Chetumal to Tulum and we were sold a ticket at a highly inflated price. Don’t buy your tickets in the Marine Terminal! Just buy a ticket to Chetumal, Mexico, and make your own way from there - it‘ll take the same amount of time and cost you less.

You have to pay to leave Belize - $30 Bz (or $15 USD) for the “visa processing” fee and a $7.50 Bz Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) fee. Everyone pays the visa processing fee, but you only pay the PACT if you’ve been in the country more than forty eight hours. The exit procedure was quick and easy - as you’d expect for that price!

Entering Mexico was also easy. If it’s your first entry you need to fill in a tourist card, but if you already have one (as we did) you can just stroll right in, through customs with all your bags.
We left Belize with a longing to return. It is a great place to go and is easy to travel onwards to Guatemala or Mexico overland. Just make sure you don’t fall into the same bus ticket trap as we did.


Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Going slow in Caye Caulker

“Go slow” is the motto and mood on Caye Caulker, Belize. A perfect place, therefore, for the World in Slow Motion wanderers to wind down.

This is paradise found. Turquoise waters, palm trees, white sand streets, reggae and rum. This tiny Caribbean island - only 8km long - is home to under 2,000 Belizeans and seemingly the same number of tourists. They come here because it’s slow.

Feet rule the streets and are often without shoes. People wander sedately up and down the three central lanes, first class road users with priority over traffic. When it comes, traffic is bicycles and golf buggies, which give way to and dodge around the pedestrians. The street is slow. Men sit around drinking coco locos - green coconut milk and white rum - chuckling softly and joking with the folk walking by. People are always ready to stop what they are doing and have a chat in this town.

For the last few days from my vantage point on the top of Tom’s Hotel I have watched a man dismantling wooden lobster cages . He does it at a very relaxed pace, resting when the sun gets too hot, stopping when friends pass by on their bikes and playing when his children come to help. At his pace he can’t get through more than five a day, and he’s got a big pile to get through. Not to worry, there’s plenty of time.

The owners of Tom’s are also in no hurry. Like most guesthouse owners on the island they don’t know when guests are coming or going. They just wake up in the morning and work it out then - no reservations possible, leave it up to luck and see what the day brings. Sadly, despite his best efforts, they don’t give discounts to Toms.

It’s very easy to go slow on Caye Caulker. We have spent three days here doing…I’m not entirely sure what. We wandered about. Drank fruit juice on the jetty as osprey carrying silver fish flew overhead. Watched pelicans sitting on poles in the water watching us. Drank some rum. Listened to some banjo. Ate a lobster…

The highlight was snorkelling. The sea life of the Belize Barrier Reef is breathtaking: angel fish, grouper, snapper, sting ray, sharks and many more colourfully painted and named fish, all slowly bobbing around the coral apparently unfazed by the score of sunburnt tourists flapping and peering down on them from above. Even a hawksbill turtle was happy to be watched as he munched the sea grass for lunch.

The outward boat journey was unsettling to our leisurely pace, zipping along and crashing over waves, leaving me quite nauseous before we anchored. The teeming tourist snorkellers were equally unnerving, leaving me having to move faster than accustomed to dodge their flippers.

The journey back however, was slow. We hoisted the sails and glided. It was rather like a dream, sitting on deck in the Caribbean sun, sipping rum punch and gazing out as dolphins sashayed along side. I raised a glass to the setting sun and thought, this is the world in slow motion.


Monday, 2 February 2009

Belize: pink gins or coco locos?

Standing by a dusty jungle road in the blue pre-dawn gloom, fending off hungry mosquitoes and cursing the crowing cockerels, we waited for a bus which was more than a little behind schedule.

Once more I found myself questioning what I was doing. What was it that made me willing to crawl out of my comfortable cocoon at such an offensively early hour?

I was still struggling for an answer several hours later as we bumped along a pitted road as the sun climbed lazily into the sky.

It was only when the road ended abruptly in a small collection of ramshackle huts that it came back to me. It was a border crossing and we were leaving Guatemala and crossing over into Belize.

Belize. Suddenly my grumpiness melted to be quickly replaced by eager anticipation. The Caribbean! Sunshine! Big smiles! Paradise beaches!

Even better than all this we’re entering a country which finally speaks in a language I can understand, for here in Belize, unlike anywhere else in central America, English is the main spoken language.

Strange. Thousands of miles from home and six weeks into Latin America and suddenly I find myself speaking my own dear mother tongue. Shakespeare! Wordsworth! Morrissey!
How could this be?

Well it’s a story equally as colourful as the country itself, with vague and twisted versions abounded but, in brief, it seems to have happened thus:

Thanks to the exploits of a few honest pirates, some plucky adventurers and frankly insane logcutting ‘baymen’ this tiny piece of central America came to be coloured in pink on the map, another odd part of the global jigsaw which once was the British Empire.

Like many wax-moustached imperial romps it seems to have occurred more by accident than design. The various aforementioned ner do’wells dwelt in the swamps and lagoons of this piece of what was, at least nominally Spanish territory, much to the purported rightful owners ire.

Despite Spain’s best attempts to claw back their territory these doughty fellows held out, stubbornly withstanding the might of Spain rather like the indomitable Gauls of Asterix’s village defied the Romans legions.

Though tacit at first, the British government soon found itself lending support to these buccaneers and rascals, quickly embroiling itself in rather an embarrassing situation, repelling the furious advances of Spain’s embassies at home and navies in Belize.

Eventually, following a bit of a skirmish on the cayes the British found themselves, almost reluctantly, in possession of a new little bit of real estate bordering the sun-kissed shores of the Carribean.

They soon set out their task of bossing people about whilst wearing knee-length socks and pith helmets and generally anglicising their new little tropical garden, calling it British Honduras in case anyone forgot who it belonged to. Oh and they made sure that everyone spoke English, for the future benefit of homesick travellers.

Fast forward to the present and although Belize has a different name and has been a fully independent nation for nearly thirty years I wondered, as we crossed the border, does the colonial hangover still linger?

There were certainly still some symptoms: besides the language there was the Queen on the currency and, as our bus set off into the Belizean interior (along the Western highway, one of only two roads connecting Belize to the outside world) we spotted red fire engines, village associations and post offices.

It was threatening to morph into some weird, sun-baked version of 1950s Britain, mutated by the Caribbean sun.

I half expected to bump into a retired colonel, resplendent in double-breasted blazer, cufflinks and panama, pink gin at the ready. “Are the papers ironed yet, Jeeves?” Surely at least, I’d be in with a shout of a decent cuppa (certainly the greatest deprivation I‘ve had to endure on this whole trip).

But this was Belize not Britain, and soon the country proved to be something quite, quite different. And very beautiful to boot.

We trundled through a gently rolling landscape of lush green hills, thick forest, coconut palms and banana plants. The villages were small and straggly, full of white clapboard bungalows, some on them on stilts, all with corrugated iron roofs painted red or green.

Signs advertised crocodile parks and attorney-at-laws. They pointed to places with new-and exotic-sounding names: ‘Spanish Creek‘, ‘Duck Run’, Iguana Creek’, ‘Roaring Creek’.

There wasn’t much on the road and what there was seemed mainly to head in the other way. It mostly seemed to be composed of a curious mix of either lycra-clad cycle touring groups, out for a Sunday speed, or British army convoys headed for jungle adventures.

What little else traffic there was our driver appeared to know personally, greeting approaching cars with a casual wave of the arm or a brief shouted exchange of greetings.

It was peaceful and relaxed, no-one moved fast in the blazing sun. A woman hung out washing on a rickety wooden front porch; vultures scavenged at a dump; Land Rovers stood for sale at a grassy car lot; a huge trailer rattled by, stuffed to the brim with oranges.

Somehow I could feel the Carribean ahead of us, just over the horizon, tempting us on with promises of white sands and tropical waters.

It didn’t take long in coming: we whizzed past Belmopan, the smallest capital city in the world (population 5,000), past mangrove swamps and ‘Gentle Ben’ boats, small skiffs with large fans on the back to power them across the shallow waters, and into the raffish port of Belize City, set on the edge of the twinkling, turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

It was more seedy than seductive. Large blokes in grubby vests lounged around munching on chicken and rice, chomping through thick slices of watermelon.

We took a stroll up towards the seafront, the heady whiff of marijuana drifted across the swampy air as we tripped over rusting cannons and admired fading old white clapboard houses, the peeling paint on their white picket fences dating from the days when Belize City was the capital.

Eyeing up the lovely Lara, ‘taxi’ drivers rumbled slowly past in creaking old pimpmobiles, offering to ‘drive you to airport mon, cheeep. Airport? What’s one of those?

It was scruffy but intriguing, and none more so than the people. As a result of its colourful past and vibrant present the various cultures which have adopted Belize as their home present a list of ingredients which together add up a heady cocktail which is uniquely Belizean.

First, to make your base, take a liberal helping of the indigenous Mayan tribal people, the original inhabitants of the region.

Next mix in a generous drop of Creoles and a jot of Garifuna, most of them descendents of slaves brought over from other Caribbean colonies.

Add to this a good splash of Ladino (itself a good mix distilled over 500 years of breeding between the descendents of the Spanish conquistadors and original Mayan inhabitants) and let it settle.

Then, to give the cocktail a European twist add a few English pirates and logging prospectors, before chucking in a handful of East Indians and other (former) colonials.

Finally bring your cocktail bang up to date with Westerners gone to seed and a new good dash of Chinese and Robert’s your Mother‘s brother.

Some of these groups have become gradually familiar to us as we have headed along our route, others have appeared suddenly and visibly.

Take the Creoles for instance, who suddenly appeared as we crossed over the border. They’re much larger than the Maya over the border, and speak an entirely different language.

Though based on English it sounds rather different than standard home counties, spoken in a wonderfully rich, lilting accent, seemingly unchained by rules.

I’ve always made an effort to communicate in the local lingo (invariably to little effect) and so took the trouble, when reaching this country to consult the appropriate section of my guidebook.

What I’ve found is a whole different ball park. I can’t even attempt this - surely I’ll sound like I’m taking the mick.

Try saying this for instance:

Eksyooz mi, weh di poas aafis deh?

Apparently this means: Excuse me, where is the post office?

Or this one:

Ah gat sohn doti kloaz fu wash

(I have some dirty laundry for washing)

Could you keep a straight face?

It sounds even more bizarre when spoken with a Chinese accent.

Chinese? Yes there’s Chinese people here. Lots of them.

Indeed the first thing we saw in Belize was a clutch of Chinese restaurants and ‘lucky‘ stores, straggling along the road into the country.

And the first thing we saw at our destination, the idyllic island of Caye Caulker was a bunch of Chinese shops.

What are they doing here? The locals furrow their brows and mutter about them ‘buying up the country’. I hope they make a better job of it than back in Yangzhou.

For now any approaching sino-apocalypse seems a long way off, particularly as I kick off my boots, feel the sand beneath my feet and take in the scenes around me.

The sun beats down on the shallow blue and green waters of the Caribbean, surf breaks on the coral reefs offshore and pelicans, frigate birds and ospreys fill the blue skies.

Reggae booms out from the bars by the shore and barefooted tourists stroll slowly down the car-free streets; dreadlocked locals greet us with big toothy grins and invite us to try their coco locos. We pass by a sign with the island’s motto displayed on it: ‘Go Slow’ (surely this is the spiritual home of World in Slow Motion) and I wonder: is this paradise?

A beach towel hangs from a nearby shop nearby; the slogan emblazoned across it reads: ‘Ya better Belize it!’


Sunday, 1 February 2009

How to…get in to, around and out of Guatemala

Getting in
Guatemalan immigration is so relaxed that we had to ask for an entry stamp at the Cuauhtemoc/La Mesilla border crossing from Mexico. There was no fee and we just strolled right through. Most tourists don’t need a visa to enter Guatemala and will be given a ninety day tourist stamp on arrival.

We were on a shuttle bus from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, that dropped us off at the border and transferred us to another bus on the other side where we continued to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan.

Getting around
Shuttle buses are the tourist speciality in Guatemala. The travel agencies know the places that tourists want to go and provide direct buses between them. All the towns we went to (Panajachel, San Pedro del Atitlan, Antigua, Coban, El Remate) had plenty of tourist agencies where you hand over your quetzals and get collected and delivered door to door. The service isn’t quite as efficient as the price would suggest; we found that adding two extra hours onto the quoted journey time was nearer the truth - mañana is a popular word and attitude in Guatemala. The tourist shuttles are easy, but are nowhere near as cheap nor as atmospheric as Guatemala’s famous chicken buses.

Chicken buses are brightly repainted American school buses - old, rickety and polluting - but cheap as chips. Good for short distances, but notoriously painful over long distances - bucket seats, no suspension and black fumes belching in through the windows. They are also considered unsafe by some (including the British Foreign Office who don’t allow their staff to travel on them) as robberies and murders are a possibility. Indeed, the tabloid papers are full of daily reports of bus drivers shot dead in Guatemala City - often because they drove through the wrong zone or didn’t pay their dues to the gang lords. You can take your chances and many people we met had travelled across the whole country on chicken buses without incidence. Anyway, isn’t a tourist bus richer pickings?

Chicken buses are being phased out and already in some parts of the country the only option is between a public minibus or a tourist minibus. Most travel agencies will fix you up with a shuttle bus (minibus) or you can go to the local bus terminal and talk to the drivers until you find the right minibus to your destination - the timetables seem to change regularly.

Large first class coaches plough selected routes. We travelled with Monja Blanca from Guatemala City to Coban on a bus resembling Dukes Travel in the eighties. Not the swish first class bus of Mexican standards but fit for travel. We were joined by a colourful bunch of Guatemalans, some in indigenous huipiles and stripy skirts, many in cowboy hats and one lady with some chickens and vegetables wrapped up in a bundle. Do chickens on a bus make it a chicken bus?

We were fortunate and travelled across Guatemala safely, as did all the other travellers we met.

Getting out
We took a shuttle bus from El Remate to Belize City passing through the Melchor de Menchos border crossing - the only land crossing between Guatemala and Belize. We were stamped out of Guatemala and asked to pay a twenty quetzals fee (£1.80). This is, apparently, a municipal fee to fix the muddy, potholed road that, apparently, “the tourist chew up”. When I challenged the charge, having been told that there should be no fee entering or leaving Guatemala, we were told that it was “nothing illegal” although, conveniently, the chap in charge of producing receipts was having a day off. The road really did need fixing though.

The entry to Belize was easy and efficient. British citizens get a one-month tourist stamp on arrival. We were then questioned by customs in indecipherable pidgin English as to whether we were carrying any fruit, vegetables or alcohol - negative - and suddenly queen Elizabeth II was looking up at us from the banknotes. Adios Guatemala!


A Frenchman and a Beetle

World in Slow Motion is always happy to welcome other contributors and we’re delighted to post this entry by Hugo, a jolly nice French chap who’s pootling across the length of the Americas in a VW Beetle in a quest to promote greener, cleaner fuels.

We bumped into him back in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, and he had some interesting things to tell us about his trip, the H2 project.

I’ll leave it to the man himself to explain it in his own words…over to you Hugo:

“The H2 project is the result of a bit of craziness, the desire to fulfil a childhood dream and barely disguised ambition.

The project aims to drive a VW Beetle all the way from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Sacramento, California in a in search of adventure of the least-polluting kind.

I’ve decided to travel across Latin America because it is a unique opportunity for me to discover a part of the world that I’ve always wanted to know better, especially its music, its colours and its people.

Even better, I’m doing it in a fun way, my arse comfortably (?) set in the seat of a Volkswagen beetle.

Besides having fun en route the H2 Project has a serious purpose, the main goal being to raise public awareness about cleaner and greener alternative fuels for cars and to persuade governments of the urgent need to develop them for the mainstream market.

The H2 Project derives its name from the chemical formula of hydrogen, now widely accepted to be the clean fuel of the future. Hugo and his team, like many others firmly believe hydrogen holds the key to a brighter, cleaner future energy would be free, clean and 100% renewable.

In line with this the H2 Project is a quest for the best clean, renewable and economical fuel available.

With my own car, I initially intended to convert the car engine to work with hydrogen, however experiences have led him to change his mind and seek to acquire an electric engine.

I now aim, through the H2 project, to share my experiences and proposed solutions with whoever cares for the earth and wishes to do something about it.

For any out there who are still sat on the sofa, have a read of "To breathe and die " by Mema, a member of our team.

Follow me in my adventures and don’t hesitate to take part in them yourselves by letting me know your own experiences of using hydrogen/electricity-fuelled vehicles or travelling across Latin America, whether it be from in front of a computer screen or behind a steering wheel.”

Read more about Hugo and the H2 project on their fantastic website here.