After some less than edifying experiences in Honduras I started this blog entry in a deep groove of railing against the unsmiling, sunglasses wearing, laptop carrying, ego-based bargaining, extreme-story dropping, 'humerous' tshirt-wearing, lonely planet-sticking, skin-showing young people from europe and north america that call themselves 'backpackers'. But, after lunch, i realise that 1. i probably would do aspects of this if i wasn't so self-concious about being a stereotypical traveller 2. it isn't very helpful and 3. if you know what i am taking about, well you already know exactly what my qualms are and if you don't then, well, lucky you.
Suffice to say 2 days on a bus took me from the amazingly creative, wise, hard dancing, hard-hustling, mexican-centric travelling folks of san christobal straight into a hostel full of north americans and europeans (and the most english people i have been with in one place since i left) that didn't say hello to each other unlike EVERYONE does in mexico, that spent their evenings watching films on their computers with headphones (some, not all), and spent lots and lots of time talking about how much they paid for taxi and bus rides to various places. it was pretty dire, but i tried to see it as a test of my character and ability to see the good in people (and obviously all of those people are, fundamentally, good people, except the ones that are likely heading into investment banking once they get their photos of the jungle up on facebook) and also keep telling myself it was worth it....
... because i was hooking up with nick- the duffman- so-called because of his love for the California Redwood duff, which is the fallen down leaves and general detritus that gathers on the forest floor and is AMAZING to sleep on (and get spider bites in). We had met 'in the duff', so to speak, in santa cruz shortly after i had moved into the forest, hung out in the kresge communal kitchen cooking, and had then gone on a hitching trip south to big sur together. i had last seen him hastily saying goodbye as i caught a ride with a swiss couple going south in... must have been june 2007.
and the only changes i saw as he walked through the hostel door and gave me a big hug were his now goatee and more refined muscle set. but he told me the crazy story of his life in the time we had spent apart- getting run over by a 12 wheeler articulated lorry (thats a 'semi' for my american audience), having a few hours in which he knew there was a good chance he was going to die (and in a fuck load of pain) and then a slow and (typically for him) deeply introspective healing process that is ongoing, and that involved lots of ayuasca, lots of time bushwacking in various forests (at first on crutches!!!) and a (set of) polyamorous relationship(s) in ashville, north carolina, apparently something akin to the santa cruz of the east coast. and what did i have in reply to that??
so we were two friends on the road together after both being 'alone', at least in theory, for many months each (he had come up from nicaragua to meet me). But the town was not a welcoming place. It is known as the 'party capital' of honduras, and i don't know anyone whose house is the 'party house' for a long period of time that doesn't get jaded after a while (look at belgrade road). The (for the most part) stand-offish approach of the locals probably had something to do with this. So did the man who ran across the road and pretended to pull a gun on us in a most disturbing way. So did the numerous people who tried to rip us off a little or sell us drugs... when I was in India with lauren we ran into two typically private school, well built young men who were nursing huge wounds and lumps to the head. turns out they had got wasted the night before and had been trying to chat up the local girls as though they were in soho on a friday night and in the end the local boys had tied them down and driven motorbikes over them... it was this sort of attitude from both sides that, i guess, prevailed in la ceiba that and many other friday nights.
but the next morning we were off to the island of utila, home of part of the second biggest coral reef in the world and some of the cheapest diving certification courses. Cue a week of daily diving- eagle rays, huge eels poking their heads out of caves in the coral; coral and fish of every luminous colour and tesselating pattern imaginable; vaguely swimming into shoals of fish around a wreck 30metres below sea level, angel fish, trumpet fish, a lone seahorse chewing a little plant in a sandy bed... marvellous stuff. and would you believe it- my hair turns red underwater!!!
and then yesterday, travelling back through to guatemala, an old man and a young boy presented me with two very not straightforward moral dilemmas.
The old man was, to put it mildly, going senile. i met him in the no-mans-land between honduras and guatemala, as he rendered two streetwise money changers and a minibus conductor utterly bemused with a combination of deafness, spanish spoken with an unapologetic texan drawl, totally non-sequential statements and not understanding what was going on. it turned out that he thought he was paying for the minibus but actually he was changing money from dollars into quetzals (the local currency, and also the name of the national bird of guatemala). he had a hospital crutch with the bottom bit missing, and walked very slowly. his toes poked out of the front of his shoes. you had to SPEAK VERY LOUDLY AND CLEARLY before he would even notice you were talking to him, never mind apprehend what you were saying, he didn't seem to have any money, he had a hat on saying 'costa rica- pura vida' (pure life), and, he claimed, he was trying to get to reno, california, overland, a trip of around 4000 miles that would take at least 5 or 6 days if you were constantly on buses. it seemed like a totally farcical situation, and the breakfast in the cafe on the border looked amazing (plantain, steak (there had been cattle farms all along our route), eggs, sour cream, rice and beans), but i figured that this guy could do with some help, and after hanging around for a bit while his interactions with the locals became even more disjointed, i decided i would go with him as far as guatemala city and, if he really seemed like he wasn't going to manage to get to where he was going, at least try to get in contact with one of his family members or, in the worst case scenario, the US embassy (it really did seem that bad- he couldn't even break the seal on an unopened bottle of water). I bought him breakfast (he said he hadn't eaten for 2 days) and the fragments of his life began to come out- he owned land in costa rica. his ex-wife owed him $5000, she had sent him a letter that he had unopened in his bag- maybe it had some money in it? could i find it for him? the 'letter' turned out to be a 'get well soon' card, addressed to the something-or-other christian hospital in portland, oregon, signed by many people. so he was not alone in the world, at least. he said he had 17 children, and that the eldest (she) was a professional crook and had just retired age 35.
a big saga involving banks and changing money ensued and finally he gave me 10 US dollars and i bought him a bus ticket, after a lengthy conversation of me explaining that if he wanted to go north to mexico he needed to go to guatemala (which is where we already where), NOT el salvador (which was in the direction we had come from). and he kept forgetting i was english and speaking to me in spanish.
on the bus he engaged similarly bewildered fellow passengers with random statements, but as we drove along i remembered my grandad (who died 12 years ago), who almost certainly knew he was going to die in the weeks leading up to his admittance into hospital and, despite being in lots of pain, sorted out all his papers and things (i still have his amazing collection of classical music taped from radio 3), and then made a doctors appointment which i guess he knew would highlight the cancer that was eating him up. but my grandma, seeing how much pain he was in and doing what she thought was the right and loving thing, called an ambulance the day before and they came and that was that, he died less than a week later (if i remember right). he was pretty pissed off that he hadn't been able to do these last things on his own terms.
and with this in mind, and knowing that if he did make it to california he probably wasn't going to be able to leave again, and knowing (and having observed the guatemalan peoples' behaviour towards him and knowing that both they and mexicans are generally amazing, respectful people) that he looked so vulnerable and pathetic that it would almost be embarrassing to rob or hurt him, i recognised that maybe he knew exactly what he was doing and that this was his last journey. Like the walk that old navajo native americans take into the forest when they realise it is time to pass into the next world. Perhaps if i put my nose and value set into his business i could ruin this for him. of course his family could have been worried sick about him and i could have saved many a sleepless night but, well, i only had my instinct to decide.
so when we got off the bus and he shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said thank you- the most lucid thing he had done the whole time- i told the people who had come to help us/try and sell us things where he wanted to go and that he could use a little extra help. then i headed for the next chicken bus and didn't look back. i am interested to see where he has got to though...
the boy was a different story entirely. in panachajel, a tourist town on the edge of the beautiful lake atitlan that i will begin to walk around tomorrow, i got chatting with one of the multitude of mayan ladies selling beautiful shawls. perhaps we were flirting; my spanish isn't good enough to be sure. i played my mbira, ostensibly for money but really to meet other musicians and let passing children have a go, and then sat with her and a woman selling atole (a delicious drink a bit like watery rice pudding but with maize instead of rice), drank some chocolate atole, and chatted. after a while a boy came over with a little bowl of handicrafts for sale and what seemed like a very intelligent way of being. we chatted more and then i left to go and eat more.
later, as i walked home, he breathlessly caught up to me and asked me, once again, the name of my instrument. then he kept asking questions about this and that not in an annoying way, but like a clever inquisitive youth who has a lot going on in his head. eventually he asked me if he could ask a questiona about 'sexualidad', and whether i thought 'el hombre con un autre hombre' was buen or mal. i told him that there are gay people all over the world and in some places this is accepted and in some places, notably uganda, you can go to prison for a long time and even theoretically be killed for some overconspicuous bumming action. i told him that i believed sexuality was linear, not 'either' 'or', thinking that he might be somewhere in the middle. then he asked me 'how' to have 'asere lo'- to 'do it'. i went back to my room and got my dictionary.
but there was something else on his mind. he kept returning to homosexuality, even though i had asked him if he liked other boys and he said no. he asked me if i thought it was ok to like other boys. a shoeshine joven walked past and he told me that that guy was gay. would i have sex with him if he asked me? no i wouldn't. why not? because i don't like having sex with other men. why not? i don't know, i just don't. do you? he pulled a face. and then he asked me to show him how to masturbate. so i drew him a picture and looked up the word for foreskin- prepucio. and then i really needed my dictionary when he told me that the 20 year old shoe shine kid wanted to play couples with him, a 14 year old, and, well, he kind of wanted to say yes, what should he do?
what would you say to that?
on the one hand, obviously there is massive room for exploitation with him so mentally and physically underdeveloped, it is illegal in guatemala (even though he said it wasn't), if he was caught he could be ostracised by his family and community. one disastrous night- and there are many ways disaster could occur- could fuck him up for a good long while.
but i am not so old as to forget what i felt when i was 14 and thinking about sex and simultaniously craving sex and being really i guess disturbed by the wierd emotions that the whole subject pulled out of somewhere deep and dark inside of me. and if there was an older woman who had been like 'ok ben, lie back and let me show you how it is', well that would have been cool. and if i could have a conversation with myself at that age i would want to reassure and say do what the fuck you like, relax, everything is cool, just don't let yourself be exploited. and i know my 14 year old self would have said back to me 'that's all very well for you to say, you fucking hippie, but i want SPECIFICS and i want PRACTICE and i want them NOW'. and perhaps this 20 year old kid would have been real nice to him and they would have had a really positive time together. is my initial 'no don't do it' answer the answer of someone conditioned by the west and all it's fucked up stuff around sex (sexpowermoneycapitalworthegopridecreation
then he asked if i could 'teach' him... if he could watch me crack one out. he looked at me embarrassed but resolute. no, i said. why not? he said. images of being lynched by the towns people of panachajel ran through my mind. it's not necessary, i said; just go somewhere private and practice. i told him about my experiences- not having any idea about how to shake the vinegar condiment until one day the good old channel 5 11pm friday night movie just made it happen out of the blue, and i was like 'oh, right'.
but he was insistent. could he not look on the internet? no. was there not someone else he could ask? no. could he not just chill the fuck out and let things run their natural course? again, from my own experience, i knew the answer to that one.
renton in trainspotting tells the story about how he once swapped blowjobs with this guy on the principal that if a sexual act is just a sexual act, who gives a fuck what the gender is of the other person? this would fit into my belief that much of the 'normal' sexual value set that we have is a product of our society (it is well known that the ancient greeks saw the young man as the ultimate symbol of power and beauty and influential hetro men would queue up for the best 'adonis's), and a 14 year old by and large knows what he wants...
what would you have done? assuming you wouldn't have said yes, what would you have said to be of some insight and comfort to him?
in the end, i did not masturbate in front of a 14 year old guatemalan boy. i gave him 5 quetzals and wrote down the names of a couple of free porn sights and outlined the technique of switching between windows on the computer when you think someone might be looking over your shoulder (of course his only access to the internet was in internet cafes). he maintained total dignity, thanked my for my help, picked up his bowl of stuff and walked off. i smoked a cigarette and shook my head at a day that could not be found at a backpackers' hostel.