January 28th 1982

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Lukie and Val

Somehow I have to spin out a page’s worth of writing from some very thin thread – very little happened today.  Of course, we got up, then had beans + egg, tortillas + bread for breakfast.  Not difficult to remember, because it’s what we always have.  And then school.

The initial rush has paid off, because I at least am able to relax pretty much + just chat.  Fortunately, I get on very well with Pedro, my teacher.  He seems to appreciate my attempts at humour – I imagine it must be very dull just listening to the same exercises over + over, so any little variety is probably welcome… at least I hope so.  And yes, I can manage a little humour in Spanish, tho’ I don’t really think you would call it wit.  It’s just, usually, giving the wrong answer to a verbal question, + then justifying it, e.g. “Do you walk on your hands or your feet?”  “Both, when I’m drunk.”  Also, I’m able to translate a few simple jokes into Spanish, + the occasional funny story.  We’ve also reached the stage of a fair bit of oral comprehension where I read stories + then answer questions, and a lot of the stories we use are quite funny, so, one way and another, the time passes very pleasantly.

I don’t think Val is quite so lucky with her teacher in that respect, but then, it’s probably true that Val is more in need of basic coaching in grammar + vocabulary, which her teacher, Lukie, is able to give.

Anyway, in the evening, after our meal, we set out to find Chris.  We’d said we would see him, + he must have been wondering what had happened to us, since we’d been missing from the usual haunts for the past 2 nights.  There really are only 3 places to look, assuming there’s  not a decent film on at either of the town’s 2 cinemas.  There’s the main square, which is a nice place to sit if it’s not too cold, + 2 gringo bars, the Galeria (Ignacio’s) + 1 other, with a strange name.  We ended up in the Galeria – couldn’t find Chris, so played backgammon instead.

Just another day in the classroom, as well as just enjoying being a part (albeit most temporarily) of a small community. Our search for Chris K is an example: a friend to try to track down, but also an excuse to wander. We liked Antigua a lot.

January 27th 1982

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Street scene, Antigua

I felt rather better this morning – well, a little, at any rate, so that I was able to cope with my lessons, + at first break buy a copy of the better Guatemalan newspaper, the Diario Grafico.  Searching the sports page vainly for some reference to England, specifically who their opponents will be in the World Cup, discovered the news that Diego Maradona, the “new Pele”, was coming to town with his club, Boca Juniors, to play an exhibition match against the Guatemalan champions, Communicaciones.  Then, going home for lunch, we saw a sign outside a shop opposite the house offering tickets for travel to the game.  We bought a couple, altho’ this would mean missing our tea… Still, what the hell, it’s not everyday you see a superstar.

We arrived at the stadium at about 7, + were immediately able to buy tickets for Q2.10 from a lady ticket-tout – this was only 10 centavos more than the actual price.  I was rather pleased, because I had tried + failed to buy tickets off a guy on the bus for Q2.50.  First we bought some food from the stalls outside the stadium, + then went in.  There was the same excitement there always is at a night match, the lights adding to the atmosphere, + the stadium was already pretty well packed with everyone seated, in our section (the cheapest) on concrete benches.  We made a mistake tho’, in not immediately searching out, + fighting for, a place with a decent view.  At first we tried down the front, but there you could see nothing, + were a target for various missiles as well.  Eventually, + rather too late, we set off to find a better place, Val thro’ the mass, me around it.  I aroused the attention of a few “throwers”, but by acting a joke out of it, managed to escape serious injury.  Eventually found a half-reasonable place, tho’ it turned out to be a through route for various food salesmen with their wares, until we just grabbed the fence in front of us, + wouldn’t allow anyone thro’.

At half-time, + at the end of the match, there was bedlam, with oranges, beer, water, + burning newspapers being thrown around, to everyone’s great amusement.  The game, incidentally, was dull, Boca winning 1-0 with a goal by Diego himself.

Quite the cultural experience – or culture shock, more like, this proving to be very different from your average game back home.

January 26th 1982

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Pedro, my teacher

The day of the cold today – en Espanol, el catarro – tho’ it’s not really a new experience for me.  I must say I don’t recall my childhood as being one long succession of colds, but that certainly seems to be the case recently.  However, struggled thro’ the day without a great deal of enthusiasm – what I really wanted was to be coddled, to be snug in bed in a warm room, with books, magazines, radio, + steaming cups of hot chocolate along with thinly sliced bread with plenty of butter brought to me at regular intervals.  Also, the work was harder today – they try to give you all the basic grammar you need within a week, so that means hammering away at various tenses pretty quickly.  Val + I have got into the habit of going out for a mid-morning drink during our break (decanso) but it was agreat disappointment this morning when we ordered chocolate, to get the stuff made with water.  Lunch was tasty – it’s definitely the best meal of the day, tho’ not nearly big enough for my taste, then more school, then, with a certain amount of relief, the end of work for the day.

We’d been looking forward to this time, since our photos were supposed to be ready.  And they were, too.  We notede with great relief that they both had the requisite no. of photos, paid our Q20 – quite reasonable by recent standards – + trotted off to the park like a couple of excited kids to look at them.  They exceeded most of our hopes in fact – we were proper chuffed.  The first film was from the old camera, + tho’ one or two were a bit strange, there were some real  beauties, especially those from Caye Caulker.  Then we looked at the others, the test film of just 12 photos that we’d shot to see if the camera, the new camera, was up to much.  And tho’ the subject matter hadn’t been particularly interesting, there was a sharpness and clarity that had been missing of late from our old camera.  So, feeling well pleased with our fortuitous purchase, we trotted home, for dinner.  Immediately that was over, I crawled into bed, where Val joined me shortly after.

Apologies as ever for focusing on my own health… though of course such things do tend to occupy one’s thoughts, and after all this is a record of what I wasa feeling.  The fact that this was written some days after the event betrays me here, when I talk about regular mid-morning breaks, when this is only day 2!  Hm.

You know already that the camera worked out fine, but it was still a huge relief to us, having forked out a hefty sum, just on the off-chance.

January 25th 1982

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First day of school, eh?  Val + I were like a couple of kids, after breakfast, big brother packing a satchel for both.  It was with a degree of trepidation that we set off for school, but after arriving at the admin office, + then being assigned to our teachers, we didn’t really get much chance to think about it.  We were both pleased with our teachers – Val got a girl, Luki, + me a guy, Pedro, a guy I’d met before, since he plays the guitar at Ignacio’s bar.  The setting was pleasant.  I’d rather imagined a biggish hall, a bit like an examination room at school, but this was just a dozen or so tables dotted around a courtyard, a couple of chairs to each, with plenty of plants etc to break things up.  We both very much enjoyed the work – I in particular have felt useless, as tho’ I’m just wasting my time, for quite a while now, so it was good to have to do some positive thinking again.  For me, we began with general conversation, then moved on to definite exercises, + learning of tenses etc.  Most of the work was verbal, tho’ – definitely my weakness.  Also we’d been warned that our school, Tikal, has a bad reputation, that we might just be left to work thro’ books, + we were pleased that neither of us experienced this.

At lunchtime, we went to the bank, to replenish our rapidly diminishing supply of cash, + there met Chris, our German friend.  Spent some time chatting, + arranged to see him later at the cinema.  Rushed back for our lunch, then more school in the afternoon – by no means a chore, a definite pleasure.  At 5, when we finished, we went to a craft shop we’d seen yesterday, to look at some hammocks.  I indicated my preference, then left Val to bargain for them.  She managed to beat them down from Q18 each to Q28 for both – really  nice, too.

After dinner, the cinema – a double bill of “The Shining” + “The Exorcist”.  I had a stinking cold, unfortunately, + the films finished really late, but did especially enjoy seeing “The Shining” again.

Rather nervous about the demands of school, but actually I enjoyed it, especially since I got on well with Pedro, my teacher.  Back to our full complement of hammocks now; we are finding the cost of things here much more to our liking.  Quite a double bill at the cinema, and I have to say I had completely forgotten seeing it.

January 24th 1982

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Breakfast was at 8 – a special treat, since it was Sunday, of being an hour later.  Still could have been in the middle of the night so far as we were concerned, since first our room has no window, so is pitch black, + second we were both shattered.  Not a very exciting breakfast tho’ – it seems we must get used to beans, tortillas + coffee.  Afterwards, a short rest, + then we went out for a stroll, before our lunch engagement.  However, our stroll didn’t last long.  While walking past the cinema, we discovered that they were showing a double-bill for just a few centavos, so we decided to give it a whirl.  We’d missed most of the first film, but settled down to watch “Spiderman”.  At least, we did once we’d found a seat.  It was a huge cinema, but was absolutely packed, almost exclusively with kids, so that, in the pitch dark, we had the greatest of difficulty finding 2 seats.  The film was in English, with Spanish sub-titles, but obviously the vast majority of the audience was only there for the action, so especially when the action slowed, they were very noisy.  The film was really pretty rubbishy, but I enjoyed it nonetheless – took me back to Saturday morning pictures!

Just in time, when the film finished, to shoot round to Ignacio’s – a modern bungalow in a private courtyard.  He + his wife were very friendly, + made us welcome, with drinks, + then a terrific meal – meat + rice, followed by bread + butter pudding.  Joanne came from Bromley, + had worked in the British diplomatic service for some time before marrying Ignacio + producing a baby.  We left at a little after 3, feeling very full, + then took our stroll around town.  Antigua is by no means spectacular – except for the mountains all around – but it has much charm, + seems, at least to us, very friendly.  We visited the market, which wasn’t very lively for a Sunday in other places, plus a museum, plus a few shops, before returning home for our evening meal, after which we amused ourselves variously.  I’d found a 10-centavo lending library, so polished off Richard Bach’s “Illusions”, played cards, read a little of the paper, followed by an early night – school tomorrow.

Strange that I should be so critical of the breakfast offering, since our joint memory is that we enjoyed this very much indeed.  And fun to be able to go to the cinema, all the more so since it was so affordable.  This was a very early Spiderman, pre-CGI, or anything very much in the way of special effects.

Pleased to enjoy some English hospitality; we did wonder whether this was something Ignacio did with every English visitor, just to give his wife a taste of England.

January 23rd 1982

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Our host family

A wonderful, glorious night’s sleep, + then we set off to see if we could buy the elusive missing battery.  There was a camera shop not far from the hotel, so we tried there first.  They didn’t have it, but were helpful, + gave us directions to 2 other shops.  The first one didn’t have it – we were beginning to get worried – but walked on to the second (thus doing what we said we wouldn’t so, walk around Guatemala City.)  To our relief they had one; to our shock it cost Q7.50.  And then when we’d bought it, it seemed as tho’ it still didn’t work – tho’ back at the hotel we discovered it did.  The only trouble we saw in the city was a jeep of armed soldiers tho’.

Packed up our stuff, walked to the bus, + off to Antigua, past some powerful volcano scenery on the way.  Off the bus, and strolling thro’ town, we passed a Spanish language school, + as we’d decided to spend a week here learning Spanish, we took it.  We enrolled for one week, 7 hrs a day, plus full board + lodging, which set us back $80 each.  Then the lady there took us to a restaurant next door where we were given lunch, then off in a taxi to the family where we were staying.  They seemed pleasant enough, + the room was clean, if a little tatty.

Strolled around town for a while, finishing off the 12-exposure film we’d bought to test the camera, + putting it in to be developed.  Also, strolled into a bar, + chatted with the friendly young owner, who happened to have an English wife, + so invited us round for lunch tomorrow.

Back “home” for dinner, which turned out to be frightfully uninteresting – mostly black bean stodge –  + then went out again.  Stopped off to visit a fiesta in the courtyard of a church, which, like many (all?) latin American celebrations we’ve seen, was bereft of life + colour – everyone seems content merely to stand + watch a group of rather dull musicians.  Then back to the bar.  As well as having an English wife, Ignacio also has an English barmaid, so we stood + chatted with her + others for quite a while.  I got rather drunk.

Away to the decidedly civilised and peaceful Antigua, the ancient capital, which we were much taken with. And, indeed, we have committed to it for at least a week. And happening upon a friendly and affordable bar has made it all the more attractive.

January 22nd 1982

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Val on the train

As requested, our friendly hotel manager rapped on our door at 6 am – the train left at 7, + we didn’t want to miss it.  In fact, we were in plenty of time, enough to grab a breakfast cup of coffee before climbing aboard + bagging our seats.  And very hard seats at that: just plain, wooden benches.  The carriage was the most primitive we’ve yet encountered, with many windows broken, tho’ whether by accident or guerrilla intervention, I couldn’t say. 

The train ride was a long one – 15 hours – but really passed very well.  I’ll try to put down a few impressions.  Some wonderful mountain scenery, on both sides of the train.  Arses incredibly sore, despite sitting in just about every imaginable way to try + ease the ache.  Every time the train started, a lurch forward, checked sharply by the coach in front, then jerked forward again – a triple blow enough to throw you if you were standing.  The usual supply of live, trussed chickens under one’s feet.  A fairly common selection of fruits + foods; maddeningly tho’, we tried very little, since we were saving ourselves for the 30 min lunch break at Zacapa.  And certainly 30 mins there were… but no restaurants.  Also at Zacapa, me desperately searching for a toilet, since I had the runs again.  (Runs?  I could barely walk!)  Passing a small brush fire, right next to the tracks, giving out a searing amount of heat – can’t imagine what these things are like when they really get going.  The conductor coming along screwing in light-bulbs as darkness came.  And being so very, very cold – tho’ fortunately we arrived before that went on too long.  Oh, + I finished my book.  It was OK – entertaining enough.

We had thought we would arrive later, + sleep in the station, but this was not possible, since they just got us thro’, then closed it.  Tried several hotels, the first seedy, most full, then one very nice, + a little expensive, which we took.  A marvellous little bedroom, with beautiful fresh clean sheets on neat, comfy beds, + its own bathroom with a hot shower.  Bliss.

So, our troubles in Livingston now behind us, and re-equipped with a camera, we are back on our travels.  And re-acquainting ourselves with the pluses and minuses of train travel in this part of the world.  And it does seem to have been to our advantage not being allowed to sleep in the station, for we received instead the pleasure of hot water and a clean bed.

January 21st 1982

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Puerto Barrios

Our final chance to retrieve our lost film this morning, since we’d resolved that we’d spent enough time in Livingston, so would be catching the 2 o’clock boat come what may.  So, after a huge but delicious breakfast in the African Place – where else? – we sought out Michael.  However, he wasn’t able to help.  He did make some consoling noises, but I’m afraid I don’t have a very high opinion of him, since it seems to me he acted in rather a 2-faced way, saying he didn’t want to get involved, yet not being above going to see one of the thieves to try + retrieve his shoes.  Ah well, best forgotten.  We said goodbye to Roland – one of the few Frenchmen I’ve ever gotten along with – + then took our stuff, what was left of it, down to the dock early, + sat around reading, before grabbing a place on the boat.

Arrived back at Puerto Barrios at 3 or so, + discovered that the next train didn’t leave for Guatemala till the next morning.  So, strolled around the town, with several errands in mind.  No.1 was the purchase of a new camera – we both felt strangely naked without one.  One shop had a few cameras in it, only Polaroids or 110s tho’.  And for an extravagantly high price.  Also happened on a professional photographer’s studio, + in asking him for advice as to where to buy a camera, he mentioned that a friend had one for sale.  He had it fetched in 15 mins, + it looked alright, a Yashica, with manual controls, tho’ not a SLR.  It did have a flat battery, in a bit that controlled a funny warning system, + there was no way of checking it out – or returning it – but we decided to trust the guy, + bought it.  Also noticed lots of shoe shops there, selling really good shoes cheap… such as Kickers for $30.  Unfortunately, nothing larger than 9 and a half so I had to go without, but Val was persuaded to buy some… after much trying, of shoes + patience.  Found a reasonable hotel room, wandered around town a little – an early night.

Finally cutting our losses in Livingston.  A real shame, since it promised so much.  But there was no point in dwelling on it… just move on.

But we did need to replace the camera.  The pictures illustrating the last couple of days have come from the internet, and are as reflective of the time we were there as I can remember, but do lack any sense of us.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can reassure you now that the camera we bought turned out fine, and served our needs for quite a while; we still have it, somewhere, sitting in the loft…

January 20th 1982

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And so, onto a nothing day.  It had been our first impulse to take the boat out of Livingston as soon as possible, wanting to sever all connections with the place as soon as possible.  But we had chatted the day before with Michael, + he was of the opinion that we might be able to find something out, so that decided us to give the place another day.  And when we did run into Michael today, he was able to give us some information, not that it was really of any use: it seems that Livingston is worse than we thought – we had been assailed by 2 different, independent thieves at the same time.  The only possible benefit this conferred was that we might be able to get our camera, or at least film, back.  However, Michael said he had tried to find the camera thief again, so we had better wait to leave until the afternoon boat tomorrow – this we agreed to do.

Apart from this, our day was totally unproductive.  We lazed around our hotel room for a while, strolled the town a couple of times, played cards, read – or at least Val did.  I am at present book-less, except for a philosophy book which is far too heavy for too much at a time.  So, to amuse myself, I am devising a crossword.  And in the evening I was able to acquire another book, swapping Lawrence for a novel called “Something of value” with Michael.  This cheered me considerably – as Val will testify, when I don’t have a book, I am a dreadful fidget.  And all the worse when she does.

In the evening, we once again treated ourselves at the African Place.  It really is an excellent place, marred only slightly by a surly young waitress (“full of shuffling insolence” is how Val described her) with excellent food + at remarkably cheap prices.  Val had a menestra de verduras, a sort of vegetable stew, while I had a tortilla espanola, an incredibly filling concoction of eggs, potato, + onion – marvellous.

Inevitably, both of us feeling very flat, and attempting to do some negotiating, via someone else, was simply dispiriting.

On the plus side, we do seem to be appreciating the positive side of moving from Mexico to Guatemala, to a place where suddenly, the bonus we had hoped to achieve by moving from the USA to Mexico has at last been realised.  We can afford to live much better, and have found places to eat which are aimed at a Western market, at a most affordable price.  Suddenly, we are a good bit more cheerful.

January 19th 1982

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What a day, what a day!  The arrangement was that we would leave what belongings we weren’t taking with us with Michael, a friend of William’s, + co-incidentally a guy we had met at Zipolite, + that we would meet him at the African Place, the local gringo café.  We feasted there on an enormous breakfast, the better to prepare ourselves for the rigours ahead, + then were conducted out to William’s place by another friend.  There were 4 of us going altogether, + we divided the food William had bought between us, paid our money – $20 per person – + set off, with some trepidation as to the discomfort we were inflicting upon ourselves.

At first, the walk was easy, but I soon gave up trying to keep my boots dry, since we had to walk thro’ thick mud, + wade thro’ deepish water.  A short ferry ride, a walk along the beach, + we came to some waterfalls.  We stopped here for a breather, but Roland requested half an hour, so that he could go to some falls higher up.  Val shot off with him, but I stayed behind, more out of laziness than anything else – I couldn’t be bothered to take my boots off.  After a while I went +sat by a log by the river, sitting + thinking.  It seemed to me that Val + Roland were being a long time tho’, + evidently William thought so too, since he went into the bush a little to call for them.  When there was no reply, I began to get very worried indeed – at best, I thought that one or the other of them, most likely Val, had broken a leg; + at worst I didn’t fancy the prospect of a) living without Val, and b) explaining to her mum why I hadn’t looked after her properly.  William returned, very angry at the 2 of them, + then we both went searching, me up the river, him in the  bush.

As it happened, I came across them coming down very quickly, but Val was in a poor state – when going up, the way had become very difficult, so she had put the camera down in a hole in the rocks, only to find it missing when she returned.  She was angry with herself, and upset.  However, worse was to come.  When we arrived back at where we’d left the bags, we discovered that the thief  had taken both advantage of our absence + our rucksack.  William was angry + upset at the same time. (Thinking about it, I think he was most to blame, since he was the one guarding our things… or  not, as the case may be.)  Roland was shoeless, since the thief had also stolen his boots (in fact, Michael’s friend’s boots), + we had lost much, even tho’ Val did lead a search which reclaimed our ruck, so the trip had to be abandoned.  It seemed the thief had taken our ruck a few yards into the bush, + had there, with remarkable efficiency considering the limited time at his disposal, selected the things of value.  He got: our sleeping bag, 3 sweaters, including my Icelandic one, a shirt of Val’s, a good pair of woollen socks, a tube of toothpaste, +, worst (or  best) of all, our hammock – everything else we could replace when we got home.

It was a numbing shock, + made for a miserable walk home.  Then the ferry wasn’t there, + we had to wade thro’ the sea to cross the river.  Then William told us he only had $21 to repay us, out of $60 paid.  All in all, a disastrous outing, + made worse by the fact we had hoped for so much.  Various gringos we met offered sympathy,  but no more – what else could they do?

There was only one thing to do that evening, so we did it.  Roland, V al + I smoked some grass – one big joint, + one enormous one, so that R + I at least were thoroughly stoned.  Then to the African Place, for fabulous food + beer, following which Val, fortunately unaffected, had to lead me home like a baby.  Once I’d recovered my senses tho’, I couldn’t sleep – + Val tells me she was the same.  Kept thinking of objects lost, of things done during the day which should have been undone – + of photos taken, sitting in a stolen camera. 

Well, like I said at the time, quite a day.  The big question, and one that is not really addressed in the diary, is were we set up.  It certainly could have been read that way, since in the end it was just Val and I that were affected.  But it would have had to be a pretty sophisticated operation, and, on the whole, even then (for we did talk about it) we were inclined to think it was not planned.

But it dide make for a tremendously disappointing outcome.  There was the money, but, for once, that was not the prime one of our concerns.  There were the things, such as my Icelandic sweater – you will have seen it in various photos – and the hammock etc.  But again, in the end, they were just things, and could be replaced.  More vitally, there was the camera, and there were the shots we had taken recently that we would not be able to replicate, as well as no way of easily replacing the camera itself.

There were also the less tangible aspects.  The fact of being robbed, always a violation, and the more so, since we had so little.  And being robbed of an experience we had thought would be really special.

Anyway, we sought what solace we could…