Communing with saints in the Guatemalan highlands

A visit to the shrine of Maximon

A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons

Forty quetzales for an audience with a saint: it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

I practise looking pious and respectful as Francisco leads the way, past the mango sellers in their shawls of handwoven cloth, over the cobblestones of Santiago Atitilán’s central square and into the network of alleyways beyond. Ill-kept dogs with the weary look of strays patrol a courtyard that smells faintly of incense and rotting fruit. My newly appointed guide grins and motions to the doorway ahead of us.

I don’t know what I was expecting, a church perhaps, but not this low room with its breeze block walls or the trestle tables with their detritus of soft-drinks bottles and dried flowers. In the far corner, an elderly man with a stoop is conversing with the plastic statues of apostles, while another lies dozing on a bench, his chin on his chest and the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Most surprising of all are the Christmas jingles that play through crackly, consumptive old speakers. This is no ordinary shrine. But then Maximon, the wooden figure who stands before me in studded leather boots and robes of coloured silk, is no ordinary Saint.

His cult has its origins in the 16th century, or so they say, a fusion of the militarised Catholicism of the Conquistadors and the religious practices of the Maya which continue to thrive here, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The Saint’s power is legendary. He can cure disease, bring rain and make the waters teem with fish and, despite the best efforts of the modern-day Catholic Church, he is still both respected and feared by many within Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population. “There are people here who say that Maximon is the Devil,” Francisco tells me, “but as soon as they become ill, they run to him and beg for his forgiveness.”

As if on cue, a thickset man with a neatly clipped moustache enters the shrine and kneels before the Saint. I watch as he lays out his gifts – a dog-eared packet of cigarettes, a bottle of rum, a twenty quetzal note – placing them on the floor at Maximon‘s feet.

His prayer sounds odd in the cold acoustic of the room, a strident monotone devoid of emotion. “He’s asking Maximon to protect him from a woman,” Francisco whispers, “a temptress.”

For a moment, I feel as if I’m intruding, but then the worshipper breaks off to offer Maximon a cigarette. Francisco seems to have lost interest and is talking loudly on his mobile phone, topping-up his credit. The sleeping attendant is yet to stir.

I glance over my shoulder as I slip out into the sunshine, savouring my last image of this curious backstreet saint. Maximon remains inscrutable behind his mask of dun-coloured wood, the butt of a cigarette dangling from his lips.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo credit: A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons

You’ll find Maximon in the backstreets of Santiago, on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. The shrine moves on a regular basis. Ask around at the jetty for a guide and be prepared to haggle. 

Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro, Colombia

Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro, Colombia (shutterstock)

We sat under the scant shade of a guava tree, listening to the hum of insects in the long grass and watching a late afternoon shower soften the outlines of the statues. Vultures with ragged wings hung in the valley below and circled the tops of the hills as groves of banana trees tumbled down the slopes ahead of us, breaking the lines of the coffee terraces that striped the landscape. For a while Juan was silent, then conversation turned back to the tombs, to the columns carved with ancient faces and the rock-hewn walls with their riddle of geometric patterns.

The seductive charm of colonial Cartagena and the lure of the Caribbean means that few travellers make it to the west of Colombia. Fewer still venture into the hills and valleys of Cauca, to the village of San Andrés de Pisimbalá and the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro.

It’s unsurprising. Though many are now being paved, most of the surrounding roads are deeply rutted and disagreeable. Come via the town of Popayán, en route from the Ecuadorian border, and you’ll spend several hours lurching along dirt tracks through a landscape of mist-shrouded Andean moorland in a hand-me-down American school bus.

But don’t be dissuaded. It would be worth it for the rural tranquility and the scenery alone. It’s all the more worth it for the sense of adventure and, once you learn that the hills surrounding San Andrés are riddled with tombs carved into the rock and decorated with pre-Columbian cave paintings, the decision becomes an easy one.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these scattered hypogea range from claustrophobic earthen hollows to elaborate burial chambers set nine meters deep in the volcanic bedrock and reached by spiralling staircases. Designed to house the  remains of Tierradentro’s pre-Columbian elite, they offer all manner of intriguing insights into a north Andean culture that flourished between the 6th and the 10th centuries.

Descend the steps of  the tombs at Alto de San Andrés or Alto de Segovia, wait for the lamps to flicker into life, and you’ll be greeted by swirls of mineral pigment, riotous zigzag patterns and delicately painted animals picked out in red, yellow and black.

In some you’ll find human figures, inquisitive faces and birds. At Alto del Aguacate, the beam of my torch illuminated the shapes of salamanders, agents of the underworld, separated from a celestial sphere that hung with coloured moons by a black line representing the earth. Just as fascinating were a series of shallow pits dug into the floor. A trip to the site’s museum later that morning confirmed that they were for the servants of the deceased. Their sunken graves were indicative of lower status and evidence of a hierarchy that continued into the afterlife.

At El Tablón a number of monolithic stone statues depicting broad-shouldered warriors, priests and women in turbans, are also on display. It was here that I met Juan, a barrel chested park ranger with a thick black moustache. He spoke wistfully of the 1980s when many of the painted tombs were first exhumed and of the intensity of the colours. “There are  hundreds more,” he said, “you can find them all over these hills”. I was due to leave for Bogotá the next day but my plans were fast beginning to change. The rest of Colombia could wait.

The logistics:

Tierradentro can be reached by bus or in one of the pickup trucks used as collective taxis (colectivos) throughout the region. They run sporadically throughout the day and drop you at a crossroads a short walk from the museum or further up the hill in San Andrés itself. The journey from Popayán takes between 4 and 6 hours. La Plata (en route to San Agustín) is 4-5 hours to the south east.

The tombs are scattered throughout the hills and must be reached by walking or on horseback. Maps and information are available at the Casa de Cultura in San Andrés and at the museum where you can hire horses for around US$2 an hour.

Though it’s possible to visit all of the sites in the valley in a single day if you start early, it’s best not to rush. The climb to Alto del Aguacate, in particular, is steep and requires a good level of fitness. At the time of writing a day ticket valid for the museum and all of the surrounding tombs cost US$8.

The larger tombs are lit and looked after by park rangers, many of whom are extremely knowledgeable about the area and its history. A torch is recommended, however. Ask permission before taking photos and don’t, under any circumstances, use flash.

There are a number of small restaurants and guest houses in San Andrés and along the road to the museum. Hospedaje Luzerna, run by doting octogenarian couple Don Secundario and his wife Carmelita, comes highly recommended.

The area is fantastic for birdwatching and there are many spectacular hiking trails connecting nearby villages. It’s a great place for an extended stay.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on wanderlust.co.uk

Setting sail for Panama’s San Blas Archipelago

Setting sail for Panama's San Blas Archipelago

Why fly between Panama and Colombia when you could explore the islands and coral reefs of San Blas?

I woke just as the storm was breaking, as the first of the iron grey waves enveloped the prow. Veins of lightening ran through the bank of cloud ahead of us and it glowed, just for a second, blue-black like a bruise. Fritz stayed on deck as we stumbled to our cabins, wiping the salt-water from his thick-lensed glasses and barking instructions to the crew. A string of German swear-words followed me down the narrow stair-well as I descended into the belly of the catamaran, ducking low beneath the polished wood of the door frames and clambering into the narrow birth with its sweet smell of paint and old varnish. I had left Central America behind, a hundred nautical miles in the distance, through the windswept night, lay the lights of Cartagena.

Unless you have a private army at your disposal or aspire to be the star of the continent’s next hostage crisis, overland travel between Panama and Colombia would be unwise. The jungles and swamps of the Darién Gap are the stuff of legend, the stronghold of the last of the FARC rebels and a smoke screen for the nefarious activities of drug traffickers. But that doesn’t mean you should fly. There’s too much to see at the naval of Latin America. Far better to book a spot on one of the private yachts that ply their trade ferrying travellers between Panama and the Colombian coast.

After backpacking my way through Central America, I did just that, arranging my passage with Fritz, an eccentric Austrian businessman-turned-skipper sailing the route in his 50ft catamaran. Just a few months after my journey, Fritz entrusted his boat to a washed up captain with a fondness for rum rations and subsequently lost it to the waters of the Caribbean. But there are plenty of others still operating, sailed by reliable sorts with scrupulous safety records and reams of recommendations.

The yacht was moored at Carti, three hours from Panama City along patch-work roads of broken tarmac and bare earth. It was there that I boarded a motor launch in the fumbling light of dawn and arrived to find Fritz out on deck in Birkenstocks and sky-blue swimming trunks, making the final preparations. “Alles ist gut!” he said with a smile.

We set sail that morning, bound for San Blas, a network of islands that surpass the most palm-fringed of holiday brochure cliches, and spent three days floating through the archipelago, snorkelling along reefs of fire coral and eating lobster from paper plates. Angel fish with feather-like fins glided through the shallows and, in the deeper water, barracuda stalked silvery shoals that scattered as they approached, like shards of softly broken glass.

The San Blas Islands are home to the Kuna, a nation of weather-beaten Amerindians who eke out an existence tending glades of coconut palms and trading with passing ships. Juan, the Panamanian deck hand pointed out the silhouettes of their fishing boats in the distance. “They’re diving for shellfish,” he said. “Some of them can hold their breath for ten minutes.”

While Kuna men are famed for their aquatic prowess, the women of San Blas, or Kuna Yala as it is also known, pride themselves on their fabrics. At Nagaurchirdup, three women in orange headscarves paddled over in a canoe beneath the shade of a tattered parasol. “Mola sellers” said Juan, as they unloaded their baskets. Made from layers of cloth and decorated with geometric patterns and brightly coloured birds, mola form the central panels of Kuna blouses. The finest examples are highly prized and well worth a lazy afternoon of haggling.

As the sun set that evening, we headed for the open sea, leaving the shelter of the islands and braving the waiting storm. We kept watch in shifts until it passed. Alfred the retired accountant woke Toby the photographer, who woke the French couple, who woke me as the first of the Colombian lighthouses appeared: flecks of hot light in the mist.

By the time we arrived in Cartagena on the fifth day, I was glad to escape the claustrophobic cabins, the sleeping bags damp with sweat and salt water, and the lingering seasickness. But I’d do it again in a second.

Hauling our rucksacks from the harbour to the centre of town, we passed a group of tourists, their suitcases emblazoned with luggage tags and flight stickers. I didn’t have the heart to tell them what they’d missed.

The logistics:

Upwards of 20 yachts sail this route in both directions with most spending three days in the San Blas Islands and around 40 hours on the open ocean. You can book a cabin at hostels and hotels, both in Cartagena and Panama City. Hostel Mamallena provide a comprehensive list of boats, complete with departure times and further details. At the time of writing, the trip cost around $500. It’s by no means a budget option but well worth the expense and infinitely preferable to spending $350 dollars on a 90-minute flight. Most boats provide snorkeling gear but it can be a little leaky so it’s worth taking your own. Seasickness tablets are highly recommended, save them for the open sea when things can get choppy!

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on wanderlust.co.uk

Digging deep in Joya de Cerén, El Salvador

IMG_0104

There’s little to love about downtown San Salvador, pock-marked by slums and thick with snarling traffic. But don’t let it colour your opinion of the city as a whole. From elegant suburbs, like Santa Tecla, to the forested slopes of El Boquerón, the slumbering volcano that bathes the outskirts of the city in late afternoon shadow, there’s more to El Salvador’s capital than joyless urban sprawl.

More beautiful still are the nearby colonial towns, like Suchitoto the ‘place of birds and flowers’, a jumble of pastel-coloured houses and artisans’ workshops trimmed with terracotta tiles that look out over Lake Suchitlán. Famed for the elegant white facade of its 19th century church, it’s as sun-dappled and chocolate-boxy a town as you could wish for. But of all the places I visited in El Salvador the best was Joya de Cerén.

Stone temples and crumbling Mayan palaces are a dime a dozen in Latin America. Whether scrubbed clean by archaeologists or hidden beneath jungle canopies, noisy with the frantic calls of cicadas, they provide ample evidence of the power and the splendour of the Mayan elite. Yet they tell us little about the lives of ordinary people, of the peasants and artisans upon whose backs an empire was built.

The archaeological site at Joya de Cerén (Jewel of Cerén) is different. Known as the ‘Pompeii of the Americas’, it’s the most complete Mayan village ever to be discovered on the continent. Preserved beneath layers of volcanic ash following the eruption of a nearby volcano around 600AD, it’s here alone that the wattle and daub dwellings of pre-hispanic farmers have survived, complete with neatly-furrowed fields and kitchen gardens. When the site was first excavated, even the delicate impressions of yucca (manioc), maguey cactus and maize were visible in the ash, allowing archaeologists to build up an impression of the diet of Joya’s inhabitants.

The religious practices of Mayan villagers are in evidence too. In the midst of one group of buildings is a temezcal, a ceremonial steam bath depicted in the codices of the period and used for ritual cleansing. Entering the warmth of its interior was likened to returning to the womb, that you might emerge reborn. Set into its domed roof is a circular valve of baked earth that would have allowed excess steam to escape, preventing the temperature and the pressure inside from growing too great.

My guide, Maria, a bright-eyed salvadoreña in a floral scarf, smiled at the ingenuity of her ancient ancestors and led me to another building in which excavators have found painted deer antlers, shells and the fragments of a headdress. Adorned with a latticework window designed to allow those inside to peer out while obscuring the view of passersby, it is thought to have been a centre of occult activity, the dwelling of a village shaman.

“Just as intriguing,” she said, “was the discovery of tiny clay figure.” Housed in the smart museum at the site’s entrance, it depicts a man sporting a broad-brimmed hat, a glimpse of 7th century Mayan attire which overturns the assumption that sombreros were brought to the continent by the Spanish. “It turns out they’re a Salvadoran invention, that the Conquistadors borrowed the idea from us,” she said, brimming with pride.

Though it was discovered in the 1970s, much of Joya de Cerén is yet to be excavated. No doubt more illuminating fragments of history lie hidden beneath the soil. Just like in El Salvador itself, if you dig down just a little there are treasures to be found.

– Thomas Rees

An edited version of this article appeared on wanderlust.co.uk

Mexico’s Island of the Dolls

"Xochimilco Dolls' Island" (c) Esparta Palma/Wikicommons

“Xochimilco Dolls’ Island” (c) Esparta Palma/Wikicommons

Thomas Rees uncovers a dark secret in the sleepy canal district of Mexico City and finds a culture fascinated by death and decay

It’s hard to forget their eyes or the smiles that play around the corners of their mouths, gripped by plastic rigamortis. In spite of the heat, you feel yourself shiver.

The Island of the Dolls is as disturbing a sight as you’ll find in Mexico City: more chilling than the Templo Mayor, where graphic stone friezes depict scenes of ritual blood-letting, or the Museum of Mexican Medicine with its collections of the skulls of syphilitic Aztecs.

A metro and a train ride away from the centre, the island is hidden among the canals of Xochimilco, in the city’s tranquil suburbs. The name itself sounds like running water: Xochimilco, ‘the place where the flowers grow’. It was once a great centre of agriculture, the 10th century home of the Xochimilca who built the network of waterways and floating gardens (chinampas) on the site of an ancient lake. Conquered by the Mexica Aztecs in the 14th century and razed by the Spanish just a few generations later, the town was swallowed by the urban sprawl of Mexico City in the 1900s.

Though the lake has all-but disappeared, many of the canals have survived and are popular with travellers and Mexican families seeking respite from the heat and the relentless pace of downtown. At weekends the languid waterways bustle with brightly painted trajineras, long wooden punts steered by thick-set Mexican pilots. Go with a group and haggle unashamedly and you can rent one for a modest sum. Pay a little extra and they’ll take you to the dolls.

It was quiet when we arrived at the embarcadero on a week day afternoon, a group of eight from the hostel. We knew to avoid the landing stages closest to the train station where the price is hiked for tourists and to leave the talking to Daniel, a norteño from the state of Sinaloa. When it comes to bargaining, there’s no substitute for being Mexican. The Argentinians who shared my dorm had learnt that to their cost, returning from Xochimilco the day before with pained expressions and empty pockets.

After several minutes of debate, punctuated by theatrical head-scratching and sharp intakes of breath, a deal was reached. Ramon, our pilot, motioned to a trajinera at the end of the row and we slid out onto the water. Broad-shouldered punts with decorative canopies slipped past, carrying wedding parties, marimba players and groups of mariachis who sweated beneath their sombreros and sequined jackets. They played requests as we dozed in the sunshine and stopped to buy pale yellow maize and bottles of beer from women in dugout canoes.

After an hour or so, the sound of trumpets and Mexican folk-songs drifted out of ear-shot. Ramon slowed the trajinera to a stop and steered us towards the bank, close enough to make out the bedraggled teddy-bears and broken toys that hung from the canopy. Balding dolls with lolling heads and twisted limbs of dull grey plastic returned our gaze. Their pastel pink dresses look like scraps of bunting, caught in the tired branches of the willow trees.

“They say that a girl drowned here years ago,” said Ramon, “that the dolls are possessed by her spirit.” His tale was fanciful but sinister all the same: a classic horror story about the island’s lonely caretaker who found the girl’s body and hung the dolls in the trees to appease her ghost. “He died in the same spot,” Ramon said, “some people think that the dolls killed him.”

It felt strange making our return, past flower gardens and summer houses, back to the embarcadero. Somehow the island is more unsettling for its sun-dappled location: a whisper of Mexico’s morbid fascination in a place of sweetness and light. Even later that day, sat before plates of enchiladas in the noisy food-hall of Xochimilco’s market, it played on our minds.

– Thomas Rees

Getting there: Take Metro Line 2 southbound to Tasqueña and change to Tren Ligero. Xochimilco is the final stop on the line. All embarcaderos are clearly signposted. At the time of writing, hiring a trajinera cost around M$200 (£10/$15) per hour though it can be slightly cheaper or significantly more expensive depending on your haggling skills! A return trip to the Island of the Dolls (Isla de las Muñecas) takes about three hours. 

This article was originally published on wanderlust.co.uk

The Quince Años

Dani, the quinceañera

Dani, the quinceañera

Three hours north of Mexico City, in the state of Querétaro, the quaint little town of Tequisquiapan sits amidst dusty farmland and desert scrub. The thermal baths for which it  was once famous dried up years ago when the water table dropped but it remains a popular weekend retreat for well-heeled Mexicans from the capital who come to play golf and waddle around in shorts and sandals. It’s a little shabby and worn but all the more charming for it. The central square is flanked by arcades of shops and adorned with manicured hedges, a bandstand and a pretty, pink sugared almond of a church. In the rambling neighbourhoods, trees and telephone wires hang with scraps of bunting from religious festivals.

I’m staying with Juli and Pete who speak Spanish with Leicestershire accents and know more about Mexico then anyone I’ve ever met. They’re impossibly kind. I’ve been here all of 5 hours and they’ve already got me an invite to a birthday party and a present to take along. It’s not just any birthday either but a 15th, a quinceaños, celebrated throughout Latin America as the point at which a girl makes the transition into womanhood, the point at which, traditionally, she might take a husband or choose to live a life in the service of God. 

The afternoon begins with the religious side to the proceedings which involves an uncomfortable half hour sat in a stiflingly hot church, with the whirr of inadequate fans, feeling my shirt grow damp and watching dust hang in the yellow light of the stained glass windows. Dani, the quinceañera, kneels before the priest while he delivers his sermon about boyfriends and the virtues of a godly life. There are vows and dedications to The Virgin and then it’s out into the sunshine and off to the party at a nearby hotel for tacos and cake and dancing.

It’s a lavish affair. There’s a marquee, a free bar and French pâtisserie. There’s even a chocolate fountain and, in a delightful twist, a second of chamoy, a sickly sweet chilli sauce that Mexican children seem to eat with everything. Dani and her friends take to the stage and perform a dance routine to the backdrop of something whiney and forgettable by Jennifer Lopez. A performance is expected at a quinceaños and I’m told they’ve been practicing for weeks. Then comes the waltz, the emotional climax, in which the quinceañera dances with her father and the rest of her male relations. A stooped old man with a bewildered look is lifted to his feet by his grandsons so that he can take his turn amidst much rummaging for tissues and dabbing of tearful, mascara marked cheeks.

Behind all the glitz and the glamour, the elaborate outfits and the expense, the 40-year-old women in tight-fitting leather whose husbands strut around with their BlackBerries out, there’s something very moving about the Quinceaños and its demonstration of the centrality of family in Mexican life. In fact, it’s probably one of the nicest birthday parties I’ve ever been to — though I’ll never understand chamoy. Give me jelly and ice cream any day.  

– Thomas Rees

Mexico City

Rivera Mural, Mexico City

I arrived late after a white-knuckle taxi ride in a battered white taxi. A hotel receptionist regarded me without interest, handed me a set of keys and gestured to a staircase in the corner of the entrance hall. Music drifted in from the bar next door where the tequila was flowing and two men in woollen ponchos stood serenading the clientele with strained voices and battered old guitars.

Dumping my bags, I went in search of food and stumbled upon a packed taco stand in an otherwise deserted street, a hole in the wall with a narrow wooden counter and red plastic stools set out on the pavement. In all my time in Mexico I never once saw the hard-shelled cases that pass for tacos back home, these are the soft variety; warm, supple, maize tortillas filled with flash-fried steak or salty, paprika spiked sausage, sprinkled with coriander, sharpened with lime juice and topped with fresh salsas. Breathtakingly delicious. The perfect welcome.

Street food is something of a religion in Mexico City, vying with Catholicism for a place in mens’ hearts. In homage to these twin faiths I spent the next few days nosing around colonial churches and eating at street stalls, wondering in equal measure at the great vaulted ceiling of the Metropolitan Cathedral with its ebony skinned christ and at crisp enchiladas with salsa verde or tortas thick with sliced avocado, washed down with a glass of hibiscus tea.

There are vast markets too, as fascinating and frenetic as the city itself. At the end of a road snarling with traffic and lined with preening prostitutes lies La Merced, the largest market in the city, crammed with colourful stalls heaving with fruit and vegetables, sacks brimming with brittle dried chillies, bowls thick with unctuous spice pastes, and baskets of cactus paddles scraped of their spines to reveal the emerald flesh beneath. In  places, the floor is a carpet of papery corn husks and torn banana leaves.

North of the Cathedral is the so-called thieves market, a warren of tents rife with pickpockets and stall holders frantically competing for your attention. The air is thick with hoarse voiced sales pitches. I ate tacos with cactus and a scorching hot salsa and wandered past stalls selling car parts, cds, clothing and miscellaneous tat. A child dragged his mother towards a cage full of mewling blonde puppies, their eyes barely open. In the meat section, a man trimmed chickens feet with a pair of pinking-shears and nearby, a pair of abuelitas (little grandmothers) sat knitting in a stall abundantly stocked with graphic pornography.

On my last day in the city I escaped the bustling centre and spent an afternoon drifting along the canals of Xochimilco. We slid past a wedding party and a boat full of mariachis in sombreros and black suits with sequined trousers, past summer houses and women in dugout canoes selling sweetcorn with chilli and lime. The suburb is a relic of the Aztec world, of Tenochtitlan, the city on the lake, sacked by the Spanish and buried beneath modern Mexico City, a past that is commemorated by Rivera’s vibrant murals in the Palacio Nacional and by countless exhibits in the fascinating Museum of Anthropology.

Mexico City is a place of contrasts and contradictions, of ancient canals, of ruins, of faded colonial architecture and hawkers with old family recipes, of high-rise buildings and congested streets where the scent of herbal remedies and smouldering incense mingles with the acrid smell of exhaust fumes and the cheap perfume of working girls.

I miss it, and I still dream about the food.

– Thomas Rees

Texas

Texas

The road from New Orleans to Houston snakes its way through moorland, forest and monochrome swamp. Pylons stride across vast tracts of grey water broken by the trunks and stumps of skeletal trees fleshed out by mud brown pelicans and slender white egrets with yellow bills. Beyond the water, the countryside is flat, wooded and otherwise featureless, a no–mans land before the onset of casinos and malls, neon signs, billboards and, at last, the glass and steel of the Houston skyline with its tangle of highways and flyovers.

Everything about Houston is vast; buildings, cars, people and portions. The city exudes an aura of brazen American confidence and is testament to a continual quest for comfort and convenience. Tower blocks are connected by tunnels to save you walking in the sun and there are even drive–through cash points and pharmacies so you can pick up your beta blockers and your insulin without leaving the air–conditioned cocoon of your 7 litre Dodge pickup.

I’m staying with Amy, an old school friend who lives in the historic heights, the only part of the city where the buildings look more than about 20 years old and don’t have a flat–pack aesthetic of ruthless symmetry or vast attendant parking lots. Even china town is brand new and scrupulously ordered. We drove there one day for noodles followed by a massage though I expect it’s probably more comfortable to do it the other way round.

I’d never had a massage before and I can’t say that I’m in hurry to do it again. My masseur, a fat, bald, chatty Chinese man prone to making unnerving little grunting noises, spent the majority of the session cracking jokes about the size of my feet and telling me how much I look like characters from movies I’d never heard of. After enduring a good hour of him digging his finger tips into various parts of my anatomy to no apparent end other than to provide Amy with the opportunity to take a series of photos of me lying stricken on a faux velvet chaise longue with my feet wedged in a bucket of lukewarm water, the ordeal was over and we emerged blinking into the sunlight with our complimentary lollipops and bottles of mineral water.

At least the noodles were good. Pretty much everything I ate in Houston was good in fact, but best of all was the barbecue.

As luck would have it my visit coincided with the Houston World Championship BBQ Cook-Off and, as a consequence of spending large amounts of time in bars looking glamorous and hamming up her British accent, Amy had managed to befriend a group of hard-drinking rednecks from east Texas who appointed themselves our guides. We picked up Grimsey on the way. He entered the car alligator skin boots first in a fog of aftershave, having prepared for an afternoon of beer and barbecue by dining on steak and washing it down with 4 margaritas. He handed me a beer and prized off the cap with a heavy gold ring emblazoned with the year of his graduation from Texas A and M, alma mater to all self-respecting rednecks of the past generation or two.

The cook–off takes place in the parking lot behind America’s first domed stadium, a badly aging lump of grey concrete that promoters once dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. We were greeted at the entrance by a little golf–cart train and a jovial Texan in a broad-brimmed hat who informed us that the last train back was at 11pm and that we should take care not to miss because, he paused for effect, ‘its a looooong walk back’. By long he meant 300 meters maximum. But then everyone knows that Americans don’t walk, especially after spending several hours drinking watery beer and gorging themselves on buttery étouffée, ribs and barbecue beans, not to mention the corn–dogs and deep–fried cheese cake sold from the stalls dotted among the fair ground rides.

The food, the brisket in particularly, sticky and charred on the edges and pink in the middle, was sob–inducingly good and impossibly moreish. I made up for my conspicuous lack of a drawl, a Stetson or cowboy boots by consuming it in preposterously large quantities.

While a lot of the teams were just there to drink, talk about rifles and country music and complain about the democrats, there were some serious contenders who stayed hunched over their barbecues while our redneck friends worked their way through another few cases of Miller Light and began shrieking whenever anything in a short skirt and a cowboy hat walked past. As the sun set and the clouds melted into pools of orange and pink light the serious teams were still there, perfecting their marinades and daubing slabs of meat with sauces and seasonings that clung to the bristles of thick painters brushes and the dull metal edges of well–worn tongs. In the half–light, the blackened steel barbecues, with their barrel-shaped bodies and long chimneys, looked like slumbering locomotives.

If you want a stereotypically Texan experience, you can’t do much better than the cook–off. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. But if you do go, be sure not to miss the 11 o’clock train, I’d hate for you to have to walk that 300 metres.

– Thomas Rees

Katrina

Street Car, New Orleans

Street Car, New Orleans

Saturday morning, the morning after my first night in New Orleans, was a morning of recuperation. We sat in cafe in uptown and watched the rain assault the tarmac as thunder rumbled overhead . Behind me a bearded man with a liberal hand salted oysters on a barbecue as the tarpaulin above him strained under the weight of water.

My head was pounding but I was far from the only one feeling the effects of the night before. New Orleans is a city with a lot of sorrows to drown. It’s a city that exists seemingly in defiance of nature and one that has paid the price.

In parts of uptown, the earth seems to be trying to swallow the city, building by building. Creepers cling to the flaking paint-work of the houses and encroach upon the manicured lawns, wrapping their sinewy fingers around benches and climbing frames. The gnarled roots of the live oaks that line the streets and the avenues force their way through the paving stones.There’s rain and more rain. The pavements are slick with water that runs into the gutters and climbs its way up the wheel-arches of parked cars. And then, of course, there are the hurricanes.

It’s 7 years since Katrina but her grubby finger prints are still everywhere. The streetcars, all brass rails and polished wood, trundle along tracks still thick with sediment and the pavements, even the grassy avenues that wind their way between the great marble tombs of the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, are dusted with broken sea shells as white as the bones that slumber beneath the soil.

Everyone has their story. At a Lundi Gras house party I met Mr Elton who served me a bowl full of his famous red bean gumbo and a plate of sticky brown jambalaya  and introduced me to his brother, a quiet man who sat hunched on the sofa bundled in an old coat. The quiet man lost his home to Katrina, suffered a stroke soon afterwards and is now one of the thousands who wait, whose lives are blighted by the broken promises of insurance companies and housing developers.

People struggle on, they’re determined and stoical. The city is full of inspiring stories like that of Mike Serio, dubbed ‘an american hero’ by the newspaper cutting pinned to the wall of his restaurant that has served Po’ Boys, the New Orleans staple, for over 50 years.  He lost three houses to Katrina but keeps on going, commuting over 200km a day from temporary accommodation outside the city. But there are many who have never come back.

On the bus to see a friend in Texas, I met Shelby who, like thousands of others from the city, now lives in Houston. It was the first time he’d been back to Mardi Gras since the storm. We played chess in the dog-eared Greyhound station at Baton Rouge and he talked about his time in New Orleans, about his school days and playing in a marching band: about the life he lost. He smiled all the time that we talked.

Early one afternoon, I climbed a levy on the edge of town and looked down on the sluggish brown water of the Mississippi. Two hunchbacked old cargo ships sat brooding on the wharf. The wind dipped its toes into the water ruffling its surface, but little else moved. It’s odd to think that this lazy, bloated river could be complicit in a frenzy of destruction.

Maybe its best not to think about what could happen next. Luckily there’s a particularly vicious rum punch called a hurricane available in almost every bar in the city so you can fight fire with fire, forget and just take things as they come.

– Thomas Rees

Mardi Gras

A Mardi Gras Indian

The narrow streets of the French Quarter are crammed with people; people in purple wigs, patchwork waistcoats and hats festooned with brightly coloured feathers. Music spills out of the bars and in one of them a giant of a man with a sousaphone wrapped around him like a silver python hammers out a bass line. Outside, people call up at the wrought iron balconies with hoarse voices. Their pleas are answered with strings of coloured beads that they hang around their necks: already heavy with plastic.

We make our way through the crowds and the drizzle to Bourbon Street, a place where inhibitions are a distant memory. A graveyard for morals and good taste, it’s so brash and garish that it makes your eyes water. But then it always has been, ever since the days of speakeasies and cat houses – the early days of jazz.

The rest of the night is a blur of bright lights, music and alcohol as we lurch from bar to bar. The gutters are thick with discarded plastic glasses and bead necklaces.

New Orleans is in the grip of Mardi Gras, the greatest party on earth, a fortnight or so of festivities leading up to Mardi Gras Day, after which lent begins and belts are tightened, or are supposed at any rate. I’ve arrived with a group of friends for the final four days of the party.  It’s my first Mardi Gras and my first time in the city. The driver of the shuttle from the airport grins from ear to ear when I tell him. “You all gunna have a lot of fun up here,” he says.

The heart of the festival and the source of the beads that choke the city streets are the parades. They have been going on for weeks but the weekend before Mardi Gras things begin in earnest. Each parade is organised by a krewe, a private club initially designed to support members and their families in times of financial difficulty or family tragedy but now primarily dedicated to the building of pirate ships or animals out of fibreglass. The krewe chooses a theme for their parade and elects a king and a queen who board special floats dressed in suitably regal attire, usually heavy on the sequins.

On Saturday night the Krewe of Endymion traverses Canal Street with a stream of fairy tale themed floats – ‘The Frog Prince’, ‘The Gingerbread Man’ – and on Sunday, the Krewe of Bacchus comes out to play in uptown. Their floats are decorated with bunches of grapes and scenes of revelry and they have appointed Will Ferrell their king. He grins inanely and waves to the crowds sporting a gold crown and a crimson cloak.

Thousands of people line the parade routes waiting to catch the bead necklaces, spongy footballs (the American kind) and cuddly toys thrown by the krewes. There are families gathered around barbeques roasting corn and crayfish, gaggles of old men with coolers of beer, and children raised above the crowds on step ladders painted with Mardi Gras colours (purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power). Even in rough parts of town the spirit of Mardi Gras abides. I walked without a care around housing projects and into liquor stores populated by men with rheumy eyes and prison tats. At any other time of year you would be lucky to leave with your wallet.

That’s not to say that, even during Mardi Gras, this is a town without problems or divisions. Among the Bacchus floats were a pair of giant apes, their features clearly intended to caricature those of a black male and female. Beneath their furrowed brows were startled eyes, blue eyes like those of the children of black women fathered by slave owners. The atmosphere was one of confusion and of deep discomfort. Was this an awful joke or a clumsy attempt at excoriating racial stereotypes? The crowds elected to vent their disapproval with a hailstorm of beads.

In stark contrast, the famous Zulu parade on Mardi Gras day is a explicit celebration of New Orleans’ African heritage. We watched as floats decorated with palm trees, leopards and Zulu warriors trundled under an underpass that echoed with the pounding bass of a gigantic sound system. The hand-painted coconuts thrown from the Zulu floats are one of the great prizes of Mardi Gras. Fighting through a forest of raised arms, I catch three and have the bruises to show for it.

But parades are not just about floats and throws. There are pompom waving high school dance troops in outfits sure to make their fathers weep, men on horseback topped and tailed with cowboy hats and spurs, and of course the marching bands. The sound the bands make is unbelievable, it hits you like a wave and you can’t help but smile. On Mardi Gras day, I watched in awe as a young trumpeter, his brow shiny with sweat, took in a great gulp of air, forced his trumpet onto his lips, pushed in his marked cheeks with his free hand and screamed a note above the rest of the band. My knees went weak.

This is a city obsessed with music, a city in which marching bands have police escorts to get them to parades on time and surely the only city in the world where being a respected tuba player makes you a minor celebrity.

On our final afternoon in the city we set out in search of the famed Mardi Gras Indians. In tribute to Indian tribes who aided runaway slaves, members of New Orleans’ African American population take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day dressed in elaborate costumes, hand stitched with feathers and thousands of sequins. Each Indian tribe consists of only a few members; a king, a queen, a child scout and sometimes a witch doctor dressed in animal skins. If two tribes happen to meet they stage a fight for the entertainment of the crowds who follow them. I’m told that the weren’t always so staged.

All too soon Ash Wednesday dawns and the party is over. An army of street sweepers descend on the city and New Orleans goes back to work.

Almost everything about Mardi Gras is tacky but it’s unashamedly so and therein lies its greatness. No one makes apologies for the bad taste, the excess, or the mountains of discarded plastic. They’re all too busy having a good time.

– Thomas Rees

An edited version of this article appeared on wanderlust.co.uk