Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Pineapple Christmas Tree

People had been asking me for weeks: How long have you been travelling for?

The first few times it was confusing. What do you mean travelling? Which might seem like a strange reaction from an English person in a hostel in Nicaragua, but the past couple of months hadn't really felt like travel. I'd been in the small town of Tonala in the north of the country. No one's heard of Tonala, and why would they? It's a very self-contained community. People trade among themselves. Every window is a shop and every back yard a farm. Not the kind of place I would normally choose to travel to.

Mid December arrived. Tonala was behind me.

'Will you miss it?' someone on the bus had asked.

'No.' I replied without hesitation, thinking of the one rubbish bin at the edge of town that was the only survivor of two attempts to install bins to tackle the litter, and the second to last night when my host dad had tried to kiss me. Both sum up the experience.

The few weeks since in Leon had been something else. Leon I would miss. Its people, its comedors, its colonial buildings on crumbling roads. But it was time to leave. The plan: cross Nicaragua and three more countries to get to Palenque in Mexico for a hippie celebration (or a Rainbow Gathering) of Baktun.

I was travelling with an Alaskan. It didn´t take me long to realize how much cooler it is to be from Alaska. When we introduced ourselves, I would say England, followed a lot of the time by 'it's in Europe' and Kevin would say 'Alaska' to which people would really get excited. Do you eat walruses? Do you have water holes with magical healing properties? Do you live in iglus?

It took us 26 hours on a chicken bus to arrive in Guatemala City.
25 very uncomfortable hours.
7 of which I preoccupied myself with whether or not I could say I'd been to Honduras. I'd seen some dogs and some trees. I'd got the stamp in my passport. I'd eaten a local dish of tortilla made with cheese in the dough and served hot and melted ...and as I was later told, actually from El Salvador.
10 of which were unnecessary waiting for made up reasons.
An hour of a filmed drug search,
The driver's attempt to jump ship...
and a few hours of actual driving.

In Guatemala we headed straight for Antigua. It was another world. Clean cobbled streets, pastel colour houses, intensely coloured artisan work, and music and documentaries in the streets. We were interviewed by a TV crew when sampling the local cuisine. What does it taste like? They ask as I bite into the disappointingly cold banana in chocolate sauce. Mmmmm. I say, unconvincingly, blinded by the light they're shining.

By the second day I feel some how done with Antigua's perfectness. I want something more gritty. And more importantly, The Hobbit is out. So off to Guatemala City. After the slight glitch of iphone being stolen on one of the infamous Red Buses, Kevin's attempt to retrieve it as I get off with the bags, the bus driving off with him inside and a still iphoneless reunion, we make it to a shady hostel in the city.

An artisan shows us the way, offers us cereal in crisp packets, and it's all going ok. We buy camping supplies, watch The Hobbit... and then realize nearly $2000 has gone missing from Kevin´s bank account.

Police reports, embassy visits and failed MoneyGram attempts, make getting out of Guatemala the first thing on my list of priorities. In a long chain of bad luck, we under estimate the distance and miss the last bus to the border. There are five of us by the side of the road including a girl and grandmother who are going to Mexico in search of her father.

Eventually we hitch a lift with a man who turns out to be a Guatemalan football player. Striker, he tells me shortly before hitting a dog. I didn´t mean to, he shrugs, as we drive off with the sound of its dying yelps behind us.

The border is closed. The girl and grandmother cross anyway. Me and Kevin are a little surprised. You can do that? We ask someone if we can cross anyway too. Yes! They say encouragingly. And when we come back? Oh, no, you won't be able to do that.

So, accepting the situation, we get out our makeshift camp gear: two tarps and a mosquito net. Locals start telling us enthusiastically about Sam. He's from England too so apparently I should know him. He also spent the night on the border. They ask where we traveled from but have never heard of Nicaragua. At last we lay down in our tent, hug our bags towards us and then burst out laughing at the absurdity.

Fast forward hours of bus rides, long dirt tracks and more waiting. Hello Rainbow! Or rather we get there at midnight and find ourselves experiencing the most intense culture shock yet. Through the dark a girl throws herself on us for the world's longest hug, or as it was called, some positive energy sharing. Then we're in an old school bus where people are smoking hash from an apple, and a man is playing guitar with nothing but a jumper tied around his waist and everything hanging out. The ceiling is covered with writing like the MLK quote 'we must live together as brothers or perish as fools' as well as lines like ´knowledge is bliss' and the very sage advice 'don't play leap frog on a unicorn'.

But the next day comes with the discovery of free coffee, free chai, free chocolate, free food and free things that aren't quite so legal. A swim in the river, a dance by the fire, some incredible massages, music and lots of singing later, and even the near flooding the night of solstice just leaves me with a feeling that everything is right with the world.

And all the sharing... so much sharing. Mostly in a good way. Except for when I ask how much a pair of earings cost and someone patronisingly takes me to one side 'Honey, this is your first rainbow, isn't it?' It turns out I can only exchange. I like this in theory, except what it really means is that I have to use my money outside of the camp to get something to exchange for the thing I really want. But the result is me spending much more time thinking about what I can give than what I can get - which isn't so bad.

Then somehow it's Christmas and we're in the jungle. It doesn't feel like Christmas - we're in the jungle. Something has to be done about this. I resolve to make a Christmas tree. I tie together some thick palm branches into a tripod, put leaves in the gaps to give it shape and then more leaves for colour, peel in place of baubles?

As I'm working, I realize part of me is waiting for compliments. When they come I feel good. When they don't I feel bad. Climbing onto someone's shoulders, I place the top of a pineapple as a star. While I'm gone for another round of massages, music and skinny dipping, someone adds lights to the tree. As it gets dark and the path gets busier, more and more people stop to look at the tree. Some of them say thank you. Others wish me a merry Christmas. Most don't say anything at all to me. They either simply stop to look, or walk by.

On my present free Christmas, I have a mini epiphany: That's why we give and receive. That's why we create. It's nothing to do with the person making or giving. It's the hope that someone might enjoy what has been shared.

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