Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Wars, Baños And Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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