I guess that one can only expect strange things to happen when they arrive in a country with a pizza under their arm. But that's exactly how I arrived in Guatemala in July 2000.
So lets rewind.
Forty eight hours earlier I had gone to a techno party at a squat in Amsterdam, and what a party it was! So good in fact that I lost track of time. I emerged from the building after bouncing for 2 days to some of the craziest noises that my ears had ever witnessed, to discover that it was light. Upon enquiry, I was to find out that it was Sunday morning. Usually this fact would not have bothered me in the slightest, but this was the day that I was due to fly to Guatemala at 2pm. "Oh shit", I exclaimed to the bearer of my bad news, a pink haired psycho hippy from Southern Italy. I don't think he quite comprehended the severity of my conundrum. My flight was due to leave in 5 hours and I had to somehow get my arse back to my apartment in Leiden (some 35 km away), pack my bags and get to Schipol airport. Whilst my brain was drowning in a sea of class A narcotics.
Needless to say, I made it with not long to spare and boarded a flight to New York. With a few hours to kill at Newark airport, I attempted to purchase a telephone card to ring my parents. A task that proved more difficult than it first appeared and provided me with an insight into just how bad some American people's geography really is. The following conversation really did take place. I shit you not.
Me: "Can I have a telephone card for England please"?
Shop assistant: "England! England! England! - (I had to wonder where this conversation was going).
"England! England! England!", she continued, in an effort to buy some time.
I stood and smiled at her, in my pleasant English way. Waiting for the words of wisdom to eject from her mouth. And then it happened. I saw her eyes light up, and with a burst of intellectual absurdity, she proudly announced "England, that's in Paris right"? I'll leave it at that.
From New York it was onto Houston, which I discovered to be the hottest place I have ever encountered. It was my plan to sleep at Houston airport, but with a fatigue engulfed mind and body, I instead opted for a motel some miles away. From the motel, I ventured outside into a ridiculously hot August evening in search of food. Ten minutes later I was back in the room, under the air conditioning unit, and had ordered a pizza. The pizza turned out to be the best thing I had ever eaten, with one slice enough to fill me up. In an attempt to recuperate some of the costs of the motel, pizza and taxi to the airport, I decided to take the rest of the pizza with me to Guatemala. And that's where this ridiculous story begins.
The plane bounces down onto Guatemalan soil and I exit with my pizza under my arm. By now, another slice is missing, which I have quite blissfully feasted on during the flight. Surprisingly, I make it through customs, whilst still in possession of the pizza. This provides evening snacks for the next few days.
Once outside the airport, as often happens, I am mesmerised, by the dramatic change in everything around me. The landscape, the smells, the voices, the temperature, the atmosphere, the - well you get it. Forty eight hours ago, I was off my head at a dingy Amsterdam squat party surrounded by the dregs of European society, less than 24 hours ago I was in Houston, sweating like James Hewitt at a Prince Harry DNA test and now I am in Latin America for my first time ever.
La Aurora International Airport, is surrounded by mountains and active volcanoes. The mountains and view of the volcanoes continue during my bus journey to my next destination of Antigua Guatemala, a mere 45 minutes away. Here I am to meet a woman who is going to change the direction that my life will take, but this story is not about her, it's about Guatemalan bandits.
I book into a cheap hostel, which although not luxurious in any way, shape or form whatsoever, fulfils my needs. I meet an English guy within 10 minutes of arriving and we plan to go out that evening. Josh is from North London and is training to be a lawyer. He shows me the night life of Antigua, which begins with a movie in a bar, before hitting some of the more lively bars for cheap, early drinks and then later onto a few night clubs - Mono Loco (Crazy Monkey) being the one that stands out in my mind. It is in one of the more lively bars that I am to meet Mireila, a Dutch girl who will in turn introduce me to Sarah, the following evening. A year later, Sarah and I end up living together. But like I say, that's a different story -which co-incidently involves Miriela in a very strange context.
The next few days are spent chilling in Antigua, which is famous for its well-preserved Spanish Mudéjar-influenced, Baroque architecture as well as a number of spectacular ruins of colonial churches. The backdrop of the mountains and 3 volcanoes make it one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever laid my eyes on. I wander around with perma-smile etched on my face.
It does not take long to work out that almost everybody in this most magnificent of cities, is learning Spanish. Every terrace, every cafe, every street, in fact almost every square inch of the city, seems to be taken up by students of the Spanish tongue. Consequently my hostel is empty in the afternoons. I take this time to chill out in the hostels central courtyard. It is here that I encounter the Guatemalan bandits. I first meet the wife of one of the bandits, who approaches me under the pretext that she wants to do a language exchange. Being the sucker that I am, I politely agree and we go out and purchase a notebook.
A day later, and I have learnt "Nada" of the Spanish language, whilst the Senorita has learnt enough to tell me that her husband is a bad man. Within an hour of learning this fact, I can confirm that she is not exaggerating.
I am sitting in the courtyard, basking in the sun, whilst giving the pretty Senorita English lessons, and babysitting her infant son, when I first encounter El Bandito and El Bandito's Rasta friend.
"Hey man, whatcha doin widda my amigos wife", the Rasta man, rather menacingly asks me.
"Erm, erm, just teaching her English", I timidly reply.
The rasta man laughs, a laugh that only a Rasta man could laugh, to show me that he is fooling with me. El Bandito then introduces himself to me. The two of them, are like chalk and cheese. Rasta man, although not black, is not far off. He's big and kinda fierce looking. His dread locked hair stands out a good few feet from his head and resembles a lions mane. In his hand is a reefer. El banito, on the other hand is only around 5 ft tall and at first sight does not seem scary at all - I am soon to change my mind. The pair of them are bare topped. Rasta man is barefooted as well, whereas El Bandito is wearing a pair of Wellington boots, that appear to be two sizes too big for him.
The wife looks nervous at the introduction of El Bandito and his Rastafarian sidekick. Not as nervous as I look though, when a short while later, El Bandito shows me the scars on the front of his body, where a bullet entered his torso and the scars on his back, where the bullet exited his body. Upon witnessing these marks, my fear takes on a new dimension, although I try not to show it. The pair of them flash me a smile of golden teeth, as I assume they smell my fear. With his teeth glistening and his eyes smiling, Rastaman politely warns me "Never trust a Guatemalan". I laugh along with him, unaware at this point that he is actually being literal.
I am invited for a walk up one of the surrounding hills, with the bandit family and Rasta friend, the following afternoon. The looks on their faces, show me that they are not going to accept no as an answer. Of course, I agree.
Early the next afternoon, El Bandito comes thrashing on my door and I am awaken from my hangover sleep. Hastily, I throw some clothes on and before you know it, our group of five are ascending one of the surrounding Antigua hillsides (the 5th member being kid bandito - who can't be more than 2 years old).
In the 3 hours it takes us to reach the top of the hill, I have not only been informed of my entourage's involvement in cocaine distribution, but I have (out of curiosity), rather stupidly, ordered a gram of their finest wares. Well, they do say "When in Rome, eat Spaghetti"- right? At $15 a gram, it seems rather rude not to.
A day later and I am chilling in the hostel forecourt. Senorita bandito is nowhere to be seen, which I am kind of pleased about. I am beginning to feel like my trip is more like college education than pleasure.
"Pssst, Psst", I hear behind me. I slowly turn around and see Rastaman's head peeping around the door of one of the rooms.
"Andy, Andy man, get over here", he beckons with an air of excitement in his voice.
I walk in the room and immediately wish that I had not done so. A youngish girl of around 17 years of age is spread eagled on the bed half naked and the two bandits are, what can only be described as molesting her. At first I think that it is consensual, because she is laughing but when the Rastaman says "Come on Andy man, have a little squeeze of her titties", and I see the grimace on her face, my mind follows a different trajectory.
"Fuck, am I witnessing foul play here"?, I think to myself.
The Rastaman, who speaks much better English than his compadre, senses the question in my mind and says "Come on man, it's just a bit of fun". Once again the girl laughs and I ease off a little bit. For once in my life, I am actually happy that a woman does not fancy me.
El Bandito, pulls a package out of his pocket and says "Here man, I've got your stuff". I look at the package in his hand and think "shit, there's more than a gram there".
"How much is it"? I hesitantly reply, sort of half fearing the worst.
"A hundred dollars man", he spits back at me.
A discussion ensues, during which time I find out that he has taken liberties of ordering me, not one but 6 grams of his finest powder. Now, this would all be fine and dandy, but for several reasons (not including that we are doing business with a half naked girl on the bed). Firstly, I was unable to save very little money for this trip, only managing to muster up $600 which I rather nervously wear in a money belt around my waist. Considering that I spent $100 before I even arrived in Guatemala, and I have another 3 weeks to go, things are not looking great. Secondly, I have not really done much coke before, apart from the odd free line here and there, so 6 grams of Latin America's finest is going to be a baptism of fire to say the least
The atmosphere in the room becomes more tense, as the bandits start to aggressively persuade me to purchase all of their gear. They don't actually threaten me, but I sense that I am only a minute away from a kicking. My nerves awoken, my arsehole feeling like it's chewing on an orange and my hands shaking like Michael J Fox at the Oscar awards, I do a stupid thing. Pulling up my t-shirt, I delve into my money belt and pull out a hundred dollars, There is no sleight of hand involved in this manoeuvre. I could not have been more clumsy if I tried. The entire contents of my wallet are revealed to my new friends. Their eyes light up, as they spot Benjamin Franklin's face exiting my wallet. My wobbling hands eventually manage to exchange cash for wares.
At this very moment, there is a shout outside the door and I take the opportunity to quickly exit the room, closely followed by the bandits. The cause of the commotion I am to find out, is a robbery. A group of English guys have returned from a trip and have discovered that many things have been stolen from their room. One guys is pacing up and down the corridor, fuming about his stolen camera. The manager, of the place pops out of his dingy office to see what's going on. He's a rather scruffy guy, in a big pair of Wellington boots and a big floppy hat. His lazy attempts to diffuse the situation are futile. I doubt with his pidgin English that he could even order a coffee, never mind placate the victims.
Of course, my suspicions, of who perpetrated this series of crimes, are firmly rooted on my bandit friends, but I feel as though I just had a lucky escape and do not want to make things worse for myself by pointing an accusing finger. I use the moment to retire to my room.
Now, I am sure that most people, would have decided to leave this hostel, pretty damn quick, and that's what I do right? Wrong!In my infinite wisdom, I decide that my best course of action is to immediately open up one of the packets and do a big line of my newly purchased goods. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that was not one of my better moves. Wisdom comes with age though, and although I was already 31 years of age at the time that this tale unfolded. I was a late developer in the common sense department.
A few minutes later, one whole side of my face has gone numb, and I am pacing around the room like a child at Christmas. The incident, which is still raging outside, could not be further from my mind. In the knowledge that I have more of this stuff than I could possibly ever do in my short time here, I "Scarface" it up for the next hour or so. I then grab a few packets of my pleasure powder and head off to distribute amongst my new found friends, who I have met over the past nights.
Thanks to Mireila, the Dutch girl that briefly alluded to earlier, I have met a rather interesting bunch of people. Sarah, my partner to be, Nalki, an extremely funny Japanese guy, Paul, a very anal German (who refuses to sit on plastic seats), a girl from French Guyana (who can't stop dancing), and whose name I have long forgotten and a whole bunch of other folk that gladly indulge in the powdery delights of Latin America that I freely dish out. We all meet up in a cosy little bar named La Chimenea, which serves drinks at a dangerously low price. As the evening progresses, the combination of drinks and marching powder, ensures a "devil may care" attitude permeates the vibe of our select group. The frequency of our trips to the toilet cubicle become less, as our audacity increases. That is to say, we start hoovering the coke up off the table with little regard for anybody that may be watching.
Unfortunately the bars all close at midnight in Antigua (or did back then). We grab some beers from a little secret hatch and the party continues on the street corner for a while until we are moved on my the local police force. This prompts, all but the hardcore to head off home to bed. Sarah, Nalki, Paul and I decide to head off back to my hostel room. Obviously, this most pragmatic of decisions is made by yours truly - Captain Sensible at the helm. I lead my band of gurning warriors back to the hostel and the party continues.
For the first twenty minutes the party is going great guns, and not a hint of trouble in sight. That is, until El Banito and his Rastafarian sidekick decide to let themselves into my room to join the party. The atmosphere takes a downward spiral from there on in. The first thing that they do is bang the tunes right up on the music device, thus alerting the hostel owner, who is still pissed off from the afternoon's activities. His initial, bangs on the wall at 1.30 am, soon turn into raps on the door at 2.30 am, and by 5 am he is practically kicking his own hostel doors in. Quite, how I pass out in the middle of this rumpus, is beyond me, but pass out I do.
I am told by the others in the room that I was out for around 30 minutes, during in which time I am still vaguely aware of what's going on in the room.
I awake with a sudden bolt of realisation, that I have been robbed. Not for the first time in my life, I have a deep psychic connection to this fact, and instantly know that there is no disputing this issue. Like Gollum in pursuit of the ring, I leap across the room in search of my money belt. I find the belt half open in the corner of the room, and I can only surmise that one of the bandits has thrown it there, when he saw me rise from the dead.
"My money, my money", I wail, as I see that the pile has been reduced to half of its width. There is no denying that El Bandito and his sidekick have been up to their tricks. They have also decided to steal 3 packets of their own illicit wares back from me (the bare cheek of it).
In a fit of rage, I no longer give a flying fuck that I am dealing with Guatemalan bandits. The fact that they are riddled with bullet holes and scars does not even enter my brain. I lunge forward and with the bravery of a man much tougher than myself, point right in their faces and holler "Give me my fucking money back, you thieving bastards".
The charging of feet down the corridor and the thudding of the door as it is repeatedly kicked from the outside, adds a new, excitement to proceedings. Still charged with anger, I run to the door, and thrust it open.
The image that I witness as the door flies open, will stay with me forever. The hostel manager (who has evidently exceeded his patience tolerance), is stood behind the door swinging a rusty machete around his head. Quickly, I slam the door in his face, and start to laugh uncontrollably. Obviously, my nervous system has reached it's own zenith, resulting in my jolly outlook on the unfolding travesty. I turn to the room and come out with the following gem.
"You'll never guess what's going on behind here"?
Leaving no time for their replies, I pull the door open once again and lo and behold, the manager is still swinging the machete around his head. Shutting the door in his face once more, I turn to my audience and note that only Nalki (the Crazy Jap) seems to find is as hilarious as myself. Paul, (the anal) German has gone completely white. Anybody would have thought that he had just sat on a plastic chair - or something. Sarah, remains silent and does not seem to be sharing my own enthusiasm for the situation.
So, where does it go from here, I hear you ask? Well, what happens next has a comedy edge all of its own. The Banditos decide to go and reason with the lunatic outside. After a few minutes of accelerated Spanish debate. The bandits walk back in the room and Rastaman apologises for lightening my money belt of its contents. He then adds,
"But we did warn you never to trust a Guatemalan". He further informs me that I will not be getting my money or goods back. He leaves the room, in the manner of a puppy dog that's just shit in the house. Not at all what I would expect of a Guatemalan bandit.
And that's why I will never trust a Guatemalan bandit again. I've had it with them.