Monthly Archives: September 2014

El Salvador – travel writing.

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I came over the border from Honduras by bus. It was a sticky July afternoon. I conversed fitfully with the two Swiss boys I had met. The bus was destined for San Salvador – the capital of the country. I could not bear this bum numbing much longer. We would soon be stopping in a small city – San Miguel, though Memory may play me false. I got out at San Miguel. It was unprepossessing but distinctively Central American. The buildings were mostly white and the architecture was vernacular. The narrow streets were notably uneven.

I checked intoa hotel called Hotel del Centro. I Would give it one star. This says a lot considering it was so central. There was an old man at the reception and a podgy girl in her early 20s. They were laid back and amiable.

One could not flush paper down the lavatory – there was a little bin for that. This speaks volumes about the underdevelopment of the place. It is so hot that the smell of human ordure is especially noxious. I had a very welcome shower and flicked through the channels – it was mostly dross. The usual telenovellas were being broadcast. These domestic melodramas are the staple of Latin American television. They are always set in families that are extraordinarily rich and where everyone is devastatingly attractive. Whether it is a man, a woman, a toddler or an elderly person – they are all utterly ravishing and extremely sharply dressed. The only requirement to appear in such a show is to have the looks. Acting ability is not considered at all. There is a formula for an episode. One scene of crying; one love scene; a fight and then some nailbiting finale. The plots are so hackneyed and predictable.  After gawping on these pulp television I decided it was time for some light exercise.  I asked the chubster on the desk where the centre was. The old man delighted in the cheekiness of pointing to the sign that read ”Hotel del Centro” – we were in the centre. Nevertheless he directed me to the main street. the Then a stroll around the city. It was delightful to walk around the place despite it being an unbeautiful.

 

I could not change Nicaraguan currency in the pokey bank. At the bank the security guards asked me if I had a gun on me. There was a special inner door they had to open to allow me access to the bank. I had to give u my phone as I went in. There was an unmistakable menace about the place. Even the smallest corner shop had an armed guard. How much violent crime could there be? I later learnt that Central American countries have among the highest murder rates in the world.

I walked around the market next day. I kept a hand over my wallet and never felt at ease. There were houses of deceased writers and composers who had lived in this town. I decided not to bother visiting. The Plaza de Armas was nothing to write home about although the church there was as typically tranquil and aesthetically satisfying. There was nothing to keep me in this most forgettable of towns. After less than 24 hours in this place it was time to get out of town. I boarded a local bus near Gasolinera El Triangulo. The rickety old bus was almost full. The road was bockety and thick vegetation flourished not far from the road. We passed innumerable villages in which many houses were wooden with straw roofs. At one point a gaggle of young nurses got on. My dream had come true! Or so I thought. One of the brown skinned nurses sat beside me. I eagerly engaged her in conversation. She was so gracious and feminine – the best of Latin American womanhood. She chatted courteously but I was not getting any sense that she was attracted to me. What was wrong with her? I had deluded myself that youthful Salvadorenas would be throwing themselves at a Gringo.

After a few hours the noisy bus pulled into San Salvador. San Salvador is the capital city of El Salvador. I remembered my father had a friend many years before named Bob Avala. He was a Salvadorean doctor who had moved to the United States. He spoke perfect American English. He was always spruce and urbane as those of his original nationality usually are. He was glad to be shot of El Salvador in the 1980s because it was going through an especially horrific civil war.

I got a taxi to a hotel I had picked out of my guidebook. The taxi took me up the steep hill into a very bourgeois area. There were a few small rooms there and a few Western travellers lodged there. The madame d’ spoke no English which provided yet another welcome opportunity for me to test my Spanish. I quickly met some of the guests. I shall only invent names for those I remember. There was a student named Zvi from Ohio and a middle aged man named Spottiswoode from Louisiana. I call him Zvi because I remember he was Jewish and that is about the most Jewish name I can think of. In fact he was not that Jewish – by this I mean that he did not wear the clothes of an Orthodox Jew. That would have been very uncomfortable in the steamy climate of El Salvador and nor did he eat kosher and he had a Gentile girlfriend. The other chap I have baptised Spottiswoode because he was a white American from the Deep South and there are many of Scots descent in those parts. I know that Spottiswoode is a North British surname and I have long pined to invent a character with that as  Christian name.

 

Zvi had a very dark complexion for an American Jew. He was spare and wore sports clothes. He was ebullient and amiable. Spottiswoode had been in El Salvador in the 1980s as a non-denominational missionary. He spoke Spanish as poorly as me but had taught many Salvadorean adults to read. Even in the 1980s a large number of Salvadoreans were illiterate. There was such acute poverty that many people had never spent a day in school. His teaching has been a means to make a connection with people and then to preach the Gospel to them. ”I am here for anyone who wants to come into God’s Kingdom.” Spottiswoode seemed the best sort of Christian missionary. He was a people person and he was driven by compassion and not censoriousness or condescension. He told me he had run a cafe in Louisiana named ‘The Inklings’ and I noted that this was the name for the literary circle that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. He playfully punched my shoulder in recognition of my knowledge. He was an enthusiast for C S Lewis; Christian apologetics. I did not wish to have Spottiswoode evangelising to me so I told him I was an ardent Christian of the Catholic variety.

I asked the manageress about getting a driving licence. Would it be possible to bribe and get one. She was unsure but with a broad smile she told me about a friend of a foreign hers who had gotten one. She said that her Gringa pal came from ”Norieuga”. I did not recognise that one. I asked her to repeat it. She had to say ”Norieuga” a couple of times for the penny to drop – ”Norway.” The manageress assured me that her friend spoke fluent Spanish and would be able to arrange things for me. Soon I was on the blower to the Norwegian. This Norwegian woman spoke flawless English as is typical for one of her nation. She was phlegmatic and distant. She told me matter of factly that I could only get a licence if I was a resident of El Salvador.

I decided to give it a shot. I took a taxi to the driving licence building. I told the tax driver my intention and he agreed to help me for a little extra money. I had my British provisional licence on em and my plan was to swap this for a substantive Salvadorean licence. There were several lawyers at desks in the open air. They had to validate my licence as a real one. None of them spoke English. A chubby woman carefully examined my provisional licence – never realising that the English word provisional is in Spanish ‘provisional’!  She validated it! I forked over the few dollars that was her fee and triumphantly strode off to the building. At the office they told me I needed a NIT – which was a tax number. I would have to go off to the Ministry of Finance for one. So I got in the cab and the chap drove me to the  Ministry of Hacienda. It was a skyscraper – the only one I saw in the country. It was remarakably efficient. I know this is not what one expects for El Salvador. Within minutes I had paid my few dollars and got my card. So we hastened back to the licencing building.

 

At the door a dapper young man greeted me. I told him my situation and he said one needed a residency permit for a driving licence. I meekly accepted it and sloped off. I ought to have asked if it was possible to pay ‘una propina’ and do the residency permit later.

 

Anyway, that was the end of that ingenious scheme.

I had a look around the city centre on my own. I did not find it attractive. It was crowded and not too unclean. There were no breath taking buildings. I felt unsafe there. This city had little to recommend it.

That evening I had a perambulation around town with Spottiswoode and Zvi. As we strode down a particularly ragged street a short middle aged man approached us. He had fair hair and a beard and he spoke superb English with an American accent. I shall dub him Cristobal. Cristobal was wearing stained clothes and repairing shoes by the road. He heard us speaking English and that was why he came up to us. There was a pitiable expression on his prematurely drawn face. ”Hey, could any of you guys please help me with a couple dollars?” he asked plaintively. Zvi took pity on him. There was a burger place very close and Zvi said he would buy him a meal there. Spottiswoode and I just waited. He observed, ”He must have a softer spot than us.” I would have refused to give him anything. Zvi was giving lie to the anti-Semitic trope about Jews being tight fisted. The Jewish man was being generous to a mendicant and the two Christians had passed  by on the other side. We could see through the window that Zvi and Cristobal were having an animated conversation. Later they left and said farewell to each other. We walked on. Zvi told us that Cristobal had told him a moist tale of living in the United States as a child but never becoming a citizen. I wonder if he was an illegal. Cristobal had been found in possession weed and had been deported. Now he was living in El Salvador.

The next day I decided it was time to move on from San Salvador. I had been in Central America for a couple of weeks and had not laid eyes on the ocean. It was high time I went to the beach. From the main bus station I caught a bus to Puerto Libertad – ”Port Liberty.” That blazing hot afternoon I arrived in Puerto Libertad and quickly found a hotel. It was a one star – if that – with a courtyard in the middle. My room was small and dank. The bathroom was very primitive but at least the price of the places was as low as its standards. I was not at all unhappy to be there. There were two Australians staying there – a girl and a man. They were not a couple – they were in separate rooms. The Aussie man was Bruce – so I shall call him just to reinforce Monty Python stereotypes. He was about 30, tough and breezy. He has surfed this wide world o’er and had come to El Salvador in search of new waves.  The Australian girl I shall name Clementine just to be tropical. She was in her early 20s. She had long brown hair that she did not look after well. She was softly spoken and a little dreamy. She studied Spanish – among other things – at her university. She spent a while in Mexico as part of her course and was tacking on some time in El Salvador.

I spent two day there walking its byways and swimming in the ocean. Almost no one went to the beach. It was a small and relaxing town. It had nothing to offer but the ocean. Swimming in the Pacific was welcome after so many days sweltering in the hinterland.

Later I used an internet cafe in a tiny shopping centre. I invented a bogus email and sent some vicious mails to Wrinkle Face and I never smile. There is no way they could prove I had used that computer or even been in the country since they do not stamp passports there. My heart was pounding by the end of the mails. I realised how exercised I was by the horrendous mistreament I had suffered at the hands of these arseholes.

There was  Chinese-American running the internet cafe and he advised me not to walk down a certain street at night ”you get robbed” he said with a broad smile. I decided his counsel must be sage.

One evening I was so bored I paid to enter the basketball court and watch a match. That is the only time I ever went to a basketball game other than to play.

I went to the bank there for some reason. There was one way glass on the door. As I reached the door is magically opened – it was not a sliding door and there was no sensor on it. The I saw an armed guard on either side. These hard bitten men had been looking through the one way glass to open it for me. It also allowed them to be ready if they saw someone coming whom they expected to be up to no good. It would be quite hard to rob this one. I have often imagined how it could be done – by having two babes in miniskirts and high heels do the Barbie walk in the door. The guards would not be able to think – all the blood having gone to their dicks. The girls would then pull guns on them.

Then i took the bus back to the capital. I hung around the bus station for a ride to Guatemala City. I bought my ticket and checked in airport style. Security was not as stringent. There was a departure lounge though. I met two British boys about my age. Both were blatantly public school educated. They had spent their gap year in Africa. Here they were in Central America with not a word of Spanish between them. They were admirably thick. It was the sort of stupidity that can only be attained through a very expensive education.

The bus was a King Quality one again withair conditioning, huge reclining seats and a lubricious hostess. We barrled along the narrow road. Soon we crossed the frontier into Guatemala.

 

 

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Nicaragua – travel writing

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As a child we listened to BBC World Service as we had luncheon in the garden. ”Dit. Dit. Dit Deeeet. This is London.” After a rousing rendition of Lilibullero the bulletin would commence. In the 1980s the radio would very often mention Nicaragua. A country with ‘knickers’ as part of its name was hilarious. The news would often mention an American named Caspar Weinberger. ”Wine” and ”burger” as part of this name – it was too comical. Weinberger would often have something to do with this comically named country.

It came to pass that I entered Nicaragua in my late 20s knowing little of this troubled place.

It was a dank July day when I crossed the frontier. I boarded a creaky bus with the paint flaking off it. I spoke to Melody from Canada and Lee from the United States. Melody recalled her time in Nicaragua in the 1980s. She had been a volunteer there. She was deeply sympathetic to the Sandinista Government at the time. She was outraged by US policy towards Nicaragua. The CIA was there hugger mugger – assisting the Contras. The Contras were right wing rebels – or some would say terrorists. The Contras mainly consisted of remnants of the previous regime which had been in the hands the Samoza dynasty. Melody said she was a Catholic but had been very willing to assist women who wanted terminations. She considered the Church very inhumane to prohibit termination. Her daughter was born in Nicaragua and was wrongly recorded as a boy. SHE said she went to a government office to change this. ”They said the baby is a masculino and I said not the baby is a feminina – you wanna check?” The officials accepted her statement and did not insist on verification. Melody was high octane and was elated to be back in the country. She said she had very little money to spend on holidays since she had three children.

The Panamerican highway as a single lane in either direction. This was the main road in the entire country! I discovered that the road between the two coasts had no tarmac. It was hardly even a road. I was astonished that a town on the Atlantic coast is called Bluefields – what an Anglophone name! There were not that many cars on the road and those we saw were mostly old and decrepit. We passed some flimsy bungalows – often wooden. The unkempt fields had many Hindu cows in them. There was a ditch beside the road most of the way and it was half full of water. They people were lightsome. We regularly stopped to pick up and drop off passengers.

As we approached Managua the bus became fuller. There was more traffic on the road but it never impeded out progress. A huge hill rose in front of us to the right of the road. There was an enormous black billboard in the silhouette of a man wearing a sombrero. The figure stood in an odd attitude with his right hand pointing out to the side at waist level. This was the image of Antonio Sandino. Sandino was a peasant rebel leader in the 1920s and 1930s. He was invited to peace talks by Samoza. Sandino was tortured and killed at that spot where the huge cut out stood. Below that hill was a small lake.

We pulled into the city past many jerry built little houses. We got out at the main bus station. I had taken Lee’s number. I checked into a hotel in that backpacker area. It cost about a fiver. It was not at all smart but I almost enjoyed that. It was a single storey buildings with smooth concrete floors. My door had a tiny lock and a thin wooden door. There was only cold water for ablutions. A corpulent woman ran the place.

Many internationalists had stayed there in the backpacker area the 1980s. Idealistic young left wingers had flocked to Nicaragua to assist the socialist government there. Some far left people said it was a replay of the Spanish Civil War 50 years on. I walked around and saw many such hotels. I had luncheon in a small cafe. I often ate – comida tipica. This often included rice, beans and beef. A skinny middle aged man hobbled by on crutches. He asked me through the window for money. I shook my head and returned to my repast.

I wandered the streets. A cadaverous young man came up to me. He was swarthy and spoke excellent English. I greeted him and we shook hands. I was struck by how cold yet clammy his hands were. It was a very warm day. He seemed to walk with difficulty. He had sunken cheeks. Then all was revealed. ”I have AIDS”. I was thunderstruck. I had never knowingly met someone suffering from this disease. There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that he spoke the truth. My horror and pity was etched on my face because he said, ”Don’t look at me like that.” He asked for some money. I seldom to never give to mendicants but this time I did not hesistate to fish around in my wallet and hand him a few banknotes. He told me he had got the disease from ”my woman”. He showed me a cut on his stomach – he had had to go to hospital for that and there for tested. I said goodbye to the door chap and hurried on.

I observed that Latin American women are either slender or else porcine. There are precious few in between. there are not so many paunchy men.

I walked around the city. It slopes down to the shores of Lake Managua. I saw the cathedral and the ruin of the old one which had been levelled by a horrific earthquake in the early 1970s. That earthquake caused enormous suffering in a country that was already experiencing severe privations. International aid flooded in. A rumour got around that the Samoza family had embezzled the funds. I am unsure whether or not that is true. Outside the cathedral ladies wore ornate and extraordinarily gracious traditional dresses. On a stage they treated the public to a dancing display. I then walked by the lake. I looked out across its placid water towards a few islets. There were green hills on the far shore.

I went to a shopping mall on the edge of town to get tapes for my video camera. It was atop a hill and inside it felt like a slice of America. Well-helled Nicaraguans try to emulate the American idyll of life and often succeed. The hill sweeping down from this commodious shopping centre was covered in rude cottages and many had outhouses – an indication that they lacked indoor plumbing. The gulf between rich and poor was palpable.

There were towering some swish hotels. I reflected that if I became wealthy I could one day stay there and have a driver show me the best this fertile land had to offer.

I met Meldoy and Lee that evening in a restaurant. They had a friend of theirs there. He was a Canadian of Nicaraguan origin. He spoke flawless English with a Canadian accent. I do not recall his name so I shall dub him Ferdinand. It was a fairly upmarket restaurant on the edge of town. Ferdinand said he had grown up well off in a country in which most people lived in dire penury. He went to an international school in a country where most children never learnt to read. Ferdinand’s father had been manager of an oil refinery. In the late 1970 the Sandinista insurgency was making a lot of ground. Samoza’s forces were very worried that they would be overrun. The Sandinistas realised that Samoza’s forces needed petrol for their vehicles. If the refinery could be put out of action it would hamper Samoza’s men – the National Guard they were told. Samoza was worried about oil refinery workers not showing up to work either through sympathy for the rebels or due to intimidation. He ordered that all oil workers and their families must live in the oil refinery under guard. This was also a disincentive to any of the oil workers to blow the place up because they would killing their own children in the process. The Sandinistas assumed that Ferdinand’s father was in cahoots with the regime and put a contract out on his life. Ferdinand was then living in Costa Rica which is where the Sanindista leadership was in exile. Ferdinand knew where to find the Sandinisa doyens. He went to their house and introduced himself. He pleaded with them not to kill his father who had been forced at gunpoint to keep the oil refinery working. The Sandinistas took pity on him and pledge not to kill his father. They kept their word. Ferdinand was also a left winger. He knew Daniel Ortega well but was disillusioned with him. There were still so many paupers. The evening was a fascinating introduction to left wing thought that was rooted in experience. It was hard not to sympathise with them a little.

Next day Lee and I went to the neabry town of Leon. We met at an unsightly bus station by the ring road. I was there half an hour before Lee. There was a festival going on in Leon. There would be bulls being run through the streets. I quipped with an elderly Nicaraguan ”no me gusto una corna in me culo” he chortled heartily at that. Oddly children were palying in the bays where the buses parked.

At last Lee came along and we boarded the wobbly bus. It chattered along the turnpike. It was the best road I saw in Central America. The forest was cleared fro yards in either side. We spoke to an American in his 50s on the bus. He was an electrician but had set up a language school in Costa Rica. He brough Americans out to teach but they were paiid $1 an hour and it was difficult to recruit people for such measley pay. They worked on tourist visa since it was so hard to geta work permit. He said it was daft because the government wanted to encourage torusim but then made it hard for people to learn English. If people wanted to drop out of a course he refunded their fees. I said he was too munificent in doing this.

We pulled into this little lakeside town. It was much prettier than Managua. Much of the colionial era architecture was still there. There were bulls on ropes going down the muddy streets. The ropes were held by riders. I ducked into a doro way to avoid a bull. At one point it was just yards from me. If it had lunged at me I could have been dead.

There was a festal spirit around. The plashy town had much to recommend it. The buildings had thatched roofs in many cases. There was a fun fair by the lake. There was a short cut back but a little boy advised us against that route saying it was dangerous. ”Hay ladrones?” I inquired. He said that there were. Lee’s Spanish was so feeble she could not follow this.

We got the bus back.

I had moved into a King Quality Hotel. King Quality is a bus company but it has its own hotels. The bus leaves from the hotel. By Nicaraguan standards this is a good hotel. It was fairly cheap but the place was clean adn there was hot water.

Next day it was time to ship out.

I boarded the bus before sunup. We had to board as though boarding a plane. Large bags were checked in. There was even a hostess on board. I saw two youths with Swiss passports. I spoke to them in French when I heard them speaking that language. They were Thierry and Luc I shall call the other fellow. But soon I decided it was time to doze.

After dawn we crossed the border into Honduras. At some point we had to get out and walk a few yards. So I can say I was on Honduran soil. It seemed ghastly. I saw worse poverty there than in the other lands. My guidebook panned it. So that is a fair and balanced look at Honduras.

Then we sped on towards El Salvador.

Costa Rica – travel writing.

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It was one of the last flight I booked via a travel agent. By then booking online was becoming widespread. For four years I had been hankering after a trip to Central America. I went to the practice nurse for my injections. I asked about the hepatitis jab and gave her my reason why. ”The Latin American girls are well up for it!” I said with relish. The stony faced woman remarked blandly, ”I would use condoms.”

Early one July morning I hastened to Gatwick for my Continental Airlines flight. The airport was abuzz with American accents. Scores of American teenagers were there in assorted scout uniforms. I then realised why. I had been reading in the papers that it was the centenary of Robert Baden-Powell’s first camp as Brownlee Island. That is taken to be the foundation of the scouting movement. Scouting has never been something that held the least allure for me. Uniformity, hardship, crafts and so on seem very tedious to me. From out of the bustling teenagers came a boy who was plainly of South Asian origin. He asked me in a very strong South Asian accent, ”where do you come from?” I answered him, ”Ireland.” He then said in an American accent, ”I’m from Houston, Texas.” I saw him repeat this quip a few times – fooling people with his Indian or Pakistani accent before revealing that he was American. He evidently believed that this was exceedingly comic.

I had never flown Continental before. I noticed that the cabin crew were mostly men. They were hideously obese. I am never called skinny. Everyone is entitled to be fat but these men took that to the fair. I watched the introductory video with interest. The Chief Executive of Continental Airlines was a man with a German surname and he said ”we look forward to earning your business now and in the future.” I liked his attitude – not taking passengers for granted. The airline always had to make it appealing to fly with them.

After seven hours we landed in Newark for my transfer. I had to clear immigration. This is one of those needless thing that was introduced after 9/11. Isn;t this totally counter-productive? They had brought me into the United States proper instead of leaving me in the airside of the terminal. I could then disappear into the United States and commit some terrorist act.

There was a thin, moustachioed white man herding the passengers into queues. I use the word ‘herding’ advisedly. He was loud and uncivil. There was a queue for Americans only and he ushered me towards that one. I told him I was not American and he ordered me into it anyway – not hiding his exasperation. I suppose it must be tiresome having to order people about all day. People are slow and do not heed instructions. It would fray my nerves. But if he find his job so tiresome he should get another one.

The official at the immigration desk was a very tall black man. His name badge read ‘Stanton.’ I was nervous imagining my fingerprints could be accidentally matched to a terrorist. Stanton spoke slowly and morosely. He told me to write ”transit to Costa Rica” at the bottom of the form. I noticed that he pronounced ”Costa” as ”Coast-a”. I was about to write on the last line ”that’s not the bottom” he corrected me. I then put it in on a blank area. My anxiety must have been blatant. Stanton said, ”You see that officer over there?” I looked where he was pointing. A middle aged white woman had come out of a door labelled secondary inspection and was beckoning me over. ”You mean the woman?” I sought confirmation. He did. I went over to her.

I sat in a small room. The other sitting there were mostly South Americans. They chatted happily and lolled out seemingly indifferent to why they were here. I was ill at ease. After a few minutes I was called out to go through customs. I had a large blue hold all with me. A diminutive Hispanic chap was the officer speaking to me. He was rather more congenial than Stanton. He asked me a few questions such as what my job was and where I worked. I was in the complicated position of moving from one job to the next. My answer was complex enough to be true. Those who have something to hide seem unusually nervous and often cannot answer straight questions. I offered to open my bag but he declined. I was then out of the airside. I had to hand my main bag on to some baggage handlers. I told them it was going to Costa Rica – as if they would remember among all the hundreds of bags they had to sort. I took a train to the next terminal.

Off to my departure gate. I remember almost nothing of my few hours flight to San Jose. St Joseph – as you could call it in English – was a city I knew nowt about. I had taken the exceptional step of booking a hotel. That is not like me. There would even be someone to meet me at the airport. The terminal building was not large nor was it slick. It was late at night and the passengers as well as the staff were mostly jaded and tetchy. Within a few minutes I was out to the meeting area. I saw a sign with my name on it. I greeted the man holding the sign. I revived a few words of my Spanish. He lead me out to a minibus that already contained a few tourists. I sat in. I waited as he brought out a few more tourists. Finally we sped off.

The road was all up and down. The buildings were low. Where there was light I saw lush vegetation. Within half an hour we had building up at a hillside hotel. I cannot remember what it was called. I checked in. The drowsy clerk hardly made eye contact as he went through the formalities. I my room had a shiny stone floor and no bathroom. I was happy to collapse.

Next morning I finally saw the place in daylight. The hotel was on two floors. It was a plain beige outside. There was a small pool into which I took a dip. Not many of the rooms were occupied. I met a young South African couple there. They had a van and had driven all the way from Chile. They said paying $10 a night at this place was quite an indulgence for them.

The receptionist at the desk in the day was not to be missed. She was a girl of about 20 years old. She was decidedly tall for a Latina. Her skin was pale but her features were almost Negroid. She wore a tight white top that barely concealed her large and magnificent boobs. When I thanked her for anything she replied, ”con mucho gusto” in a manner that just smouldered sexuality. She was not a coquette but was just effortlessly desirable. She spoke ENglish but I insisted on trying my Spanish with her. She obliged.

It was a clear morning. But I tarried over long. In time I headed out of the driveway. There was a railway track on the road. I heard the train clatter by at the peep of day. I never saw it but was informed that it was indeed a train and not a tram. The hill descended steeply. There were many ragged houses around but this area was a cut above a slum. There was a little vapour in the sky over the city centre which was some way below us. I had a good walk around this somnolent area. The pavements were crumbling and there were more than a few potholes. Otehr than that the area was no in bad nick. There was some waste ground between many buildings and weeds flourished. The place was decrepit but not dirty I passed a college were students were studying. There were no windows. I read the signs on the exterior of the building. They could study law, English and business there. It had the fees in dollars. I saw some of the young adults sitting in their lecture rooms. All of them were surprisingly attentive. An ageing security guard smiled at me indulgently and engaged me in some cheerful conversation.

Some of the streets were very wide but there was remarkably little traffic. The city was not polluted. I was running out of reading material. I went to a bookshop with a very limited selection of tomes in English. The only thing that appealed me to me was a biography of George V. I purchased it. I did finish it but more out of tedium than enthrallment.

I made my way down tree lined streets towards the centre of the city. The many single storey buildings were mostly white washed. Hardly anything was built of wood which is a big contrast from the United States. Maybe there climate forfends it.

Afternoon was drawing on. The clouds gathered. I would later notice this phenomenon each day. There would be a fine start to every morning. The thing was to make a start at a reasonable hour because in the arvo it would be overcast and usually rain.

There were not many stately buildings. People went about their business with a relaxed air. There was no sense of unrest in this city as there is in many others. I paid a visit to the cathedral. It was open to the air. That is to say it had a roof but no doors. It was white and unique. Inside it was not beauteous nor was it ugly. In fact it was very vanilla. I chatted to some swarthy, hefty old women near the entrance. They smiled affectionately and were astounded that I came from Ireland – a country that seemed to them to be impossibly far away. I could bet my bottom dollar I was the first Irishman they ever met.

I had luncheon in an indoor market. I had some jelly. They piled cream and fruit on it which I had not anticipated. It was a very generous portion. I chatted to the people who worked at that stall. I remember in particular the tall and pale skinned young man. He was quiescent and again seemed deeply surprised that I should be from Erin. I discussed how some words in English sound like Spanish but have a drastically different meaning. I hope I left them with a positive impression if Ireland.

Overall, it was an insipid city. There were a few unimpressive art galleries and musea. I read that it is really a jumping off point. There are thrilling activities to do in the jungle nearby. But I had three and a half weeks to make it to Cancun. I decided not to dither too long in San Jose. I must press on towards my goal. could have started in Panama and seen seven Central American countries but that seemed too much. I had discussed this with a Jewish Canadian in Budapest the year before. He had remarked that my plan to do Central American in three weeks was ambitious which I took to mean impractical. He was right.

I booked a seat on a minibus to Liberia. No, not the African country but a city in the north of Costa Rica. The minibus showed up at my hotel at the appointed hour on a sunny morning. I boarded. There were several people aboard already and we picked up some more. I remember a middle age couple who were clearly well heeled. They father was a lawyer aged about 40. He was blatantly of solely Spanish descent. His nubile wife was a little younger and they had a podgy and charming daughter who was around 8. There was also an obese woman in her 30s. She vouchsafed that she was single which I did not take as an attempt on my virtue. The unfortunate woman was cursed with outstanding ugliness.

The driver was a convivial type. He was a thin man with greying hair and a smattering of English. We would be driving down the fabled Panamerican Highway. This road leads from Tierra del Fuego to San Jose. It is the longest road on the planet. We left the environs of the city and soon we were on the highway. It was a dual carriageway at first. This is not what I had expected but it was still a good quality road as we climbed into the hills that abounded in verdure. I was having an upbeat conversation with the other passengers.

We stopped at a roadside restaurant deep in the jungle. I was happy to take a snack but insisted on eating whilst standing. I had spent enough time on my bottom and my spine was hurting from being sedentary so long. The others were bemused at my eccentricity in standing. I saw some small monkey playing cheekily in the trees just beside the restaurant. I spoke to an undersized old security guard. I was trying to speak Spanish as fast as I could because that is a test of facility in the language. This caused me to make even more mistakes than usual. The kindly little chap had to ask me to repeat myself.

We drove on. We wound down out of the hills and onto the plains. The grasslands had herds of white Indian cows grazing. I was at first surprised and then I gave it a little thought. I reasoned that the climates of Indian and Central America are not unalike. Perhaps Indian cattle have a resistance to some tropical diseases that are prevalent in this zone. The advertised four hour journey turned into 6. I was well pissed off whent he driver would not drop me off at my hotel but at another one. There was a guest book into which I had written a positive comment. I demanded it back and wrote mierda. He got me on the mobile to his colleagyes who spoke perfect English. We are very sorry but he cannot take you to tour hotel. I was pissed off at being conned on two counts. I considered throwing the phine into the road but reconsidering when I thought he might then not let me have my bags.

In a foul temper I strode off to my hotel. This was a very low rise town and flat as a pancake. The roads were mostly unmetalled. I was navigating using my Let’s Go guidebook borrowed from the Union library. It was a small town and I rapidly located my hotel. I checked in and it was a backpacker place that suited me down to the ground. I had a decent room at a very low price and ample Anglophone company. I spoke to some American students there. I took an especial shine to a pair of American girls who spoke a Spanish even more grating than my own. These white petite chicks were charitable enough to wear hot pants and halter neck tops. The two Costa Rican men on the reception that even these American girls ion their flipflops towered over them.

I walked around this mean little town. I had fetched up in a place that had nothing going for it. The few boutiques sold some vain clothing.

That night I went to an internet cafe. The chap running it was an Oriental. ”Eres Chinese?” I inquired. He said ”si” but was blatantly put out by the question. He may well have been a Costa Rican and perhaps felt people constantly told him he was not a Costa Rican just because of his Chinese citizenship.

The next day I moved on to Nicaragua. I caught the boss to the border. Aboard I met two women who were fascinating. I do not use that as a euphemism for desirable since they were not. Melody was a Canadian of Nicaraguan ancestry. She had jet black hair with her fringe long down one side. She worked for the UN in Rome and was bristling with left wing opinions. Lee was her less opinionated American friend. Lee was a nurse and had worked with the peace corps in Mali. He husband was a Malian. She was white so her marriage was unusual. Melody told me much about Nicaraguan history.

We reached the border. We stood on the dirt road on a muggy day and money changers came by. I declined to change my Costa Rican currency with them. I was sure I would get a better rate out of a bank. Streetside money changers are surely disreputable and there would be no comeback if I was diddled. It turned out to be a misjudgment. I found it impossible to get anyone to change Costa Rican money in Nicaragua. They are neighbours but will not change each other’s currency. This is a depressingly common situation.

As we approached the border I spoke in Spanish to a very fair skinned blonde. An unmistkable Teutonic accent came through her Spanish. ”Sind Sie deutsch?” I inquired. ”Nein, Schweizer-deutsch.” I spoke to this delicate beauty in German. sHE WORE a knee length skirt with a cinched in waist and a cotton blouse. She had been to Nicaragua a lot. She was going to stay on an island on Lake Nicaragua. Perhaps I should have ask if I could accompany her.

There were buttons everyone had to press. A light would come on either red or green. It was random. A red light meant a thorough search and a green one meant being allowed through unsearched. the idea being no one could claim they were profiled for a frisking.

I was across the border.

Nicaragua has things to offer such as walks through the forst and some enticing beaches. I raced through so fast as to miss its finest attractions. I may return some day.

Malta- travel writing.

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It was May when I boarded the plane for Malta. It was one of precious few countries in Europe that I had not visited. In Ascot I had booked a flight with some no service airline, sorry, no frills airline. Many times I had passed the building in London bearing the words ”Republika ta Malta” which constantly reminded me to set my sights on this Mediterranean isle. Emma had been there some years ago. By her I mean the paramour of my bosom buddy. As a cinemaddict I had seen ‘Gladiator’ that was filmed on this felicitous island.  I was taking a whole three days out of tutoring the colly munchers just to chalk up another country I had visited. I cannot remember which airport I departed from but I venture that it was either Luton or Stansted – as in where El Cheapairo would fly from.

 

As soon as I got on the plane there was a little girl who suddenly needed to use the loo. The air steward refused to let her go. The poor child was dancing a jib in the aisle. Her mother chivvied the overperfumed air steward enough for him to see sense. I was beside a British couple who were at the arse end of their 50s. The oldish woman beside me said of the child needing to use the lavatory, ”when they need to go they REALLY need to go.” She and her husband visited Malta regularly and as you might expect they praised it very highly. My mother has been considering purchasing a place there in the late 1980s. She had even been on holiday there scouting for properties. They had a friend from there named Carmen. My mother had been decidedly unimpressed and scoffed at the place. I was mindful that a year before the Daily Telegraph has voted it the most disappointing tourist destination.

I do not recall what pap I perused as we sped through the sky. When we landed in Melita is was dark. I felt a thrill rise in me to be on this ”rock of history and romance” as Churchill called it. The airport terminal was not large or pretty. Airport terminals can be becoming. I am an afficionado of travel so I would know. I derive a pathetic pleasure from just wandering terminals and railway stations.

Out into the meeting area. For once in my life I had booked a cab. No one was there to pick me up  of course. I saw a pre-pay taxi service. I went and paid and got the receipt. Off to the taxi rank and away we went. It was a good system. In some countries tourists can be defrauded or worse.  Malta is a very small country. The main island is called Malta – what a shocker! There is Gozo and also Comino. Anyhow, I was on Malta itself.

The taxi driver was a classic specimen of his kind. He was not blessed with height but boasted a venerable girth. He was hirsute and sunkissed.  He spoke superb English with a curious accent that was mild but just enough to remind me that he was not a native speaker of the language. 160 years of British rule ensured that Malta is English speaking. The streets were empty and the buildings were fairly low. What little light there was allowed me to make out many of the buildings were khaki. The place somewhat resembled an Arab country. We were not far from Libya. Malta had had quite a flirtation with Libya in the 1980s. Dom Mintoff, the President at the time, was a socialist who was attracted to the malevolent form of socialism practised by Mummar Al Gadaffi and his sychophants. Dominic Mintoff may also have reasoned that as Libya had a far larger army than Malta did it might be wise to stay on the right side of Libya. Mintoff agreed to a mosque being built on Malta. This was a tendentious move since Malta had forged its identity as a Christian nation battling against its Muslim neighbours. The Siege of Malta is the most illustrious chapter in Malta’s annals. When the azan first rang out from the minaret some Maltese thought someone was shrieking for help.

Gadaffi in his flighty way suddenly took against Malta. He personally drove a bulldozer into a cathedral in Libya. So much for his friendship towards Christians.

ANyhow, the drive dropped me off on a small street. He pointed to the pedestrian lane leading down the hill. A few steps led down to my budget hoteL. In a moment I was checked in by the elderly and diminutive manager. It was time to hit the hay.

The next day I had a good look around the city of Valetta. Valetta is the capital of Malta. It is named after Jean de Vallette – a French knight who helped to save Malta. The Knights of Malta guarded this outpost of Christianity for many centuries. At the time the Med was a Muslim lake. Volunteers from many Catholic countries came to Malta to guard it against the Mohammedans. The Knights of Malta ruled the island until it was conquered by Napoleon. The Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta still exists as a charitable and religious organisation. It has no military or political role anymore.

The city slopes suddenly down to the harbour. The old centre of Valletta is on a promoontory. The Grand Harbour is a handsome and very historic sight. Beige battlements line it with crenellations at regular intervals. I tried to imagine it filled with Ottoman ships firing catapults at the defenders. There is not much sea traffic there now.

There are plenty of pedestrian streets. Even the ones that allow cars are not too crowded. The buildings were almost all the same brown-grey tone – hewn from local stone.

I went into the cathedral. It is not huge and nor is it exquisite inside especially when compared to cathedrals in nearby Italy. But many people were actually praying there. I know, that is remarkable in a European country now. Their fervent faith made up for the fact that the cathedral was merely attractive and not stunning as those in other countries sometimes are.

the place is jam packed with history. There are towers with names such as Poste de France – as in that was a tower guarded by knights from France. There is poste de Allemagne. The German Nation at the time was held to include Scandinavians.

I passed the main square and it was notable for how small it was. It was in proportion to the size of the country. There was the Parliament building and a few other noble public buildings.

I saw some graves of Commonwealth soldiers. I also gazed on war memorials. In the Second World War Malta was under siege from the Third Reich and Italy. Malta was a lynchpin of Allied strategy in the Mediterranean. It was vital fro the Allies to have naval and air bases there. Ships could be refuelled there and restocked. The Royal Air Force could use it to strafe enemy positions. Malta came under sustained aerial bombardment. In the end the entire population was awarded the George Cross. That is the symbol you will see in the ensign of the flag. On the war memorials I read mostly Maltese names. These men were defending their homeland. I suppose some wanted independence and this was obtained after the war. But being a British colony was surely enormously preferable to being subjugated by the Third Reich.

I walked out of the densely packed old city. There was a very large rampart and a trench below it. These were the ancient defences of the fortress city. There were flower beds by the road. I had to walk some distance to find more buildings. I tried the local pastry dishes.

The next day I took the bus to a village not too far away. I went to the beach on my jack jone. Despite the superb weather the place was almost empty. I had a good splash around in the brine. I saw some chubby teenagers there. That reminded me of what I had read in the local rag. Malta has among the worst obesity in the world. The newspaper observed that this was a disgrace because Malta has good weather and countless opportunities for sport.

I spotted a town called Rabat on the map. This is the namesake of the Moroccan capital. It must be indicative of Arab influence. The Maltese language is thought to be a descendant pf PhOENecian. I remember my mother heard Carmen speak it once and she noticed that it sounded like Arabic. This surprised her as she assumed it would be related to Italian since Malat is so close to Italy. But this is not the case. Many Maltese used to look to Italy for influence and spoke Italian as their foreign language. But now English is universal and Malta is part of the comity of Anglophone nations. A Maltese diaspora in Australia and the United Kingdom keeps it like that.

The next day I flew out. I quite liked it and there are a few other things I could see.

 

 

 

A dream about my child

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I was in England going to meet my child. I was on an unoaved road sloping up a somewhat wooded hill. I saw a man some years older than myself. He had thinning brown hair. I knew who he was. I greeted him courteously but uneasily. He responded decently and we had a civil if awkward chat. I went on to meet my child but he was not warm to me. I have been thinking about when I shall see him next and which house he lives in.

Different outcomes for different racial groups in the United Kingdom.

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I recently read that only 0.4% of professors in the United Kingdom are black despite about 3% of th British population being black. I am unconcerned by the racial profile of professors. I do not want anyone who be hindered nor assisted by their race. It could be that black academics are discriminated against. It could be that they are not.
Let us look at income. If one breaks down the UK by religious denomination the highest earning people are Jews. The second highest is the SIkh community. No one can say that these groups have not been discriminated against. Jews were massacred in England in the Middle Ages. Other ethnic groups were massacred by the British Army but abroad not in Great Britain. This does not make it any better but my point is that Jews were gravely mistreated in Great Britain. I know that GB as such did not exist but the atrocity occurred in the major constituent country of Great Britain. The Jews were the only group to be expelled en masse. tHEY Were exluced for 366 years. They were lawfully discriminated against until the 1850s.

Sikhs faced racial discrimination. They were more identifiable than other Indians if they were part of the Khalsa. Men with beards and turbans stood out. Yet look how they have flourished.

Other groups may face unfairness but it can be overcome. Prejudice can only partly explain bad outcomes for other racial groups. High unemployment; worse educational results, a higher incarceration rate etc… cannot be entirely the fault of that bogeyman – white privilege.

I do not like dealing in groups. Individuals must take responsibilty. Treating people are a group is the nub. There is the rub. The race industry wants to deindividualise us and treat us on the basis of our group.

Dreams of the past two nights.

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The night before last I had had some Merlot. I had a nervous dream about being late for the plane and going to the wrong airport. Maybe I was also anxious about upcoming mediation. Moreover, I had not known the terminal until a few hours before I went to bed.

Then last night I had some blithe dream. I was deep asleep when the alarm rang.