Thursday, December 03, 2009

English Roses

I was sitting on a bench in the Shopping Centre (here in the UK we shop in Centres, not Mauls.) eating my humble, flat sandwich from a cardboard box. I was wearing shoes – how strange to look down and not see my toes – and a thick coat. How strange. Sitting on either side of me were two overweight women. When I sat down I received disapproving and faintly resentful stares from them both. I am not sure whether it’s my fading tan or my waistline that sets me apart, but I definitely have the feeling I am not “one of them”. Or perhaps that’s all in my head.

Strolling all around us are many more overweight and obese people – there’s more fat people and more elderly people here than I’ve seen in a long time, on the other hand, there’s a noticeable absence of pregnant women.

I see an angry woman marching purposely towards our bench; she is red-cheeked with fury and dragging behind her a young girl of maybe nine or ten years.
“I had to get out of there before I lost it and hit her” she announces to all of us. I wonder which of the women sitting next to me she knows.
“We were waiting there for 20 minutes and then she just pushed past me! Some people!”
I realise, uncomfortably, that she doesn’t know any of us. The woman on my left says
“It’s ever so crowded today.”
“I know! Twenty minutes we waited in that queue! Twenty minutes! And my girl was ever so good!”
The young girl is pulled forward to be displayed to us. Exhibit A: Well-behaved daughter, studies her shoes and blushes.
“It can be difficult when you’ve got children with you” said the woman on my right.
“I told her! I said if you’ve got kids I bet they’re as horrible as you are! That’s what I said, didn’t I?” Exhibit A mumbled and shuffled her feet, “then I thought, I’m so angry I’d better get out of here and calm down.”

The woman on my left shifted in her seat, I think she was wondering whether we should all move up so the furious woman could sit, and calm down – but there isn’t really room. There is a pause as all three of us silently assess the space available and fidget in a polite but unhelpful manner. Having collectively decided not to move up – my neighbours examine the floor and I inspect my remaining half sandwich.

“Well I told her!” said the furious woman. Pause. “I think there’s another bench around the corner,” she added pointedly “but it’s usually full of kids.” Then she took the child by the elbow and marched on her way.

I finished my sandwich and wondered whether I should have joined in the conversation.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Too Much Stuff

Sorry for the recent lack of blog: it's been a mobile time. I am now back in Mexico - it took five days to get here. Day 1: Antigua-Lanquín = 8.5hrs. I was supposed to leave Lanquín the following morning but I accidentally spent Day 2 in a hammock. Then (Day 3) Lanquín-Flores = 10hrs. Thanks to two Israeli's who decided the whole bus should wait for them while they (a) arrived late (b) strolled off for lunch (c) changed their travellers cheques and (d) organised their Day Trip for the following day. I would like to say that this is unusual behaviour, but I can't. Day 4 saw me cross the border into Belize (and ripped off by Guatemalan Border Guards. I would have complained, but unfortunately I had a dodgy, under-the-table stamp - long story - so I said nothing). Then out of Belize (not ripped off at this border this time - hurrah) into Mexico (ripped off at the border) and to Chetumal. Followed by a "pleasant" wait at Chetumal Bus Station and a night bus all the way to Cancun. Arrived 5am, shattered but with great plans... slept all day.

I've been here for a few days now and all is sorted. Big News! I will be flying back to the UK on Tuesday to try out "real life" for a while. I don't think I'm going to like it - but I am trying to stay positive. Ha! In the last week I have met two people who recently moved back to Europe... and yes, they're both here again now.

Not that I have necessarily given up travelling forever (I don't know yet) - but I know I would like to have a home and also, I am completely broke. I couldn't find work anywhere and my savings have slowly trickled away. Also, if I'm honest, after the tribulations I've had recently, I am feeling tired and defeated. I don't want to sound melodramatic - but I just can't take it anymore! And, of course, I don't have a choice.

From what I'm hearing I am not sure if anything's going to be better in the UK. Sounds like the job market there is pretty awful - so it could be that after a creepy-crawly Summer, followed by the most monumentally crap Autumn ever (by far), I may be heading back to a cold, dark, unemployed Winter. Please, no. If that happens I shall endeavour to assimilate by embracing day-time television and hallucinogenics, equally. I will also eat a lot of cheese and become obese - well darling, that's all the rage in the First World, don't you know.

Right now I am packing. That's not strictly true: right now I am writing a blog, whilst surrounded by numerous looming piles of dive gear, yoga mats, clothes, tea (leaving), sudoku (definitely taking), books... books! O dear, could it be any more harsh? Books or clothes? I can't take them all! I currently own 6 books. I would like to take 5 of them with me, but they won't all fit. I can take 2-3.

They are:
  1. Rough Guide to Mexico (I might need it again... ok, probably not)
  2. Midnights Children (definitely taking - I will sacrifice whatever clothes necessary for this one)
  3. On Chesil Beach
  4. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
  5. The Iliad
I am not sure if I can make this decision (or handle the truth) - please advise?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Cleaning and other considerations

This week I have been mostly sulking. I am still in Antigua – waiting for the swelling (from the ousted wisdom tooth) to subside sufficiently for the dentist to oust the other wisdom tooth. It’s so nice to have something to look forward to.

I have spent a lot of time in-putting books into Library Thing. That “Words” blog opened up a whole can of worms! But it’s kept me occupied – so for that, I am grateful. Digging out my Book Lists also inspired me to do a little spring clean of my ‘Personal Organiser’. (Remember them? The thing you used to have before your Blackberry – they do much the same job, don’t need batteries, but do require a biro.)

So I emptied out all of the various pockets and spaces.

I threw away:
  • Several business cards belonging to people I am sure I’ve never met.
  • Several email addresses from people I am certain I will never contact.
  • Some passport photos, which should never have seen the light of day.
  • Numerous scraps of paper with “To Do” Lists on them – nearly all of which were undone.
I kept:
  • A membership card for “Perama Travel – All Over Indonesia!” Which expired in 1998.
  • A bus ticket from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (Laos) dated my birthday, 1999.
  • A Donor Card.
  • An “I do something amazing, I give blood” Card (although I haven’t, for a long time – but perhaps this will inspire me.)
  • A London Underground map
  • Business Cards for a Photographer in Sussex, an Italian Hair Stylist in Mexico and a handsome man in the Philippines (you never know).
  • A photograph of my parents
  • A newspaper clipping from November 2000 – which made me very happy and looks like this:

  • The Proust Questionnaire

I cut this out from a magazine several years ago, with the intention is doing something with it... filling it in I suppose. These days there are so many imitators knocking around on Facebook and the like, that I have got truly sick and tired of Questionnaires. Most of them are so banal – “what time did you get up this morning? Who is most likely to reply to this questionnaire?” Yawn! But this one is actually quite interesting. It supposedly gets to the very heart of an individual. Maybe it does. Kate Winslet apparently uses it when developing a new role.

Here are the questions:
  • Your favourite virtue;
  • Your favourite qualities in a man;
  • Your favourite qualities in a woman;
  • Your biggest flaw;
  • Your favourite occupation;
  • Your chief characteristic;
  • Your idea of happiness;
  • Your idea of misery;
  • Your favourite colour and flower;
  • If not yourself, who would you be?
  • Where would you like to live?
  • Your favourite prose authors;
  • Your favourite poets;
  • Your favourite painters and composers;
  • Your favourite heroes in real life;
  • Your favourite heroines in real life;
  • Your favourite heroes in fiction;
  • Your favourite heroines in fiction;
  • Your favourite food and drink;
  • Your favourite names;
  • Your Pet Aversion;
  • What characters in history do you most dislike?
  • What is your present state of mind?
  • For what fault do you have the most toleration?
  • Your favourite motto;
  • How would you like to die?
So I did finally complete it. It concerned me how many flaws I could think of and how few characteristics – none in fact. I don’t know what my characteristics are – I don’t think I have any. Maybe glibness. Is that a characteristic? Facetiousness? My flaws, on the other hand, had to be both long and short-listed.

It saddened me that my favourite novelists, poets, composers and painters were all men. Especially having recently read ‘Unless’ in which she blames her daughters descent into depression on the marginalisation of women in the Media. Has this been truly ingrained in me? Or are there (dare I say it) simply less creative women than men? Mind you, all my most hated characters from history were also men (book burners, all).

Even sadder, I realised that I have absolutely no heroes or heroines in real life – but many from fiction. Naming my fictional hero/ines was easy! (Frodo Baggins, Ford Prefect, Levin, Eowyn, Beatrice and Lessa – in case you were wondering). But people in real life are so tainted – how can anyone be so above reproach that is possible to feel nothing but admiration for them? Even after much consideration, I can think of no one. I did, in the end, come up with three names, but I am not completely happy to pronounce them ‘heroes’. (Alexander the Great, Elizabeth I and Emmiline Pankhurst). Does this reflect on me? Am I being realistic or too cynical?

And how would I like to die? Healthy, of course.

I’ve posted my full answers as a comment. Feel free to leave your own – yes, I am interested! Mr Botogol recently mused that every blog gets the readers it deserves... so I have no doubt that you are a sensitive, noble and discerning bunch!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Deconstructing Monty

It is the nature of the world that all things must change, but there has been one particular development over the last few years that is causing me some considerable concern. Ladies and gentleman, have you noticed that sandwiches are getting fatter?

The sandwich was famously named after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (how sad that they didn’t end up being known as Geralds – as Blackadder mis-predicted – or indeed Montys. One can’t help thinking that daily life would be a little richer if lunch consisted of a nice cheese & tomato monty.)

Until writing this blog, I was under the impression that the Earl of Sandwich invented sandwiches so his troops could eat whilst marching. What kind of cold-hearted scoundrel won’t let his men sit down for lunch? However, I did my homework and it seems Montagu didn’t invent the sandwich – he just liked them. The Earl was actually an entirely different kind of scoundrel – he was an incorrigible gambler. He ordered his meat served between two slices of bread so he could eat, without having to leave the gaming table or getting his hands (and his cards) greasy. It seems he was also a bit of a trendsetter since, after he ate them, everyone else asked for “one like Sandwich”. Et voila y mange tout – the cult of the Sandwich was born.

In the years following, the sandwich has become a touchstone of modern life: even now, if one strolls the streets (of the West) at around 1pm, one can see numerous office workers clutching their little bread-wrapped parcels of goodness.

In the last few years, as Western Society’s taste for novelty has grown, the sandwich (and everything else) has suffered many mutations. First we had those ‘open sandwiches’ – which, as we all know, is just a posh way of saying ‘on toast’. (Anyone for a baked bean, toasted open sandwich?) Around the same time, from across the Atlantic, came the ridiculous ‘Club’. I am not a fan. I ask you? Who needs three slices of bread in their sandwich? Surely the purpose of the bread is to contain the filling – this third, central slice is both redundant and wasteful. More importantly, it set a precedent for a new thickness of sandwich.

Not long before I left England last time, one major sandwich retailer had started selling Breadless Sandwiches. I was always under the impression these were called ‘Salads’ – but it’s all about the branding I suppose.

However, in general the evolution of the sandwich has resulted in bigger, over filled, thicker cut and overall: much, much fatter sandwiches. This causes a problem for me. Now, after careful study of my fellow human beings, I don’t believe that I have an especially small mouth. It’s seems to be of an average size – so I cannot believe I am alone in finding that most sandwiches I order these days are too big to bite!

So how are you supposed to eat them? I can see only two options:
  1. You squash them flatter until you can get your mouth around it.

    Depending on your sandwich filling, this is problematic because some items (avocado is especially bad for this) get squeezed out the side and fall, hopefully but annoyingly, on your lap or, even more annoyingly, but more usually, on the floor. Also, the bread turns into that funny, doughy, squashed breadiness type thingy, which just isn’t right.

  2. You take them apart.

    But then you’re not eating a sandwich! Once you deconstruct your monty, you can no longer pick it up – and then, well... really... what’s the point? Also, the real beauty of a sandwich is the mixture of flavours – for example, the cheese, tomato, mustard & mayonnaise culinary opus. If you are obliged to destroy your sandwich before you can enjoy it – do you then attempt to reconstruct the combination of flavours on your fork? But then you’re eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, and that’s just silly.
This sandwich situation is a worry, and where will it end? Before long we’ll be eating ordinary salads with bread on the side – and then we might as well be French (not that’s there’s anything wrong with being French of course ;-)

Surely, if a sandwich-maker wants to make their sandwiches bigger or more substantial it would be wiser to bake larger loaves and make the sandwich wider, rather than fatter? Or give us an extra slice of bread and make a halfie?

Here ye! Restaurants, cafes and humble sandwich shops – hear my plea! I want to be able to pick up my sandwich and eat it! I might want to march with it! I might even want to peruse the gaming tables with it! Let’s get back to basics and start serving monties that Sandwich would be proud of.

In the last nine days I have had five appointments with the dentist. Various parts of my mouth have been numb, swollen, painful or a combination of all three, all week. I’ve had one wisdom tooth out – (one more to follow) it had to be smashed up before it would come out. Boo. I haven’t been eating much. But eating, and the ease thereof, has been much on my mind.

I have to eat soft food – the other day, I thought a cheese sandwich might be appropriate (soft bread, of course, no crusts) – but even though this particular sandwich wasn’t especially fat by modern standards, it was still more than my poor jaw could handle. I had to deconstruct it, and in doing so I realised that there is no better example of ‘the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts’ than the cheese sandwich. I love cheese, and I enjoy lettuce, tomato and mustard. But whilst a cheese sandwich is one of favourite vittles, the components of a cheese sandwich, eaten separately, are a bit rubbish (except the actual cheese, of course). Hence this blog.

My dentist is very professional, and a nice, apologetic chap. He apologises after every appointment! As I left on Thursday he said, “sorry... for, you know, everything”
“For pulling my tooth out?”
“Well... yes”
“Or the dental work in general?”
“Well... yes. Sorry.”
“That’s alright, it is why I’m here!” He sighed, in an ‘it-hurts-me-more-than-it’s-hurts-you’ kind of way.
“I made another appointment for you on Monday – is that ok? Sorry. The other side will probably be easier... well... definitely quicker!”
And I replied: “Dentist, do not try to frighten me as if I were some feeble child or woman without knowledge of war’s work. No, I know about fighting and the killing of men well enough. I know how to swing the tan ox-hide of my shield to the right, I know how to swing it to the left – that I call true shield fighting. I know how to charge into the fury of speeding chariots. I know the steps of Ares’ deadly dance in the close fighting. But on your guard now – great man that you are, I do not want to hit you with a sneaking shot, with an eye for my chance, but in an open fight, like this, if this strikes home...”

Okay, I didn’t say that. But The Iliad is ever so good, by the way!

Further Reading
While researching this delicious subject I discovered that there exists a British Sandwich Association (of course there does) whose aims include: “To promote excellence and innovation in sandwich making.” They also have a whole page of Recipes for Cheese Sandwiches, which is as wonderful as it is unbelievable.

Finally, for some truly marvellous musings on the psychology of sandwiches (yes, really) you must read this: The Secret Language of Sandwiches.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“Word, words, words”

I am a voracious reader. You don’t have to take my word for it – I keep a list of every book I read, so you can decide for yourself: In 2008, I read a total of 41 books; in 2007, a meaningful 42. So far, 2009 has been a big year – I have already read 45 books. Voracious? I would say so. As a traveller, being a voracious reader can be quite hard work. I obviously can’t afford to buy books. Instead I exchange them, sometimes with other travellers, but more often at Book Exchanges – which are found in Hostels, Book Stores, Cafés and occasionally, even Dive Shops.

Frequently, my first mission in any new town is to locate my next book. I could write a Guide Book on books, and how to locate them. Sometimes I am lucky and find excellent Book Exchanges with an abundance of interesting and intriguing titles to choose from. Sometimes I seem to be following in the footsteps of peasants, and I end up with nothing but light romance and ‘Airport Blockbusters’.

However, when it comes to the crunch, I would rather read anything, than nothing, so sometimes I read truly terrible books. Low points this year have included ‘Wedding Season’ by Darcy Cooper (the heroine cancelled her own – did I care? Hell no) and the entirely unmemorable ‘False Memory’ by Dean Koontz (I have no memory of what it was about – but it’s on the list, so I must have read it.) Although, the fact that I will read anything does also lead me to some good books which I probably wouldn’t have chosen: ‘Killing Pablo’ by Mark Bowden, which was about the pursuit of Pablo Escobar, was a surprisingly good read. ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban War’ by that well-known, homicidal nutcase, Che Guevara, insured I would never, ever be tempted to wear one of those naff t-shirts adorned with his face. And I would strongly advise anyone who owns one of those t-shirts to read this memoir and see if you can justify the many senseless murders he proudly confesses to.

A few years ago, in the absence of anything better, I read a book called 'Chasing Copernicus' by a bloke who was tracking down all the ‘First Editions’ of Copernicus’s masterwork, ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’, and trying to establish if anyone had actually read it! It seems Isaac Newton wrote notes in the margin of his copy (at Cambridge) – so he did his homework. But the author found several copies in which the pages had yet to be cut! His conclusion was that ‘Revolutions’, although containing an incredibly exciting theorem, is actually a work of staggering monotony which almost no one has read – preferring instead to get the gist of it from Isaac Newton or other, more available, science geeks at dinner parties. Sadly the same could be said of his own book.

But, in the wonderful world of literature, there are always more high points than low. This year’s notable highlights have included ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ by Milan Kundera (if I ever am able to complete a novel, I would like it to be just like this one); ‘We Were The Mulvaneys’ by Joyce Carol Oates and ‘Daughter of Fortune’ by Isabel Allende. All wonderful.

I never look for ‘Classics’ (by ‘classic’, I mean a timeless works of genius, rather than a book that necessarily belongs to the canon of literature – although the two are often the same) because I had an insight at University, which terrified me. In my second year, as instructed, I dutifully read all (truthfully? Ok, most) of Shakespeare’s Plays*, but it was only when I had finished them that I realised, with profound sadness, that I will never again, in my life, read a Shakespeare Play for the first time (unless someone finds 'Cardenio' – you never know...).

It occurred to me then, that if I kept devouring the Classics at my usual pace, then it was possible that by the time I was 60 or so, I might have read them all! “The horror! The horror!” And then what would I do until I died? Of course, new Classics will always be written. And they are joyous because you often don’t know they’re a work incomparable greatness until you finish them. That is a different experience (most recently ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro was a unexpected pleasure). But nothing can compare to that thrill, the excitement, the relish of sitting down and opening the first page of ‘Anna Karenina’ or ‘Don Quixote’ and knowing you are about to bring a sublime creation into your mind.

So I made a decision – that I would never actively look for these great books. Instead, I would patiently wait for them. I know that sooner or later they will all cross my path – and I will read them, when I am meant to read them, during the course of my life.

Despite knowing without any doubt, that it would inevitably become one of my most beloved books – I managed to restrain myself from reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ until I was 26. And then, even as I read it, and delighted at every twist and turn in the story, I also felt that inescapable sadness that I would never be delighted in this way, by this story, ever again.

I waited years before stumbling across ‘War and Peace’, and nearly cracked and bought it so many times. But in the end it was here, in Antigua, six years ago, that I came across it in a Café. I read it whilst visiting Lago Atitlan, in the shadow of a volcano.

This morning, I noticed a single shelf of dusty old paperbacks in the corridor of my hostel. Out of habit, I glanced over, although I am still halfway through my current read... and there it was, patiently waiting for me – tatty, battered, but still in one piece – ‘The Iliad’.

I am very excited! This week I am mostly going to the dentist (a fitting end to a truly crap summer) and The Iliad seems to me to be an appropriate accompaniment!

* Except for five, which I started, but couldn’t finish because, they were tedious! Don’t make that face! He wrote 36 Plays; you can’t seriously expect them
all to be brilliant!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Raining Sunglasses

I have broken my last three pairs of sunglasses in the same way: the sunglasses are on my face where they belong – I push them up, onto the top of my head because the sun’s momentarily gone in or I go indoors – then a passing bird/tall building/signpost or similar, causes me to look up, and the sunglasses clatter to the ground behind me, cracking the frames and/or breaking the lenses.

“If you’ve done that three times – why haven’t you learnt by now?” I hear you ask.
And to you, I retort “yeah, well... no one likes a smart arse you know! And I hear your mother’s so fat she fell in love and broke it.”*

Today I was looking for the Papelaría – to be specific I was looking at shop signs to find the Papelaría (no, you don’t get any points for guessing what’s coming and no, don’t skip ahead to the next paragraph!) when the sun passed behind a cloud, I pushed my sunglasses onto my head and – wait! Is that the sign? Am I right next to it? Is the sign right above my head? And (yes, you guessed it) CRASH, with a resounding clatter my sunglasses tumbled from my head, fell a full 5 feet and very nearly 6 inches (take note young Tilda) to the ground, bounced off the kerb and landed, with a miserable death rattle, in the gutter.

NoooOOOooooo! They were almost new! They never even got to leave the country! Surely even a humble pair of sunglasses should be able to see Mexico before they die? Where is the justice in that?

But wait! Hang on – I picked them up and they were still in one piece! I was surprised to find that the lenses were still intact. I made a careful inspection looking for cracks – there were none! A small scratch on the corner – but I didn’t get where I am today by not wearing sunglasses with a small scratch on the corner.

Amazed and happy, I placed my sunglasses back onto my face and... and... (wait for it) they even fit better! It’s true!

Further evidence that my luck is changing? Oh yes, I think so. Still haven’t got a job, or a home, or a clue. But hey – have sunglasses, will travel.

*Thought Yo Mama jokes were modern? And American? Me too! But apparently Shakespeare got there first! Act IV, Scene II of Titus Andronicus:

Demetrius: "Villain, what hast thou done?"
Aaron: "That which thou canst not undo."
Chiron: "Thou hast undone our mother."
Aaron: "Villain, I have done thy mother."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Lucky Escape

Walk into any backpacker hostel and you can always spot the solo travellers. They generally send out loud vibes, and they fit into one of two categories:
  1. “Don’t talk to me, I am doing my own thing and I’m fine” or,
  2. “I am so bored, please talk to me – someone – anyone!”
So far, since arriving in Antigua I have been mostly in the first category. However I have noticed a woman, mooching around the place, who is most definitely in the second category. I had previously made a mental note, that if I do start to get bored with my own company, then this is someone who I could chat to.

This afternoon I had a design job to do, so I found myself a quiet spot on the roof terrace and settled down to work. I saw my potential friend hanging around, looking bored, when another solo traveller (from Category 2) offered her a cup of tea. That was two hours ago. They are sitting in the kitchen, which is directly behind me – so I can’t help but eavesdrop! And in the last two hours, I swear, she hasn’t paused for breath once. During the last two hours her companion has managed to contribute the following to the conversation: “yes” (x 20*), “really” (x 10*) and “is that so” (twice). That is all.

Furthermore, this woman appears to be one of the most self-important, boorish and staggeringly tedious people I have ever had the misfortune to eavesdrop upon. I don’t need to be able to see them, to hear the pain in her companions’ occasional replies.

Just think: I might have said hello to her, and her long-suffering companion could have been me! It seems my luck may have changed: this time, I had a lucky escape!

* Approximate figures.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Book of Jane

Well it’s been an interesting and challenging month. I left Lanquín (of course) and headed down to the coast to see some friends.

The first week was very strange: I wasn’t sleeping hardly at all and kept getting the shakes and crying. I would find myself in the street and have no memory of where I was going. One morning I started my usual yoga practice and then I was sitting at my desk. Bizarrely, I am not sure when I stopped doing yoga and sat down – it was all quite unnerving. I decided to look up my symptoms on the internet and it seems I was suffering from Post Traumatic Shock. Which is odd, because I’ve never been entirely convinced that shock, as a condition, existed. I have always been of the opinion that one should simply pull oneself together. Luckily, I didn’t have Housemaids Knee.

I was staying in a small Garifuna town, where the elderly Garifuna women dress as if they are at a Doris Day Convention – lots of colouful outfits with full skirts and big collars and everyone wears a hat. I felt jealous and wanted a hat to fit in a little. But there’s a hat mystery in Livingston: everyone wears splendid hats, but no-one sells hats (other than nasty baseball caps). Hmmmm.

So lacking a hat, in a brave attempt to assimilate with the local community I got Dengue Fever instead. You would think, that after my experiences with knives and ski masks, things would have to get better wouldn’t you?! Ha!

Readers, if you can get through the whole of your life without getting Dengue Fever I would strongly advise that you do so. Dengue Fever sucks big time. Permanent exhaustion, aching all over, cold sweats and for the coup-de-grace, I came up in a rash that covered my arms, torso and lower legs, and which itched – but more than itched – it was like pins and needles! Arrrrgggghhh! Fortunately I was too weak to actually tear my skin off.

A couple of days ago the Dengue started to clear up. I began to make plans for the future... I was sitting in my room, listening to a deafening thunder & lightning storm, when a very bright light shot through the window and struck my hand, causing a shock that threw me out of my chair onto the floor.

Was I really struck by lightning?! Surely not! But what else could it have been?

Seriously, this is getting ridiculous! If I come up in boils next week – then I take it all back, I will humbly apologise to God and concede that he does exist. Good job I haven’t got a first born to sacrifice. Although, perhaps my eldest niece should go into hiding just in case.

I am now in Antigua, a beautiful old Colonial town in the south. I love it here. I am eating good food (cheese! REAL cheese!), strolling the picturesque streets and wondering what horrible torment will befall me next. I am keeping an eye out for falling pianos.

I am going to head further south in a few days to look for work. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Monday Night-Tuesday Morning 1.30am

About five weeks ago our house was burgled. They didn’t get inside; they reached through the windows and grabbed what ever they could. Their prize for the night was M’s bag with cash, cards and some keys.

We changed the lock for the front door and thought that was that. But on Saturday evening we were burgled again, only this time they had keys, so they got inside (all the doors were secure). They took a lot of stuff from me, and only from me. Perhaps they got in through my balcony so mine was the first room they came to. Perhaps they went to straight to my room. Either way they took an External Hard drive with a year worth of work, photos, artwork, writing and the rest. I am still coming to terms with that. They also took small electronic stuff – my card reader, MP3 player and some leads and spare batteries. Plus some jewellery and a few other things. Suffice to say, I was not happy.

Three, sometimes four, people live here and both robberies happened at the exact time that all of us were out. Which suggests they have been watching us, enough to know our routines. Last night I didn’t feel comfortable walking up the road after dark. I live on a very dark, very quiet street, and it occurred to me that someone watching would know I have a laptop. They now know I don’t leave it in the house – it doesn’t take much to guess what’s in the laptop-sized backpack that I am never seen without.

So tonight, I decided not to walk up the road, but to stay home. I was relaxing on the terrace, listening to music, when... I don’t know, something made me look round. I saw something-someone next to the garage door, two metres behind me. It was all very quick... I didn’t know what was happening, I vaguely thought it was someone looking for my house-mate, but I knew it wasn’t right. I jumped out of my hammock and stepped toward them, which activated the security light on the corner of the terrace.

The next few moments are vivid in my mind. My step forward illuminated two men, wearing home-made ski masks and dark clothing, coming towards me with knives. The knife of the one in front looked like a prison weapon – the handle had frayed cloth wrapped around it.

I read somewhere that to be a victim, you must behave like a victim. I am simplifying of course, but you get the idea. This article suggested that when under threat, like this, you should be loud and aggressive. You must show no fear, as if you were dealing with a big, unknown dog.

When I opened my mouth to start shouting, I thought for a half-second that I might sob or vomit instead, but then I heard shouting and knew it was me. They both jumped. I got louder, then something strange happened: it must have been the combination of adrenalin and fear, but I became genuinely furious. The fury took hold of me, in fact I was more than furious – I was enraged. So now I’m really shouting at them, cursing them and threatening them. I advanced on the one in front, yelling into his face and they both backed away. Then they were running away and I was standing on the very edge of the terrace shouting curses and outrage into the night. I think, by then, I might have actually been shaking my fists.

I ran into the house and went straight for M’s machete. How did I know where it was? Thinking back, I remember seeing it last month when I was putting some clean blankets away in the wardrobe – The Blue Blanket actually – which is becoming a recurring ‘special guest’ in the outside-jane show), but I didn’t think I really took note of it, I just saw it.

None-the-less, I knew exactly where it was earlier tonight... but what did I think I was going to do with it? I stormed outside and did some more shouting. I think I could easily pass my Vogon Flight Officer exams now.

Then the fear hit me like a punch in the chest and I realised I needed to be inside the house right now. I grabbed my laptop and ran inside, locking myself in – hands suddenly useless and fumbling with the lock. Did I lock the machete outside?! You stupid bi... No! It’s here by my foot. Is that a noise? A shadow? Jesus, they had fucking ski masks? What now? Phone! I have a phone!

Can you believe, after nearly two months, yesterday I finally capitulated and bought a new phone. Yesterday. I already have two phones, but they won’t work with Guatemalan sim cards. I have been looking for somewhere that ‘unlocks’ phones. Then yesterday I gave up and bought a new one. Yesterday.

I phoned my house-mate. No answer. He’s the manager of a restaurant and it was Happy Hour. With shaking hands, I struggled to send the following text:

“2 men in ski masks at the house. I yelled and they ran. But am sacred. Please call police.”

I rang again. I remembered I have M’s number too. I sent him the same text. He called me straight back. From there it got better – he started ringing everybody.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m downstairs” I was pacing the floors, machete in hand.
“Go upstairs, you can close the door and stand on it” My room is an attic and I have ‘a door in the floor’. He was right, it’s the safest place, but thinking that scared me all over again. I went upstairs and stayed on the phone with M and his girlfriend until the Calvary arrived: Three Policeman, one policewoman, both house-mates, the restaurant night guards, his friends, the kitchen matriarch, and a customer from the restaurant who was brought along because he’s bilingual (fantastic – he translated for me, so I could talk to the police,) and maybe more! There were lots of people, a whole house full of people. People everywhere; people with lights; people searching the bushes; shadows in the bushes and everyone asking me the same questions. Too many people.

Finally everyone left, and two security guys came to watch the house for tonight. House-mate #2 and I finally sat down (I hadn’t sat down since I jumped out of the hammock earlier) and stared at each other in surprise.
“This is just crazy,” he said. And it is.


Now, it’s 1.30am I’m exhausted, but still wide-awake. So once again, in a crisis, I am opting to write about it. Do I live my own life vicariously through this blog? Do I distance myself, and detach, by externalising personal events into a ‘story’? Do I suppress my emotion by focusing instead, on finding the correct vocabulary? The most appropriate tone? Suitable jokes?

So what next? I love this place, I really do. I spoke with my Dad on skype earlier this week; I did the usual thing of turning the computer around so he could see where I was.
“It looks like an Impressionist painting,” he said.
He’s exactly right; it has that same idyllic colour scheme, warm light and peacefulness. Sometimes in the morning, I finish my yoga practice just as the mist is lifting off the mountains – soft light and long shadows falling across verdant hills – and I think it’s so beautiful here it takes my breath away. Except two men in ski masks threatened me with knives this evening.

So I think I’m going to have to leave. How very, very sad. What a truly terrible ending to a really rubbish week. But I can’t live somewhere where I can’t walk home alone, or stay home and relax for an evening. They came at 9.15pm. Usually I get home just before 9pm and the earliest my house-mates are home is about 10pm. So I am sure they knew I would be there, and be alone. I think they’re after the laptop – so sooner or later they will try to rob me again. And you only have 'the element of surprise' once.

I realise “these things happen” and you shouldn’t look for sense or order where, perhaps there is none... but I can’t help feeling that I’m being tested. It seems to be one damn thing after another in this Eden. First the spiders! Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it from reading these blogs, but I am terrified of spiders! I’m as jumpy as hell in this house. So I try to make light of it, to see the ridiculous side of the situation and of myself. But there comes a point when you run out of jokes. Then I get my first scorpion sting! That was only two weeks ago! For nearly two weeks we have no running water... and then the house floods. Two burglaries, then two blokes in ski masks. The Universe is coming at me from all angles and I’m not sure whether I’m bobbing or drowning.

So what now?

Friday Morning

The came again on Wednesday night. This time I didn’t see anything, I was inside the house. But the Night Watchman saw the security light go on, when he went to look he saw someone running down towards the river. Upon investigation, he also found a space in the bushes where someone had been sitting, presumably watching the house. The police came back and looked around, but he was long gone. It’s so easy to disappear in this environment, unless they’re caught red-handed, they won’t be caught.

Since Monday I’m not really sleeping and I’m very jumpy. I still feel kind of ‘surprised’ by the whole thing. It feels very personal – either they’re after the laptop or me. I have wondered whether I have offended someone without realising? But I can’t think when. People say ‘the lads’ around here must know who it is... so I also wonder whether ‘the lads’ are laughing at these guys for getting scared off by an unarmed, lone woman. This is Latin America, the home of Machismo, if they feel I’ve ‘made fools’ of them...

If they’re stupid enough to stick to the same pattern – Saturday, Monday, Wednesday – maybe they’ll come again tonight? We have lots of people staying the house now – some of whom are hoping they do come back.

I will leave very soon – just getting a plan. Fatigue.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Beauties & Beasties

This fella deserves a blog all of his own really. What IS IT?! (Answers on a postcard please). The photos don't do him justice - the wings were really quite beautiful - pale blue with gold ridges and silvery flecks, and so delicate. Then there's this monstrous head... with pinchers! Too weird. He stayed in the bathroom for a few days, but he's left now.

On the plus side, this rather lovely butterfly hung out and posed for photos yesterday. My housemate (human) has quite a way with butterflies, as you can see!

I don't know what the caterpillar, shown here, will turn in to! But isn't he cute! He was about 1 inch long and very fluffy.

Also, I think there was a Preying Mantis in the kitchen yesterday. Pictures to follow... my housemate (human) thinks this house may actually be an independent, fully functioning Ecosystem. One day people will come here to study. Just as Jerome anticipates medics completing their training solely on him, so Biologists and Zoologists will, one day, write Theses on my bathroom.

The house flooded yesterday - we've had almost no running water all week and then, overnight, a flood! I woke up to three indignant cats, perched in a row on the sofa, saying -
"Have you seen the state of this house? Are you responsible for this? No! Of course I don't know where the 'bloody mop' is! I'm a CAT!
The woman's a fool, I'm telling you. She can't even feed us without getting herself stung. You just can't get the staff these days..."

I swept the water out, but I suspect it will return. The immediate result is that the indoor frog population has dramatically increased.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

You don't say!

So yeah, Tuesday was a rather scary evening! Thanks so much for all the kind comments – I am absolutely fine. That night, the doctor assured me there are no scorpions in Guatemala that can kill you (there are in Mexico - but apparently those ones aren't seen here), but, of course, it would have been good to know that before I was stung!

Later that evening it got even stranger - I could actually feel the poison spreading into the shoulder and then down into my chest and ribs. I worried about that - but it didn't affect my breathing. Also, about 4 hours after the sting my whole mouth went numb and my lips started to tingle (like pins & needles). I wondered whether my tongue would swell up and maybe that's why the Mayans (a few people) told me I should cut my tongue? But nothing else happened, just numbness. And no, I didn't cut my tongue with a machete! Although the night-watchman offered to do it for me - with a foot-long cutlass! Can you imagine!

I had a look on the internet to see if I could find out more about tongue-cutting for scorpion stings, but there is no mention of it. This morning I asked some Mayan friends here, and they tell me that cutting the tongue is very old-fashioned. No, you need to take a machete and bite the blade, three times, as hard as you can. Or, if you can catch the scorpion, you can cut the tail off (and throw that away carefully) and then take the liquid that comes out of the body and rub it onto the sting. Or, drink some hot, very strong, black coffee. I told them that I had drunk beer, they gave that some consideration and said yes, they thought beer was also good.

The next morning my arm just felt dead. Remember when you were a kid and someone (in my case, one of my dear brothers!) would give you a 'dead arm' by punching your shoulder? Well, it felt like that - stiff and weak. It eased off during the day - I think it was a full 24 hours before I was fine again.

That evening I was taking a coffee cup off the shelf and what should be behind it? Uh-oh! Another scorpion! I was glad that I didn't feel freaked out or scared – I’m already jumpy enough with the spiders. But I certainly have gained a healthy respect for the little bastards! I'm not walking around barefoot in the dark any more. And I'm being more careful about picking things up, etc. Not an experience I want to repeat.

Strangely, what really scared me at the time was that I would pass-out on the road. There are no street lights here (no real streets - my 'street' is a mud track) and it's pitch black at night. So if I’d passed out in the middle of the road, the chances of getting run over would have been very high. And that's what was really worrying me! Why I should be more scared of getting run-over than dying of scorpion poison, I don't know. Perhaps getting run over is an idea that my brain could more readily accept? Interesting.

Of course now people want to share their 'scorpion stories' with me: one poor chap got stung twice on the leg when he put his trousers on and found one inside. Another guy was walking barefoot through the grass and trod on one. A girl got stung on the hand, feeling around for the light switch in the dark... When I say I was stung whilst feeding the cats, a few people have said how awful that I was stung while doing a good deed! Aren't people funny!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Really? Are you sure?

They made me laugh out loud. It’s so strange how your evening can change course so rapidly, so unexpectedly. I went inside to get my keys and the cats looked at me with such yearning and angst that I thought, ‘ah, poor little things – I better feed them before I go’.

It was a new bag of cat food and as I took it out of the box, I worried about spiders. I lifted it very tentatively – ready to jump if something black and hairy appeared. When nothing did I felt quite relieved, and that was when I picked up the bag properly and the black scorpion hidden in the fold stung me on the soft skin between my thumb and first finger.

The first moment of pain was like a flash of light. I think I actually saw a flash of light. I did have the good sense to look to see what it was. Then I just swore loudly. It’s a shock! I mean obviously it’s a shock. But I mean really – I was very, very surprised by just how much it actually hurt.

I ran to the sink and plunged my hand into the cold water and then I just stood there. Swearing occasionally and then stopping to listen to the strange silence, only broken by the heartless cats trying to break in to the bag of cat food that I’d dropped on the floor.

Upon seeing the scorpion I had, of course, realised that I was about to experience an extortionate amount of pain. That’s all anyone ever says about scorpions – that you couldn’t imagine just how much it hurts. And you really can’t. It’s quite surreal. I stood there, observing myself and found I couldn’t fathom how anything could hurt quite this much. There are moments of clarity (and loud, fierce, bitter obscenities) then moments of, “really? Are you sure? This can't be real? Perhaps I’m going to wake up now?”

Then I started to think. How serious is a scorpion sting? Am I going to pass out soon? Because my house-mates (the human ones) won’t be home for hours. The clinic is 15 minutes away – do I need to leave now? What is going to happen when I take my hand out of this cold water? Can it, could it, actually hurt even worse that this? Is my arm going numb? Can I still move my hand? (I could – but didn’t do that again for a while – moving it hurts a lot more.)

I realised that I knew nothing about how bad or dangerous the scorpions are around here. I wondered how I could be so stupid to not ask something like that before now. I realised that I had to leave the house right now.

I didn't cry until I was outside and trying to get my shoes on - tieing my laces was agony. But I got it back together and soon I found my self stumbling up the road in the dark, holding my hand aloft like a torch. Self-control. It’s all about self-control. ‘Pain is just a feeling’ I kept repeating those words. I'm screaming inside. But I'm still walking, so I'm fine. Its just pain. Excruciating, unfathomable pain, washing over me like giant pacific waves. By the time I got to the first house I was drenched in cold sweat. I was quite surprised when I realised this, and quite alarmed when I realised I was light-headed.

I saw my neighbour in his yard. “Conoce escorpiones?” I asked called out (Do you know scorpions?)
“What?” he replied, walking over “what scorpion?”
“A small black scorpion” I replied, “It is dangerous? I need a doctor?”
He shone a light in my face “where? When?”
“About 10 minutes ago, here” I showed him my hand.
He said I needed a tourniquet; it took a while for me to understand that. He said I needed a machete. I mimed chopping my hand off and laughed. He smiled grimly and mimed cutting my tongue. I asked him “will I be ok?” I realised my tee shirt was soaked through with sweat. And it’s cold tonight. He said I should go to the clinic now. I left.

So I found myself stumbling down the road, light headed, sweating, my hair band tied tightly around my wrist, feeling bewildered and frankly amazed by how much pain I was in.

The doctor at the clinic said I would be fine. He offered anaesthetic. I asked “do I need it?” (I don’t use anaesthetics unless it’s an emergency – I had too many as a child). He said I didn’t actually need it. He told me the pain would wear off in a few hours. So I walked back to the bar.

Still drenched, still feeling quite surreal. They looked startled when I walked into the bar. “I’ve just been stung by a scorpion” I announced.
“Wow” said the bartender “you must be in so much pain”
“Yes” I said, choking back tears. I actually put my hand over my mouth and had to turn away for a second. I am proud to say I am not a woman who cries in public. “A beer please”

And so here I am, several beers and 2 hours later, sitting upstairs in the bar, letting the pain sweep through me like a warm summer breeze. It’s definitely not as bad as it was. Although I still can’t move my hand without great swathes of pain engulfing my head. It still feels quite surreal. I am typing this with one hand and trying to remember whether I locked the front door. Bizarrely, I am pretty sure I fed the cats before I left. Did I really do that? I think I did. The beer is certainly helping – as (strangely) is writing this.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Estoy la Maestra de Yoga!

I am the Yoga Teacher! It occurred to me that I haven’t really blogged about that yet - so I thought I should. Well, my new career got off to a slow start. I planned to do my first lesson at 5pm on the 1st of July. I had 5 people signed up, everything was looking good, I was ready, with my lesson plan neatly typed up, bag of mats underarm... then at 4.45pm the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents. Ah yes, The Rainy Season – I had forgotten about that.

I re-scheduled to the following morning, but was disappointed when just 1 person came to my very first class. They warned me that it rains most days at 5pm, so I decided to stick with the 7am class. For 2 days, no one came. People were telling me that this is too much of a party place and no one would get up that early, and I was starting to feel pretty disheartened.

Then, it picked up! The next day there was 2.... then 6... then one bright sunny morning I had 8 people, which was very exciting! Initially, I was teaching on some flat grass by the river, but as the rains kicked in, that location became too muddy. So I moved the classes to the terrace at the house, which is lovely – but it’s 'off campus' – so now I have to persuade the lazy backpackers to walk down the road. As a result, recently the 7am class became an 8am class! But my schedule is still very fluid, as the weather and the customers change.

There have been some interesting students and moments. Last week there were two people who extended their stay just to do some more yoga with me, which was a wonderful compliment. This week, there was a small, public-school girl, doing her first ever yoga class, who spoke mostly in capitals, and thought yoga was “aMAZing” and “JUST INCREDible” and “fanTAStic and “NEVer EVEN KNEW yoga could be like THAT!”

Of course there was also the serious young man in lycra leggings who huffily told me he preferred “proper yoga”. I asked what he considered to be proper yoga?
“Like they do in India,” he replied. I said that I haven’t been lucky enough to study yoga in India yet, and asked if he would tell me more about it.
“You know” he said “no-one telling you what to do – everyone does their own thing, at their own speed”. It occurred to me that if he wanted to do his own thing at his own speed, he didn’t really need to come to a class! But I didn’t say anything.

In the first week, by the river, there was a young cow that was very curious. One day, she came to class! She stood on the back row and watched intently for about 45 minutes. Finally, during the Balance Sequence it all became too much for her – she rubbed her nose against one of the girls, knocking over a very nice Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). So I shooed her away (the cow, not the girl) – but the rest of the back row complained – it seemed they all liked her being there! The following day she was more restrained and just watched from the side (the cow, not the girl).

Yoga has been met with complete amazement by the local Mayans. None of them have ever seen yoga before and they are quite enthralled. The first day 4 gardeners watched, literally with open mouths.
“But what is Yoga?” I am frequently asked! Funny, that was the first question in our Final Exam for the Teacher Training – but I didn’t actually think I would ever get asked that in ‘real life’.
“It means union” I reply, “It’s an exercise, and a philosophy, from India”
“India, it’s a country in Asia”
“Oh, that’s a long way from here”
“Well, yes.”
“But what is it for?”
“Strength, flexibility, balance and happiness” I say.
“Oh” they say. “Is it just for tourists?”

Several of the Mayans have said they’d like to come – but it hasn’t happened yet! I also had a request from one of the ladies in the kitchen to come and teach a class at the Community Centre for a group of ladies and children. She said there might be 40 of them! Most of who don’t speak Spanish (let alone English). We are still in discussion, but hopefully one of our Mayan bartenders will come with me to translate. It could be interesting! Most of the women here still wear traditional clothes – I cannot imagine them in shorts! I can’t imagine them even owning shorts! I have this vision in my mind of 40 buxom Mayan chicks in Warrior 2, all wearing hand-woven full skirts, lace tunics and plastic slippers :-) So I’ll keep you posted on how, or whether, that happens!

Wildlife/Housemates Update

I think Behemoth #1 has left home! It seems this house wasn’t big enough for the both of us. Behemoth #2 is still in residence and in revenge for destroying his digs (the Blue Blanket) he now likes to hang out at the top of my stairs, just next to the light switch – scaring the living daylights out of me when I am on my way to bed.

A smaller behemoth (Beast #1) seems to be stepping into the voluminous, but metaphorical, boots vacated by Behemoth #1; I am watching his progress with interest.

Two pikey scorpions are roaming, but not yet ensconced in, my region of the house. The smaller one was first seen in my room – presumably he was stopping by to introduce himself – I was not hospitable, but bravely swept him down the stairs. I suspect he is now hiding in the closet at the bottom of the stairs. The second, however, is out and proud.

The cats are all fine – they have recently formed a Barber Shop Trio, led by ‘Alpha Cat’, and they get together in the kitchen, for a sing, at about 4am, which is just marvellous. ‘Tom Cat’ was ‘done’ last week, to the great relief of everyone – so the house no longer smells of cat pee. He is furious and won’t even look at us anymore. ‘Small Cat’ was also ‘done’ and some kittens were aborted. She looks very small and forlorn now – but we are making a fuss of her and she seems ok.

The last house-mates I should mention are the possums, who come through the kitchen window and mix cocktails in the dead of night – they then get drunk and dance on the roof. I haven’t actually witnessed this because I can’t be bothered to get out of bed, but I hear them loud and clear. At least they shut the cats up.

Life in the garden is also thriving – a large, totally groovy, caterpillar is living near the outside tap. So far, he has ‘burned’ both of my (human) house-mates but not me! I am too sharp. Several frogs abound, both indoors and out, which makes showering more exhilarating.

The herd of bulls from over the river have discovered the uncut grass in our garden is far superior to scrub on their side and are now regular visitors. This is particularly exciting when one to comes to the door for a look, especially if you are half-asleep and not really prepared to see a large bull standing in the open doorway.

I’m posting some pictures of my various housemates – and one (especially for my brother – who is a big fan) of the largest moth I have ever seen. This one was in the shower; I put him out the window, before the ‘shower tarantula’ got him. Behemoth #1 used to love moths...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The junior backpacker was so young and fresh he was almost shiney. He approached the bar and asked, “Is there any chance of hot water around here? I could do with a proper scrub after that awful bus ride,” he added apologetically.

But it was too much, too fast, for our Mayan Bartender, whose English is good, but not great. He replied cautiously: “Hot water?”
“Yes, hot water! Any chance? Around here?” he made a circular motion with his hand to further elucidate ‘around here’ (a la Peter Kaye).
“Hot water,” confirmed the bartender, “for sure, yes!” and he turned, picked up a coffee cup and began to fill it with hot water from the coffee machine.
“Oh. I’m getting a cup.” Said the backpacker, a little crestfallen.
The junior backpacker and his rosy-cheeked companions conferred quietly. There were murmurs of ‘I don’t think he understood... how should we...? ...ask again! ...Why don’t you ask!’ and I watched with interest as the Bartender returned with a steaming mug of water.

Do I need to add that the backpackers were all English? The bartender placed the mug on the bar and the Junior Backpacker smiled warmly,
“That’s marvellous!” he said “thanks so much!” and with that, the young adventurers wandered away – dusty and dejected.

The bartender turned to me, “English” he said, “like you. I think he must make tea,” he added.

Before you ask – yes. I do know where you can get a hot shower around here (making circular motion with the hand). But a cold shower does the little blighters good!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Blue Blanket

I don’t want to be boring and I know that spiders have loomed large in my last two blog posts. But spiders are looming large in my life right now – so I am afraid this is another blog about my eight-legged enemies.

Draped casually and prettily over the wall in my room is a large, blue Guatemalan blanket. The other day I decided to see if I could drape the blanket over the rafters and hopefully block out the view of the behemoth that lives in the rafters just beyond my loft (see previous blog). I couldn’t make it work – but shortly after trying; another behemoth hit the ground running, scaring the living daylights out of me, because spiders are nocturnal! You don’t usually see many in the day and you hardly ever see them moving. Like aliens, "they mostly come at night... mostly". It occurred to me afterwards that my moving of the blanket and the agitated appearance of a spider in the afternoon might be connected. Also, this morning upon waking I saw a four-incher sitting right next to the blanket.

So I have come to be of the opinion that this blanket is probably a dark and secluded, palatial spider residence. And it’s in my self-designated space. So it’s going to have to go.

My friend Judit recently told me a story (which I hope she won’t mind me repeating – as it’s a great story!) A few years ago, she and her husband took over the management of a Dive Shop in the tropics. It had been closed for a few months previously, so when they went to inspect the equipment they found whole families of spiders living in the BCDs (jackets). Their solution was to throw all the gear into the sea and then run away! She said within moments the water was full of black, hairy refugees all frantically learning to swim.

With this in mind, whilst I want the blanket gone, actually picking it up and moving it, is the last thing I want to do! I have thought of picking up one end and dropping it into the kitchen below, where I will not be able to witness the resulting exodus (especially if I am cowering strategically on the floor). But inevitably not all of the inhabitants will go down with their blanket. Some will hang onto the wall, next to which I will be strategically cowering. Not good.

Furthermore the blanket is not far from the door. So if things start running, they might block my exit. I have a balcony that I could potentially throw myself off – but so far I haven’t been able to find the key to unlock the door. Which might actually be a good thing.

What to do?

Oh and I saw my first scorpion last night – four inches away from the light switch which I had just used. So that was a valuable lesson about the dangers of turning on lights. On the bright side: in the garden we have hummingbirds! Hummingbirds! Which, as someone once said, "would be impossible, if they didn’t exist!" I will try to get a picture for you. And so many butterflies! It’s funny, you don’t see many butterflies these days – but here they are plentiful.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


I forgot to mention the cats! I am not sure how many we have because they are all identical. So, needless to say, they are all equally adorable. I am encouraging them to hang-out up here and be fierce with anything smaller than they are.

Last night a very grown-up spider emerged from the rafters – easily as big as my hand and particularly ugly – but he was crouched just beyond my designated loft space, so I made the decision he could stay! Ha!

I managed to convince myself that he was in his space and I am in mine and he has no reason to invade my loft. Of course this is a ridiculous argument as it presupposes the spider recognises the distinction between my loft and his rafters. It also assumes that he gives a damn. I decided not to look at him. That helped. In my favour, yesterday I did sweep my loft with a verve and ferocity that only those of you who knew me as a small child will be able to imagine. However at bedtime I was forced to fully embrace the fact that, should he choose to do so, he could in my bed in less than 30 seconds. He was almost the size of a small cat!

So it’s not surprising that, when one of the small cats jumped onto my bed just as I was dozing off, I should jump, momentarily leaving my skin, and catapult (or kick? I am not sure) the small cat off the bed and across the room. He/she retreated to the bookcase and sat and glared at me with equal parts bewilderment and hatred.

I said sorry, but you know what cats are like – it could be weeks until I’m forgiven.

And no MG4D, I am not travelling with a mosquito net, but it’s something I think I may need to acquire. Because mosquito nets are impenetrable (I believe they are made of the same fabric as Batman’s cape) to any and all monsters. That’s what I choose to believe anyway, and I don’t want any of you to tell me otherwise.


Leaving, arriving, old friends & new enemies

I haven’t blogged in ages – there’s been too much to do, too much going on. Which, of course, is a total waste of blog content! When life is dull I have nothing to blog about and when life is a full and rich tapestry, I am too busy!

So I have decided to make up for it now. This is going to be a long post. So long, you might want to read it in instalments. So long that you will almost definitely want a cup of tea before you start. Go on, make one now – don’t worry I’ll wait.

Ready? Good. So I left Mexico on the evening of the 27th and had a very uneventful bus ride down to the border. What is it with Border Guards? Some of the most unpleasant people I have ever encountered have been at border control. The application to be a Border Guard must read as follows:
Question 1: Are you a complete and total bastard, with no sense of integrity, courtesy or respect for your fellow human beings?
If yes, please proceed to Question 2
If no, leave now and never darken our doors again.

The Mexican border guards were charging everyone $20 to leave the country. We had words: me in my poor and broken Spanish, and them in increasingly fast and agitated Spanish.

But is it for? I asked. It is a tax for leaving! They said. But there is no tax for leaving Mexico! Yes, there is! No there isn’t! Show me this in writing! There! Look at the poster on the wall – you see the picture of the visa – there it is! That poster says you need a visa – there is no mention of a tax for leaving. There is a tax! You think I am lying to you? (Very agitated) Senor, maybe my Spanish is so bad I don’t understand you. But what is the $20 for exactly? It is a tax for leaving! (This was going nowhere) But I have no money! Then you can go to the cash machine over there. Ok, I have some dollars, but I will need an official receipt and I would also like you to write both your names, so I can check later. He will give you a receipt. Great, thanks. No, no, he will give you the receipt. But he said you would? (Some fast, very agitated Spanish) Here! Sign this! But this is not a receipt? Just sign this! (The Border Guard had a scrap of paper, on which he had written “No tengo dinero” meaning ‘I have no money’ and he asked me to sign it. I signed. Now go away! He said, and I went.

The Belizean border guard wanted to know why I wasn’t staying in Belize, rather than going straight through to Guatemala. I felt like telling him about my last visit, when I was ripped off by the Belizean Border Guards who demanded a tax for leaving the country.

Soon Belize was behind me and we entered Guatemala and the worst roads I have experienced, since leaving Guatemala 6 years ago. The drive to Flores was like travelling in a cocktail shaker. Finally I arrived, shaken but not stirred, and went looking for food.

A Vegetarian Platter

“What is the vegetarian platter?” I inquired. The waiter looked at me as if I was a complete idiot. “Vegetables” he replied. Obviously.

The following is a fictionalised account of a conversation I feel sure took place, but did not actually witness.

“She wants the vegetarian platter”
“What’s that?”
“What do you mean ‘what’s that’? You’re the bloody cook!”
“Well, what does she eat?”
“Vegetables obviously. She’s a vegetarian”
“No meat?”
“No meat”
“Not even the sausage?”
“No! No meat, vegetables”
“What’s wrong with her?
“Look, have you got any vegetables?”
“Of course I have vegetables! What do you want me to do with them?”
“Cook them!”
“That’s it? Just cooked vegetables?”
“Just cooked vegetables.”
“Are you sure?
“Ok then”

My vegetarian platter was served with a flourish and a look that said, “Well you ordered it”. It comprised: 1 boiled potato, quartered; 1 boiled carrot (halved); 12 green beans (skewered on cocktail sticks); 1 whole corn on the cob; some unidentifiable squash, quartered; rice and refried beans. It was ok! I like vegetables. But some seasoning would have been good.


It’s like Facebook – where, as I have said before – old friends turn up looking like their older and fatter siblings. The first person I saw was Guillermo, the once-cook is now an unlikely Security Guard, at about 4ft high, he’s wearing a gun that’s almost bigger than he is! Looking older and rounder – but just the same. I asked if I could leave my bags somewhere, “leave them anywhere you like” he said, gesturing towards the green space surrounding us “I hear the security here is excellent.” He remembered me and that was nice. I recognised the little girls selling fresh ground cocoa, they were, of course, the baby sisters of the girls I remembered well! Even El Retiro itself is a little older, grander and fatter than it’s former self. So many more Cabañas, and a huge new restaurant, but still kind of the same.

I found the manager, he was expecting me and gave me the keys to Matt’s house, where I will be staying. (Thanks Matt!)

The House of Spiders

I know, I’ve kind of given away the plot in the title. So you know what’s coming. It’s a great house, very atmospheric, the kind of place you would go gaga over if you saw a spread on it in the Sunday Supplement. It’s an ‘outside’ house – where even when you’re inside, you have the illusion of being outside. Unfortunately, the local fauna suffers from the same illusion.

It’s full of wildlife. Last night I stayed in the spider-infested main bedroom. Today I moved into the spider-infested loft: on the basis, that’s it’s even more ‘open’ and outside. If I’m going to have to share my space with the locals I would rather not be locked in with them.

There’s so many cobwebs, great long, thick cobwebs that stretch between the rafters – so I knew what to expect when night fell. I watched a video in the early evening, after 2 hours seated I got up and almost every step meant walking through newly spun cobwebs – the doorway to my room, the space between the kitchen counters – everywhere! On going to bed I spotted the first few monsters – the largest probably 4 inches across (and they do get bigger than that). But what can you do? Sleep in the spider-infested living room instead? I turned the lights out and practiced some calming pranayama.

Here in my new room, in the roof, I have one wall completely open to the elements and another half-open (overlooking the kitchen). The other two walls have open space under the roof. As well as some ominously large spider webs, I have also spotted two wasps nests and an enormous ants nest just outside. I really like ants – and these are big ones, I bet they eat spiders. So it’s good to know I have some allies up here!

The following pictures were taken in the last few minutes, from inside my room.

Before you start feeling sorry for me – here’s the view I will be waking up to every morning!

The hills, the house, the walls are alive! But it’s good to be back! Tonight I will go to the bar and start touting my Yoga classes. First class tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Several Seemingly Unconnected Incidents

In December my Dive Computer broke – a bit fell off. Fortunately, it was still under guarantee so I sent it back to the manufacturers to be repaired. I have a spare computer (my old one), which is basic but still works, and I had a spare watch.

My spare watch broke within a week. Some water got inside it and it gave up and died. So I bought a new watch. Knowing I would only need it until my computer came back (my dive computer is also a watch), I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I was delighted to find a decent underwater watch for a very reasonable price.

Last month I had to go to Belize for a few days. On the way back I met a girl on the bus who told me her life story (this happens to me more often than you might think! I am someone to whom people tell their life stories. I don’t know why: I like to think I am a good listener; but I think mainly it’s because I’m nosey and ask a lot of questions). Her life story was both fascinating and disturbing, and I may well write a blog about it – but this is not it. She asked about my watch: she wanted to buy an underwater watch but couldn’t find one she could afford. She was very impressed with the price I paid for mine and asked me if I would go back to the shop to see if they had any more. If they did, she said, she would pay the money into my account and I could buy it and post it to her. These days you’re not supposed to give people your account details – even sweet Belizean girls who believe they are, and have been raised as, the reincarnated spirit of their dead Aunt. But we exchanged email addresses and I promised I would go and look.

In the following week she sent me a number of emails asking if I had had time to go to the shop, but I didn’t make it until a week later, only to discover that they had no more. I did intend to email her immediately to let her know – but to be honest, it slipped my mind. In the mean time my Dive Computer came back, shiney and intact, which was great.

The following weekend I attended an Ashtanga Workshop, which the teacher offered as a ‘Karma Class’, because it was his birthday. So the Workshop was free (and fantastic) – and at the end of the class, he reminded us all that we should try to pass on the karma by helping someone or giving something.

So later that afternoon when my Belizean friend contacted me on Messenger it seemed clear what I should do. I explained that I couldn’t buy her the watch, because there were no more, but that if she gave me her postal address I would send her mine as a gift.

She was quite surprised by this! So I explained about the Karma Class, and also that my Dive Computer was now fixed – so in fact, giving her this watch was a small thing.

I haven’t heard from her since.

So what do you think? Does she just not want a second-hand watch? Does she think I’m a weirdo and is reluctant to give me her postal address? Or was she a very credible Identity Fraudster and I have had a lucky escape?!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

From the Plague-zone: Bring out your dead!

Mexican newspapers are bloodthirsty. What they really love is a good car crash – some twisted, smoking metal with a bleeding, near-dead victim inside... Super! That will make the front page every time. Dead bodies are pretty good too – especially if there’s some guts. There was a big gang-shooting incident just after Christmas and the local Newspaper had five, executed corpses on the front page the next morning. Great.

I have a friend here who used to work as a Journalist in Mexico City and she told me that after an Earthquake that she covered, the Mexican Authorities had no qualms about inviting Journo’s into the hospital to shoot photos and video at the bedsides of victims. She also tells me she’s been allowed in Prisons and into numerous ‘high risk’ situations.

So this is why it seems very odd to me that after several weeks of being in the epicentre of the Global Flu Pandemic I have yet to see a picture of a victim. Who are these people? What were their names? If we can’t have pictures of them, then why not some of the families they left behind? If they were Mexican be assured they left an extensive family behind! Where are these people?

Playa del Carmen is a tourist town, the area was not very well populated before the tourism was developed so most of people who live here come from elsewhere in the country, and most of them come from Mexico City.

I know of no one, who knows of anyone who has had swine flu. Obviously Mexico City is a big place – but it’s odd that out of over a 1000 (allegedly) victims, all of whom have families, all of who have friends... that no one has met or heard of anyone who has it? Surely some one would know some one whose friend had an Aunt whose cousin’s boyfriend was sick?

I read an article recently, which said that three years ago the US Govt bought 1 billion Swine Flu vaccinations in preparation for the Avian Flu Pandemic. These Vaccines have a shelf life of three years. Gosh, what a spot of luck - how convenient.

So how is the Plague-zone? Well you know those towns in Spagetti Westerns with the tumbleweed drifting down the main street?

Nah! Don’t be silly, it’s not quite like that! But the streets are quiet.

Last week a few people were wearing masks. The staff in the Supermarkets still are, but no one else is bothering any more. Most people think the Pandemic has been fabricated or at least greatly exaggerated. So we’re all pretty relaxed about the health aspects.

The bad news is that most of the tourists have cancelled. The hotel where I work is down to 23% capacity at the moment and I have had 2 customers this week. Very few people get a salary. Like me, most people work for commission – so there’s gonna be some tumbleweed drifting through my next pay packet, I suspect. Two hotels in Cancun have already closed down. There are rumours that other places might too. The future is not bright. The foreign, transient workers, like me, can leave (and many are) - but for the Mexicans with mortgages and children to feed, this is a nightmare. It's not as if we were having a great season anyway - with all the economic woes in Europe and the US.

So if this was some little scheme to sell off all those unwanted vaccines - then I hope that someone in the Mexican Govt will get a new house out of this! Or perhaps the US Aid package to Mexico will be significantly increased this year? I hope that at least some of the 'Pay Off' goes to the Mexican people and not all of it into some Politicians’ pocket.

Mostly though, it's the Press who have created this situation. In a bid to sell a few more Newspapers, 1 case became 'over 100 suspected cases...' and each reported death becomes '200 suspected deaths...' I thought the Media was supposed to report the News, not attempt to create it.

So I hope when the Editors get their fat bonuses, they spare a thought for the people who will end up paying.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Om, Boo, Hula and Other Funny Noises

They tell me that Om is the sound of the Universe. The sound of it's creation and the sound that will be left when all the others noises are gone. Ok, so before any yogis out there start getting all zen-nazi with me [grin] can I just state for the record that my sense of humour can be a little sharp, so if that’s going to bother you – move along! There’s nothing to see here!

I’m not saying that Om is total nonsense – really I’m not! To paraphrase something my teacher read out the other morning – ‘the symbol for OM is important because the four parts represent the four states of being’. The key word here is REPRESENT.

No one suggests that the symbol for ‘Om’ IS the four states of being – that it manifests our reality or exists on some existential level. No, we accept that it’s a symbol and, as such is powerful because it REPRESENTS all these things – and symbols can be powerful – as we know from our Mudras... and the golden arches, the swastika and the swoosh... amongst other things.

On that basis, the sound Om, can be said to REPRESENT the sound of the universe and for this reason maybe it's powerful. It is also powerful for several practical reasons: it can be said that the vibration of the sound resonates and makes a physical impact and we can say that the action of the chant brings oxygen into the system, focuses the mind and regulates the breath in preparation for Ujjiyi breathing. All, important stuff.

However, the universe is at least 15 billion years old. Evidence suggests that before this there was void. After this there was gas and eventually matter. There was no life: nothing to witness these events or to create a memory of this time. Therefore no one: not you or I; not the yogic sages; no religious icons; not even the greatest scientific minds of this, or any, generation can say, with any basis of fact, what sound was made – or indeed if any sound was made – at the creation of the universe.

We can guess, we can suppose, we can, of course, mythologise – but we can’t KNOW. So to state as a fact, with a full stop at the end, that OM is the sound of the Universe, is specious.

That is not to say you can’t believe this! Believing something that has no rational basis, but which feels right on an instinctive level is the foundation of all Religion! So whilst I do not agree with this practice as a rationale for a belief system – I also realise I am in the minority on this point!

But I do think it’s important to be aware of the difference between BELIEF and FACT. And to remain open to the possibility that your own beliefs, if not based in fact, may be completely incorrect. Historically, confusion between this two crucial ‘truths’ – belief and fact – has been the cause of almost every war and every prejudice the world has seen. Currently of course, we have a climate of religious fanaticism – where confusion between belief and fact leads people to hate and even murder those who give credence to a different ‘truth’.

Furthermore, since the zealots of every persuasion tend to be loud and forceful in their opinions, whereas the rationalists tend to be more circumspect, we have reached a point where the free thinkers in our society are being steamrolled by superstition and mythology. This is a Bad Thing! This is bad for everyone!

In the spirit of Ghandi’s invocation that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world” I think it’s important that rational people, the free thinkers, speak out against superstition where it is presented as fact. I believe a rational society will be a civilised society and who knows – maybe if people can be persuaded to give more weight to the laws of nature, physics and geology – and less credence to blind faith and ‘gut feeling’ – then maybe one day we will be able to call ourselves civilised.

So I am afraid, whilst I have absolute respect for all my fellow yogis and yoginis and I do not seek to offend, I will continue to raise a gently scornful eyebrow when you assure me that you know, without any doubt, what sound was made by an explosion 15 billion years ago.