The Rewards of Guanajuato

Today is Liz’s birthday. We spent the morning wandering around the city of Guanajuato, relaxing, chatting and eating a small lunch with some rather dodgy wine. While we ate, a kid of eight or nine years old came over to us. His clothes were hanging off him, he was covered in dust and he was hungry. We gave him a bread roll with some butter on it and he wandered off satisfied in some small way. It made us think for a moment about why we’ve been in Guanajuato for over three weeks now and our conversation turned to the workshop that Liz would be doing later in the day (and is now at while I write this).

CameraWe’re working with Katie, who is the Director of a not-for-profit organisation in Guanajuato that works with people around the city to raise awareness of issues, develop positive relationships and generally help those people who are less fortunate than most. With Katie, we’re working with two groups of young people who’ve had a raw deal (and still are having a raw deal). Liz is now in La Venada, a poor district of the city which suffers from the ravages of poverty. She’s there teaching photography and developing a ‘photo-map’ and 3-D map of the area with both children and adults to explore some of the plusses and minuses of the place. In many ways there’s a strong community in La Venada but it’s a largely forgotten and misunderstood area of Guanajuato. A photo-map is a simple thing but it helps people to explore what they like, don’t like, want to change and develop ideas. Even in poor communities people have the right to aspirations and new skills. Liz is enjoying her visits to La Venada and we inevitable spend a lot of time talking about our two projects. Liz has La Venada, I have Buen Pastor Home for Girls.Lav1

IMG_BPastorsmall1I’m working (and laughing) with a group of young girls who during the week live in a church run home for girls, but each weekend have to return to their real homes to face poverty and sometimes abuse ranging from minor stuff to extremely major stuff. I’m working with the girls (and one lad) to teach them how to use photography to document and explore their lives at the home with the nuns, or Madres who look after them. They’ve also chosen to use photography and interviews to explore the world of street dogs and the people who do what they can to care for them.
Every single child on the project has asked to take part and they come along to the workshops religiously. (Excuse the pun – entirely intended). They listen, they enjoy themselves and they concentrate on the projects in hand. They are dedicated to photography and to each other. Not one of them complains about their situation, or shows any sign of anger (to us) or goes around with a chip on their shoulders. These are children who deserve our time and are children who I’ve come to respect for their strength of character. I’ve also come to admire the Madres who look after them.
There are few people who are more cynical about religion than me. (Religion as opposed to faith that is.) I find it too difficult to believe in a Divine power that seemingly sits back and allows so many atrocities of mankind to take place. No- religion is not for me thank you very much. However, just as man commits atrocities, man is also capable of incredible acts of kindness. I have only admiration and deep respect for nuns who look after the children at Buen Pastor. I’ve heard that God is all about love. I have no idea if that is true any more than I know if God exists at all, but what I do know is that the place in which I am working is overflowing with love. Love with a capital ‘L’. I have never heard a raised voice; I only hear laughter and reason bouncing around the thick walls of the old Colonial building. There’s calmness about the place. The streets of Guanajuato rattle with the sounds of barking dogs, busy traffic and difficult lives. When I step through the tall narrow double doors where these girls live and I hear the latch close behind me, calmness descends in a veil of tranquility. It is literally a safe haven from the outside world. I walk along open corridors to be greeted by the big, white smiles of the girls. I walk around a corner and find a Madre sitting on a stool as she combs the hair of a little girl and they both look up and say hello warmly. A couple of other girls run past and shout “pizza” at me. An in-joke from when I ordered one-too-many pizzas with them while out photographing the city with them. Then I see the psychologist and I’m reminded of what this place really is. It’s a happy place for girls with deep, deep scars. It’s a privilege to be trusted by them and I’ve become very fond of them. Both the girls and the Madres alike.
For anyone who travels and would like to really get under the skin of a place while also doing something for someone else, take a look at

IMG_BPastorsmall5In the mid-sixteenth century, John Bradford was reputed to have uttered the words “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” His words were later popularised as “There but for the grace of God go I.” Well, maybe there’s some truth in that.

In the meantime, we’re also trying to prepare for the 2012 End of the World Maya Rally. We’re supposed to be taking part in the challenge-event from the 12th to the 21st December but things hang in the balance for us. Our four-wheel-drive Lada Niva only has two wheels at the moment and its questionable that we’ll get the parts in time to fix it before the start of the rally. However, we have good friends in Guanajuato and should we miss the rally, we’ll laugh in the face of adversity with Katie (aka Clancy), her boyfriend – Alex (aka The Doctor (‘cos he is)), and Beth (aka – Sweet Cheeks).
Our good friend from England – Andy Patrick also arrives today or tomorrow to join us here and on the rally, should we make it. The Niva may not be well but things could be a lot worse.

Happy Birthday Liz. I hope you like the new wheel bearings and other spare parts that I got you!

Next time:
Elvis is in the building,
More doing good stuff; and,
The 2012 Maya Rally starts to warm up.


It’s Mexico In’it

Mexico is like nowhere else. Arguably it’s not quite Central America, it’s not really Latin America and its definitely not North America, its just Mexican. People have no hesitation in using their broken down old car as a battering ram just to get two feet ahead on the road. People smile widely and greet strangers (us) like old friends and take time to welcome us to their village. People use every inch of beautiful Mexico as a trashcan. People wash fastidiously. People create more noise in one country than the rest of the world put together. People create quiet shrines on every corner. People will help a stranger without reward. People will watch their country fall apart if it means winning a political point. Mexico is endearing, frustrating, beautiful and completely at odds.

Our time in Mexico hasn’t been quite what we anticipated it was going to be. We had planned to drive at a leisurely pace towards Guanajuato (in Central Mexico), taking in some of the sites we either didn’t see six years ago when we were last here or revisit areas we fell in love with at the time. The Copper Canyon, The Gardens of Edward James, the Northern Deserts. We had planned to see it all and have seen none of it. We still find ourselves limping along with wheels and tires that are full of holes, which rattle worryingly and make noises that just shouldn’t be coming from anywhere on a vehicle.
Since we found ourselves holed up in a dusty motel in a town seemingly without a name we made the decision to drive 150 miles further south in the hope of finding help in Durango. Durango is a beautiful old colonial city. Vibrant, refined, architectural and full of people who don’t seem to like our doggy. The plan was to find a cheap motel that we could use as a base while we got the car checked out, ordered and waited for parts and just generally got ourselves sorted out. We know Durango from out last visit, we know where the mechanics can be found, we know the centre of the city and we know that if you are going to be stuck somewhere it’s as good a place to be stuck as anywhere. It was a good plan and the 150 miles passed by without issue, aside from a nervous expectation that a wheel may drop off at any moment and that we’d fine ourselves assuming crash positions rather rapidly.

Durango overflows with hotels and motels. They compete for the tourist dollar every day and they fall over themselves to get you through their doors, unless you have a dog that is. We tried, motels, hotels and campgrounds. We even tried the pay-by-the-hour drive-in motels where condoms are complementary but not one would take us and the dog. Not even if we promised to have endless sex without let-up all night long. In the end we left Durango to try one of the outlying towns where the desperation to get people through their doors is even greater. There wasn’t a hostelry to be found anywhere. With our composure rapidly declining we found ourselves with raised voices and heated arguments at every junction in the road. As the sun was setting we spotted a couple of farmers harvesting a field some way from a dirt road that wed found ourselves on. We skidded to a halt beside their truck and I strode off across the field to ask them if we could camp in their field. Two dogs guarded the truck and came snarling at full charge. Instinctively I grabbed a lump of heavy volcanic rock and hurled it at the leading dog as hard as I could. The rock hit it square in the flank. The dog yelped, stumbled and turned on its heals. The second dog kept on coming and with a temper that had snapped long ago I ran at it. It had been one hell of a day and I was in no mood to mess about. The heated exchanges with Liz were a blessing in disguise. I’d have normally run for the car and wouldn’t have made it, but today was a day where I was happy to fight back. Sod it, I’d had enough and if a dog wanted a fight I’d bloody well give it a fight. Twelve feet, ten feet, eight feet, four feet and I screamed at the broad shouldered mongrel. It stopped dead in its tracks, snarling and barking. The second dog returned with renewed courage. It became the proverbial Mexican standoff. Without taking my eyes from either of them I reached down for a second stone. They didn’t move. I took a step back and they still didn’t move. I took another half dozen and the lead dog came again. The rock skimmed its back and it sunk down instinctively in pain. I grabbed a third and a fourth rock feeling it was the only option. They seemed to realize that I had a plentiful supply to hand and called off the attack. It was just in the nick of time because my courage was beginning to waiver and I suspected it was only a matter of time before they were tasting some English blood.

I carried on walking backwards further into the field towards the farmers until there was a good distance between me and the dogs. Fortunately the farmers were on the other side of the corn and hadn’t seen me lobbing stones at their dogs with violent abandon. I found them with their head buried in the mechanism of their harvester, which had slipped its chain. I called out a hello to them and they looked up with surprised expressions painted with oil. With my awful Mexican-Spanish and addressing the older of the two, I explained that we couldn’t find anywhere to stay in Durango and asked if we could sleep in their field. It’s at times like these that I am reminded never to judge a book by its cover. In almost perfect English the older of the two replied that we were most welcome to sleep in the field. He suggested a couple of spots but proposed that the distant tree on the Western edge was a nice level spot free of stones and sheltered from the wind. We could cut some wood if we wanted to. He went on to say that they were going to see if they could fix the harvester and that if they could, they’d work for another hour or so but hoped that they wouldn’t disturb us. They declined to shake my hand on account of the oil but wished me a good nights sleep and then retuned to their work. I wandered over to Liz via a circular route away from the dogs, hopped into the car and told her the good news. Having witnessed her partner coming close to being eaten alive and with my success with the farmers (and the dogs) our tensions evaporated and the cross words were soon forgotten. (Just let it be said that I was right though ☺ )

An hour later the famers came over to let us know they were leaving the tractor in the field over night and would leave the dogs to guard it. It was unfortunate that they left the tractor just fifty feet from us, along with the unchained dogs. We got into the tent and stayed there for the rest of the night.

We were struck by the different attitudes to owning a dog. Here we were sleeping in a field for the sole reason that people wouldn’t let our dog into a hotel room with us. We had happily sacrificed our needs for those of our pet (who even has his own bed and sleeping bag), and there were the farmers dogs left to sleep beside a tractor in freezing temperatures without shelter. Mexico is more often than not an unfortunate place to be a dog. Everyone has one and yet so many people are also scared of them. For the most part, only pocket dogs are pets. Generally all others are used for security, half wild or street dogs. Every night in Mexico the air is filled with a cacophony of barking dogs and the sound of dogs fighting. Dogs wander the streets half starved, rooting through the ever-present trash along the roads and dodging car wheels. It’s not a nice place for a dog. However, in our tent in our field, our dog was in heaven.

Sierra OWanting to get an early start we were packed up and on the road again before first light. We had a dilemma to figure out. We couldn’t stay in Durango, that much was obvious. We also couldn’t run the risk of having a mechanic take the car apart only to find that it couldn’t be put back together again until a new part was fitted, which they probably wouldn’t have. We would be stuck in Durango with no transport and nowhere to stay. It wasn’t an option; we needed both a mechanic and a base, not either or. We decided that we’d got this far without wrecking the car further and could possibly risk going further until we could find both of what we needed. We took Highway 40 West, towards the coast with the aim of reaching Mazatlan. Little did we know that Highway 40 is also known as the Devil’s Backbone in Mexico. As it follows a precarious ridges of the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, its a road of stunning vistas, vertical drops, precarious switchbacks, steep climbs and twisting descents. Just what a knackered car and stressed out occupants need! Highway 40For most of the journey the conversation went something like, “Wow, look at that…. shit….. stunning isn’t it…… bloody hell this is steep……. look where the road goes……. oh shit, he’s on our side of the road…..” and so on. The road was indeed impressive and beautiful but now was not the time to be doing it. Surprisingly, almost miraculously, we made it down the Devil’s Backbone and into the sweltering heat of the Pacific Coast. Now that we were here, completely unplanned and unexpectedly we thought, ‘what the hell, lets make the most of it!’ We found a deserted beach and camped there for three days, swimming in the warm sea, drinking coconut juice from the palms around us and cooking fish straight out of the sea.
Mexican sunset
Three days of that kind of stuff is obviously tiresome so we then moved further down the coast to San Blas for more of the same. San Blas is a small fishing town with eight miles of beaches, more warm sea and very few people. The only constructive thing we did was to help release a few hundred baby sea turtles into the Pacific. It wasn’t planned, expected or organised. We were walking John and a lady came over with a bucket full of turtles and said “Oi mate, give us a hand to release these little turtles would you!” (in Mexican obviously). John said yes, so we did. Not only is John an international traveler, a bionic dog, the mascot of Team Niva GB but he is now also an international conservation worker. Its’ an impressive CV for a nineteen month old dog! You can watch John’s time at the seaside here: ‘Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’

Now, still with a limping car, we have reached Guanajuato and we will finally, at long last be getting the car fixed in the run up to the 2012 Maya Rally, which we of course intend to win (but probably won’t).