Sunday 25 September 2011

Mugged Off!

We're going unchronological for the first time, here - I still have 3 weeks in Nicaragua to fill you in on before the 7 days I've just spent in Costa Rica, but a certain event in this last week has blown everything else to the back of my mind.

I'm not quite sure how this blog is going to turn out - I'll try to avoid blathering too much, but I haven't planned what to write in the way I usually do. The reason for this change from the norm is that I was mugged last night (as I write this on Saturday [24/9] afternoon). Not such a rare occurrence in Central America, and never a nice experience, but this was particularly nasty because of the level of intimidation involved, the setting of the incident, and the fact that I was completely alone and taken by surprise.

To be honest, I'm not even sure I'll publish this piece - it's just often very helpful to get something like this out of my head and down on paper. I always feel better after writing, but understand that what I'm writing here might not be of much interest to readers - think of yourselves as a collective shrink, and this is my online, therapeutic brain dump. Pero, vamos a ver que pasa!

To set the scene: I was in a small town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, called Cahuita - known for its picturesque beaches and close proximity to the National Park of the same name. It's not devoid of tourists, but also not a hot spot; many visitors to the area opt to stay in the larger settlement of Puerto Viejo, just down the road. I chose my accommodation at random - mostly based on the cheapness criteria, but also because the place had WiFi and I was desperate to watch the England V. Romania RWC game on my laptop later in the evening (the games aren't on TV over here... grrrr). As it turned out, the place I chose also happens to be the first hotel listed in Lonely Planets Central America on a Shoestring guidebook.

The first sign that maybe this town isn't the idyllic beach paradise that it seems on the surface came when one of the hotel owners (the hotel is run by a friendly Dutch couple) demonstrated how I should use a big stick to wedge the dormitory door shut at night so "people can't get in while you're sleeping...". A little unnerving, but perhaps just precautionary, I thought, and there was one other girl in the dorm, so I wasn't going to be alone.

After an enjoyable day rolling around in sand, splashing about in sea and gallivanting through the National Park, I returned to the hotel in the late afternoon and joined the very few other guests (it's most definitely low season in CAm now!) on the patio at the back of the pleasant enclosed garden. Everyone was chatting and a couple of people were tapping away on their laptops, so I decided to plug mine in too and get some work done while I had the chance.

Afternoon turned into evening and night fell (it's always dark very early here - by 6pm at the latest), and, one-by-one, my companions left the patio to get dinner, go to the nearby bar, or just retire to their rooms. Eventually, and unbeknownst to me, the two owners also left the property just before 8pm to go and pick up some more guests from the nearby bus station. By this time, I'd finished working on my laptop and started to write some notes in my journal instead. I can remember vaguely thinking that I should probably pack my stuff away soon and actually closed the computer screen so there wasn't a bright glare to be seen from the street outside.

This was to no avail though, because no more than 5 minutes after I'd been left alone, and literally just as I was writing my last sentence and preparing to pack everything away, movement near the hotel wall caught the corner of my eye. I looked up to see a dark figure suddenly appear, moving rapidly towards me. It took a split second for me to realise exactly what was going on, but once I saw his face - or really, just his eyes, as all the other features were covered with thick white tape - and the appearance of another guy behind him, with his t-shirt pulled over his face, there was no longer any question as to what was occurring. I can remember letting out a quick "Oh, fuck" and jumping out of my chair, before my first new friend grunted, in English: "Stay still!". I'm pretty sure there was no thought in my mind of attempting to resist these two guys, but if there was, this evaporated the instant I saw the size of the knife 'nuevo amigo numero dos' had brought to show me.

I said, "OK, OK" about 6 times in rapid succession, and lifted my hands, palms facing forward, to make it obvious that I was co-operating and didn't want a closer introduction to the knife. However, what happened next was the absolute worst few seconds of the whole experience: as the first guy (Mr.White-Face) went straight for the laptop, as expected, the second guy (Mr.Knife-Wielder) rounded the table and came straight for me, knife first. I had no real time to think anything, but can remember fear and confusion as to why he would still want to stab me when I was being so obviously co-operative with regards to my valuable possessions. He came close enough so the knife was touching my t-shirt, but the metallic thrust that I was half-expecting by now never came; instead, he proceeded to stuff his grimy hands into my pockets and rummage around. I am strangely grateful for this, because his rapid advance and menacing manner with the knife had made me think he was just going to stab me no matter what and my 'flight or fight' response was milliseconds away from kicking-in and taking the only option available with my being jammed into the corner of the outside wall with no escape options. I don't even want to think about what the outcome of this scenario would have been....

Luckily, he just wanted to rub salt in my metaphorical wounds, rather than inflict any real ones; by picking my pockets as well as stealing the laptop I had only purchased three weeks previously. He was also an exceedingly shoddy pocket-picker - somehow conspiring to miss not only the $20 I had in one pocket, but also the iPod (with all my precious, precious music) that was in another. A small victory for me - not something I celebrated in the moment, but it did provide a little cold comfort afterwards.

While this was all going on, the other unwelcome visitor had grabbed my laptop and, after starting to leave only to quickly return and grab the charge cable as well (obviously more thorough than his friend), they were gone.

Needless to say, I was a little dumbfounded and stood motionless for a while; frozen with adrenaline, as it were. Once I managed to rouse myself, the female hotel owner appeared at the entrance gate, greeting me pleasantly. I stumbled over a couple of words, but finally managed to relay what had just happened. She was just as shocked as me, and led me straight to the police station. The police seemed rather less surprised and didn't seem to have many expectations or inclinations to catch the perpetrators. As is often the case in these situations, they assumed that the main thing I wanted was a police report (something I had to fill in myself!) in order to claim on my insurance. Fair enough, I suppose, but little comfort at the time, and I'm not entirely sure that my insurance will come through as I bought the laptop in Nicaragua, not the UK. We will see...

Over the course of what remained of the evening (during which I drank three cans of beer and smoked six cigarettes in an impressively short period of time) I had a series of discussions with the owners. Things started to piece together and I am now almost convinced I know who the two men actually were.

Opposite the hotel, across the street, lives a local guy who has something of an unspoken agreement with the hotel owners that they watch each others properties at times when the respective owners are absent. Myself and the lady owner went to speak with the neighbour directly after the incident (before the police station). Strangely, he wasn't sitting on his porch as usual, and only appeared a few seconds later - shirtless and sweating - at the bottom of the road. He was very confused by what had occurred - declaring ignorance to all of this and unable to understand how anyone could have entered the property without him seeing them. He seemed genuinely angry; cursing the guys who give his neighbourhood a bad name, and asking lots of questions about what I could remember, and what the guys looked like. I was still in no position to think straight, though, and just thanked him for his concern.

Once we had been to the police station and returned to the hotel, it was my turn to be shocked again, when the hotel owner casually inquired, "So, you're sure it wasn't him across the street, then?". On reflex, I said, "No, I don't think so... and doesn't he look after your place?". After a little hesitation, she revealed certain details that have now pretty much convinced me that this 'helpful neighbour' was actually the guy with the knife.

First off, it turns out that he is a local drug dealer (a very broke drug dealer, currently, in the low season). Also, his porch is the only place from which it is possible to see into the hotel garden, and he is the only person with access to the power for the lights on the street directly outside. The lights that were mysteriously without power at the time of the mugging. The speed at which everything happened and the uncanningly good timing - occurring in the few minutes that I was alone on the patio, and the owners had gone to the bus stop - doesn't seem to be chance. It suggests that only someone who could see into the front garden (i.e. only him) would know I was there, with a laptop, and alone. There was also planning involved - especially the full taping of the other guys face, and the acquisition of a rather hefty knife. This wasn't a random, opportunist event; it was planned by someone who could see into the property, track proceedings throughout the evening, and know the perfect time to strike.

As things fell into place, and these suspicions began to take root, more movement at the end of the path caught my eye once again. I looked up to see someone approaching out of the dark: My gut tightened and I nearly jumped out of my chair with the realisation that it was the knife-wielder from before. But then he shouted a greeting, and I realised it was actually just the guy from across the road. My mind was racing though: 'Wait... are they the same guy...!?'. It was a horrible feeling, but apparently he had just come over to see if I was OK and to see if I could give a better description of the guys.

"There was the tall guy in dark clothes with his face taped up, and then the smaller guy with the knife....", I said. He was also wearing jeans.... [just like the neighbour].... and exactly the same height, but with a t-shirt pulled over his head.

"Ah, you see," said the guy. "I don't own no t-shirts." This seemed an incredibly odd remark to make, but he continued, "I just don't want people accusing me, that's all. That always seems to happen".

Then he asked me if the guys were black or white. I answered in the former, to which he replied, "What, really dark, or similar to me?". I had to bite my tongue from saying, 'exactly like you', and instead remained uncommital about it.

By this stage I was almost fully convinced that I knew who had so very recently held a knife to my stomach, but something still didn't quite fit: why would he come back so soon after the event and ask so many questions in a transparent attempt to clear his name, doesn't he realise he's just making me more suspicious of him? Then I remembered the cack-handed manner in which my pockets had been unsuccessfully picked; only an idiot wouldn't have realised one pocket was full of money, and the other bulging with an iPod and headphones. Also, only an idiot - possibly a drug-dealer who's used to much of his own supply over the years - would return so soon to the scene of his own recent crime and make suspiciously obvious efforts to clear his name and declare his innocence.

When the owners later mentioned another well-known, tall and lanky dealer - an acquaintance of the neighbour from across the street - who had recently stolen a phone from a cleaner at their hostel, I thought maybe we'd found the identity of the tall, thin guy who appeared first, his face shrouded in tape.

Now, I understand this is all just conjecture and guesswork, and it's very, very possible that these guys are completely innocent, but everything seems to fit together very conveniently. Obviously, there is still nothing in the way of real proof, though. This, combined with the fact that the police seemed rather unbothered the first time I visited, the knowledge that my Spanish definitely isn't advanced enough to delicately relay these suspicions (without making them sound like certainties), and the questionable intelligence of accusing a known drug dealer across the street from your hotel of being the person who was more than willing to break into said hotel and threaten you at uncomfortably close proximity with a large knife, prevented me from acting on these suspicions. Because that's still all they were - suspicions.... very, very strong suspicions, but practically unproveable nonetheless. Early the next morning - after a quick word with the owners about perhaps choosing their neighbourhood-watch partners more carefully - I left town. With a slightly lighter backpack.

So, there you have it - my massive brain-shit - written in under an hour, less than 24 hours after the event, and smeared all over my otherwise lovely blog. I feel better already! :)

I'd like to write about my other wonderful adventures in Costa Rica, but I've only been here for a week and, to be honest, everything else has kind of blurred into the background now. I did spend two nights in San Jose (the capital) - a fairly nice place during the day, but seemingly warping into a city-wide no-mans land at night; all hotels crank up their security - locked doors, barbed wire, strictly no guest policies and armed guards - and everyone tells you, "Don't go that way, it's dangerous". One day I went on a quick, bus-driven ascent of Costa Ricas tallest volcano - Volcan Irazu (3431m) - although thick cloud cover and intermittent heavy rain, prevented much of a view.

My other time in the country has been spent on the Caribbean coast - really, truly beautiful beaches and waters (as I've learnt to expect from the Caribbean) but those recent personal events, stories of other muggings in the last few days and constant hassle from drug-peddling locals, have led me to believe that maybe this place isn't really the picture-perfect paradise is purports to be. I realise that my current negativity towards this part of the world is majorly a product of last nights experience, but I'm still quite looking forward to getting out of here and over the border into Panama..... I hear they do cheap laptops.

Oh, and by the way, I had the most f*ckin incredible three weeks in Nicaragua - possibly my favourite country so far - so let's look forward (or backward?) to that lovely, mugging-free relation of events; a return to nice blogs with lots of pretty pictures in my next entry, I promise! :)

Here's a Nicaraguan sunset to help us on the way back to happy.....:

Saturday 10 September 2011

Honduras - Under, Over & Around

After my whirlwind sprint through Belize, I was glad to have a little more time for exploration in the country just across the aptly named 'Golfo de Honduras'. During my two weeks in Honduras, I squeezed in three main stops: diving under the water on Utila, traipsing over the mountains in Gracias, and wandering around the ruins at Copan. The former and the latter are very popular tourist stops - well worth the visit, but overrun by foreigners - which is why I also endeavoured to get off the beaten track with a trip to the tiny, colonial town of Gracias in between.

Captain Morgan's dive dock
Honduras is a country of contrasts; especially considering the tourist hubs of Utila and Copan. Both have attracted vast numbers of travellers for many years and, as such, have become noticeably westernised - English is spoken everywhere, there are no shortage of hotels, restaurants and bars and everything is pricier than elsewhere in the country. Many visitors don't explore outside these two hotspots, which is a real shame because they won't experience anything authentically Honduran, but this also means that those who do want to find the 'real' country don't have to venture too far afield to do so.

Some people are also put off travelling extensively around Honduras because of its bad reputation in terms of crime. This is a reputation that's not completely undeserved - the main cities can be very 'sketchy' (even by general Central American standards) and hotel owners in San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba were quick to insist that I didn't take local buses (because of the alarming frequency of armed robberies) and suggested that it's not really a good idea to go anywhere with any form of transport after dark. However, the smaller towns - like Gracias - are perfectly safe and friendly, but highly under-visited and unappreciated by the majority of travellers in the country; largely, I believe, due to the horror stories that people hear about the bigger cities, and end up extrapolating this to cover the entire country.

Preparing to dive
First port of call for me was a week of underwater adventures on the Bay Islands. There are three landmasses that come under the Bay Islands banner: Utila, Roatan and Guanaja. Guanaja is more of an exclusive resort, package holiday place, and therefore way out of my budget range. Roatan is the biggest island, with a highly developed infrastructure, great beaches and a popular destination for cruise ships. Utila is a lot smaller - only about 5km long - but by no means quaint; the cheaper price of food and lodging has created quite a backpacker scene and you never have to look far to find a party. All things considered, I opted for Utila as the location for my introduction to scuba diving. The second part of the decision-making process was even harder; once on the island, there are literally scores of diving schools to choose from. After much deliberation, I went with 'Captain Morgan's Dive School' - a decision I became more pleased with at every stage of my three day course. One of the primary factors that dictated my choice of school was the unique location of CM's dive school and hotel. All the other schools are situated along the main strip on Utila - cramped, noisy, mosquito-filled and next to the main road that used to be tranquil and pedestrianised, but now play hosts to never-ending moped and quad bike races. Captain Morgans, on the other hand, is hidden away from the main island - just off the southwest coast, on the tiny 'Jewel Cay'; no traffic, no other tourists, and best of all, no mosquitos!

Boats on Jewel Cay
Jewel Cay definitely isn't party central but I figured it might be a good idea to abstain a little during the first couple of days of my course, and then return to the main island for as much drinking and debauchery as was required once I was qualified. Furthermore, the dive school/hotel is in an outstandingly beautiful location - floating above the ever-perfect Caribbean on the edge of the Cay. The few locals who run small businesses on the island are incredibly friendly and welcoming and there was a great group of other students and instructors living in the hotel.

There aren't enough superlatives to describe just how incredible those three days were. Scuba diving is, without doubt, something that has to be experienced to be believed. Just the sensation of breathing underwater is enough to blow your mind - completely unnatural and a very strange feeling at the start. Once your confused brain realises that you're not drowning, a whole new world of possibilities are opened up. By day two I was down to 12m, and by the final afternoon I was happily gliding around at 18m.

Not only is Utila one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive, it's also conveniently perched above the second biggest barrier reef in the world. This, combined with the teeming marine life and pristine clear waters, means that the quality of diving here is unsurpassed at all but a handful of other dive sites around the globe. Each day we were treated to never-ending walls of coral - as far as the underwater eye can see - bursting with colour and home to an astonishing array of aquatic creatures. Without wanting to stumble into cliche, it was a life-changing three days - in terms of the underwater world that was previously off-limits but which I am now free to explore - and one of the most rewarding pursuits I've ever pursued. I'm now seriously considering taking an advanced course at some point later in my trip.

On returning to Utila proper, I was greeted by a tropical storm warning and the cancellation of all ferries back to the mainland for the next couple of days. This wasn't too much of a hindrance as I was planning to stay for another couple of days anyway and, to be completely honest, the prospect of experiencing my first tropical storm was a little exciting (without casualties or destruction of homes and livelihoods, of course). It turned out to be disappointingly tame, though - the weather system only just brushed past us, resulting in something that resembled more of an average autumnal storm in the UK rather than the apocalyptic sheets of driving rain, crashing thunder and rakes of lightning that I was expecting. (Of course, I now realise that this was probably all for the best).

Once back on the mainland, I had a rather convoluted journey to Gracias - one ferry, two taxis and two buses, with extended waiting periods in between. This is largely because Gracias is not somewhere that flags up on most traveller's itineraries - it definitely wasn't somewhere I had intended to visit and I wasn't even aware of its existence until a local girl on Utila recommended it to me. After a little reading and research, I decided it would be a good idea to head somewhere a little more 'Honduran' in between my planned visits to the islands and the ruins.

Gracias hasn't always been so unnoticed - it was actually the Spaniards chosen capital for the whole of Central America in the mid 1500's. That title was soon moved to bigger cities in Guatemala, though, and the importance of Gracias has waned since. However, its short time in the Spanish spotlight was enough to result in quaint, cobbled streets, a beautiful town square and a number of impressive colonial houses and churches. Even with these architectural attractions, the real highlight for me was the surrounding landscape - high up in the mountains, next to a natural park and with views of the highest peak in Honduras. It's also only a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride to the nearby hot springs. I decided to walk the couple of kilometres instead - along the near-deserted highway, with phenomenal views over the lush, green highland surrounds. The springs themselves were a welcome relief after my sticky jaunt - three steaming pools of turquoise-coloured, bath-temperature, freshwater. Reminiscent of Fuentes Georginas in Xela (mentioned in this blog), but I preferred the Honduran option for their more secluded location and lack of other bathers.

Walking to Hot Springs
After bidding 'Adios' to Gracias, I headed back to tourist territory for my final stop in the country - Copan Ruinas. The fact that the town has been christened 'Copan Ruins' (as well as the actual ruins themselves) reveals the extent to which this place is primarily focused on the promotion of the nearby Maya structures.

As I'm sure has gradually become clear over the course of this blog, my obsession for ancient ruins is on a par with my penchant for volcano-climbing, monkey-spotting, and close-up insect photography. Despite this love for old piles of stones, I did feel like I'd already seen Muchas Maya ruins and did think twice about whether it was worth going slightly out my way to visit another site.

The ruins at Copan are nowhere near the scale of Calakmul, Tikal or Chichen Itza, but instead offer more subtle rewards that are only revealed upon closer inspection, rather than hitting you between the eyes from afar. One of the most dominant and cultured Maya civilisations was based here during the Classic Maya Period (250-900AD), with a surplus of highly skilled craftsmen and sculptors among their number. As a result, the Copan site is covered in intricately carved stelae, statues and temples - including the center-piece attraction, 'Hieroglyphic Stairway'; 63 steep stone steps covered in thousands of detailed glyphs, telling the story of the royal dynasty that ruled Copan during its powerful heyday. The rich abundance of wildlife - vividly-coloured macaws, howler monkeys and giant spiders - completed the experience for me and justified my decision to visit just 'one more ruin'.

Leaving Copan, I had to head back to San Pedro Sula (one of the dodgy big cities that not only boasts a serious gang problem, but can also claim the title of No.1 AIDS capital in Central America - lovely!) for one night in order to be in town for the early morning Nicaragua-bound bus departure the following day. I was a little nervous about doing the trip alone, but I knew there was one direct bus at 2pm every afternoon, and this would get me into SPS comfortably before dark. However, on arrival at the bus terminal, I was told "No hay bus. Bus es malo", while gesturing to the coach in the corner of the park. That would be the coach with only two wheels. Cursing my luck, I waited for the only other indirect local bus instead, and prepared for another extended journey.

After multiple stops and another vehicle switch in a nameless town, we pulled into a deserted SPS bus terminal way after dark. Never a fun place to be during the night, but especially humourless when you're a slightly confused Westerner and obviously carrying everything you currently own. Luckily, one of the instructors on Utila had put me in touch with a local guy who ran his own hotel. I borrowed a mobile phone from the girl sitting next to me on the bus and dialled his number. Ten minutes later, 'Luis' pulled up outside the bus station, drove me directly to his house/hotel, introduced me to his lovely family and showed me my private room (with AC and cable TV - a very exciting first for me!). In the morning, he woke up at 3.30am, drove me to the international terminal, helped to sort out my ticket to Nicaragua and saw me onto the bus. His services and hospitality cost just $20, but his assistance was truly priceless. This was another hugely comforting encounter with a life-saving local at a time and in a place where it was most appreciated. Very similar to my old man encounter in Belize City (mentioned in my last blog) and a further example of the wonderful kindness of strangers and how much of a difference this can make while travelling.

I survived the 14 hour trip into Nicaragua and have been in the country for the last couple of weeks. It's one of my favourite nations so far and I plan to stay for another week or two, before continuing down and through the final two Central American countries: Costa Rica and Panama.

Until next time.....

(LOTS more photos below - click any photo to enlarge)

Jewel Cay

Jewel Cay

Isolated fisherman near Jewel Cay

Coffee break on Jewel Cay

Sunset on Jewel Cay

Sunset on Jewel Cay

Sunset on Jewel Cay

Dive boat coming into Jewel Cay

Me, in my natural state (being an idiot...)

Deserted island near Jewel Cay

Captain Morgan's Dive School


Walking to Hot Springs

Hot Springs

Hot Springs


Picturesque graveyard near Gracias

Giant Grasshopper!!

White Fort near Gracias

White Fort near Gracias

Local lads in Gracias

Macaw at Copan








Big Spider (eating a moth and with baby spider!)

Macaws at Copan

Macaws at Copan

Photoshoot in Copan town

Photoshoot in Copan town

Photoshoot in Copan town