Friday, 28 August 2009

Head In The Clouds

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

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

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

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

And What A Scummy Man...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear And Loathing In Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Coke Tourists

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

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

Tico The Mystic Man

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Wild Bill & The Coke Tourists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Speak And Spell At the Panamanian Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Carpugana & Sapzurro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should have Listened To Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Instruction At Playa Blanca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli Vindication

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Oh, The Irony Of It All...

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

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

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

Language Barriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia's Coastal Jewel

A riot of colour and tropical heat, and fanned by an all too occasional sea breeze, the city of Cartagena de Indias is the sparkling jewel in Colombia's crown. With local people even warmer than the climate, this is a very pleasant place to be...and if you're not careful you'll grow roots. A mate of mine who works for Lonely Planet came out here for a week and stayed 6 months. I can see why.

We arrived by long distance bus, and hopped into a taxi for the ride into the centre. We were immediately transfixed by the hustle and bustle of Getsemani, sidestreets packed with locals and vendors, kids and dogs chasing each other along sun-cracked pavements, overweight and sometimes pregnant (very niche, I'd imagine?) prostitutes touting for business, piles of fruit on roadside stalls. A few minutes' walk along these streets can turn into an interesting hour...the locals are all too happy to sit and chat.

We took a room in Media Luna Hostel, the biggest and newest in the area. It started well enough, and we'd had a few decent nights out in the beginning. I returned one afternoon to find Jocky and Garfield in conversation with a few people around a table. I sat down and introductions were made.

"Guess who's here?" laughed Jocky.
"You're joking..?"
"Don Don Don" himself and Garfield chorused.
"Can't you hear her?" asked my Scots friend, and nodded across the courtyard.

The American lads at the table asked as to what the joke was. I started explaining about this girl's verbal diarrhoea. A couple of minutes in, Jocky was telling me to be careful. DDD had just walked up alongside me, stopping me mid-sentence. But any fears of me being caught mid-bitch were allayed as she started blabbing at a hundred miles about her journey. Christ. Any further fears of me being thought of as a bit of a bitch were also allayed as I caught the eye of one of the American lads', and he raised his eyebrows and smiled agreement.

That night continued in similar fashion, DDD holding court up on the roof terrace, telling everyone the best places to visit in South America, Politics (questionable), informing some people they'd been ripped off for this and that as she's only paid such-and-such. She sat in between myself and Jocky, and she began harping on about her job...then actually asked what I did? Overcoming my surprise at her actually wanting to talk about anything but herself (obviously her favourite subject: "Anyway, enough about me...what do you think about me?"), I managed a brief outline of work. We then realised we'd briefly worked together at a London design agency. Thankfully only for a week as I was leaving and she was new. I'd have remembered being subjected to this type of verbal onslaught, otherwise?

Of course, we disagreed on a number of subjects. On the roof one night, a few people were knocking the Israelis (a common past-time around her, it seems...everyone has an opinion, none of them favourable). We discussed past and recent history. Her response to the Palestinians being ousted from their land? "Well the Jews needed somewhere to live, because they had a bad time in the War". An interesting point. My Grandad suffered in Burma fighting the Japanese in said War, and he didn't get offered a timeshare in the Golan Heights as far as I'm aware. I'll ask my Nan. I won't even get started on the heated Darwin's Theory Of Evolution discussion she had with Garfield, it was incredible but long-winded.

Later she mentioned wanting to travel through New Zealand in a camper van. Brilliant: Jocky had done just that a few months ago, and so I dragged him (reluctantly and wearing a rictus grin) into the conversation, waited a minute until she took over...then ducked out and started talking to Garfield, instead. A manuevre Field Marshal Montgomery would have been proud of.