Friday, 31 July 2009

Tayrona: Bigmouth, Fackin' Bigmouth...Don Don Don

One place you cannot afford to miss on Colombia's Caribbean coastline is Tayrona National Park. The best beaches are only accessible by a 2 hour hike after being dropped at the park entrance. We headed off on a, thankfully, slightly overcast morning...the heat would have been unbearable otherwise. Especially with the pace myself and Garfield were setting; Jocky was constantly moaning he couldn't keep up. Nothing new for the Scots, eh? Always runners-up (if they're lucky).

Arriving at Cabo beach, the furthest point before the nudist beaches...a good place to stop, we got the usual spiel from the staff when booking in: only the most expensive hammocks were left, it was that or a tent. There's no huts or dorms here, it's back to nature: communal showers, one shit cafe selling overpriced food, the electricity goes off at 11pm, and no hot water. You get by. Some girls who were leaving told the staff we could have their hammocks. I cocked an eyebrow at the cheats, and they shrugged sheepishly; you need to watch this lot.

Hammocks selected, we rested awhile. No need to rush to the beach...the sun wasn't coming out today. A few beers before lights out didn't do much to help me sleep. A noisy group played guitar (badly) and sang (badly) for hours. Or was it days? Aeons? People staggering back drunk pinged into tent guy ropes and hammocks...it wasn't conducive to a decent night's rest. I'm old and miserable, so stop having fun and let me sleep, you fuckers? I think I'll book a SAGA holiday next time. Might get some P&Q.

Sun up and, despite being knackered, we attempted to swallow the muck on offer at breakfast. Utter shite. The local dog turned its nose up at a piece of untoasted "toast" I offered it. Off to sleep on the beach, then.

Cabo is stunning. A tiny peninsula splits the beaches, huge boulders in the pristine sea softening the blows of the onrushing Caribbean. It's a delightful place to sit and do nothing, or swim out and jump off the boulders into the sea. We whiled away a few hours, needing to cool off in the sea every 30 minutes or so. A few Irish lads we met had bought tickets for the boat back, and told us there were spare places. Garfield "Mr Decisive" was left with a casting vote, as Jocky said Boat, I said Walk. By the time he'd decided, all tickets were sold, and a 2 hour walk it was. It's easy to have your mind made up for you. And besides, it's a nice walk, and good exercise when all you've done is drink beer and smoke weed for 10 months.

We'd decided to head off at 1.30ish, and the clock ticked towards 1pm. At that moment we heard a familiar voice from afar. We heard her before we saw her; complaining about the boatman bumping her and her current companions off the list. Bleached hair, Essex accent...this girl spoke on a frequency guaranteed to grate the nerves. Think Jade Goody. We'd seen (heard) her at our hostel in Taganga...sat on a table of 6 girls, none of them getting a word in edgeways for two whole hours. Believe me, this girl can talk. We nicknamed her Bigmouth, or Don Don Don after Ben Kingsley's rant to the bathroom mirror in Sexy Beast. (Don Don Don later proved better, because we could refer to her without her knowing when she was around). So she's walking up the beach in our direction. Jocky's frowning at me, Garfield burying his head in a book, despite there being ample sand around. I look around us, horror dawning on me as I notice a gobshite-shaped, empty patch of beach right next to us. Shit.

Sit down she did, still blabbering on, the girls with her apparently mute and not being given the chance to prove otherwise. Recognising us from Taganga, she started chewing my ear off (not literally, of course...that would be horrible). She asked me to take a photo of her and the girls in the sea, and I obliged. Scanning the results, she asked who the "bald dickhead" was behind them in the shots, making a throttling motion with his hands and gritting his teeth? I informed her that that was my friend and non-compatriot, Jocky. She seemed non too pleased, but we were all amused, obviously.

So off we went, Don Don Don giving us a valid reason to actually fuck off on time for once.

Diving Taganga: Don't All Rush At Once

Judging by my experience here, I'd just say don't. I've probably been spoiled by indonesian and Philippines diving recently. But if you've never dived before, it's a very cheap place to do your PADI Open Water. One or two dive shops also offer the Discover Scuba course free, so you have nothing to lose.

Now I won't name the dive shop I went out with, but any divers can contact me if they'd like more info. Myself and Jocky went out on two dives one afternoon. Things got off to a bad start when each diver's gear was in unmarked bags on the tiny boat, and the computers they'd promised us had not materialised. I asked about them, and was told they were on the way from the shop. The boat set off, and I asked again...the boat driver doing a U-turn in the bay to get them, literally ten minutes after I'd asked the first time.

At the site, I was kitting up. The divemaster asked me why I was loosening the silicone straps while putting on my fins, instead of using the plastic quick-release clips? I explained my Instructor in the Philippines had said the clips were a bad idea, and repeated use wore them out...leading to them coming off when you least expected it. He looked at me like I was a fool, and tried putting them on for me. On turning on my air, a constant hiss indicated an air leak somewhere...and my first stage was still moveable on the tank valve when it was opened...something which shouldn't be possible. But in we went.

The leak didn't seem too bad, and the dive went without a hitch. But to say there was nothing to see would not be an exaggeration; a complete lack of life in places, and a dull, discoloured reef. They'd only given us 3mm suits, and the water was a chilly 23°: we'd been promised 5mm. I was that numb, I didn't think I'd make the second dive...and I don't feel the cold. But after warming up on the beach, we went to the next site. The DM again picked me up on the way I donned my fins and, for the sake of argument, I let him adjust them on my feet using the clips. I jumped in and what happened? Yep...one fin came off and sank down to the bottom. Luckily it was only 5m down. But my air leak was getting worse. The female DM came over to look at it and, instead of getting the gear back on the boat, took the first stage off while we were in the water. Unbelievable...that's one expensive service that bit of kit's due. Satisfied with it, we descended.

On this dive, we were taken between 2 reefs within 20 minutes of commencing the swim. A good third of the dive was spent over sand, trying to keep up with the DM who was streaking ahead. I tried to stay at the centre of the group, as the guy at the rear was only visible by his bubbles. The DM checked on the group a maximum of 5 times on the whole dive; I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I'm no expert, and only qualified in May, but it's basic common sense to keep the group together, surely?

The icing on the cake was when the DM found a spot to send up an SMB (an inflatable devive you send to the surface to indicate your location to the dive boat) and proceeded to partially inflate it. He hovered upside-down, obviusly showing off, and sent it up. It stopped short of the surface by a good 3 metres, and it was a while before he realised this. Too much showboating, and not enough brains, obviously.

We ascended into 2-3 metre swells, the waves tossing about as we awaited pick-up. It's an indication of the quality of the experience that this was the most fun part of the dive. To cap it all, the curt female DM nearly broke my wrist with the weight belt as I handed it up...dragging it off me and banging my hand against the edge of the boat. Jocky and I exchanged glances and shakes of the head as we clambered aboard. He said I was overly critical, but I said it's no bad things to gave standards...especially when it comes to an activity like diving: you want people around you whom you can rely on.

I think the staff were surprised when we turned down the chance of a night dive and further diving the day after. They shouldn't have been.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Israeli Infestation At Building Site Beach

My French friends know that I love them dearly, and know that I only knock their race tongue-in-cheek. They are quite rude sometimes, and arrogant (the French, that is...not my French friends). But the Galls possess that chic which allows them carte blanche at times. Not so the Israelis; this lot are something else. I've seen them blank solo travellers attempting to infiltrate their tight-knit groups, aggressively block any non-Israeli from speaking to any girls in their groups, and one bunch in Saigon loudly berate and abuse an old lady for daring to get one of their meals wrong in her cafe. I ruined any notions of sex with one that Jocky entertained whilst we were in Hoi An, Vietnam. He was quite happy to sleep with a Bulldozer Driver, but my slight digs about the Gaza Strip and flattened Palestinian homes escalated into a full-blown row with her, and the flames of passion were extinguished there and then. He still claims I owe him for that: I told him he owes me for not letting him shag the arrogant bitch. Run her over in her own bulldozer, yes. But sex? No.

The Israelis you meet alone or in pairs are a different matter altogether. I encountered a decent chap named Or when in Thailand who was quite embarrassed about his country and its foreign policy. Of course, I told him not to worry...it was my country and America who gave them the land in the first place, starting the current mess. Another couple of musicians I met in Ha Long bay were pretty cool, too. A mate of mine knew an Israeli travelling with a Canadian flag on his rucksack, as he was embarrassed by the way his people conduct themselves while travelling.

Now I'm no anti-Semite. I just don't like people who have a massive chip on their shoulder, and hang around with like-minded people from their own part of the world: it doesn't create a healthy, friendly atmosphere.

We arrived in Taganga, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, looking to dive and relax on the beach awhile. Following the road down from the hills, it didn't look promising: the beach is grey dust full of stones, and the front is crammed full of crusties. Israeli crusties. This was going to be painful. Dreadlocked, wearing the same clothes every day, and trying to sell all manner of beads and crappy woven bracelets, this group make up the greater part of travellers in Taganga. They don't mix (good) and hang out in front of the biggest shop on the beach, a place we nicknamed Crusty Corner. They'd eye the non-kosher travellers as they walked by...and it was't just us who noticed it.

Apparently they come here after their National Service (they do 2-3 years) as it's miles from anyone who'd want to throw stones at them, or blow them up. Seems fair enough, just leave the military attitude at home, please...you're not in the Golan Heights now. A trio of girls we spoke to told us they'd been officers, and had just finished. Judging by the physical condition of them, they can't work them very hard...they wouldn't have even fit into British Army uniforms, never mind passed the physical. They bragged about their ranks, and I bit my lip so that I wouldn't be tempted to ask them "So...how many unarmed Palestinians did you kill?"

At least the locals are great in Taganga...the Casa Blanca cafe on the beach was a favourite hangout of ours; the smoothies were unreal. We'd sit outside on the beach and drink them, fending off the vendors. An attractive American girl tried selling us her bracelets, and was quite chatty. Jocky's eyes lit up while mine scanned her hairy legs. He'd not noticed a thing, and was getting along quite nicely with her...until she ran her fingers through her hair, revealing an armpit that looked like she had Angela Davis in a headlock. Nasty. A shocked Jocky was relieved when she wandered off. No Sale.

Nearby Santa Marta isn't a bad night out but, on a Wednesday, El Garaje (The Garage) in taganga is where you have to be. The music is a bit hit-and-miss (and more miss, at that) but the view is amazing. The club is open air, and several trees dot the courtyard. It's very cosy and intimate. Being raised 2 feet above floor level, the dancefloor is a perfect height for watching the girls dance: their bums being at eye-level when you're sat down drinking a cold beer. Garfield, Jocky and I just grinned at each other as the local girls shook their shapely rears to the music, which ranged from the awful Reggae-ton to classics like the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams. Some of these girls were seriously hot. A jolly pleasant evening all round, if you ask me. Our mate Mike, who works for Lonely Planet, has assured us that the sexiest girls are in Medellin and Cali. If that's the case, and they out-shine this little lot, I think I may burst into tears when I get off the bus...

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Parapenting San Gil

After the paranoia of Bogota, and a sore neck from constantly looking over your shoulder at night, it was a pleasure to board a bus to San Gil. A half hour down the road, the crackheads and muggers were a fading memory. Slums gave way to wide roads and rolling verdant hills as we made our way North through the Sierra Nevadas.

San Gil is a sleepy little place where nothing much goes on. It nestles in a small valley a few hours out of the capital. There isn't much in the way of nightlife, and the restaurants are a bit limited if you don't like eating a whole animal off a skewer. It doesn't see a great deal of tourism either, but is a centre for extreme sports...you can do anything from parapenting to white-water rafting for a reasonable price here. We elected to stay a few days and take the parapenting option, which involves being strapped to a guy with a parachute, running off a mountainside and then riding warm currents of air as high as you can. Sounds mental? It is.

Heading up to the large canyon an hour out of town, Garfield was still undecided about whether to take a flight or not. He's never liked heights at the best of times, and floating a few hundred metres above a windswept mountain range was probably not going to happen, but I suspected (hoped) he might give in and try to conquer his fears. Never that good at making decisions, though, is Garfield; he used to be indecisive, but now he's not so sure.

Jocky agreed to go first. The pilot and his assistant strapped him into his harness, his position being in front. The parachute was lifted, billowing as the wind caught it, dragging them a few metres backwards. Steadied, the pilot shouted to run. Jocky's stubby little legs were going like a cartoon character's as they made the short run off the ridge, and pedalled thin air as they dropped into space. It looked amazing, and I couldn't wait to get up there. I turned to see Garfield frowning at the rapidly ascending Scotsman and biting his nails: no chance was he going up there.

I kitted up as I watched Jocky rise higher and higher, the pilot riding the thermals which surround the ridges, until he was a good 400 metres up. Daunting, but exciting. My turn next. Strapped in, and I had to perform the same comical run baldy had done before me. I couldn't stop laughing as we headed for the edge...partly from nerves, it has to be said. But the feeling as we dropped off into nothing was incredible. Ronaldo, the pilot, quickly turned into the columns of warm air, and up we went...twisting and turning higher and higher as condors and hawks flew around us in curiosity. I imagine they thought us mad...I was certainly having a few doubts about my own sanity in this undertaking as the people watching were reduced to specks in the dustbowl below. Thankfully, the promises "stunts" the guys sometimes perform were not offered: I'd have said Yes so as to avoid any ribbing from Jocky, despite being bloody terrified. I spent most of the flight hanging onto the harness with white knuckles, though I wouldn't have fancied my chances of clinging to life for a long descent should anything have given way.

Relieved when Ronaldo told me we were heading down, I raised my feet and watched the ridge (and people stood on it) gain in scale rapidly...bracing myself for the bone-crucnching impact and cloud of dust as we hit solid earth. Shaking with adrenalin when I got to my feet, I couldn't contain a huge grin. Jocky was already down, still trying to convince Garfield to go up...but he insisted it would have been a trial rather than a pleasure. No point wasting the money if so.

If you're ever up that way, I'd highly (no pun) recommend this experience...the view of the mountains was breathtaking, there's nothing like it. A full course is available in Medellin for 300 quid, which enables you to fly solo and instruct others. I'll fill you in on that one should the budget stretch that far...don't tell Mum.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Altitude-Related Flatulence

The girls will disagree with me, but the lads will snigger affirmatively: farting is funny. We've all wafted a silent one the way of friends and gleefully anticipated their reaction; held our little brothers (or sisters down) and parted their hair with a bean-fuelled blast. You fart in a lift full of friends and everyone wants to claim it. A guilty pleasure is sneaking one out just as you get off the tube...leaving the other passengers to eye each other accusatorily. I remember a college mate of mine having to visit a doctor for some heavy-duty emmolient cream after lighting a particularly violent passing of gas, and have a vivid memory of Tim Cross and Neil Crabtree walking through a courtyard ahead of me at school, Crabby shouting he was going to let one off...and Tim actually bending down to sample it fresh from the source through his nylon Farahs. They lit each other's too. Strange days.

It always puzzled me as to why farts smell worse in the shower than in open air. Or better, most men would argue? I was further puzzled when in Bogota. This being the third-highest city in the world, the altitude has an effect on the bowels I'd never experienced before: I was farting like a racehorse after a night on the Guiness. I'd worried there was something wrong with me, until Jocky and Goof began peppering the room with clouds of noxious fumes, too. It was like Blazing Saddles. It's all due to Boyle's Law...relative in diving, too...which explains the relation between gas volumes and ambient pressure. Less pressure equals more volume. So the higher you go, the more you have to fart to release the body's gases (shame, eh?). I'm just glad it's not the other way around: imagine diving for an hour and coming up with a wetsuit full of hydrogen sulphide? Wouldn't be pleasant...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Total Recall In Bogota

Colombia has a fairly negative image, not helped by Hollywood. You think of this country, and images of a charged-up Al Pacino spring to mind: a faceful of white powder and a frightening arsenal of weapons. The other negatives concern Pablo Escobar and his legacy. Cocaine. Kidnappings. Murder.

The name Bogota had been filling me with apprehension, bordering on dread, for a month. I'd agreed to meet my best mate up there, as he hadn't been prepared to swap summer in London for winter in Argentina. Can't blame him. I was expecting mayhem outside the airport to rival that of Manila...or worse. And the Chinese Whispers of traveller's tales weren't helping. I think half these stories are either untrue or inflated most of the time, but I heard a couple which curdled my blood and had happened to the people I spoke to. Allegedly.

One concerned a fellow who'd befriended (he thought) a couple of local lads and lasses in Medellin. He frequented the same bar for a few nights, and thought nothing of accepting a lift to another club with the guys one balmy evening. It was only when he jumped in the car that he realised the girls had gone, and two strangers were in their place. Sandwiched in the rear seat, he got more than a little nervous. Driven through a dodgy barrio to a patch of wasteland, he was verbally abused and told to hand over everything. He complied, but started to make mental notes of his assailants' facial features and dress. One of the men turned to him and said "Señor...if you wish to keep your eyes, do not look at me." From that moment on, until he was dropped back at the main road, he studied the floor. Wisely.

A cousin of one traveller I encountered was robbed 3 times on his trip. He left one bar and was floored from behind by a trio who knocked him unconscious and almost stripped him to find his valuables. Dazed, shirtless and bloody, he wandered back to the bar he'd left to call the police. The bar owner laughed when he saw him, shook his head and pulled a large binliner full off spare clothes from under the bar. Happens all the time, he told him.

Then there's the Millionaire's Tour. This involves being kidnapped, sometimes by bogus police, who take you around the town's ATMs while you generously empty your bank accounts to avoid death. Or torture. Or being tortured to death.

The Polish couple I met in Java had an incident here, when a man approached them in the street and pulled out a knife. He picked on the wrong guy. His girlfriend told me "My boyfriend handled it quite well...he picked up a chair from outside a cafe and smashed it over the guy's head." Good work, mate.

The reality of Bogota is somewhat different from the place these stories and characters conjured. The airport is a calm place, and there were no dodgy people anywhere to be seen. Getting an official cab was easy, and I even had one of the aircrew give me her number on the way out of the terminal. Doesn't happen on Easyjet. Welcome to Colombia, indeed.

We arrived in the Candelaria district, the old part of town, and found our hostel. Down a quiet street, there were plenty of dodgy characters about here. It's a poor area, and the hostel owners told us to be wary on the streets, especially at night; tourists are regularly mugged. I decided it best to keep money and cards in the Y-fronts I'd bought specifically for South America...if a thief's prepared to go down there for my cash, then good luck to him. Wouldn't be hard for the police to track him down, either...look for the local with a scabby hand.

The area's fairly bohemian, and there were a few decent places to eat and drink, notably El Gato Gris (the Grey Cat) which did the best food I tasted. It's a cheap city, and a beer rarely costs over 60p. Which pleased Garfield, my sidekick of some years, when he turned up a couple of nights later. Quite surreal to see him walk in after being apart 9 months. And good to have safety in numbers for this part of the trip; we'll number four when Speckled Jim turns up in a week.

We headed out one night with a few girls from the hostel. The bars were shutting as we arrived, we'd wrongly assumed a few would be open til the small hours. Street people scuttled out of the shadows, offering us guidance. You've not seen homeless people like these...they're fucking scary. Smackheads. Crackheads. Scars. Glass eyes. And that's just the women. One toothless man accosted us "I am not a bad guy. I can help you. I am not one of the bad guys." Garfield quipped that he looked like an extra from Arnold Schwarzennegger's Totall Recall. I suggested he'd be too scary-looking. A moaning man with half an arm kept grabbing me. I disentangled myself, musing that maybe he was expecting me to stump up some cash? A cackling woman wandered after us as we made our escape, shouting that she knew a good bar for us. Maybe next time, love. I shook my head in disbelief as one of the girls took out her camera and started snapping away...this was just asking for it. Time to leave, and we decided on a taxi back for safety. Rightly so, as two of the lads had been robbed at knifepoint that evening by two youths who'd jumped off the back of two scooters and put blades to their throats. The Irishman was shaken up, but Rolly, a young English lad, had found it exciting...and explained he'd been robbed in every country in South America. Being quite posh and with ruddy cheeks, it was hardly suprising...I don't think he could walk through Kensington without getting mugged.

So I wouldn't say don't go to Bogota. Just be aware that you are a target, and adjust your behaviour accordingly. You can't afford to drop your guard for a minute, especially in Candelaria. Lose concentration briefly, and you might lose a little more than you bargained for...

Hostel Life

In Asia, it's cheap enough to find a beach hut or hotel room for around a fiver. In South America, these places are much more expensive and the same budget means hostels. If you're lucky then you find one with 3 or 4 beds in there, and if you have enough people with you it's like a private room anyway. We've been lucky enough so far...the spare beds being empty in most hostels, so we've not had to share with strangers.

Tobes recommended The Gecko in Palermo. Close to Soho and its delightful shops, cafes and bars, it's certainly in a great location. But it's full of boisterous, noisy fools who seem to insist on making as much racket as possible at all hours. Maybe I'm just getting old. In the living area, there were three people playing music on their laptops while music also played on the sound system in the bar. A short Latin fellow with a massive afro was strutting round the pool table wearing mirored shades, bumping into furniture occasionally. It was like Sugarape's office in Nathan Barley. Without the irony.

The worst aspect of sharing is other people's hygiene. Or lack of it. There was a big hairy American at the Gecko, and he wandered into the TV room one afternoon when myself and Jocky had just started watching a movie. A whiff of cheese gradually assailed my nostrils; I cast a sidelong glance at Jocky, who had lifted the collar of his tee shirt up over his nose. I slumped down in my seat and did likewise as we frowned at each other. The smell was appalling. The Yank got up to make a hot drink, and the smell got worse briefly as he walked past. I eyed his sandals suspiciously, and Jocky nodded affirmation. When the guy came back, our tee shirts went back over our noses...and we were beginning to wish we'd put on a shorter film than The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. If I was sat in a room with two people holding their noses, I'd be checking myself out to see if it was me kicking up a pong, but I imagine some people are oblivious to it? To make matters worse, he kept getting up every 5 minutes to hawk and spit in the bin by the door. Dirty man...

Toby Goes Bananas In BA

You feel you could be in an Italian or Spanish city when walking around Buenos Aires. While it's pretty in parts, I was expecting it to be a little more photogenic if I'm honest. I'd been told it was a bigger, better Barcelona...but in a week I saw nothing to rival that fine Catalonian city.

The Argentinians are a funny lot; they certainly think they're above the rest of South America (from what other South Americans have told me, and from personally-observed behaviour) and the porteños of the capital deem themselves la creme de la creme. But to walk around the place, you wonder why they have this superior attitude. It has a run-down feel to the place, both in its dirty buildings and its faded residents. Riding the tube trains almost gives you a sense of being in an Eastern European country like Hungary; bad strip-lighting, drearily-dressed passengers and the sombre mood of the downtrodden. I felt much happier above ground. Argentina has suffered economically in the last couple of decades, and maybe its slow recovery has something to do with its people's outlook. Or maybe I should have just visited in summer?

We met up with Toby, an ex-colleague of mine and Jocky's from a few years past. He moved out here 4-5 years ago, and has not looked back. He was certainly laidback when we met him, and the life seemed to be suiting him. Apparently he doesn't socialise a lot in the city, as he works from home, and he told me when his girlfriend is out with her friends he still has trouble following the conversations. I understand completely what he means, as I learned some Spanish before coming out, but comprehending someone's responses is far more difficult than asking the questions in the first instance.

Obviously, having three lads from home around was going to lead to a big night out. Toby's BA decorum soon started slipping (you can take the boy out of England, after all...) as we got stuck into the beers and the Mojitos, and he insisted on dragging us to the main pick-up joint frequented by porteños wanting a foreign man. I got wind of the kind of club it would be when Tobes asked a couple of girls directions and they giggled as they pointed it out. It wasn't a bad place, though. We got steadily drunker, and Toby was scanning the room for likely girls, insisting we weren't leaving the city without pulling a couple. Despite our protestations, he wandered over to the next table and insisted the girls joined us; they weren't really our cup of tea, or us theirs for that matter...and didn't speak a word of English. They soon left as conversation stalled. We lost Tobes on the way out...we headed for a taxi, and he headed upstairs. After waiting outside for a while, we decided he'd get himself home as he was a local now. I think he enjoyed a good old-fashioned boys night out, and any excuse to continue. He got home in one piece, though...I checked the next morning.

The one place you must visit in the city is Recoleta Cemetary, the resting place of the well-heeled and famous of Buenos Aires. Evita is buried here, but her tomb was a bit of a let-down compared to some of the others we saw. Can't have liked her that much...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Wrong Kind Of Brazillian Action In Buenos Aires

I arrived in Buenos Aires a little surprised at the standards of the airport. The terminal is a little rundown and must date from the 80s, all stained concrete and cracked glass. The disorganised chaos as we embarked was a world away from Europe...people filling out hastily-distributed health forms as the staff eyed us behind supposedly H1-N1-proof surgical masks.

The Arrivals hall wasn't much better. I queued at the only ATM for a while, hoping the cards would work. I got talking to a likeable Irishman behind me, who had no clue where he was due to stay. Ray was on a whistle-stop tour of South America...his itinerary was madness. He's burned his bridges in Australia, and had to be home in a month to meet a container due in Portsmouth. in it was his works van (unpaid for), a Ducati motorbike (on credit) and various other items bought on cards he had no intention of paying back. He'd been in Oz 6 years, and had owned a flat. Getting credit had been easy. I had to laugh, but I don't know how he sleeps at night. We agreed to share a bus into San Telmo, as I told him Jocky had booked me a bed in a hostel which might have more beds. We avoided a Maradona lookalike of a taxi driver who wouldn't leave us alone on the way to the bus terminal. I'd seen enough of the aforementioned cheat on t-shirts and Hand Of God mugs inside the airport. Cheeky bastards. Don't recall seeing many Falklands War commemorative mugs in the duty-free shops at Heathrow?

We arrived at the America Del Sur hostel in San Telmo, an arty, scruffy little district of BA. It's brand-new and very clean. Helpful staff, reasonable prices, a great location and free T'interweb. Couldn't complain. Jocky had, indeed, sorted a room out...and there was space for Ray, though I told him I'd be nailing my belongings to the wall while he was around.

There are plenty of places to eat and drink locally, and the prices are unbelievable. The Argentinians use the dollar sign for their pesos, and we couldn't believe how cheap everything was. Surely the prices were in US Dollars? The best wine on the list was around 4 quid a bottle. Fill yer boots. A tour of the local bars revealed the price of a pint to be around 2 quid. Yes, I think we'll like it here.

BA turned out to be a bit of a DowCarter reunion, DC being an agency myself and Jocky used to work for. A fellow named Hils turned up with him, who works for the company in their current form. The two of them had the funniest tale to tell I'd heard so far...

The lads were sharing a 4-bed dormitory with two quiet lads from Brazil who didn't have much to say for themselves. After a big night out, Jocky and Hils returned at Stupid O'Clock...coherent enough to realise they may disturb their room-mates. They had an idea: best to strip down to their underwear to avoid too much noise and the possibility of waking the lads. So outside in the corridor they removed all their clothes, unlocked the door and silently crept in. Only to be confronted by the sight of one fellow sat on the bottom bunk, his friend naked in front of him with his erect member inserted in his mouth. "Whoaaaa boys!" Jocky shouted. The naked chap jumped in fright, diving into bed. Nothing was said for the rest of the night, the silence only occasionally punctuated by the giggles of Jocky and Hils. Good Times, as he would say...

Travel Fatigue

A swift farewell to my sister, nephew and niece at Adelaide airport was made all the easier for Emma misjudging the traffic. I grabbed my bags, kissed them and ran. I don't like Goodbyes, they upset me. I have to nip myself when ET goes home, and stifle sobs when Forrest Gump's Jenny snuffs her lid: I'm a sensitive boy. So crying at airports is not an option...run for the check-in desk and don't look back.

The flight to Buenos Aires is almost 16 hours on a bad day. I can't sleep on aircraft, the constant hiss of the aircon and the aches in my knees preventing any slim chance of shut-eye. And why oh why is there always some twat sat behind me constantly kicking the seat and grabbing the headrest when they get up to use the bathroom? I'm convinced there's a list of these people on the airlines' books and, when I book a flight, they seat one of them right behind me. Just to prevent any marginal comfort I may otherwise experience. This one was a constant talker, too...blathering away to his girlfriend as we took off. Typical Aussie.

"Yeah darling...we're at the end of the runway now...won't be long, eh? Another continent. Here we go...the engine's at full revs now..." the plane starts to move "Yep...here we go, we're off...Goodbye Australia, off to our next country..." we clear the tarmac and rise "...that's the wheels going back in there, up we go..." I was mentally rehearsing scenes from American Psycho, me obviously in the Patrick Bateman role.

Thankfully, he fell asleep soon after. I watched all the films I could, sleep out of my reach. Sunrise revealed the South American coastline, the Andes stretching as far as the eye could see. I stared at them, bleary eyed, as we cruised at 20,000 feet. The vastness of this continent suddenly hit me. After 9 months in and around Asia, I could have quite happily have spent another 3 months in Indonesia and left this huge expanse for another trip. I'm shattered, and do I have the mental strength to tackle another continent and its challenges with the reserves I have left? Self-doubt sets in for a while as we pass the mountains, as this takes a good hour of flight.

If Dorothy was here right now, and would give me the Ruby Slippers, I'd have half a mind to stand in the aisle of the 747, click my heels together and repeat "There's no place like home...there's no place like home...there's no place like home..." Instead, I shut my eyes and try to grab an hour's doze before Australian rubber hits Argentinian tarmac...

A Questionable Bedside Manner...

I spent another week in Australia, visiting my mate Bruce in Oz for a right old Soho-style piss-up and then my sister and family to relax for a few days. It was great to see familiar faces. Bruce is always great company, and I supplied him with a couple of good hangovers. My sister, Emma, looked fantastic. Like most women, she yo-yos with her weight...starving herself when she feels too fat. It drives the family mad. So I was pleased to see her looking well at Adelaide airport, and we were jabbering away over a coffee in the Arrivals lounge when I realised we hadn't collected my rucksack from the carousel. My heart almost stopped. With domestic airports being open, I was convinced it would have disappeared after an hour...but thankfully it was all alone on it's circular journey when I got down the stairs.

My sis is a midwife, and hates working in Australia. She said the service people get is awful, and that the standard of professionalism is very low. One woman was handed her newborn baby with the comment "Unlucky, love...it's a 'Ranga" from the nurse, which is midwife-speak for a redheaded infant, apparently (from Orangutan). Charming. Christ only knows what they'd say if it was Downs Syndrome?

We went along to Elisha's scan. She's 6 months pregnant with my nephew Lewis's child. The pair of them are only 19...so I'll be a great-uncle before I'm even a father. Shocking. I reckon I've had a good innings by any stretch of the imagination, and I think Lewis is concerned he won't be able to go to University or travel. But I told him that if his Mum could do it at 15 and end up with a good degree and a career, he can do it too. Just means he has to work a bit harder, that's all. And he has the support of the whole family around him, so with a bit of hard work he can do anything he likes. For me, there's no such thing as impossible...with the exception of being an astronaut or playing centre-forward for North End. So stick at it, Lew...everything happens for a reason? And even if it doesn't, we adapt.

I digress. So there's Elisha, belly exposed as the nurse starts the scan, and yours truly takes a photo...unaware Lewis is standing in front of a sign prohibiting this. The nurse went ballistic. Not content with telling me No Photos, she ranted on about disrespect for the medical profession and the serious procedure, it's not a circus etc. I pointed out it was an important family moment I wanted to record, and maybe the sign should have been on the door? To say it spoiled the moment would be like saying Pol Pot was a bit of a shit. After the family had filed out, I explained I'd missed the sign, but pointed out that her manner had been thoroughly unprofessional. "If that's how you feel, then fine. I accept your apology." Erm. Apology? Apology? Official complaint time, methinks.

Myself and Em had a word with the Registrar after he'd spoken with the nurse. I told him I didn't want a black mark on the woman's record, but would have been annoyed with myself if I hadn't raised the issue. There's a thing we have in the UK called professionalism. A bit of decorum wouldn't go amiss. He said the nurse had been stressed this morning and accepted she'd gone too far. An apology on her part might have been nice, but I let the matter drop.

So if you ever end up in an Adelaide hospital, don't tell them you know me, for fuck's sake. They might amputate your leg or something...

Exit Asia

I spent a night in Padang Bai, Bali's port for Lombok, to see about diving an underwater canyon I'd been told about at Teppegong. Unfortunately, as there'd been a full moon recently, the visibility was supposedly shit, and the swells too strong. I chose to spend a day at White Beach instead, a gorgeous tiny bay around ten minutes walk out of town. On walking down the hill to the shore, I couldn't stop laughing: at least three hawkeres were following every westerner up the beach. There were only 6 or 7 of us on there, and it was constant hassle. I bought a sarong, and was offered another one immediately by another two women. I smacked my paperback against my forehead repeatedly in exasperation until they walked away...to the amusement of two Scandinavian girls fending off a sunglassed salesman. The beach is well worth a visit, despite the hassle...it's the prettiest beach I've visited so far on my travels, and I've seen a few. Wayan's Bookshop on the hill to the beach is worth visiting. A lovely fellow runs it, though the books his boss stocks are extremely overpriced. He'd made me a coffee and we chatted awhile before I headed off. He'd said any that books donated he sold himself instead of the boss taking a cut, so I promised to finish the last 100 pages of my book so he could have it.

I headed for Kuta the next afternoon, to be reunited with the Dutch and Ika. On the way there, I got a text from Renato to tell me Ika had been drugged and robbed the previous evening, so to contact her through him. She'd been out with him and his girlfriend, and someone had obviously slipped something in her drink and followed her home. All she remembers is waking up with a thick head only to find her laptop and other valuables had been stolen. The police seemed to think it was someone at the hotel. While it's bad, she's lucky she wasn't raped. It just shows how you cannot afford to let your guard down if even a native can be drugged and robbed. A sobering thought for anyone who thinks Bali is 100% safe.

My last hours were whiled away with the gang, my last portion of Nasi Goreng wolfed down before the hair-raising scooter ride to the airport. The last haggle with the driver completed (I couldn't be bothered when he cheekily demanded a big tip. He already had the note in his hand, and I couldn't face bartering for my change.) I walked into the airport. The Rough Guide To Southeast Asia was unceremoniously filed in the first bin I came across.

Should have done that ages ago.

Private Transport Is Not Always A Good Thing

Juta, Lynsey and I all left Air the same morning. There seemed to be a mass exodus, actually...and a fellow I'd travelled to Jogja with was on the boat, too. The boats crossed a watery divide you could skim a stone across, on a perfect sunny morning; the brooding volcanoes of Lombok a stunning backdrop as we headed for her shoreline.

We were taken for a ride, literally, as soon as we reached the sandy beach of the harbour. Cart drivers urged us along, alarmingly shouting that the buses left in 5 minutes. My arse. We paid well over the odds to ride two hundred metres to a tiny terminal, only to be told we'd be waiting an hour. You have to hand it to these cheeky bastards.

There were around thirty tourists waiting around for their transportation, and Lynsey and Juta left for theirs early. I was taken off on my own to one minibus and separated from the remaining passengers, who were being herded into two minibuses. Everyone books their tickets through different agents, so this didn't unduly worry me. What did perturb me, though, was the fact that I was driven off on my own. "Private transport, mate...lucky bastard" chirped one fella as I passed the group alone. I didn't feel so lucky as the other two buses headed along the main road, and mine took a left up into the hills; I felt a prickle of suspicion, the driver eyeing me warily in the mirror. The mind started working overtime. Robbery? Possible. Buggery? Shit. Multiple buggery? No, no, no...get a grip, mate...there's a logical reason for heading away from the sea when you're due to get a ferry from a port...surely? Lombok. Muslim. Bali bombings. Fuck. Islamic fundamentalists? Kidnap? Beheading on Al Jazeera? Nooooo...

The cold sweat was beginning to dry as I picked up road signs indicating we were heading the right way, and I nervously glimpsed the sea on a few occassions. Lembar was soon reached, and I was deposited at a cafe near the port's main entrance, the driver passing me over to a travel rep. No other Westerners in sight yet, so maybe the driver had foreseen traffic trouble. I need to curb this paranoia, that's for sure.

The rep sat me down, and proceeded to get right on my tits. He wanted my phone, a battered Nokia, in return for a brand-new Sony Ericsson. I told him I wasn't interested, and had all my contacts stored in this one. He wouldn't let up, coming back every few minutes and sitting down at the table, telling me he had to have my phone. An old man came in selling foot-long knives; I considered buying one for self-defence as this guy's mates started asking to look at my phone. You tend to start feeling more than a little exposed and vulnerable in these situations. It was then the other buses turned up and they were distracted.
We were stuck in that cafe for an hour; the wait punctuated only by the constant hawkers and thieves waiting for you to drop your guard. An American girl started arguing with a local tour rep, who responded by throwing his food in her face. Her male companion was visibly (but not literally) shitting himself as the row escalated. She stormed through the cafe with another rep following her...in one door and out of the other twice with him in pursuit. "Tom and Jerry" quipped one of the locals, and laughter eased the tension.
At last, we were shepherded to the ticket office...the familiar routine of getting the ticket at the last minute when it's too late to argue about the rip-off. C'est la vie. The hawkers followed us onto the ferries, as well as the thieves. One lad in a Perugia football shirt came up on the top deck, constantly swapping places every minute or two, hovering near unattended rucksacks. I gave him a long look to let him know I knew what he was up to. I mentioned his activity to an Englishman nearby, who nodded in confirmation "Definitely up to something." I told him I'd keep an eye on his gear when he got up to go to the bar with his girlfriend. Sure enough, as soon as they headed for the stairs, this guy was over and sitting amongst their stuff...innocently looking out to sea. I mused that he needs a lot more practice at this as the girl came storming back over and moved him.
The ship's horns sounded, smoke belched from the funnels, and the thieving rats scuttled from the decks. Luckily no-one had left a bag unattended; I wouldn't like to be faced with the dilemma of writing off my valuables or fighting a local for them, with all possible help departing the port as the sun goes down...

A Breath Of Fresh Air

If you ever visit the Gili Islands, do yourself a huge favour, and save a lot of time; just go straight to Gili Air. Trawangan is far too developed, Meno is way too quiet...Air is somewhere between the two.

I'd gone there for a day after chatting to a Derby fella named John who was running a branch of Manta Dive there; we'd spoken on the boat to Meno after my run-in with Napoleon and his cronies. He told me to look him up if I got to Air. I'd been tempted to just head back to Bali after the islands so far, but got up too late for the boat and headed to Air instead. It was fate I missed the boat, as Air is a lovely island. The locals are different to Trawangan; far friendlier and laidback...they'll chat to you just because they want to, not to get your business. And the fact that the only way to get around is on foot or by horse-drawn cart adds to its charm.

I was chatting to John at the shop when a girl I recogised from Kuta, an English girl named Lynsey, walked up the beach with her friend Juta. They'd chartered their own boat for the last few weeks since we'd met in that lame bar...self-confessed Champagne Backpackers. I spent an amusing afternoon on the beach with them. Lynsey I already knew, and Juta was a German with an acid tongue and very sarcastic sense of humour, so I decided to go get my bags that night and return the next day.

I was glad I did, we had a right old laugh for the next few days...doing nothing more than smoking weed, drinking beer and watching the sun go down. The girls looked after me, too...their budget was way beyong my meagre means (cue violins), and they bought me dinner a couple of times. It was much appreciated. Lynsey's actually pondering leasing a restaurant and running that for a year, she liked the place so much...I expect to see her still sat on that beach should I ever return.

There's nothing much else to report about Air, but we did meet a very odd character (you certainly meet them travelling) while sat in the Chillout Bar one night (I pine for their orange milkshakes). Rama was his name, and he wore the typical hippie outfit...this included the hated (by me) Thai fisherman pants, and an obviously feminine bag which banged around his knees. He came over to our table and told us all about his mystic existence, and that he was a Children's Entertainment Specialist with a psychology slant. Bizarre. Wouldn't let my kids near such a character.

Juta quizzed him as to his biological heritage, as he looked a little exotic.
"Well, I'm American raised, but I'm 20% Cherokee Indian, 50% Indonesian, 25% Italian, 10% French, my mother is half Chinese and I'm also 30% Swedish."
I gaped. Lynsey sniggered. Kuta just huffed loudly and unsubtly "Maths not his strong point..."
Didn't see much of Rama after that. Thankfully.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Diving The Gilis

After being spoilt with the amzing dives off the coast of Nusa Lembongan, the Gilis were a bit of a let-down. I'd originally intended to do the DM course here, and after a couple of dives I was pleased I'd stayed in Coron to complete it. There's a lot of rubbish in the sea at the dive sites here; bottles on the surface and crisp packets hanging midwater at every site. And the coral reefs have been shattered by the typhoons of previous years.

I chose Manta Dive, and would recommend them. Especially as those two arseholes weren't working there. British-owned, they have a good reputation and the gear is recent and in good condition. The nice thing about diving from these islands is that the sites are a maximum of 30 minutes by boat from the beach; you can dive in the morning and have a good couple of hours sat on the beach before the afternoon's dive. Beats sitting on a boat all day...although I had no complaints in Coron, it's nice to be out in the ocean and have some peace.

I dived twice. The first was only notable for the turtles and a large school of Bumphead Parrotfish we encountered. These ugly brutes were quite high on my list, so I was pleased to at least have seen them, especially in such numbers. The second dip was disappointing, the dead coral ranged below us like a lunar landscape...but we came across a white-tip shark, and I had a ramorra fish for company for most of the dive. These usually swim below sharks and bigger fish, their heads touching the underbelly of their ride. It was quite cute, and followed me all the way to the surface at the end of the dive. The DM with me said that he'd seen them around divers before, but never quite so friendly.

Gili Meno & Small Man Syndrome

Despite the previous post, I actually came to the Gilis for peace and quiet. If I'd been looking for trouble, I'd have stayed in Preston. Besides, they started it.

Anyway. Gili Meno is a short hop back towards Lombok. It's populated mainly by locals, and is rarely visited by the bulk of travellers. Sounded like just what we needed. The girls had seen tickets for the boat transfer, and we paid up at 8am; only to be led up to another pier with an office bearing the legend "Offical Ticket Office" in front of it. One of the lads walked us up there, a short man with stupid white Shoreditch-style sunglasses and an afro. As we passed a group of men, one of them shouted to us "Don't trust that guy" and laughed. Don't worry, mate...the sign had already aroused my suspicions. We got to the pier, and he seemed keen to keep us away from the ticket booth while he collected the tickets. After my experience in Java, I was getting used to the modus operandi, and walked over to see how much the fare actually was. A third of what we were being charged. For a 50 metre walk?

I challenged the little tealeaf, and asked why he'd charged us three times the going rate? He didn't take kindly to this, especially with lots of tourists looking on. I told him if he'd made us pay double, fair enough...but triple? He exploded when I called him a cheat.

"You. You complain now...everywhere charge this price...all beach. No-one else complain but you. Now you come here talking like lady. You shut your mouth now. No more talking" he spat, contemptuously. A few of his mates started crowding around, and I could see this could get out of hand. There are no police on the islands, and any trouble needs to be sorted out with the head man on Gili Air. So I didn't fancy getting into a punch-up with a gang...it wouldn't end well.

I swallowed my pride and left it, smiling through gritted teeth at the posturing little arsehole "Fair enough, Napoleon...you win this one..."

"What?" he strutted around in front of me.

"Never mind, I can't be bothered explaining your shared insecurities with notable figures in history."

We got the tickets and departed. The rest of the day was pretty boring actually...Meno is pretty dull with nothing to see. The beaches and snorkelling are pretty lame, too. But if you really must go, just don't buy your tickets from a dwarf with a sizeable chip on his shoulder.

Trawangan

The Gili Islands are three tiny patches of sand of diminishing size, situated a swim from the coast of Lombok and and stone's throw from Bali. I headed here by ferry from Nusa Lembongan, via the port of Padang Bai. Doing this journey with a bus-full of fellow Europeans, it certainly felt like being back in Thailand; no real sense of adventure. But the islands had been highly recommended by friends who'd been in the past few years. I imagined they'd developed much more, so wasn't expecting too much.

It was probably a good thing I hadn't. We pulled up at night off the coast of Trawangan, the ferry idling to fight the current roaring past us as a small craft approached to take us to the beach. The prow of the smaller boat was merely a foot above the hissing waters trying to push it away, and the jump from boat to boat was a bit hairy. One slip and I reckon I'd have been back in Bali by sunrise.

We approached the beach, the gangs of promoters waiting to take us off to their restaurants and guesthouses. The first one I viewed was a sight: stained walls, damp ceilings and a lamp with no shade...I wouldn't have left a dog in there. I stifled a laugh when the guy asked me how many days I'd be staying; it would have been prescient of him to ask me to calculate my remaining time in his company in nanoseconds. He was desperately asking guests to vouch for his place as I walked off.

A friendly-looking guy stopped me further up the beach and asked if I wanted to see somewhere new and clean? I informed him he wasn't wrong. He took me off the beach, and up a small sandy street to his family's place. Secure and clean, this would do. Off the main drag, the only noise came from the horse-drawn carts they use as taxis on the islands; there are no cars or bikes.

Settling in, I got chatting to three Serbian and Croatian girls next door. It was then that we met a fellow I instantly named Spaceman Dave. He'd introduced himself as David, but the way he spoke...slowly and seemingly looking through you at a spot a few feet behind your head, ensured he got such a nickname.

"I am David. I am your friend. I get you good stuff. Mushroom. Marijuana. Cocaine."
"Cocaine? Here?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes. I get you anything."
"And how much is that, then?"
The equivalent of around 600 quid a gram, it turned out.
"Well I'm off to South America soon, so I think I'll pass on that one...how much is the grass?"
He produced a bag full of twigs with a few bits of grass on them for around a tenner.
"Dave, I'm not 16 years old...that's rubbish."
He pulled out the musrooms.
"Good mushroom, take you to the moon."
"Not fussed about going all that way, Dave...but if they actually work and you can get me a bigger bag, we may do some business. You can keep the twigs, though."

I headed out later to pacify my growling stomach. Trawangan's main drag runs right along one side of the island for a good kilometer, bars and restaurants everywhere; the more expensive places being at the south of the island. I was informed that there was a party in the Irish Bar that evening. Oh great. I ate alone and then bumped into an English couple I'd chatted to on the way over. We decided to head to the party and see what it was like. Like being back on Siree Beach on Koh Tao, actually: shit music and a shit bar. We made the best of it, though, and were having a pleasant drink until I tried to get another round.

The bar was packed, and I was stood next to a guy at the bar when his mate decided to squeeze in between us. I steeled myself, and wasn't for being barged out of the way. As the barman came over, the oik started ordering his drinks. Bearing in mind I'd been waiting a good ten minutes, it's fair to say I was a little narked.

"I think I was next, mate...where's your manners?" I asked him.
"You what?" English. Silly fool with a pierced eyebrow and a ton of gel in his hair.
"I've been waiting to get served, and you just barge in. Can't you wait your turn?"
I ordered my drinks as he argued the toss, saying he'd been waiting too. I told him he'd pushed in and it was plain rude...no excuse. The guy was drunk, and moved to the other side of me with a smirk on his face. As my drinks came, he got his at the same time from another barman. "Did you get your drinks?" he crowed "I got mine..." I stood on his foot as he went to move away and gave a tight-lipped smile and offered a "So sorry."

I was still fuming when his mate started having a go.
"You were very rude to my friend." French.
"And you don't think pushing in at the bar was rude?" I challenged.
"You shouted at him. This is not good. Now he has gone away."
"Probably best for him" I returned "his behaviour made me quite angry."
"You should be used to this at the bar...this is how it is in England. I lived there ten years."
Now this was a red rag to a bull. I bristled.
"I don't know where you've been in England, Francois...but we don't behave like this. We have a thing called etiquette when ordering drinks. You should know this, as it's one of your words. And don't fucking dare tell me how it is in England, as I was born there and have lived there 38 years."
I was actually beginning to enjoy this now.
"Look. We live here..." he started. I'd noticed his dive computer on his wrist, and the fact his mate had one. Divemasters or Instructors.
"You don't live here, Jean Paul. You're on an extended holiday at a dive shop. You're not a local. And besides...does this mean you reserve the right to push in at the bar and ignore people who have been waiting?"
He paused. "You shouted at my friend. You are rude..."
"Rude? Rude?" I laughed. "Don't talk to me about rude, mon ami...you lot invented rudeness."

I took the drinks and walked away, giving his mate the eyeball as I walked past.
Don't think I'll be diving at their shop. Probably wouldn't be welcome.

I spent the next few days hanging out with the Serbs: Aleksandra, Maya, Ivana and Milicia. They'd moved up the beach to where it was much quieter, away from the crowds. The locals up there were far friendlier, too...and I met a cool Malaysian fella named Black. He lives in Sweden, and we got along famously. Myself and the girls had done some very mild mushrooms one night and retired to their beach later for a smoke (I'd haggled for some half-decent weed which worked but stank of amonia)...we ended up getting stoned til the early hours together, and Black joined in. We got an older local guy extremely wrecked, he was struggling to play his guitar and laughing away.

Having had enough of the noise of Trawangan, the drunken westerners and the rip-off prices, myself and the Serbs decided to try Gili Meno the next day.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Diving With Mantas: Nusa Lembongan

Few creatures on the planet are as outlandish as the Manta Ray. I arrived on Nusa Lembongan, a speck of rock south-east of Bali, with the intention of seeing them first-hand. There´s not much else to do on the island but dive, so a couple of days was going to do it. I stayed at a very nice place called Bungalow No7, which handily had a dive shop attached to it. I couldn´t be bothered wandering around in the heat trying to barter, and the German guy who ran it was a nice fellow.

We headed out the next day to Manta Point, just off Nusa Perida, further east. We kitted up quickly, as Mantas had been seen every day for the last few weeks. Dropping into the cool waters, I was amazed at the visibilty. At least 25m compared to what I´d been used to on the wrecks in Coron. We drifted silently towards the natural ampitheatre ahead, warily watching the surf crash onto the rocks above us, and waited. Our patience was rewarded as the infinitely graceful creatures came into view, gliding above into the oxygen-rich water. It was breathtaking...fifteen of them, three or four at a time, flew above and around us...some of them a good 3m in span. At one point Sven and I had a Nurse Shark for company, inquisitively swimming below him, inches from his legs. I´ve never had a better dive, wrecks aside. When we´d finished the air, we just got the snorkels and jumped back in. they were barely a few feet from us the whole time, and aren´t shy. Incredible creatures.

And if I thought the visibilty was good at that site, I was shocked by Crystal Bay. A good 40m of the underwater domain was visible here. Plenty of interesting fish, and a nice current to drift on. Not the cheapest diving I´ve done, in fact it was the most expensive, but I´d do it again. If you´re diving Indonesia, do not miss out on this one.

The Monkey Muggers of Uluwatu

Uluwatu is one of Bali´s must-see sites. An ancient Hindu temple perched on cliffs to the south of the island, it´s a tranquil place. It´s five minutes from Padang Padang, and doesn´t take long to get around.

We were talked into hiring a guide, as they told us the monkeys here are persistent thieves. Telling them (the guides, not the monkeys) I was from Liverpool, and would see them coming, didn´t deter them. So we coughed up and off we went. It turns out they weren´t making it up...these apes are accomplished villains.

A few days before we arrived, a Japanese tourist had his wallet taken from his pocket. The culprit retired to a nearby tree hanging over the cliffs and proceeded to eat the $300 he found in it. Then he chewed up the wallet. The guides watch out for the monkeys while you take photos of them, because apparently they like cameras, too. I got a nice shot of one little one chewing up a pair of Oakley Gascans after trying them on and deciding he didn´t suit them. I soon decided to stick mine in my pocket. I took a few good pictures of the monkeys, but this one is the stand-out image. I didn´t need to speak Monkey to understand they were up to no good; I was just relieved they weren´t plotting about me.

We stuck around for the Becak (fire dance), a traditional dance which tells a story of the Balinese Hindu faith. I tried reading the story in the pidgin English on the pamphlet, but gave up before I got a headache. The dance took a while to get going, but when the fiery moments came at the end, one of the gods kicking the flaming bales high into the night and almost burning members of the audience, it was pretty spectacular.

Bali Bound & The Nightmarish Kuta

We had a long drive to the port to catch a ferry to Bali. I talked further with the Polish couple, and was amazed at their trip. They had 2 months in Asia and wanted to do Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia. I suggested that was an insane schedule. They said No, and proceeded to fill me in on their tour so far. In 3 months, they´d done South America (every country), India and Nepal. Flying everywhere, and just a few days in each place. Sounds like a waste of money to me.

I was dreading Kuta, the Aussie holidaymakers´ ghetto. And it was worse than I thought. Driving slowly down the main drag, the Bintang vest-wearing masses came into view. Staggering around with their shorts hanging off their arsecheeks. It´s like their version of Magaluf. And apparently they think bali is a country, not an island in Indonesia (I didn´t meet another Aussie anywhere else in Indonesia, in fact). The (shit) music blaring from each bar merged into one eardrum-splitting cacophony. It would be unfair to blame it all on the Aussies, but they are in the majority here. And while the bombings were horrific, I can understand why the Javanese are offended by the behavoiur here. People throwing up and pissing in the streets, fighting (Ika was attacked a few days after I left, for asking an Aussie girl to stomp bumping into her...all her friends joined in the assault).

The stallholders shout at you in the street "Hey mate, g´day mate...how´s it going, mate?" in a cod Aussie accent. I had to ask Ika for the Indonesian for "I´m not a fucking Aussie". It does get rather tedious after five minutes. I wasn´t going to be here long, I knew that much before I´d got out of the taxi.

Ika hired a bike the next morning, and we set off for Padang Padang...a much quieter bay 17km from Kuta. She knew a Costa Rican guy there who´d never gone home, choosing to set up an excellt (if a little pricey) Mexican cafe called the Sunset Grill. It was that good we ate there on the way home, too. The beaches there were beautiful and, if you´re a surfer, great waves. The massage women are cheeky swines though, re-negotiating or asking for tips halfway through. I was having none of it with mine, and suggested she should be paying for me letting her get her oily hands on me?

Sex, Lies & Volcanoes

Jogjakarta was my next stop. One of Ika´s contacts had taken myself and one other guy to the station via minibus. I thought something was up when he bought the train tickets and gave them to the guard, saying he would put us on the train. I smelled a rat. The guard wasn´t keen on handing them over, and nade out he didn´t understand what I was saying. He just kept patting his top pocket and saying "Yes...ticket". So I said "Yes, how much ticket?" and took them out of his pocket myself. Looks like the guy had ripped us off, but he´d long gone. Worked out at 12 quid for a half hour car drive. Cheeky bastard. Ika wasn´t amused when I told her, either.

Jogja isn´t an exciting place. There are a couple of temples to see, and I saw one of them...couldn´t really be bothered doing the other one. Especially as Prambanan was covered in bamboo scaffolding...I haven´t got the patience to Photoshop all that out. I wandered through the earthquake-ravaged ruins with a few English people I got chatting to. We made our way to the back of the complex, to a fenced-off area the archaeologists and re-builders were working on. It´s a massive job, and has been going on since the quake in 2006. An Indonesian Richard Pryor beckoned us over the fence and gave us a quick tour. He said the work was very slow, and I told him I wasn´t surprised, considering there were all of 20 people working on the site. I sugested getting some Polish builders in, they´d have been done by now.

I did meet a few locals there, three young lads, who I had an amusing conversation with. All they wanted to talk about was sex, how it works in the West, what English girls are like. Needless to say, I didn´t mention any names. But they asked me how long I lasted? Bit of a personal question, but you get used to it in Asia. They said five or ten minutes for them. I pondered a minute and said "Well it depends how attractive the girl is, really...but on average, around 3 to 4 hours?" (I was lying, obviously: it´s usually 2) I remained poker-faced as they all looked at each other incredulously, one of them raising a hand to high-five me. The conversation got more X-rated after that, but my Mum reads this blog, after all.

The only other incident of note was a local weirdo who followed me up the street giving it the usual best pals act. What´s your name, where are you from, where is your wife etc etc. I tried to shake him off by going into various shops, but he just lay in wait outside, hiding, only to appear again and try and pick up the conversation. The situation rapidly evolved into a chase somewhere between James Bond and Benny Hill, me crossing the road several times, leaving shops by different exits trying to shake him off. Took me a good twenty minutes, but it was worth it to stand sniggering behind a market stall watching him run round like a headless chicken looking for me. Fool.

The Bromo volcanoes were the real reason for heading this way. I booked a trip to Bali via that region. I usually deplore doing things that way, it feels like you´re back in Thailand on the Tourist Escalator...but I only have a month here, and there´s a lot to see. I had two Poles and a German couple along for the ride, and we picked up a huge American guy called Mike. The Poles and Germans got along famously, which surprised me considering the usual hostility between the nations, trouble at the football etc. But I suppose that the Germans (mainly men) have been holidaying in Poland since September 1939, it should be no surprise they know each other well.

2329m above sea level, the region is quite cold at night...the air noticeably the freshest I´d breathed in a while. Starting at 4am, I was driven up to the jump-off point. The Polish fella had said he was getting up, but after a 30 minute wait in the freezing cold, I went to his room to find he was still in bed. I thanked him for bothering to get up and tell me he wasn´t coming. I passed on the opportunity of taking a horse to the summit, and set off walking. The valley was pitch black, and I was thankful for my dive torch...far more powerful out of water than in. There were a few other people around, and I picked up the pace to get ahead of them. By the time I reached the steps to the viewpoint, there was just myself and a Japanese guy in the running. He obviously wanted to be first up, too. 200 steps are hard going, and we passed each other a couple of times as the other rested. I pipped him in the end, though. Chris Bonnington would be so proud. Can´t have been much harder than this doing the North face of the Eiger, after all?

I picked my way around the crater rim, trying to keep my footing as I got higher and further away from the bloody tourists who were whooping and yelling when they got to the top. Deary me. Light trickled into the picture, and the volcanoes appeared around me; a stunning sight. Purple and blue light gave way to warmer reds and oranges as the sun made it´s appearance in the distance. It´s a sight I´m not likely to forget.

The trek back down was harder, as you leave the valley and climb the hill back to the village; then it´s an agonising walk downhill, the muscles around your shins screaming in agony. I had a brief panic attack when I realised I didn´t know the name of the hotel, and the transport was due to leave in half an hour. When we were dropped off at midnight, we´d just been told the hotel was new. "New hotel this way?" was just getting shrugs from the locals. Shit. I found my way back most of the way when a minibus pulled up with the Poles in it, they´d risen late and just gone to see the view froma distance. Fair to say I was more than a little relieved.

Big Mike was there when I returned. He´d found it hard work due to his bulk, but told me he´d lost 60 pounds since setting off travelling a few months back. He comes from a big family, but said it was his own fault he´d got this size. A stomach-stapling operation had taken some of it off; he must have been huge before. I really admired his guts, though (pun intended) as he was doing something about it. He´d started comfort-eating as he got bigger in his youth, and got past the point of no return. We had a laugh about flying, when he told me about the looks on people´s faces as he heads down the aisle checking for his seat. He understands the reactions, and was actually apologising all the time for taking up so much room in the minibus. He´s a really nice fella with it, and I wished him the best of luck with ditching some more. Can´t be easy.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Monkey Business

Ika took me up to White Beach at Pangandaran. Indonesia is much like the rest of Asia, they leave rubbish everywhere. The state of some of the beaches is truly shocking. This one is famous for its resident monkeys. Locals sell you peanuts to feed them. Ika passed a used bag back to one local; he just wandered up to the treeline and threw it away. They don´t seem to understand that people are not likely to keep coming back to filthy beaches.

But back to the monkeys. One had followed us across the rocks to the beach, bouncing around and making me a little nervous: I didn´t bother with the rabies jabs before leaving England. No need to worry about these ones, though...they´re very friendly. One of the cheeky bastards took nuts out my shorts, and then started trying to eat the pocket lining when he´d done. A bit close to the inedible nuts in there for my liking.

The cutest one held my hand with his foot while he devoured my full supply, keeping a watchful eye out for any of his mates who might try and get a piece of the action, screeching at any who got too close to his stash. Very warm feet. And very smelly.

Surf´s Up At Strong Coral

The minibus crept out of the city limits in an early morning mist. I was wistfully composing shots in my head. No time to stop for photos, but I saw so many in that first half hour; the best being a fez-wearing local man in a colourful tank-top and prisitine white shirt. He sat on a small stool, one leg crossed over the other, smoking a cigarette and lost in his own thoughts. The crumbling mustard wall behind him lent the perfect backdrop. Never mind a photograph, he would have made a beautiful painting.

The ubiquitous poor passed by in slow motion. Lean-to dwellings and corrugated shacks; a rat-like man on his haunches, dressed in rags, frantically nodding his head and twitching. All manner of life here. Cyclo drivers stood around chatting, hawkers mingled with the traffic plying their wares. Clearing the city, I looked across at the red rooftops below the mist, the volcanoes seemingly rising from nothingness above them. No photograph to show; just a mental one to keep.

Pangandaran town was asleep when I arrived. Ika had given me the number of her cousin, Lilly...and he was due to collect me. I jumped on the back of his scooter, and we set off for a stunning 30km ride to Batu Karas (the strong coral of the title). I´ve rarely been happier than on a scooter on this trip, and BK is a gorgeous little village; tiny, and accessed by a rope and bamboo bridge. I loved the place immediately.

We arrived at Ika´s place. She wandered out to meet me; a funky surf chick with tattoos. We shared a beer and talked a while. I laughed when she told me she´d been worried I´d be straight and boring company. But we clicked. A tour of the village and beach followed, and we met her Dutch friends at the local cafe. They were easy company too, particularly Renato: we shared the same sense of humour and hit it off immediately. I was going to have a good time here, I just knew it. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach; the waves crash in to this bay at a 45° angle...driving you towards the rocks if you´re not careful. Excellent surf. Dripping dry, we sat on the beach and swapped stories.

Everyone knows Ika. Some of the locals stare at her disapprovingly, she´s certainly the black sheep of BK. Bleached hair, tattoos and a wild streak...a real character. Apparently she´s the only person to have left the area. All her friends have had kids and settled down, and live vicariously through her, it seems. We met one of them who had just had a cute baby boy. As we rode off Ika told me her story; she´d had the bay in prison, locked up for storing her boyfriend´s marijuana. Did 9 years in total. So they have mixed prisons, rife with weed and they even manage to have sex in there? I was shocked. I´m currently writing a list of my past crimes for the Indonesian authorities, just to get an idea of how long they´ll let me stay in one.

The rest of the evening went by in a delightful blur. Papa cooked a huge fish, Mama served up a delicious chili sauce for it. Then it was off to the local mushroom shack, a few beers, dancing and swimming in the lightning storm. I biked it back to the house with Ika´s younger brother, who´d done mushrooms for the first time that night. It was a revelation for him. We parked on the track leading to the house, and just enjoyed watching the wind whistle through the palm trees and rice fields, listening to the surf breaking on the shore in the pitch darkness. Simple pleasures.

Rarely have I had such an amazing week. Fully clothed, wet through and dancing on a beach with great company...it´s a hard life, alright.

The Kindness Of Strangers

As I´ve said, the Indonesians are amazing people. Friendly and honest. So when I awoke the next morning and prepared to head for the volcano, I was mortified to find my camera missing. I vaguely remembered my daypack zip being open as I arrived at the hotel. Thinking back, I recalled a shifty-looking guy following me up the street as I looked for rooms. He must have been in my bag as I stood at the traffic lights? I kicked myself, but couldn´t figure out how it had happened; not like me to be off guard. Spilt milk, though. Just have to get on with it.

Martin was gutted for me, but I put a brave face on and we headed off. As we fended off the taxi drivers at the railway station, it looked as if our midday start was going to put paid to our plans. As Ika had texted me news of a beach party in her village the next day, it seemed I´d miss out on the volcanoes. The taxis were too expensive to consider, so we headed for a travel agency to see about a trip to the hot springs.

We walked in and asked the staff, but no-one could give us much info on buses. Looks like it was a day of drinking, then? A petite, beautiful female customer piped up and asked where we wanted to go. She then offered to take us. We were taken aback. She told us she wasn´t busy, but would like to collect her uncle first; his English was better, and I thought she´d maybe feel safer with him there. We thanked her, and jumped in the car.

Uncle Johannes was duly collected, a lovely fellow who had worked at Disneyland for 29 years. The afternoon flew by. Volcanoes visited, though we didn´t walk round much as they wanted to wait in the car...we´d have felt guilty having them waiting on us. We insisted on buying them lunch, and then we headed for the springs. Johannes joined us in the water while Helen pottered on Facebook (the government are considering banning it as a bad moral influence).

I told them what had happened with my camera. They were just as upset, but I said I was just as disappointed that I´d come across a bad Indonesian as I was my camera had gone. But these things happen.

I was blown away by Helen and Johannes. They wouldn´t even take petrol money from us, amazing for someone to spend their whole day with you and not want anything in return, not even expenses. If she ever visits England, I will gladly return the favour...I won´t forget these two people as long as I live.

Things got even better that evening. Still upset about the camera, I was packing to leave when I had a flashback. Picking up one of my pillows, I felt a familiar weight in the corner...I´d stashed it there as soon as I´d arrived, then completely forgotten about it. What a relief. What an idiot.

Monkey Extra On The Bandung Train

I left Jakarta early, avoiding the Transport? Transport? touts and their steering-wheel mimes at the top end of Jalan Jaksa. In the bright sunlight, I headed for the railway station. Nick, an Englishman I´d met a few nights previously, had given me a number for a girl called Ika; she´s an Indonesian who relocated to Florence, but was back in town. He told me that if I was heading South and fancied surfing, I should call her. He´d met her in Pangandaran a summer ago.

Bandung was first on my list. The train was about to pull out of the station when a bizarre creature entered the carriage, ticket in hand and squinting at his seat number. Chinese-looking, with long straggly hair, sweaty pasty face, sunken eyes; his hands were filthy, and nails long and blackened. This fella looked like an extra from Monkey. Perhaps a bedraggled Sandy. I could smell him as he got closer, and it wasn´t pleasant. I just knew his seat ticket was the B to my A. I grimaced as he sat down. He realised I was English, and engaged me in conversation. His breath was something else, he could have hired himself out as a paint-stripper. Holding your breath while answering questions is no mean feat, I assure you. He was still half-cut from the night before, and was rambling on and on. Other passengers giggled at my raised eyebrows and pained expressions; this was going to be a long ride, alright. The worst moment came when he pulled up a leg of his jeans to reveal a bloody, infected patch of skin and began scratching away at it...then sucked the blood from under his nails. I gagged.

A woman on the opposite side of the carriage came to my rescue. She´d been calling across and asking where I was going, and naming a few places I should not miss. I was struggling to hear her, so she suggested she swap places with Ogre. To my relief, he was happy to...she´d been sat next to a cute Indonesian girl. For the next hour I had a great conversation with her, she´d worked in most areas of Indonesia...she scribbled names, places and dates on my maps. She also showed me photos of her two single daughters and gave me their phone numbers. Wouldn´t happen back home, would it?

Bandung is up in the hills, and the train would through pleasant verdant countryside before we finally pulled into our destination. It was nice to escape the heat, the climate here is delightful. I thanked the lady and said my goodbyes. Wandering off down the main street, I rotated the map a few times and got my bearings.

It took me half an hour to find a decent place to stay which had vacancies, and settled on By Moritz. There´s not a great deal to do in Bandung, so I just wandered for dinner and a few beers. I got chatting to a Swiss lad called Martin, a fellow Divemaster, we had planty to talk about. We arranged to see the volcano together the next day.

I was about to finish my beer and retire for the night when the owner turned up. A middle-aged Swiss, we got talking about various places in Asia. He also gave me a few pointers for South America. I was just getting interested in what he was saying when he came out with the biggest pile of bullshit I´ve heard in a while. He said that gangs were stealing babies from poor people in the countryside and selling them to be eaten. By rich Americans who see it as a delicacy, apparently. I burst out laughing. He was deadly serious, and told me he´d seen photographs of it on the internet. I explained the basics of Photoshop, finished my beer, and went to bed.