From Texas the logical and reasonable thing for me to do would have been to hug the southern states up until the coast before heading north to New York, so as to stay in a band of temperate weather for as long as possible. Logic is not my strong suit and so instead I headed, more or less, straight north cutting through the much-neglected Midwest. This large, flat expanse, right in the middle of America, is oft-overlooked by visitors to the country who tend to gravitate to the coasts. for me that was reason enough to visit as I was curious to uncover (if only a small part of) the hidden heart of America.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Monday, November 04, 2013
My time in Huntsville proved to be unexpectedly eclectic, however my initial reason for visiting was simply to visit the prisoners' cemetery, where all those who die whilst in the "care" of the Texas justice system, and whose bodies are not claimed by family, are buried. Now it may seem like a macabre thing to visit, but I found it a sobering and important place to have seen. The cemetery is surprisingly large, unadorned and unmarked, occupying a wasteland between two nondescript roads on the edge of town. No signs announce or inform the passer-by as to the site's identity, no fence separates it from its surroundings. Every expense has been spared. So much so that up until 2000 the graves were marked by a simple concrete cross inscribed with a date of death and prisoner number. Nothing more. Not even a name by which the deceased could be remembered. As if in death these people are no longer considered humans but simply numbers, a burden to be placed in the ground, a sack of shit that has the temerity to waste our tax-payer dollars.
Saturday, November 02, 2013
From Monterrey I caught a bus to take me over the American border and into Texas as I thought hitching might be problematic due to (perceived) violence from drug gangs. Having procured myself an online visa waiver I expected the crossing to be a formality. It wasn't. Unfortunately I hadn't read the small print on the customs website and the visa waiver doesn't apply to land borders and so not only did it cost me money for nothing, but I confused the hell out of the border guards who almost never see non-Mexicans crossing. This resulted in substantial attention from the immigration officials who interrogated me, took my photo as well as an entire set of fingerprints. Of the 65 border crossings I have had on this trip it was the most intrusive and time-consuming, even more so than upon entering and leaving North Korea. It took so long that my bus carried on without me, leaving me stranded at the border until the next bus came past eight hours later. Needless to say I was not impressed with my first contact with America. To be honest America is not the most compelling destination for me, the history isn't all that old, the culture rather mainstream, and the cities a bit too cookie-cutter. I would like to explore the natural sights, but it's too late in the year for that. Instead my two main goals are to see friends and family who I seldom get to see, and to try and winkle out a few experiences of Americana, the quirky, small-town, Midwest of America that makes the country so different from Europe.
A little clip of American cliches to get you into the mood (warning, NSFW).
Saturday, October 26, 2013
During my previous Mexican jaunt I had spent quite a bit of time among the northern, colonial mining towns such as Zacatecas, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. I had, however, missed out the largest of them all: Queretaro. I have no idea why I didn't go there the first time, but was glad as it gave me a point to visit on my way north as well as an opportunity to revisit the region with older, more understanding eyes (I'm a little mortified when I read what 23 year-old me was writing about the place). It also allowed me to meet some local people, and here I was really lucky to stumble upon Clara and Mario, a wonderful young couple who not only showed me the town, but also its varied culinary delights; the dry, semi-arid landscape of the central highlands; family life; and even the less picturesque, but deeply atmospheric, legacies of the mining history that can be seen in the ghost towns that dot the region.
|The abandoned smelting furnaces of Pozos, one of the many ghost towns left over from the mining boom in Central Mexico.|
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
I spent a few more days in Mexico city with my parents seeing some sites, spending time with my cousins who live there, before they had to fly back home. It was important seeing them again and knowing that I'll be back home with them soon. As well as revisiting family I had mundane matters to take care of, such as repairing my laptop screen and finding another rucksack buckle for the interim one I had bought back in Lima and that had cracked in El Salvador. I didn't feel the need to do much sight-seeing though, having been in Mexico City before. In fact it was here that I started my first round the world trip, all the way back in 2004, and it was the first time that I had ventured out of my Europe-USA-Canada comfort zone. It was here that my worldly learning curve began and so returning was thought-provoking exercise in reviewing past experiences and opinions and seeing how much my thoughts had changed in the intervening years.
|Big public education sign exhorting people to pay for their electricity and to adopt a more "legal culture". The non-payment of taxes and services is a huge burden on many developing countries where the bureaucratic infrastructure often can't cope|
Monday, October 07, 2013
At Chetumal, on the Mexican side of the border with Belize, I was met by my parents. Although I had seen my father a year ago I hadn't seen my mother in two and a half years ... and well, family is family. So my parents had decided to come out and travel with me for a while, see me and use my services as a tour guide in Mexico. They had already driven down from Mexico City and together we were to drive back up, catching some sights along the way. Of course with a hired car and staying in hotels this was not the sort of travelling I was used to, but I was determined not to let the softness get to me and tried to gently nudge them a little bit towards the edges of their comfort zone.
|An advantage of travelling with my parents is that I get to eat far better than I usually do. Here we stopped at a lovely little seafood restaurant on the Caribbean coast in Veracruz.|
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Belize is an odd country. In pretty much every way imaginable it is different from its Central American neighbours. Geographically firmly ensconced in the Central American region, but culturally much more Caribbean. Surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries yet anglophone. It remained a colony until 1981 whilst the rest of the region gained their independence 160 years earlier. Though partly thanks to that it has been a haven of stability whilst all around there has been turmoil and strife. It's a midget in terms of population, with fewer inhabitants than the Bahamas and fully an order of magnitude less than its neighbours. But what's it really like?
|Although I missed Belize's independence celebrations by a day the bunting was still up during the length of my stay (do they ever take it down?). Here you can see that there is still fondness and attachment towards its ex colonial master.|
Monday, September 23, 2013
When the Spaniards first colonised the Americas their primary interest was gold and silver. Initially taken directly from the local civilisations, such as the Aztec and the Inca, and then extracted from the rich mines of Potosi, Guanajuato and Taxco. Once every year two great convoys of ships would sail from Cadiz to Havana before splitting up, one heading for Portobelo in Panama, and the other to Veracruz on the central Gulf coast of Mexico. For centuries these were the only Spanish ports in the Americas allowed to trade with Europe.
|Even for Latin American standards the pace of life on the Caribbean coast is slow. It may seem idyllic, but the heat, humidity, sand flies and mosquitoes|
Friday, September 20, 2013
Of all the countries of Central America Guatemala is hands down the richest in terms of cultural heritage. Not only was its territory was the cradle of the classic Mayan civilisation but, what is less known, it was also the seat of the Spanish viceroyalty that consisted of the entire region, from southern Mexico all the way to Panama. This is where the rich and powerful of colonial Central America lorded it over their indigenous subjects. Even post-independence Guatemala was the dominant country amongst the small statelets of the region. It wasn't until the inevitable civil war of the second half of the last century that pitted left wing intellectuals, reformists and guerrillas against US-backed right wing genocidal military dictatorships and death squads that the country became a byword for violence, danger and rural misery. Things have quietened down a bit over the past 10 years (a lot less violence but still plenty of rural misery as the right wing military elite are still in power) and the tourists have returned to see what they had been missing out on.
|Quiche Maya lady in traditional costume selling embroidery to tourists.|
Friday, September 13, 2013
Same same but different. It's a phrase many people who've travelled through southeast Asia will be instantly familiar with, where the pidgin English of the local touts isn't nuanced enough to incorporate the word "similar". The phrase is equally applicable for travels in Hispanophone America. The common language and shared colonial history unites the 18 countries and almost 400 million people. Yet despite the very obvious similarities, there are many differences, both profound and frivolous. The profound are the subject of many a book (I'm guessing) and scholarly essays. I, instead, would like to take a closer look at the frivolous and arbitrary.