Regrets, I’ve had a few …

17 Jun

I perhaps owe an apology to Scottish friends for implying in an earlier email that differences in perspective, either side of the Caledonian border, are but the joshings of friendly equals. We no longer grace monarchs with titles like Hammer of the Scots, nor do our commanders continue to inspire gallows songs like Banks of Loch Lomond, but there´s a sizeable-and-growing number of Scots who, contemplating centuries of land grabs and the dwindling of North Sea oil feel the party`s over. Here, I`m not even close to the bottom of why a bar full of Guatemalans were so keen to see their Mexican neighbours drubbed by South Africa but can say this much. As the USA stands in relation to Mexico, more powerful; contemptuous and fearful in equal measure, so does Mexico stand in relation to Guatemala. I have this not just from Daniel but from Alex, the Mexican bongo player who accompanied me last night on a balmy street in the coastal town of Livingston as, fuelled by two stiff rum and cokes, I gave a stirring rendition of My Way: Alex`s fellow drummer, another Daniel, black as the ace of spades and one of thousands on Guatem­ala`s sliver of Caribbean coast to claim direct descent from a Spanish cargo of slaves shipwrecked on the way to St Vincent in the seventeenth century . For the story of how they got here, a story that does not make you proud to be British or indeed, white, try a wiki or google on the Garifuna.

On Monday Annie and I took a bone crunching thirteen hours to bus down from Lake Atitlan in the Western Highlands to the tropical heat of the Caribbean. Most of the way a crackling radio blared marimba pop at full blast, driving me nuts. Would it be too much to ask, I reasoned, for one of the guns you could guarantee half the passenger cont­in­g­ent would be toting to be put to good use sending a bullet through each speaker? Be careful what you wish. As in much of the third world it’s the way of traders here to board long haul buses to hawk snacks, smokes and soft drinks before disembarking at the next town to do the same on a returning bus. But this country takes seriously the dictum that man cannot live by bread alone, as I discovered when an evang­el­ical preacher climbed aboard and the radio was instantly killed. For two hours the beefy sky pilot – short, squat, physically formidable – paced the aisle and pounded his bible as he stuck the gospel to a captive audience in no uncertain terms. Without Spanish I had only his rhetorical tricks to go on, and these were limited to two: rising note of interrogation; crashing downbeat of God’s reply. Guatamalan Spanish is gutteral, almost Germanic; harder to disregard than marimzak. To be fair the man had his uses. By nightfall the bus had broken down several times, driver and mate finding things increasingly hard to fix with the daylight gone. Twice this fisher of men came to the rescue, whipping out an LED torch to bring light, where before there had been darkness, to an ancient carburettor as the driver coaxed and pumped – presumably refraining from cursing but how would I know? – the engine into life. Having done his bit for Caesar the man returned seamlessly to illumination more ethereal, as if such earthly interrupt­ions happen all the time. Which I guess they do.


On Tuesday we inspected a fort built by the Spanish at the head of the Rio Dulce to protect gold, fiched by the Spaniards and bound for Europe, from English pirates like Drake and Raleigh who routinely sailed upriver to snatch it. The fort was built; the pirates still came. It was reinfor­ced; they came again. Philip of Spain was muchos vexed. (As I recall, England got Jamaica and Trinidad from Spain as part of a deal that had Elizabeth and then James reining in the pirates. I may even be right in thinking it was Raleigh´s reluctance to quit the game – failing to see that the realpolitik had changed – that caused his downfall.) The fort is small but fascinating, though I wouldn´t have had a clue without Annie, as our guide spoke only Spanish. Pirates incompetent enough to get caught had a thin time of it. We were shown tiny cells where they served a death sentence. On the incoming tide the cells half filled with seawater. It usually took three months, said the guide,  to die of dengue fever or malaria.


Annie swam in the river afterwards as I gorged on mangoes dropping from a tree by the shore. A thirty something guy started chatting to Annie. It wasn´t a pick up, as it was clear she had a chaperone. (In reference to the mango demolition unit at water’s edge I heard her say padre a dozen times.) Later I learned the man had said he´d love to travel but of course his life was one of  toil and sweat just to get by. Months ago another guy had wanted to know, “if I ask a quest­ion, will you answer truthfully?” Oh no, she`d thought; some creep who wants to know about my sex life! But the question was: “do you think I´ve had the opportunities in life you’ve had?”


Whether like me you`re swanning the planet with seven weeks of vacation and a grand or two of kit round your neck, or simply enjoying a welfare state – NHS, social security if out of work, free education etc – premised on a very particular world order, you´re implicated. We won the lottery at birth, a fact premised on land-grabs, slavery and, well, you know the rest. We use the term developing world as if ‘everyone will get there in the end’ but that idea rests on ignorance of how capitalism and neocolonialism work. I wonder whether those consig­ned to relentless poverty on the one hand, unapologetic defenders of western privilege on the other, might unite in their contempt for pissy liberals and posturing lefties who tut with such conviction at past misdeeds by Drake, Clive, Gordon et al – and tut again at those present injustices that keep us well fed and oiled – but haven`t the slightest intention of letting go the fruits of said injustices.

But let`s not dwell on that …

Highlights: swimming in a pool on a tributary of the Rio Dulce that would have been spectacular even without the fact that, fed by a very hot waterfall five metres high and thirty wide, it made a natural sauna. As Francisco, happy with his two quid tip, guarded camera and wallets, Annie and I had the pool to ourselves. Repeatedly we stood on a rock below the fall till, unable to bear the heat a moment longer, we plunged into cold depths. Repeatedly we allowed ourselves to be carried on our backs by the current`s swirl, warm to cool and warm again, our gazes going up, upwards, past cliffs of towering limestone then trees leafy and graceful to rest on a sky of immaculate blue. Heat and cold; cliffs and trees; shade, sky and sun … I could almost forget that Francisco was here because this is the kind of honeypot where gringa get robbed at gun point.

Highlights: last night`s Tapada – a kind of caribbean chowder, with shrimp, crab and sea bass in indefensible quantities, simmered in fish stock enriched with banana, coconut milk and potato. I think it had to be the best meal of my life, though not the easiest to eat. Fingers dripping with the rich liquor that ran down our forearms as we applied teeth and the supplied nutcrackers to a cornucopia of crab, it took ninety minutes to get the job done, every last mouthful exquisite.

Highlights: Daniel the black bongo player. Earlier that afternoon he`d stopped Annie for walking too fast. “Slow down. You is in Livingston now!” (Stress falling on a hard-vowelled “ston”, as Big Youth might say Kingston.) That`s how we`d got to be on that street corner, at his bar, drinking rum and coke. Alex the Mexican bongo player had a similar story, except he`d been upbraided for looking “too sad” – and now I think of it he did have the kind of sweet, intell­igent, mournful expression worn by basically good people who spend too much time in their heads. In the rainy season people like Daniel, intelligent and – for all the “you is in Caribbean paradise now” jive – a tad bored I’d guess seek out people like Annie and even me. Not to make money. Other than a few drinks bought at his bar he’d little to gain on that front. But we shared music, our humanity and a good time. But nothing’s for nothing. Daniel insists that for tonight`s session – “I want you next to me on the stage man” – I have to learn all the words of My Way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *