We were heading for Mexico City by van. I’d sorted the route. It was left at the top of our road.
We were going to travel from Los Angeles to San Diego and then straight along the main pan Mexican highway to Mexico City. We had three kids in tow and a tent but that van was going to be our home for a couple of weeks. It was a thousand five hundred miles.
The Mexican border was the first spot of interest. We went in on a six lane highway and out on a dirt road.
At the customs hut we were pulled over by three surly guards. The first guard told us that he might have to search the van for drugs. I protested. I was hardly likely to be smuggling drugs into Mexico, was I? The guard was unmoved. He pointed to a bunch of cars and vans that had been previously subjected to a similar procedure. They had been ripped to shreds. All the seats, upholstery, roof, panels had been ripped out and slashed to pieces. They had even had their engines removed. It did not bode well. I was imagining what I was going to say to the American teacher we had borrowed the van off.
But then the guard suggested that for a small fee he could make us exempt. I slipped him twenty dollars. He told me that there were three of them. I passed the others notes across.
Petrol in Mexico was half the price of the US so we’d come across with an empty tank. When we’d exchanged our dollars the miserable Mexican exchanger had refused to give us any small notes. We had been given large denomination notes worth fifty pounds. I thought that we would get some change from the garage. We filled up with petrol and I handed one of the notes over. A full tank had only set us back about ten dollars. He gave me around five dollars’ worth of change in a bunch of small currency notes. I protested vehemently. I couldn’t speak Spanish and he pretended not to understand English. I pointed to the price on the pump and demanded the rest of the change. Unrepentant and without a hint of embarrassment he handed me a few more notes. It took another three protests and a lot of angry exchanges before he finally coughed up the right money. He was totally unfazed by the whole scam.
The road, the main arterial road through Mexico to Central America, was a two lane job. It was the major highway for all commerce. There were big trucks roaring up and down it. But it was lousy. You would be driving along at full pelt, round a bend and it would disappear into a dirt track. We would bump and career along for a while before the tarmac would reappear. Obviously some municipal council had not paid their taxes. It was no wonder the whole road was punctuated with shrines to dead motorists. The drivers using that death-trap of a thoroughfare were crazy.
In way of illustration, one day we’d stopped at the side of the road to grab some lunch. A car travelling at high speed, swerved off the road, careered through the undergrowth right to the side of us without slowing and then scuttled back on to the road in a screech of wheel-spin, enveloping us in a cloud of dust. We were in shock.
But hey, much to the amazement of our neighbours, who were sure we would be killed by bandits or smashed to pulp on the road, we made it to Mexico City and back in one piece.
Cape Verde receded into the past. We were now headed for Brazil.
For four days we steadily ploughed our way across the Atlantic through the calm of the doldrums. The sea was spread out like a skein of billowing silk and our bow cut through it like a ploughshare cutting sods. Ships used to become marooned in this placed but our fifty year old diesel engines throbbed as they powered on relentlessly into a rhythm to which I had become accustomed.
I had all the time in the world. There were no chores and no internet. I walked the deck for exercise as it gently pitched, I read with my feet up on the rail and broke off to gaze out over the endless sea. I went to lectures on the wild-life or social/political situations in South America. But mostly I stood at the bow in my shorts, T-shirt and sandals and stared out, partially in hopes of seeing wild-life, but mostly because it was mesmerising. The sun was scorching and tropical and the breeze from the ship’s steady 15 knots was cooling. Ahead it was unbroken. The nearest land was hundreds of miles away, there wasn’t a ship in sight. Behind we were leaving a trail that stretched off to the horizon. I imagined it as a long elongating snake stretching back to that bay in Mindelo.
Occasionally we would see whale blows, a pod of dolphins would check us out and have a leap through our bow-wave or a leatherback turtle would drift past raising its head out of the water to gaze at us with those reptilian eyes. I was quite shocked to find how little life there was. Once life used to teem and now it was a rarity.
Sometimes I would lie in the hot Jacuzzi on the top deck with my floppy hat, sunglasses and suncream, under the blazing sun with a beer in hand.
In the evening it was good to check out the sunset as it sank slowly into the sea.
Late at night I would go out on to the deck all alone and stand at the front with the warm breeze ruffling my hair. The ship’s lights were behind me and the moon shone brightly leaving a bar of shimmering light across the sea. The stars filled the sky with the Milky Way like a thick wisp of smoke in a band above my head. I felt all alone. As I looked around I knew that we were about as alone as you could get on this planet – no land for days and the nearest ship well out of sight beyond the horizon. It gave me a sense of what it must have been like thousands of years in the past for those early men before the machine of civilisation was created. I felt an affinity.
Of course there would have been a lot more wild-life back then.
I watched flying fish for hours. The scooted out of the way of our bow-wave fleeing the huge metal predator bearing down on them. Singly or in swarms they would scud out across the waves for hundreds of metres before plunging back down. I found them fascinating.
Behind me was Europe, England, Spain, Gran Canaria and Cape Verde, ahead was Brazil, Argentina, the Falklands, Uruguay and Chile.
I knew what was behind me and I could smell what was to come. It smelt like adventure.
Alter Do Chao is a holiday resort on the Amazon. It floods to form a large lagoon with sandy shores. Families come to enjoy a ‘beach’ holiday. The water is fresh water and very warm. Extremely pleasant to swim in.I was more taken with the incredible wildlife of the flooded lagoon.
Voodoo came straight out of the African superstitions via the Creole population. It has gone in the music that comes out of the region – the Blues and Cajun. It has its Mojo bags, Gris-Gris and John the Conguero – spells, amulets, potions and dolls designed to solve all your problems, raise your sex drive, do in your enemies and make people fall for you – the real Love Potion No. 9 (a Leiber & Stoller number made famous by the Clovers and covered by the likes of the Searchers). Mojos and John the Conquero were made famous by Muddy Waters and when I was young I always wondered what he was talking about. It then went from Blues into Rock.
Dr John is the epitome of Cajun/Voodoo Rock with his gris-gris and voodoo paraphernalia.
The most famous Voodoo Queen has to be Marie Laveau. So we had to go and visit her grave and pay our respects.
We had a day at sea to recover to recover. There were a few Boobies hovering around the boat – quite a rare sight as we had travelled around through tropical seas devoid of life. We were beginning to think every last living thing had been wiped out. It is incredibly sad to think that we are witnessing the last remnants of wildlife. Once these seas and lands were teeming with life. But I am afraid that we’ve been killing everything. Now the wildlife is scant indeed.
We sailed into Manila with the sun painting it a wan early morning orange. What a welcome! There were three fire-ships lined up to give us a squirt as we docked!
Not one but two bands and dance groups were there to greet us again. We are so popular! One was a drum group who pounded out some great rhythms while young psuedowarriors, with hardboard shields and wooden spears, performed an ethnically inspired war dance. The other was mainly made up of young girls on xylophones? – With an array of other interesting instruments with some I’d never seen before. They were excellent and I certainly enjoyed the rhythms they created.
They were guys on stilts, huge paper mache cartoon characters and a huge array of dancers. They were certainly pulling out the stops! I noticed that not all the dancers were really into it though – there were bored looks and whispered asides. Kids will be kids the world over. Performing for tourists can be tedious.
After wandering about through a grimy part of the city marvelling at the strange buses that the locals were jumping off and on. There were armed guards with big guns standing about. But undeterred we wandered off through the back streets where the electricity cables hung in bundles just as with Thailand – a spaghetti of electricity. You just hope that your lines don’t get crossed.
After wandering aimlessly for a while in the gathering heat we decided to purchase the leg power of a local and allow a pedal powered rickshaw to propel the two of us around the old city and show us the sights. He proved adept at weaving in and out of traffic and avoiding ruts. We did our fill of the old city walls, or what was left of it after them after they had been destroyed in the Second World War by the Japanese. Inside the city walls they were filming a movie – it looked like Beauty and the Beast.
The old fort was a ruin but was interesting. It housed tales of martyrs and battles long gone as well as pleasant surrounds with old gates and ponds of water-lilies. The view out across the river gave you a view of the city plus a look into the slums that they did not really want you to see.
The cathedral was interesting and picturesque. It was set on a great little square with the Presidential Palace. By some divine protection, or sheer luck, they seem to have come through the bombing fairly intact.
The Old Church and monastery was very calm and also intact. It always amazes me that the poorer and more destitute the population the more they turn to religion. I think it is the same psychological principle that causes people to turn to gambling. They have hope that some action on their part (prayer or a bet) can make everything perfect. Some hope.
We cycled past the park and river, stopped off at the museum before heading back to the ship for refreshments. The museum gave a glimpse at another life. A mere hundred years ago the place would have been unrecognisable as local Indians went about their business, fishing, harvesting and creating, following their gods and performing their rites. All swept away in the tide of time and the mad rush down the rapids into this overcrowded city. Such a short time ago. All gone. Replaced with what?
Our guide was informative and quite content to let us wander and stay as long as we wanted. We were paying him by the hour!
Talking to Rico (our powerful calved pedlar) it seems that the war on drugs, in which hundreds of thousands had been executed (for a variety of political reasons other than drugs), had done nothing to solve the problem. The people executed were all small-fry – the ones behind it were immune and there was widespread corruption. Same story the world over. Rico proudly told us that, despite being in his early thirties, he was the proud father of seven without apparently seeing any connection of this to the congestion, grinding poverty, squalor and misery all around him. Overpopulation and poverty did not seem to connect in his head. It fills me with dread.
As the sun began to set we were seen off by not one but two very large brass bands and baton twirling girls in a much more American inspired performance.
The Manilans certainly pushed the boat out! Though it was rather strange as we pulled away from the quay and they struck up Auld Langs Syne.
As we left the harbour we sailed close to the slums. They sweltered in the unrelenting heat as a multitude of people tried to eke a living out of very little.
We looked back at Manila as we steamed away. The orange glow of the setting sun gave it a shabby magnificence that belied the dirt, people sleeping on the streets, the rubbish and the rats. We all agreed that it was a fairly typical Eastern city in that respect. There was an interesting raft of colonial left overs (mainly Spanish), a sense of decay, overpopulation and poverty along with some opulent wealth all boiled together in the heat.
We waved goodbye to the locals who had gathered at the end of the quay to wave us off.