I’m wandering around after dark in a steady rainfall. The few street lights are casting eerie shadows on all sides. The streets are empty and quiet, and there’s no activity in any of the buildings on either side of the street. There’s dim light and noise up ahead, hopefully coming from the eatery I’m looking for. It’s not late, probably 7:30pm, and this type of scenario is, in itself, not unusual – I like exploring new places by night, to get a good feel for the place, and hopefully some atmospheric photos by moonlight.
This, however, is Honduras, not generally known as one of the world’s safest locations. It’s not generally encouraged to be out after dark, and I wouldn’t be, except I’m hungry. This is La Ceiba, the departure point for the Caribbean island of Roatán, where I’m heading tomorrow. It seems a functional town, although not attractive, and there’s very little happening, at least where I am. It’s with some relief, then, that I reach the little restaurant – family-run, open-air (with protection from the rain), and rustic, but with cheap, decent fare. The folk are friendly, there’s some static-y football on the TV, and all is going well enough, until a blackout takes with it every light in all directions – and I still have to find my way back to the hotel…
I wouldn’t say I scare all that easily, but I’ll admit to a shock of nerves when the lights disappeared. My (I’m sure she’d admit it herself) somewhat over-protective mother has never really liked the idea of me being out after dark. I think she likes to think that all 5-foot-nothing of her octagenarian self would be there to protect me should I ever be in need, and you can’t help thinking that that’s kinda cute. That said, ‘dark’ can, in winter at least, mean 5pm, which seems a touch restrictive, especially for a man who entered (legal) adulthood more than half a lifetime ago. This dark evening in La Ceiba is one of those times I reluctantly see her point, and it will go down as another adventure that she really doesn’t need to know about.
For all the ideas that the world is dangerous, and you shouldn’t go here or there (with, admittedly, some justification in certain cases), I don’t find travelling especially unsafe, even solo travelling. Granted, I don’t frequent the world’s hotspots like Iraq or Syria, and the fact that I tend not to get into tricky situations may stand me in good stead. Awkward situations can, however, find you whether you’re looking for them or not, and anyone can be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I well remember being in Lago Agrio in eastern Ecuador, fresh off an Amazon trek and hours away from a flight back to Quito, following a man taking me to where the hotel had stored my bag – and completely losing sight of him as I struggled to keep up. In this fairly desolate, but inconspicuous and unthreatening place, was I about to become a travelling statistic, someone sucked in by apparently well-meaning but ultimately malicious locals, the sort of story you hear about but expect – and hope – will never happen to you? Rich I’m certainly not, but I’d be a veritable cash cow for a large swathe of the developing world.
Indeed, it’s these parts of the world – Central and South America, for example, as opposed to Europe or the US – which carry the bulk of the ‘beware’ reputation. Are places such as these really more dangerous, or does it come largely down to perspective? Do we feel more on guard in these areas chiefly because that’s how we’ve been conditioned? In Medellín, the city gorgeously built into the Aburra Valley in northern Colombia, I was met with friendliness and politeness more striking and welcoming than pretty much anywhere else. This is the same Medellín whose violent crime was legendary during its drug heyday in the latter part of the 20th century. I personally never felt under threat, there or anywhere else in Colombia. Then there’s my Italian friend, Silvia, who I visited during her study year in Lima, Peru, in late 2003; we arrived at her house not long before midnight, and we immediately went out, on foot, through the neighbourhood to find somewhere to eat. We arrived home perfectly safely in the early hours, sporting nothing more dangerous than a full belly and the makings of a hangover. The rules may well be the same regardless of where you are: take care and be aware of yourself, but stop short of paranoia.
The streets of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, are still recovering from its battering by Hurricane Mitch some years earlier; there is character to the city, but it’s not overly photogenic. The people? – friendly and curious, in my experience: as I sat alongside the road for a spell, a man came and sat with me, and we talked as well as my Spanish could handle. Shortly after, one of the combi-van / buses, unique (in my experience) to the Latin countries and fabulously convenient and functional (if not always roadworthy), rolled along. Out came the conductor to talk to my new friend; I didn’t eavesdrop, but I got to my feet in double quick time as the conductor pulled from his trouser leg a full-sized machete – I guess it was full size, I really wouldn’t know; enough, suffice to say, to scare the crap out of me. As I motored off – at best wary, at worst freaked right out – both laughed and called ‘no, no, no’… an everyday occurrence for these folk perhaps, intending no malice at all, but more than enough for me to quickly remember somewhere else I needed to be.
It pays, in fact, to see a lighter side if possible. Trekking solo along the Tiger Leaping Gorge in southern China, I was accosted by three young locals, one with a mallet and possibly not quite all there, wanting money. 300 yuan (at the time, probably A$50) was their asking price, and with three of them, a weapon in one of their hands, and a precipitous drop to my right, I wasn’t really in a position to refuse. I had two aces up my sleeve, though: an ability to communicate in Mandarin (to which I switched immediately, to their surprise), and the fact that everything – EVERYTHING – in China is negotiable. ‘300 yuan – you’re dreaming!’ I said, channeling The Castle as best I could. The leader of the three very sportingly revised his ‘request’ to 200 yuan. When I tried to compromise at 150 yuan (‘think about it: 50 yuan each. How would you divide 200 yuan among three of you?’), he made it clear that 200 was the going rate, which is what I handed over. Opportunistic kids, most likely, and when I wished them the best as I waved them goodbye, all four of us in one piece, I figured it all turned out pretty well: I wasn’t damaged, and they had their dignity intact. Dangerous? – probably not, but enough for me to quicken my pace and catch up to the folk in front.
The nocturnal wandering in La Ceiba ended without incident, as did all the above. I’m happy – and, admittedly, perhaps a little lucky – to say that no such travel event has left me scarred. If nothing else there are some stories to tell. Just not, perhaps, to my mother.