Thursday, 28 January 2010

Thanks...

I like to tell a tale. Making people laugh is one of life’s pleasures for me. I've met some great people (and some lunatics and freaks), one or two friends for life; funny things have happened to me; amazing things have happened to me; frightening things have almost happened to me. Unfortunately I didn’t have you there with me to see it. But I hope what I’ve written has amused you at some point, and made you feel like you were. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything written, or not to think I’m an arsehole (thanks, Robin…you still have a hairdresser’s name, though) at some point in the proceedings. It’s a warts-and-all story, what can I say? I say what I see.

I might have upset the Israelis (good), the odd Aussie (jury's out) and have certainly upset a French acquaintance (though a female Parisian mate was quite amused and playfully ticked me off at Christmas) It’s tongue-in-cheek: I’m hardly Jim Davidson.

I’m flattered that people I respect for their various crafts have read this blog, and encouraged me. You know who you are. I’ve also had nudges from old friends eager to read more; believe me, I really do appreciate the kicks up the arse as I've needed them throughout life. I’ve had random emails from people as far away as the US and China. There are people I may actually get to visit on another trip, and that would be weird, in a good way. The world has certainly got smaller. Though I’d loved to have travelled before mobile phones and the internet to truly feel any sense of escape.

Enough suntanned navel-gazing. Time is the most important commodity any of us have. I want to thank each and every one of you for giving me some of yours.

On Reflection

I’ve been asked on several occasions what I’ve taken from my trip; how has it changed me? I didn’t expect to be changed, and I haven’t been, apart from in one small way. Pre-travel me spent too much money. Gadgets I didn’t need, but wanted anyway; clothes I’d hardly wear; nearly as many pairs of trainers as my mate Jimbob. Freelancing in London pays well, and I’d think nothing of going out at lunch for a sandwich and coming back with a pair of £150 jeans and a couple of t-shirts. Not to eat, of course: I still bought a sandwich.

The main thing to take from a trip like this is that money doesn’t make people happy. I’ve seen the poorest of families just enjoy being alive and spending time with each other and their communities. They smile more than us. Their enthusiasm for life rubs off on you; whether it’s the Thais going mad for our football; the cheeky Filipino kids shouting “Hey…GI Joe!” after you in the street, the beautiful Javan doctor spontaneously giving up her afternoon to show you volcanoes; or the cackling Peruvian taxi driver telling you Peruvian girls love it up the bum…you can’t help but enjoy it. The laughs, that is…not doing it up the bum.

Another thing I’ll take is how civilised, diverse and inspiring Europe is: you need to go away to appreciate it. Things work, things get done. It just costs more to live here. I may still settle here again after seeing to this itch, but it’s Barcelona my heart hankers for. We’ll see if I ever end up there.

Coming back, I was struck by the visible technology back in London: every third person on the phone, or scrutinising a screen of some sort. We never seem to switch off. I can easily resist the urge to buy an iPhone. Jocky proselytised about his, and delighted in showing me all the Apps he had. We’ll be an insular society one day, all walking round tapping these bloody Twit Machines and hardly noticing one another. My phone has no cover, and has been glued together countless times…I’ll keep using it though, because it’s not broken yet. Besides, no fucker will nick it?

So I’ll work to travel for a while. I feel a little churlish writing about my thoughts at the end of a trip on the eve of another one. The wrecks of Busuanga are calling me back. I leave tomorrow. In fact, by the time you read this I’ll be almost there. And by the time you’re eating your lunch Wednesday I’ll be braving the streets of Manila. As you have that Friday lunchtime pint, I’ll be sat on the back of a dive boat with a huge grin after another deep, dark venture inside Irako’s hallowed corridors.

Sorry about that. I might even write about it to rub it in?

Bad Penny

The next few hours flew by. No pun. A blur, in fact, and before I knew it we were taxiing towards take-off. I felt happy and sad at the same time. Game Over. Back to work. Back to London. But back to friends and family, too. I finished my book, the worst one of the worst trip unfortunately, and watched all the films available. Having exhausted all entertainment possibilities, I dozed off after four or five red wines.

I awoke to sunlight and the Captain’s announcement that were starting our descent. The familiar lurch in the stomach later, the bump and screech of Indian rubber hitting English tarmac, and I was home.

Time’s Up & Goodbye To Old Friends

Well, the day I had been dreading for so long had finally arrived: 23rd September, one year on. Now it was here, I felt strangely excited about the prospect of going home. It’s not that I’d missed England much, and there was more I wanted to see; I’d been gutted not to view Bolivian landscapes Garfield and Speckled Jim were currently witnessing. But I was pleased I’d done Peru some justice, though could have seen more. There’s always next time. I think I was just a little fatigued, and road-weary.

I bought myself a new pair of trainers in Rio; my old ones could have walked home all on their own, and I would have been embarrassed turning up in London wearing them. The new ones have split already, incidentally, so I may head back to Rio to exchange them: I still have the receipt, you bastards.

A girl from the hostel wanted to join me on the bus to the airport. I didn’t blame her, there were some shady characters hanging around the streets as darkness enveloped Ipanema’s back streets. She wouldn’t stop talking though, and as she arranged her bags on a seat I chose one a few rows back, preferring to be alone with my thoughts as the lights of Rio danced by my window; the pretty girls in dresses laughing in the street; smiling as we passed a 5-a-side pitch with locals still playing at 10 at night.

Beach Life/ Beach Death?

I didn’t see much of the famed bronzed beauty, as the rain and wind didn’t lend itself to sunbathing and swimming. The waves pounding the beach were quite frightening too. But I had swum in every sea I had come across, so this wasn’t deterring me. I waited until a few joggers got close before going in, not that I could expect them to save me. As the water rushed back out to sea, sucking me in, I wondered at my potential folly. I could just see it now: “Tourist On Trip Of A Lifetime Dies On Last Day Like Twit” I didn’t go out too far, just enough to swim for 15 yards and stand up…legging it out of the sea before the next might wave smote me. When you can see three waves on top of each other hurtling towards the beach, you know it’s time to get the fuck out.

One thing I did love on the beach was the digital sunscreen warning machines: they tell you the current temperature, what SF you should be wearing for your complexion, and how long in the sun before burning. Brilliant. I’m surprised the Aussies don’t have them, to be honest.

DIY Rio

I’ll admit it: I was a tourist again in Rio. It started feeling a bit like that in Thailand, and ended this way in this fine Brazilian city. Being a little shattered after a year on the road in between, I was struggling to find the energy to strike out my own and discover the real Rio. I don’t think the weather was inspiring me, either.

A football tour we took could easily have been made alone; the stumpy American-sounding bloke who took us to see Botofogo made an easy killing on around 40 of us. The Yank herded us around with military precision, keeping an eye on us and guiding us to our seats in the safe section, but the local fans couldn’t have been friendlier, and loved talking to us about English football; it was sketchy outside the ground, but nothing I couldn’t handle…particularly after having seen Manila.

So do it yourself. Rio’s a lovely city, and my best day was simply walking around it with Frank…taking photos all morning and grabbing a delicious (and deliciously-priced) salad in the bohemian district. We walked so much our feet ached. People everywhere warned us to be on our guard; that’s one thing you do not drop in this city, under any circumstances. But, if only they spoke Spanish here, I would live here tomorrow.

The Nicest Man In Brazil

One house pointed out to us stood on a verdant slope opposite a favela. Beautiful, tasteful and gleaming white, I was sure Swiss Stick Insect was going to tell us some murderous tale about its resident, though as it turned out it belongs to the best plastic surgeon in Brazil. His clientele consists of movie stars, models and the usual neurotic crowd; he gives up time to work on the poor for free: children with cleft palates and the like. There really aren’t enough people like him in the world, are there?

Into The Favelas

Rio is a stark contrast of rich and poor. The shops and restaurants frequented by the wealthy are staffed by the poor from the slums: the favelas. Far from being forgotten areas of the city on the outskirts, these districts sit right next door to some of the wealthiest areas of this vast conurbation. Rich and Poor live on opposite sides of the street on the borders. But there are not many robberies for the moneyed to fear; the favelas are run by gangs and gunmen who do not want the police presence in their favela that such crime would bring: here the police shoot to kill. Indeed, they have a special unit of highly trained men whose missions are usually seek-and-destroy on targets in the upper echelons of these gangs. After seeing City Of God, I wanted witness them for myself.

Apparently it is safe to walk into the favelas from a robbery perspective, but it’s much more likely an unfamiliar face will draw gunfire. Getting your iPod nicked is a minor nuisance; getting your ribs blown through your back by an AK47 burst is a bit of a pain in the arse.

One girl in the hostel recommended a tour, so Frank Spencer and myself booked us on it the next day. The girl said not to wear flip-flops because of the raw sewage running down from the tops of the slums, and to keep your knees in when careening through the tight alleyways and rat-runs; one guy had shattered a kneecap this way. They’d taken scooters up into the hills, and walked down…meeting drug-dealers, lookouts with guns and plenty of locals. Sounded great.

We waited for the transport, and along came a minibus with a haughty Rio-born Swiss woman of about 60. This was going to be fun. The bus filled up with a group of frightfully posh lawyers from London. Listening to them braying, I was beginning to hope we’d get sprayed with gunfire as we entered the favela…and I was going to stick my head of the window to ensure I got hit first.

Swiss Miss read us the rules: no pointing cameras up at rooftops; only take photos when she said it was safe etc etc. We jumped out of the minibus at a side street leading down to a marketplace. I stood and looked around, as a youth walked past with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Here, there are no police: they are not allowed into the favelas on the proviso the drug gangs police their districts. These same gangs have been involved in open warfare with their rivals for years; if the police notify the tours that such activity is imminent, the tour is cancelled. The police aren’t necessarily the good guys (as in much of South America) and death-squads have been accused of clearing the city of street-children in the past few decades: orders from the top to make the city more aesthetically pleasing.

Ambling down the market, we turned the corner and walked 50 yards to where I was perturbed to find the minibus waiting for us. Eh? Shepherded to safety after walking down just one street right on the edge? “Is it me, or is this a load of bollocks?” I asked Frank. He just laughed. One of the posh girls turned round to admonish my churlishness “Oh my god, like, what did you expect to see? Do you want to see scary people walking round with machine guns?” she sounded surprised. “Sorry to ruin the jolly little party but yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to see…not plastic fucking FavelaLand™. I’ve had more frightening walks around Hackney on a Sunday night…” She scowled and wrinkled her little blueblood nose. Some people…

The next favela was a “safe” one, where we were free to walk around. It was akin to London Fields as opposed to Hackney; similar shit housing in parts, but the locals weren’t as dangerous. The views were great, but walking down a few back alleys before being taken to the Swiss’s favourite soda shop was not my idea of fun.

We got back to the hostel, and the girl asked me how it had been. I told her nothing like hers; she then told me she’d booked one independently, not through the hostel. Shit. So if you’re going to do a tour, do it through www.bealocal.br as they are supposed to be great. If you book one run by a Swiss stick insect with glasses, fake Delhi Belly and just lose your deposit; you could be down the pub.

Brasil!

The flight from Lima was nondescript; either that or I was still really pissed and noticed nothing of the scenery. Whichever, I was looking forward to ending my year on the road with a week on and around Ipanema Beach…sucking in my gut while admiring the beautiful creatures prancing around the golden sands (and that’s just the boys!). I was a little confused as we descended towards tarmac, drifting through a heavy blanket of grey cloud. Passengers exchanged worried glances; a woman behind me said “Are they sure this is Rio?” So I turned and smiled “It may as well be Blackpool” What a horrible thought, even in jest.

As we disembarked I thought, “Ah well, at least it’s not raining…” as the random spots started to darken the tarmac. Chin up, dear boy.

More ATM fun for an hour before I could get out of the terminal; I’ve never typed so quickly while online, you would too at 50p a minute internet access. A bus bound for Ipanema, and I relaxed and took in the views of this crumbling, beautifully decaying city; collapsing concrete, elaborate graffiti, deserted alleyways and disused buildings…possibly the most photogenic city so far. I was in love with it well before we hit the city proper.

Turfed out at Ipanema, I made my way to a hostel recommended by Jocky. Not a bad place, but steep at £18 a night just for a dorm bed, especially when I was used to spending that on a full day and night elsewhere in South America. Going out eating and drinking, it’s basically London prices. Worse when Carnaval’s on in February…the same dorm bed in £100 a night. Deary me.

Settling in to my space, I stretched out on the bed as Frank Spencer’s doppelganger popped his head out from a bed above. “Recognise the accent…where are you from?” he asked. “Preston.” He chuckled and I twigged immediately “You’re from Blackpool, then?” Indeed he was. Dirty Donkey Lasher (what we call Blackpool fans). Despite my disgust for his home town, and especially its football team, myself and Dave got on like a house on fire, and spent the next few days together. No…not like that.