Pink Poodles and Phenomenal Pizzas in Livingston
We left at daybreak. Actually, no, we didn’t. It was really dark and the day hadn’t broken anything yet. So, we left in the nighttime, as shadows lurked and spirits chased… something – whatever spirits chase, butterflies or old ladies with handlebar mustaches, who knows? Anyway, our shuttle bus careened through the empty streets of Antigua Guatemala, a lone silver twinkle in a Stygian night fraught with peril and the smell of honey-dipped pancakes – wait, sorry, not pancakes. I don’t know why I’m thinking of pancakes…
Where was I? Ah yes, leaving Antigua Guatemala. Erm… well, noting much happened, really. We took a shuttle bus to Guatemala City, and then a bigger bus to Puerto Barrios and then a smaller boat to Livingston, a tiny hamlet on the Caribbean shores of Guatemala within striking distance of both Belize and Honduras. And then we had pizza. The end.
Worst. Post. Ever.
OK, let me start again from the beginning. No, not the beginning. I’ll start in media res, just like in the Odyssey or that other one about rebel angels in Tartarus. I’ll also use the present tense, to make the whole narrative experience a bit more on the active side; give it some pizzazz, you know?
We’ll begin with an omniscient narrator though, to set a more classical mood:
A bright blue morning finds them sitting inside a bus station in Guatemala City. Dust rises in the air and falls into chocolate-sprinkled pastries as early risers shuffle luggage and plastic bags amidst a cacophony of engines, peddlers and parents trying to instruct sleepy-eyed children to form an orderly queue by the ticket booths. Elle stands up to get a cup of coffee, leaving FW contemplating the red nightgown of a soap opera femme fatale sparkling across multiple television screens. The sweaty, bald-headed schmuck now emerging into the glassy frame seems to be asking “Por qué?” a lot, but FW’s eyes are already drifting to less scripted dramas: a teenager licks his finger after touching a scalding spoon, a mechanic yanks a smoky grille from a bus and sighs, a couple argues by the main road, unaware of prying glances and hackneyed smiles. Elle is about to return to her seat when she notices FW’s doltish stare into the distance. Caffeine is already swirling through her body, providing a bolt of fizzy mental equilibrium. She wonders if men realize how idiotic they look when they’re not too busy pretending to be someone else. Back in her seat, she holds her plastic cup in her left hand and waits for FW to return from lalaland. Noticing his vitreous gaze, she smacks him in the head and says “That’s our bus, we should go.”
Right, now we switch to first-person narration and hopefully get this thing moving once and for all:
Our fancy Litegua bus (aka furless road mammoth) has comfortable seats, reasonable leg room and personal tableted screens (with complimentary headphones) attached to the back of every seat. This last bit of technological wonder immediately posits a thorny conundrum: do we want to see the landscape change and the clouds shift or do we stick to the three Lord of the Rings movies dubbed in Spanish and try not to giggle for the next seven odd hours?
Rain lashes at our window as a white-bearded wizard holds a luminous staff and proclaims “Nadie pasará!” Meanwhile, a few hobbits scamper about a menacing cave. Outside, clouds stop shifting and are now a gigantic, formless mass of doom, gathering thunder and ominousness as the earth begins to shatter – no, wait, strike that! It was just overcast. Damn hobbits and their contagious hyperbole…
We cross the departments of El Progreso, Zacapa (where the clouds play a game of shadows with the brown peaks of Sierra de las Minas) and Izabal, our last stop before the wind and the waves. We arrive in Puerto Barrios around midday. The rain has not subsided and we need to find the municipal dock. As luck would have it, two friendly Guatemalan girls are also on their way to the dock, so we follow them into the open road. Fifteen minutes later, we stand gazing at a massive cargo ship anchored in Amatique Bay. The sea swell reminds us of previous stormy journeys in other parts of the world, tying the knot in our stomachs a little bit tighter.
The two Guatemalan damsels bid us farewell and hop on a lancha to Punta Gorda, Belize. Eventually, we also depart on a rackety lancha, but towards Livingston, a seemingly nugatory speck of earth located at the mouth of Rio Dulce. Our bone-crunching trip lasts 45 dizzying minutes – our boat (or aquatic casket, as I lovingly thought of it) swerves, skids and jumps wave upon wave as mist continues to descend from the lush jungle canopies swaying along the shore. It is a landscape reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and entirely unlike anything else we’ve seen in Guatemala.
Had we crossed some longitudinal vortex? Were we back in SE Asia? If so, was there a chance I could have some amok and ginger beer to go, please?
Arriving at Livingston’s main dock, we are greeted by gaunt egrets and gregarious touts trying to direct us to an accommodation of their choosing. Alas, we already have a place booked and must scamper along Calle Principal, turning left towards Casa Nostra, our residence for the next couple of days. A pettifogging drizzle damps our faces as we get our first glimpse of Livingston’s fascinating cultural diversity: we recognize the Mayan features sweating along our path, but they are supplemented by the darker shades of the Garifuna, whose veins are flush with Carib, Arawak and African blood.
Having survived enough humidity to drench an elephant, we meet Stuart, our host at Casa Nostra. Although busy preparing mojitos and various pizzas, he graciously welcomes us into his home and introduces us to our somewhat spartan yet agreeable (and inexpensive) room. We drop our gear and head out into a shaded sitting area by the water, to enjoy the view and rehydrate, courtesy of a gigantic glass of delicious lemonade.
The remainder of the afternoon is spent chatting with Stuart and admiring the fishing boats as they cross the river like emissaries of some primeval land.
Increasingly vigorous pangs of hunger dictate it’s time for dinner. We decide to try Stuart’s famous seafood pizza – one of our exceptionally rare forays into nontraditional cuisine. We are soon presented with a magnificent circle of crunchy marine delight, whose delectable vapors so thoroughly intoxicate me that I am only able to take one unflattering photo before my lens is sprinkled with droplets of drool. After one bite, the verdict is unanimous: this pizza is one of the best we’ve ever tasted, and holds its own against The Greatest Pizzas on Earth, i.e. the ones we found in New York, Rome and at Kebec micro bakery in Amsterdam.
As dusk descends, our stomachs are still digesting the oddity of experiencing a gastronomical revelation in such a peculiar setting. Nonetheless, other organs suddenly take center stage, namely our ears. It begins with a few scattered squawks, rapidly joined by an accompaniment of clucks, shrieks, hoots and cackles, all producing an end-of-the-world symphony which drowns every other sound all the way to Nicaragua. The birds are restless! It is an eerie, deafening and riveting spectacle, this feathery celebration of a day’s demise. By the time the ruckus subsides, we are ready for slumber, and to that end we amble toward our bed, where we promptly collapse and dream of eating that funny crab fella from The Little Mermaid.
We are woken up at dawn by the same symphonic tune we had heard the previous evening. The confederacy of birds might be using a different tone, as they’re celebrating a day’s parturition, but I’m not about to squabble over technicalities – in my book, they’re all mad, bad and dangerous to hear. Seeing that there’s no point in struggling against nature, we rise to explore Livingston and are shortly found wandering sleepy-eyed under leaden skies.
Most of Livingston stands atop a steep hill, which we climb en route to the sea. On the way, we pass the salted spoils of a fishing community drying in the heat.
Atop Calle Principal, we are again presented with visions of a land and people displaying strikingly disparate characteristics from what we have discovered so far in Guatemala. Although charming, the setting is more derelict and the weather more oppressive than we are now accustomed to, even if middle-aged Garifuna ladies on their way to Sunday mass brighten the atmosphere as they sashay clothed in rich purple or bright green.
We now interrupt this rather long and meandering report in order to provide a brief intro to the Garifuna and their history, for the sake of context and Michael Palin:
It all started in the Caribbean island of St Vincent. The year was 1635 and the Atlantic slave trade remained in full, murderous swing. Hard winds were blowing against the island and its indigenous population, a people known as Island Caribs and whose lineage evidenced close contact (i.e. sweet love) between Arawak Amerindians and Caribs. One day (let’s call it Stormy Monday), a couple of Spanish slave ships shipwrecked near St Vincent. Some of the African captives managed to reach the shore safely, and were soon adding their own imprint to the island’s genetic and cultural gallimaufry. Thus rose the Black Caribs, later named Garifuna, feared warriors and major contributors to a surge in piercing migraines amidst encroaching colonial powers. Alas, the Garifuna were finally defeated by British forces in 1795 and whomever survived the massacre was relocated to the island of Roatan, in what was then British Honduras. As the years went by, many Garifuna left Roatan and took up residence along the coasts of Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Guatemala. As for Livingston, the first settlers arrived in 1802, bringing with them the vibrant culture and language we were fortunate to witness for a few days in late January 2014.
We now resume our rather long and meandering report:
Reaching the waters of Amatique Bay, we are confronted with a curious sight evocative of our time in the Belizean island of Caye Caulker: local folk bathing fully-clothed. Belonging to a younger breed of Mediterranean stock, our ideas of large volumes of water are no longer associated with the use of pants – unless accident, natural catastrophe or sheer eccentricity is involved. However, another, more peculiar scene soon pops up in the corner of our eyes…
Throughout our travels, we tend to measure a location’s level of hardship by the state of their canine residents – a gross simplification, yes, but nobody has to take our word for it. In Livingston, dogs are mostly mangy and crestfallen, skeletal symbols of the toll inflicted by a life surrendered to the whims of the sea. As humans languish, so do domesticated animals.
Notwithstanding this state of affairs, what now appears traipsing along our field of vision is an altogether unfamiliar beast: a poodle scrupulously marinated in glaring pink. We stand with mouths agape, blinking at the laser-like radiancy of its fur and the puckish grin of its ragtag carers, who have probably doused the creature with enough chemicals to warrant a Biohazard sign. Truth be told, and apart from looking like a visitor from a galaxy where disco never went out of fashion, the little guy does seem in better shape than most of the other mutts roaming the streets of Livingston…
Following our stroll through the highs and lows of Livingston, we go back to Stuart’s place and swiftly take our seats by the boats and the egrets, this time receiving the attention of Erica the parrot.
Sustainment is in order, so we try the most renowned example of Garifuna gastronomy: a coconut-based, seafood and shellfish-soaked soup called Tapado. As with his pizzas, Stuart’s culinary skills shine through and we are graced with one of most delectable bowls of flavorsome yumminess we have ever savored. So good it’s probably a sin…
As we finish our meal and linger solaced with warmth and satiated bellies, we notice a surge in fellow tourists seeking accommodation chez Casa Nostra. They are all couples, just like us but taller (obviously) and sporting doleful expressions. “What gives?”, we ask Stuart once he sits beside us. “They’re all staying at Casa de la Iguana and want to leave,” he replies. Ah, the trials and tribulations of the backpacker trail…
Casa de la Iguana is a popular hostel in Livingston and apparently highly-regarded by those travelers of a more festive disposition. We had seen it when scouring the interwebs for accommodation in Livingston, but after our time at a similar party-oriented hostel in Puerto Escondido we opted for a more relaxed spot. Our sterling choice is only further validated by the bleary-eyed arrival of an Australian-accented youth hailing from Casa de la Iguana and postulating an afternoon devoted to, as he puts it, “smash some tequilas”.
We kindly decline and continue our conversation with Stuart, whose palpable love of Livingston has begun to seep into us. He tells us bits and pieces of his life in the USA and in Livingston, his family and his work. We much prefer to idle the hours away in such surroundings, engaging in gratifying discussion while accompanied by the lapping of waves close by. As dusk approaches once more, we prepare our tympanic membranes for the coming auditory onslaught. Hitchcock has nothing on these birds…
The following day, we hug Stuart goodbye and prepare to hit the road.
As we leave, another bedraggled couple walks past us toward Stuart’s kitchen. We can only discern “…staying at Casa de la Iguana…” before stepping into the sunny, peaceful morning and heading out to the lancha which will take us back to Puerto Barrios and eventually to the volcanoes of Antigua Guatemala.
This time, the waters of Amatique Bay are placid and the palm trees no longer sway violently in the distance. The jungle, although still inscrutable, has lost its threatening aura, becoming now a beguiling background to a speedy ride infused with the smells and colors of a distinctly foreign land.