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, 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) 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 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 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'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.'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.