Buenos dias! We've arrived, we're alive and we're in one piece - so far, so good.....
Little Brother Ollie and I successfully touched down in Cancun, Mexico late last night and are about to venture out into the city for our first proper full day (for those who don't know already, 'Little Brother Ollie' [as he will be referred to, despite his protests] is accompanying me on this trip for the first ten days). We are six hours behind here and our body clocks are still running on UK time. As a result, I'm up very early this morning, so thought I'd take the opportunity to write a few lines and get this blog off to a start. You might think I'd have nothing to say considering we've only spent time in the air above the Atlantic Ocean so far, but then you obviously didn't read my last blog....! :)
Truthfully, though, the trip has been very eventful already - mostly thanks to our experience and exchanges with customs and immigration officials. First off, we almost failed at the very first hurdle - arriving at Heathrow and being told we couldn't board our flight because we hadn't submitted a US Visa form. Apparently, despite the fact that we were only stopping in Miami Airport for a 2 hour changeover en route to Cancun, we still had to fill out this form (arguably, this was my fault for not researching properly, but let's not focus on that...). To make things even more interesting, it turns out you're meant to submit this documentation 72 hours before departure - good start!
Anyway, it all worked out in the end and we were eventually allowed to board. There was still time for an intense grilling from the check-in security guy - he was not happy with me at all, and apparently my name flashed up with a travel security alert, which could make things interesting later on in the trip.
This was nothing compared to the interrogation from the customs official at Miami airport, though. Our exchange went something like this:
"How long are you in Miami?"
"Oh, only two hours - we're just catching a connecting flight to Cancun."
Raised eyebrow -
"How long are you in Mexico for?"
"My brother is only staying for ten days, but I'll be staying for a few weeks before heading across the border into Guatemala."
Two raised eyebrows -
"I'm going to be travelling through Latin America for nine months, flying back from Rio in February next year."
Why are you doing that!?"
"Umm..... to travel, for fun, to see another part of the world, meet new people..."
"It's a a very dangerous world out there, lots of bad people, it's not at all safe South of the border!"
This 'conversation' carried on in the same vein for about another ten minutes, during which time the customs official make the following astonishing statements:
"All US citizens have been advised not to travel anywhere..... because of Osama." "If I went to Mexico, I would get shot in the head... just because I'm American." "You really shouldn't go anywhere on your own." "How do you know there isn't a serial killer sleeping in your dormitory? You can't always tell just by looking at people...."
Initially, this whole exchange was a little unnerving, then it just got so preposterous it became funny, then quite irritating... then just a little bit sad. It became clear that the customs officer totally believed everything she was saying, and was delivering this 'advice' without a hint of irony or humour. Bear in mind, this is the first person visitors to the US (many of them travelling on to Latin America) will encounter on their trip. For someone travelling for the first time, on their own, not really sure what to expect, very excited but also a little nervous, this could potentially ruin their trip before it even begins.
The saddest thing is, this official is not alone. Many people share her ill-informed, naive opinions, based on nothing but hear-say and reactionary media coverage rather than first-hand experience. It's not just the US - lots of people back home have a similar attitude - but the level of paranoia in the US seems to be on another level. When you consider that only 20 per cent of the US population own a passport, and the rest have therefore never left their own country, how much can you really heed their warnings about the big, scary world out there? If FOX News is your only trusted source of information about what's going on around the globe, then you're always going to be scared and paranoid regarding foreign travel.
Even back home, from conversations I've had with people before departing on this trip, I've noticed that those who have been shocked about my plans, warned me to be extra careful and regailed me with horror stories about the region, are mostly people who have never actually been here (or anywhere comparable) themselves. On the other hand, those who reacted positively, saying how jealous they are and what an amazing time I'm going to have, tend to be those who actually have first-hand travel experience in the region. I think this speaks volumes.
Anyway, I could bore you some more on this subject, but I don't want this blog to become a place where I moan and bitch all the time - I just wanted to get that off my chest! :)
The short version of this blog is: We've arrived safely and we're currently staying in a great, sociable hostel in down town Cancun. It'll be a chilled out day on the beach today, but then we'll be off exploring some of the numerous Mayan ruins and idyllic islands just offshore over the next few days. Next time I write I'll actually have something worthwhile to say about the trip (with some nice photos) - I promise!
Adios for now.....
PS. If you want a very informative, unbiased look at Latin America - especially focused on the politics and 'dictators' of the region - check out Oliver Stone's recent documentary 'South of the Border'.