Stranger Danger

Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?
“A stranger is just a friend who you haven’t met yet” is a phrase uttered by frustratingly jovial people and would-be kidnap victims. But seeing as the title of ‘stranger’ includes factions such as religious fanatics, avid sports fans and furries, I’m not entirely sure it can be applied to everyone.

The majority of strangers are either weird or dull. That’s why they are strangers. And that’s why we don’t bother to talk to them outside of situations in which we are forced to be cordial, such as work or the weddings of obscure relatives. For the vast majority of people it’s not worth the effort to get past the required amount of smalltalk needed to actually get to know someone because once you do, you end up finding out that they can quote Lord of the Rings scene by scene, or whisper “Lumos” to themselves every time they flick a light switch. These are the people who end up in your Facebook friend request limbo, a place I like to call the ‘Wall of Shame’. You have neither accepted their all-to-eager request nor denied it, and there are no amount of unsubtle hints in the office kitchen over morning coffee that are going to get you out of it Sam.

I digress.

The other reason that we refrain from striking up a conversation with the fraught looking, wide-eyed man on the bus, is fear. We are told from a very young age not to engage in conversations with strangers; “don’t talk to anyone you don’t have to”, “come straight home”, “don’t eat the strange man’s sweets”, and we carry these words of warning with us into adulthood. On our commutes to work we keep our noses buried in books and phones. In queues for shopping we keep our eyes ahead silently muttering to ourselves about the woman in front paying in change. We would rather ask Google for directions than someone in the street and if anyone actually approaches us with an offer of assistance or conversation they are met with surprise and suspicion, as your mind thinks “what do they want from me?”.

Quite often however, people don’t want anything from you. They just fancy a chat or – even more shockingly – they actually want to help.

Me holding a sloth
I don’t actually have any relevant pictures for this post so here’s me holding a sloth.

Being abroad is a strange double edged sword in regards to interactions with strangers. On the one hand you are trying to be open and welcoming to new people so you can make friends, but on the other you have a hundred warnings in your head about tourists being kidnapped, pickpockets hiding in every crowd, your stuff being stolen from your dorm room and people trying to swindle you at every market stall. There are very few times in life other than being abroad when one is on such high alert for skullduggery.  

In The Weary Traveller in Tulum I got trapped in a conversation with a slightly unhinged American woman who reminded me – rather alarmingly – of Brad Pitt’s character in Twelve Monkeys. She had impossibly wide-eyes and would burst into hysterical laughter mid-sentence before continuing her story, stoney-faced as if nothing had happened. I swear at one point she ate a spider. She had been travelling for years and was filled with notions that all the world over people were out to trick you, con you out of money or in her words “make a quick buck”. She was convinced that anywhere you went people would only do something for you for money or to further themselves in some way and that everyone was a thief or a liar. If she had been my agent at STA I probably wouldn’t have ever left the country – or my house – ever again. I decided not to point out to her that what she had just described was basic business practice. I also did not bring up the irony that she had only initiated this conversation with me because I was rolling and she wanted some; nor did I bother to ask why, if she hated the world so much, she continued to travel it (she was also terrified of flying and it made her physically sick) because honestly I just wanted it to be over.

I met another woman at a bus stop in La Irma, Costa Rica who was equally filled with tales of caution about the world. I had merely asked her what currency was best to use here; the local Colones or US dollars, as she had been living here for many years having moved from America. She went off on a rant about how she always uses credit cards, only goes to established restaurants and only gets out small amounts of money from banks and only if she absolutely has to. It was again alarming, and if I may say, completely off topic and didn’t answer my question at all. I still don’t know what currency gets you the best value here and have been trading riddles and songs for goods and services ever since.

Perhaps American women who leave their country for many years are just overly-cautious. Or perhaps it’s Americans in general whom I should be avoiding. I met another American man in that same hostel a few nights before Brad Pitt turned up and he told me: “If in a group of people there’s one asshole, nine times out of ten, they’ll be American”. He too had been travelling for most of his life but seemed far happier about it. My experience of Central America however has been the complete opposite of these tales of warning and I’ve met very few assholes, American or otherwise. Indeed I have found myself in situations that have raised alarm bells in my head but in almost every one of them I have been met by helpfulness and in some cases true kindness.

In Chetumal, Mexico I ended up buying the wrong boat ticket to Caye Caulker because the woman at my hostel sold me the wrong one – there are two boat companies that make the trip and they run on alternate days. When I got to the pier with my ticket the man at the booth informed me of this and said that I’d have to go back and get a refund, then return there to buy the right ticket. The hostel was a twenty minute walk away, the boat was leaving in an hour and I still had to get through customs. It wasn’t happening. The woman on the other desk offered to ring my hostel, tell them what had happened and secure me a refund. She did this but it still didn’t solve my timing issue. A taxi driver who had been observing the whole time saw my plight and approached me. He said he’d take my ticket, drive back to the hostel, get my refund of 990 Pesos (about £40) and come back so I could buy the right ticket here. In the mean time I could go through customs. Obviously alarm bells went off. Definitely this man was going to take my money and disappear with it, leaving me out of pocket and stranded for another day. But I silenced my inner Brad-Pitt-Lady voice and handed my ticket over. Ten uncertain minutes later he returned, with a 1000 peso note and even tried to refuse my tip.

I’ve got a million of these encounters. A crazy-eyed, crack-head looking man in Granada, Nicaragua led Nat and I down a very stabby looking ally to the bus stop when he saw we were looking for it in the wrong place. A guy at the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras was seemingly trying to rush us through to make sure we got his bus and nobody else’s – as is common at most bus stops here – but it turned out that we were close to missing the final bus of the day and he didn’t want us to spend the night in the most dangerous city in Central America. Everywhere I’ve gone taxi drivers, bus drivers, food vendors and complete randomers have been nothing but helpful and kind, which has been the most pleasant surprise in a place where shoe shops and ATMs have armed guards, transport doesn’t run at night and tales of caution come on the lips of every American you meet.

No thugs. Straight hugs.
Ooh! I can shoehorn meaning into this one. This represents my new mantra on life. Yeah. That.

You may have caught my ‘almost’ just over two paragraphs ago and of course I have run into a few sketchy situations. A man in Caye Caulker followed Adina and I almost all the way back to our hostel one night proclaiming that he and his friends “only ever come out at night”; a man in Granada thrust his face inches from Nat’s as we walked past him and said quite aggressively that she was pretty; I almost used an ATM in Honduras that definitely had a TeamViewer screen-sharing window in the corner of it and in most places you go, you will enevitably run into what is affectionately called the Gringo Tax. Aside from Caribbean vampires and something that can be avoided if you bother to learn enough Spanish to talk yourself out of it, I’ve not encountered any more danger or nefarious doings than I would back home. I’ve found Central America to be a delightful corner of the world populated by some of the nicest people I have ever met. Sure, keep a grounded level of sense about you, but going through life mistrusting everyone you meet is bound to give you a shifty look and a nervous cackle. Keeping an open mind about that potential weirdo sitting next to you on the bus may just be, to quote a great film, “A light for you when all other lights go out”.



The Art of Doing Nothing

Me at the beach
You may not be able to see because of the camouflage, but I’m actually in this picture.

Despite what BBC3 say, people rarely just do nothing. 
We wile away time in-between moments of activity, we kill time waiting for friends or have ‘time to ourselves’ to break up the monotony of work life and interaction with other humans. But these periods of inactivity are always bookended with something purposeful like work or breakdance lessons. To be faced with a day where if you don’t plan anything, nothing will happen, and to have that notion potentially continue for the foreseeable future – say 3 months – without any threat of responsibility rearing it’s ugly head, is oddly daunting.

The ability to switch off entirely and be content to sit with your own thoughts is quite rare in our modern society that is so saturated with overstimulation we can’t even wait for a friend to go to the toilet without having a cheeky scroll through Insta. I don’t believe it’s a generational thing either, I’m not sold on the whole “kids today are glued to their phones” gripe as I believe it’s merely a trait of the times we live in. My parents – both in their sixties – have iphone 6 pluses and spend as much time staring into the OLED abyss as the average teenage girl, albeit they aren’t Tweeting their Snapchats to Boomerang. But just because their version of a distraction involves flicking between Solitaire and the weather app, it doesn’t change the fact that they too struggle to be complacent without some kind of diversion.

In most other nations – and I’m not just talking about developing ones – people are much more satisfied to just, sit. You can walk the streets of any Mediterranean town or Caribbean island and you will see all manner of shopkeepers, children and street vendors reclined in chairs or lent on counters staring into middle distance, perfectly at home paddling around in a pool of their own thoughts. Anyone who has known me for more than five minutes is well aware of my tendency to zone out or go off on my own irrelevant tangents in all manner of inappropriate situations, and yet I really quite struggle with this notion of fully switching off. 

It’s here I should probably make an unpopular confession: 

I don’t care for the beach. 

I’m not going to get all Anakin Skywalker on you, I actually quite like sand, but I find beaches to be well, boring. Firstly they’re all a bit same-y. I do fully appreciate the beauty of a white sand beach framed by crystal clear waters but if I showed you a picture of the white sands of the Whitsundays in amongst my holiday snaps of Isla Mujeres, at no point would you notice. Secondly, there’s just not a whole lot to do. Granted I am not really a big fan of water-based activities and am less of a water baby and more what my friend Ginge would describe as a Land-Gremlin, therefore my particular views on this are a bit biased. But if you’re not surfing or conducting banana boat rides from a stolen speed boat then your aqua activity options are probably the same as mine, and messing around in waist-deep water is fine for a day or so but gets real old, real fast.

At the beginning of my trip in Mexico, when José and I actually did go to Isla Mujeres for the day, that is exactly what he did. For hours. And it fascinated me. After we’d explored the island in style by golf-cart we decided to wile away the rest of the day on the Playa Del Norte (North Beach). We buried each other in the sand by the shore, made grotesque sand people, and laughed hysterically at the American wedding party who tried to release a chinese lantern at the end of their ceremony only to have it fall over and catch fire. If that’s not an omen I don’t know what is. We then chilled out on the sand and José went and dicked around in the water for an impressive amount of time for a man who can’t swim (I’m not the only one Ginge, fuck you) and I sat on the beach and struggled to switch my brain off. I watched José for a bit, people watched for a bit more, tanned my back, tanned my front, eavesdropped the Maid of Honour’s speech which totally wasn’t full of bitterness at all, read my Lonely Planet cover to cover, started this blog and mentally defended the coastline from various waves of ninja, drug lord and mermaid attacks. Essentially I really struggled to just sit there and enjoy the beauty of it all. I found myself checking the time, fidgeting, wondering what time the last boat back was and if José’s boyish fascination with trying to catch fish with his bare hands would ever wain. It didn’t. The whole afternoon was a real demonstration of my English brain’s inability to switch off, verses José’s Argentinian mentality of enjoying the moment, and his way looked way more fun.

A beach.
I’ll give you a tenner if you can tell me which beach this is.

I’ll tell you what I do enjoy: walking. I bloody love a walk. I think it’s because going for a stroll is the illusion of doing something productive without actually really achieving anything. It’s the perfect balance between switching off and tricking my brain into thinking it’s achieved something. I will walk if the bus or tube stop is particularly crowded, I’ll go for a walk if I’ve got over half an hour to wait for someone and on nice days I’ll even walk home from work, which when I lived in Clapham, would take the best part of two and a half hours. These are the lengths I will go to avoid sitting around at home with seemingly nothing to do but smash through Rick and Morty on Netflix for the eighth time, but in reality both activities achieve as little as each other.

Walking is not a legitimate use of time. It’s a means of transportation. It’s a way of getting from A to B and on weekends C. People who enjoy walking as a past-time are the type of people who like to watch the microwave spin around; they’re the people who like to put the mouse cursor on the edge of a progressing loading bar to see how fast the download is moving. They are the connoisseurs of “productive” procrastination. Even my methodology of writing this blog is overly laborious: I handwrite it into my notebook somewhere I’m bored (i.e. the beach), I then copy it onto my phone into my notes before I transfer it to my WordPress app, format it and add pictures. It’s probably the most unnecessarily inefficient process since the Subway sandwich line and is one that lends itself to many spelling miscakes.

It’s been over two months since that day on the beach with José and I am getting slightly better at doing nothing. I’ve spent days on Caribbean beaches, afternoons hungover at hostels and seemingly weeks sat at bus stations, and the ability to switch my brain off is improving as I become more comfortable with the lack of control I have over my own timetable and more at ease with the idea that I don’t have to know what I’m doing every second of every day. That being said I know I still have a long way to go as my overstimulated, western brain still niggles at me during these times of inactivity. I still can’t sit in a hammock without getting pins and needles in my feet, I won’t spend time in a cafe that doesn’t have adequate wifi and I still have no idea what the hell you’re meant to do on the beach without a beer in your hand. Luckily for me I’m pretty sure that the research and practice for this particular branch of knowledge just involves sitting and doing nothing, so I suppose that’s what I’ll do.

I think I’ll go for a little walk first though. Just to clear my head.

Hail To The Bus Driver

The bus system in Mexico is off the chain. 

I’ve been sitting in the bus station just outside Morales in Guatemala awaiting the ironically named Clase Oro (Gold Class) bus to cross the border to Honduras for about four hours now, having been told it leaves at 5.30am only for it to be revealed that it’s actually leaving at 10am. Sat in the cafeteria batting away the flies I find myself dusting off my rose-tinted specs and gazing fondly over the greener pastures of a more Mexican time, when buses went where you wanted and timetables were actually a thing. 

The R1 in Cancún starts from the ADO terminal in the city and takes you on a round trip to Zona Hoteleria and back again. It’s the easiest way to get to the major touristy bits with the clubs and the best beaches and it only costs you eleven pesos (about 40p) for the pleasure. 

On one of my days in Cancún I decided to stretch my eleven pesos a bit further for a couple of round trips, and for once it wasn’t because I was lost or asleep. 

Cancún sign
Wild letters congregate on the beach during mating season.

The captain of this intrepid voyager was the main reason for my extended ride along. His name I never found out but he looks like a Clive to me – if you’re thinking that Clive doesn’t sound like a very Mexican name then you’re a racist – and his approach to being a Bus Captain (I’m pretty sure that’s their title) is nothing short of admirable. 

Clive takes great pride in his job and to him the bus is the only way to get around in style. He wages a personal war on walking and keeps a keen eye out for anybody along his route foolish enough to be using their legs. Once he spots one of these foot-powered-fools he will pull over immediately, regardless of traffic volume or road position, open his door and whistle through the window. It’s not a cat-call, builder’s whistle though, it’s a powerful, valley-sheep farmer’s whistle that slices through the tyre squeals and horns of the cars he’s just cut up. It’s a whistle that says, “Hey guys, what you walking for? Come take a ride on the Winner’s Express”.

Who doesn’t want to be a winner? 

Once on the bus he dishes out the always awkward amount of change from his chair-mounted change rack with the mental arithmetic speed of an East-End fruit stall owner. On busier roads where it is wiser to keep moving rather than sat parked across three lanes, he employs his force-powers and what I’m sure are many years of Bus Captain school training, to weave his way through the traffic blind as he turns around in his chair, gives out tickets and makes sure everyone is comfortable.  

Clive takes a deep swig of what I’m telling myself is a Mexican energy drink and scans the pavement for more potential passengers. He calculates, like Robocop, the speed and trajectory of the walker’s paths to see if they will cross close enough to his route for the old stop-n-whistle. If they’re on a different path to us, he dutifully continues on his way. 

Clive is a masterclass in customer service; jauntily greeting passengers, dropping people off where-ever’s most convenient for them and flouting fuck-you levels of traffic laws for passenger convenience. As I watch him, with a quiet reverie, my mind wanders back to London and the prolific yet soulless bus system that runs throughout the city. Clive could definitely shake up the TfL for the better. 

I remember once on the 88 back to Clapham after a few beverages with the gang, I decided to stand at the front of the bus because it was a little too crowded to struggle to the middle and, like riding the DLR, sometimes it’s fun to be at the front and pretend to drive. In my slightly inebriated state I forgot that the doors at the front open inwards and at one stop I was slowly crushed against the windscreen as the door opened in on me. I remember first being confused and then quite panicked as the air was squeezed out of my lungs. I looked over at the driver unable to form the necessary words to indicate my plight and pleaded to him through my tear-filled eyes, the handrail crushing my pelvis, feeling like a goat caught in a fence. Our eyes connected for a solid ten seconds as I wordlessly struggled against the door before he finally closed it, turned back to the road and continued us on our journey. 

I still remember the cold indifference in his eyes as I struggled like a wounded animal and often wonder what kind of military-style training they must go through to achieve such levels of detachment. I guess that’s why they sit in a plexiglass cage; it’s not for their safety, it’s to contain the overwhelming cloud of self-despair that emanates from them, lest it affect the rest of us passengers like a dementor.  

If I got stuck in Clive’s door I bet he would stop immediately, give me a swig of his beer and let me sit on his lap and work the steering wheel for a bit, like your dad used to do around the emptier carparks when you were a kid. Sans-beer hopefully but I’m not one to judge. 

My bus to Honduras is now over an hour late of its secondarily quoted time and I can’t help but wonder how Clive is doing and if anyone’s given him a Gold Class award yet. 

Morales Junction
Morales Junction, where punctuality goes to die.

A Love Letter To San Cristobal

I fear I may have peaked too soon.

Puerta Vieja hostel in San Cristobal De Las Casas is my new favourite place in the world; knocking my bed off the top spot and Amsterdam into third. It’s a place where the bell behind the bar signifies free shots and not last call, a place with beds comfier than the one I have at home and far easier to turn into a fort, it has easily the best breakfast and dinner menus I’ve had so far, and the showers actually have hot water; but most of all it is the place where I have met the largest concentration of awesome people.

If you stay in any hostel for over three days you will get the chance to see old faces leave and new ones arrive, and this can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes your best friends leave to be replaced by those people who have been traveling since the dawn of time and have become slightly unhinged in the process; and sometimes a population of aggressively average human beings will be replaced by people you swear you could have known since you were a child.
Over my six days at Puerta Vieja I was lucky enough to enjoy a revolving door of increasingly great people.

I met a man called Joe in Merida a few days prior and we bonded over a shared self-deprecating sarcasm and the fact that we both think I’m hilarious. We went to Palenque together and then on to San Cristobal after Joe had somewhat of a harrowing experience involving the most annoying Finnish girl either of us have ever met, the phrase “thumbing in a slug” on the roof of her hotel as there were other occupants in in her room, and then almost getting kidnapped/raped on the walk of shame home by a inhumanly strong Mexican prostitute whose price went from 1000 Pesos (£45) to gratis (free) after she literally chased him back to our hostel. It’s a fantastic tale when Joe tells it as you can see the genuine trauma in his eyes as he re-lives his journey from disappointment to mortal fear, and needless to say I revel in making him tell every new person we meet.

It turns out that I am not the only one who enjoys tormenting Joe.

Joe in a sloth t-shirt
I am jealous of all of Joe’s t-shirts. But he must never know this.

The first group of people we met were a gang of Swedish guys whose names all have far too many consonants for me to remember but nonetheless we had a great night of twenty-ones in the bar, managing to get it to land on Joe four out of five times and each time he had just bought a fresh beer. Glorious.

After they left we met an English woman, Nat, and after it transpired that we all fancied witnessing a bit of bird murder, we went on a day trip to a particularly bizarre church in San Juan famed for chicken sacrifice and an addiction to Fanta. After a lunch of rotisserie chicken (we had a hankering for some reason) we bonded over a round of tales involving all of us misjudging bowel movements on a form of transport and she took great pleasure in abusing the pair of us for having no game. Apparently awful Finnish girls and Mexican prostitutes don’t count. This came to a head after the super cute receptionist said a passing “hello” to me in the garden as we were playing cards and Nat spent the next hour berating me for not bedding her instantly.

The last bunch included Swedish friends Adina and Sonny, a Danish girl named Catu, the most adorable German girl I have ever met called Charlotte and an insanely hilarious man from New Zealand called Ryan. We went out a few times, Catu tried to teach me how to salsa and Charlotte took 45 minutes to eat her soup one lunch as she could not stop laughing at me. I’m still on the fence as to whether this was a compliment or not, maybe Nat’s got a point…

The entire week was underpinned by the presence of Mikkel from Denmark and Steve from California who we met on a Canyon tour on day two. They overheard me giving the crocodiles a backstory to Joe as we couldn’t understand our Spanish guide, and we bonded instantly.

Crocodiles lay on the bank of the canyon.
These crocodiles have surprisingly eventful lives.

The staff were the icing on the cake of our stay and were all wonderful. Like most hostels, Puerta Vieja is almost exclusively staffed by people who have become so attached to the place they never want to leave and included the aforementioned cute receptionist who reminded me of Amelie from the film of the same name, a Californian man who had arrived some years before and is now the barman, local Pox brewer (a local liqueur) and whose band plays the hostel and various other bars in the area, and a kindly Mexican man who told me off at least three times a night for a combination of drinking/smoking/talking in areas of the hostel that were forbidden i.e. anywhere in hostel after 11pm. Each time he politely told me to shut up and go to bed I saw a level of patient disappointment in his eyes only usually reserved for a parent, and I’m sure if he were capable of a single malicious thought, he would have smothered me in my sleep.

Joe and I became legends as we made Puerta Vieja our home away from home, teaching drinking games and regaling everyone with Joe’s harrowing tale. I have so many great memories such as hearing sporadic cries of “ay ay aaay!” (The Finnish girl’s blood-curdling catchphrase) being called across the garden by various people just to see Joe wince; abusing the motorcycling, beard wielding, lothario Steve for having the perfect life – no one man deserves so much happiness; and Joe’s cry of unbridled anguish the moment he collapsed into a hammock for some alone time in the early hours of the morning after a tough night of drinking, re-living his personal hell and striking out with various girls, only to have me pop out of the one next to him like a jack-in-the-box designed to remind him of his failures.

On about the third day an English girl named Bex arrived, she came up to Joe and I and told us that she’d been on a tour with an American man named Jake whom Joe and I had gone out with on our first night. After hearing where she was headed Jake told her to go to Puerta Vieja and find “the lanky Brit with the short one” as we were hilarious and, in his words, “would definitely still be there”. This solidification of our fame was enough for us to ignore the mildly insulting if not totally accurate insinuation that we were too lazy to have left by then.

The stairs up to the church are a bitch.
The stairs up to the church are a bitch.

San Cristobal De Casas itself is a beautiful city, the cobbled streets are lined with innumerable cafes and bars, the view from the San Cristobal church is well worth the hike up the millions of stairs, and due to its mountainside locale, it is the only place in Mexico that I haven’t been covered in a thin layer of sweat and subsequently is the only place so far I’ve been able to wear the joggers my mum made me pack.

It is for these reasons and many more that Joe and I were so sad to leave Puerta Vieja – Joe’s crab dance that became a craze; my roommates Kira, Scott and Matt cooking me dinner one night simply because I happened to be in the kitchen; and the wine bar that’s 20 pesos a glass (about £1) with a plate of free tapas with every one – to name but a few more. The collection of great people, great location and in-jokes that ran all week – will Trevor the crocodile ever get his band signed? – made our stay at San Cristobal De Las Casas one I will remember for a long time.

The final knife to the heart of our longing for this magical place came during our check-out, when Amelie joked that she wouldn’t let me get my bag from the safe room because she didn’t want me to leave. When I eventually persuaded her to release my luggage she told Joe and I that she wished she had spent more time with us as – and I quote – “you guys are superheroes round here”.

As if the pain of leaving wasn’t bad enough, I now have to deal with the fact that Nat was right about her all along. Maybe I’ll pop back in to San Cristobal on my way down to Belize; just to wear the cape one more time.

I am a strong independent woman (who does not need a home)

Cobá ruins
Cobá ruins looms over my shoulder like so many ignored responsibilities.

Why is it that people seem to think that only women travel alone?

When I told people that I was going off on my own for a few months I got the usual, “Oh that’s so brave”, “I could never do that by myself” and “Won’t you get lonely?” comments that I’m sure everyone gets, but in my case there was also an underlying tone lurking behind the eyes of my friends and colleagues that said, “Isn’t that a bit weird?”

This stems I believe, not from the fact that I am a 27 year old man-child who shouldn’t be quitting his job to travel, but from the widely perceived notion that only women tend to go it alone when deciding to forego their real world responsibilities, and run away from their problems for a few months like Eat Pray Love or Wild

And when they do, women are met with cries of “You’re so independent”, “I wish I could do that”, and that testicle-shrinking buzzword for gym-nut alpha-males everywhere, “Empowered”. Any man who chooses the same path is a Billy-no-mates or a predator. And not the cool predator with the dreadlocks either. 

But why can’t I be empowered?

Don’t get me wrong I fully understand that the risks for a lone woman roaming across the globe are far greater than any man can even begin to fathom, a point very elegantly highlighted to me through an overheard conversation at my hostel today (Nomadas in Merida if you’re playing along at home) where one guy asked his friend, “why do women get the choice of women-only dorms?” To which his friend quite rightly explained, “Because girls are very rarely sexually aggressive toward men”. 

And this is a fair point, but the risks of travelling are still very much present for all of us. So far I have heard 2 separate stories of guys – a group in one case – being stopped by the police in Mexico and being extorted/robbed into being “let off” for a perceived slight; and one story of a man who was drugged in a bar in Asia. The latter was pointed out by another member of the group to probably have been a ploy to get ahold of his girlfriend but I am just pointing out that the dangers are real for us all.

I myself am a 5″4, 7.5 stone “man”. If someone were to decide to mug me I’m not sure the fact that I have external genitalia is going to put them off, unless of course I am expected to use them as some kind of mace, but so far I have been unable to locate the lever that detaches them, and I’ve spent a good fifteen years exploring the area.  

I’m not trying to start competition or a gender war here – if you’re still reading thank you and my point is coming up I promise – but men are expected to be able to take care of themselves and are therefore rarely offered the assistance or advice to the contrary.  

This was highlighted to me further when I looked into downloading some travel apps. 

I was a little daunted by venturing out into the world and despite being the social little butterfly that I am, I was worried about how I’d meet people. Being a millennial I naturally turned to my smartphone for answers. After downloading almost all of the travel apps available in my first week (Travello, Wander, Meetup, Solo Traveller, Tripr, Backpackr) I noticed two things. 

  1. They are all shit. This is a bugbear of mine and I will save the details for another blog post otherwise we’ll be here all day. 
  2. Most of the features – groups, discussion pages and whatnot – are geared towards women only.

So like Chandler trying to give up smoking, I would either have to go it alone, or learn the mantra, I am a strong independent woman who does not need a home.

Chandler gets in touch with his feminine side.
“I am a strong independent woman who does not need to smoke.” Chandler gets in touch with his feminine side.

And here we come to the crux of my point. Cheers for sticking with me.

A travel forum of any kind isn’t just used as a Tinder for the adventurous. It’s a great way to get tips on places to go, places to avoid, travel routes, safety advice, accommodation info and a myriad of other wonderful knowledge nuggets that anyone on the road would find most useful indeed. The idea of Catfishing my way into groups and discussions just to get some decent information definitely wouldn’t help with the whole predator-on-the-road image that I am trying to avoid, but it appeared that these were the only useful places where I could get any adequate information. 

In the end I forwent the whole app game entirely and decided to do it the old fashioned way: actually converse with real-life human faces. However for those less comfortable with pounding a few mid-afternoon encouragement beers to give you the stones to talk to the strangers in the communal area at dinner time; the options seem fairly limited. 

On my journeys, be it here or anywhere else I have stayed in shared accommodation, I have met as many solo male travellers as I have solo female travellers and all of them are after the same things: a good time, some new experiences and to not be robbed or injured. I want to feel as empowered as the next gal-traveller and if someone thinks I’m weird it should really be because of my personality and not my gender. 

Lo siento, ¿Que?

Coffee dealing with the heat the only way she knows how
Coffee dealing with the heat the only way she knows how.

Learning a new language is hard.

In the well known and critically acclaimed film The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas, there is a scene where Antonio is sat around a campfire with the band of merry men he has pledged to accompany, listening to them converse in a language not native to his own. As the scene progresses, a few words in English start to crop up out of the noise. Then a few more. Then even more. By the end of the scene our hero has managed to grasp the complexities of a language he hadn’t heard 10 minutes ago and is laughing and joking along like one of the boys. It’s a really clever scene and a great way to represent how one can grasp a new tongue. 

It’s also completely inaccurate. 

If I were the star of the 1999 smash hit, then you would still be trapped in your local Odeon watching me sat around what would by now have developed into a large forest fire, as I crane my neck and repeat for the thousandth time, “I’m sorry, one more time”.

I have been staying in the Kuklucan & Friends hostel in Cancún for four days now. It’s a lovely, homely place that feels more like staying at an aunts house rather than a hostel. The matriarch of this establishment is a kindly bespeckled woman who speaks about four words of English, but each one comes with a beaming, motherly smile and a comforting warmth behind the eyes.

My fellow residents all hail from Latin America or the parts of Europe where they bypassed the British school of foreign communication of “speak slower and louder” and actually bothered to learn the language. The conversations therefore are free-flowing and boisterous and inevitably come with a distinct lack of my input.

As I sit around the scrubbed wooden table in the kitchen at breakfast or dinner time, listening to everyone laughing and getting to know one another, I feel less like Antonio Banderas and more akin to a fairly intelligent dog; like a Labrador or a Husky. As I sit wide-eyed and eager, my gaze flitting from mouth to mouth, there are a few key words programmed in my mind that set off a trigger of familiarity. My head cocks, my proverbial tail wags and I congratulate myself internally; but on the whole the nuances of the conversation elude me. 

The irony of this analogy is not lost on me as I watch the hostel dog Coffee, a chocolate Labrador, trudge into the room and collapse on the coolest tiles. Why her name is Coffee and not Café – the Spanish word for coffee – when her owner doesn’t speak any English, I have decided is a mystery for better minds to solve.

As she lays there struggling in the heat I feel a bead of sweat crawl down my own clammy back and she looks at me through the torrent of rapid-fire Spanish as if to say, “tell me about it”. I almost see her eyes roll.

Back in no-mans land I muddle through these conversations with my slowly improving ear and dictionary apps – yes plural – open on my phone, and I reckon I understand about 20% of what is said. A fact I consider a resounding victory over my Duolingo app which only concedes that I am 2% fluent in Spanish. 

I am helped in part by our resident chef and chief English speaking member of staff, Jesús, a quintessential Mexican man who has added carrots to this mornings breakfast of eggs on toast because he found a bag of them on the floor during his morning walk.

Jesús flexes his carrot-wielding arm at breakfast
Jesús flexes his carrot-wielding arm at breakfast.

My other guide through this linguistic maze is an Argentinian man I befriended on my first night, and I have definitely become the Hose B to his José. N.B. His name is actually José, I haven’t just shoehorned that joke in there.

José’s English is slightly better than my Spanish and between the two of us we can manage a pretty decent conversation. We’re teaming up for a week as we happen to be going the same way; I’m helping him with his English and he helps me with my Spanish, plus handles all the interactions with locals/vendors/drivers and is pretty much the reason I haven’t got lost or robbed yet. It’s a solid partnership, if not slightly one-sided. 

José’s tuition however should be taken with a pinch of salt. As I have learnt from half understood conversations – well one-fifth understood if you want to be pedantic – Argentinian Spanish is actually quite different from Mexican Spanish in many pronunciations and in some cases entire words.

An example of this being the oft-used Spanish soft “y” sound, is an Argentinian hard “j”. So “the beach” – la playa – becomes pla-ja. This makes the experience a bit like trying to learn the Queen’s English from a Geordie, or an Irish traveller. I’m getting the gist but for a lot of the things he teaches me, I have to reverse-engineer through a system of translation apps and half-remembered GCSE lessons. 

I do very much enjoy my one-fifth of the conversation that I can take part in and am slowly working to expand my slice of the lingual pie. But as I sit in this group of jovial native speakers trying to snatch a semblance of meaning from the fast flowing conversation, fingers dancing over my smartphone; a part of me is fully coming to terms with the possibility that I may never leave this campfire.

Ah well, move over Coffee you’re hogging all the good tiles.