7months as a Deaf solo traveller in Latin America: A summative reflective interview

(First published in Limping Chicken here)

This blog was written in Orlando airport, where I have stopped en route home, with seven hours to kill. I have often wondered how I ought to go about this final blog post given that all of my blogs, both here in Limping Chicken and my own personal blog have been about the variety of interesting people I have met. I have decided to write it as an interview with myself, using the questions I have been receiving from friends lately. I don’t know if there is a term for this, and whether it will work for the audience. But here goes!

1) What was your favourite place?
Although Latin America has so many places that I have enjoyed, it is Uyuni in Bolivia that is my all time favourite. I had watched a programme abut five years ago about the salt flats there, and I was gobsmacked at how amazing the sights were. 12km square of nothing but white salt flats. Tourists come and go in 4×4 wheel cars and take hundreds of pictures, especially optical illusions.

When I got here I was so inspired I couldn’t wait to take a photo, reached out of the jeep’s window to take a photo selfie of the driver and I with the salts behind us. Lo and behold the phone flew out of my hand and the entire group had to stop and searched for it for 30minutes. I was in a state of disbelief, couldn’t believe how stupid I was! It was finally found although on the other side of the road. I felt bad for the group, but they were all so kind and said it was a brilliant team-building activity!

We toured Uyuni for 3 days including mud baths, island views (without surrounding water), and endless flamingos! We stayed in very basic accommodation on both nights and we shared a room together too. It was just amazingly different, as was the whole of Bolivia to me.

2) What was the most frustrating part of your travels?
I am torn between saying it’s the lack of consistency in getting wifi at a good speed, or the endless poverty that I encountered. I think my reflective blog on poverty was a powerful perceptive especially at New Year’s time when we all think about things. I just wish I could have done something productive to reduce the impact of poverty, it was very difficult for me to understand where people were coming from and to accept it when local people wished me well for my onwards travels. I often felt guilty in a sense.

3) Did you miss your friends?
I experienced some homesickness during the first couple of months in Mexico and Peru. I recall I started to have some minor anxiety “prangs” where I would look at my iPad’s calendar and think to myself that there was too much time ahead of me and that I should not have said I would be away for more than a few months.

But after Peru, as I arrived into Bolivia, my homesickness somewhat disappeared and I really enjoyed every day, every sight and experience thereon. I wanted more and more. I rode a bicycle on the World’s Most Dangerous Road in La Paz and fell off and hurt my arm – the scar is still there! I rode up and down mountains and learned about cycling itself (I’m useless!). I commuted across Las Paz on its wonderful Teleferico system which has about 8 different coloured cable car lines, aka our London Underground! The range of experiences continued daily!

Every day I had mobile phone contact with friends and family members. That doesn’t mean I spent hours texting and video chats with them, but it was always lovely to have these spontaneous chats and to know how my friends were. Often they would say how lucky I was and how they were envious. Sometimes I would feel good, other times I felt like some didn’t truly understand how challenging solo travel was for me, and that there were periods of times when I felt lonely. But in time I grew more and more confident about being alone, I actually enjoyed some of this solo time. I also met other friends in each country, new deaf friends, who were very kind to me and sometimes with me a little too much!

4) Did you miss your family?
I was in touch with my parents almost every day, always telling them when I reached my next destination. They were, and still are, my rock. They were so happy when I called them from my belated birthday party in my Mexican friend’s home at the beginning of my solo travels, they felt so relieved. I remember them being unhappy when I sent them a photo of a shared dorm in a low budget youth hostel in Morelia (Mexico) and I had to help them understand that this was a normal part of travels. We compromised that if I ever felt unsafe I would book better accommodation.

I had contact with my wider family every so often, we are all on WhatsApp and there were several occasions where I would spontaneously send a photo of me doing whatever with a “love u” message. I think my family’s support for my decision to leave my job and travel was very important to me.

There were a few moments of really missing them, especially when they were enjoying Mum’s cooking or when my nieces and nephews had stories or just sent lovely messages of love to me.

5) How do you feel 7months has gone?
It has been an amazing privilege, and I cannot believe its been 7 months, about 31 weeks in total. I definitely would recommend solo travels for people who just want a break from the daily cycle of life in the fast lane. The internet is amazing, there are PLENTY of blogs by travellers with top tips about each country you find yourself travelling in. You can do a google for example, “a week itinerary Uruguay”, so useful.

There were many great links/introductions with deaf communities across the Latin America. I was very lucky to meet so many lovely people and to experience their kind hospitality – not always accommodation but their hosting, their chats and laughs. In Colombia they really don’t like to leave you alone, its cultural. They want to be with you all the time! I loved being with them especially over the festive Xmas season. I loved being in Buenos Aires, Argentina at Gay Pride time too, lots of great fun! My Bolivian host family gave me the love and care I so needed when I experienced altitude sickness. In Ecuador another host deaf family gave me lots of support as I experienced how cold it was unexpectedly! There are many stories!

6) Are you ready to return to the UK?
I think I was/am, but here in Orlando airport I am already horrified with how much everything costs and how much left over food sits on tables in the various restaurants here. I have seen so much hardship, poverty and hunger over the months of travel. I really think that’s hit me hard and I think I will struggle for a while to adjust to how people waste so much in the Western world.

However my own money has totally run out (including borrowing money!) and therefore it really is time to go home. But if I had more money would I stay longer? I am not sure. I know in my last week I started to really not be bothered about seeing this or that view or a museum etc. I think I have seen so much over the months and that I would like to get on with my career plans.

7) What wisdom if any have you acquired?
That we are so lucky in the UK.

That deaf people across Latin America have huge employment issues and that whilst in the UK we have barriers they are nowhere near to what these are – which includes stark discrimination, sharply impacted by poverty.

That plans change, and flexibility is key. I think I used to be so detailed and hung up on logistical plans, e.g. if we agreed to meet at this place at that time then that would be it. Whereas from my travels, plans would often change or get agreed so spontaneously. For example I didn’t know when or what volunteering I would be doing in Bolivia until the day before!

I was warned ahead of going to Latin America that nothing is really scheduled, that there is always another bus that comes along. I think I really changed how I dealt with that style of planning, especially in recent months. For example, my friend Damian and I were meant to get a 5am bus the other day from Monterrico (Guatemala), we subsequently realised we had been signposted to the wrong location and missed it. We had to then get a boat across mangroves to then get a bus etc. My relaxed and smiling manner about this change was astonishing to Damian I think. Another example is my unexpected experience on a motorbike in Mompos, Colombia – an amazing day!

8) Did you meet anyone special?
Ahhhhhhh!!! Yes I met a few special people and enjoyed the dating game. I was very lucky to meet them and have wonderful memories of learning about their lives and sharing my life too. It was sad to say goodbye each time but we always knew we would have to. I think when I was in London I felt like I would never meet anyone again, I had been pretty much single for quite a few years. So these dates were quite a tonic! Lol!

9) Would you travel this long again?
It is very difficult to say. Obviously quitting your job and renting your house out and borrowing money is not something you can always do. I always said I would travel until my money ran out. I remember crying during a videochat with my good friend in the UK, telling her I couldn’t cope with such a small daily budget and that I was not enjoying myself, always watching the pennies. She advised that I didn’t stick to that small daily budget (which was designed around 6months’ travel) and that I have a good time but to be wise, e.g. don’t spend crazily, and to just see how I get on. She told me I could decide to go home when my money ran out and no-one would judge me by the length of time but by the depth of experience I had. Taking that advice on made me feel so good, and incredibly I travelled 7months instead of 6!

10) Tell us what a typical day was
Gosh! Seriously every day was so different, but here goes.

Up usually at around 5am, check my phone, scroll through messages and emails that have gone on the UK 5/6hours ago whilst I was asleep! Then usually a nice breakfast involving eggs and really rubbish coffee. It still astonishes me that the continent where the best coffee comes from (in my opinion), gives terrible coffee at breakfast or in the family home!

I usually then have some sort of activity, whether its sightseeing or a physical challenge e.g. cycling in a Luna park where the rocks look like you’ve landed in the moon, and I enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Lunch is often light and quick, allowing me to make the most of the day. I walk and walk for miles on usually without a map. Whilst I take the advice of various travel blogs about what to see, I tend to just wander off and usually by some fate, I find something amazing such as a women’s co-operative medical garden for the growth of natural homeopathy products!

Around a couple hours before dinner I usually am swimming, sunbathing or having a good nap.
Dinner ranges from street food costing 1.50 to a nice local place around 7-9pounds.
After dinner it depends greatly on who I am with. Some evenings I wander more. I remember arriving at this open concert in Cafayete (Argentina) on my own. It was an amazing evening, strong jasmine scent and lovely classical music followed by local wine and cheese. These things just happen, there’s no meticulous plan but you feel someone up there is looking after you!

11) What was the worst bit of the whole adventure?
This is a bit difficult to pinpoint. I hated the rain of course, but there were only a few days when it down-poured like mad (in Buenos Aires for 2 days solid). I also did not like Tucuman, a city in Argentina – I had no idea what was there to see and the weather was disappointing. I actually just stayed in my airbnb accommodation for most of the time and couldn’t wait to leave. Oh yes, I hated Puerto Vallarta in West Mexico, it had so many prostitutes approaching me and I left a day earlier, just couldn’t stand it.

12) How much have you spent? What item has been the most expensive? What have u largely spent on generally?
I aimed to spend 14k in total, including flights etc and I stuck to that; I am returning home having spent that much. I think the ferry to Uruguay from Buenos Aires was the most unexpected expensive purchase – approx 75pounds return.

My expenditure usually was on food, accommodation, transport (endless chicken buses!). I was rather strict with myself on buying souvenirs and gifts especially not being able to carry so much but also just could not afford it! I also decided to return to Buenos Aires from Chile for another 5 days after having already been there, which was an expensive journey but no regrets, it was lovely.

13) How did your blog come about?
When I said bye to my good friends in Las Vegas I had talked to them about needing to have some sort of personal project to mentally get on with; I could not imagine sightseeing everyday! I came about the idea of writing a book, not about travelling itself but about the people I would meet or observe. My arrival into Mexico on that day was a powerful memory, and one that I wrote about quite quickly. I shared it with a few good friends, and their feedback was helpful.

I wrote a few more articles and then took the plunge and created my blog. I had wanted to improve my writing skills by doing these blogs as I had not had much opportunity over the years to just write what I wanted to write. There was always this report to do, this strategy, that planning document, and that supervision note. I wanted to have the opportunity to write freely and this was a wonderful opportunity to do so.

I don’t really care how many likes a blog post has received – I think today many people read stuff but do not press “like” or comment. But over the months I have received private and public messages of really lovely compliments and praise for my blogs. I received a message from a 71yr old American living in Mexico, he had come across my blog about the Deaf Cat Café in Morelia, and it was just nice to hear from someone so random who had also visited a deaf café. He gave me a lot of encouragement on my blogging.

I enjoy writing the blog posts and have experimented different styles too. I definitely need to rearrange my blog itself soon so that people can find particular blog posts easily rather than having to scroll down for ages. I also need to improve my word count, goodness me I know!

14) How many photos have you taken?
7866 (my nieces worked that out for me!!) Every day I took photos with my iPhone, simple to use and convenient too. There were other travellers with mega cameras and lens etc. I know I have shared photos on my instagram (@wtyron, #tyrontravels) daily with a few exceptions. I did worry about this being too much but many friends and family have reassured me they enjoyed them.

I want to create a number of photo books when I get home, one per country. It will be quite a task to do!

15) You met many deaf people on your travels how did you manage to do this? What was it generally like?
Being deaf and gay is very useful for the solo traveller. You arrive into a country, you search on facebook or google for deaf associations, deaf people. You also search for gay people. You also search for people who are both deaf and gay. Latin America has a facebook group for deaf gay people and this was useful for me at times. When particular people introduced to me to friends they knew across each country this was so valuable. I remain totally grateful to them. At Xmas time I sent these friends all an individual Xmas signed video clip, thanking them but also wishing them a Happy New Year. All of them remain in touch with me to this day and I will never forget their kindness and laughter.

Sometimes I just wanted to be alone, to not have to use International Sign, to just stare out the window or ride alone. I was lucky that these friends generally understood and let me be independent. I think I had to be assertive at times to be left alone when I wanted to, especially in Colombia where I found myself with deaf people literally everyday!!

I always went about my foreign encounters ethically; I always paid for their dinner/drinks if they were not earning much. It was important to me to do this and I know they valued this consideration. Some of them told me about other European/American visitors who just never paid anything, which to me was unbelievable. Given their financial circumstances it is the most natural thing we should to do as a visitor from the Western world.

My blogs describe some of these people, ranging from the lesbian couple who owned a youth hostel in Tafi des Valles, to Johanna, a transexual living in Pasto, to Starly from Venezuela living in Argentina, deaf families in Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, to the tour guide in El Salvador… the insight into these people’s lives from my own personal perspective as well as including some humour and empathy – it was a real honour to have met so many and to have received their permission to write about them too.

16) How did you pass the time when you had long periods maybe lonely etc?
Netflix!! So many films and series – really useful. I loved “Please like me” and “Sex Education” series, so many laughs.

Music on my iPhone, numerous thanks to Sinead O’Connor for many powerful songs that inspired me along the way.

Books – travellers often leave books in the hostel lobby to swap with other people. I have read so many books accidentally; I didn’t go to a book shop and pick a book but took whatever looked appealing in the lobby shelf and enjoyed several!

Walking – always without a map – to just see what comes your way but also to exercise off any weight gain especially from pancakes!!

Photo caption competitions – where I would upload a photo and ask friends to come up with the funniest caption – the winner gets a donation to their favourite charity. These were hilarious!

17) Why did you dye your hair blonde?
In California, before going down to Mexico, I felt like I had begun my midlife crisis properly! I’d left my job, rented out my house, sold my car and my apple mac. I was frustrated with my forever growing grey hairs on my sides and envied guys like George Clooney and friends who had lovely salt/pepper all over their hair. I was in the Castro, a very gay part of San Francisco, and just thought why not! I thought the best way would be to totally dye it silver/grey and see how it resulted. I regretted it as soon as it was done! It was a kind of purple to start with! And then the more sun I had exposure to, the more blonde it would be! I later on bleached it again totally blonde in Peru for a fraction of what it cost me in San Francisco!

And then later on I promised myself to not do it again; my midlife crisis was over! I still think the photo of me with my blonde hair with a blonde llama was special!

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18) What are your plans ahead?
One of my main reasons for doing this trip was to take time out and think about what I really wanted to do. I had been working non-stop for about 20years, 11 of these in a senior leadership role. I needed time out, I felt like a hamster in a wheel doing the same things every day and was losing my energy.

During my numerous bus journeys and boat trips and cycling trips I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to reflect and think about what mattered to me and what I really enjoy doing.
I am going to be looking for job opportunities that will help me along the pathway of becoming a psychotherapist with deaf people, especially young people. I will need to undergo relevant training and to work in the field. Wish me luck!

19) What would be your next place to travel?
I would really like to explore Japan and Korea. I also want to return to South America when I turn 50yrs old and see Patagonia – I could not afford to do so on this opportunity as a budget traveller – it is an expensive place to see and do.

20) What would you advise other deaf people thinking of travelling for a long period of time?
To simply go for it. You really don’t know how lucky you are with a British passport that allows you to explore so many places without restrictions. I think more importantly you should do this with an open mind, to see what comes your way, to wander endlessly, to smile with local people and to just accept the low and high days.

It is important to do the travelling for yourself, not to impress anyone, but to see the wonders of the planet Earth and to contribute ethically to it. Be a considerate traveller though, contribute as best as you can to the local economy, eat where the locals live, be generous with your local new friends, give your unwanted clothes/stuff to those who need it. Learn the local language as best as you can, but be happy to teach them English if they want to learn too. Read the local news, forget reading about stuff like Brexit!

Don’t forget to decide what you want to do with all the memories. I filled in a personal diary, took photos daily and shared some on social media, created my blog and its posts, but you should do whatever you want to keep your memories cherished, e.g. water painting.

Hostel Ranchitos del Quetzal: The Manageress, the bird caller and the Quetzal dummy!

 

It was a nice journey into Biotope, a place that offers people with too much time, a convenient stop between Lanquin (see last blog) and Antigua. I had spent a lot of time researching, trying to find something to kill a day or two, I didn’t want to arrive Antigua too early especially with my friend meeting me there. I asked local Guatemalan people for their advice. It was mixed, between “There’s nothing there” to “You simply have to go!”

The hotel staff took me to the bus stop. Now before you think it’s a bus stop with a stand and people sitting in an orderly queue, no it wasn’t. It was just a convenient place on a busy road where several buses either stop or go slowly shouting out “Tadee!”, “Tah-dee!”, with one arm out of the window shaking up and down to indicate the bus has places for passengers. It took me a while to realise why that bus aide was always opening the windows and hanging his arm out. And later, to realise he was shouting “Taxi”!

The bus went through lots of winding roads up and up into the mountains. I really liked the view of little mountain hills that Guatemala is reputed for. Some of these are volcanoes obviously, but when you are at a good distance it looks like a huge cake with lots of triangular decorations. Really gorgeous.

The bus stopped at a bend in the long roads, the driver looked for me and waved to me to indicate I had arrived my hostel. I got off and they lugged my (flipping!) suitcase off the roof rack. I then waved the bus off, thanking them for dropping me here. And then I walked over the road to the hostel, and within two minutes I realised they’d dropped me at the wrong hostel! I was pretty disappointed!

It was hot, the sun was shining bright and I hadn’t a clue how I would get to my correct hostel! A lady from its reception babbled away in Spanish as if I understood her, I just pointed to my luggage, the name of the hostel on my map and gave a gestural sign to ask her how I can get to my hostel, 2km away!!! She pointed to the road and said that the next bus will take me there.

I stood there like a right lemon, huge suitcase next to me, busting for a pee. I gave up, crossed over the road and hid behind a few short trees, releasing myself. It was sheer bliss although I hoped the babbling lady wasn’t peering out the window.

There was no bus for about 20minutes. A lot of buses in the opposite direction, yes, but not where I wanted to go! Then suddenly this car from the hotel came alive and it drove slowly past me. I had nothing to lose. I stopped the car in desperation, played the poor-me-deaf-guy-cannot-cope card and to my delight, the driver agreed easily. He took me straight to my hostel. Whew!

The Hostel Ranchitos del Quetzal was one of those places that you can easily drive past without realising it. It was hidden on a bend in the road and it was so quiet. I thanked the driver profusely, and looked for the reception. It was clear to me that this was particularly a jungle hostel, a place where people would usually stay for just one or two nights. There was an elderly lady who waved to me, I showed her my phone with a message translated from English – “My friend called you yesterday and you agreed I would stay here for 200QZ”. She either couldn’t read, or the translation was wrong. She just stared at me, as if she’d never met a deaf guy before.

Another guy came along and he also evidently didn’t understand my message. He waved to me to just wait, and pointed to a big car down the driveway. And there you were, the manageress of the hostel. You were in your late 50s, walking calmly with your glasses swinging on your chest held by a chain. You wore a white overall on top of your clothes, I think it means authority in this place? You looked at my phone message and then wrote on a piece of paper “Your message does not make any sense”. I think google translate has had its hey-day (!!)

You continued to write so neatly, with the most flowery handwriting I have seen for a long time. You introduced yourself, and said how it was a pleasure to have me. It was a lovely way to welcome me. I then asked the gold-standard question that every traveller seems to ask these days; “What’s the wifi password?”! You stared a bit, sighed a bit and started writing. I was watching your pad and it transpired that the wifi only occasionally worked. You were also not sure about the password, whether it was with a capital “Q” or small case “q”! I sighed, explained to you how much I valued wifi for my communication with people and forward planning. You thought for a while.

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And then suddenly after a few phone calls you wrote that you were going to be putting me in your best room, which has its own wifi. I didn’t expect that, but smiled and wondered why that room would have its own wifi compared to the other rooms in the main accommodation building.

You continued to write in your flowery handwriting style, explaining to me about the local hike from the hotel, about the Biotepe. You told me the opening hours of the restaurant, closing at 630pm which meant I needed to eat early for a change. Some people will laugh at this point as I am well known for eating early.

I asked you about the Quetzal bird, Guatemala’s famous national bird. You shrugged a bit and told me that its usually spotted in early/mid morning but never guaranteed. You have this calm nature about you, and you kept putting your glasses on and off to read. Bifocals would be good for you!

We then walked, me lugging my suitcase over the gravel stones, to settle in. But we walked past the main building to my puzzlement. We walked past beautiful plants and trees, so green. We walked past a stream, and then to this gate. You opened the gate and we walked down a bit to this amazing kind of glass house. It then hit me, I had been upgraded to my own posh house! It was one of those luxury accommodation given to those rich tourists who could afford it. I would only be paying £20.00 for this because of my need for wifi connection as a deaf individual. (Believe me, I hadn’t played the poor-me-deaf-guy-cannot-cope here!).

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I was so damn lucky! I looked at you with sheer delight, I smiled. I immediately logged into the wifi and then straight away I called my parents on the iPad, smiling, repetitively saying “Oh my goshhhhh!” I showed them around my new house! You shouted “Hello” behind me to my parents, I turned to you and explained they were deaf too. You were surprised. My niece then suddenly appeared in the video call, she was staying with my parents. You then shouted “Hello” to her too, I turned again, and smiled, telling you she was also deaf. Your face was rather bewildered!

I couldn’t stop gawping at this great house. It had glass walls all round with beautiful metallic leaves designs. The bathroom was luxurious. The bed was gorgeous and there were lovely blankets to use later as it gets cold at night. There was plenty storage made from natural woods. My suitcase was on a varnished mix of branches that became a kind of resting support, a kind of bed-bench. However because it was from branches there were many sharp points around and I hurt my leg a number of times when brushing by! The view from the house into the jungles was just amazing. On the iPad I showed my niece the various huge plants, the flowers and the orchids too. I was just so happy. You seemed to really understand how happy I was, and you hugged me as you left the house, bless!

I later unpacked some stuff, I never completely unpack no matter how many nights I’m staying somewhere, its just pointless! I got ready and left to go on a short hike to a beautiful triple set of water falls near the hotel. You had said it would be an hour and forty minutes journey, it only took me 15 mins! I returned after staring at the waterfalls a bit. There is only so much you can do in a small group of waterfalls, you look at the water falling, you sigh at the beauty and then erm, you kind of either go for a swim if its big enough or you just have to head back. I suppose I could have read a book and chilled out, but the Biotope was calling out to me.

I returned to the house, got my book and water bottle, and headed out of the hostel. Just 3 minutes away was the entrance to the Biotope. The Biotope is a huge forest with its own paths created for tourists. There was a 2km option or a 4km option. I had eaten too many sweets on the bus here, pistachio nuts, crisps too. Out of guilt, I simply had to do the longer option. I was so glad I did. I loved the views, the trees of the forest, the random breaks where you drink heaps of water whilst being on the alert for snakes and other animal life. I was always looking out for Quetzal birds but there was nothing in sight. It was good to see a compost toilet in the middle of the forest, but I didn’t use it. I saw a film ages ago where a snake comes out of the toilet seat in the middle of the jungle, it just scared me big time!

The hike was brilliant and I returned finally, all sweaty and worn out. The path was really good, I would recommend anyone to go and visit this place.

Now I have to admit something here….

As I arrived back to the hostel, thinking about the Quetzal bird, I saw in the information centre of the hostel (where groups often meet to embark an educational trip), on a branch, the beautiful colours of the Quetzal bird. I couldn’t believe it. I walked so quickly to get a photo, I tried to be quiet, and crept over the numerous stones. And then I realised it. It was a wooden sculpture!!!! I felt utterly stupid! Disappointed too. I took a photo grudgingly, and looked in all directions to make sure no one saw me. Here’s the photo!

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After dinner I returned to my “house” and then the dark night came so quickly and thundery rain came so hard, so noisy and you could feel the vibrations every so often. I had a long night ahead on my own and read a bit, watched a movie on my iPad, and had a few video calls. I also enjoyed some 80’s music videos on Youtube and started creating a few signed clips for Valentine’s day soon. It was a great night, but it became so cold and I dived into bed with 3 blankets and snugged up. In the morning I couldn’t get out of bed it was too chilly. I lay there with the views of the jungle outside and just smiled at my luck as the sun gradually appeared giving us all warmth.

Later whilst having breakfast you came and wrote, “God Bless you, how are you this morning?” I didn’t realise you had some religion about you. I explained how great I felt and how I loved this place. I couldn’t stop thanking you. I then explained how I enjoyed the Biotope and yet hadn’t seen Quetzal bird. You immediately talked to one of your staff members and he eagerly got a tripod with his zoom camera. You explained he was an excellent bird-caller and he would try his best. As I stuffed myself with gorgeous pancakes and some home made strawberry jam that you made, I watched you, the bird caller, in amazement.

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You kept smiling. And of course you kept looking up. It was like a national new fad exercise to get rid of neck lines, by looking up and stretching the neck! I saw you play with your phone a lot, wasn’t sure what you were doing. You kept at it, and I admired your patience. I would have given up ages ago. After my french-pressed coffee (so rare in Latin America, believe me), I joined you. My neck started hurting a fair bit after 5-minutes. I then realised your phone was playing bird calls, really loud bird calls – clever!

We were there a good ten minutes, and I kept thinking how do I give up when you don’t give up. You kept moving from place to place with your tripod. Your camera allowed great zoom function which is why it was being used. My iPhone was so limited in zoom! You eventually shrugged and I walked back to my house to pack up.

I had a quick video call with my parents, telling them about the Biotepe and the dummy bird. They were laughing and then suddenly you, the Manageress appeared outside my house. You waved to me adamantly and did the obvious gesture for “bird”. I quickly ended my video call and ran out, running behind you to the main house. There were some french tourists, all of them and you, the bird caller, looking up excitedly! Yet I couldn’t see a thing! The trees were so green, to spot the turquoise coloured Quetzal requires experience. You helped me and so did the French tourists with their super binoculars. And finally, I saw it. It was such a stroke of luck. I smiled, I felt so honoured, so lucky.

As my bus arrived I wrote more messages with you and expressed my ultimate gratitude. You seemed so happy to know I am happy. You asked me to kindly spread the word about the Ranchitos del Quetzel and I promised to do so.

Life can be so beautiful. I must remember to recognise it when good things happen rather than obsess over little things such as no wifi availability! I mean, just think about it: A lift from a kind gentleman to the hostel, an upgrade to a wonderful house, a beautiful hike, the  Biotope then  to see the Quetzal bird after encountering the dummy bird. How fortunate!!!

Lanquin, some of its people and some European tourists.

(This blog is more about a range of people rather than just one person, different from previous blogs)

It was a long journey into Lanquin from Flores, where I had previously enjoyed so much tranquility on this island which took twenty minutes to circumvent. The journey in the van included a mad driver who never seemed to understand that passengers need toilet breaks! I had to nudge the German guys sat right next to me with their long legs and strong accents. I asked them to nudge the driver, to tell him I was busting for a pee. I didn’t know the German for that, but usually just pointing to your crotch works! Later on the van had a flat tyre and we all immediately had similar facial expressions, I will leave it to the reader to imagine.

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I walked down the road whilst mad driver was being Mr Mechanic. I saw this hut with loads of watermelons. I asked the lady sitting outside if I could buy one. She looked pleased and picked a huge one. I protested initially for a smaller one, but then thought about it and bought it and asked her to cut it in slices. I walked back to the van and shared them with everyone. They loved it. It only cost me a pound. Compare that to the price for a mini bag of 8-10 teeny slices from Marks n Spencers!

We drove through mountains and mountains to reach Lanquin, which is the nearest village (rather than town) to the famous 300m limestone water bridge of Semuc Champey. About 3kms before arriving into Lanquin, you hopped into our van. You had broad shoulders, a huge face and a loud voice. You then talked, rambling on and on for about 10minutes. I didn’t have a clue what you were on about but I worked out from the visual cues that you must have been trying to sell tours and hostel packages. I ignored you, admiring the landscape from the windows. We stopped at a garage for some purchases, you approached me and I could kind of see it all over your face; “He’s a foreigner and I want to make money from him”. I just disregarded your promotions and said I had my own plans. I was relieved you didn’t bother me after.

I had spent ages on Booking.com and AirBnB trying to work out where best to stay in Lanquin. I noticed several reviews on some of the main hostels being “Wild time”, “Amazing music and disco”, “Crazy staff who are wild” and purposely avoided these pluralistic settings where you find yourself almost nerd-like when you’re the solo deaf 42yr old traveller who cannot really understand much in groups, especially with long-legged Germans! 😉

El Hostal Lanquin grabbed my attention, it seemed so sweet and the reviews loved the manager, such a kind lady who talks with you and helps with various things. I did cringe at a few of the reviews where apparently they get all 6 guests (its only got one bedroom with six dorm beds) to play a game with giant dice as an icebreaker. The thought of it brought me back to ice breakers from my youth work days with deaf children who didn’t even want to participate! Thankfully, writing this on my third day here, we still haven’t played it. Phew!

You, the manager, were such a warm person. You had already emailed me a few times, reassuring me that my bed was ready for me and that you understood I am deaf and would help me out. You saw me get off the painful truck – we had all got off at a central point in Lanquin to then be shepherded into several trucks to different hostels. These trucks have metal bars in the back and people literally hold on to the metal bars as the truck manoeuvres over endless rocks and pot holes. Its not comfortable a ride! When I saw you and indicated I am deaf, you immediately recognised me and took me in. You showed me around the hostel, the chill out areas, the communal kitchen and the toilets and showers. It was simple and cosy enough. We then went into a long chat about my options to go to Semuc Champey the next day. I loved your advice and tips, always to save me money from local people trying to make a buck.

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I realised over the next few days that you effectively run the whole hostel yourself, cleaning, making breakfast, checking people in and out, taking all the phone calls. I also realised you spend hours in the hostel, especially to keep the security strong. I wondered when you get a break and leave the premises. You practically live in the hostel 24/7. I saw you chatting away with various visitors, the reviews regard you well for helping people practise their Spanish.

I did see you looking really tired every now and then, somewhat miserable. I could only assume that you must be really fed up and how mundane the job must be at times. You did smile at me every now and then and we occasionally had moments of affection where your hand rested on my back or my hand on your shoulders. I liked you, it was rare to find someone like you who isn’t really interested in my money but in making sure I had a good stay.

Two Swiss guys were sharing the bedroom with me. They were disappointingly not friendly, I think it was a mix of surdophobia (fear of deaf people) and a lack of good communication skills. I have come across this type almost daily on my travels and have always refused to be paranoid about it. Its their problem. I do make an effort, for example when I learned they were off to Antigua in the morning, I immediately told them about a recommended guide who takes you up a volcano overnight. They were thankful, but that was it. No conversation at all.

The next morning it was raining hard disappointingly, and the manager advised me to go to Semuc Champey the following day. I was kind of gutted and upon checking the weather forecast, rain was predicted for the next day too. But I had to listen to her advice. I asked her for ideas as to what to do instead, she suggested a chocolate making experience, but also to relax and read a book too. It was rather grr, but I have been lucky for a long time weather wise over the last six months; the occasional rain has to be accepted.

I headed out for a walk and passed shops, more like wooden huts, selling similar items in each. There were also internet shops, and a couple of clothes shops too although its items were clearly all second hand. It was a village for sure. I saw a barber shop and thought why not. I have been keeping a list of where I’ve had my haircut, e.g. Libertad, La Paz, Suchitoto.

This barber shop was less than half a wooden hut, with one shaver, one mirror and a few basic tools. You were short in height and your hair was typically all gleaming. I don’t think they sell Brycleems here but its definitely similar to whatever you were using. You acknowledged me and I explained to you, just like I have to all barbers on my travels – number 1 on the sides to get rid of the grey stuff, and to only clip a bit of my top, I’m bald enough as it is! You proceeded with wrapping toilet paper around my neck – this is how poor people do haircuts. I could see you were rather nervous, probably because I’m a Westerner and also deaf. The job was done well and I paid you 2pounds and left feeling afresh despite the constant rain.

I then headed to the Chocolate experience, which basically was chocolate plants in a garden made into chocolate for home purposes but also for tourists to come and visit for a couple hours and understand the process. I loved it! You came and fetched me from my hostel, you were clearly native Incan, dark-skinned and wearing only a thin vest. You proceeded to show me different types of coffee plants and rambled on in Spanish, I didn’t have a clue what you were on about!  You then took me into your garden and we admired some of the growth. Then your wife thankfully arrived with two photographers behind her. She knew English and certainly understood how to communicate with me. We went off and left you to cook lunch for your kids. Your wife and I engaged with a young employed teenage girl who showed me how to make chocolate paste. She continually couldn’t believe I was deaf and kept wanting to involve me, showing me everything I was doing wrong with my cocoa beans! The two photographers asked permission and took photos, it transpired they work for a map company where photos appear as you hover over a map app. This could be my claim to fame, me making chocolate paste in the dripping rain!

Later on in the afternoon after having watched a couple Netflix series (Sex Education, so funny) and napped a bit, I walked around to find some coffee. I failed miserably. Well, to be precise I was searching for proper coffee, none of this instant rubbish. It was virtually impossible. Shop owners and restaurant managers looked at me weirdly as I gestured how proper coffee is made like a barista. You would think after all the Guatemalan coffee we consume in UK they would understand what I meant!

I gave up, and headed to this hut where they sold fruit juice amongst other things. There were no adults in sight, just a group of brothers and sisters, approximately aged between 8 and 13yr. You, a girl of about 10yr waved to me and asked me what I would like. I pulled up a stool and felt quite good to be with young people again, but I was equally concerned that you guys were not at school etc. I have read various articles about how foreigners should try and avoid paying anything to kids in the mountains as it makes them flunk school. However mountain farm life is hard and I didn’t think these kids were bunking off school. Actually two of your siblings were doing some homework in a couple of books as far as I could tell. I proceeded and ordered watermelon juice. You went to a freezer and brought out a bag of frozen pieces. This is how you do juices often in El Salvador and Guatemala, you put frozen bits into a blender with either water or yoghurt and Bob’s your uncle.

I enjoyed my juice but further, I enjoyed your younger brother who clearly understood I was a sign language user and created many signs with me to the laughter of you all. Your eldest brother (13yr old) had enough and chased him away. I asked how much my juice was, you held up both hands to indicate 10QZ (1 pound). I paid and thanked you, walking away. Your siblings waved to me, asking me to come back at once. The eldest brother looked sincere. I wasn’t sure what was going on. It turned out that it should have been 7QZ and you gave me 3QZ in change. I felt uncomfortable in taking such a measly amount and told you to keep it. Bless you!

Later in the evening I headed to a burger/pizza place, the only restaurant in town I reckon! You, the kind chef who works here are helpful but you keep talking to me in Spanish. You just keep talking and talking even though I made it clear I was English and Deaf. This has happened a number of times across my travels. I think its cultural maybe! I ordered a burger and whilst reading another chapter in my book, it arrived and I was gobsmacked, just look how huge it was! Thank goodness I didn’t order any fries!

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The next morning I quickly dashed out of my bunk bed to see what the weather was like. It was dry, a little cloudy but definitely dry. I was pleased and headed off after breakfast to find a ride to Semuc Champey. A little while later, a truck passed me in the other direction and promised to be back in 5mins, probably to pick several other people up.

A different truck came by and there were seats available, I decided to hop in and forget the other truck. You, the driver, then started to suggest your own elevated prices and I threatened to walk out. You backed down and we drove off with another 3 in the back. As the journey started to climb into the mountain range, you changed the gear to 4×4, but it failed. We started slipping backwards and I have never panicked so much for a long time. It would only take a simple turn of the wheel for the car to drive off over the edge into the mountain floor. I was petrified! You didn’t have any fear in your face at all. You held the car stationary by pressing the foot brake, but you didn’t hold up the hand brake. I asked you about this and you innocently told me that the hand brakes didn’t work. I was so alarmed! We waited ages for another truck to come by. And lo behold, it was the first truck I had disregarded! The ticket guy looked at me with an accusing expression!

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At Semuc Champey the rain poured on and on, and I was determined not to give in. “Remember Tyron, its warm and you will get wet anyway at the waterfalls!” The heavy dripping continued for 10mins as I sat in the visitors centre, a euphemism for public toilets and 10 picnic tables with a noticeboard.

By some magic it all stopped and it was good to go and hike up to the mirador. As I climbed each slippery step, hobbled over this rock and that rock a million times, I met you both. You were around my parents’ age and had very fair complexion. You were enjoying the view of the wonderful water bridge, and I offered to take a photo of you both. You looked amused, and you soon realised I was deaf. We continued to walk to another view point, followed by a lovely dog the whole trek.

At this view point we were confident to introduce each other. I asked where you guys were from. “Seema” was all I could lipread, my hearing aid in my bag to avoid the constant drips of water from various banana tree leaves. “Seema?” “Yes, Seema”. I shrugged questionably. You both seemed surprised I didn’t know where Seema was. You then suggested “Europe” with a surely-you-know expression. Seema, deema, ohhhh, Denmark!!! We laughed. Seema indeed(!) We continued to trek together and I felt much more safe walking with you both rather than alone in these slippery steps and stones. I purposely walked behind you both so that you could fall or slip before me!!

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At the pools it was a glorious sight and we quickly got changed. We could lock our stuff in wooden storage cupboards with a padlock and key for only 20QZ. We hobbled carefully across more rocks into the pools and I had my iphone with me to take some photos. Obviously I was going to struggle with the phone and balancing myself in the pools. I then saw you, a guard with a life jacket on. You were a kind of lifeguard employed by the national park. I pleaded with you to take my phone and look after it, I later asked you nicely to take photos of us.

You were very kind and helpful, your eyes were particularly interesting, a kind of blue tint and perhaps a little cross-eyed? As I headed out to the next pool I realised I wanted another photo, but it would be too much to carry the phone over. As if you knew what I wanted, you offered to walk over and take photos this side of the pool. It was brilliant. I then asked for a few particular shots, but you struggled to understand. And at one point you took a selfie of yourself by mistake, goodness me! I gave you a small tip as I left the pools to return to the village.

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At the village I returned to the burger pizza place and had a great feast whilst it rained even more outside my table window. It got so dark and cloudy with heavy rain drops and yet I smiled to myself – despite the weather over two days I’d had a great time here!

A letter of admiration to all bus drivers in Latin America

Suchitoto, 28th January 2019

Dear Sirs, (have not seen a single female bus driver here yet!)

I wanted to write to you all to thank you, to express my admiration and to also spread the good word about you by making this letter public on my blog.

After six months’ travelling across both South and Central America, I cannot express how much I think you guys rock. Amazing journeys across Bolivia’s mountain range, North Argentinian vast mountains with steep edges, Peruvian deserts, dry mountains in Chile, the hills and jungles of Colombia, more recently the volcanoes of El Salvador, little cities and villages in each country.

You drive these huge vehicles, you stop and pick up people whenever and wherever they are on your route. You always have a warm friendliness about you as I get on your buses with my luggage. You always have time to answer my questions as I am always unsure if it’s the right bus headed in the right direction. You have never scammed me, always charging me the rate that my foreign counterparts get charged. On average its been about 20p to a pound for each journey. Some of these journeys have been 10hours long, others for much shorter durations.

Some of these vehicles are regular buses. Others are bigger with turnstiles at the entrance. Some are collectivos which are like little vans for about 10-20 people. And some are very colourful Camionetas – chicken buses.

My research tells me the following – Chicken buses are called that because they traditionally are used by local working class people to take their produce from one place to another, at very cheap fares. They are old American school buses that have been sold off for a couple thousand US Dollars after reaching 10years of service. They are then sprayed by bus route owners in multiple colours, and their engines are reworked amazingly to seven speed manual transmissions, air brakes and diesel engines too. The interior is stripped, refurbished and set out to attract big numbers. Bigger seats are installed to fit three adults, roof racks are also added on, and luggage holders inside.

Passengers hop on and off in their numbers. You guys sometimes know a passenger, sometimes not. You often stop on a journey to get given a parcel or a bag of something, I see you  listen to the person on the street and nod in agreement to drop it off later on in the journey wherever instructed. Its like Royal Mail and London Transport have merged – as if!

You guys have no concept of “maximum” number of passengers, they come on the bus in vast numbers, squeeze and crowd up and you have never looked worried – there have been times where my face is squeezed and pressed pretty close to the window!

There is no uniform, many of you wear old trousers or jeans with a short sleeved top. Almost all of you grease your hair thick, combing them for ages to ensure a good appearance. You sit on a driver’s chair that is often made up of 100s of plastic lines from one edge to another. I think someone must have discovered how comfortable these particular chairs are for driving?

The front area of a chicken bus is often covered with stickers from America, often Disney characters but also soccer or music. On every bus front window or door there is also almost always a huge picture of Jesus or some other similar bible pictures with a religious quotation of some sort.

The chicken buses often have lots of colourful illuminations that flash in rhythm with the music that plays. And by music I mean really mega loud blaring reggae music that you guys play for the whole journey. A lot of the time I can see tourists put fingers in their ears wanting to control the volume. Why is it so important to play music so loud?! Possible campaign work for hearing loss charities here 🙂

A great range of vendors come on the bus and sell a range of things; bags of prawn, bags of nuts with lime juice and chilli sauce, plates of rice with chicken, bottles of water and soft drinks, whole big “chandeliers” of sweets and nuts, bags of crisps, plates of chips with ketchup and cheese, remote controls(!). Others stand up and talk incredibly loudly about a product, be it a pen or a needle for example, they rant about the product for ages and then often manage to sell a few. There are also others who drop a product on every person’s lap where possible, then rant and then come and either collect them back or the money for the product. I admire how some of the vendors have cleverly assembled their products on to a long hook which then hangs on the bus’ handle bars.

There are also rappers, I have seen them a few times, they stand right next to you and take it in turns to rap for ages as if it’s a dialogue. Its all in Spanish and I have seen the tips given! Its quite a hoot, and yet I haven’t clue what’s been said! Not exactly like these girls, but hey its a blog and I wanted to share a personal fave!

All of these vendors on the bus don’t raise your eyebrows at all. You just nod in acknowledgement to them as they hop on and often give you a freebie. You don’t look concerned about them at all. All you are focused on is getting from A to B with as many passengers as possible in the shortest amount of time = money!

As for your ayudantes…. they are men too, and they walk from one end to the other, collecting cash from people with a vivid memory as to who has just hopped on. They are always clutching a wad of bank notes, and some of them a bag where specific coins go into particular pockets. At every stop they jump out and shout, really loudly, where the bus is going. They then jump back on usually whilst the bus is moving. Its amazing that I haven’t seen anyone fall off to date!

It amazes me how often the bus stops for passengers. It frustrates me when its like only 15yards from one stop before the next passenger wants to get off or on – just 15yards? Surely they can walk to the previous/next place! But there is no official bus stop in most places, just knowledge of areas where a bus usually drives by.

There have been journeys where I wish you would just drive pass someone who is on the road wanting to get on. Just so many stops, you can imagine the tension on my back pain as the bus halts again and again. I do remember thinking earlier on how wonderful it is that the buses here do not follow any timed schedules, and that people can get on and off when they request to. Research tells me that the reason there are no fixed bus stops is to avoid gang violence robbing buses – gosh!

Filling up the bus with petrol is almost always done on the road via someone with a huge can of petrol rather than a garage, presumably to save money.

I often wonder if you guys own the bus or share with a group? I was not sure how it works, nothing like London transport I know! Later research tells me the Government sells bus routes to highest bidders, and private companies who get the bid then subcontract drivers and their ayudantes. These two guys have to pay the company a daily flat fee for the route and they try and drive the same route as many times a day as possible to make a profit. This is additionally why there is no maximum number of passengers despite safety concerns.

I recognise some of you spend hours driving. One morning I got dropped off at 9am by a volcano, after a slow 1.5-hour journey. When I returned at about 4pm, it was the same driver, which according to my calculations mean you will have probably done the route four times today (with a break for lunch).

If any of my friends ask me whether they should ride public buses in Latin America, my response will be a big resounding YES! Its an adventure, you get to see much more of real life and also its cheap. Of course there are risks but even aeroplanes have crashed or disappeared despite all security measures.

I think you stand in total contrast with British bus drivers, often constrained with so much health and safety rubbish as well as not motivated with their work! See below, that’s how it used to be in Britain 🙂

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Thank you all again! You guys rock!

The Tour Guide in Juayua

 

I had been travelling in a chicken-bus for a few hours from El Tunco to Juayua – costing me just $3. There was a catch though, I had to share this wonderful, iconic bus with about 80 other people!! Music pounds loudly for the entire journey and some of the people on the bus start rapping to try and get money from you. There are wonderful xmas-like illuminations at the front which respond to music vibrations, its like an 80s pop disco! (You simply have to get on a chicken-bus to understand!)

My bloody suitcase was carried from the door into the upper rack and rammed in by this conductor who kept walking up and down the bus, climbing between people in both directions. I was aghast and lost for words as I saw him pushing down my suitcase hard into the rack space, it was new!

When we change buses in Sonsonate my suitcase had another experience… it was put slap-bang in the middle of 8 big bags of coconuts. But the person who had moved it from my side was an elderly lady of Salvador origin, probably in her late 70s, with the petite bone structure of a bird. She was tiny and yet so strong. She was so anxious for her bags of coconut to survive the journey to Juayua. I kept looking at her in amazement as she held one hand against my suitcase and waved to me with a few teeth missing!

The need for space on a chicken-bus cannot be overestimated. If you’re unlucky, you find yourself sat on a bench that is situated right next to the “roof” of a tyre and hence you’ve got to cram your legs up as it’s the only way to sit! I sat like this painfully for 15mins and gave up, kindly swapped with a child elsewhere in the bus, bless him. The driver has no clue about maximum numbers, people pile on in vast numbers on to the bus. As people start just managing to hold on to the front door rails, you mutter to yourself “Can we just stop people climbing on?!” And then you remind yourself to respect culture and keep quiet!

Arriving into Juayua, you’re meant to have passed one major part of the Ruta de Las Flores, which has been sold to us tourists as an amazing thing to see – where flowers are in view en masse. I am afraid I wasn’t impressed, most of the flowers I saw on this second part of the journey were typical to that of what people see on a normal road trip. Maybe I will see more as I explore this village and other villages over the next few days.

I wheel my suitcase along a couple of long roads from the bus station where there are signs kindly pointing me to my accommodation, the Hostel Dona Mercedes. I checked in with a level of tentativeness. I’d booked this place for two nights via Booking.com simply because it was the only affordable place I could find ($21 for two nights), everywhere else was too expensive for my dwindling budget. Booking.com had emailed me to remind me of my confirmation and innocently (by automatic programming) pointed out that this hostel has a rating of 0.0 which means “very poor”. I emailed them back to ask how they felt about sending me such a booking confirmation and asked why this place only had 0.0 rating. They replied soon to confirm that the hostel was a new addition on their website and hence no reviews which meant such a low rating. They wished me a great stay. Well that was very reassuring(!)

Luckily the hostel is lovely and I felt at ease immediately. They even gave me a free late breakfast and helped me settle in. Maybe its because I will be the first person to review them on Booking.com!!

I knew I wanted to do a few particular activities whilst staying here. One was to see Los Chorollos – a beautiful waterfall just 40mins away. I asked reception for directions only to be well advised to go with a guide as its just not safe to do it alone, especially with various paths in the forest. It would cost me $15 and having thought about it a while, I decided to go for it.

I sorted my stuff out quickly, especially the important valuables as I was sharing with others in a dorm room. I made sure I was wearing waterproof shorts given the waterfalls include a swim. I update my handwritten journal, there’s about 14 pages left for the next 6 weeks left of my travels, I really hope it will be possible and hence it will be just one book to put into my box of travel journals in my loft at home. This box is padlocked and none of the books have been censored yet which would be shocking reading (joke!)

I went to reception to check something about the laundry services and there you were, Eduardo, my tour guide for the day. My immediate impression of you was that you were short and you had one of those “yoof beards” where its neither a beard nor a stubble but somewhat half a beard that suits you. You had a very sincere expression, one of kindness but gratitude to the hostel staff.

I guess it can be hard to find work and that this booking at 20mins’ notice was greatly appreciated. You wore this official Tourism cloak on top of your t shirt. You had some nice jeans on and some old trainers. We shook hands and you were very clear that I was deaf. I think the hostel staff must have told you before I arrived.

I let the manager’s wife kindly put a bottle of water and 3 tangerines into my bag. We set off out in the gleaming sunshine, its about 11am and doesn’t feel too hot and the sunshine is gorgeous. We walk down a few streets and then on to the path towards the waterfalls. You type some messages for me on your phone, asking me where I was from and asking about my plans.

You continually wave to people we walk past on the way, this village community certainly knows one another. There’s something about the wave itself, its with a good deal of respect. There’s a regard for your neighbour, a kind of code of conduct. I did wonder if it was to do with religion, but I think its more cultural than anything.

As we walk on it becomes clear to me that this is going to be quite a climb, both downwards and upwards. I am well known for saying to friends who may feel low at times “When we climb a mountain, usually we have to go down before we can go up”. It was this saying that kept playing in my head as we walked down the first part of the journey.

Fluffs of sand and thousands of sharp stones, roots, more roots and even more blooming roots every step of the way. You walk with a confident stride, your trainers probably allow you to do this compared to my open walking sandals. There are moments when I slip a bit and you immediately turn because you can hear me. It is kind of you to help me on different challenging parts of the journey. We hold on to tree branches, strong barks, and sometimes low hanging long branches that Tarzan and Orangutans tend to swing on!

You continue to guide me through the narrow paths and rocks, and we have some moments where I am shaking as its either too steep or too low. You offer your hand and help me on these difficult parts.

You’re only 21 and at the time of writing this I’m 42yr. Its alarming to me how dependent I am on a young lad like you, but I guess the experience you have from growing up locally is something I have never had, growing up in London.

The Los Chorros waterfalls finally appear and there are some people swimming happily, or taking photos with the fall immediately behind them. The water is crystal clear, and I cannot wait to get in and refreshen up. The long climb here had filled me with sweat and I badly needed it! The water was cool, not too cold, and I loved it. You kindly take photos of me, and you start talking to other people in the water, asking them advice on taking good photos. Its kind of you to make the effort. I note again the level of respect you give to other people, the body language in you demonstrates a clear willingness to make people content. Its not a submissive one, no, its more of a clear kindness.

After the swim I dry off in the sunshine and then get my sandals back on. We head on to what I believed was the next waterfall. What I didn’t know was that there were seven! We saw number 1 in the distance at the beginning of the walk, you had advised we wouldn’t be visiting that one due to climbing challenges. Swam in number 2. Number 3 was next, and nearby were 4 and 5. The trek was okay despite some rock climbing for some parts.

There was also a stream to cross and I attempted to hop over a few rocks. Unfortunately I slipped due to balance more than anything, and my efforts to keep my footwear dry failed! I automatically remain cool, and smile, although I think you noticed I was pretty embarrassed. We walked on and my feet squelched against every step, causing me to worry about falling off or slipping off again!

After waterfall number 5 you presented me with a typed message, “Numbers 6 and 7 are 45mins away or do you want to stop and go back to town for the food festival?”. Feeling proud and ambitious, I said we should continue. Little did I know what was ahead of me. The climb and the downwards bits were even more challenging. I remember clutching to the huge bark of a huge palm tree, its bark was gleaming green and somewhat “plastic” to the human skin. We climbed through some very heavy terrain, I got scratched a few times.

There was one part where you stopped and told me you could hear me out of breath! Ah, we deaf people and our breathing issues! I remember running in Wolverhampton park with my good friend Rob, a CODA, and him explaining me I was breathing so badly, and needed to change my rhythm. I remember trying to and bursting into fits of coughs. It’s a terrible trait many deaf people have!

We got to number six and seven consecutively and I loved the views. We took more photos and you gave me some reassurances, that we would not be going back the same way and that there was a more gentle path back. I was tired, my legs were aching and my feet too. We made our way back and you kept saying it wasn’t far or that it wasn’t much of a climb – you liar! It was challenging for a good long while, but we got there in the end! 🙂

Before returning to the main path we stopped a while, you wanted to show me a magic trick. You picked a stone and pretended to lose it behind your head for it to suddenly appear from your elbow. Its one of those magic tricks that my Uncle used to show me in Manchester when I was a kid. It brought a smile on my face.

On another part of the trek we stopped by some fresh branches of palm trees that were a light green texture. You used a sharp bit of wood to carve my name into the surface gently – it was very sweet of you. I wondered if you do this for every trip you do? It was quite a highlight in my view.

We talked a fair bit at this point and I asked you if I could write this blog about you and our day. You were happy to agree and thanked me. You used the sign language for ‘thank you’, which I taught you earlier on. You told me you had never seen sign language until you met me. When filming me for my social media story, your face dropped as you kind of understood what I was saying visually, and you eagerly asked me to do the whole story again but to your own phone. You couldn’t wait to share the video with your friends and family.

You tell me you have 3 brothers and 2 sisters and that you all live with your parents. You do these tour guides daily and you also work in a restaurant as a chef in the evenings of week days. Your dream is to visit England, Spain, Italy, Germany and Australia. I asked if you have ever been out of El Salvador, you confirm you have not.

We head on back to my hostel and I give you a little tip as well as payment. You kindly agree to wait for me and show me the food festival. We ate happily together with some gorgeous pineapple juice.

It is wonderful to have met you Eduardo, good tour guides are really hard to find. I really do wish you well for the future, Buena Suerte!

Jesus and David – no its not a bible story! – from Panama

 

 

(Both Jesus and David have read and approved of this blog)

I have often been asked by friends and family how I have met many deaf friends in Latin America, here goes:

– The international deaf community is definitely small
– The international deaf and gay community is smaller
– The Latin Deaf Community is small
– The Latin Deaf Gay community is even smaller
– Social media, especially Facebook groups, give that “glue” nowadays

As one perfect example, whilst gallivanting in Mexico I was introduced to you, Jesus, via a mutual deaf friend from Austria, Vanessa, who was meant to meet me in Honduras which got cancelled for a whole host of reasons. I was building up a list of useful contacts as I looked at places to travel ahead and Vanessa mentioned you. Of course there are many guys in the world called Jesus, but never have I had a friend with such a famous name!

We made our acquaintance via social media and quickly connected. I could see you had an aura of warmth, kindness and that you liked meeting deaf people from the world. We held many spontaneous quick chats and we also endorsed one another’s social media postings. I remember when I contacted you to explain I had decided to postpone Central America to the end of my travels rather than the rainy months of September and October. You totally understood. We kept in touch whilst I continued South America.

It was a nice flight from Cartagena (Colombia) to Panama, I’d had a lot of fun in Colombia and I knew Panama would be a lot smaller in comparison.

I strongly remember watching some of the World Cup 2018 Russia matches, and how gorgeous the team from Panama were. I know that even the England squad doesn’t sharply resemble English guys, but oh boy I was hoping to have a nice time “guys-a-watching” behind my deep shaded sunglasses! I was excited to arrive Panama for sure.

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We gave each other a hug at the international arrivals area and you introduced me to your friend, who was also called Jesus. This was one for the books, to have arrived into Panama and met two Jesus-es!!

I soon realised your right side eye occasionally gets “misaligned” – otherwise known as strabismus. It was sometimes not so clear if you were watching me. We talked about this, finding it amusing as deaf people across the world have experienced this phenomenon because eye contact is so important to us all.

We got into your friend, Jesus’ car (I’m laughing as I write this, its as if Lord Jesus had a car! :)) and drove on to where I’d be staying. You had already kindly arranged with your friend, David, for me to stay at his place. David was deaf, the ex-president of the deaf association in Panama and 59yrs old. He taught you when you were younger, and has known you since you were 10yr. With his hairline receding  and reaching older stage of life, David positively goes about life and has many years ahead of him.

After we settled, we immediately started to talk about plans for the 4 days I was going to be in Panama. Both David and you had kind of assumed I would be content to travel all the way to David (yes, there’s a place called ‘David’ in Western Panama!!) for eight hours on the trot, to then only stay for the night before travelling back for another eight hours. I had to make it very clear I would not be happy to. It would be a waste of valued time, such a long trip. You immediately understood and we agreed we would think of alternate plans over the course of the day. But for now, we agreed to go and see the Panama Canals and the historic town. With time being limited and me quickly realising Panama is not that small, we made a dash for it.

We got to know one another over the course of the day and I learned bits from you. I learned how the Panama Canals used to be dominated by Americans and how many Americans lived in one part of Panama. I learned about the history, how Panamanian people demanded the removal of the Americans, to own the canals fully. This led to a big vote which was won by the Panama people who wanted ownership of its canals. I also learned how the canals work! Amazing design, world class really.

As we are both gay we had several discussions about being gay in Panama. Whilst gay marriage is not legal in Panama, there are many gay people who live openly here. You told me about coming out to your family and how they found it very difficult to accept. There was a strong memory about how you were convinced to see a psychologist without your knowledge, and how they paid for a sign language interpreter too. You found this very disturbing and emotional too. It actually led you to eventually moving out of your family home and into your grandmother’s. Whilst relations have improved somewhat, you will never forget the denial and anxiety associated.

It is interesting to know how deaf people have fared in Panama. Whilst you have graduated most recently which your Grandmother holds a framed photo and certificate on her living room wall, there is no sign of a viable job yet, something I have seen time and time again across Latin America for deaf graduates.

I note how American Sign Language used to be dominant in Panama with teachings historically from people from neighbouring countries, Costa Rica and Salvador. David was involved in re-claiming Lengua de Señas Panameñas (Panamian Sign Language), much work continues.

I learn that David was made redundant recently and whilst he owns his house inherited from his parents, it is difficult to be able to afford to buy things, to meet the bills. There were no beds in his home, only mattresses on the floor. There is a desire to rent out two rooms to improve this for the time being.

Both you and David talked about global travel like it is a golden treasure. Whilst David has been to places across the Americas, you have been to Denmark for the World Federation Deaf Youth Camp, and this has always left you feeling like there is so much more in the world to see but you sadly cannot afford to do so.

Over the course of our 4-days together it is clear to me that both of you have so much to say. There is hardly a time when either of you are quiet. You both tell me about many things, and sometimes I struggle to know what to say, for example “the old hospital was there”, “the president’s friend got shot there”. It is so nice of you and David to tell me so much but there are times when I want to scream “Hashtag Information overload!” Silence can be golden!

Whilst David has known you since a young lad, he has also known you were gay early on. He has a real open mind, a lovely warmth that allows you both to enjoy many jokes that relate to sexuality. You can see it in your eyes Jesus, that you admire this older guy who has more or less given you that inner reassurance about being gay.

I like how you both use International sign with me however there are several occasions when Spanish vocabulary takes over and I simply have to tell you both when I don’t understand. We use visual cues and international examples to decipher many examples of complex information.

Is it Panama culture to arrange things at the last minute? There were many times over the 4 days when I wanted to know what was happening, where we were going, where we would be staying that was always met with a type of “We will let you know soon…” My Leo starsign character trembles at this! For example:

We were meant to stay with a friend on the first night of our road trip. We arrived into this town where we were supposed to meet this friend in a car park to then guide us to his home. On the way, he apparently texted you saying he didn’t believe we were coming and effectively we couldn’t stay at his place. There wasn’t a hint of panic in either of you. We were in a car park, it was 9pm and we didn’t have a clue where we were gonna stay! You texted a friend who ironically was just 2mins away and turned up, introduced himself and got talking with you both. It was beyond belief how he turned up so quickly, and then you all just started talking about his ex girlfriend and how astonished you were that they had split up recently. I was dead beat from all the driving I’d done all day, and you were just going on and on about the ex girlfriend. I hated to do it but I interrupted you all and asked what on earth was the plan for accommodation?! Some hesitation and acknowledgement led to us finding hotels at the last minute and eventually sharing a 4-bedroom!

Whilst David naturally plays the role of an older and wiser father to you, giving so much knowledge and advice from experience, there are times when you give David advice and knowledge, especially at the thermal spa and the roof top of Hard Rock Café! I liked this turn-taking I could see between you both and the bond you share. When we were at the beach, Santa Clara, I was sun bathing whilst you both stayed in the sea for ages, talking and talking about numerous things. When we visited the museum of ex-president Arias, Jesus, your eyes look up to David in awe, with a keenness to take in information and with enormous value too.

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It was hilarious to watch you both laugh at things with sexual reference so many times. I will never forget David explaining to us both about how an ex-president of the deaf association took some Viagra and died in the middle of sexual intercourse with a lady. It was just hysterical!

It was clear that you both do not have much money to throw around. And whilst it was understandable that you needed to be careful, it was astonishing to watch David buy several lottery tickets 🙂

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I was astonished as you showed me how people with the Deaf or Discapacidad card get 15% or 25% off their food bills in all restaurants – I couldn’t believe it. Greek food, coffee, ice cream, cheese-bread (Queso Chera) all were reduced without a hint of embarrassment on either you or David. A similar reduction applies for transport and medical bills.

On many occasions there was the cross made over the face, to say that life is with God and whatever he has planned will happen. You both wished me luck in my onwards travels and kissed your fingers on your lips after a cross over your face, it is sweet of you.

As the reader of this blog can probably tell, I found my time with you and David really amusing, a privilege and I really enjoyed getting to know you both. I am grateful for your time, your company and your wonderful hospitality and care. We had a wonderful few days together and it is amazing how quickly we bonded. It was an honour for me to be part of your lives no matter how short. I remain forever grateful to have met you both, Abrazo.

The Motorbike guy from Mompos (or Mompox)

 

Back in July I was in a hairdresser’s shop in San Francisco, panicking and worrying about whether to dye my hair a silver-grey colour. Ben, my dear friend, tried to reassure me. He was also dying to go to the pub. I told him to go and come back later.

Whilst waiting for the bleach to do its job on my hair, I picked and read this travel-style magazine. As I turned the pages, Mompos and the north of Colombia was a main feature that ran over about 12-pages. I loved it. The writer (I cannot remember her name) was a gifted travel writer, she wrote about how this was a town that the world had forgotten. It had a strong history with Simon Bolivar (who set much of Spanish South America free from Spanish domination), where in 1812 Bolivar  recruited all of his 400 strong-abled men from here to fight and enable glory in Caracas. She wrote beautifully about the warm weather, about a dog that swam across the river daily to get food from a farm. She wrote about the sights of nature and the food that you can find on the Arrabida (river bank street).

I admit it. I stole the magazine!

I snuck it into my bag and after my silver-grey hair turned out more purple than anything else, I walked with Ben back to our accommodation with him telling me that my hair looked good and that it will be a couple days before the silver-grey becomes noticeable. I tried to believe him(!)

The magazine stayed in my bag for the next 4 months, via Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador. I held on to the magazine article, I later tore the 12 pages out from the magazine – stupidly thinking it would give me a little more space(!) The pages started to crunch and tear, and each time I looked at it I started to think maybe I was not meant to go there. I started googling Mompos on various travel blogs etc. The enthusiasm was starting to reduce, Colombian amigos shrugged when I asked them about Mompos. I was concerned, the journey would be rather difficult according to several sources of advice on the web.

I video-called my friend Jane – well travelled – and asked her advice. Do I travel for about 7hours to Mompos or do I go to a nearby beach place instead? I asked my school-mates too. One said “Isn’t a beach just a beach? Go and see this historic place!” And Jane agreed “What’s the worse can happen? If its boring, I will read a book!”. The overall feeling was that fate was telling me to go to Mompos. Finding that magazine article especially.

And boy oh boy, I was glad I did! I got 2 different buses from the hills of Minca all the way to Mompos. It was fairly straight forward although the collectivo (shared van) was crammed all the way and it was a long and hot journey indeed. The van had to cross the Magdalena river on a small flat “ferry” that made Woolwich ferry look like nothing. I arrived Mompos around 8pm, it was so humid!  There was no sea-breeze for miles.

There were rocking chairs everywhere outside each casa, people were chilling out as the evening went on.  There were also electric fans in operation almost everywhere, hooked up by extended cables. I had some supper in the main plaza and watched people as they engaged in conversational activities, watched live-music, danced etc. Two women sat next to my table, chatting away as if everything shocking had happened to them this week. Their use of elaborate facial expressions as they chatted in rapid Spanish was amazing. I loved it!

I asked the receptionist at the hostel how I would go about going to Cartagena the next day. He effectively gave me two choices; a) door to door service at 4am from the hostel, 75,000 pesos or b) public transport service at 10pm, 80,000 pesos. I definitely did not want to leave at 4am. South America has been full of tours that begin at ridiculous times and I have avoided many of these tourist traps – especially with deaf friends around.

I asked the receptionist if there was another way, for example travelling solo. His facial expression was one of astonishment, whilst sweating badly from the humidity. It was as if tourists just cannot, especially deaf tourists like me. I persuaded him to tell me.

He explained I would have to go to a main road and wait to share a taxi with local people to Bodega and then get on a boat to Manangue, and then from there find a bus to Cartagena. This sounded straight forward to me. I checked how frequent, he said it was every 10mins all day between around 9 and 5pm. I was convinced I would be okay. This would allow me to explore Mompos in the morning and then go.

It was a wonderful morning in Mompos, I’d woken up at 6am as usual. I woke with this “readiness” and I really wanted to take in the views of Mompos and take some daylight photos of places I’d walked by last night.

I really enjoyed the sights, a football team was prepping for their game probably so early because it gets so warm later in the day. Several bikes passed me by, carrying various things. Cafés were opening up and the views into their dining rooms via gated windows were amazing. I had breakfast in one place, a coffee in another, and then another coffee in another café! It was just sheer bliss! The town was still “sleepy” by 1030am, just like the article described. No-one was in a hurry.

It was time to go, especially with a long journey ahead of me. I started to walk to the main road only to realise that it was about 2 miles away. I grabbed a “tuk-tuk” and got dropped off. Clutching my suitcase was not so easy but we made it.

(I should make it clear that for much of my travels I used a large rucksack with
wheels. However this sadly finally broke beyond repair in Pasto, and I bought a new suitcase rather than a rucksack. Just felt like the right thing to do – thanks Mum and Dad!)

On the main road I searched for a shared taxi. I couldn’t see any! Not a single taxi was in sight. I felt a bit bewildered. It was so hot, I stepped into the shade of a big tree and bought a cup of fresh lemonade from a stall. I was wondering what to do. The stall owner and her husband started to look for cars for me, but they also shrugged.

And then about six motorbikes rode up next to me. You, this broad-shouldered guy with a sense of determination, approached me. You looked paternal, a father, an Uncle. You asked me where I was going, I could sense this visually. I showed you my little paper that said “Bodega”. You nodded right away and indicated I would join you on your motorbike. I laughed out loud, told you that you were crazy (visually), my suitcase was just too big. You refused to back down. You grabbed my suitcase and lugged it on your bike. You then brought out a pair of rubber (latex?!) cables and tied up my suitcase firmly.

The others on their motorbikes nodded in agreement, telling me it would be fine. I was flabbergasted. They even demonstrated visually that I would be able to ride in comfort and that the suitcase would not fall off. You then drew out on the sandy road the figure of 20,000 pesos (approx £5).

I paused a while. “Oh sod it!” I applied some suncream and got on the bike and immediately asked one of the riders (who I suspect was your nephew or son) to take a photo. I mean, it was an adventure! I thought to myself, I’m so gonna have yet another story to share! And what with it being a motorbike and my experiences to date (Bolivia: world’s most dangerous road bike ride and my accident, Cafayete: long exasperated ride but it was because the security chain was tied around the seat and jammed the wheel from moving, and Medellin: falling off Carlos’ motorbike!).

The sun shone strongly in our faces, the colourful views during this 44km journey were beautiful. Birds flew, marshes were plentiful and many animals were in sight. You rode the bike with a steady speed. You were wearing this kind of long sleeved pink top whilst I was wearing a vest! You were confident as we meandered the roads.  We went over many speed bumps along the way and we also avoided some bumps by going off-road where it was smooth enough to do so.

The music from Grease 2, “Cool Rider” kept playing in my head. Michelle Pfeiffer could eat her heart out. I just felt so good!! (I didn’t fancy my rider at all mind you!!)

And then I suddenly realised I had no helmet. I had no idea who you were. And you had no mirrors on your bike!!! I had taken a big risk without having thought about it. Think about Uber and the level of scrutiny applied with vetting and risk assessments.  Think about the numerous risk assessments I had to do in my old job! And compare that to what I was doing on your bike!

Yes, it was an adventure but what a silly risk to have taken. I started worrying and regretting.  The suitcase was starting to tilt badly behind me, I was worried it would fly off. I tapped you to slow down and stop. You eventually did, yet you didn’t look worried at all. You attempted to tighten up the cables but one of them snapped, like an elastic band that splits into two. Did you have a spare cable? Nope! What you did astonished me, you just tied up both split cables together.

You had this aura of confidence, you really made me reassured. I explained to you how worried I was about not having a helmet, you kind of understood but equally you were not worried.  We continued the journey. We passed many people who live in the rural countryside, many of them selling fruit or doing farm related work. One of them was watering down the heated road surface and hoping to get tips for doing this.

The suitcase kept tilting further and for the last 4km I just felt I had to hold on to the suitcase behind me rather than holding on to you. It must have been a sight, the pair of us on your bike and my hands behind me holding on to this massive suitcase!

As we arrive in Bodega I realised I felt rather disappointed, I wanted this journey to continue for at least another hour. I just loved it, the roaring sounds and vibration, the sights and the glorious sunshine on us.

You helped me off the bike and took down the suitcase. You also helped me get the right boat ticket to Manangue. I was just so glad you are trustworthy. I paid you the fee and gave you a little tip.

I asked you to write your name down as I just know I am going to write this blog. You wrote it out with pretty bad handwriting, but I smiled as I deciphered it – Wilman. What a perfect name for someone who had so much will and determination!

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I watched you as you immediately chatted with other motorbike riders at the boat port, all of you a-waiting to give someone a ride somewhere.

I will never forget this journey. I waved to you goodbye as I crawled into the narrow small boat toward Manangue (picture below).

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