Tag Archives: Latin America

The Hokey Pokey

The Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu were the last two big hurrahs of my whole trip. Talk about finishing on a high.

The day after we got back from the hike, we caught up with Gabby, Christina, Karen & Tonya (two sassy chicks from the States) for a breakfast so big it could have fed an African village. We walked it off at the Inka Museum, which is definitely worth seeing if you’re ever over this way.

I wasn’t feeling so flash (plumbing problems) so I went back to the hostel while Shell carried on sight-seeing and squeezing some last minute beanie-buying in.

That night we met up with Karen & Tonya, and a wicked English couple who’d also been on the hike –  Jon & Megan for ‘last drinks’ inside an opium den of a bar. We sat on the floor & talked shit for a few hours while working our way through the entire cocktail list. Good times.

Shell & I said our goodbyes very early the next morning. It had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to share the last 2 weeks with one of my besties. She had done it. She had managed to get me up those big ass hills with her big ass smile. It was nice to know it would be only a matter of days – not months – before I saw her again.

I spent the rest of the day making plans, doing some last minute gift shopping and visited the Art Gallery. Which I wouldn’t bother seeing if you’re ever over this way.

I then got on what must surely be the poshest bus in the world. For 150 sols ($50) you get a seat that reclines to a bed. There is so much room in between the seats it is impossible to kick the seat in front of you. I tried. They give you a blankie and a pillow and a headset. There was a meal & a movie and get this: freaking wi-fi!!! I was a bit hungover from the night before, so I crashed early and got one of the best nights sleep ever. On a bus! In South America!

I woke up in a shithole called Ica. And then got onto a local bus to a place called Huacachina where I’d heard you could go sandboarding down desert dunes. Sanded like a cool lil diversion on the way back up to Lima.

There wasn’t much to do in Haucachina, so I just caught up on some emails, writing and what have you. And then at 4, we met by our dune buggy driver.

He took us up & over the dunes as if he was driving in a demolition derby. On crack. Taking the hills completely airborne. Then crashing down with an almighty thud. And a skidding sideways finish.

It sounds like fun, doesn’t it.

It was

TERRIFYING.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all down with taking risks. I have jumped out of planes. I have dived with sharks. I’m all over that shit.

What I am not down with, is being in sketchy-assed steel death trap with zero safety options that is being driven by a short, fat man with something to prove. We of course, had no helmets. It seemed highly probable I could be tossed out, crack my skull and die. I was so scared, I actually started praying. For the record, I am not religious. By the time we got out, I was shaking like a wil wabbit. I wanted to vomit.

I decided to have a quiet – but firm – word with the short fat man. He looked me up & down, fancied he might have been in with a chance, and reassured me he’d slow it down.

We then spent the next couple of hours sand-boarding down silky smooth slopes just as the subdued sun started setting. I kinda forgot about the crazy dune buggy ride for a while. It was just so surreal & sublime. The colours. The curves. Just stunning.

Now when I say I went sand-boarding, I feel like I should clarify what I mean. Anyone who knows me will testify that I sometimes find walking a challenge. I am notoriously clumsy. But! I did manage to board (on my feet) down the first little baby slope. I also ate an awful lot of sand.

Sand doesn’t taste anywhere as good as snow. Just so you know.

So I took the remainder of the slopes which got increasingly steeper, longer & harder on my belly. Easier. Safer. Much better for everyone. No less sand in your face. Maybe more. I had a wicked afternoon and came home with enough sand in my bits to complete for a world record. And trust me – I’ve had some previous attempts at it J

***

The next day, I headed straight up to Lima for what would be my last 2 nights in Latin America. Wow. My year of warm summer nights, dancing in the streets & drinks featuring lots of limes was now coming to an end.

My time in Lima ended up being decidedly uneventful.

I got my haircut & my nails done. I did a bit of last minute earring-buying. And I ‘celebrated’ with a few vodka cocktails with a few randoms at the hostel. If you can call it that. To be perfectly honest, my company was a little uninspiring. And I was in a very reflective mood.

I started thinking about all my loved ones who I was able to connect with along the way, mates who lived abroad who I was able to visit in their home towns, new friends I’d made along the way, all who had proffered good times, and folks who I hoped to see again one day.* People are what make places great. I had been very very lucky to have met some absolutely remarkable ones along the way.

I also got to thinking about what I had learnt. Big stuff, small stuff. This isn’t all of it. But it’s a fair whack.

  • Clean drinking water should be a right for all. It is, in all reality, a privilege for a few.
  • We are very lucky in Australia to have access to such a diverse range of fresh produce.
  • “Higiénico sanitarios” doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. Oh, and paper goes in the bin not down the dunny.
  • When they’re shouting at you in Rivas, remember that you can always get the next bus.
  • Stay if you like. And go if you don’t. You are always free to choose a different road.
  • Don’t believe everything you read in the LP or on TripAdvisor. One man’s awesome can be a meat market. While one woman’s 1-star can be simply simple. And authentic. And amazing. Some people have absolutely no idea.
  • On that note, ‘real Peruvians’ are everywhere.
  • I think country folk tend to be nicer everywhere in the world.
  • A little bit of the language & a big smile goes a long way.
  • Yo hablo Español! (yo soy retardo, pero peudo hablar un pocito Español)
  • You can be true friends with a stranger in an instant.
  • And it doesn’t mean you ever have to see each other again.
  • Karma is fo’real.
  • People are essentially good.
  • But ignorant fucks are still everywhere. Some of them are well educated and incredibly well-travelled.
  • and to that point – America is not a country, it’s a whole continent. Containing no less than 35 countries. The US of A is just one of them.
  • Colombia is not dangerous. No more than Blacktown.
  • Men over there can dance!
  • And they love my ass. (What’s not to love.)
  • I LOVE diving. But in my old age, I am becoming a fair-weather diver.
  • What’s the difference between God & a Dive Master? God doesn’t think he’s a Dive Master.
  • I’m funny.
  • And I make a pretty mean Mojito.
  • Apparently I have exceptional taste in music.
  • 5 hours sleep is plenty when I’m not stressed.
  • I like to write. In fact, this is my 70th post. Which would bring the word count to approximately 100,000 words. Or 2 novels. In just over a year.
  • We in the first world waste so much & complain about so much.
  • We buy a lot of shit we don’t need with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.
  • And we think being busy is a good thing.
  • Whilst I have learnt that being still is an even better thing.
  • Some of the poorest people I met were the happiest.
  • I can highly recommend a daily dose of gratitude.
  • I have a lot to be grateful for.
  • Time is a luxury but I need to take responsibility for how I manage it.
  • I want to spend more time being creative.
  • And more time with less people (who matter more).
  • I also want to spend more time with my folks. I want them to know me a bit better. And I want to learn what I can from them. While I still have the opportunity.
  • Evidently I cannot live without Vegemite.
  • And I don’t want to live without laksa. Or blue cheese. (Not together. That would be wrong.)
  • It is more difficult to get a good coffee over there, than you would imagine.
  • Kindles will never replace the magic of a real book with real pages but they Are. Remarkable. Inventions.
  • I need less now than ever before.
  • But my list of countries I want to visit keeps getting bigger as opposed to smaller.
  • The world is an amazing place.
  • The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.
  • The Hokey Pokey could just well be what it’s all about.

*Shout out to Leanne, Naomi , Angie & Charlotte (New York).  Martin, Faith, Matt, Melissa & Maya (San Fran). Dave & Rita & their crazy crew (Houston). Claire & Christian (Mexico City). Dahlia, Coleena, Jill, Pamela, Rowdy & Chris (Isla Mujeres). Nathan & Sparkles (Belize). Jenn, Shelby, Phil & all the Maximo Nivel crew (Antigua). Skye (Honduras / Nicaragua). Shannon & Queso, Morgan, Kate & their Mammy (Ometepe). My neighbours Flaco & Luis and their families, Steph & Cimba. Pinky, Topless & Curly, Nathan & Josie, and Essex (Little Corn Island). The Bowen brothers (Panama – Colombia). Scott (Colombia). Sammy, Frida, Fernando, Niamh, Marcia, Marc, Big Mike & Nasir (Salento). Michelle (Peru). And all the other incredible human beans I met along the way, who I shared a beer / meal / dance / spliff / bed / conversation / laugh with. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

But final credits must go to the COO  (Chief of Opportunities). And the little angel who made sure I didn’t kill myself despite best efforts. Muchisimo gracias!

***

This is the final post for indygogal.wordpress.com – at least for this trip.

I’m back home in Sydney now, and will be indulging my desire to keep on trucking at my new blog: indygowords

You can expect erratic entries, mad ramblings, marrow & flesh, bad typing, dirty fantasies, made-up answers, music, film & book reviews, personal confessions, and some rollicking good times along the way.

So strap in, sign up & get involved!

Mixed tape

TIME KEEPS ON SLIPPING, SLIPPING (INTO THE FUTURE)

Time has a strange way of warping when you’re wandering. I ended up staying in the sleepy lil town of Salento for just over 6 weeks. Most folk come to see the wax palms, do a coffee tour, and stay for maybe 3 nights. 4 nights, tops.

When Sammy – the self-appointed ‘Director of Happiness’ (the perfect role for the happy-go-lucky lad) – left, I started working at La Serrana. I did that for just a fortnight. The rest of the time, I was just a paying guest. Far preferable in many ways. It meant I was free to come & go as I pleased.

The work wasn’t hard. It was just a matter of being around every night. All we had to do was take care of after hours’ check-ins / outs and ensure guests were taken care of. In exchange we got free nights & some meals. I also did a marketing strat for Jon in exchange for some additional nights.

I’ll be straight up with you: there’s not a whole lot to do in Salento. But that is kind of the whole point. Having said that – sometimes I would get to the end of the day and would be at a complete loss as to where it had gone. And it wasn’t because I was busy.

In fact – quite the opposite: it was all I could do to maybe have a bit of a morning stretch, take my time over a big breakfast and then struggle through a Spanish lesson. Afterwards I’d stroll into town, buy a Salpicón de frutas & have a bit of a jibber with the locals. Sometimes I’d meet a friend for lunch or a coffee. Then I’d pop in the supermercado, buy some groceries, amble on home, and cook up a tasty feed for new friends. All of a sudden it would be time for bed.

How did I fit everything else in before I started travelling? My sabbatical looks to be coming to an end pretty soon and I’m getting a wee bit anxious about returning to my old life: Getting so busy that my friends have to schedule a date with me 6 weeks in advance. Getting so frantic that I need to diarise a few hours to be on my own. Getting so hectic that I don’t have time to notice flowers opening, new graffiti, or lilting butterflies – you know, the important stuff.

Apart from 6 months in Europe in ’98, I’ve never had the luxury of this much time. And maybe I won’t again for quite some time. At first I felt guilty. Thinking in particular of my new-mummy friends, who also have to work full-time and just never seem to have time to scratch themselves. But now after one year – finally, I am truly able to live in the moment and just enjoy. It’s a nice lesson to have learnt – and it’s one I hope I can hang onto when I go back to my ‘real life’.

BREATHE

Having said that, in amongst all this beautiful non-busyness – this simple slow life to which I’ve become accustomed… there’s still a part of me that needs to be productive: to learn or to create.

In the last year, I’ve spent two months taking Spanish classes (on Isla Mujeres in Mexico and also in Salento in Colombia). In Antigua, Guatemala, I took a month-long class learning how to teach English. And on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua, I worked in a bar for just over a month & can now pour a bloody good Cuba Libré. I figure if you’re going to stop & be productive – you may as well do it somewhere gorgeous, Right?

In terms of creating – I’ve discovered I actually do have creative instincts (been in denial for 30-something years) and I’d like to spend more honing this when I go home. But one of the best things to come out of this trip for me is I’ve finally discovered my passion! Writing. How good is that?

So it was a little strange how in Salento – where I had all the time in the world – somehow I struggled to find the time to write. In part, I think this was because I was spending a bit of time doing some soul searching. But I also think I just need to face up to the fact that even when it comes to your passion – you need to practice discipline. Make it a part of your daily practice.

I think this doesn’t relate just to writing. But other stuff as well.

A few weeks ago, a truly gentle man by the name of Nas came to stay with us. Originally from India, he’s been travelling the world for the last 29 years! You don’t travel the world for that long without accumulating a bag load of stories, a good sense of humour & quite a bit of wisdom. Nas informed me I needed to learn how to breathe properly. He talked of noticing the differences in how we breathe in different situations. He said the air we breathe connects us to the outside world. And he suggested that everyone needs to have a practice, such as yoga, where we observe how we breathe. He told me that when you are able to breathe normally in uncomfortable positions, this helps you replicate this type of breathing in difficult situations in life. And that helps you manage the situation. It’s not something I’ve ever given much thought to before. But it really made sense.

I learnt a lot from Nas. I also laughed a lot with him. And I ended up buying two of his paintings (he’s a very talented artist). One was of all the butterflies in the fairytale landscape that was Ometepe (in Nicaragua). The other a light-infused jungle landscape inspired by the northern parts of Panama. I love love love them and can’t wait to get them framed & hanging on my walls someday soon.

THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

Nas was just one of the many amazing people who came to stay at La Serrana. It’s the type of place that just draws beautiful people to it.

The ‘front yard’ is an unfettered lush green valley with all these gorgeous feminine curves… and just like a woman: it is forever changing moods – the shapes shift, the clouds drift… sunshine peaks out and rainbows form before a headstrong storm… Not once did I tire of looking out at that valley on my way up to breakfast.

Breakfast is held in an ambient dining room. Lots of solid timber & glass. Apparently, the entire property was once owned by a massive, wealthy Cali / Medellin family. And the gorgeous vivacious Olga who cooks us brekky every day used to be their family cook. She told us she once did a dinner for 150 of them. I love eating here: the sun spills into the glassed walls… and from the exposed beams hang hundreds and hundreds of empty wine bottles.

I spent my weekday mornings taking Spanish lessons at one of the alfresco tables. 180 degree views. Marcia, my gregarious teacher, is qualified to teach at university level. She’s one of 6 kids (all of whom are professionals) and she’s also a single mum. Her son is at uni in Bogota studying law. She’s rightfully very proud of him. She’s really helped improve my Spanish and I just loved spending time with her. I‘ve learnt a lot about Colombian culture through her.

Marcia was sweet enough to invite me and Marc – an Aussie larrikin who arrived here on crutches – to dinner at her house for Santa Semana (Holy Week). She cooked up a most delicious traditional dish called Ajiaco Bogotano for her son, friends & us. Marc had 3 helpings it was that good!

He was a good boy that one. Bit out there, but a heart of fucking gold. He reminded me a bit of wild brumby. We had a great night literally (okay, maybe not literally) laughing our arses off on golden tops we’d found in the fields under cow patties. That was definitely one of my all-time favourite ‘big nights out’ in Salento. Mind you – they were very far & few between!

Most of my evenings were spent cooking up a storm in the communal kitchen… generally huge vegetarian feasts for the long-termers – teaming up with the softly-spoken Fernando from Argentina (who was one of the other volunteers there) and drinking cheap Chilean reds.

Either that or revelling in Olga’s culinary skills. Mexican nights were my favourite, followed very closely by her mushroom & nut burgers. Which Olga gave me the recipe for, as part of my farewell present from all the staff – I was stoked! I ended up getting quite close to the staff there. Particularly Olga and the one of the hardest working Latin Americans I have ever met, Luz. They all only spoke Spanish which provided a great opportunity for me to practice. But moreover, I just really enjoyed getting to know them. We shared lots of girly goss & giggles. Tears were shed when I left. I’m gunna miss them all terribly.

TATTOO

In fact, I’m going to miss the whole country terribly. I ended up being there close to my 90 days. It’s a stunning country. And the people are so warm & welcoming. It’s funny: you hear all these things about how dangerous Colombia is & blah blah blah.

One night I found myself stumbling home down the 1.2km dirt track from town, in the middle of the night – quite drunk & completely alone. I don’t know that I would even do that in Australia. And here I was in goddamn Colombia! I know for a fact that I had absolutely nothing to worry about. I was safe as houses.

Colombia was full of surprises for me: It’s no secret that a lot of tourists  go there for a *good, cheap* time. And as someone who’s always been up for a *good cheap* time –it is a little ironic then that Colombia for me was the beginning of something a lot deeper.

This vacation has never been about eating, loving and praying (just quietly – I hated that book). I originally just wanted to take some time out, see a bit of Latin America, do a bit of diving & possibly drink a *few* mojitos.

I’m not even certain if Colombia was originally on my hit list. I was only supposed to be away for 4 months. Nearly one year later & here I am – still going. And I’m delving more into the spiritual and less into the spirits.

I ended up participating in the Ayahuasca ceremony three more times. And every time was wildly different for me. And extraordinarily enlightening. Sometimes scary. My past came back to haunt me. My future made itself known to me. I took a walk with my demons. And I saw my guiding lights. On my last night, I thought I was going to die. In all seriousness. I saw a white light. I heard a voice calling me. My body temperature dropped dramatically. I was unbearably cold. And then I started thinking about everyone I loved. It was terrifying. But also very revealing. I learned what I need to focus on from here on in.

I feel very fortunate. It might be overstating it a bit, but I felt like meeting the Shaman – Señor Carlos (or Tita) was akin to meeting the Dalai Lama. He is very clearly an extraordinarily spiritual, wise man. He sees stuff. He knows stuff. He can fix stuff. He and his people are very experienced and are all amazing caring individuals.

The morning after my penultimate ceremony, I spent some time with another Shaman, ‘Jairo’, who amongst other things told me I needed to meditate on these four words: Humildad, Respeto, Amor & Gratitud (Humility, Respect, Love & Gratitude). These words – while simple & essentially non-revolutionary really resonated with me. I knew immediately that I wanted to tattoo these words on my wrist as a reminder of my time with these people, as a reminder of the things I need to be mindful of on a daily basis and as a reminder of my time in Colombia. Beautiful, surprising Colombia.

The way it is

Cartagena is surrounded by 11kms of stone wall which took the Spaniards more than 200 years to build in response to repeated attacks by pirates. According to LP, Cartagena was one of the most “important bastions of the Spanish overseas empire and influenced much of Colombia’s history.” Inside these walls there is a charming ‘old town’ whose cobblestone streets I had already roamed (and tripped up on) many times over the past two weeks. Despite feeling like I’d been there a bit too long, I was going to be more than happy to wander those streets again with my old friend, Scott.

I surprised him by meeting him at the airport. Lots of squealing and jumping up & down and hugs all round. Okay, I squealed and jumped up & down. We then checked into a pretty hotel with a rooftop pool & a cracking view of the entire city (his treat). And then it was Christmas! Well kinda.

I had asked Scott to bring me a bunch of things from back home. Vegemite (how could i have neglected to leave home without it?); Bonds knickers (because apparently I have the biggest ass in all of Latin America. Where the fuck do all the black ladies shop?); mini tampons (impossible to find over here); and Bushman’s bug repellent (so many jungles and only 7.5% DEET!?) Aaaand not to forget my brand spanking new Kindle! Books books and more books. I can download up to 1,000 I’m told. And it weighs just 290g! Did you know the LP South America on a Shoestring book weighs 830g? Every Gram Counts when you’re carrying 22kg on your back. Trust me.

We caught up over dinner in an alfresco Italian restaurant in the beautiful (albeit very touristy) Plaza Santo Domingo, where Botero’s Gordita (aka, the fat lady) lounges seductively right in front of the church. Nude! The saucy minx.

Next day, we visited the macabre Palacio de Inquisicion which houses a depraved collection of instruments of torture – including an Addams Family style stretching rack and an iron skullcap with a drill piece. My favourite article though, was the list of questions they used to ask women to determine if they were witches, such as: “What worms and caterpillars/slugs have you created?”

That afternoon, we had wine & cheese and watched the sunset from the rooftop. Much later (no one even thinks about going out until 1030pm over here) – we went to Club Havana. Flocked walls are adorned with antique lights and fading framed photos of legendary Cuban singers. An old timber U-shaped bar is surrounded by high stools. Waiters in white vests serve up the meanest mojitos I’ve ever imbibed. And later: another massive band on another teeny stage playing sassy salsa you just gotta shake yer stuff to.

Needless to say, nothing much got accomplished the next morning. We did manage to visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas high up on a hill later in the afternoon. It’s an interesting triangular shaped design with multiple layers, and is said to be impenetrable. Underneath there is a complex maze of tunnels which have incredible acoustics. At sunset, we had a couple of beers at Cafe del Mar before heading to a Japanese restaurant for sushi & sashimi and a lychee martini!

Next day we set off for a side trip along the Caribbean coast towards Venezuela.

I had heard Santa Marta wasn’t particularly special, so we just stopped for just one night. That eve, we had some excellent Spanish tapas & a local brew in a bar by the plaza. The next day we got some beach time in (confirming: nothing special) and went for a walk to a swish-looking restaurant at the top of a steep hill overlooking Rodadero.

I don’t think Scott was terribly impressed when we later boarded a non air-conditioned bus which wouldn’t have provided a midget with any legroom. Luckily the trip to Taganga was only an hour.

The place Scott had booked for us at Taganga was just gorgeous. We were very enthusiastically greeted by a very young, very pretty Colombian girl. She turned out to be the wife of the French owner, who was old enough to be her grandfather (standard.) He had extended his lovely family home with two casitas off to the side. A bougainvillea-lined pool provided sweeping views of the village & the bay.

Later that afternoon, I went for a walk downtown to organise a dive. Taganga is a tiny fishing village rampant with wannabe hippies, high on ganja selling, lots of very average looking jewellery. The township is a bit hot & dusty by day but quite pretty at dusk. It’s renowned for cheap-as-chips diving courses.

I went for a couple of dives the next morning. Windy as all get out on the way to the site, so we got absolutely drenched before even getting into the water. First dive in more than a year that I had to wear a wettie for (Have to say: not too keen on the sub 20 degrees water anymore). The vis wasn’t all that great, but the reef was in great condition. Loads of big ass fish (and a notable absence of lionfish). Plus I got to see a couple of slugs & other stuff I hadn’t seen before. So all good.

Next day we made our way to Tayrona National Park, where Scott continued to up the ante. We stayed here.

At the top of a winding old stone stairway, you are welcomed by not one, but two infinity pools – which guide your wide open eyes to the most spectacular vista of a deserted wild seascape. Our own private beach stretching on for ever. This folks, is what is known as “flashpacking”.

Considering there were only four suites, the place was massive. And there were soooo many things to lounge around on. Banana lounges. Day bed lounges. Living room lounges. There was even a suspended dugout canoe which had been converted to a lounge. It was filled to the brim with big soft poofy pillows of various shapes, sizes & colours. Clearly, I had died & gone to lounge heaven.

So, we lounged around. And ate beautiful gourmet meals. We also got to know the only other guests there: Dot & Wayne – an interesting Canadian couple who captained & care-took a luxury yacht for a wealthy Colombian entrepreneur.

The next day, Scott & I went for a walk into the Park which started with an unplanned ‘shortcut’ shown to us by our uncertain but well-intentioned hotel manager. We had to wade knee deep through a river and do a bit of bush-bashing through some light jungle. Fortunately our intrepid ‘guide’ escorted us all the way to the road otherwise we would have got lost for sure. He flagged down a local on a motorbike & arranged for him to take us to the road’s end. I told Scott it was an adventure. But I don’t think he believed me.

The walk through the park was just beautiful and at the end of the trail – the greenery gave way to these untamed beaches with craggy rock formations peppering the skyline. We had a quick dip in one of the bays but it was a bit seaweedy unfortunately. We turned around & walked back the way we came. Without the stupid shortcut bit.

The next day Scott booked himself on a flight back to Bogota with a view to returning to the States (and home) a lot earlier than planned. He had decided Colombia wasn’t for him.

In retrospect, I guess I could have prepped him a bit more as to the differences between the First World and Colombia. Stuff like: Toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilet. Electricity can be unreliable. WiFi even more so. The shower pressure isn’t always best. You won’t always get hot water. Sometimes you won’t even get water. I could have asked more questions as to what kind of holiday he wanted to have and planned a better itinerary. I always knew we would be different types of travellers. But I just figured it would be stuff we could easily work around.

So that was that. A week of fancy hotels, fancy cocktails, and fancy pools with views. I am grateful to Scott for his generosity (dormitory rooms and shared showers do lose their charm after 10 months on the road). But to be perfectly honest, I would have traded all the fancy for just more time & more laughs with one of my oldest friends. I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed.

We shared a taxi back to Santa Marta. On the edge of town, our cabbie organised for another driver to take me into Centro Historico, while he took Scott straight to the airport. And so I bid my best mate a teary farewell on the side of the road.

We’ll be all right at the end of the day. We love each other immeasureably. And have done for 25 years.  Scott & i will be friends until we’re old & wrinkly.

But it’s true what they say – that it’s not always easy to travel with friends. I think we can only happily travel with people who are very similar to us. Insofar as the places we want to see, how we get there, where we stay, how long for, how we spend our money, and probably most importantly – our overall outlook. Especially when things don’t pan out as we had anticipated. Because one thing’s for sure: they won’t.

And that’s when you just gotta say to y’self, “It’s an adventure!”

Hot on the floor

Around 8pm, I arrived at the ‘hostel’ (meaning a completely empty house) that the Bowen brothers were staying at in Barranquilla. I was relieved to learn they had organised a ‘bed’ (meaning a blow up air mattress) for me, for a very low price. All hostels / rooms had apparently been booked out ages ago & at double their normal going rate.

It meant that if I decided I couldn’t / didn’t want to pull an all-nighter – I didn’t have to. (*small sigh of relief*) It also meant I had a place to stash my daypack (infinitely more ideal than lugging it around all night, hoping all my shit wouldn’t get stolen.)

The Bowen brothers had linked up with some fun Irish & Aussie girls we had met while staying at Captain Jack’s in Portabello, Panama. As soon as I walked in the door, they gave me a big warm welcome, a shot of Aguardiente (the local firewater) & a *hero* … and that, my friends, basically set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

We caught up, talked a lot of shit, and laughed ourselves silly over several bottles of the surprisingly smooth anise-flavoured liquor. Evidently, I had missed an epic first day – stacks of colourful costumes in the multitudes of parades; oodles of live music & dancing; masses of foam / mud / flour wars; and shedloads of your ‘run-of-the-mill’ Carnaval debauchery. They had been going for days and weren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

We eventually decided to get in amongst it. Our hostel manager – a slightly effeminate, tubby Colombian, who fancied himself as an entrepreneur, hotel owner and a real ladies’ man – had taken it upon himself to play host to our lil crew (he had misguided designs on one of our girls).

He took us to the nightclub strip where of course, he knew the owner of this place and that place and could get us in for free everywhere (I suspect we could have gotten in for free, irrespective of his ‘connections’).

There were dozens of discotheques competing in a ‘my sound system is bigger than yours’ competition. In Latin America, speakers are strategically placed outside a club (as well as inside). The intention is to create what we marketers call ‘salience’. There was just this ridiculous cacophony of noise: latino pop, 80s house, old school salsa, trashy techno, and of course the omnipresent J-Lo vs Pitball: “Nyah, nyha, nyah, nyah, nyah … Hot on the floor.”

People were spilling their drinks out on the streets, local musos were crowd gathering with impromptu jam sessions in between randomly ‘parked’ cars … and everywhere raucous street vendors were pushing all manner of Carnaval necessities: gum, water, beer, meat on sticks. It was absolute anarchy. We cruised up & down the calle, checking out a few different scenes, and having a boogie in each. A bit of a Carnvial bar crawl, if you like.

Sometime after midnight, we escaped the bedlam & headed ‘home’… there was a massive street party underway right around the corner. Hundreds of people were dancing their arses off to the thumping sounds of an excellent salsa band with some 16 odd musos squished up on a tiny stage. And it was going OFF. We danced. And danced. And danced. Somewhere in the middle of the carnage, I got picked up by a rather gorgeous Carib boy (who am I to say no to broad shoulders, pretty dreads and a smile that goes on forever?) Around 4am I hit a wall, bid farewell to the young Jesse, got me some meat on a stick (not a euphemism) and ambled off to my airbed.

I woke up a few hours later to a blinding light lasering into the ‘living’ room and well into the recesses of my eyes. All a bit unnecessary, I thought. I assessed the damage around me. Bodies everywhere in varying degrees of decay. People were covered in mud & all manner of Carnaval debris. The place resembled a clean crack den. I was feeling extraordinarily average.

Marcus eventually woke up & took me downtown to get some brekky beers & a feed. We then went on a mission for some tacky Carnaval souvenirs. He bought some godawful fluoro Carnaval t-shirts, while I bought a pretty glittery elephant’s mask which is looking to become one of my most prized possessions.

I decided to stay one more night. We eased our way back into it with some afternoon beers and whatnot. Before you knew it, night had fallen and we were debating the merits of catching a cab across town to see a concert or schlepping our sorry butts back around the corner where another big band was giving the neighbourhood a lashing. We opted for the latter. I didn’t have another epic night in me, and crying old, told the boys I couldn’t go on. Being sometime between 1 & 2am they gave me permission to go home. They weren’t that far behind me truth be told (but to be fair, they were on Day 4).

I woke up fresh as a daisy the next morning (resplendent in my pretty sparkly elephants mask!) having had a solid night’s sleep in the middle of a 4-carriage highway that was the living room in that godforsaken crack den.

I needed a decent breakfast (as opposed to just beers) and so went to the local supermarket to get a big fat watermelon, proper unsweetened non-reconstituted orange juice (a rarity in Latin America) some veges & eggs.

A few hours later, we had made arrangements to our subsequent destinations. Barranquilla had certainly shown us a good time but it was no place to have a hangover.

I waved the boys off in a taxi… they were headed up to Tayrona National Park. And I eventually climbed into the air-conditioned comfort of a posh collectivo going back to Cartagena, where I had 24 hours to make myself nice for Scott.

The times they are a changing

Tuesday 7 February: It was a grey kind of morning, and a dense Darien jungle inundated the teeny fishing village of Sapzurro (pop. 1000) where we dropped anchor in South American waters for the first time. I was absolutely hankering to get on land.

Deb arranged a ‘launch’ (panga / speedboat) with one of the locals to transport us from Ilean to Capurgana (pop. 2000). Both of these villages, because of their proximity to the border – are rich with sailing legends: stories of pirates from Panama, criminals from Colombia, and the wine & wenches who drained them all of their wealth.

Passports stamped, we checked in as a group into the Hotel Los Delphines – rather fitting, given our welcome to country by the beautiful critters. We were all desperate for showers, cold beers & food in varying orders and so went our separate ways for a bit. For the rest of the day we ambled about, bumping into each other by street food vendors, in the pool hall, and down by the sea.

Capurgana is a sweet lil place that reminded me a bit of Little Corn: no cars, no ATM, and town power for only ½ the day – if that. And subsequently, very unreliable WiFi connection.

It’s incredible how reliant we’ve become on the internet. I remember travelling through Europe in ‘98 and carrying traveller’s cheques – now I do my banking electronically. I made arrangements to meet new friends by the Trevi Fountain at a specific time – now I Facebook them. I wrote old-fashioned letters (and faxes!) to communicate with loved ones – now I email them (although I still send postcards!) I collected mail at the next town’s ‘poste restante’ – now I have no idea where I’m going to be from one day to the next. And I made reverse charge calls to my folks from public phone booths (using coins!) – whereas now I Skype them. Oh, the times they are a changing.

I would have stayed longer in Capurgena, along with Pinky & Shannon, except I really needed cash. I needed to touch base with Scott – who was on his way! And I had promised to let my poor old Pa know I had made the crossing safely. I needed to get back to civilisation.

So at 7 the next morning, I was standing on one very disorganised dock, an unwilling participant in yet another brilliant Latin American System. This is how best practice for a Latin American System goes: The more useless paperwork – the better. The more power the bossman thinks they wield – the better. The more other ‘officials’ standing around watching the bossman – the better. And last but not least the more waiting you (as the paying customer) have to do – the better.

It was another back-breaking, tongue-biting, teeth-smashing ride of about 2.5 hrs to Turbo. I didn’t think too much of it when the engine kept cutting out. Men over here can fix anything. But when we ran out of gas in the middle of fucking nowhere, I started to feel a little uneasy. But Whaddya Know! – out of nowhere, a boat with extra fuel appears and topped us up. Like John, the owner of the bar on Little Corn said to me, once – they know how to make you feel grateful for small things.

Turbo was just as the LP described it: a place to get the hell out of, as quickly as possible. It’s a hectic, noisy, filthy place that smelt absolutely putrid and was teeming with touts, sleazes, conmen and beggars. The people from our sailing trip (sans Pinky & Shannon) split into two parties at this point. The lads & Constance were headed for Medellin. While I was headed for Cartagena – along with the delightfully kooky German, Nils and the sour Swiss fellow, who was getting on my nerves.

We got herded to an expensive collectivo where we joined some travellers we had met on the San Blas islands. I chatted with a young Californian girl who looked just like Buffy. The bus took us to a place called Monterria where we ate shit food & got herded into another expensive collectivo, destined for Cartagena.

After midnight, we arrived into Getsemani – the red light district in the old part of town – where a fuck-off street party was in full flight. I checked into the nearest available hostel with Buffy & her crew, right outside where all the action was. An hour later, I literally fell into my bed – which was smack bang in the middle of an awful crowded dorm room on the street-side of the hostel. I dreamt I was trapped inside a sound system that night.

The next day, I moved to the much more resort-y style Media Luna right next door. Into a lovely uncrowded back room. I had a personal admin day by the pool and got an early night.

Shannon came found me the following morning. She & Pinky had arrived late the night before. He had bailed to hook up with a girl he’d arranged to meet here. Shannon was leaving on the 13th, so she & I spent the next 3 days hanging out, having heart-to-hearts, eating lots of g-o-o-d food, chatting with locals, and having lots of great big belly laughs.

Shannon’s a bit of a rarity. She’s only just 25 but such an old soul in many ways. She’s a bit of a dag, which I think makes her incredibly cool. She’s well-travelled and well-read and as such, has lots of interesting things to say. But she’s also a very good listener. Those who she chooses to shine her light on, light right back up at her. It’s a lovely thing to behold.

She reminds me a bit of an amazing woman I used to know called Annie. An angel sent to save my stupid teenage ass, and who ended up having a massive influence on the person I became.

That night we partied with Buffy & her crew. We sampled some of the *local fare* and did a bit of bar hopping, winding up at a cool lil dig with live music & lots of dancing. Next day, we ate a delicious 3-course meal in a beautiful European bistro. I flirted with the cute waiter with gorgeous skin, and a big shiny smile.

We also took a tour to the volcanic mud baths … the whole experience was a bit “different” to what we had both been anticipating (ie, how many tourists can you fit into 5 square metres & sketchy masseurs trying to cop a feel). I got mud in my punani. As my mate Dave would declare, “Now, you don’t get to say that everyday.”

We topped it all off with a wonderful last night of wine & cheese (blue & swiss!) night in the Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages) and a chat with a talented Brazilian artisan whose work we had both fallen in love with. I just kinda moped about the day she left, and then cheered myself up by researching a plan of sorts for when Scott comes. Not long now!

I met a sweet man from San Diego and made plans to go to Playa Blanca with him. It’s supposed to be the best beach near Cartagena and is the weekend playground of many Colombians. And it was just lovely (not quite San Blas, but lovely all the same) … more pristine white sands, more turquoise waters.

We met up with a couple of other solo travellers, and scored ourselves hammocks for $3 / nite. The only downsides to Playa Blanca were getting harassed by hawkers, and the exorbitant prices of meals. But there is nothing like the sound of waves to put you to sleep, and waking up right on the beach will never lose its charm for me.

I ran into Guy and Marcus (the sound English brothers who were on our yacht) and we hung out on the beach for the day, which was a bit of a bonus!

I had started coming down with an intense sore throat thing and was feeling a bit achy in my glands, and didn’t really fancy sleeping out in the open for another night. So I cut my trip short to come back to Cartagena.

I’ve been back two days now and have just been chilling out, drinking lots of water and getting some rest. Re-charging for the Carnival in Barranquilla. Apparently it’s the second biggest in the world, after Rio de Janiero in Brasil.

I’ve decided to go for just one night. I don’t have accommodation sorted (standard). So I’m going to pull an all-nighter. The first in a long time. I’m a bit scared. But also super excited. Plus I have sparkly blue nails! All I need now is some feathers, and I’m good to go.

Running up that hill

Last Monday, we had our second last day of class. We had a paper and a portfolio to turn in the next day, but I managed to get 99% of it done by the time London Mike bowled in from San Andres that afternoon.

I had somehow managed to score myself a ‘job’ hosting trivia up at the Irish pub and I was due to start at 7, so I made arrangements to meet him beforehand for dinner & drinks.

I was having a post-class bevy the week before, minding my own business, when I got the gig. I got talking to the bartender who suggested I stick around for trivia that night. I mentioned that I used to host a night in Sydney, the boss overheard me & asked me, “Would you like to host ours next week?”

Sure. Why not.

He gave me a one pager which answered most of my questions. I asked him how much he’d pay me. He said he’d pay me with a dinner and all I could drink. I laughed and asked him if he knew I was Australian. We shook hands, and that was that.

London Mike and I had met in San Ignacio Belize, had met up again in Flores (in the north of Guatemala) and had kept in touch while we both studying. Sometimes when you meet people on the road, they remind you of friends back home and it instantaneously feels familiar. It’s like that with Mike, who I had nicknamed Sparkles. We were both looking forward to catching up and letting our hair down a bit.

It was a pretty international crowd at Riley’s and they got rowdier & rowdier as the night went on, but it was a fun night. Sparkles pitched in with the scoring and music round, so it was an easy night for me. I drank like drinking was a sport, and I was representing Australia. We stayed until stumps. Sparkles walked me to my door and stumbled off into the distance to his hotel.

On Tuesday, I woke up with a raging hangover the size of a Whopper burger. I only just scraped through that last day of school, and somehow managed to finish all my work.

I called Sparkles, when I knocked off. He was having a social in a nice little courtyard bar with Dave – an Aussie bloke he’d bonded with during a small bus crash up north. I met them for a beer. We later met another one of Sparkle’s mates on a rooftop bar, a young Scottish lad by the name of Cameron, who would come to make a really big impression on me in a very short space of time. We ended up in the bar where Shelby sells shots on Ladies’ Night. You can get a plate of nachos about the size of a horse’s head at Monoloco’s. I kid you not. And damn good they are, too. So we did. Many beers later and I have to say I don’t really remember much of the night.

I collected Sparkles on Wednesday morning, we went to the markets to get some stuff for dinner, and then went for a walk up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). I can see it from my lil casa. It’s lit up at night, providing a nifty navigational point if you’re really drunk. I’m sure that’s not what it was designed for, but it’s come in handy a couple of times. There’s a great vista of the city from up there. It was a cracker of a day, so we decided to go back to the Sky Cafe to get the photos we missed the day before. We ambled about a bit more and then went our separate ways for a few hours.

I had him and my lovely teacher, now neighbour (just call him Stalker Phil) over for a roast dinner. Phil’s from Watford and there’s not a lot of English folk here, so I thought he might appreciate Mike’s company and a traditional English meal. I did a bloody good job of it, even if I do say so myself and we had a very civilised night.

Thursday, Sparkles and I were up at 6 to climb Pacaya, an active volcano about 1 & ½ hrs drive from here. After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last time was in May last year. It rises to an elevation of 2,552m which is just slightly higher than Mt Kosciusko, NSW.

I leaned in to talk with Sparkles at one point on the bus trip in, and all I could smell was booze. I don’t think I smelt much better, truth be told.

It was a hard 1 & ½ hour hike up a pretty steep incline. I was bringing up the rear of our group, huffing & puffing and behind me were about ½ dozen caballeros – basically dudes with horses. The word translates to gentlemen in Spanish, but they were pissin’ me off by breathing down the back of my neck and asking me if I wanted a “taxi” the whole freakin way. As much as I would have loved to have jump on one, I knew I would regret it if I did. The only way you’d get me on one of those things is if I was with a particular group of friends and we were in fancy dress. You know who you are.

I made it. And it was totally worth it. Even though, we didn’t have the clearest day, it was simply stunning in a very surreal way. It was like standing on another planet. Volcanic ash is like rough, rocky black sand. There was a remarkable amount of tenacious greenery growing. Smoke billowed from natural potholes. We climbed into a big one and it was like stepping into a natural sauna in the cloudy chill cloaking the mountain. We toasted marshmallows, and breathed in the sharp crisp air.

I had an afternoon kip, and later that night, met up with Phil, Sparkles and Cameron and a few others at Gaia – a gorgeous hookah bar with lush cushions and beautiful decor. We had a few drinks and easy conversation, while an awesome local band played. Albeit too loudly. But hey, it’s Latin America – they don’t do ambience here.

Friday afternoon, Sparkles, Cameron and I had a very cultural afternoon. We stopped into La Merced, which is a building I’ve walked past nearly every day. It used to be an old monastery, which was built in the 1700s. Outside, there are all these intricate white religious carvings, niched into the happy yellow walls. Inside is surprisingly massive and the courtyard features the largest water fountain in Antigua. From the top terrace, you’ll get a great view of Volcán de Fuego, which you can see almost everywhere from this pretty little city. But not like this.

We then walked up to a place called Casa Santa Domingo, a glorious old hotel which is situated in the stupidly beautiful grounds of another monastery. We wondered around for a while, oohing and ahhing at the gardens and the statues
and the art and the relics and the pretty Scarlet Macaws, which are kinda like rainbow lorikeets but bigger and brighter.

From there, we got a ride in a fancy golf cart to a place called El Tenedor del Cerro (which translates to “the fork on the hill”). It’s essentially a wedding reception venue / high-end restaurant, but the reason we went there is because the place offers what has to be the best views of the city, and all throughout the grounds is this eclectic collection of completely unexpected weird-arse large-scale sculpture by lauded local artists. We spent a good couple of hours there, taking photos and fooling around.

We missed the return shuttle so I flagged down a fancy car to hitch a ride back down the hill. The wife of the Guatemalan driver was an American lady, all decked out in jewels. I asked her for her story and she told us she had been living here on-and for some 30 odd years. Her mother was a missionary who took in 58 orphans and gave them a home. She told us she was still in contact with many of them. Amazing story right there in a 15 min drive. Awesome stuff.

We parted ways for a bit of downtime. The boys had to pack as they were both leaving the next day. Cameron back home to pick up his studies back in Scotland. And Sparkles was headed for Honduras. We met up one last time at Monoloco with all their mates. Many beers and many silly photos later, I bid my farewell to them both rather unceremoniously, given how much I had enjoyed their company. It’s very likely Sparkles & I will be able to link up again in Nicaragua. and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron rocks up on my doorstep one day.

I’ve spent the last two days just chilling out, mucking around on my new netbook, listening to music, watching movies, cooking meals and drinking wine. I did venture out yesterday afternoon for a tasty Asian meal and a poke around a contemporary artist’s workshop, but apart from that – it’s been
pretty quiet since the boys left town. Which has been fine by me…

Stop!

Since I’ve begun traveling, I have stopped:

wearing beauty products, except deodorant
wearing makeup, save for a little mascara and sometimes lipgloss
weighing myself daily
reading the horoscopes in the hope that someone else thinks today is going to be a good day
wearing 12cm stilettos
setting the alarm (I’m naturally waking up around 6 most mornings)
watching shit television
worrying about things I haven’t got or haven’t done
fretting over petty issues with petty people
losing sleep over loser boys
trying to understand office politics
running for public transport
being a coffee snob

With the exception of the last item, i think these are good things. On the other hand I have also stopped:

exercising (unless you count walking at snail’s pace, everywhere)
eating home cooked meals (although this is all about to change, as I have a proper kitchen until the end of September!)
eating vegetables (capsicum & onion are NOT the only vegetables, Latin America)

All in all, reckon I’m coming up on top!

6 Sept