Friday, 4 December 2009

Going Out With A Bang


Back in Cusco, Goof hit the roof when we got our bags from the luggage store room at the hostel and found someone had half-inched $40 from a side pocket. This despite myself and Speckled repeatedly telling him not to leave anything valuable in his rucksack. Youngsters have to make their own mistakes, though. So he's having a go at the night porter, and arguing the toss with the owner, while we unpacked and got settled in our old room. A disgruntled Garfield informed us that there was no way he was staying in a den of thieves, and was going to find another hostel. Speckled and myself wanted to stay put, rather than traipse around Cusco looking for somewhere else. He decided to stay put for the time being.

This obviously soured relations with the family running the place, but with no proof as to who took the cash, Garf was on a hiding to nothing. So out we went for my leaving do. Several pints were downed with Rich, the Welsh fella we'd met in Mancora. Chris, the manager of the Hawley Arms in Camden, joined us for a few. He pulled out the bottle of rum which was to lead to allsorts of trouble.

Rich is a psychiatric nurse, and decided to psychoanalyse Garfield, who'd become much the worse for wear. The two of them got into a heated debate, Garf's mild arguing and protestations of not being a violent man degenerating into threats to "take apart" and "bust up" Richard. Speckled, being the mild-mannered type, was content to observe and giggle. After I'd chipped into their argument, and had a few of my own with Garfield (these ranged from the Vietnam War to historical incidents in our own relationship), Richard decided he would analyse the lot of us. He started by saying I am a narcissist. I didn't deny it, and just laughed affirmatively, but saying I wasn't an extreme case. Garfield disagreed, as he did when Richard described him as just needing to be loved, and needing me to do the driving in the group. This opened up a whole can of worms I'm not going to spill on here, but suffice to see me and my best mate took our Old Married Couple routine to a whole new level (Think Den & Angie on a comedown from a particularly heavy crystal meth session. Goof'd have to be Angie, obviously...they have the same haircut. And I'd be Den because he was a right cunt, and so am I.) So unpleasant things were said, dirty washing was washed publicly, and off we went to the next bar.

Somehow we lost Garfield, and myself and Speckled started playing pool with some Peruvians who constantly changed the "local rules" whenever we started gaining the upper hand, as we did most games. On spotting a leathered-looking Garfield outside in the square, we debated going out and getting him; only to decide it was better to let him sleep it off, and avoid him and myself coming to blows.

A few beers later, I remember coming to on a sofa in a club. A Peruvian girl was kissing me, and a grinning Speckled was sprawled all over the opposite sofa with her friend sprawled all over him. I was puzzled as to how we'd got there, but didn't argue when the girls wanted to leave for a hotel. My enthusiasm evaporated when we got outside to find bright daylight awaiting us. A check of my watch revealed an hour before I had to check-in at the airport. I shook hands with Jim, and watched as he sped off in a taxi with the girls, then shook my head and headed back to the room. This was where the fun really began.

I'd wisely packed before I left for the evening, and took the opportunity of a quick nap. Woke up still pissed at 5.45am, cold showered and brushed my teeth. Still absolutely, staggeringly pissed. Shouldered the bag, and headed for the front door of the hostel. Locked. A woman turned up, and I indicated I had to leave. "You pay." I tried to explain that I had no cash, and my friends would cover it, as they were still staying here. "No, you pay." I cursed, and went to awaken Garfield. He had no change of a big note. I explained, in Spanish, that Speckled had said he'd cover it for me...and that I was going to miss my plane. This resulted in folded arms from her, as I looked exasperatedly at Garfield, stood blinking and just as pissed in a pair of baggy white Y-fronts. This wasn't looking good. Time for Drastic Measures. I walked out into the reception area, right up to the front door...and booted it. Several times. Then, again in Spanish, shouted for help and the police (who probably would have arrested me). A frustrated scream added to the Madman Effect, and the woman hurriedly unlocked the front door, eager to get me out. I smiled and bowed graciously as I eased past her with a sarcastic "Gracias...? Now then, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Understandably, she glared at me as if she wanted to kill me. I know I'd have wanted to kill me.

A taxi ride through the quiet streets later, I was trying my best to act sober enough to board...then shutting my eyes in a state of relief as the plane taxied down the runway, bound once again for Lima.

A Grand Finale

You're not likely to ever visit a place more touristy than Machu Picchu Pueblo. If it wasn't for the proximity of the famous Inca pile of stones up the road, it obviously wouldn't exist. Consisting of guesthouses and restaurants whose prices would have you checking the eatery next door if in London, it's a shameless tourist-milking spot. We'd arrived here fairly early in the morning, taking the train from Cusco. It was a fairly pleasant, sedate trip over the hills; the train scales these by a series of switchbacks, so effectively zig-zags up the hill and down the other side. Quite an engineering feat for this country.

Having exhausted the entertainment possibilities of this dump way before 8pm, we decided to get our heads down for an early start in the bus queue the following morning. Arising at 4.30am, it was a good job we had: there were at least 100 people queuing in front of us as it was, and there were another 200+ behind us when the first buses arrived.

It's a quick 20 minute ride up to the summit, and we passed through the gates in the first 100...thereby gaining access to Wayna Picchu at the far end of the plateau and it's higher viewpoint. There's only a limited amount of visitors allowed to scale this jagged piece of rock each day, and it's worth the early start.

We crossed a narrow ridge and began our arduous climb upwards. How the fuck these little bastards lugged all these pieces of stone up here and built a civilisation is beyond me. Breathing hard, my heart almost jumping out of my chest, I fought my way up the steep route. At times it's almost vertical. My pulse throbbed in my temples, and I was soaked in sweat as I approached the top, making a mental note to get back down the gym on my return to Blighty.

The sight from the top is worth the strain; there's a piece of rock you can climb onto which affords you a full 360° view of the valley, surrounded on all sides by huge jagged peaks. No wonder the Spaniards never found this place...the location is stunning. I think the ruins themselves are a bit of an anti-climax, it's just the setting and the sheer logistics of building this city which impresses.

After the physical trial of Colca, and scaling Waynu Picchu, my knees were burning. Any more of this, and I'd be coming home to a Zimmer frame. But it was pleasing to have a sight so impressive as my last on the trip.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Taxi Drivers

They're not my favourite people back in London. Especially black cab drivers; bunch of wankers, if ever there was one. I rejoice every time I hear a tale of someone throwing up in the back of one. In fact, I may sponsor bulimics to get off public transport and use Hackney Carriages more. Just a thought. A sick one, perhaps.

Deciding not use a bus to get back to Lima and my Rio De Janeiro flight, for fear of missing the bloody thing, I hailed a cab to take me to the airport to buy a ticket with the Peruvian version of Ryan Air. An amiable chap I later discovered to be 75 years old picked me up in a battered piece of shit a scrapyard dealer in Bermondsey would knock back with a disbelieving shake of the head. He laughed as the seatbelt came off in my hand, and off we went in a screech of tormented rubber and accompanying blue smoke. We got chatting; I judge my developing Spanish by how good a chat I can have with a Peruvian cabbie. The usual topics were covered, family, football and places you've been. He told me a little about Cusco and his children. As we sat idling at a set of lights, a creature Mother Nature spent longer than usual crafting sauntered across the road. I grinned, he drew breath sharply. As we set off again, he commented on the size of the girl's breasts. I casually mentioned I prefer the long legs and shapely rear. He smiled knowingly and asked me if I "liked it in the arse"? I took this moment to make a mental note of my surroundings and driver's description in case I was being taken to the kind of back-street bar I'd usually care to avoid. I casually told him I wasn't fussed either way. He roared with laughter and told me, as incredulously as if I'd said I'd never heard of Machu Picchu "But this is the best thing about Peru...the girls are the best in the world, because they love to get fucked in the arse!"

I know a Welshman in Southwest London who'll likely be on the next plane out of Heathrow.

Cusco And Around

We pulled out of dusty Cabanaconde on a bus headed for Arequipa. The nearby Valley Of The Volcanoes would have to wait for another trip. Besides, I'd seen volcanoes all over the Philippines and Indonesia...and once you've seen one, right? The next one would have to be erupting near me to generate a modicum of excitement.

I'd like to have seen more of this region, it is truly stunning. Having arrived at night, it was good to see just how we'd got up here, the bus following the ridges of the valley, at times hair-raisingly close to the edge and the void below.

The bus wasn't as packed as it was on the journey up. We'd obviously been on the last bus from Arequipa via Chivay on the outward trip...as a quick toilet break had us returning to a bus crammed full of locals. Myself and Garfield had had the foresight to leav
e a sweater and books on our seats. Anyone who hadn't now had a ripe-smelling peasant occupying their seat. The smell really was something awful. Simple country folk, maybe...but they have running water, there's no excuse. Happily, this time we had the windows open, and only the odd local to perfume the otherwise fresh air coursing through the bus.

Arriving back in Arequipa, I really was in need of a falafel wrap from Fez. If you visit this gorgeous town, you've got to go there. Muy delicioso, as Speckled would not say. The boys were unsure of whether to accompany me to Cusco; they were all for slowing down a little, and I couldn't blame them. I was on a headlon
g drive for Machu Picchu, and in their position I'd have let me get on with it. But they decided that they didn't want to wait for the weekend to see if Arequipa's nightlife would improve (it wouldn't) so they took a punt and bought a bus ticket with me.

The journey was uneventful, and as morning neared we sensed we were near our destination. Pulling into Cusco's outskirts, the place looked a shithole, to be quite frank. A taxi rip-off took us to the picturesque main square, though. My inquiry to the taxi driver, and mention of the fact it was cheaper in Lima, was met with a nonchalant pointing out that were weren't in Lima. Fair do's, you robbing bastard. Served us right for not asking the price, but we were pretty tired, and not on the ball.

We had a quick wander about, and found a nice little hostel 50 yards up from the main square. We were on the ground floor, our windows looking out onto the narrow cobbled street. The glass was one-way, and reflective on the street side. So it was quite disconcerting that every person who passed appeared to be peering in...in reality looking at themselves. Some even stood and messed with their hair, which was quite amusing if you were stood by the window in your undercrackers. I got on quite well with the family running it, which made the events leading up to my departure all the more bizarre.

It's a beautiful town around its centre, the tiny winding streets leading up into the surrounding hills. Small bars, shops and cafes peppering these thoroughfares. A little touristy, the prices reflect this; it's probably the most expensive place to visit in Peru. I gave up looking for somewhere authentic to eat, and regularly ate at Barney's...a lovely Western place with the best Tuna Melt Salads I've ever tasted. Another place I forget the name of did possibly the worst Indian curry I've ever had the misfortune to guzzle. But as Garfield was fond of saying whilst eating food he wasn't impressed with (almost every meal, actually) "I've paid for it...so I'll eat it."

Cusco is notably for its handicrafts and alpaca wool. It was here that Speckled went a bit mad and started trying to buy every hat in town. It got so we couldn't go for a beer without him being waylaid be every street hawker with a stupid bobble-hat to shift. He was actually binning tee shirts to make room in his rucksack at one point. I did like the fact that Jim looks even more gormless with one on, though.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Julien Donkey Boy & (Near) Death In The Afternoon

Along with the obvious Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon was top of my list of sites to visit in Peru, if not South America. The former is easy to get to from Cusco. Colca, on the other hand, is a bone-jarring 8 hour bus ride from Arequipa.

Arequipa itself is a lovely little city which feels more like a town, seated at the base of the Misti volcano. The colonial old buildings are stunning, as is the city’s main square, Plaza D’Armas. It's a tourist magnet, Western restaurants and older Westerners people dotted about; the prices reflect this demographic. Incidentally, I had the best falafel ever tasted here (though I’ve yet to visit North Africa) at a place called Fez (very imaginative).

We saw little in the city itself, bar an England game and the famous Ice Maiden. The former was uninspiring and dull. The latter is the frozen remains of a young Inca girl who was taken to the top of the volcanic mountains (no mean feat today, and they went barefoot) and sacrificed to pacify the angry spirit. The story is a moving one; you watch a fairly interesting film before being shown round the remains and artefacts found at her death site. Garfield and myself exchanged worried looks when Speckled peered into the chilled glass cabinet bearing the girl’s remains and muttered “I think she’s quite fit, actually”. Whether this disturbed me primarily because the girl was estimated at 13 years old, or because she’s a withered frozen corpse in a display case, I couldn’t quite make my mind up. Either way, we needed to find Jim a woman. And quick.

Colca is not the place to find one, but we were here for the Canyon. A drab settlement around a small, deserted town square, the place isn’t going to win any awards for aesthetics. But a few hundred yards beyond the town’s borders is a vertical drop to take your breath away. Several miles long, and a full kilometre deep at its greatest depth, this canyon truly is breathtakingly beautiful. Small villages perch precariously on its slopes, and a river meanders through its floor. At one end sits the Oasis, a tiny set of huts (dirt floor…wipe your feet on the way out) and a solitary bar/ kitchen. From the top the pools are blue dots, the inhabitants invisible. It’s big. Twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, in fact.

We actually went the wrong way about the trek, and descended the way you are supposed to come up. The path zig-zags sharply up the side of the valley in an almost vertical climb. Hard work judging by the faces of those coming up, but nothing like myself and Garfield would suffer the next day. The Oasis is a peaceful spot to spend an evening, even if it is run by the most miserable bastard you’re ever likely to encounter in Peru. He cheers up by the late afternoon, but in the mornings he looks at you like he’s caught you shagging his sister (when it was his turn). He redeemed himself the next morning by making one of the best pancakes I’ve ever had. Well it would have been, if I hadn’t put salt on it instead of sugar. Wiping it off and covering it in jam couldn’t take the taste away. A bad omen for the rest of the day.

The lily-livered Yorkshireman, otherwise known as Speckled Jim, was barely out of camp when he spotted some donkeys for hire. I’d shared a joint with Speckled on the descent the day previous, we had a break near a large human turd and enjoyed the view (of the canyon…not the turd); he’d complained it was hard going, and thought he may hire a donkey to get back to town. Hard going? Downhill? No wonder these lot lost the War Of The Roses, even after enlisting the help of the French and Welsh armies. If Churchill had been from Leeds, we’d all be saying Sieg Heil instead of Good Morning, these days. We left Jim to start some hard bargaining with the donkey man (ie. He gave Jim an extortionate price and Jim said “OK”) and set off walking. We were across the river and halfway up the far side of the valley before Hopalong Cassidy came into view.

It was hard going, and we passed through a couple of villages on thankfully level ground. I bought water but, since we’d just had breakfast, we didn’t think to buy supplies such as chocolate and bananas. Big mistake. We passed several people coming the other way, including a German couple in full hiking gear and boots. They looked us up and down, particularly Garfield in his Converse pumps and houndstooth trousers, and asked us how far we were going. When we told them all the way back to town, they said it was a long way, and that they’d broken the journey by staying overnight in a village. Obviously thought us a little mad. Mad Dogs And Englishmen, and all that (brave Yorkshire folk excepted).

Descending towards the bridge back over the canyon, I begged some pain-killers from a passing group. My knees were absolutely shot-at, I know how a retired Third Division footballer feels now (except my tan wasn’t from a sunbed). Soldiering on like the valiant Lancastrian I am, we reached the river before Speckled and began the climb. It was truly daunting. A third of the way up and we were guzzling water like there was no tomorrow, sweat pouring off us. Speckled passed us on his donkey, filming on his camera and mocking the "Foolish Lancastrians". Can’t argue with that one but, as I pointed out as he passed, us Lancastrians would be leaving our footprints in the dust, not hoofprints. So, technically, Jim didn’t do the Colca Canyon. Don’t let him tell you otherwise, Mr Duncan.

The climb got steeper. And steeper. As we rounded each corner and thought it impossible it could get any worse, it got worse. The closer we got to the face, the more it seemed to stretch away. We got the shakes from a lack of blood sugar. I’d have swapped North End gaining promotion this season for a Snickers (I'm lying, but I'll be long dead before they're promoted, anyway...so chocolate it is). Having to stop every hundred yards for a break, I was close to giving up. Don’t think I’d have lasted long on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, to be honest: “Can we stop for a rest and tea and biscuits, cruel Japanese man?” Garfield, being a bit fitter, was ahead most of the time: I was relying on him to force me to keep going. When he started flagging, it was time to worry. Our exchanged glances betrayed the first inklings of fear and despair. “We’re the kind of idiots you read about in the paper dying on mountainsides” he noted grimly. At least we still had our humour, eh? After a while we passed a large group, and a generous Frenchman gave us some biscuits. Rescued. By a Frenchman? Don’t tell anyone...please

By the time we reached the plateau, our relief was palpable…and, needless to say, mutual. We were barely shuffling along by this point, and could see the town a mile in the distance. Now on level ground, survival achieved, my brain acknowledged the aches and pains previously blotted out; blisters on my feet like 50p pieces. Speckled came upon us sprawled outside the first shop we’d come across, shovelling biscuits and chocolate into our mouths as quick as we could swallow it. He’d come to find us, bearing extra water, and looked relieved we’d made it. Apparently he’d asked his guide/ donkey owner what time he reckoned we’d make it back; he’d just laughed and drawn his hand across his throat in a slitting motion.

Speckled’s Dad will be mortified by his son’s lack of fortitude. Shame on you, Jim. I think the funniest thing for me is the fact that Jim’s a self-titled “Master Trekker”. He’s seen Nepal and made various hikes in India, and even brought his special boots for this trip: then used them to walk downhill, hiring a donkey for the real work uphill. We’ve given him that much stick that he started writing an email telling “the truth” while we were on the bus out of there.

A Bus With A View

Peru truly is a geologist’s wet dream. The variety of form in the scenery is staggering. In one trip from Nasca to Arequipa we viewed the full range. Hugging the coast, I watched the violent Pacific crash against deserted beaches, the bus winding higher and away from the shore. Winds whipped the dust from shifting red Martian sand dunes, howling through craggy passes of dramatic, seamed rock face. The colours changed by the minute as the sun dropped from the sky. We climbed ever higher, the reds giving way to greens as we left the coast.

Almost devoid of life, tiny villages dotted our way to the mountain region. Darkness fell, as solitary spectral figures scurried between shelters in the fading light. I pondered life in such a place. Far different from ours, that much is obvious. But do these people envy what we have in the West, or make do with what they have and simply be happy with a healthy family and a simple life? I know which would make most sense, and which is preferable. After all, you cannot buy happiness, despite what the advertisers would have you believe; but is ignorance bliss? I couldn’t say.

You pass these places a ghost in a window. Catch an eye. Receive a smile; a raised hand; a nod. Fleeting connections with people you’ll never know. Or have a chance to. I often wonder what they think when they smile back? (What’s that fat Gringo looking at?) I think the real way to travel is by motorbike; next time I’ll be able to stop and ask. I’ve had rudimentary conversations with a broad spectrum of locals on my trip through South America, and I’d like to know more, certainly once my Spanish improves further. As far as the simple pleasures of travel go, there’s nothing better than chatting to a dusty local in a far-flung corner of Peru.

Forward Planning

Well, the trip’s not quite over…but (call me greedy) I’m already planning ahead. I’ve had a few mails from my Instructor in Coron, asking when I’ll be back in the Philippines, and if I fancy a job guiding on the wrecks? Certainly do, Gerd. I set off on this trip aiming for three things: passable Spanish, a Divemaster certification and somewhere else to live. I passed the DM in May, and my Spanish is getting better every day. Two out of three isn’t bad. I’d expected to fall in love with Colombia and stay there, but I wasn’t overly enamoured with the place, or the lame diving. Peru is more interesting…pity about the lack of scuba opportunities, though. So I want to set myself targets for next year now. The back end of this one will likely see me in the Philippines for a few months, and I’d like to work in Barcelona next summer to improve my Spanish before heading for Honduras and the Instructor course. After that my travels will be plain sailing: teaching diving as I go, and writing wherever and whenever I can. Hopefully there are a couple of novels in me somewhere. This last year has shown me another way. I’ll work to live, and see where the road takes me in the next couple of years. The prospect of designing websites for the next few years has lost its appeal. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I want more. A lot more.

Speckled Jim’s Tug Of War

We’d come to Nasca to see the famous Nasca Lines. Supposedly these were made by an ancient civilisation, possibly with help from little green men in flying saucers. Various shapes and designs are laid out across large distances on a desert valley floor…a monkey, a bird, a (laughable) ET-type figure I reckon must have been done years later, as well as various other formations I’ve already forgotten (watch it on TV, instead).

Everyone in Nasca will try and get you to take a flight to see the lines through them or someone they know, it’s the town’s only industry. It’s a pleasant little town, though. We ended up in a restaurant the first night, and a bandanna-wearing chap talked us into using his services. I bargained him down from $80 to $55 for the flight, so we were quite happy with that. Back to the restaurant, the owner began drinking with us…and before we knew it we were heading off to a club with him and a few friends. The bandanna-wearer told the group he couldn’t stay out too late, as his girlfriend would get mad, and she knew Kung Fu. I told the group that he needn’t worry, as he was the Karate Kid. Cue raucous laughter from all, minus the Kid. This would go some way to explaining why we had to walk back from the airfield to town, after our driver buggered off when we were mid-air. Revenge is a dish best served cold, after all?

So, the Nasca Lines are not so impressive. But the flight was great, as I’d never been in such a small aircraft. We taxied down the runway with me in the co-pilot’s seat, almost having to sit on my hands rather than give in to the temptation to press buttons and pull levers (I fought this impulse even more once in the air, as I always hear the “What would happen if I pushed this?” in my head). The pilot was disconcertingly referring to some manual in his lap even as we picked up speed on the runway; he’d later worry me more while flying no-handed, reading another manual and picking his nose. Impressive multi-tasking, or possession of a death wish? You tell me. It certainly put me off shaking his hand later on…keep your mucus to yourself, pal.

But back to the club. There were two girls with the lads, and Karate Kid generously suggested Speckled buy the first round of (vile) cocktails for everyone. On his round it was back to beers. Very generous, indeed. A while later, KK was trying to get me to buy a drink for his cousin. It would have seemed churlish not to, so I did. I found her quite hard work as her Spanish was spoken with a lisp, and she spoke no English…communicating was difficult over the blaring music. Speckled was champing at the bit, and I brought him into the conversation before ducking out. Result. The next thing I knew, she’s got Jim buying her drink after drink, and was astride one of his thighs, rubbing herself up and down it, while chewing his face off. He seemed happy enough, myself and Garfield left him to it with a wink.

I wish I’d witnessed the rest of the evening (well…early morning). The girl got so drunk she kept collapsing in the club, and then told Speckled she wanted to go home with him. The bar owner we’d been out with decided he liked her, too…despite having a girlfriend. KK told him she wanted Jim, and to go, waving down a taxi for him. A tug-of-war ensued, both the bar owner and Jim laying claim to the semi-conscious sex-object. Yorkshire Brawn won out, and the taxi pulled away…the car barely away from the kerb before she was shoving Jim’s hand down the front of her jeans. Understandably, he thought he was onto a winner. Spilling out at our hotel, a drunken Speckled realised he couldn’t quite drag her into a room myself and Garfield were snoring away in. The girl was sick in the street and collapsed again, and Karate Kid decided he’d better take her home. A comedy of many errors which resulted in Jim getting a mere hour’s sleep and no action; he agreed that less cocktails and an earlier club exit would have resulted in less wallet damage and a guaranteed shag. The main thing in life is to learn from your mistakes. And learn he did.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Fending Off The Locals (Men) In Lima















It's sunny in the North of Peru. It's blisteringly hot in the South; in the centre of the country, it's shitty in Lima for 6 months of the year, when a blanket of grey covers the city, hemming in the smog. Think Manchester, but warmer. But it's a nice place, one I hadn't really been looking forward to after my brief stay en route to Bogota from Colombia; I'd only seen it from the windows of the bus transporting us to the Sheraton, and we'd gone through some dodgy neighbourhoods with vagrants and ne'erdowells hanging around shadowy street corners at 3am.

It's large, and spread out...the two key places being the old city, and the newer, shinier area of Miraflores where we opted to stay. Alighting from a very comfortable Cruz Del Sur bus (we took the first class seats, with waitress, leather seats and movies) taxi drivers swarmed around us like the proverbial flies. Now taxi drivers fall into three categories in South America: morose, silent types with scars who you think may rob you; chirpy, happy and chatty types; and chirpy, happy and chatty types who are only like this because they want to get something out of you. Ours fell into the latter category. He chatted away about his love for English football, in particular Newcastle United because of Nobby Solano. Meanwhile he took us to a completely different hostel, telling us the one we chose was miles away from town. We insisted, and conversation understandably dried up. He pretended to call our hostel, and then said it was full until tomorrow...we said we'd take a look anyway. Naturally, we arrived and they had room for us. Lying shit. As Garfield and Speckled settled in, I checked mails on the computer. The owner approached and asked if the taxi driver had recommended Inka Wasi Hostal? I told him No, and explained what had happened. It turns out that the cheeky bastard, after us not going to the first hostel he obviously got commission from, had decided he'd tell our man that he'd brought us here, and earn that way. He was still outseide, demanding his fee. You've got to admire his balls. Not literally, of course...that would be horrible.

First morning there I met a friendly Dutch fellow I’ll call Gene Wilder, as he was the spit of the Willy Wonka actor. I originally thought of Mick Hucknall but, not only was this quite insulting as the man is a tosser, but the Gene Wilder thing came to me in a flash when we were out for a pint one evening. The funny thing about Gene was that, despite being fluent in Spanish after 9 months on the road and a few years of study back home, he didn’t have the nerve to chat the local girls up. They are all happy to talk to you, but it helps if you speak their language, as a lot of them don’t speak ours. If myself, Speckled and Garfield had had his linguistic skills, we’d probably still be in Lima, no doubt happily shacked up. There was one waitress in a bar he was mooning over, and was too scared to say anything…we all found this hilarious. She was smiling and giving us all the eye as she passed, but he bottled it again and again. Deary me.

I had more trouble fending off the boys. Deciding on a haircut in the Larcomar Mall, I was guided to a seat by a handsome young lad I quickly assessed was gay. My Gaydar works just fine, and the coy smiles as I told him what I wanted (haircut-wise) told me everything I needed to know. This and the fact that the head massage, as he washed my hair, was completely over the top. They’re usually quite relaxing, but this lad was obviously enjoying rubbing my jaw, neck and even rolling my earlobes between finger and thumb. I’d have been reaching for the Mace had he gone any lower than my shoulders. He didn’t speak a word of English, but I managed to tell him how I wanted the wig adjusting…and we had a good chat about Lima, travel, England and the like. Good practice in Spanish for me. He asked if I was single, and told me he didn’t like women. No…really? We shared similar tastes in music, and he told me about a club called Downtown I should check out if I wanted to escape the ubiquitous Reggaeton.

Speckled had a date one evening, with a girl he’d met in a club after myself and Garfield had headed for home. Garfield had been chatting to a very sexy young woman earlier, and had been invited to another club. Her disapproving friends had other ideas, and disappeared with her when he went to the bathroom. He was downcast, and the girl I had been chatting to had left after giving me her number; so no point either of us hanging around. So the following evening, we hit the town on our own as Speckled went on his date (met her at McDonalds…who said Yorkshire folk have no class?). Having no joy on the decent music front, we elected to head for Downtown. Once inside, we had a quick wander. Lots of people introduced themselves and asked where we were from. We decided that the place was a bit of a Sausage-fest, but had a good atmosphere. On heading upstairs, we quickly understood why. A couple of girls were snogging the faces off each other on the balcony, and I just people-watched for a while. It was only when I saw the cloakroom queue that the penny finally dropped: young lads were checking their t-shirts in and walking around bare-chested. Ah…so that’s why it’s my hairdresser’s favourite club?

The only problem you have in Lima is with the beggars; usually women with semi-drugged kids. We’d wandered into an ice-cream parlour one day for Garfield to get his fix. We sat and watched Speckled, who is the softest touch you can imagine, handing some change to one of these wretches while he finished a cigarette. Well that was it…there were five of them swarming around him, outstretched hands in his face. He escaped into the relative safety of the café, but they followed him in. A burly security guard threw them out. “See what you’ve done, Jim?” we chuckled. The next thing we knew, there were hands thrust through the bars in the windows in our faces. Security man was straight over, slamming the blinds one by one. It was like that fairground game where creatures pop up out of holes, and you have to bash them with a mallet. “Your fault this, Jim” we sniggered to a red-faced Speckled, who grinned sheepishly.

Making Decisions Crossing The Peruvian Border

We took an International Bus from Machala in Ecuador, to Tumbes in Peru. This border crossing is notorious for robberies and scams, as there is a 2km No man's Land between the two border outposts. In this dead zone, people have supposedly been disappeared or robbed of everything they own, left stranded without a passport between the two countries. The bus we took solves this problem by waiting for you at each point of exit and entry. A relief.

While crossing this godforsaken shithole, I was making notes, checking bus schedules and consulting my map of the continent. With only a few weeks remaining, I had to decide where I was going to head for, and where I'd leave out. The original plan had been to see some of Bolivia before heading to Rio for a couple of weeks' diving on the way home. Due to time and huge distances, this was now looking unlikely; unless I wanted to be on and off buses everyother day. And believe me...I don't. Peru is full of interesting places, probably the country with the best topography and historic ruins: the birthplace of the Inca Empire, after all. So I decided that Bolivia will have to wait for another trip, and Rio will be a few days on Ipanema Beach at best...I'll need the rest, to be honest. I'm gutted I won't see the Solaar Di Uyuni saltflats, race down the World's Most Dangerous Road on amountain bike, or visit the highest city in the world, La Paz. But they've been there for centuries, and I'm sure they'll still be there next time I visit.

Even spending 3 weeks in Peru would not quite do the place justice, but it's better not to rush around and feel like a package tourist. The lakes and mountains of the Huaraz region are said to be stunning, but sounded similar to the Colca Canyon as far as natural beauty goes. They're a little more difficult to access, too. I asked the Limeña who ran our hostel in Mancora which she would do if she had the choice of only one. She told me Colca was stunning, and that the Arequipa region around was beautiful. Mind made up for me, then.

Mancora was a pleasant enough town to unwind in for a few days. We'd intended to surf here, but there were no waves...just a stiff wind. The kite surfers were happy enough, the rest of us had to be content with sitting on the beach. This place is supposedly where the Peruvian Beautiful people come to holiday: we were obviously here out of season. Still, I had some of the fabled sea food here...the tuna was delicious.

Not so delicious was the vegetarian lasagne ordered by Garfield and Speckled one evening. It turned up, and Garfield dug in. Puzzled, he stopped mid-bite...and began to dig through the layers of pasta. Tomato sauce, and not much else. "Where's the fucking veggies?" he demanded. the waiter was duly called over, Garfield muttering "These people have to learn." The waiter fumbled through an excuse and fetched the manager, who duly delivered the best, and most outrageous, culinary excuse I've ever heard: "We liquify the vegetables." They blend them so that you don't have to make the effort to chew? Brilliant, and most unlikely. He was sent away, as was the food. Not the first food-related disappointment, and certainly not the last.

Speaking of disappointments, we decided to spend an afternoon at the mud baths 12km out of town. The tricycle driver took us through a meandering, extremely bumpy wasteland of grim brown hills and dead trees. So far, so bad? It had better be worth the trip, I thought as my spine was jolted by yet another pothole. We expected some hot springs, and a mud pool in a scenic spot: we actually got a steaming pool of silt at the bottom of a concrete bunker, full of human hair and fuck knows what else. "This is it???" I asked the driver, as he stretched out for his hour of doing nothing while we bathed. We both laughed as he nodded enthusiastically. Speckled found it just as amusing, and pointed out that we were here now, so just get on with it? Get on with it we did, splashing around and throwing lumps of stinking sulphurous mud at each other. The fine mud is (allegedly) good for facials, and we smeared this reeking mess all over us. Hopefully it did us some good? It has to be noted that Yorkshire folk are known for their aversion to soap and water, but give them a pool full of dirty water, and they're straight in there as if there was a prize for being first?

Book Wars, Baños And Beyond

We exhausted our possibilites in Quito and decided to head off. I liked the city, despite the dangers. It's reputedly a great place to learn Spanish, too (the language is more traditional Castillian Spanish, and they pronounce things more clearly than the Colombians)...so if I'd had longer on the continent, I'd have done a course here for a month. Another bus journey on the cards, it was time to exchange some books. The biggest bookshop in town is Confederate Books, run by a fat American chap with a very good selection. He seemed OK, if a little aloof. His opinion of the English Bookshop up the road was derisory, to say the least. "I don't deal with that guy, and don't like sending people up there." On visiting the other shop, we found a range of classic books in one section...only to be told by the Ecuadorean staff that these for rental only. Rental? It went from being one of the best second-hand bookshops Garfield had ever seen, to the worst...all in the space of 15 seconds. The owner wasn't around but, when he appeared, he was actually a charming bloke. We chatted about England, ex-pat life, Quito Danger, sex-mad local women, and cups of tea. He offered us a cup, proudly showing us a cupboard full of PG Tips. We told him what the American had said, after he'd mentioned the "Book Nazi" down the road. I told him my judgement had been coloured by his comments, and the fact you couldn't buy the best books in this shop. But he explained that the best books don't come in often but, when they do, he sells the copies. Fair enough, I suppose...you don't want a shop full of John Grisham and Dan Brown shite? The rest of the shop was full of that, incidentally. I'd say Confederate has a better selection, if you can put up with the guy's attitude. I think the rivalry is definitely a case of This Town's Not Big Enough For The Both Of Us. But with 7.5 million people there, surely it is?

Books swapped (with the Literary Hitler) it was time for yet another bus. These are really beginning to wear me out. Asia's easy to get around, and the beautiful spots seem to be closer together...South America is infinitely more vast, and spread out. Locals don't seem to travel well, and the way the buses are driven doesn't help: it's a recipe for vomit-related disaster. Twice, myself and Garfield have been sat behind a spewing child or teenager, one covering himself with his breakfast, as well as the headrest and hair of the unfortunate passenger in front. Surely our luck will run out soon, and the kids will be sat behind us? It's the first thing I check upon boarding. In a recent case, everyone moved to the back of the bus as the cheesy whiff spread; the stewardess wasn't helping matters by walking up and down the aisle spraying air freshener...it was only making matters worse and giving everyone a splitting headache. Travelling's a joy: don't let anyone tell you different.

We spent a few relaxing days in Baños, notable for its adventure trips and (crap) spa baths. A ride up the volcano by quad bike was the only excursion we decided on. The weather had been bad the night previous, and the owner at the ingeniously named Adventure Sports told us he'd take us up there by an easier route. He actually meant the road. How exciting? Quads are designed for off-road, rough terrain. I wasn't overly put out, though...the tyres on most of the quads were balder than Speckled Jim. Arriving at the top in a cloud forest, the leader took us to the viewpoint for the volcano. All we could see was a grey wall of cloud. He suggested we climb up to the observation post to get a better view. I declined, pointing out that another 15 feet up wasn't going to make that much of a difference. A little disappointing, but as The Colonel would likely say...once you've seen one volcano...you've seen them all.

Getting back to buses, I experienced one of the few regrets I've had this past year abroad. We were headed for the border at Ipiales to cross into Peru. Two local women got on, with a lad who must have been about 10. Obviously farm workers, judging by their appearance and the aromas tickling my nostrils. They sat at the back, and the kid kept casting sidelong glances at me...obviously curious about this paleface. "Gringo" whispered his Mum, and I smiled at him. I was making notes from my Spanish dictionary, and he was looking into the book. He seemed more tired than I was, and kept nodding off...occasionally leaning into me as the bus bucked and swayed down the highway. Many people have told me that speaking to kids is a good way of practicing your Spanish, and if I hadn't been so shattered then I would have asked him if he'd like to learn a few words of English; maybe showed him how the dictionary gave me equivalent words in English and Spanish. Possibly even given him my copy as a present. I'm pretty sure he didn't attend a school, and it might have been nice for him to have this kind of contact with a foreigner. It certainly would have made the bus ride for me, too. Sorry, kid...I felt bad as you got off.

I did get to practice my Spanish further in a restaurant in Cuenca, though. This city is dull...don't ever go there. It's the third biggest in Ecuador, but was deserted the weekend we were there. I couldn't believe it. Absolutely nothing goes on...we ended up in an empty Austrian bar watching English football on the Saturday night. The restaurant we went to for dinner promised much, accoring to (sigh) Lonely Planet. I stupidly ordered a Thai Green Curry. It was green, I'll give it that, but that's as close as it got. Awful. (First stop when I get home is Highbury's Thai Corner Cafe) But I took solace in the fact that my Spanish is getting so good that I could say I'd travelled through Thailand for 2 months last year, and this was nothing like a Green Curry...and that there was no lemongrass or ginger in it, but I'd eaten it solely because I was hungry. Small recompense for a shit meal, but I'm getting used to it. Shit meals, that is...

Friday, 11 September 2009

Needless Trepidation And Innovative Cocktails

Quito; a city of 7.5 million people in the highlands of Ecuador. Dirt poor in places and, reputedly, very dangerous. It's gaining a reputation very quickly as one of the most dangerous cities in South America. I lost track of the number of people we encountered who told us they'd been robbed, or had stayed at hostels where it seemed that every other person coming through the door had just been done over. Tales of robberies taking place within nightclubs were rife, one fellow I met had had a screwdriver held to his throat while an accomplice had a good look through his pockets. How jolly unpleasant. So to say I was apprehensive about entering the city would be putting it mildly. At least I had Garfield and Speckled for company...if I'd been alone, the evening arrival would have had me wide-eyed with paranoia. Garf can look after himself, and if all else failed we could pick Jim up and use him as a baseball bat to fend off any unwanted attention. I needn't have worried, to be honest. Like anywhere in South America, if you monitor what's going on around you and don't walk around in Cloud Cuckoo Land, then you're fine.

Quito's old town is quaint, and the view from the Secret Garden Hostal's roof terrace was beautiful as night fell. The city is predominantly low-rise, and hugs the contours of a narrow valley 2850m above sea level. Mountains and volcanoes flank both sides of this sprawling metropolis. It's a stunning setting for a city you cannot picture until you see it for yourself.

We stayed at Colonial House around the corner, as Secret Garden was full. But we socialised there, as it seemed to be the be the busiest in the area, and you couldn't beat that view. Drinking up there one night, Speckled and myself switched from beers to Cuba Libres, as he'd said they were good and strong. And they get you pissed quicker than beer. We stood at the bar chatting to the Kiwi barmaid as she beavered (this will become apparent) away with various orders. She passed me the drinks, and we continued chatting. As I put the glass to my lips for the third time, I encountered a foreign object on my lip; I immediately knew what it was.

"Excuse me...but are these drinks called Cuba Libres?" I asked.
"Yes?" she frowned, puzzled.
"I think you may have to rename them" I said, holding aloft the short, dark and curly hair previously stuck to my lower lip "Puba Libres."
"Oh my god" she gasped, obviously horrified (I was strangely calm...travelling has mellowed me, obviously) "I'm so sorry...I'm very sorry..."
"Well as long as it's yours, and not his" I said, gesturing at the hairy trekker-type serving at the far end of the bar.
"I don't know how this happened" she cried, wringing her hands.
"I've got a pretty fair idea."
"Do you want another one?" she offered.
"Another pube...or a drink?"
"Drink!" she laughed, relieved at how I was taking it.
"No, it's fine. Honestly. Besides...it's not the first one I've choked on, and hopefully it won't be the last."

Aside from the stray hairs of strangers, I loved Quito. The old town is a delight to walk around, all cobled streets, colourul buildings and gorgeous plazas; the best of which was Plaza Grande. You could people-watch here for hours, and the photographic opportunities are endless. I sat and chatted with an old bloke as he has his shoes shined, he looking very dapper in his suit and Panama hat. It's a relaxing spot to spend an hour or so. The new town is a little different, and caters more for the tourists. This is also the more dangerous area: locals told us to get taxis between bars, even if it was only a hundred yards away...and never to walk alone at night. We had no trouble at all, though. And the only robbery we heard of while we were there concerned the infamous Ketchup Scam. It works by someone squirting ketchup on your rucksack, then apologising and offering to clean it. An accomplice will usually distract/ hold you as the thief legs it with your gear. Only a bloody simpleton would fall for this one, surely? How many people in London accidentally spill condiments on you in the street?

Another Day, Another Border...

We left Cali behind early one morning, and headed for the border town of Ipiales by bus; not much choice, there being a paucity of train routes on this continent. Buses on this route are prone to bandits, and we decided to stay in Machala for an evening, rather than run that risk and arrive in the inhabited toilet known as Ipiales at 2am. We made the right choice, rolling into the dump next morning. Borders are never the prettiest places, that's for sure. Maybe residents on the borders of Switzerland would argue the toss on that one?

It was relatively painless though, and we were across in no time...running the gauntlet of crooks and money-changers: quicker just to say crooks, really...they all used fixed calculators, apparently. I always make it a point to use all my currency before crossing, and offer the cheeky bastards my coins.

Someone said to me that as son as you cross the border into Ecuador, the place looks completely different. My arse. The only difference I could see was that the women changed from 5'+ stunners, into extras from The Wizard Of Oz who appeared to have been hit in the face with a shovel. The only person I've seen with a flatter face was Feargal Sharkey. We'd been told that Ecuador and Peru were famous for Gringo Hunters; locals of either sex who chase after whiteys for sex. Sounded great, but as we headed for Quito and I gaped open-mouthed at some of the stumpy women crammed in the back of 4x4s and sporting bowler hats, one thought became firm in my mind: I reckoned I could out-run any one of these lot.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Head In The Clouds

I've never been a coffee drinker; always loved the smell of coffee emporiums, but never taken to drinking the stuff. But I've started since being in Colombia, despite the fact afficionados like Jocky tell me that they don't make a cup as well as they grow it. I'm no expert, obviously.

Fletch had told me I must see the coffee-growing region for its sheer beauty. He wasn't wrong. We headed for the delightfully colourful village of Salento, near Armenia. It's a good stop for a day or two of walking, but nothing more. Time has literally stood still in the town; the village clock has been stuck on 5.20pm for the past hundred years. I accidentally kicked a stray dog on a pavement. No yelping, no barking; just one opened eye, a dirty look and it went back to sleep.

We took a jeep from the square for a quid. Apparently, our hostel owner was telling us, three Israeli girls were arguing with the drivers a few days before...trying to get the price down. Needless to say, they didn't make the valley. It's a good few miles to the beginning of the walk, too...you can hardly complain.

Garfield complained about the view, or lack of one, on the way through the dense forest. Once you've seen one palm treee, and all that. We followed the brook all the way to the base of a steep hill, and began the punishing climb upwards. From the top, the clouds prvent you seeing much...but the view on the way back down to the Cocora valley floor stifled Garf's complaints: it was simply breathtaking. The green floor stretches as far as the eye can see, and the hills are dotted with the wax palms native only to this small area in Colombia; you won't see these tall trees anywhere else on the planet. Watching the clouds drift through them like a mist was the highlight of the afternoon. Well worth the effort, and a must if you're in Colombia.

And What A Scummy Man...

I actually like knocking the Israelis more than I like knocking the Aussies (lost The Ashes again, chaps?). Besides, the Aussies are OK really. They don't run over people's houses in bulldozers, after all. And we encountered a corker of an Israeli in Cali.

Cali is notable only for its stunning women, decent Crepes & Waffles cafe and....erm...that's it, I think? We wasted a week there, just to stay for the weekend and a great open-air techno club in the hills called Eliptica. So time it for a weekend if you go, then escape. Aside from that, it's a truly ugly city with nothing going on. Think Burnley in the sunshine, but without the ugly, inbred people walking around.

We took a room at Iguana Hostal. Lovely place, and the friendly lady had a private room for us. She went to show us in, only to find the door locked. Puzzled, she went off for the key. We entered to find this Israeli chap on the bottom bunk bed, bent over his small laptop. The landlady said nothing, and he packed up and left the room. Thinking nothing of it, we settled in. Garfield laid on his bed, but soon jumped up.

"My bed stinks of shit."
"You what?"
He sniffed gingerly at the sheets, where the Israeli had been sat.
"Smell it..?"
"I'll pass mate, ta...what do you mean, shit? Like dirty?"
"No, I mean human excrement."

Now Goof's always been one to moan. Jocky said he thought I was a bloody moaner til he met young Garfield. So we're used to him exaggerating the state of things occasionally. He wasn't budging, though...and we started doing the maths. If the guy had a dorm room here, why did he lock himself in an empty room he had no right to be in? What was he looking at on his laptop? Why did this require a locked door? And how could you get a smell like that on the sheets if you hadn't had your shorts down?

To mine and Speckled's amusement, Garfield stripped the bed and turned his mattress over. He disappeared for a few minutes, and returned to say he'd told the landlady in broken Spanish and using a wanking mime "My bed. Este hombre, el erm...y'know" and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. We thought he was joking; he wasn't. She came in soon after with fresh bedding, making throttling motions and saying "I kill that guy". We fuelled the fire, saying "Internet, hmm? Pornografia? Hombre mancha..." (dirty man). She laughed. Obviously, we told all and sundry at the hostel...despite the lack of hard (ahem) evidence. He got a few funny looks and, despite us bumping into him a couple of times, he never spoke or met our gaze...guilty conscience?

Fear And Loathing In Amsterdam

My mate Fletch likes the anecdotes about my Dad, so here's another one. And while I'm on about drugs, this tale is worth telling. Dad's retired, so he won't get into trouble at work. Besides, he has a ponytail at 60, so everyone trusts he was a hippy, anyway.

Dad was anything but a hippy though and, when he found a bag of grass me and our Scott had when I was 21, he hit the fucking roof. I remember a few desperate minutes as he examined the bag in the locked bathroom, worrying it was going down the toilet. We got it back, Dad deciding that, if we must smoke, we had to do it in the garden or garage so we wouldn't get trouble with the Old Bill. Occasionally he'd potter around the garage while we did so, moving stuff around pointlessly. Scotty grinned at me, and we offered Dad a puff. He declined, but one day gave in and said he'd like to try it. A few curious puffs and a Don't Tell Your Mum later, he was back in the house. Despite his claims it did nothing, my laughing sister soon appeared from the house...asking if we'd given Dad a smoke? Apparently he was up a set of stepladders, unscrewing and polishing the lightbulbs...claiming they must be dusty, as the house was "dim".

And so to Amsterdam. He convinced Mum to go for a weekend away. In his first coffeeshop, he bought two joints. Mum hates smoking, so the owner gave her a hash cookie, along with strict instructions to do half and wait to see how it affected her. Did she listen? No...she got peckish and ate the other half soon after. Oops. So Dad's nicely mellow and well on his way. Mum's saying nothing was happening. They headed for a Chinese restaurant and ordered some food.

"Don...those people are looking at us."
"Eh?"
"Don, those people over there are talking about us..."
Dad assured her it must be the cookie. Mum denied this, but was convinced that everyone laughing in the place was laughing at them, or talking about them. The room started tilting, and everything started slowing right down until people were speaking as if on a videotape about to be chewed up in a VCR. I think it sounded brilliant, but Mum was clearly terrified.

The food arrived, and Dad's stomach growled as the steaming noodle aroma tickled his weed-heightened nostrils. Mouth watering, he lunged for the chopsticks. Mum stood up, almost knocking her chair flying, and announced they were leaving. Adamant she must go immediately, Dad had to leave and put her to bed...enduring hunger pangs for the rest of the evening.

Dad'll have the occasional smoke with me and my brother. Mum's off it for life. The worst thing about the story is, they can't remember which coffeeshop they bought the cookie in?

More Coke Tourists

A Colombian named Carlos hung around the hostel. A nice bloke with perfect English (he chose to speak like an Englishman, despite his US education), we had a few decent chats with him. He hated FARC and Pablo Escobar with a fervour; he also despised the Coke Tourists. We talked about Escobar's days, and as we did so a couple were audibly planning a tour of his properties, to culminate in snorting a line of coke off the evil bastard's tombstone. At the mention of his name, the girl tried to join in our conversation, telling Carlos that what he was saying was very interesting. He blanked her, not even looking in her direction.

But if ever there was a man cut out for a Don't Do Coke, It Turns You Into An Arsehole worldwide advertising campaign...it was the Australian we met on the porch of the hostel one night. Continually sniffing, and moaning about how we'd won The Ashes again. We pointed out that it wasn't over, and at the time England were on the ropes at Headingly. He didn't listen. Babbling on about Bali, I slipped in the guaranteed wind-up for Aussies: the fact that most young Australians actually think Bali is a country. He obviously bit, and started ranting about sticking a broken bottle in my throat. This despite the fact he didn't have one, whereas I had a heavy Coke bottle in my hand. Resisting the intense temptation to smash it over his head, I ignored his theatricals and waited til he cooled down. The broken bottle theme continued, and he told us a tall story of how he chased a thief in Bogota to retrieve $10 a girl had had stolen from her. Apparently he threatened the guy with a bottle, despite the guy wielding a meat cleaver over his head. I struggled not to laugh as he rambled on. Tico came out on the porch and hovered for a few seconds before retreating into the hostel. Either even he was shocked at the bullshit level, or thought he couldn't compete?

Tico The Mystic Man

Wild Bill was in Medellin when we arrived, and he told us all about the drugs available; I was surprised there were any left after he visited. Cali dealers must have been ordering their new BMWs within days of his arrival. A Colombian named Tico lived in the Black Sheep, apparently...Bill told me to have a word, and described him. He wasn't hard to spot, wandering round the hostel with guitar or bongos and acting like he owned the place. Fancies himself a rockstar, methinks. Openly rolling a joint as I approached him upstairs, he nodded. Speckled Jim sat a few seats away, and one German girl was enjoying lunch. Seeing the coast was clear, I had a quiet word.

"You're Tico, right?"
"Yeah man" he drawled in a throaty New Yoik accent. Obviously been away a while.
"Bill said you could get me some grass?" I said quietly, leaning forward.
"Oh...maaaaan..." he said, leaning back into his seat. "You just fucked up..."
For the next 30 seconds, what he said wasn't altogether intelligible...he mimed various actions, from a gun to his head, a throat-cutting gesture, tapping his temples, zipping his mouth and wincing. All the while he was muttering in his put-on accent (Garfield heard him on Skype one day, speaking normally). I turned a pulled a "does this mean Yes or No?" look at a bemused Speckled Jim a coupleof times during this charade. When Tico was done, he explained that the hostel-owner´s wife had walked past as I whispered to him (a good 20 feet away, and down a flight of stairs...she wouldn't have heard if I'd shouted the question). Then he told me to meet him in the garden in half an hour.

I waited outside, there being a few other people reading and eating. Tico walked out and asked me how much I wanted. In front of everyone. Then sparked up his joint. Don't tell anyone, eh?

The grass was very good indeed, best we'd smoked in a while. After a night out, we were on the balcony when Tico turned up with Tom. He started strumming the guitar, and I asked him what he could play; he snorted that he didn't play other people's music, and started playing one of his own. "Ahhhh...Mystic Man" nodded Tom sagely, closing his eyes. "Mystic Man" echoed Tico with a faraway look, and began to sing his dreadful ditty. For the next two minutes, myself and the boys exchanged understanding looks. Speckled fought a grin, and I had to bite the inside of my lip before he set me off. I couldn't bring myself to look at Garfield, as a sardonic smirk was already creeping across his face. Speckled broke first, and I started giggling too. Tico played on, unperturbed. I just told him the weed was really good.

Speckled stayed up after myself and Garfield departed...only to come in half an hour later. Apparently the conversation had degenerated into a Bullshit-Off. Tico casually mentioned some band he'd toured with; Tom namedropped people he'd jammed with. Tom mentioned he'd been in the Army; Tico trumped him with a stint in the Marines. Jim disappeared before the words Back In 'Nam were uttered.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Wild Bill & The Coke Tourists

I'm not averse to drugs, and am no saint. In fact, I've probably done enough drugs in my time to kill a small horse. Well, enough to send it into space...or turn it a bit mental. It'd at least have enough for a few good nights out in a club. If it could get in, obviously. And I've not been against the odd line of coke now and again (apologies to Mum for further embarrassing drug revelations (her friends read this), as she probably had enough to be going on with regarding marijuana, speed, ecstasy and LSD use (mine, not hers) in previous years). When in Rome and all that...

But if it's one thing that gets up my nose (yes, yes...I know) in South America, it's Coke Tourists. I've met a load of them on the way around, and I cannot fathom why anyone would want to stay in all day sniffing high-grade cocaine and talking utter shit for several hours; hardly attractive, is it? The average cokehead's mantra being "Ah well, enough about me...what do you think about me?" Instant Bullshitter...Just Add Coke. There's nothing wrong with getting out of it now and again, but some folk take travelling to whole new levels of pointlessness. I've asked people about certain towns I'm due to visit to be told "The coke's great". Oh, brilliant. And you and did what else, exactly? Nada...

We shared the dorm with Tom, an American obviously on the run from something; family and friends suspected. Tom woke up each morning after rolling in at 5am, with a nice little pick-me-up...and proceeded to snort line after line for the rest of the day, not leaving the hostel...sometimes not even his bed. What a trip, maaaaaan!!? He tried telling us he'd spent $250K in 3 months. At 6 quid a gram, we weren't overly susceptible to his stories. Nice enough guy when he was straight, but get a load of gak up his nose and watch him go.

When in Cartagena, we'd been entertained by a character we nicknamed Wild Bill. Almost 50, this guy could give Keef Richards a run for his money. A lovely bloke, and funny at times, but once he was on it...half an hour of his company was enough to drive you mad. We believe he was responsible for getting the roof terrace at Media Luna Hostal closed for 2 nights; the fact that he was up on said roof for the best part of 2 nights, babbling to himself and doing tremedous amounts of coke when everyone else was in bed didn't really go down too well with staff. He actually got himself locked up there one night, and the security man was none too pleased with having to release this wild-eyed Welshman at 5am. He'd been rapping in lunatic stylee and doing little skits while we sat around open-mouthed this particular evening ("Bill's comedy doesn't always work" his girlfriend whispered to Speckled Jim, almost apologetically). One day the same security guard had sold him 5 grams; Bill told me he'd only asked for one, but felt obliged to buy the lot when the guy pulled a face. On leaving the hostel for a night out at 6pm that same evening, he revealed he'd done 3g in already. His girlfriend, straight as an arrow most of the time, must have the patience of a saint. Either that, or she works in mental healthcare and is used to this. They moved to a hotel soon after that night. Bill told me it was expensive compared to the dorm, so they were going to get a load of coke in and "make the most of the nice room". The last straw at Media Luna was when a pleasant smoke on the roof, enjoying the view, was ruined by a gang of kids off their mash coming over and waffling all sorts of nonsense...culminating in a memory game called "I went to the drug dealer and he sold me..." where you have to add another drug to the previous sentence, and the next person repeats verbatim until someone gets it wrong and is eliminated. A fascinating game we declined to join. Beers and joints were drained, and we headed for the sanctuary of bed.

Dodging F.A.R.C On The Way To Pablo's Hometown

We left Capurgana on the early boat, fending off a sob story from a female Prince Harry look-a-like, all ruddy cheeks and plummy accent, who was bleating on about having to meet a friend in Cartagena that afternoon. The lazy mare hadn't got up early enough to get a ticket for the first boat, and was obviously angling to swap tickets with one of us. She hinted that she had no cash to even bribe the boatmen to let her on the already overcrowded boat. Talk to the hand, love.

Carpugana had been nice enough, but I wish I hadn´t spent my last birthday of my 30s there. And the diving was nothing to write home about, either; nothing much to see...and the highlight of the diving day was chatting in Spanish to the crew about Thai ladyboys (don't ask), English football (and what a horrible little cheat Maradona is) and girls. My Spanish now covers these important subjects. So it was actually nice to escape the border and pull into stinking Turbo before legging it to the bus station muy rapidamente.

We were lucky enough to get a bus ticket to Medellin, leaving in the next half hour. Enough time for a strawberry shake off the street, and a brief chat with a nice old lady. An even briefer chat was had with a lardy local teenager who walked past us with his hand outstretched, mumbling "Money for food...money for food..." through a faceful of crumbs. Think you've had enough, mate. You'd miss Turbo like you'd miss genital warts, to be honest.

Bus boarded, and we were away through the flat plains and into the hills. Soldiers are everywhere in Colombia, a visible deterrent to the Marxist revolutionaries FARC. Well, ex-revolutionaries; since Havana and Moscow withdrew their support, they've become nothing better than murderous bandits who traffic much of Colombia's coke, kidnap the odd Westerner for a few years, or kill civillians. So we were, naturally, keen to avoid them. The forested western coast of Colombia is one place they inhabit, the other being her inpenetrable Amazon Basin. Army units are working to exterminate them, and have a shoot-to-kill policy. The road to Medellin indicated how close we were to the active areas; instead of the odd soldier dotted along the highway every few hundred yards, it was jeeps with roof-mounted heavy machine-guns, sandbagged bunkers...and tanks. More reassuring than worrying, though. Besides, when FARC have ambushed buses, they are known to politely ask the passengers to disembark the bus with their baggage before the vehicle is torched. Jolly good of them, I say...mind if I take some pictures as you set it on fire? Thanks awfully, dear boy.

FARC moved into the vacuum left after Pablo Escobar´s death, and the subsequent fall of the Cali Cartel in the 90s. Before this Medellin, Escobar's hometown, was the centre for cocaine trafficking and responsible for 80% of Colombia's output. Cali handled the rest through direct links with Curtis Warren's mob in Liverpool, who in turn controlled shipments into Europe. Needless to say, it can still be a dodgy place.

The city is actually quite attractive, and the road from the hills into town is a pleasant introduction at night. We'd chosen to stay at Black Sheep Hostal, run by a knowledgeable Kiwi called Kelvin who reminded me of my mate Huw back home. Medllin is known for it's Coke Tourists, and the other hostels had a reputation as "party hostels" (read: full of fucking losers who think visiting Colombia is about spending weeks on end in your room filling your beak with white powder...more on these later). It probably didn't help matters that we'd arrived the night after a week-long flower festival...the city was suffering a collective hangover.

Black Sheep is in a smart residential neighbourhood, a ten minute walk from the bars and restaurants...and only 5 minutes from the Exito supermarket. It took me an hour to buy a tuna sandwich in here one day...the women of Medellin are gorgeous (one girl gave me a shot in a local bar one night, and she was that stunning I was actually frightened to strike up conversation with her...plus the fact her and a mate were with a bunch of dodgy-looking guys; could have been a trap). The plastic-surgery obsession is evident, though...you see a lot of girls walking around sporting bandages across their noses. It's either that, or they have a domestic violence epidemic here? For the first few days we were in an 8-bed dormitory; to say it stank would be an understatement. We badgered Kelvin to give us a private room, and we finally got one for the last few days. He asked me how I liked it: I told him it was like going from being inside the Bangkok Hilton to being inside Paris Hilton. He didn't laugh.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Speak And Spell At the Panamanian Border

Just over the hill from Sapzurro lies the tiny village of La Miel in Panama. We'd walked over to Sapzurro one afternoon after a torrential downpour the previous night; Speckled literally had a mudbath, falling over on the slippery slopes a grand total of three times, while us steady-footed Lancastrians made it up and down incident-free. How we laughed.

We decided to make the trip by boat this time, and hike the steep path up to the border instead. Time was a factor, as were the bizarre inhuman roars we heard from the jungle on the first occasion. We certainly moved a little quicker after that, I tell you. A local diver I asked told me it was a bird. My arse.

We reached the peak separating the two countries, panting hard and pouring sweat. the guards at the top represented both armies, and we waited while they logged us out of Colombia and into Panama. We didn't get a stamp, which was a shame, but there you go. Then they told us to empty our bags and pockets for a search. I tipped out my few belongings and was cleared. Speckled had allsorts with him, and I glanced at Garfield nervously had as he upended his bag...fearing the bag of weed was about to drop out. Thankfully it was back at the room. The Panamanian poked through Jim's stuff, and I suggested he demonstrate the gadget he'd bought before flying out of England.

Speckled's struggling with the language a bit, but he is trying. We'd ridiculed him as a lazy, ignorant bastard for buying a little machine which looked like a cheap iPod: you can't type anything in to translate, it just has a selection of phrases you scroll through and press Play. Hilarious. And bloody useless: the sound quality is awful and features a nasal-sounding American woman guaranteed to alienate anyone you were trying to communicate with. The border guards loved it, Jim giggling as he scrolled through the most amusing featured phraseshad...the best of which being "Can I breast-feed here?" I think it made their day, to be honest...it must get boring up there.

We made the beach, and were the only non-locals there. Well worth the effort, the view is gorgeous. Clear waters in a beautiful bay, we spent a very pleasant afternoon. The Panamanian beer, Balboa, was a treat. I asked the old lady serving us if she knew the film Rocky, and made boxing mimes like pretending to punch my friends. She smiled patiently, not getting a word of it.

A drunken afternoon was rounded off with the inaugural Lancashire v Yorkshire Underwater Handstand Championships: myself against the ungainly, dexterity-poor Speckled Jim. Obviously, being from the same Lancashire town as me, Garfield was the unbiased judge. Lancashire had stormed to a 5-2 victory, when I offered Jim the first to 10. Not fancying his stamina would last, he suggested a best out of three. I smashed him 3-o on that one. Which was nice.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Carpugana & Sapzurro

Tolu had been a break in the journey to our next major destination: the border with Panama. Lured by the promise of beautiful beaches, we had to make our way to Turbo first. It's necessary to spend a night here, as the boats leave very early in the morning. Scouse Mike had warned us about the town. He'd said it was dodgy, and a shitty, shitty hole. Coming from a native of Liverpool, it doesn't bode well, does it? A long drive down a bumpy dirt road by private minibus didn't put us in the best of moods for our arrival, and Mike hadn't been lying. It looks like Toxteth if they'd dumped it next door to Fleetwood. And it smells worse than Fleetwood. When we surveyed the best of the hotels, it was a relief we'd be here just for a night.

After a disorganised boat boarding you won't see the like of outside of South America, we headed out of the harbour. I had tears in my eyes as we left Tolu behind. Not sadness, of course...more the acrid stench of diesel, sewage and stagnant water. El Gato laughed as we passed a couple of local boatmen bathing in the black liquid "Are they insane?". If you fell in here, you'd have more to worry about than drowning, that's for sure.

Our patience was further tested at the Coastguard station a mile out of Turbo. The boat was overloaded, and 2 people would have to get off. Back we went, the Colombians arguing amongst themselves as to who'd be the two unfortunate aforementioned. Luckily it was the people who bought their tickets last. The annoying thing was that, as we pulled up to the Coastguard for the second time, the same man just waved the boat on without doing a recount. Utter waste of time.

Sleepy Carpugana was reached 3 1/2 hours of arse-crunching boatride later. A picturesque enough place, but with a nightlife to almost rival that of Playa Blanca. Empty bars playing reggaeton surround the football pitch which makes up the centre of town, and it seems all there is to do here is sit outside a shop and drink beer. Josefina's seafood restaurant was a great place to eat, but once dinner was done...the vibe was sadly lacking. I had to laugh at the fact I'd spend my 39th birthday here in a few days' time. Rock and Roll it wasn't.

Carpugana was summed up by a conversation El Gato overheard from the trio in the next room.

Man 1 (knocking on door): "Are you asleep?"
Man 2: "No, are you?"
Man 1: "No...what are you doing, then?"
Man 2: "I'm drawing and listening to Iron Maiden."

Should have Listened To Gilbert

No, not about Jesus. About Tolu. Well, to be fair...I listened. El Gato wanted to head over here, as it's supposedly the favourite Colombian holiday town, and the clubs are full of gringo-loving crazy local girls. So we listened to him, instead of a Frenchman who's lived in Colombia 7 years. Big mistake.

The day had started brightly enough, myself and Gato in stitches at Speckled as he informed us his mouth was numb; he'd brushed his teeth in the dark before bed, mistaking his toothpaste for a similar-sized tube of antiseptic cream.

Tolu is a crap one-horse town that time would have forgotten. If it could have been arsed. The irony was, we stayed in the nicest little hostel so far. Spacious, firm beds, overhead fans, and a roof terrace with a large TV. Shame it was in the middle of a dump like Tolu.

To cap it all, we bumped into a couple we'd met a few times previously on the Gringo Trail. Nice enough, but Speckled told me the female half of the duo was bringing him down after a chat on the beach. I'd hardly seen her smile myself, but Jim told me she'd said she didn't actually enjoy travelling while she was in the process of it, but then looked back with rose-tinted glasses once she returned home. Watch a travel program at home with a cup of tea and save us the headache?

They don't get many visitors here, it's a faded resort with little charm. The beaches are, indeed, crap...and the locals nonchalant at best. We walked home after a few beers, and passed a man sitting on a plastic chair in the street outside his house. "Buenas noches" I said, and smiled. he just glared at me as we walked on. Delightful.

Religious Instruction At Playa Blanca

If you're ever in Cartagena, there's a great little creperie you should visit for breakfast called El Gato Negro. It's run by a nice German woman named Elke who's a good source of local information. We'd decided to head for the beaches that afternoon, and over my blackberry crepe and coffee, she gave me details of how to get there and exactly how much to pay for the rides.

Cartagena's local beaches are nothing to write home about, so I won't. Suffice to say they're plagued by hawkers and lads trying to sell you space under shaded awnings at the water's edge. They follow you up and down the beach, and were so insistent that I saw Jocky nearly lose his temper for the first time since I've been away with him.

Myself, Speckled and Garfield (hereafter to be known as El Gato, as everyone in Colombia laughs when they hear his name, and it seems the cartoon cat is far more popular here than back at home) caught a cab to the canal which separates the "island" from the mainland. A short skip across in a paddle-less canoe with two local kids, and a hairy motorbike ride later...we were wandering down Playa Blanca.

Despite what I'd heard, the place wasn't that beautiful. After Tayrona Beach, I thought the place was a let-down. The few places you can eat here cost a fortune, too...a meal and a couple of beers will set you back the best part of a tenner. Scandalous. We made the best of it, though...helped by a nice bag of grass we'd bought in Cartagena before leaving. It was a good job we did, as there is nothing to do in Playa Blanca at night; and I do mean nothing. No bars. The place is dead.

Elke had advised us to stay at Wittenberg, a small hostel and hammock stand run by a friendly Frenchman named Gilbert. We took the dorm, as Jocky had told us he'd been eaten alive by mosquitos when he was here. Gilbert was a nice chap, and we got talking amongst ourselves. I'd seen him with two young lads, all taking turns reading in French. I asked if he was teaching them the language, but he told me they were his nephews...and that they were reading the Bible. He then proceeded to tell us all about the Lutheran religion and how Calvinism had been based in England and we were, therefore, blessed. My usual tactic of avoiding a religious conversation, that of saying my religion is football, did not deter our lecturer any. Speckled, El Gato and myself exchanged glances as the sermon went on. Luckily we escaped after 15 minutes further attempted indoctrination. The other funny comment he made concerned languages; I told him I was studying Spanish, and regretted giving up French at school. He said "Why yes, with English, Spanish and French...you can travel anywhere." Of course...Spain, Latin America, most of the English-speaking world. And France.

After a dull evening, and due to rapidly evaporating funds, we decided to grab a speedboat back to Cartagena the next afternoon. It was worth heading out here just for that ride back; smashing through the swells, cascades of salty water soaking us to the skin. I couldn't see a thing from my seat, I was placed right where the boat was smashing into the waves...even had to remove my sunglasses before they were ripped off by the water.

Before leaving, Gilbert had asked us about our next few destinations. When we mentioned Tolu, he simply told us not to go: the town was dirty and dull, and the beach awful. He'd given us a business card for the hostel, which I tucked in my pocket as we had to dash for the boat. It was only when we got back to Cartagena that I had chance to look at it; more a brainwashing pamphlet on how god supposedly created the world, and that anyone who believed otherwise was a fool who would eventually burn in Hell. Whatever. The hostel owner looked at what I was reading to make the lads chuckle, and said "Ahhh...Wittenberg". News travels fast, eh?

Over yet another crepe the morning we left, I mentioned the booklet to Elke. She nodded and said "You know...the longer he stays out there..."
"...the stranger he gets?" I offered.
She smiled knowingly, refilled my mug of coffee and headed back to the kitchen.

Israeli Vindication

I don't want to come across as some sort of vehement anti-Semite, as I'm not, despite my rants. A mate of mine from London wrote to me pretty much agreeing with what I'd said regarding the Israeli Attitude. She's Jewish, and has had a few problems with them herself when travelling through SE Asia. Conversation with a group apparently stalled when she told them she was Jewish by birth, but an atheist who believed the Palestinians got the shitty end of the stick.

In her mail, she told me a funny story I have to share about her friend Neil Sansom (sorry, mate...Jubes insisted I name you). He was returning from a trek in the Peruvian mountains when he passed a group of Israelis on their way to some sort of hardcore Bruce Parry-esque nirvana. They had an extremely ill girl with them, who they proceeded to dump on Neil without so much as a By your Leave, as he was heading back to town. With not much choice in the matter (the Israelis adapting the story of the Good Samaritan in their own charming way), he set off walking with her.

As the afternoon turned to evening, the girl slipped and fell down a hillside. Neil jumped down after her, and managed to halt her slide. He managed to get her up the slope, at which point he'd realised she'd pissed and shat herself. By the time they'd got to the top of the scree, and back to the road, they'd missed the last bus to town.

Great story, Neil. I'd like to buy you a pint and shake your hand. After you'd washed it, of course...

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Oh, The Irony Of It All...

The dorms at Media Luna hostel are open; no locks, and security is more than a little lax. The main door is always being left open, and the scarred security guy looks dodgier than some of the characters who roam Getsemani's sketchy streets once the sun sets. He's actually offered me coke and weed a few times. It's not a walk in the park around here, so you'd expect a little more vigilance. The hostel's that big that people can wander in and out at will...even those not staying here.

The security guard is always having a nosey around the rooms, seemingly keeping an eye out for the Bad Guys (plenty around, trust me)...but more likely looking for unguarded valuables. I lock all mine away, but had the most ironic theft from my rucksack. There's only clothes and chargers left in there, usually. But someone had a root through one night and stole my steel cable with combination lock, the type you use to lock your bag to something immovable. I'd decided to lock it up after someone had a few bits nicked, and had to laugh after realising that some thieving little bastard (or bitch...might be a lady) had stolen it to prevent his/her own gear getting robbed. Unreal.

I realised it was time to move hostels when a lad reported his phone missing, and a girl had her favourite dress taken. They'll be after Garfield's skiddy underpants next?

Language Barriers

We'd arranged to wait around in Cartagena for the arrival of a friend of ours, Speckled Jim. He's a Yorkshire lad (not his fault), and him and his best mate Mark were a bit of a double-act back in London Fields; in a similar vein to myself and Garfield but without being anywhere near as funny; me and Garf were once described as "Morecambe & Wise without the straight man". Personally, I regard that compliment almost a slur on two comic greats who spent a lifetime honing an effortlesly funny double-act, developed through a near-psychic mutual understanding, and made a massive contribution to British Comedy. But then, I suppose Morecambe & Wise did have the odd amusing moment, too?

The three of us agreed to take Spanish lessons. Jocky decided against it, as he's off to Brazil in a week...and it'd probably get him as far as his Edinburgh burr on Ipanema Beach ie. nowhere whatsoever. I'd learned some Spanish before I came out, using Madrigal's Magic Key To Spanish, and the Michel Thomas CD courses on my iPod. So I can speak un poco, but it's when people start speaking in reply that the problems arise: this gringo can't understand a frigging word they're saying back to me. So it was off to school for me. I opted to join the Nueve Language School in Cartagena, and was placed in a class with a lad possessing the same of incompetence as my thick Northern self. The conversation practice has helped me a great deal, as has chatting to locals in the square about football after my classes.

Garfield knows a little, and Speckled nothing...so they looked up a private teacher mentioned in a few of the guide books, and booked him for a week of lessons. Now Mark used to ridicule Speckled and his cod pronunciation ever since they'd spent some time together in Mexico a few years back. Mark ordered a fruit juice at a cafe one day, and Speckled wanted a fresh tomato drink. He tried saying it four or five times, to looks of mild confusion from the waiter...finally losing his rag and shouting "Zumo...TOMATO!" in his Ilkley-tinted Spanish accent. Now Speckled's not a daft lad, but we were in stitches when he asked us if we put a Spanish accent on when speaking?

I think his best one so far has been replying to a local to say he didn't understand. He mumbled "No entiendo", but it actually came out sounding like "No Nintendo". Of course, we've been repeating this to all and sundry at his expense. We're certainly no experts but, like they say, there's always someone worse off.

He's been getting better though, but two hours a day is wearing him out. Especially with his hangovers. I've found it mentally taxing, even with my knowledge, as has Garfield with his...so poor Speckled is suffering a little. His tutor has the patience of a saint, but has taken to calling him tonto (dumb, fool or idiot) every now and again. Yesterday they sat out in the courtyard, and he asked Jim to form a sentence so that they could practice conversation. Jim said "Quiero vender mi perro", which means "I'd like to sell my dog". Brilliant. So when we walked past we asked, in Spanish, if he had a dog for sale? His tutor grimaced, apparently reaching the end of his tether for the day. But he did nod vigourously and shrugged when I later pointed at Jim and said "Pasayo?".

Poor Speckled; we're so cruel. Pasayo means clown.