Wednesday, 17 August 2011

In Darwin's Blistered Footsteps

I HAVE NEVER kicked a nun before, but I wanted to upon arrival at the Galápagos Islands. After clearing Immigration and parting with another $100 for the privilege of setting foot on this remote Ecuadorean outpost, there was the bun-fight over baggage collection. Waiting my turn, I felt someone barging me from behind. I ignored it as first, until the offender started trying to squeeze through the gap between me and the next passenger patiently waiting his turn. Turning to deliver a mouthful, I was quite shocked to see a nun next to me. I've never been a fan of religion, and Catholicism particularly gets my goat; a faith which thinks it is fine to take the cash from the poor and use it to build huge gilded churches, effectively rubbing their noses in it, while expecting them to feel guilty about the slightest thing and repent of their sins several times a week. "Can't feed your family and put a roof over your head? Never mind...come into the church and tell this huge golden statue of Mary all about it. Been thinking about tits and fannies again, have you? Dirty bugger...now get on your knees and beg forgiveness. And give us some more cash while you're at it...these places don't build themselves, you know."

Bag grabbed, we waited paitiently in line to exit. Well, some of us did. The Penguins started blatantly pushing in, jockeying for position, fellow devotees soon joining them in the scrum. If you're not infirm or disabled, then wait your bloody turn? Some of these were in their 30s...using religious carte blanche to jump the queue. I'm an Atheist, so forget it, love. I managed to position myself so as to block a trio of them passing me, giving no quarter. One tried smiling sweetly and stepping around my bag. I smiled sweetly back and shoved the bag with my foot...up against a guard rail, blocking her way. Yes...I win! Take that, you dried-up old husk! It may sound petty to you, but things like this pass the time when waiting in line. Besides, I was striking a blow for mentally-scarred young altarboys, with involuntary centre-partings, worldwide. These paedo-protectors weren't getting on the bus before me...no way.

Ferried across from Baltra island to Santa Cruz, I couldn't believe how clear the water was here, a rich azure; I was looking forward to the diving already. We were bussed into town, and felt almost duty-bound to take a room at the Hotel Sir Francis Drake. I noted that the window in the door to my room opened on a hinge, and that I could reach in from outside and open the locked door. When mentioning this lack of security to the landlady, she laughed and told me that she hadn't had a robbery in 10 years. I pointed out that this was unlikely to wash with my insurance company, and that I didn't want her to be welcoming the next weeks' guests with "We've only had one robbery in 10 years". It was duly nailed shut. I felt a lot better. But I had to laugh when myself, Maxy and Stef stayed here after the dive trip: the boys took this particular room, and I had the "matrimonial" room with a double bed (if you spent your wedding night here, you'd be divorced by morning). We were out on the piss one night, and on returning Maxy managed to lock them out of the room. I went to my lumpy bed chuckling to myself; Stef slept in the landlady's kitchen wrapped up in a tablecloth; Maxy slept upstairs in an unfinished concrete room, atop a pallet and wrapped in cardboard with a piece of wood crowning it to stop the cardboard unravelling and exposing him to the cold night air. Obviously neither had a good night's sleep. But their belongings were safely locked in the room. Every cloud has a silver lining, no?

The town is a sleepy place, especially on a Sunday. It was low-season when we were there, which made it all the quieter. It's also small, and it is possible to cover every street in an hour's walk. The road along the seashore is almost devoid of traffic, and the one-counter fish market is the place to be in the afternoons: seals and pelicans pester the fishmonger for scraps as he sorts the day's catch straight off the boats...an amusing sight. Just beyond town is the 2km walk to Playa Tortuga, an amazing stretch of beach which is home to marine iguanas, storks and pelicans as well as the turtles. I've never seen a more pristine place...the fees we pay to be here are obviously well-spent, as the archipelago is spotless.

Darwin was here in 1835 aboard The Beagle, making geological surveys of these 3.5 million year old volcanic islands, 1000km off the coast of South America. He was amazed by the variety of wildlife species here: there are over 9000 who make the islands their home. And nowhere on Earth has more endemic species, creatures unique to this small area. 75% of the animals on Galápagos are not found anywhere else on the planet. The mind boggles. Darwin's certainly did: it prompted his theory of the survival of the fittest by natural selection, the basis of his book The Origin Of The Species (1859). Many of these animals are unchanged since prehistoric times, such as the Marine Iguana...the only swimming lizard in the world. The place has as a strange effect on a you, almost regressing you to a state of childlike wonder. Having kids has been pretty far from my thoughts so far in life, but these islands almost made me broody. Coming back here with children is almost an incentive after my time here.

The human history of Galápagos is also quite fascinating. An Irishman named Henry Watkins was marooned in 1807 to become the first permanent human settler. The Ecuadorean government created penal colonies here, the most notorious of which was Manuel Cabos's El Progreso in 1869. The prisoners in his charge soon became sick of his tyranny and murdered him. Seemed fair. In 1927 a group of journalists persuaded 60 Norwegians that the Enchanted Isles were a paradise waiting to be exploited. The Scandinavians had no idea how hard life could be here on these patches of exposed rock in the Pacific. Many left after the first harsh year. But by far the most interesting tale is that of "The Baroness". Two German families had settled on the island of Floreana around 1929: the Wittmers and Dr Freidrich Ritter and his mistress, Dore Strauch. The two families tolerated each other, but a series of events led to bitterness between them. Feelings were already simmering when Baroness de Bosquet turned up in the 1930s with three men in tow...two of whom were her lovers (filthy minx), Robert Philippson, Rudolf Lorenz...and an Ecuadorean servant named Valdiveseo. She looks to have been the dark cataylst amongst this German community. By all accounts she lorded it over the inhabitants, walking around with bullwhip and pistol like some sort of swashbuckler. Her fellow islanders were unhappy at the stories she told about them to visitors. After several heated disputes, in 1934 she and Philippson disappeared, never to be seen again. Lorenz was found dead on a remote northern island some time later; he'd been the chief suspect in the assumed murders. Dr Witter was the next to die, supposedly from food poisoning after eating chicken...despite being a vegetarian. These mysteries have never been solved, and remain part of the islands' folklore.

And there are rumblings of discontent on modern-day Galápagos. The increasing number of native Ecuadoreans are demaning the right to fish the waters, and some are doing so illegally. The government lacks resources to counter this. Introduced species are also a problem; feral pigs and dogs on some islands are threatening the marine iguana populations. Goats are a surprising problem, and Alcedo island holds an exploded population of around 100,000, despite attempts a number of years ago to eradicate them. A goat was found as far away as Wolf Island, and no-one seems to know how it got there.

But back to kids. The three of us passed the concrete basketball courts of the Ecuadorean Navy the afterno won before boarding our diveboat, and ten or more local youngsters were kicking a football about. "Shall we?" asked Stef. Of coursee shall. So the three of us, and a small be-spectacled boy took on the rest. We played in bare feet, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Maxy kept letting goals in, saying we should give them a fighting chance as they were all around 10 years old...I told him to stop being so bloody Scottish. Honestly. After the game, and my Rooney-like exploits, we sat and chatted with the kids in Spanish. Good practice for me. The girls were trying to set Stef up with an Ecuadorean wife, and he was interested...it's the only way you could possibly work as a dive instructor here; probably the only advantage to an Ecuadorean passport, I'd imagine? At this point, I noticed my feet were burning a little; turning them over, I saw there were two 50p-sized blisters on each foot, both bleeding and weeping salty fluid. Oh dear. Raw skin...just what you want before a full week at sea, and saltwater immersion: a classic own-goal...

Monday, 15 August 2011

Ghosts Of San Blas

I WAS OUT and about pretty early. Ecuadorean sunshine had streamed through my window and demanded my attention. I'd arrived in Quito for the second time the day previous, and nothing much had changed. The same rickety buses farted thick, choking fumes as I pounded the streets; the rotting buildings continued to rot; the polish-blackened kids still harangued me in the beautiful Gran Plaza; walking through the Parque El Ejido was, thankfully, still the same serene experience.

But Ecuador, and Quito especially, has a serious problem. Walk around any of the poorer districts, San Blas in particular, and you're going to see them: the ghosts. Men who have thrown in the towel and hit the bottle. To be born poor, without hope, and unable to provide for your family must be incredibly hard. I'm not surprised at the despair. Despite Ecuador's official unemployment rate dropping from 10% to 5% in the last five years, the people on the streets tell a different story. In half hour around San Blas, you'll see countless people without work; old women in their 70s selling handfuls of boiled sweets from a wicker bowl; youths with piles of secondhand shoes; others selling just about anything they can get their hands on. Those unwilling to eke out a desperate existence turn to alcohol. I am not joking when I say that, in Quito, you are literally stepping over drunks in the street. On the rise from my hostel to Av Guayaquil, a distance of a hundred yards, there were three men asleep on the pavement. It seems they just drop and sleep wherever the feeling takes them. The first time you see one, it's a mixture of shock and amusement. But these aren't men too drunk to get home after a big night out and sleeping it off. These are hopeless human beings blotting out a world which has forgotten them.

Bootleg alcohol is rife. Obviously far cheaper than the commercially-produced grog, it is popular. And deadly. 21 people have died in the last month, and 103 have been admitted to hospital, after drinking methanol-based liquor. Two glasses of this can induce blindness and coma. Police have seized over 1000 gallons of the illicit alcohol in recent raids. Cheap to produce, someone has, literally, been making a killing.

I've been frequenting a local chifa, or Chinese restaurant, since arrival. Partly because I love the shrimp curry; mostly because, whenever I walk into an eatery to be confronted with the usual rice, emaciated chicken and beans...I feel like crying. Or getting drunk and sleeping it off in the street. Seven months of shitty food takes its toll on a man, let me tell you. So I'm sat there one night, one eye on my book, the other on the U20 World Cup game. A local man came in, visibly the worse for wear, and ordered a curry. Nothing unusual in that...it's a regular sight in the early hours of a Sunday morning in England. The man promptly folded his arms and, using them as a pillow, commenced to nod off. Some time later a couple of worried kids were peering through the window, and then entered the restaurant. They tried to rouse Dad, to no avail...he was out of it. Disappearing, they were soon back with Mum, who had no more success than the muchachos. The poor woman looked mortified, and I avoided her eyes as she looked around the restaurant. The waiter, who I'd got pretty pally with, shot me a shrug and a look that said Happens all the time.

I've never had a problem with glue, save for losing a few layers of skin thanks to the overly-effective Superglue™ variety. If something is broken, I put glue on it, and everything is OK again. I've had a lifelong love of the smell of wood glue since school...wordwork classes were heady days indeed, and the whiff of it whenever I pass a workshop takes me back. But I've never considered sticking it in a plastic bag and inhaling it. I've known a few glueheads, though. Working as a courier in Leeds 10 years ago, there was a notorious madman I used to see who regularly brought traffic to a standstill, running into the ringroad and climbing onto the bonnets of people's cars. He once gripped the windscreen wipers of my van and screamed at me, spittle flecking the glass as he tried in vain to detach them. I just laughed. Not my van, mate...do what you like. He looked like he was having a good time, though. And he appeared positively normal if you (rarely) saw him without his gluebag.

The alcoholics in Quito graduate to glue. There was one guy I passed, slumped in a doorway, watery eyes cast upwards, pointing into the sky behind me and laughing "Miraaaa...miiira...el cielo..." (Look...look...the sky). His hand a dirty claw, strings of saliva between his lips and teeth, he beseeched me to see what he was seeing. I noticed a dark patch down one leg of his jeans...obviously a toilet break was out of the question when the Bostik™ was out? Confirming to him that, indeed yes, the large blue expanse behind my head was the sky, I hurried quickly on, to the haunting echo of his deranged laughter. Wasn't doing his remaining brain cells any favours, but he seemed to be enjoying himself, at any rate.

It pays to be on your toes around here. Last time I visited, several people were robbed in the street. One of the classics is the old woman who accidentally-on-purposely splashes you with some liquid and then kindly offers to mop it off, while her accomplice rifles your bag or pockets. Moral of this story? If an old lady squirts ketchup on you...punch her in the face and run. Or something like that. Maybe just kick her up the bum? The waiter in the chifa had warned me against sitting near the door in some other local cafes, as the other week a couple of gringos had been robbed in one when a couple of shaking, sweating teenagers had burst in waving a .38 revolver around. Jolly pleasant. And there's not much point in going to the police, as they're at it, too. In the Mariscal Sucre area, be wary of anyone beckoning to you across the street, enticing you over: the police will be over as soon as you start talking to the man, and a wrap of cocaine will appear from your pocket...as if by magic. Not yours? Neither is the $600 you'll soon be withdrawing from the nearest ATM. I was told a story about an American lad who was busted with a joint in a local park. The policeman demanded $50. The tourist, suffering from muscular dystrophy, was struggling to get his wallet out of his pocket. The surprised cop took pity on him. "Oh...you're disabled? Ah. OK...just give me $10..." Urban legend? Maybe. But in Quito, I'd believe anything.

But I like this city. 90km long and 4km wide, and nestling in a valley between several snow-covered volcanoes, there are fewer dramatic urban environments in South America. But as my best mate emailed me when he heard I was here: "Quito? What the fuck are you doing back in that shithole?" Quite.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

A Right Rum Do

THERE ARE SOME things you should never attempt to do, for the good of your health. And your pocket. One of these is to try and drink an Englishman under the table, and heaven help you if you take on an Irishman. This particularly applies if you are a half-cut Panamanian tealeaf with plans to mug said Englishman and his Mexican pals, who also like a beer or ten. But more on him later.

After the crumbling, dusty, grim and threatening places that are the majority of Central American capital cities, arriving in Panamá is a breath of fresh air. Well, not quite that fresh; there is still the oppressive heat and humidity, the acrid sting of blue exhaust smoke and occasional whiff of the city's collective previous night's dinner to foul the lungs and burn the eyes. But to eventually escape the Albrook terminal, and bump along in the back of a cab across concrete towards the glittering bay-hugging, glass and steel skyline, is to catch your breath and realise that you've made it: they save the best city of this region for last.

The image every traveller holds of Panamá is the curve of high-rises flanking the ocean up to the tip of the far peninsula. It's a stunning sight. And quite incredible when you consider that many of these building will never see a tenant: they are monuments to Colombian money-laundering. Signs abound to tempt the rental market, but these empty buildings are already occupied by ghost tenants, non-existent occupants paying way over the odds. The cartels build the high-rises, then rent out the space to themselves and plough their cocaine funds through it. Clean money. Beautiful.

But by far the most beautiful part of Panamá is the Casco Viejo, or old quarter. This tight-knit maze of streets and courtyards, loomed over by decaying colonial facades, is one of the prettiest places I've seen in a while. It is a small area; on the edges exist the poor in a mix of decrepit wooden houses rotted by sea air, and overflowing concrete slabs of hopeless humanity. In the afternoon the locals sit out on porches, battered wooden chairs or old sofas, passing the remaining hours of another listless day. Walk too far out of the safe haven, and a well-meaning local will wag a finger and warn you off. I've walked through some sketchy areas in my time, and am generally not too worried: I have money stashed in several places as back-up if I am robbed. And the VISA card currently in my wallet is defunct, and would excite my would-be mugger for about ten minutes after his escape. But one old man pointed to my silver ring and advised me "If they want that, Señor, they will take it...and if you don't give it quickly...then they take your finger, too..." followed by a toothy cackle with head thrown back. All laughter aside, I turned back the way I had come after thanking him for the advice. I've been through the area since and, having seen it from the back of a speeding cab at dusk, can assure you there is likely no bigger shithole this side of Mogadishu. Ancient housing blocks, hardly suitable for habitation; shifty figures in the shadowy stairwells; youths congregating on street corners in the fading light, hungry-eyed hyenas; ragged children rummaging through skips in the hope of finding something useful or edible; scarecrow people slumped in doorways, those who with no fight left. The blowing lights in the tiny squares of the huge rotting edifices varied and warm: tangerine, cherry red, ochre, mustard and pampas green. The sight looks inviting to a night photographer...but you and your camera wouldn't last five minutes.

I haven't had as positive a feeling for a city since I first set foot in Barcelona, Spain. Casco Viejo had a similar effect on me. Stef and Maxy were in town, as were Emi and Andreas, the Mexicans I'd befriended Suchitoto, El Salvador. Luckily for us, there was a music festival the second night I arrived...drinking and dancing in the streets.

Rich and poor were out in force. The latter were campled out at the end of their streets, drinking rum and dancing frenziedly. They are rightly proud of their town and their heritage. I've yet to visit Cuba, but can well imagine it looking and feeling like this. How long this melting pot will be allowed to simmer is anyone's guess, though: UNESCO designated the quarter a World Heritage Site in 2003. Buildings previously left to rot have been rescued, facades lovingly restored. But this has meant an influx of high-class restaurants and shops. Indeed, the President of Panamá also lives in this area. At the present time, the new establishments are required to use local builders and staff...but how sustainable this is remains to be seen. Certainly, the shabby wooden eyesores will be demolished...but where will the inhabitants of many generations be moved to? Likely the concrete slums I traversed in the back of a taxi. Progress? I'm not so sure.

I was out with the Mexicans an afternoon later. We'd taken a delicious lunch of ceviche down by the harbour. I was living on this cheap dish for days: fish and shrimp left to "cook" in fresh lime juice for twenty minutes...can there be anything healthier? No additives, bar the ubiquitous chilli sauce. We wandered back into the heart of the old town, looking for a cheap beer. A dilapidated cantina stood before us, its front a hotchpotch of discarded wooden panels and planks, its door of the swinging Wild West saloon variety. Salsa blared from the darkness, the smell of hot unwashed bodies seeped from within. Emi didn't look so sure. Andreas grinned at me. I shrugged...and in we went.

It was almost pitch black. The small bar stretched away into the gloom to our left, a string of fairy lights snaked behind the stacks of cheap licor bottles. A bored barman chewed a toothpick and eyed us. The dirt floor was where the action was at, a couple of dumpy prostitutes dancing with an old man who was a right little mover...he must have been popular as a young man, and wasn't doing bad right now, if truth be told. A mulatta approached us, and jabbered away with Andreas. I couldn't hear the conversation over the music. She was soon jutting her jaw at each of us and pursing her lips. I backed away, fearing she wanted a kiss. I then remembered, with palpable relief, that this was a method latins sometimes use instead of pointing at something. Lazy buggers...I find it easier to just lift my arm.

Andreas danced with one of the women. Myself and Emi chatted with an old bloke over the raucous music. Well I say chatted, the old man blathered and I nodded politely. I like places like this. The locals are friendly 90% of the time, and if you can get over the grimmest toilets this side of Calcutta, then you might have a good night. And these ones were grim, believe me...if I'd needed to shit, I'd have been yanking my pants down at the side of the street rather than subject my fair buttocks to the horrifically-stained biological experiment of a commode available.

After a bit of a boogie with some prostitutes, which seems to be becoming somewhat of a bad habit, we left our new pals at the cantina and headed back to the hostel. On the way we spied another shitty bar, and obviously went in. There was a dodgy-looking local in there, a few sheets to the wind, who insisted on buying us a beer. Apparently he could show us the best parts of Casco Viejo, including a 100-year-old bar. After a couple of straighteners, we headed off with him...back to the cantina we'd just left. Imagine this fellow's surprise as we were greeted with a cheer, like long-lost friends? A couple of the women warned us off him immediately, but we'd already smelled a rat with his transparent patter. One of the hookers, mid-fifties at a rough estimated, sidled up, grabbed my hand and put it on her arse and then, breathing rum fumes, told me "Don' trus dat guy. Bad man. I am lonely. I live up there" and pointed to her flat over the road. I thanked her for the info and diplomatically retrieved my hand. I get lonely too, but we have to draw the line somewhere. El Bandito, meanwhile, was getting us another round of drinks in...mentioning another drinking den a few blocks down, which I knew to be in the no-go area. We suggested a few more in this place first.

Andreas was showing off his fancy footwork again, and the locals were loving it. I was chatting to hookers old enough to be my grandmother, Emi was fending off the same. They were cadging drinks off us left, right and centre...but we didn't mind. It was a cheap enough night out. El Bandito's plan of luring us away in a drunken stupor, to be robbed by him and his associates, was beginning to backfire; glassy-eyed, he could hardly stand up. He asked for another beer. I pointed out that it was his round again (like the last three), and to stop being a tight-arse. He looked down at his bottle, as if to question himself on the source of that one, before shuffling off to the bar for another four. It'd be his round again for the next lot, too.

We left him slumped on a stool in the corner, looking out confusedly over the rubble of his scheme. I'd liked to have seen his face when he awoke the following morning, several dollars lighter and with a stinking headache? We happened upon another cantina on the way home, this one stinking like a cattleshed, the stench was appalling...ammonia, soil and sweat. You try holding your nose and drinking a beer at the same time? It's not easy, but we managed. Last round for the old ladies of the night, and we rolled back home.

I crawled into bed and drifted off with a smile on my face. Yes, I like Panamá...

Saturday, 6 August 2011

A San José Short Story

I UNFAIRLY JUDGED Costa Rica before my arrival. Although I only spent a short time in the capital, I liked the feel of the place. My opinion had been coloured somewhat by the stories of other travellers: the country is full of American retirees; it's twice as expensive as other Central American countries etc etc. It didn't sound promising, to be honest. But I was only passing through, on a journey from León to Panamá City, for a flight to Ecuador.

The journey hadn't been so bad; the bus was a typically latin hour late, but there's no point complaining. I was the only gringo at the depot, and when I arrived at 6am I was puzzled as to why several men were fanning their faces with leafy sapling branches, sheaves of paper and anything else to hand. As hordes of tiny flies descended on me, trying to crawl into my eyes, ears and nose, I was rapidly reaching for a few available branches myself. The locals smiled and continued their wafting.

At the border, we were again stood around in the heat, belongings exposed. While waiting, a female rep of the bus company was moving along the line collecting change from people. I thought it was another fee, and asked the woman next to me what we were paying for. She was as puzzled as me. The rep had a gaudily-painted, 20-something woman in tow. As they got to me the rep shook the change in her hand and demanded "plata", the slang for money. I shrugged and said I had no change, and asked what she wanted the money for? I couldn't understand exactly what she said, but she gestured to the woman and moved on. I lost sight of them, but 20 minutes later, they were back asking for more. This time I got the gist of it: the woman had no money, and they were collecting for a ticket. I'd seen the woman with a couple of shifty-looking men earlier on, and didn't see why we should cough up?

I asked the rep why we, the passengers, were being expected to donate money. She sniffed at my proffered dollar's worth of change and said that the woman was $5 short of a ticket. Ah, so the rich gringo was being expected to make up the rest? No chance was I being bullied into that, simply on principle. I could tell that the rep thought I was being mean, and she told me that we had to help this Nicaragueña get home. I put it to her that it should be the bus company offering charity, not her dragging the girl round begging for cash. Would a simple phone call to the boss not have sorted this? A few fellow passengers nodded. The rep wasn't happy. I had to laugh as we waited on the bus to leave...the supposedly penniless woman got on. If she was trying to get back to Nicaragua, she was going the wrong way.

We arrived in San José. The place reminded me of the cleaner parts of Manila, but with more intact colonial buildings. If the country had been occupied by the Japanese during WWII, then it would have looked exactly like the US Army's 1945 facelift of Manila. Anyway, one dubious taxi meter later I was at Pangea, the capital's mega-hostel. This place is immense: 25 dorms with 4 beds in each. A small swimming pool and a rooftop cafe and bar complete the impressive set-up. The cost of building the place was reflected in the prices...perusing the beer menu caused a sharp intake of breath: I certainly wasn't in Nicaragua any longer. I locked up my valuables and picked a bed in the windowless room which smelled like a squash court. You'll get used to it after five minutes, I told myself.

The only other occupant of the room looked up from a book and said Hello. We got chatting, and he told me he was from Tel Aviv. When I asked if he was travelling alone, he said he'd been with a friend from Israel, but they'd split up for a while. "You meet more people travelling alone" he said, and I laughed. When I explained what I'd found funny in that, he agreed. "I know...us Israelis have a reputation for not mixing, but that's just the large groups." I told him my theory about only the lone Israelis being the good ones, and it was his turn to laugh. He even said that he avoided hostels that had gangs of his countrymen staying. I had to go eat, and he recommended a few cheaper places than the hostel.

I grabbed my book and headed out in search of dinner. Just a quiet one tonight after the long journey, right? Couldn't have been more wrong if I'd penned the report on Saddam's Weapons Of Mass Destruction.

The heavy, reinforced door of Pangea slammed behind me, and I was out on the shady streets of what looked to be the red-light district. At every corner I was propositioned while waiting for the crossing signal, painted faces looming from the shadows. I resolved to make it three or four blocks at the most, and take the first half-decent-looking eaterie I came across...I had to get away from these persistent hags. There seemed to be nothing around, and I was loathe to walk too far into the city on a first night, preferring to explore by day and suss a place out initially. Minutes from giving up and buckling for the hostal's pricy menu, I suddenly spied a tiny, modern-looking Italian cafe. Warm and inviting, the staff as well as the environment, I was soon happily tucking into the best pizza I'd had in a long time. I read for a while, checked the time, and decided to head back for an early bed.

















A few doors down from the hostal was a small, dingy bar. Inside were a few older westerners, some locals and some women of apparent ill-repute. Bearing in mind the price of a beer in the huge gringo-nest I was staying at, something told me to go in. Ordering an ale at the bar, I got chatting to the middle-aged barmaid. She had the air of a retired madam about her, and was nice enough. On hearing an English accent, a middle-aged German next to me turned and introduced himself. His name was Michael. He'd arrived the previous night from Panamá, having worked for an NGO in the infamous Darién province, home to Colombian guerillas and Panamanian smugglers, for 12 months. Tired and off-guard after two days on the road, he'd been pleased when his friendly taxi-driver suggested his uncle's hotel nearby. Arriving at the place, the taxista directed him down a passageway and told him to tell Uncle Pablo that Miguel had sent him, while he waited in the car...just in case he got a parking ticket. Michael followed the corridor, and emerged in a courtyard where a family, having dinner, regarded him with some surprise. He asked for Pablo and, met with bemusement, said Miguel had sent him. Miguel who? A wave of nausea hit him as he doubled back and sprinted back outside. The taxi was gone. So was everything Michael owned besides the clothes he stood up in...including his passport. He was quite embarrassed by his naivety, but told me that he had met some amazing people who had given him money, clothes and a place to stay for a few days. The kindness of strangers, and all that.

A blonde white woman walked in with a very diminutive Tica (a Costa Rican). I'd seen them down a side-street, passing a joint between them. Assuming them to be on the game, I'd decided against going and asking them for a couple of puffs. Who knows what you'll get yourself into asking that question on these streets? Besides, I didn't know where their mouths had been. The blonde said she'd seen me on the street as I'd walked past, and had I smelled the joint? I assured her that I had, and she told me she'd wanted to call me over. We got talking, and it turned out that she wasn't a hooker...she was amused I'd thought so. Not surprising on these streets, I told her. Turns out she was an Italian, Gina, who'd been working in San José for quite some time. The dwarf was a mate of hers, and she made introductions. I asked if they'd let me know when they were having the next smoke. They told me they were going over to a friend's hotel, to see some pole-dancers and the like. I laughed and said that nothing would be more frustrating for me right now than sitting on in front of a gyrating, naked woman...and then going home with an erection. The German laughed and agreed. Gina said it would be close by, and that the drinks would be free...come on, just one? I relented, and she introduced me to Eric, our host.

We squeezed into a cab, and a few minutes later were outside a large house. The building didn't look much like a hotel to me. Not even a sign outside. Eric's burly doorman admitted us, and we were shown to the bar. The penny dropped. Eric's clientele were wealthy Americans, with more money than morals. As we entered the main room, walled with mirrors, I saw two men in their mid-50s sat watching a pneumatic, dancing Russian blonde giving her nether regions an airing. On either side of each man was a latina, lithe and beautiful. But these depraved characters had their eyes locked on the Russian's concha as she slid up and down the pole, mouth open in a state of professional arousal. The latinas didn't care, they were getting paid.

Eric explained the set-up. It was a strictly private establishment, available for hire by whomever could afford it. Eric assured discretion, and had paid to have the hotel's existence wiped from the Web, and de-Googled. The men could invite as many hookers as they liked, but had to pay each girl a flat fee to ensure they had sufficient funds to get home if they were not needed. Recently he'd had a Russian group in who had stayed four days and insisted on forty girls. Eric says he believed that they screwed the whole lot, but they'd insisted on sleeping in just the one room together, while the girls had the run of the hotel. Didn't want to know why, and didn't want to imagine. Oh, the depravity of it all. An American group were coming back down in a few weeks, he said; they'd liked some of the Russian girls Eric knew. As two of them told the Yanks that they hadn't been home to Moscow in a few years, they offered to take them home for a weekend in a Lear jet. The hire of the plane was $100K, Eric estimated. The lengths some men will go to?

I took all this with a pinch of salt. But watching the men cavorting with the girls, the endless cocktails, sniffing returns from the toilets with the girls, money being thrown around, I didn't have too many reasons to doubt. And the place can't have been cheap. Eric showed me around the building next door, and outlined his expansion plans. Pity he avoids publicity, as he might have had a decent budget for a website? His girlfriend runs the bar, and keeps a close eye on things, including Eric. He said that he's quite happy to make his money this way, but he keeps a distance from his clients. I have to say that he seemed like a decent fellow. But I would say that, he was throwing drinks at us all night.

Michael the German, had told Eric about his recent misfortune, and talked him into giving him a trial as a chef for the establishment. By now he was absolutely leathered, his bleary eyes popping out at the girls dripping off the arms of the rich Americans. One girl caught my arm as I went to the bathroom, and asked me if I'd spend the night with her. A gorgeous latina who'd been smiling at me all evening, I told her I'd love to...but that my Mum would kill me. She said not to tell my Mum, then? I laughed and extricated myself from her grasp. Very pretty, but I wasn't going to be part of this perverse circus, just be the fly-on-the-wall and then tell you lot all about it.

I smoked with Gina and the huge-breasted Tica dwarf, who seemed intent on defying the law of Gravity. The three of us were equally amused at the spectacle before us, and the randomness of the evening. Eric wouldn't let us go...beers were almost finished and we'd make moves to leave...another beer would appear. I was pretty wrecked by this point, and danced salsa with the girls. After a turn with the dwarf, drunkenly uncaring how it looked, I slumped on the bar next to Gina.

"My friend said something bad about you earlier..." she slurred in my ear, slouching against me.
"Oh really...do tell?" I laughed.
"No" said Gina "it was nasty...mean..."
The dwarf had returned with a drink by now.
"Come on...I'm pretty thick-skinned" I told her.
"She said that you shouldn't drink beer any more, as you need a bra" she confided.
I laughed, well-aware I'm rather out of shape at this moment in time. But cheeky bitch?
"Well...they're paid for, at least."
I turned to the short one, who was climbing atop a barstool. "Oi...got a bone to pick with you."
"Noooooo..." said Gina, panicking at her imminet unveiling as a shit-stirrer.
I waved her protest away. "What's this about me needing a bra?"
"I didn't say that!" she glared at Gina.
"Well it's a bit rich, coming from a...." I sensed myelf about to hugely overstep the mark, despite her insult. I looked down and was rescued by her feet "...a chick with weird toes." Thank fuck for her ugly feet. Her second toes were half the length of her big toes, and sat squashed atop the big and third ones. Pretty grotesque.
"What's wrong with my toes?" she asked indignantly.
"Nothing, if you like freaky feet" I replied.
"Well I've been told that I have really cute toes" she huffed.
"Who by...Stevie Wonder or Helen Keller...?"

A taxi was ordered. Eric was obviously going to be hanging around, although whether he'd get a Tica hooker offering solace for the evening due to his recent robbery remained to be seen. I thanked Eric for a very entertaining evening and jumped in the taxi with the girls. Tempted back to Gina's for a few more drinks with the vertically-challenged one, my hostal flew by in a blur. Gina's was miles out of town, and we had to sneak in; she lived with a Tico family. One which wouldn't appreciate a strange man on the property, so at 5am Gina turfed me out. Still pissed, with only a general idea of the direction of San José central, I set off through the darkness. I found the highway we'd arrived on, and started walking. There were no lights, and I lost count of the number of times I had to jump into the storm drains to avoid the suction of a passing juggernaut. I thought I was going to be killed, and cursed my stupidity in chasing another drink. After a mile or so I crossed a bridge and could see the city twinkling in the distance. Then I saw a bus stop, and waited around in the gloom, stashing my wallet down the front of my pants. After twenty minutes a local bus turned up, and this dishevelled Englishman boarded and levelly returned the curious stares of the migrant workers aboard the vehicle.

The journey didn't take long, and I jumed off on the edge of town. I knew the rough direction of the hostal, and made my way through the streets of early morning workers arriving for the daily slog. It had been a while since I'd been out all night and headed home amongst the commuters. I used to love doing that in London, drifitng homewards under the dirty looks of the workers up earlier than they'd like. You go to work, mate...I'm off to bed. The joys of freelancing.

I was a block away from sanctuary and my bed now. Two Tícos in a worse state than me were hanging around looking shifty outside a greasy takeaway joint. One of them proferred a bag of white powder, leering at me beneath sunken eyes. "Amigo...friend...my friend. Cocaine. You want to get high?" I laughed and gave him a wide berth, wagging a finger silently and smiling. Amigo...it's way too early for that.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Moan Moan Moan...






















WE HEADED FOR Granada, Nicaragua's colonial jewel on the shores of the lake it shares with Ometepe. The buses in latin countries just aren't designed for western legs. And if it was uncomfortable for me, it was worse for Stefano, him being taller. We sat at the back, and got chatting with a few Nicas on their return from working in Costa Rica, picking oranges. They told us that the wages were so much better there. It was quite sobering when we asked how much better. One man excitedly, loudly and proudly exclaimed to us and fellow Nicas in earshot that he could earn as much as $20 a day over there. It makes you wonder what the average wage is here. He also told us that his family get by on $5 a day.

We discussed the cost of living in Europe with the fellow, as he enquired. As ever, it's diplomatic to talk down exactly how much we earn and spend back home. It always tempers their dismay at the riches of the West when you tell them how much we pay for a beer or a sandwich, or the rental of a poky flat in London. For sure, most of us are financially better off than them, but this money doesn't go as far as they'd likely think. Tell them you pay $3 for a mango, and they laugh. The Nica threw some rubbish out of the bus window, and was incredulous that this was illegal in Europe. He told us that it was just trash, and that he didn't need it any more. He shrugged when we pointed out that, if everybody did this, the place would be a dump. His indifference suggested that he thought it already was a dump. He roared with laughter when we told him that a policeman catching you doing this in Europe was likely to take $80 from you.

We pulled into Granada, and hailed a taxi to yet another hostal with aloof, moody staff. Be as pleasant as you like, speak in Spanish...this bunch still wouldn't give you the time of day. I had to smirk at the large box on the counter with "Tips" on it in black marker: there'd be a piece of paper with "Smile" written on it deposited there before I left. We made our way to our 8-bed dorm, and found a young girl unpacking. We exchanged pleasantries, and Stef asked where she was from. "Oh, I'm from Israel...like everyone else here." Stef shot me a look which said Great. I returned it with a similarly pained expression.

Granada is Antígua without the polish; rougher around the edges than her Guatemalan counterpart, akin to a faded dame past her best who could still turn a head or two if she'd only put in the effort. The city doesn't make the most of its lakeside location either, there being no promenade to speak of; the main plaza is a kilometre from the shores. The road from the heart of town to the water is a line of steadily shabbier houses, punctuated by an oily gas station. The main square, though picturesque during daylight hours, is a whore-infested black hole at night; wholly inadvisable for a midnight stroll. Pass through it and you're treated to the sight of locals pissing against trees, teenagers trying to sell you distinctly low-grade drugs while their sisters try to sell you their conchas. "Heeey, meestah...wanna fock me?" Er...not really. You ought to go see a dentist, by the way.

It's not the cleanest city. I walked various districts, searching for photographic subjects and a decent coffee. Failing to see anything of appeal, I wandered the back streets, casting the odd smile or buenas tardes at an indifferent local. The whiff of excrement and sewage is never far from your nostrils in this place. Passing open manholes meant averting the eyes, but only so far, to avoid falling in. Talk about a fate worse than death? Taking the steps up to a row of pillared arches, said stench hit me in the face. I noted the piles of shit right next to the pillars, flies swarming ravenously around them; either there were some dirty bastards in this town, or the dogs were too embarrassed to defecate in the open.

At any rate, none of the three of us saw much reason to stick around amongst the tourist hordes. And the travellers at the hostal were of the brainless variety. I know we were all young once, but to listen to some of these kids go on and on is tantamount to torture: the CIA should ship a few of them down to Guantanamo Bay to relate their travel tales and outlooks on life to the prisoners...there wouldn't be enough pens to go around for bogus 9/11 confessions. And it's not just me. Several folk have bemoaned the median age and intelligence of today's traveller. Not that I haven't met plenty of switched-on youngsters: I have, they're just a rarity. The age of the iPhone means that foreign travel is too accessible, too easy, anybody can do it...including the oiks from your local high-rise estate who normally wouldn't get further than a mate's front room for a 12-hour McDonalds and Xbox session. There was a Welshman at the hostel who was on the road with a Canadian of similar age. Sat at the bar one night, I listened in to their stories. These seemed to revolve around being wasted, hangovers, and which hostels were the best for shagging fellow travellers. Not once was a beautiful spot mentioned, a blissful beach, foreign friendships or any type of cultural experience. I find it depressing that people like this are allowed to board aeroplanes. He sighed "Well...we can't do this forever. I don't want to get old, me. If I'm not dead by the time I'm 40, I'm going to kill myself." Dismayed at this final straw, I turned to say something, but simply laughed to myself when I saw his baseball hat perched on the back of his head, above his stupid face. GRINGO it read in block capitals. How apt. There was no need to make this chap look an arsehole...he was doing an admirable job of it himself.

Speaking of arseholes, we met another one at dinner one evening, and he made me ashamed to be English. We'd headed out for a pint with the Canadian barman from the hostel, and he brought a few people along, a public-schoolboy type among them. Sitting outside a bar, we were getting pestered by the usual kids with boxes strapped to their midriffs, selling sweets, chewing gum and cigarettes. Some can be a pain, but some amuse with their cheek and basic English. One such kid was having a laugh with us, and kept asking for one of the English guy's chips. He declined, and kept eating. Thinking he was just holding out for a laugh, we all said "Come on...give the kid a chip?" Without even looking up, this posh twit said in his cut-glass accent "I'm sure he's got enough gallo pinto at home." Gallo pinto is a mix of kidney beans and rice, the staple diet of the poor. The table went silent, but His Lordship was unmoved. If I'd been sat next to him, his plate of chips would have been passed to the kid immediately...and I'd liked to have seen what the toffee-nosed git would have done about that? Ignorant bastard. Stefano shook his head, incredulous.

I've lost count of the groups of youthful sunburnt Irishmen camped-out in hostels, inebriated from 10am onwards, and never leaving the place. Can someone explain to me the point of travelling from one Lonely Planet-rated hostal to another, and staying in all day getting drunk? They're all at it. I honestly think that people these days just travel because it's the done thing, it's not a rarity any longer. If I regret anything in life, it's not travelling sooner, when I was in my 20s. Before the internet; before smartphones; before Sky TV; before round-robin emails and facebook updates. Walk into any internet cafe worldwide, and 60% of people are checking out what others are doing back at home. I'd love to have travelled when it was all postcards home, and a short, crackly and echoing phone call to your parents to inform them that you're still alive. There are some of us looking for a more rewarding experience than the Gringo Trail. But maybe that type of travel is over? I know...I shouldn't complain. But I do. It seems a little churlish to moan on the road in foreign climes, but things can get on top of you just like they do at home.

So we moved on to León, the one town I really did like in Nicaragua. Friendlier and more authentic than Granada, I chose to study more Spanish here. It's not the prettiest place, but the folk are friendly and it's a good place to stay put for longer than a few days; find a few good local places to eat in, a decent coffee shop to frequent. The weather was beginning to turn for the worst, though. Heavy rain in León and thunderstorms in the Corn Islands saw us reviewing our plans. My friends were keen to get to Colombia via Panamá's San Blás islands, and so made to leave the next day. I wasn't in the mood for getting to know anyone else, save an Irishman my age who moaned more than me. No...honestly. The food, the people, the weather...the lot. He loved Mexico, and compared Nicaragua very unfavourably. He was also notable for being the only man I've ever met who squeezed nine fucks and fuckings into one shortand sentence. Jesus...I thought I was bad? I resolved to stop swearing, or at least cutting down, after meeting this chap.

Stef and Maxy made their exit for Panamá. The Irish fella headed back to Mexico. What to do? Where to go? My dorm had emptied, and I was alone in a 6-bed room. I watched the rain hammer the garden of the hostal as I lay on my bed, pondering my next move. It's better to have too many options than none at all, though. I certainly won't complain about that. Mine currently consisted of: heading back up to Mexico, as my flight was from Cancún later in the year; heading back to London early for some freelance work before hitting Asia earlier than planned; spending some time in Spain. The weather in Mexico looked dire. A little research online (yes, yes...I know) showed that Spain would break the bank within a month. The London summer was an oxymoron yet again...maybe not the best time to go home to her warm, familiar bosom? I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, and I was tired. 6 months on the road can take it out of you.

I thought about South America. The weather would be better on the equator. Then something my PADI Course Director in Honduras, Andy Phillips, had mentioned to me resurfaced in my mind. He'd said to let him know if I was in Ecuador at any point, as he knew a company who did good standby rates for dive liveaboards to the Galápagos Islands. Dragging my diving gear around Central America, and not getting it wet since the poor diving on Utila, had got me down a little...I'd regretted bringing it out with me, especially as most trainee instructors had used the shop gear. I'd have had a far lighter pack without it. I mailed Andy: he was his usual punctual self, and within two days I'd confirmed my place on the trip scheduled 11-18th July. At just half the price of a pre-booked trip, too.

Brightened at the prospect of diving with hammerhead sharks, seals and gargantuan whalesharks, I had a ticket out of Nicaragua booked the same afternoon. It was time to skip through to Panamá City and return to South America.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A Benchmark

I THOUGHT THAT I'd mentioned this book a while ago but, skimming back through the archives, it seems I hadn't? I know mon ami Coralie is an avid reader, and I've neglected her as regards book recommendations recently. But this one was worth waiting for, Mademoiselle Thabot.

I've read a few travel books; some good, some bad. As I Walked Out One Midsummer's Morning by Laurie Lee is an outstanding piece of work. Aged 18, in 1934 he set out from his home in the Cotswolds and walked to London to seek his fortune. After working as a labourer for a while he decided, on a whim, to take a boat to Spain...this despite having just one Castillian phrase in his linguistic arsenal. Arriving in the northern town of Vigo, he set off on foot through the countryside.

What follows is one of the most beautifully-written tales of a yesteryear Europe you could ever be fortunate enough to read. His descriptions are incredibly evocative and atmospheric; if his account of this wildly varied, colourful riot of country doesn't inspire you to visit Spain, then nothing will. His wanderings took him as far as Granada, where he was evacuated in 1936 by the Royal Navy as the civil war broke out.

I read this book in Mexico and Belize. It's always good to swap books on the road, but I couldn't bear to give this one away; particularly as my copy was a 70s edition, complete with intricate, almost Dickensian, pen-and-ink illustrations by Leonard Rosoman. So I gave it to Kneehead to take home and post from the UK, fearing the Belizean post office would lose it. Wouldn't you know it, the Glasgwegian posties managed to mislay it...it never made it home. I've since sourced another copy, I just hope it's the same one.

I'm planning a few months in Spain at some point, perhaps next summer, to follow in Laurie's footsteps. The journey couldn't possibly be as interesting as his; can you imagine how few people travelled in those days? But I'd like to do it as a pilgrimage to a writer who has inspired me.

If you pick up a copy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.