Monday, September 23, 2013

Pirates Of The Caribbean

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

The reason only these ports were used is pretty simple: there almost were no other Spanish-controlled ports on the east coast of the Americas. The entire eastern coast of Central America was a damp, sweltering, swampy, disease-ridden hellhole that the Spanish preferred to avoid. This allowed the local indigenous groups to survive whilst the generally more advanced peoples of the interior and Pacific coast were decimated and assimilated by the conquistadors. Some outsiders did move in though, as they found the conditions ideal for their purposes. Pirates hated official attention, and the cover provided by the sparse Caribbean coast was perfect for hiding from the Spanish and launching raids on shipping and unprotected communities. Indeed, although the Spanish crown lay claim to the entirety of the Central American mainland, their authority stopped well short of the east coast. Along with the pirates, who settled down and became (semi-)respectable citizens in Belize, the British got friendly with the local Miskito Indians and ended up controlling the entire Nicaraguan and Honduran Caribbean coast (known as the Mosquito Coast) by cannily offering the Miskitos British protection and at the same time giving them muskets (which some claim is the origin for their name) with which to fight the Spanish. It wasn't until the turn of the last century that the Mosquito Coast came under any semblance of Nicaraguan or Honduran rule. To this day you're just as well off with (West Indies) English as with Spanish if you go to Bluefields, Nicaragua's main town on the Caribbean.

Of the new arrivals the most interesting to me are the little-known Garifuna. An ethnic group formed by the mixing of Carib natives from the island of Saint Vincent and African slaves brought over by European colonists. After Britain wrested control of the island from the French in the 18th century the Garifuna were considered a threat and deported to the coast of Honduras. They soon spread, forming fishing and farming communities stretching all the way from northern Nicaragua to southern Belize. Their language is a mix of Carib Indian, along with west African, English and French, while the people for the most part look black. But they are best known for their distinctive music and dance styles, which bring Afro-Caribbean rhythms to Latin America. A fascinating legacy of colonial history, European rivalry, cultural blending and cultural resilience made flesh in a friendly, fun-loving people.

It wasn't until the beginning of the last century that transport connections were made and the coast opened up. The driving force was bananas and the big American companies that ended up controlling vast tracts of land (and the governments too) to feed Western appetites for the yellow fruit. That said, most communities on the Caribbean coast are still only accessible by boat or via very poor dirt roads that are often impassable. Even today the Caribbean region is often considered as a different planet by mainstream citizens of Central American countries, from Costa Rica all the way up to Guatemala (more Costa Ricans have probably been to Miami, than to their only Caribbean port of Limon). In fact up until after WWII inhabitants of the Caribbean coastal region of Nicaragua were not permitted to travel to the western half of the country.

Who's your daddy? Although American banana companies don't rule the country like they used to, they still are a dominant force in the local economy. The Caribbean port of Puerto Barrios sees scores of trucks hauling containers of bananas rumbling through every day.

I love travelling and the vast majority of my experiences are wonderful and enriching. Sometimes, however, things don't go according to plan and mishaps and accidents occur. Rather than candy-coat my entire travellingexperience I want to share a particularly bad couple of days where nothing seemed to go my way. It started when I was staying in the quaint little town of Lanquin. It's the gateway to a beautiful, karst region of Guatemala and I was camping by a swift little river. Idyllic. However I hadn't counted on the local fauna. When I went to enter my tent in the evening I started to lift the flap of my flysheet when suddenly I felt as if my hand had been sprayed with acid. Instinctively pulling away I went to wash my hand and get something to shed some light (literally) on the situation. When I returned and carefully lifted up the flap I saw ants crawling all over the place. They had found a small piece of cake that I had tightly wrapped and hung up. In the past this tactic has worked well for me as, in my experience, they can't scent food that is suspended above the ground. Obviously these were not only highly sensitive little buggers, but they were also very aggressive. They managed to chew through my tent in several places and were spraying me with acid as well as biting me. I decided that discretion truly is the better part of valour and left them alone for the night and decamped to a hammock a safe distance away. Good thing too as it turns out I'm a little allergic to ant acid and my face puffed up a bit.

The next day, armed with plastic bags to cover my hands and trousers tucked firmly into my socks, I spent a good hour removing the pesky blighters from my tent and rucksack before packing up and heading off. I was aiming for Flores, the main gateway to Tikal and the Peten region. There are tourist shuttle buses that connect Lanquin, but I believe very strongly that if you're on some means of transport and locals are outnumbered by foreigners, then you're doing something wrong. So instead I hopped from one bus to another to get there. Along one bone-jarring, mountainous stretch the bus was so packed that I had to get up onto the roof with the luggage, and soon even the roof became crowded ... and then it started to rain. Luckily someone pulled out a tarp which we pulled over the top of our heads and clung onto to stop it from flying away. Certainly a first for me. Unfortunately when I arrived in Flores and finally found a hostel, I discovered someone - almost certainly a heavy someone - had decided to use my bag as a seat and now my laptop's screen was cracked and useless, with little prospect of getting it fixed until I get to Mexico. Apart from the added expense, it will make things more problematic for me (it's amazing how much time I spend online - not just writing this blog, but also researching future destinations and keeping in touch with friends and family). Then the next morning, just to add insult to injury, the zip on my camera died on me and my lens cap inexplicably jammed tight. Luckily I use a filter so I can still take photos by unscrewing the filter, but it's another annoyance I don't need.

With my laptop screen broken I have to resort to trying to scrounge a monitor at the hotels I'm staying at and hooking it up by cable. Not particularly elegant, but it's all I can do.

Just to show you that there are setbacks every now and again and that this travelling lark isn't always plain sailing. Although rarely have I been beset by so many at once. Anyway, I had to take the day and do very little so as to calm down a little and regain my inner Zen before setting off again. Hopefully that's my bad luck exhausted for the rest of the trip.

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