Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a French couple with halitosis. Well, it was actually last Tuesday, but since I’ve added to this I didn’t want to change that fabulous first line. It was interesting for two reason: firstly, I believe I have answered the great open problem of our time, why the French so spectacularly pause in the middle of every sentence, as brilliantly portrayed by everyone’s favourite Frenchman Arsene Wenger; and secondly, uncovered for myself in the same conversation, every linguist’s nightmare. And indeed, the two are fabulously linked. The French only pause because they’re trying not to speak Spanish.
And with this same French couple, I can classify a first for me (and possibly ever) in knowing more languages than a fellow European. In Antigua mixing with other students, the language spoken was English. Even by the Dutch (with the Canadians, the powerhouses of foreign travel), the Germans, the Belgian, the Danes, the Norwegians etc. who could all (presumably) speak their own language too. And normally they spoke German on top. And more often than not French too. And we were all learning Spanish. So I felt first hand the shame of the Englishman abroad, shared only by Americans and English-speaking Canadians, who, quite frankly, we all want to dissociate ourselves from.
I digress. This French couple only spoke French. Merely by having a conversation with them in French, I had trumped them! And I still had Spanish to throw into the mix, which I did, to sheer amazement from the Frenchies (think Elmer Fudd’s jaw dropping to the ground when he realises Buggs is behind him). l’Angleterre 1-0 la France. A European victory of which Brian Clough would have been proud.
However, if I’d have had this conversation four weeks ago, it would have been (relatively) painless. Other than ordering some lunch at Brussels Gare Centrale last year, I haven’t had a meaningful conversation in French for 5 years. Now of course, my brain is brimming with Spanish. Which leads us nicely to our first interesting reason. In the middle of every sentence, just like native Francophones everywhere, I had to stop to make sure what I was about to say was actually French, and not Spanish; which brings us nicely to our second interesting point, trying to remember a word in one language when all you can think of is the same word in another language. Impossible. And interestingly, that too happened ordering lunch at Brussels Gare Centrale last summer. But that’s another story.
Anyway, this conversation was taking place in a minibus on the way to Semuc Champey in central Guatemala, a collection of natural pools in a limestone bridge over a river. Located in the middle of a gorge, there was a half hour walk up to a mirador to take the picture above, which was located right at the top. Luckily, the picture there is only of the top half of me, so you can’t really see the buckets of water that were sweated to get up to the top. But thankfully, once back down to the bottom again, we could go swimming and so had a lovely nice relaxing swim in these cool pools (and used it as a good chance to wash my feet). It was absolutely gorgeous there.
After Semuc, we drove on to see some caves, which were quite frankly disappointing, if only because I thought we were going to some different ones. In Antigua, some Canadians I met said they’d gone to some caves near Semuc where you had to hold a candle and go swimming through them, up rope ladders and a right proper adventure. Sounded brilliant. Little did I know that when I booked the trip saying “it does go to the caves, doesn’t it?” there were actually some shit little other caves near there too. But hey ho. They were your standard stalactite-stalagmite affair, bit dull. I have however removed my job application to Cheddar Gorge forthwith, as I couldn’t make out any of the shapes they were meant to look like, however hard I looked, except for el torre, the tower, which was, well, just like a tower.
The next day, I headed north to the town of Flores, an island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza. I was riding with who turned out to be a Guatemalan archaeologist who used to be a tour guide in Coban, and was very helpful in explaining everything along the way. The road used to be a dirt track until about 8 years ago, and what took just over 5 hours today used to take well over 12 hours before it was paved.
Joining us halfway were Scott and Giona, Scott an American medicine student and Giona an Italian alcohol salesman. They had the same plan as I did, so we went on together. In the morning (4.30am start, eek, supposedly to see the sunrise, but we, ahem, missed it being still in the bus and asleep and all) we went to the Mayan city of Tikal in the middle of what is now a rainforest. It was the main city in the Mayan world between 600BC and 900AD (stretching to well over 6 square miles) when it was just abandoned, for reasons still unknown to experts today. Our guide thought it was just to give us a headache today – why did they leave? just to annoy the future. It was ridiculously impressive, moreso than all the ruins I went to in Mexico. Many of the uncovered pyramids (though they shouldn’t officially be called pyramids cos they don’t have a pointy top) tower over the rainforest, and there was a ladder to the top of one of them (Temple V) 60m above the ground. In typical Guatemalan health and safety, there was only about a 2 foot ledge to stand on at the top, and of course no guide rail. You got the feeling that if there was a sudden gust of air, right down to the bottom you’d tumble.
I had what could probably only be described as a whistle-stop tour of Belize. I came in on Thursday, and was gone on Sunday. I didn’t really have much planned to do there other than have a few days sitting on the beach relaxing, but in the end compared to Guatemala it was far too expensive.
The big thing that all the tourists do in Belize is go to the Cayes, a group of islands just off the coast from Belize City, which are excellent for diving and snorkelling. So Giona and I ignored them and headed south instead, to a town called Dangriga, also on the beach. On the way, we passed through the smallest capital city in the world Belmopan, which was tiny. About the size of Clifton (for the Brizzle readers), or half the size of Paddock Wood (for the Kent readers). Dangriga was smaller still, and there was FA to do there.
We went with a couple of Irish girls from the hostel to a Jaguar Reserve just round the corner for an extortianately priced walk in a forest to try and see some jaguars. The only thing I saw was a one-armed Italian fall into a waterfall. Which was more than enough for me.
I’ll give a quick run-down on public bus services in the two countries. In both cases, there’s a driver and a conductor. Guatemala: the bus ambles from the bus station (read: collection of buses in the middle of the market), slowly through the town, while the conductor shouts both to and at anyone walking on the street where they’re going, in the vain hope that those people may not be going about their business in the town, and could just happen to want to jump on a bus to a different city. After 2 minutes, we stop, while the conductor jumps off and goes and walks around the street shouting at some more people. Then after getting going again, we stop after another 2 minutes to repeat the process. About 20 minutes after leaving the bus station, we actually leave the town, stopping to pick up and drop off people wherever they may be, or wherever they may happen to want to go. I actually think that’s the best bit about the buses. Space isn’t an issue, just budge up if there’s no room, 2 or 3 to a seat. No standing room cos they’ve squeezed so many seats in.
Belize: everyone congregates in the bus station, and when the bus arrives have a massive free-for-all bundle to see who can get the few precious spaces on the bus. No budging up here, if you’re not lucky you wait an hour til the next bus and repeat the process. All the women and children wait an hour til the next bus and repeat the process.
From Dangriga we headed south again to the town of Placencia, a lovely little town on a peninsula, again with FA to do except the beach, but the weather wasn’t too great so we moved on after one day. Taking the bumpiest boat ever (was only a little one and it was going far too quickly, so covered in bruises from all the bumps over the waves) we left Belize to return briefly into Guatemala. There I left Giona, and headed on with a couple of Australians into Honduras, but that’s another story for another time.