No te preocupes, bro

Putting the chur in churros, and other stories

None of what you hear and half of what you see

by juliandavidhughes

You hear some good stories over a pint of soapy lager on a Thursday evening at O’Rileys Irish Pub in Antigua, Guatemala.  It’s a time to get an ear to the ground before the lights are turned down, the music turned up, and the solid wood bar top is transformed into a dancefloor for 15 Guatemalan girls dressed to the nines, and three Englishmen doing their best to keep up.

There’s the stories about getting fleeced by cops on the way home last weekend.  Then there was the thief who was strung up and burned alive in a neighbouring province by a gang of vigilantes.  And perhaps more worryingly the one about the Japanese tourist who either photographed or picked up a child a couple of years ago and was killed by the villagers of Todos Santos Cuchman.  All are more believable when you see an incident happen yourself.

Guatemala City is not a place you want to spend any time in.  A brief internet search  suggests that the City was the third most dangerous city in the world last year.  Baghdad, Iraq, was fourth.

We rolled in completely unprepared to navigate through the city to Antigua.  By the time we had the car pointed in the right direction, it was rush hour, the streets were packed with madmen, and it was starting to get dusky.  When a motorbike two lanes over from me stalled as he was switching into the lane next to me, I took the opportunity to hit the gap that had opened up in front of him.  A red late-model Volvo raced through inches from the truck as I did so.  Shit that was close I thought.  With hunched shoulders I rolled down the window and took a big look behind to make sure no one else was flying through.  As I did, I saw that the stalled motorbike was parked in front of the blue BMW behind me.  Another motorbike was on the passenger side of that car, with a third on the driver’s side.  All had guns – the driver’s side biker was tapping his pistol again the car’s window.  All the bikers were moving their heads quickly side to side, looking for police.  When I stupidly met eyes with the bandito in front, he glanced over to the passenger side bandito and gestured towards the truck with a tilt of his head.  My heart sank.  Well this is it I thought.  I made like the red Volvo and started weaving through tiny gaps in the traffic, keen to get some space between the bikers and my American licence plates.  As we approached a fork in the road ahead, I could see the three bikers racing up in the lane behind me.  Here we go.  Just as I swerved into the exit to the right, the bikers went left, the front motorbiker nodding his head towards me.  We still had an hour left before we would be out of the city, and it was getting darker, but I haven’t felt so relieved as I did in that moment for a very long time.

I’ve spent the last month doing a Spanish course in Antigua.  It is a wonderful city, and was difficult to leave.  There is a certain end of the world feel to the place.  There are regular earthquakes, and the skyline is dominated by three large volcanoes, one of which is active.  A lahar from the closest, Agua, destroyed Guatemala’s first capital in the late 1700s.

I ate three meals a day with a local family that hosts a rotating cast of Spanish language students.  Three fellas in particular became very good friends, and our separate townhouse became a social focal point for other students.  From our terrace most nights we watched Fuego erupt, or a spectacular lightning storm lighting up the sky.  These storms are spectacular – they never fail to impress.

Sofia and I went our separate ways about a month ago now.  Travelling with another person can be enormously stressful, although many couples do it successfully.  In our case unfortunately it didn’t work.  This will be my last post on this blog.  If you’d like to keep up to date with my travels, I’ve started a new blog here:

No te preocupes, bro.


Well that wasn’t what we’d expected

by juliandavidhughes

One of my favourite scenes in The Endless Summer II (c.1995) is where lifetime surfers Pat and Wingnut reinact a scene from the first Endless Summer (c. 1955). They walk over acres and acres of sand dunes on their approach to J-Bay, South Africa, expecting to find the same pristine untouched wilderness that their heroes had done 40 years earlier. Instead they find a sprawling metropolis which has seemingly sprung from nowhere. Classic on screen, but you can’t help but think there is something in the guys’ faux scowls and head shakes.

The drive over from the Oaxaca Coast to the Carribean (and stops in between) was wicked.  The cool mountain refuge of San Cristobal de Las Casas manages to pack countless beautiful colonial buildings into acres of tiny cobbled streets. Palenque with its Mayan temples set in the rainforest is fascinating – but more for me because of the vicious roaring gang of howler monkeys who shared our campsite.  With such a good run, we had high hopes for the affordable wide sand splendour we’d heard about in the east coast town of Tulum.

But the reality was disappointing.  Hotel and casino owners from Cancun, about 100km north, seemed to have turn cabañas and hammock hangouts into ecohotels and detox retreats in the last few years.  The swept beach is a beautiful place to stay, but only if you can fork out more than twice what we were paying in Oaxaca.

It’s cheaper to cruise to Cuba than to fly return from Cancun at the moment.  It was an opportunity too good to pass up, so we bought two tickets for the inaugural voyage last Friday.  Our return tickets included three nights aboard the Interislander-eque Adrianna, buffet meals, drinks, and a lively Cuban expat band to keep it interesting.

But again, reality bit hard.  We showed up at 10am to board, and weren’t served a meal until 7pm.  When the only waiter finally started bringing up some bread with tomato paste and the odd olive at 4, the booze cruisers were literally fighting each other off for a piece.  Confusion reigned, and when we finally cornered the boat owner as we were sailing into Havana, he told us that there would be no return journey on the 21st.   After we docked, the crew couldn’t find four passengers’ passports (which they had held during the cruise…), including ours, for about 45 minutes.  We started getting a bit sketchy here – we’d worked out by now that we were probably on a mob-run drug boat (owned by a Russian construction company), in the dock in a revolutionary state, without ID or a return ticket, and not enough cash to purchase airport departures fees and transfers, let alone flights out.

For now I’ll say crisis averted – we’ll try to get a post up about Cuba soon.

We camped out in the Biosphere south of Tulum the last couple of nights for free.  I’d like to say that it changed my mind about the place – we were treated to a spectacular offshore lightning storm which lit up our own private beach both nights, and swam with turtles up the road in Akumal (photos soon I hope).  But this morning we were robbed by a couple of fellas posing as beach cleaners.  They took my iPod Touch, an underwater digital camera and $200.  We’re a bit gutted, but hopefully insurance will come through, and in the end it is just money.  For me though, Tulum will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth.  I feel like should have been here 30 years ago; it seems we have missed the boat…

We crossed into Belize yesterday, and will probably get to Tikal in Guatemala in the next couple days.   Apologies for the lack of photos – it’s a bit of a mission to put them up, and we’re still working on getting a photo blog looking good and sharp for the Instagram generation.  So keep your pants on for now – it’s about to get a whole lot more vicarious up in here.  Chur for sure.

Bent cops and a city on the brink

by juliandavidhughes

A hard day at the office for American border patrolmen

“Mexico City is on the edge of snapping”.  Ali, our host, seems to see the light side of this situation.  She’s talking about the place where she and her partner Cameron live, from the peace and quiet of their centrally located apartment.  “It is barely functioning as it is, and every small earthquake we have shakes the city like it was built on jelly.  One big one and all hell will break loose around here.”

There is certainly a tension in the air.  Men shake off the protests of drivers to douse and scrub dirty windows with dirty rags at every traffic light.  Toothless mestizos pedal cigarettes, by the single or by the carton.   The drunkards shout at anyone who will listen (in the same nonsensical slur you hear down at Foodtown Dominion Road).  And then there is the traffic itself.  No one will give up their hard-earned place in the queues for ambulances to pass through.  Cars will keep streaming through lights after they’ve turned red, despite blocking lines of other vehicles which haven’t moved in the last 10 minutes.  In a city of 26 million people (by some estimates), we learned pretty quickly that you have to give yourself over to the beast and just go with it.

But not before the police had the chance to set us straight.

We were heading to the Frida Kahlo museum “Casa Azul”, and couldn’t find a place to turn left off Calle Grande Cola.  So we did a “Mexican” and moved into the centre to muscle into a gap amongst the oncoming traffic.  The federal police were watching though and pulled us over right away.

We’d been preparing for this, so had photocopied all of our documentation and handed them (rather than originals) over when asked.  But we weren’t prepared for the fine for interfering with the autobus lane – 40 days’ minimum wage (about NZ$250), with the vehicle to be impounded until we paid.

In the end we just flat-out refused to cooperate.  “We didn’t know about the fine…There was no sign preventing left turns…We won’t follow you to the impound yard officer, and we don’t have any money anyway…Is there “any other way” we could pay someone to let us off with a warning…We’ll just take some photos of your car and badges while we work through this…Give us some time to see what is going on here.”

And somehow it worked.  The boys in blue walked away after 20 or 30 minutes of no headway.  We came away without a fine or even a warning.  All it took was being stubborn asses.  And (if I may say so) we are both pretty good at that.

The city itself is actually very clean, very beautiful (more on that later) and very safe.  In fact, I was never out of my comfort zone the whole 14 hour drive down here, despite 70 bodies turning up in Northern Mexico the weekend before we crossed the border.  The drug war, or “difficulties” as they refer to it in the Northern States, is very real.  But (touch wood) it does not seem to affect the tourists the way it does the locals.

For all of its honking, high altitude, helicopter buzzing, deep-fried, tequila swilling madness, I really like this place.  It is almost like Mad Max in a way.  It is a hell of a ride if you can let go and just get into it.  Just make sure to put on your crazy eyes before going outside.  And make sure you shout louder than the drunkards.

Photos to come.  Some recent highlights:

Mitt Romney territory

Suburban rodeo, Colorado

Sofia makes a wrong turn; winds up in the shite

Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas

Sof riding it out, the GMC in the background at left

Collateral damage in the radiator. (photo: Sof)

Keeping easy in Austin. The city is a blue dot in a red sea, and feels like the San Francisco of the deep south.

Calm before the storm. (photo: Sof)

Beer and posing in Las Vegas

by juliandavidhughes

Have fun, but do not dive into our pools

We were someplace around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’

I started re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing poolside at Circus Circus.  Sof had to stop me when my particular whinnying laugh started frightening the babies.  Although our hardest drug was tequila, the experience was at times as bizarre as Dr Gonzo’s – driving through the Nevada desert at 80 miles an hour, the local wild hares started sacrificing themselves under our front tires.  And then there was the chilly bin casually flying airplane-like above the highway, in a place where we hadn’t seen any evidence of human life for 10 miles or so…

Channeling HST at the discount gun range.

We loved it enough to stay for five nights.  Shooting guns, La Reve at the Wynn, the Wynn itself, clubbing, the aquarium, blackjack tables, dueling pianos at New York New York, nudie revues, outlet shopping, soaking it all in through our cheap sunglasses and beer filters.  Just spending time in and around the casinos was fascinating – so much coin must go into these things that you almost don’t feel bad donating your gambling losses to the cause.

Riifraff outside of Caesar’s Palace

A little bit of this town goes a very long way. After five days in Vegas, you feel like you’ve been here for five years.

Maybe we didn’t indulge enough to make it seem like 5 years.  Or perhaps the Las Vegas of today isn’t what it was 30+ years ago – money is the ultimate arbiter, chemical excess is soo yesterday, and there is little room to stray beyond the various laws and regulations are omnipresent in this country, even in a city where those rules are meant to be broken. Whatever the case, we’ll be back.

Next stop – trespassing in paradise, campfire quesadillas, and the Great Divide.

Another busker hustling for cash (at the Wynn)

A good day to be a hologram

by juliandavidhughes

e.g. what's with the octopus man?

It was 40 degrees before midday Friday in Indio California.  The 180 kg security guard searching our vehicle before the Coachella Music Festival wasn’t doing too good in his long sleeve black polyester uniform.  His movements were laboured, and the sweat pouring off his brow undermined any authority he may have had on the door of a Palm Springs casino.  When I asked him if it was warm enough for him, he tilted his head skywards, glanced at me sideways and waved us with as little effort as possible, saying “it’s gone be warm this weekend”.  And it was. Carrie Brownstein from Wild Flag, peering into the unrelenting sun and harassed fans at about 4pm on Saturday summed it up well when she said “it’s a good day to be a hologram”.

Buddha Buddha Buddha Buddha rocking everywhere

We bought our vehicle from a walking talking cliché of a man in Oakland, east of San Francisco.  When we saw an ex-cable television pickup with a camper on the back sitting in a yard full of heavy haulage vehicles, we knew we had to have it.

Misha, the Russian Jewish jujitsu fighting identity crisis suffering used car salesman must have known he was going to sell her as soon as he saw us.  He only stopped feigning ignorance about the California ‘Lemon Law'(allowing vehicle  purchasers to return a shoddy vehicle within two days, no questions) when I pointed to a poster informing us about it on his wall.  We didn’t push the matter further when Misha started to pull the pin on the sale, and bought the truck on the spot.  We would regret that decision hours later when she wouldn’t start, even after a jump.

Crisis was averted when the car started after the towing company callout.  But we might have a niggly transmission and air con unit for the next 25,000 km or so…

We made it to Coachella after a full on week buying, registering, gutting and refitting our truck (more on that later).  The music was spectacular when temperatures dropped into the 30s.  Dre and friends, Beirut and Radiohead as expected.  GIVERS, Andrew Bird and DJ Gris (on the DoLaB stage) were some wicked surprises.  We’ve been chilling with SoCal whanau the last couple days, will shift to Barstow and on to Vegas this weekend.  Chahoo.

Man with chicken

Coachella at night from the ferris wheel

Coachella at night from the ferris wheel

Caning it

Hola compadres

by juliandavidhughes

The authors, donning traditional South American dress

And so it starts

In less than a week now, both Sofia and I will have started our journey, with Sof flying Air New Zealand on Tuesday and me flying Qantas on Saturday, to San Francisco.  The goal is straightforward enough: drive to the southern tip of South America.  But no doubt there will be plenty of hiccups, triumphs and other stories to share on the way.

We want to keep you up to date with how we’re going, but we don’t want to bombard you either.  So we’ll aim for a weekly-ish entry of our highlights.

How to follow us

So how can you best track our movements?

First, check out the Google map that we’ve drawn up here.  As you can see, we might not have drawn up a day-by-day narration of everywhere we want to go.  But we have marked out some likely places where we will stop on the drive down.  This map is an ongoing project, so please (please!) send us any suggestions for anything that we have (and shouldn’t have) missed.

Secondly, follow our blog by clicking on the link below.  That way you’ll receive an email automatically when we publish an entry, so you don’t have to keep checking the website.

No te preocupes, bro

All sorted?  Mean.  Sit back, relax, and get ready for some good times – we know we are.  We’re looking forward to sharing the adventure with you.

– Sof and Jules

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