world traveler
    clown tom bolton

photos and stories of Tom's adventures in Mexico and Central America
...mexico city...

These next 3 photos are from Mexico City. I started here on a trip down through Belize, Guatemala and Honduras in 1993. Mexico city is huge and I had problems with my asthma due to the foul air, which gets trapped in this valley setting. The prices were very high throughout Mexico, this being a couple of years before the peso melted down again. I spent a lot of time hanging out on the Zocolo or central plaza just watching people. Seemed like it would be the place to do a show but I had no props myself and don't think I ever saw any performances there other than a mariachi band. There was a big park and a small pedestrian zone in the business district where I did see some clowns, comedians and balloon figure twisters.

Unfortunately, most of the performers I saw were pretty bad, relying on aggressive, insulting humor, the clowns: loud, stupid and so gaudy that one could picture them in a Steven King novel. As a foreigner in the audience I was likely to be greeted with comments like "hey gringo, your mother fucks dogs" and the audience would roar with laughter. I experienced this racism later in Ecuador as well. I mostly found people all over Latin America to be friendly and happy to chat with me yet their sense of humor tends to paint foreigners as "ugly Americans" only deserving of scorn, which was often exploited by bad street performers. And this was BEFORE that prick Bush stole his way into the white house.

mexico city central america

The central plaza in Mexico City. My paternal grandparents lived in the city for 40 years and occasionally I heard some story of it from my father. It was funny for me to think of this as a place where they had often walked through 50 years before. My grandfather had been an important man here as the head representative of Ingersoll mining equipment and the Imperial Potentate of the Shriners in Mexico. He had contact to dictators and heads of industry throughout Latin America. The legacy of the privileged few exploiting the resources and poor people in these lands has not improved much and my grandpa was part of the system. He died in 1974, so I never got to have any hard discussions with him about his role in such matters but he was a great inspiration to me to travel the world.

mexico city central america

A food wagon selling not just fried potatoes but fried plantains as well. Fresh corn was another popular item sold on the street, which they usually covered with a sort of mayonnaise, which looked disgusting. As a lover of Tex-Mex, I was very disappointed by the food in Mexico. Outside of expensive restaurants, it was mostly bad. Both tortillas and tortilla chips tended to be greasy, thick and unpleasantly chewy and it was hard to find anything without meat. The fresh lettuce, tomatoes, avocados etc which I associate with Tex-Mex were sold in the markets but not to be seen on your plate at a restaurant. I can only guess that people like to stick to cooked rather than fresh vegetables due to sanitary considerations.

mexico city central america

...mexican indian ruins...

These are the ruins of Teotihuacá about 40 kilometers from Mexico City. They include massive pyramids and numerous other structures. One associates Mexico with the Aztec since they are the culture encountered by the Spanish invaders. But this complex like many others in the area were built long before the rise of the Aztecs. Built by the Teotihuacán people whose history and fall of empire is still shrouded in uncertainties like is the other great builders in southern Mexico, the Mayan. This was me with my hair at it's longest, guess I looked light a real freak!

mexico pyramides ruins

These are photos from the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in north central Yucatan. The descendents of the Mayan still live in these areas but their empire had crumbled a while before the Spanish arrived. There are numerous small Mayan ruins in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, which have been covered by jungle. The other major ruins on the Yucatan peninsula that attracts visitors is at Tulum especially due to its accessible perch overlooking the south-eastern coast and proximity to the package tourist Mecca of Cancun. Traudel came to meet me in Mexico for a couple of weeks and found a cheap flight to Cancun. I have to say that the huge hotels and infrastructure was on a much higher level than many places in Florida. We had a couple days on the beach in Cancun where there was a photo shoot going on of a couple of bikini-clad beauties. My juggling on the beach caught the photographer's eye and he asked me to be in some of the photos. Later, the models from Mexico and Argentina invited us up to their hotel for drinks. I regret to this day that I didn't convince Traudel to accept the offer!

mexico chichen itza

mexico chichen itza ruins

San Christobal de las Casas in Chiapas was a pretty but tourist filled trendy town at over 2000 meters. I remember going to a nearby village where there was a political demonstration going on. The local Indians there seemed generally pissed off and were quite unfriendly. There was also a church in Chiapas that the tourist guides warns one not to photograph as the locals had killed people for doing so. This was just the spot that Traudel insisted on changing the film in her camera! A year later there was a political uprising in Chiapas by the Zapatistas. Seems that the people were sick of the political situation that only seems to represent the rich and powerful. I didn't take it personal but think that any gringo was seen as part of an exploitative system making our visit there uncomfortable at times.

mexico chiapas

...guatemala...

Guatemala was my favorite Central American country. This is Antigua, Guatemala a charming city with lots of colonial style buildings. Guatemala City is the capital and center of government but Antigua is the center of culture, history and tourism. It was a more relaxing place as well but to a lesser degree, like Guatemala City, I heard plenty of stories of armed robbers going into restaurants and holding up the clientele. There were lots of tourists here on the "gringo trail" blindly following their guidebooks like sheep to the touristy hot spots. Yet when I got a bit off the beaten track, I felt the locals hardly ever saw any foreigners at all. I found this in many of my travels. If you have the time, it's often worth it to check out the less visited places since those hot insider tips you read are of course read by thousand of others!

antiqua guatemala central amercia

In Guatemala I did a day-trip walking from Lanquin, which is know for it's spectacular cave and old church (shown below), to the Cahabón gorge where the river mostly disappears underground at a point called Semuc Champey and comes back out some hundred meters further on. I went with a Canadian woman and her 3 year old daughter, thinking I would could also help carry the child if she got tired on the app. 18 kilometer round trip. It was a beautiful day but as we started back, the air got much cooler and the stress of walking and the dust from the road aggravated my asthma. Then I realized I had forgotten my asthma spray. I was really struggling and it started to get dark and we still had some kilometers to go. I was against it but followed this woman as she tried to follow apparent short cuts to the winding road.

The way got steeper and steeper and I thought I would collapse. Suddenly, I felt a burning sensation all over my legs. I switched on my flashlight, which I had left off until then to conserve the batteries. A trail of thousands of red ants was using the same path as us. I freaked out a bit and ran back down the path, stuck to the road and we eventually made it back. The ant bites upset me at the time but the release of adrenaline it caused possibly saved my life.I remember thinking of another American juggler Marcus Markoni who was often working in Europe at that time. Turns out he died right around then in Munich of an asthma attack.

lanquin guatemala central amercia

...guatemalan highlands...

There is still a large Indian population in Guatemala many of whom still wear their colorful traditional dress, which is unique to each village. The Indians were generally very shy with outsiders. In this highland village of Nebaj, people told me they felt safer with tourists around who could be witness to the military oppression. There were some good hiking trails surrounding Nebaj from where I saw something peculiar. On the outside walls of a house the children had made drawings of what seemed to be armed men killing people. Childhood fantasy or something they actually witnessed? I had to wonder. I made a small show on the plaza in front of the church and someone started ringing the church bells, bringing much of the village to see the spectacle.

guatemala highlands adventures

guatemala travel photos

As there was no cinema in this town, one smart entrepreneur lined a room in his house with wooden benches and sold tickets to see videos. I went in and watched a subtitled version of "Romero" the story of a bishop murdered in El Salvador from right wing death squads. It was a story paralleled in Guatemala at the time where over 100,000 people had lost their lives. It was surreal for me as a number of soldiers stopped by and watched the video from the doorway. I kept thinking they would catch on to what this film was trying to get across and at least stop the showing if not worse. There were only a few tourists in this town, a couple of whom I ran into a few weeks after leaving. They told me that the day after I left there was a firefight between soldiers and rebels with bullets flying in the street.

guatemala civil war insurgency

Leaving Nabaj was also an adventure. The bus came to a halt in the middle of the night some 10 kilometers along the steep dirt road. A flatbed truck carry a bulldozer had tipped over - blocking the road. I got out of the bus as the driver tried to drive around, risking a plunge off the side of the mountain. In Guatemala, like I would later see in the Andes, were plenty of mountain roadside places where one saw a bunch of crosses marking where a vehicle full of people had pitched into an abyss. Since vehicles were blocked in both directions, all of the passengers from our bus transferred to a huge dump truck, which had to return down to the town in the valley where we headed. It was cold and we constantly slammed down onto the hard truck bed. I wrapped my upper body and head in my sarong, not just for warmth but to keep away some of the clouds of dirt, which triggered an asthma, attack. I think the locals were afraid they would arrive with one dead gringo in their midst. Somehow we arrived in the early morning. I stumbled out feeling like I had been trampled by a stampede of elephants and brushed off so much dust that it reminded me of something out of a cartoon.

...guatemalan kids...

Although generally shy in Guatemala, the kids were the most open. Without looking at them directly, I would start to make some silly expressions. Then throw a fruit up and catch it like I was just trying it for the first time. Slowly I would build up to wilder and wilder juggling tricks. By then any kids would be captivated and laughing. Then their mothers would start to pay attention. Finally, even the most off-standish guy would be interested in seeing what the gringo might be doing to get everyone so hysterical.

guatemala photography

In most of Central America one would buy a soft drink and if you wanted to take it with you, it would be put into a plastic bag with a straw. You can't set it down like a bottle but then one didn't have to deal with returning it for a deposit either.

guatemala travels

...guatemalan traditional dress...

In many countries it seems the woman often still wear some kind of traditional dress but most men just basic pants and shirts. In the mid 1990's, many men in Guatemala were still wearing traditional cloths, often as colorful as the women's'. In subtle ways, I had the feeling that there was more equality between the sexes there than amongst the Latinos of European decent and definitely more than in much of Asia.

guatemala markets sellers

guatemala family shopping

Noteworthy in the next 2 photos is that many men in Guatemala also still wear traditional dress unlike most of the world where only the women seem to.

guatemala adventure travels

guatemala traditions costumes

...Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica...

I only saw the north of Honduras including the Mayan ruins at Copan, La Ceiba and Trujillo. By La Ceiba, I saw lots of banana plantations and bananas being loaded on trains as I went by in a bus and was sorry I didn't have the chance to go back and photograph the scene. I spent a day at a beach hotel in Trujillo but was not impressed so I took a ferry to Roatan Island, which was beautiful but itchy. It belongs to the Bay Islands off the Mosquito Coast. The Mosquito Coast is named for the Indians that lived there but the name sure fit. I used insect repellent and slept under a mosquito net but after a week I was covered with more insect bites than I have ever experienced. The mosquitoes would attack after showering before I could put on the next application of repellent. Most of the bites actually came from sand flies, which were very small and would manage to sneak up from behind. One didn't feel them bite but later one would have a small bloody welt and it would itch like crazy.

mosquito coast islands honduras

Honduras.

On my way to Honduras, I spent some days in Belize, which as a former British colony has English as it first language although Spanish and Mayan languages among others are widely spoken. Belize city has a terrible reputation. I walked from the bus station to a hotel and had a menacing, big guy follow me and try to demand money for "having shown me the way to the hotel". When that didn't work he tried to get a commission from the hotel owner and hung around outside for a few hours looking to make trouble. I left the next day to a place down the coast. There is suppose to be great diving in Belize but as I don't dive there didn't seem much to do. I did stop in Punta Gorda, the last town of any size on the southern coast of Belize. A good friend of my youngest brother was involved in a land commune near there with a bunch of other Americans. I found their poisonous snake infested piece of jungle but the friend was not there so I did not stick around.

Beliza.

This photo was typical of Belize City. Heavily populated by blacks of mixed heritage, many of which like the name of the pictured hotel are Garifuna. Their story is that Indians from northern Brazil had gone to the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean where they later mixed with other Caribbean Indians and formers slaves from Africa and then went to a number of coastal cites in Central America. I am not sure how one could follow this genetic trail other than the linguistic links to northern Brazil.

belize city belize

Costa Rica.

In early 2005, I spent 4 weeks in Costa Rica. All of my camera equipment had disappeared during a move some years before. On a trip to Brazil, I had taken some of those cheap one-way cameras but felt they were pretty worthless. Thus I had no camera in Costa Rica. Sorry not to have any photos but it was also one less thing to worry about and lightened my load. Before arriving in Costa Rica I found out over the Internet about a circus school project for "street kids" run by Austrians and Germans. I spent just a day in the capital San Jose before heading down to San Isidro. The project I found was not a serious training center but more centered on keeping these neglected kids busy doing something fun but the volunteers were dedicated and gave the kids a lot of love. I did some little workshops but the kids were more interested in begging for balloons and calling me "Crusty" than they were in learning.

Not so far away was the highest peak in Costa Rica, which I went off to climb. Got to see the sunrise from there but it was well below freezing in contrast to the tropical weather below. Then I went on to a performers festival being put on by the people involved in the circus project but in another village. There I met Diego Gene who runs the Comedy and Mime school in Granada, Nicaragua. His students were older and dedicated to learn whatever I could teach them. I accompanied them to make a show at an Indian community some hours away. Unlike Guatemala, there are few Indians left in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is the most developed country in Central America and has been lucky to have had neither big civil strife nor a military. It has also been overrun by at least 50,000 Americans and 20,000 Europeans who have bought property here. This has driven up the prices but it can still be done on a low budget if one avoids the tourist traps. The Lonely Planet guidebook I had was a joke. Instead of having found out the cheap deals for backpackers which is the whole point of their guides, the author often recommends "quaint" places costing 100 dollars a night "but really worth it".

One can easily hike through some of the hemisphere's most beautiful jungle there yet a whole industry has grown up around the "canopy tours" where one uses elevated walkways and such to see parts of jungle from the treetops. It costs a lot of money and reduces the scenery to a Jurassic park type atmosphere. And one sees "for sale" signs in English everywhere. I think the novelty of living in this green paradise wears off pretty quickly when people realize that they have bought a place far away from a good beach or access to any real entertainment or culture. Maybe San Jose has some things to offer but it has barbed wire wrapped around everything up to 20 meters height. I don't know if the criminality there is really so high but I doubt there is more barbed wire present in Baghdad. Outside of the capital things seemed pretty laid back though and one has the choice of quiet places or a party scene if desired.

So, those were just a few tales from my many travels over the last twenty and something years. I hope you've enjoyed another side of a traveling clown! If you want, write me an email or better yet, book my show or set a link to this website or just state me as the beneficiary of your will!

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copyright © 2007 Tom Bolton


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