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We arrived early at the Estadio Nacional in order to claim a good seat, quickly losing patience as person after person jumped the metal railings in unashamed disregarded of the queue. As four ‘gringos’ we were reluctant to try the same tack, but our irritation got the better of us and we skipped on through with a thrill of adrenaline.

 Honduras, as with all Latin America, takes its football very seriously. The atmosphere before the League final in capital city, Tegucigalpa, was frenetic.

We claimed a spot in the middle of the concrete terracing with a reasonable view and no reprieve from the midday sun. The stadium filled up with red, white and blue. And up and up, crammed far beyond capacity. The final was a showdown between Tegucigalpa home team, Olimpia, and Real España of second city San Pedro Sula. Only a handful of España fans had dared make the trip, the Honduran League notorious for supporter violence.

 The match kicked off and even I, far from aficionado, found the level of skill displayed underwhelming. But that mattered nothing. The season ticket stand was an inferno, chants and fists thrown to the air unceasingly. Boy vendors leapt between terraces selling beers, plantain chips, and 5 Lempira bags of water. Boisterous onlookers pelted the policemen encircling the pitch with empty cans. Occasionally they would spot a culprit and two officers would stride up the stands and eject the offender. Mexican waves did the rounds. Olimpia scored and supporters threw their hands to the sky, beers, hot dogs and all.

Ninety minutes up and with a score of 1-1, the anticipation surged on into extra time. Olimpia scored again, the crowd roared again, the final whistle blew, the crowd exulted!

 Exiting the estadio, hawkers still a-hawking, we were thrilled to have witnessed like locals this celebration of our adopted city, and unimaginably relieved by the prospect of emptying bladders painfully full with the beer that had seemed so irresistible in the baking sun.

*

This was my entry for the World Nomads/Rough Guides travel writing competition the other week. I’m not particularly happy with it, though it does fit the remit and that particular vein of travel writing. I’m never particularly happy with anything I produce so I suppose I shouldn’t take too much from that.  I do, however, think it superior to some of last year’s wank entries.

Two things to note:

– It was alarmingly difficult to think of an interesting episode which didn’t involve some kind of wrong-doing, miscreancy, or terror.

– The amount of detail which my brain has let go of over these short years is astounding. Stories that I wrote at the time are filled with minute observations and occurrences of which I now have no recollection. Oh how I have abused this grey matter of mine…

On the plus side, it has made me think about writing again and I think I’ll rework some old tales. With this as a starting point, I might begin with a series of Honduras pieces, incorporating my work from Spanish class last term which I promised a couple of friends I would translate.

But Time, I have given you all away…

Continued from The bullet

I began to wonder what had happened to my bag. Though I’d yelled from the golfcart for someone to get it, it wasn’t in the clinic. John was sure however that it was in the custody of Rosalita, the lady who runs the dive shop opposite the crime scene, so I didn’t worry too much.

After the wound was cleaned out, the really painful part began – testing for serious damage. The lungs part was easy – I just had to breathe in and out sharply while John stuck a stethoscope at various points on me. I could feel that my lungs were fine. I was pretty sure my spine was fine as well – the fact I could move my fingers and toes was a fairly good indication – but to be sure this involved a lot of poking me in the back to see where it hurt most. We came to the conclusion that the bullet had very possibly taken off a spinous process, the pokey-out bit of bone on the outside of each vertebra, but otherwise, incredibly, had left nothing but muscle damage.

After all the fluid from the IV which had been going into my arm for some hours, I really badly needed to pee. I hadn’t moved from my front-laying position since entering the clinic, so the logistics of this were going to prove a challenge. John nominated the newly inaugurated Nurse Jane to help me accomplish this. Most of the muscles in my upper body were out of action, so to get off the table I had to shuffle downwards, still lying face-down, until my legs were hanging off the edge, and tip myself over until my feet reached the ground. I was incapable of standing upright, so had to remain bent at an unfortunate angle, resting somewhat painfully on my forearms. Jane and I were provided with a special bonding experience as I was unable to undo my shorts. At least I was able to hold the pee jug myself, but morale took a blow as visions crept in of what my life might be reduced to for the next few weeks…

John re-entered and asked Jane for stats on the urine. “Yellow”, she replied, to the Doctor’s hilarity. John liaised with the police and relevant authorities throughout the night, and found out that Magenta and Steve had to leave to go to court on the larger neighbouring island of Roatan at 6am that morning, having been up all night. In Honduras, a report has to be made and statements of two witnesses taken within 24 hours of a crime for it to be prosecutable. We were all caught in a ridiculous cycle of guilt, me feeling bad that they had to go through all this because I’d been shot, them feeling bad I’d been shot in the first place. We wished them the best of luck, nervously laughing at how the huge blood stain on Magenta’s top blended in with the pattern, and away they went, leaving me and Nurse Jane alone.

Jane fed me electrolytes through a straw. We looked around the room, covered in smears of my blood, and reflected on the utterly bizarre circumstance in which we’d found ourselves. We laughed at the ‘nose drawer’. There was an eye drawer as well, but that wasn’t quite as amusing as an image of a drawer full of noses. Dr. J returned with coffee, cinnamon rolls, and banana cake and decided it was time to get me up. Unable to use my arms to raise myself, the two of them had to prop me into a sitting position. I immediately felt dizzy and nauseous and had to lie down again. John said it was because I’d lost so much blood, and only then told me that I actually didn’t have a radial pulse when they first got me to the clinic. I looked pale and like shit. I was wheelchaired into a room with a comfy bed, where I scoffed a banana cake and some more electrolytes and was allowed to sleep. It was 9.30am.

John returned three hours later, having been in touch with the Mayor, the Policia, the British Embassy, everything. I was able to sit up myself now and he couldn’t believe how much better I looked. When Jane returned a short time later he told her he’d never seen such an amazing recovery –  a total turnaround after nothing more than a three hour sleep and a piece of cake! To mine and Jane’s great relief, I could now take a piss by myself as well.

Jane had been down to Paradise Diver’s to get my bag from Roslita. It wasn’t there, and it soon became apparent that some crackhead fuck had seen me bleeding to death as a prime moment for an opportunist theft. I was absolutely livid. The sad thing was it wasn’t at all surprising. For those of you that don’t know, and think that living on an island in the Caribbean must for sure be some sort of idyll – it is not. I suppose that’s already been established by the fact I got shot. But a random incidence of somebody losing their mind and brandishing a weapon can happen anywhere. Somebody seeing a person gravely injured as an opportunity for robbery does not. Utila suffers from what I’ve heard referred to as a ‘cleptoculture’.

So that was the ipod gone, my aloe lip balm (which had survived a previous robbing actually), a book I’d only just started reading and was really enjoying, and my notebook. Ironically enough, I’d just written an entry about all the crazies on that island and how they were driving me mental.

After a visit from Scottish Mike, the British Honorary Consul for the island, phone calls from the British Embassy, and enough getting up and down and doing things for myself to prove I was suitably recovered, I was allowed to go home about 4pm. Doctor John packed me out the door with copious amounts of antibiotics and paracetamol, bandaged up like a hunchback, a can of Salva Vida in my hand (local beer, meaning ‘Lifesaver’; John insisted that not being able to drink on antibiotics is a myth), and we all piled into Chris Muñoz’ (one of my aides from the night before) golfcart for what was somewhat of a victory lap through the town, past Cueva, waving at well-wishers, John looking smug with his freshly-saved patient…

Continued from The shooting

Lying face-down on the surgery table in Dr. John’s clinic, I was still insisting that I’d only been shot by a pellet gun. The room was filled with people I didn’t know – John’s team of first aiders who’d been summoned, mostly out of the bar. There was a hoard of nosy locals clammering outside, trying to get in or catch a glimpse of what was going on. Within a matter of minutes, Shelby the local TV guy arrived, wanting to shoot some film for the news. My alarmed response was an instant no, much to the disappointment of the publicity whore island doctor. I detest being centre of attention, to the point that I’d not show up to my own funeral if I thought I’d get away with it, but I was fast coming to realise that on a small island like this that’s exactly what I was about to be.

Jane arrived around the same time as the police. She’d got the news while closing up at work, but her manager had made it clear she was obliged to stay and pack away the bottles first. The police informed us the gunman had been arrested, took some details and asked some questions. There was a brief panic when they asked for my passport – it was currently in an unknown location off on some dodgy visa renewal – but thankfully just having the number was enough.

Though I think I did fuzzily request painkillers at some point, none were provided. The area around the wound was numbed with lidocaine so that John could operate, and an IV drip attached, but that was the only medication administered. This meant I was conscious throughout the entire intense and surreal process of the next few hours. I could see around me the faces of those I knew – Jane, Magenta, Steve – bound with pity, fear, affection, and was able to respond with good humour and reassurances: I was by far the calmest person in the room, making light conversation about the unfortunate absence of anaesthetic during the Napoleonic Wars and such.

I couldn’t see the faces of the two attendees plugging my wound, but knew their names were Errol and Ryan and that they kept having to swap over because the sight of the blood was making them faint. They were revived from their nausea and fatigue with some stimulatory bumps supplied, of course, by the inimitable Dr. J. Jane, on the other hand, was fascinated by proceedings and gazed on avidly. I was disappointed I couldn’t get a look myself.

I could feel the sensation of John poking about in my back, and after an hour or so the scraping of the bullet being slid out through my flesh. When I saw it I could not believe the size of it; um, not a pellet gun after all – try a .38. “Jesus fuck!” I think was my response. I was equally surprised to learn that it had travelled a full 21cm across my back, entering just below my left shoulder blade and stopping at the other side of my spine. I’d only felt the punching sensation in one spot, where the bullet had crossed my vertebrae.

Getting the bullet out was nowhere near the end of it– the wound had to be cleaned out to avoid infection, and John had to be sure there was no damage to my lungs or spine – if there was it would mean a cataclysmically expensive secondment to hospital on the mainland. John was aware of the fact that my travel insurance had expired and was doing all he could to avoid such an excursion.

After stitching up the tiny incision made to extract the bullet, I was transferred to another room with better light to get the wound cleaned out. The concern was for rust or dirt from the bullet, or cloth fragments from my t-shirt, being left inside the wound and causing infection, easily contracted and not so easily cured in the tropical climate. Due to its meticulous nature, this process actually took about twice as long as the bullet extraction, during which time I began to wane.

Manoeuvring me into a position so as to pull the bloody t-shirt off me, which up until this point had sat around my shoulders, was agonizingly painful. The adrenaline had worn off and I was sore and exhausted. The t-shirt made a thwack as it hit the floor, heavy with blood. My thoughts wondered more and people came to mind that I really, really wished I could see at that moment. For the first time that night tears leaked out of my eyes, and I pressed my face into the pillow to absorb them: seeing me suddenly crying would have been no good for team morale.

Through the course of the night I was filled in with the rest of the shocking details from Steve and Magenta. While I’d been crouched under the bar, shot and unmoving, the Barbecue Man had aimed right at their heads, one then the other. In a moment of amazing superman reaction Steve, the unassuming Welshman, picked up an empty ice box and deflected the shots – one of which still skiffed the top of his head. The crazed German then threw the gun at Steve and, as in some film noir melodrama, said “Kill me”. Killing was the furthest thing from Steve’s mind and he kicked the gun away. The shooter made a lunge to reclaim the weapon, and Steve intercepted him, in the ensuing brief scuffle kneeing the aggressor in the balls in his bid to get the madman out…

When Jane and I were hitch-hiking inCalifornia, we had a safety word if either of us felt we were in a car with a creep – ‘Steve’. We appointed the first Steve we met on the journey Safety Steve. Steve was a lovely bloke but being a stoner, a Deadhead, and a purveyor of LSD, he was not a particularly safety conscious fellow. Now our true Safety Steve had been unmasked!

Continued from The barbecue man

The Barbecue Man burst in through the back door of Cueva holding up this tiny, silver weapon and fired a couple of shots at random. The noise was so dull and the gun so small I honestly thought it was a BB gun. My reaction was still to get down on the floor though, and I crouched down between the bar and the bench. Steve and Magenta were thinking the same as me – they didn’t think the gun was real and just stood where they were behind the bar. He was saying something now but I have no recollection of what, when he aimed the weapon in my direction and fired again. I was hit and let out a shriek, not from pain but from shock, and sudden panic at not knowing what was going to happen next. I still didn’t think it was a real gun – it felt like somebody had punched me in the back really hard, I didn’t even think I was bleeding. But I was stuck inside a tiny bar on the floor with nowhere to run or hide and what was clearly a madman.

I stayed resolutely still, hearing more voices and more shots firing but not seeing what was going on. Magenta came down on the floor beside me to see if I was alright and put her arm around me. I told her he’d hit me but I thought I was ok, and asked her very calmly if I was bleeding. She took her arm away and it was covered in blood, at which point we realised things were perhaps a little more serious.

Sometime around now I looked up and saw Steve holding the gun out at arms length and saying something about cats and dogs. Then the shooter was out the door and Steve ran out in the street shouting for help. Magenta helped me up and began screaming at the man, “What have you done? What have you done to my friend? She’s bleeding! We don’t even know you! She’s bleeding!”

I leant on a post outside – it was starting to hurt a bit more now and I could feel the damp of the blood on my back. People came out from the dive shop across the road but at first no-one would help cause Steve was still absent-mindedly holding the gun and they thought he was the shooter. He flung it on top of a roof and suddenly there were people everywhere, including the Barbecue Man, who was wandering about the road muttering, like nothing was wrong. Somebody put me in a plastic chair and Andrea, a girl who had previously decided she hated me for reasons unapparent, came out and held my hand and got Dr. John on the phone for Magenta.

Now Dr. John requires a bit of an explanation of his own. The first time I saw him was the very first weekend I was out in Utila. It was late on a Saturday night and there was only one bar open – the rapidly deteriorating and soon to close ‘Poco Loco’. There were about five people sitting at the bar, and one on the dancefloor – a tall, shaggy, grey-haired man, shirtless and a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses on, leaping about like a maniac.

“That’s the doctor,” somebody said.

“Doctor of what?”

“Medicine. That’s the island doctor.”

My eyes widened. We were advised against medical emergencies before 1pm.

The first time I actually met Dr. John, though of which I’m sure he has no recollection, was in the back room of the Wednesday-and-Friday late spot, Bar in the Bush. He was sitting in a chair in the dark beside a tarantula, sporting his Che-style beret and some sparkly black nail varnish, completely whacked out, sweating profusely and largely incapable of speech.

Luckily we caught Dr. John on a relatively sane night and he was soon on his way to the scene. There were people all over the place but I was bent over in a chair, by this point dizzy and nauseous, and not able to see much of what was going on. So when suddenly the crowd took a simultaneous run backwards as the German gunman made a reappearance, I freaked out a little. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me!” I screamed, and the only person who didn’t was Archie, local vendor of ill humour and surly nature, who for the first time that anyone had seen showed some human emotion and yelled at the gunman, “What you done? That a woman! You gone shot a woman!”

When it became apparent that the Barbecue Man had not returned with another weapon, the crowd quickly flocked back and were now having to restrain Magenta who was set on beating the living daylights out of him, still wandering calmly back and forth in the street. Without warning, I was suddenly yarked out of the chair from behind. I let out a brief yell of surprise, but quickly deduced that since nobody was running away this time it must be Dr. John. I was bundled into a golfcart and as we drove off towards the clinic I shouted for somebody to get my bag, which I had flung down on the ground beside me…

The whole entire trip of mine and Jane’s was on an ever-escalating scale of ridiculousness – Burning Man was fairly special in itself, then working for Vlad the circus clown, crashing anarchist parties in San Francisco, taking up residence on a drug-riddled island of all manner of lunatics, being attempted-robbed by a trouserless man in the night… It went on and on, but I do believe that the ridiculousness reached its pinnacle in March, when I was shot by a crazed German. The story unfolded as so…

I’d been at work on a Sunday night in Babalu, the bar and restaurant that I worked in on Utila. That place is a story in itself, working for Dado, an old Italian lothario who stalks about the bar like a cat and has the moustachioed face of some 70s dictator, on the run from war crimes charges. He will ‘employ’ (tips only) tourist girls to work in his bar and quickly weed out any who don’t pass his tests: pretty, intelligent, constitution for drug and alcohol abuse. I’ve seen him find excuses to fire girls within a week under the pretence of inability to count or some other misdemeanour, but really it is because they’ve failed on one or more of these three trials. Apparently he has taken a few young, fresh-faced things and turned them out months later, addicts and emotional wrecks. Fortunately for me, I was nowhere near fresh-faced to begin with.

Magenta is another of Dado’s former employees, one who could keep up with his substance abuse challenges better than even I and therefore holds a golden place in his heart. An Amsterdam lass with an English mother and resulting perfect English articulation, Magenta is a true party girl a little older than me, straight out of the rave scene. Her and her man Steve, a jolly Welshman of similar demeanour, make a fantastic couple. They’ll spend Sundays, their only day off, in Babalu, and that night I was walking home with them when they invited me into La Cueva, the bar they were managing, for a wee drink.

Cueva isn’t open Sundays but Steve had the keys. We dropped off a borrowed bicycle then sat at the empty bar where I had my first drink of the evening – Steve’s latest concoction, a sugarcane and ginger-infused rum. We chatted about Utila life, our accents, families, friendships, relationships. Steve was getting agitated being in his work place and wanted to move on. We got our shit together and were about to head when we heard a noise in the alley at the back. The front door was bolted, the back door was not locked but shut – nobody should have been coming in…

The door flew open and a man entered – the barbecue man. Though I didn’t know the barbecue man, he’d been in my head that night because Kim, a friend of mine, had been in Babalu earlier and told me about an incident in Cueva the previous evening.

“The barbecue man spoke,” she said in a weighty tone.

“Who’s the barbecue man?”

“The barbecue man from Evelyn’s. He hasn’t said anything for four years, and last night he spoke!”

Evelyn’s is the restaurant next door to Cueva. Apparently there is some long-running dispute between the two owners, but that local stuff was little concern of Steve and Magenta’s. However, the previous evening the barbecue man, this odd-looking German bloke with a mass of bushy, dirty blonde hair, like some reject from Spinal Tap, who never spoke to anyone, who’d been on the island for years but didn’t have any friends, who just stood all night every night barbecuing meat and fish outside the restaurant, came in and caused a ruckus. He accused Steve and Magenta of trying to poison his dogs, and laughing about it, when in actual fact they were discussing the poisoning of a friend’s dog, and not laughing about it. But he was not to be convinced otherwise. “This is war,” he declared, and stormed off.

Something about the incident had really freaked Kim out – the way he spoke, something unhinged in his eyes – and she told me she hadn’t been able to get it out of her head, she couldn’t sleep for it and when she did she had nightmares. But still, nobody had taken his statement quite so literally as it turned out he did…


I’m trying desperately, desperately hard to remember where I am and why I should be happy. But godammit, I’m not. I’m afflicted with an imposing sense of malcontent, making me grumpy, angry even, with far more regularity than is usual or acceptable. The line down my brow has returned with a vengeance due to excessive scowling. The centre point beneath my ribcage feels fit to explode with frustration and a desire to do recklessness: the pressure of boredom. I remember the last time I had this feeling – when I was working at a supermarket and had no outside intellectual stimulus whatsoever. I would go to work, put on the customer service veneer for a few hours, and pound the walk home with my insides feeling like they wanted to burst out.

I’m bored on this island. It is pretty and warm and easy-going, and it is small and samey and cultureless. The same pish songs play relentlessly. There is nothing worthy of dancing to. Last weekend I was eating my breakfast when one such number began blaring from across the street. I had a fork in my hand and in all honesty that moment could have stabbed someone with it. The majority of the tourists are vacuous blonde types – educated, I mean they have brains in there, but not an interesting word seems to make it out of their mouths. The reprieve of anonymity is not available. Everyone sees and listens and gossips about everything you do in that small-town way that I detest my small-town hometown for so much. And you would not believe how tedious hot and sunny can get.

Therein lies another fundamental problem. Too much heat and too much sun fry the brain. I feel uninspired and by-and-large empty. Not much is going on up there. I hate to say it, but I need the winter. I need the edge of misery that comes with grim weather to needle the creative parts of my brain…

Despite the general discontent, moments of happiness do abound in small things. Drinking from a glass glass is a rare pleasure, as is an occasional dabble in hot water. Yesterday, I clambered over seaside rocks again. We located a source of plain yoghurt this week, and I earned enough money to splurge on some Danish cheese, which I ate on crackers with avocado whilst sipping a low-quality Chilean sauvignon, and by goodness did it make me smile. This morning I fed our adopted dog, Dingo – who is still terribly emaciated after suffering worms for so long – the remaining eggs from my brunch, which he enjoyed immensely. For a creature on the brink of starvation, he is unfathomably fussy, so I too was immensely happy that he ate the eggs.

It was late on a Tuesday night, tripping on mushrooms on the upper deck of Tranquila bar; a not-unusual Utilan weeknight. Unexpectedly, the plague of pishy pop came to a halt mid-song, and was replaced by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd – unbelievably apt. That soon got rid of the poppy-pish customers, but of course we lingered on, spending some hour or two giggling, making patterns in our heads of the trees and the ripples on the water.

At closing this little hobbit-sized fellow, a bandana tied round his shaved head in the fashion of a 50s housewife, came up the stairs collecting empty bottles. He instantly singled out the DBA as a gullible tourist, suggestible tourist, fellow miscreant, I don’t know, but made a bee-line for him and launched into a fervent and animated story about a shootout that afternoon over drugs and money during which he was wounded (he pointed at his arm  – there was nothing to be seen). As soon as he was done with all the gangster talk, the little chap walked over to the stairs, mounted the banister, and slid down, grinning inanely, like some insane Mary Poppins, the bow upon his tiny gangster head completing the look. Jane and I cracked up.

It transpired that the guy was fresh out of jail on Roatan, the neighbouring island, and was working off a 62 Lempira ($3ish) debt to the manager by tidying up the bottles. The true extent of his crazed nature was revealed as we tried to leave, when he began, with the fervency of the guns ‘n’ money story, proffering sex with 14 year-old girls to the DBA and our newfound miscreant, Justin. At some point during the incessant flow of filth, Mary Poppins mentioned his ‘two apartments’, with satellite TV, that all of us would fit into – for only $500! (It was unclear whether this included the underage hookers or not). “But I have my own apartment, with a TV and everything, why would I want to go to yours?” I could no longer hold it together and turned away in a fit of laughter.

Somebody brought up the need for rum. “We can go to La Pirata”, Mary Poppins chimes in, “and get rum, and then we can all go on my ‘mopeds’ to my ‘apartments’”. There was not one moped in sight, certainly not a fleet of them. Justin also burst into laughter. We turned and faced the wall together.

At the mention of La Pirata, a heinous bar filled with flashy lights and crackheads but the only one open that late on a Tuesday, Mary Poppins embarked on a new tact: “Come to La Pirata, there will be 13 year-olds dancing on the pole, like this” – he requests that somebody hold his hand so he can demonstrate. Jane joins the cracking-up now too; we’re all hysterical except for the DBA, who has had a look of dumbstruck terror on his face the entire time.

Since no-one would hold his hand, Mary Poppins proceeded to launch himself onto a nearby wooden post and execute a move which he called ‘the sledgehammer’, complete with sexy sound effects. Good gracious.

It had been a good quarter-of-an-hour now that we had failed to escape the insane Mary Poppins, and I was fearful of him following us home. I realised the only means of shedding him was to follow him to Pirata – and then flee! We needed rum anyway…

As we walked along the road, Mary bounding about the place beating up rubbish bins and the like, I began to wonder if in fact he knew exactly what he was doing – if it was every bit his intention to emulate Poppins, with his head scarf and his banister-sliding, and the joke was in fact on us

The only other occasion Jane and I had entered La Pirata was the night we unwittingly consumed space-cake – not an enjoyable experience. Now we were about to enter, with incredible reluctance, under mushroom influence. At least this time we had our sense of humour to get us through.

It was every bit as horrific as we had feared – unnecessarily flashing lights, teeth-grindingly bad music, Tony Red-Hat malingering in a corner (the crackhead who the previous week had threatened to beat all our heads in with a lead pipe). Much to our surprise, the minute Mary Poppins had seen us inside he pointed out his friend who was going to ‘look after’ us and take us to a house party, and promptly left! Job done! When it became apparent that the bar weren’t going to sell us rum for anything short of extortion, we could at last make good our getaway, and in a true Monty Python style dashed for the spiral staircase and fled, crying “Escape! Escape! Run away! Run away!” as we went.