Monday, 12 December 2011

High and not so mighty

Peru: Colca Canyon, near Arequipa

I once heard it claimed that smokers cope better at high altitudes due to their pre-existing acquaintance with a lowered lung capacity.  This, I can now scientifically conclude, is bollocks.  It was one of the few notes, since scribbled off, that sat in the ‘pros’ column of my smoking checklist.  Its removal now leaves only ‘makes you look cool and grown up’ to prop up the increasingly imbalanced and utterly imaginary pro/con checklist I carry around with me.

This unfortunate epiphany was running through my mind as we started our three day trek down into the Colca Canyon just outside of Arequipa in southern Peru.  Gazing down from our vantage point at over 3,000 metres into the floor of the canyon, our guide traced his finger over the matchbox villages through which we would pass before lugging ourselves back out three days hence.  A condor sailed on the thermal currents above us, the sun cast mutating shadows against the canyon walls, and there was the type of silence that almost feels as if there is an echo in your ears.  A common conclusion would be that this moment qualified as tranquil, picturesque and exciting.  Not to me though, oh no.  This moment was marked by the unspoken assertion that this was going to be terrible. 

‘Are you Ok’? Helen asked, turning to me as we began to wind our way down the thin and rocky pathway that had been, over centuries, formed into the canyon wall.  ‘Yep, fine’ I curtly replied, keen not to give voice to my fears of how bad I was feeling.  Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author, refers to something he terms ‘cultural DNA’, an approach to life that individuals in a particular culture share throughout generations, often implicitly and without due recognition.  So, for example, descendants of the incredibly hard working rural Chinese carry with them the cultural DNA of hard work being the root of all success, a phenomenon that Gladwell claims is an often ignored contributing factor to the success Chinese students enjoy in North American schools.  I mention this because I think that somewhere in me there are cultural DNA remnants of stoicism and denial that those who survived the Blitz have since become famous for.  The ‘keep calm and carry on’ mind-set that scoffs at whingeing, and implores keeping one’s fears to themselves for fear of bringing the whole artifice of coping crashing down, is one I can relate to, even if it is just in an opaque and watered-down version.  Let’s be clear about this though; it is merely a small remnant of this cultural DNA.  I’m fairly certain I’d be thrown out of the Blitz Club for even writing an overly-confessional blog, let alone for comparing my mildly discomforting altitude sickness to the privations of wartime.  But I’m gonna do it anyway, because I felt bad, and it is my generation’s greatest indulgence to assume that everyone else actually cares how they feel, or to put it another way, what their status is.  
So we slipped and slid down the dry and rocky path, on a gradient that was never quite flat and never quite vertical, making each stride different to the last, allowing the only kind of rhythm to form being the one pounding in my head.  This is another of altitude’s symptoms – the pounding headache.  That, and severe irritability.  It was, on the one hand, nice to have a genuine reason for my severe irritability, but on the other hand makes it more difficult to pass it off as anything other than, well, severe irritability when I’m at sea level.  ‘I don’t think he understands how crappy I feel’ I whinged quietly to Helen during one of our rest stops.
I was referring to our guide, Juan, who was, in considered retrospect, one of the kindest, most considerate and patient men you could ever hope to meet.  Quite what I hoped he would, or could, do for me I have no idea, but it didn’t stop me mentally directing my ire of pounding head, aching knees, and gurgling stomach directly at him.  I know for a fact that if he had been overly solicitous I would have hated it, my distaste for being fussed over even greater than my reaction to altitude.  In short, he couldn’t have won, and I feel guilty for ever thinking such uncharitable thoughts.  At least I knew I was being irrational and tried hard to be polite and friendly to him - there is some pride to be found in keeping one’s manners, even if I lost all other tenets of respectability.  Not least when I lay flat on my back at the foot of the canyon, our descent complete, my legs screaming, my head pounding, my body sweating and shivering in equal measure, and uttered that most pathetic of phrases ‘you go on without me, leave me here’.  Even as I said it I had Vietnam B movie scenes rushing through my head, as if my mildly discomforting body aches were a comparison to a gut-blasting mortar attack. Of course, he didn’t leave me behind, instead gently explaining that our overnight stop was just thirty minutes away, through the DMZ a gentle stroll uphill.

Clustering in the kitchen of our overnight rest spot, the delightful Peruvian family fussing around the fire pit to prepare our evening meal, I sat shivering as guinea pigs cavorted around my feet.  ‘These are not pets, are they Juan’ I asked.  ‘No, Ian, they’re not’ he replied, picking up a plump black one and explaining that not only are the black ones considered to be the tastiest, but also the ones that can ward off sickness.  Circling the startled little beast across my chest, and then my head, he explained that I should now feel better.  Those of you who have gone into a pharmacy and never noticed the presence of plump black guinea pigs lined up on the shelves alongside the aspirin and Sudafed will not be surprised to know that this didn’t work.  As Tim Minchin succinctly puts it; alternative medicine that actually works is called, well, medicine.  I wanted it to work, I really did, but in reality the best use the guinea pig could have been put to would have been the following morning when, after a thirty yard desperate dash to the toilet, I dropped my own version of a napalm bomb and realised there was no toilet paper.  Sheepishly exiting the toilet I came face to face with Ciara, one of our fellow trekkers, who herself was dancing from foot to foot after her own thirty yard dash, and as we exchanged embarrassed ‘buenos dias’’  I slipped into the shower block to clean up.  Grabbing a guinea pig en route to act as a loofah.

The next couple of days passed in a blur of breathless trekking, sleep, and repeated thirty yard dashes, and whilst a small part of me could marvel at the incredible and other-worldly landscape we were trekking through, a bigger part of me was praying for the ordeal to be over.  The final part of the trek is a three hour rigorous ascent up the canyon and no sooner had Juan opened his mouth to explain this on our penultimate night I interjected with ‘I’ll take a donkey if it’s all the same to you’.  Clearly I wasn’t the first to shrivel at the prospect of this ascent and the local community had set up a handy, and no doubt lucrative, alternative to the trek by offering donkeys to ferry the weak up the canyon.  Saddling up my 6’4” frame, albeit somewhat lighter than a few days hence, onto the poor little donkey I felt just a twinge of shame, but not nearly enough to dismount and declare that ‘I ain’t gettin’ on no mule, you crazy fool’.  Plodding up the canyon we passed numerous other trekkers who had taken the hardy option, their faces alternating between disdain and envy as this seemingly healthy hulk of a man trotted past on a donkey whose look undoubtedly said ‘I didn’t sign up for this shit’.

Five days of rest, a course of antibiotics, a nerve wracking overnight bus to Cusco, an increasing familiarity with the inside of toilet stalls, and I was finally feeling well enough to visit Machu Picchu.  An experience that one would be foolish to miss, no matter how ill one was.  Not that we were foolish enough to attempt to trek it.  Oh no, we caught the train, and very civilised it was too, the vista of the ruins no less magnificent for having done it the easy way. 

And my new pet guinea pig just loved it!  The smelly little bastard. 

The long and winding road down Colca Canyon

Welcome to Boots/Pharmasave/Walgreen (delete as per location)

At the back.  Feeling irritable.

Machu Picchu.  Several Lbs lighter.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Searching for the human condition

The weird and wonderful world of t'internet searches

Search engines amaze me.  Surely, but surely, they are one of the modern wonders of the world, along with GPS, anything Steve Jobs touched, the Large Hadron Collider, and She Pees. Perhaps the She Pee will stop the she's peeing in the he's bathroom in clubs - girls, men's toilets are socially awkward enough places without you lot weird-ening up the vibe even more.  Why do you think we pee on the seats?  To warn you lot off.  That, and limited evolution.

Anyway, this post isn't exclusively or even predominantly concerned with the urination mores of the two sexes.  That, I'm certain, is available in explicit and eyebrow raising detail elsewhere.  No, it's about the search terms that people use before they click on a link to my blog.  Of course, if I wanted lots more search hits I'd just need to include the word 'sex' and its cousins lots of times in my posts, regardless of the true contents. But I'm not that shallow, nor that desperate for affirmation via page views, so I would never do it. (sexsexsexsexsexsexsexsexdeviancesexsexgreatestinventionofalltimeusedforthissexsexhairynipplessexsexvanessafeltzsexiwannapukesexsexyuckvanessafeltzsexsexbarfithappenedsexsexifeeluncleansexsex)

I checked my daily search stats when I got up this morning, idly and aimlessly, and was nudged awake by the single search term that had led an individual to my blog today:

Now this got me thinking. Is what I write so bleak that a search term such as this directs the searcher to my outpourings?  Has Google finally achieved a shortcut past expensive therapy and revealed the pathetic little nub of my human condition? 

And then I read the search term again, more clearly this time and noticed the spelling of 'neither'.  'Oh, that's OK', I thought, 'just another deviant searching for love in the nether regions'.  Or maybe they did really mean 'neither'.  I hope they're OK.  I really hope they didn't linger too long on the blog because I doubt it exactly brightened up their gloomy disposition.  If you're still there loveless - we love you.  Yes, all of us, in this lovely little readership community.  Group hug!  You're welcome here, really.  Just keep away from our nethers.

After this I thought I'd check my all time search term stats.  It revealed, in all its wonderful glory, the diversity, idiosyncrasy, and downright weirdness of the internet.  That, and how popular wookies are:

My particular favourite is 'mushroom chewbacca'. Now, just what exactly was that searcher looking for?  Was it the same person who was searching for 'bangkok shroomshake'?  Had they heard an urban myth about the tourist who necked a shroomshake, got all hairy, and started howling at the moon, before shooting off in their imaginary Millennium Falcon? The mind boggles.

And as for 'picture of a kitten on a steering wheel asking if it hit a dog', well that's anyone's guess.  In fact, no. It's your guess.  That's right, regulars, we have another competition.  Whoop whoop!  Come on down! Nice to see you, to see you nice.  All you have to do is stick an explanation in the comments field trying to explain this search term.  Funniest, weirdest and most creative wins.  If you post as 'anonymous' leave a name or handle so you can be identified and fawned over by me should you win.  The first prize is a Bangkok Shroomshake.

Let's see what you got.  Remember, who loves ya baby?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Have a little patience

Columbia: Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Cartagena, Mompos, San Gil, Bogota

It’s a game of two halves, Bob.  Six of one, half a dozen of t’other.  You win some, you lose some.  You can’t please all the people all the time.  Little bit ooh, little bit aar.  This is how I feel about the time we spent in Columbia.   

I like Columbia.  Let me just get that out there.  I like it, a lot.  The people are charming; ready to smile and laugh, proud of their country, and patient with our still spluttering attempts at their mother tongue.  The landscape is lush and varied, the climate sublime, and the preserved colonial architecture quaint and evocative.  We didn’t get kidnapped.  There is a lot to like, and a lot I did like.

And yet, and yet.  It’s not as if anything went wrong per se, it’s just that sometimes things didn’t go quite right.  To be fair this wasn’t exactly ‘Columbia’s’ fault; blaming an inert nation state for your woes is a leap too far, even for me.  It was the repeated drip-drip-drip of our failed attempts to organise various activities, all kyboshed by pure bad luck, that formed the ‘not quite right’ part of our time in Columbia.  Obviously, I don’t actually believe in luck any more than I believe in fate, destiny, astrology or fairies.  But like a spoilt brat of a child I want things to go right all the time.  Who doesn’t?  When things don’t go right I get pissed off, in that utterly futile and unproductive way that characterises impatient people.  And I’m an impatient person, an impatience that borders on the pathological.  “Nobody patient ever changed the world” I once haughtily said to a friend who was gently telling me to be patient, only to be met with a humbling peal of incredulous laughter and the simple but indisputable counter-argument of “Nelson Mandela”?  Fair point. But still, I want my cake and I want to eat it.  That’s why I ordered it.

So if the cake is Columbia – delicious and exotic – then I reckon I got to eat half of it.  Like a greedy fatty I can savour the half I got, but still lament and be impatient with the half I didn’t.   The time we spent in Cartagena exemplifies this gluttony and impatience neatly.  Cartagena is staggeringly beautiful, the walled old town a warren of preserved colonial architecture, each corner revealing an exotic vista of stucco, flower-powered balconies, and at street level vendors ready to sell you dirt cheap but field-fresh fruit to nibble as you happily and aimlessly stroll.  As if this wasn’t enough to sate the glutton then there was also the fact that we’d ended up in Cartagena the weekend of their Independence Celebration, an event that the whole city marks with a gay abandon and the colourful joie de vivre that is so often shorthand for Latin American passion.  Colours, sounds and squirty spray cream; that was the tableau we were treated to, as we wandered through the throng, sporadically getting sprayed by smiling Columbians, a spray that said ‘welcome, join us’ rather than ‘gringo, this isn’t your party’.  Sitting on the wall that rings the old town in the afternoon sun, several beers to the good, we watched the Independence Day parade salsa past in a riot of noise, glitter, sequins and feathers.  With each passing float and each sunken beer I softened, my love for Cartagena growing, my distaste of Organised Fun Plc. lessening.  It was everything that London’s crime heavy and hostile Notting Hill Carnival should be, but isn’t.

On the flip side is the day excursion we took to a mud volcano (Volcan de Lodo El Totumo), just outside of Cartagena, a tourist trap of such staggering proportions that I took an instant dislike to it.  My mood was already darkening as we passed through small towns en route to the volcano, each one with several makeshift roadblocks attempting to halt the bus’s progress.  These roadblocks weren’t manned by shifty looking, gun toting and bribe hungry cops however.  No, these roadblocks were manned by a motley collection of small kids, holding a length of rope across the road, and dropping it at the last minute as it became clear the driver had no intention of stopping.  These kids have grown up in a culture of official roadblocks, run to the dictates of unofficial bribery and corruption.  They see authority figures creaming off bribe after bribe after bribe and think to themselves ‘I’ll have a bit of that’.  So, these kids were just emulating their elders, or were pushed out by parents to do a bit of speculative begging, the law of percentages dictating that sooner or later a group of gringos will stop and dole out goodies.
I deplore this kind of thing, seeing it as a tumour on a society, the tumour of low scale corruption that eats away at a society’s health.  So I was surprised to see, when leafing through a copy of Lonely Planet’s Columbia guidebook in the common room of a guesthouse, that one of their author’s referred to this type of activity as ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’.  Incredulous at the naivety of the author, I may even have said out loud, albeit to myself, “what a fucking idiot”.  Teaching children that this type of thing is OK by handing out unearned rewards just isn’t cool.  Because the next step is the same child, a little older and a little harder, pulling a knife on a gringo in a dark alley in the learned knowledge that ‘gringos give out stuff, and I want some stuff’.  This isn’t ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’, it’s worrying and regressive.  Kids going to school, a social welfare programme that cushions them against poverty, a public health system that turns nobody away, a society that values the rule of law and promotes social mobility – that’s ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’.  Support that by donating to charities that address these big picture concerns or just buy something from them. Don’t hand out sweets and coins to kids who have no access to dental care, but do have a very real need to understand that reward takes effort.
Oh, and whilst we’re doling out advice, don’t be impatient and try to get into the ten foot square mud pool at the soft sun-baked side.  You’ll break the wall, receive some tuts from the other tourists who have been squashed into the pool, and feel, quite justifiably, like an idiot.  Jostling for space in the viscous mud, trying to avoid eye contact with everyone else, I reflected that this wasn’t really my idea of fun, just as a stray foot slapped unseen through the mud and nailed me in the nuts. “Can we get out now please Helen” I asked.  “Well, er, no, we’ve literally just got in, be patient”.  So I let five minutes pass, my face set to convey the messages of ‘I’m having fun’, ‘I’m a patient person’, and ‘I’m a muddy tourist doing something ker-azy’.  Of course, my mind was actually saying ‘this is rubbish’, ‘this is a money pit not a mud pit’, and ‘you kick me in the balls again and this will be your muddy grave chico’. “Can we get out now please” I repeated.  “Yeh, OK, I’ve had someone’s leg between mine for the last couple of minutes and I’m starting to think they’re liking it there a bit too much” replied Helen, in a whisper.  So we got out, washed ourselves off in the lake, and retired to a shack to have a drink, and wait for everyone else.  It was a nervous wait in my case, my cap pulled low on my head, sunglasses firmly in place, as I tried to avoid detection as the hairy flabby gringo who’d just broken their mud wall.  A confrontation and subsequent negotiation about how much I should pay for them to slap a bit more mud onto their wall to repair the, at most, cosmetic damage was something I really didn’t want to engage in.  Pulling out of the parking lot, still undetected, felt like the Great Escape.  As I shook my trouser leg to deposit some mud onto the floor of the bus.

There’s a moral to this story somewhere.  I’ve been trying to work it out for the last twenty minutes.  I thought perhaps it was about that fact that you can’t always get what you want.  Then I thought no, it’s about realising that you can’t ever really know, for sure, what you actually want.  And now I’m thinking that it’s not about what you want at all, because what you want isn’t important.  What you want and what actually happens to you sometimes, indeed often, doesn’t match up. So perhaps the moral is to understand and accept this, and develop the patience that allows you to embrace both triumph and adversity, and the gumption to treat both as opportunities.  

Nobody patient ever changed the world.  But they probably enjoyed it a lot more.     

'Welcome, Join us'.  Eat some foam.

Panorama of the old town in Cartagena
Queuing like ants to get into a mud bath with lots of other ants - Volcan de Lodo El Totumo - 

Useful stuff

OK, some bits 'n' bobs about the places we visited in Columbia.  If you’ve skipped the article above to get straight to this useful part then good for you – your impatience should be applauded.

Santa Marta

  • We stayed at La Brisa Loca hostel and enjoyed it very much.  A grand old restored building with an open air atrium, swimming pool, great bar, roof terrace and comfortable dorms and private rooms.  It’s undoubtedly got a traveller vibe about it, and this can be fun, in small doses.  It’s run by two charming American brothers.  They also run volunteering programmes, starting at a minimum of one week.
Tayrona National Park

  • Getting to the park entrance is easy by public bus; the stop is located on the other side of the public market in Santa Marta.  Your guesthouse will be able to provide directions.  Getting back to Santa Marta from the park entrance is similarly simple – buses stop all the time, so just hop on the first one that comes by.
  • Entrance fee to the park is 35,000 pesos (approx. $18) at time of writing, which you pay at the stand at the park entrance, getting a wristband in return. Jump in one of the minibuses that will take you the 10 minutes into the start of the park proper (4,000 pesos, $2).
  • The hike through the jungle is relatively tough going, but well worth the effort.  There are horses that can be hired to ride you in if you prefer (14,000 pesos, $7, or a bag of carrots).  Pack light.
  • The hike to the first camping spot, Arrecifes, takes about an hour, at which point you’ll leave the jungle and hit the first beach.  We wish we’d stayed there, but carried on instead to Cabo St Juan, an hour further along the beach.
  • Cabo St Juan is indisputably beautiful although the set-up there could be improved.  There are a small number of cabins for rent, and also a small number of hammocks available on a rock overlooking the sea.  Stay in these if you can – the sea breeze will cut the night time humidity.  They were full so we had to stay in the hammock area set back from the beach.  It was cramped, the night was muggy, and the hammocks could have done with a wash.  The food is OK, although it did feel a little like a refugee camp as everyone gathered together in the evening under the harsh fluorescent lights of the thatched restaurant and then queued to order their food.  Albeit a refugee camp with an amazing view.
  • There’s a boat that runs between Taganga (near Santa Marta) and Cabo St Juan in the park, if you don’t fancy the hike (although I’d recommend hiking at least one way).
Panorama of Cabo St Juan in Tayrona NP

  • We stayed at Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani area just outside the old town.  The staff were fantastically helpful, the rooms comfortable and the roof terrace pleasant.  It wasn’t really a party hostel so if that’s your kind of thing then try Media Luna Hostel, just round the corner in a beautifully restored colonial building.
  • El Bistro is a great restaurant in the old town, particularly for their set lunch which is more inventive and tasty than the usual ‘menu del dia’ offerings.
  • The mud volcano – don’t let me put you off, everyone else on our trip seemed to enjoy it.  I'm just a miserable bastard.

  • Getting from Cartagena to Mompos was surprisingly easy, and took about 7 hours in total.  Taxi to bus terminal in Cartagena, bus to Magangue, boat to Bodega, shared taxi to Mompos.  I recommend leaving Cartagena early just in case the boats don’t run all day.  The total cost for the trip was about 60,000 ($30) pesos each.
  • Mompos is a beautiful old town, a UNESCO world heritage site.  There is very little to do other than wander around and enjoy the architecture.  Personally, I think they need to clean the place up as it was awash with litter, particularly the river.  Is it worth visiting?  I’m not sure to be honest, it’s quite the detour.
  • If you do go then La Casa Amarilla is a decent place to stay, a restored riverside house.  The staff were friendly enough, and the rooms were OK.  The deluxe rooms looked really nice, and the dorms only had four beds in each.
  • Getting from Mompos to San Gil takes a bloody long time, about 18 hours.  Leave early.  We took a boat to El Banco at 7.30am (2 hours), waited around in El Banco bus terminal for a couple of hours for the bus to Bucaramanga, got taken back to the El Banco port, put on another boat (20 mins), got on our bus to Bucaramanga in the middle of nowhere (8 hours ride), changed buses at Bucaramanga’s nice bus terminal for the 3 hour ride to San Gil.  Total cost approx. 100,000 pesos ($50) per person.
Mompos from the water

San Gil

  • Hostel Santander Aleman is a smart guesthouse, with breakfast included.  They could do with extending their Wi-Fi coverage to the second and third floors.
  • Gringo Mike’s does good, large portioned, western food and is run by the eponymous Mike, an émigré from Seattle.  Mike also organises mountain biking tours that look great.  I say look great as I was booked to do one but it was cancelled at the last minute due to vehicle problems.  Not his fault though, and he clearly knows his stuff, has top notch bikes, and is a nice bloke to boot.

  • We stayed at La Pinta, in the north of the city.  It was OK but I’d recommend you looked for somewhere else.  The showers were pitiful, the location seemed a long way out of the main historic area, and they asked me if I wanted to tip three times when I was checking out.  I’m normally a good tipper but this pissed me off.
  • Bogota Bike Tours was brilliant.  Really brilliant.  Can’t recommend it highly enough.  For 30,000 pesos you get a five hour tour around the city with the erudite and interesting Mike, seeing areas that you realistically couldn’t cover on foot.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Black Dolphin makes a splash

Venezuela: Puerto Columbia, Barinas, Los Llanos and Merida

“Elena es alegre con bonita cabella.  Ian es gordo”, explained our new Spanish tutor, Fluvio, in order to illustrate both the ‘to be’ Spanish verbs and the new adjectives we were learning.  “Helen is, er, cheerful” I attempted to translate back, “with beautiful hair, and Ian is, um, er, I’m sorry what is gordo”?  “Gordo means fat Ian”.  “Oh, OK, so Helen is cheerful with beautiful hair and I am fat, I see”.  Had this explanation not been said with an irascible twinkle in Fluvio’s eye I might have concluded that this was less of a language class and more of a hard-core, take no prisoners, the truth sometimes hurts fatty, version of Weight Watchers.  Holding my stomach in for the rest of the class we continued with the verbs and adjectives and then all adjourned to a local bar for pizza and beer.  Fluvio and I shared a large pizza.  I let him have the final slice.

Keen-eyed readers of my previous post will be keen to know if Fluvio did, indeed, turn up for our first lesson in stockings and suspenders, thereby permanently consigning my Spanish language ambitions into a grubby little box marked ‘don’t bother, too weird’.  He didn’t.  What we got instead was a delightful, diminutive and dramatic young man, born to be an actor first and a teacher close second.  Fluvio has the most surprising accent on account of the three years he spent living in the UK, an accent that morphs mid-sentence between the places he lived; from Liverpool to Newcastle to Cardiff to Bath and finally to London, all shot through with a soft Latin American warmth and a rolling of the r’s. 

For us this educational arrangement has been perfect; a few hours of private lessons in our makeshift classroom on the open air terrace of our posada (guesthouse) in Merida, south-west Venezuela.   The vista of the Andes mountains is off to our right, and a steady stream of other travellers pop by and do their best not to giggle as we ride roughshod over the subtleties of Spanish grammar and pronunciation.  Despite this, the lessons seem to be working.  Up to a point anyway.  Yesterday I confidently, and very politely, purchased two bus tickets from a swarthy chap in the Merida bus terminal (la terminal de autobuses, linguistics fans).  That’s the point we’re up to.  The rest of what passes for a conversation is still beyond me, not least because I have virtually no idea of what people are saying to me in return.  A crinkled brow and a speculative ‘si?’ tends to be what my interlocutor gets by way of a response.  Perhaps this is why I received a raised eyebrow from our ticket friend, clearly expressing his surprise that these gringos actually wanted to be near the toilet on a long distance bus.

Merida has been our home for the last week, a stop longer than we’d usually make, but one which has not only given us the opportunity to mangle the Spanish language, but also to consolidate some friendships we’d begun to make on a trip to Los Llanos.  Los Llanos is a wildlife rich area of protected flatlands in the south east corner of Venezuela, and we were on a four day trip with five other folk, all European, all utterly charming, crammed together in the back of old but dependable Toyota Land Cruiser.  Helen and I had joined the rest of the group in the city of Barinas which we’d travelled to from the seaside town of Puerto Columbia on Venezuela’s northern Caribbean coast.   And when I say ‘travelled’ what I really mean, at least for the first part of the trip, is ‘catapulted at warp speed over mountain roads in the back of a taxi’. 

Sitting in the back of the taxi, being rocked from side to side as the driver took sharp turn after sharp turn, there were three things going through my mind, excluding the obvious ‘new-pants-required’ fear.  Firstly, there was envy of the driver’s advanced vision for surely, surely, nobody would drive that fast through thick fog, head stuck out of the window to overcome the heavy tint on his windscreen, unless they were gifted with vision superpowers.  Secondly, I was thinking back to a day I had spent rally driving and, in particular, to the lap I did with the professional driver, on a closed course that he knew like the back of his gloved hand.  Now, the rally driver drove fast, that’s his job, but the taxi driver, I’m convinced, was driving faster. On a mountain.  That was covered in fog. And had big drops down into the valley.  Finally, the driver had eschewed the traditionally fluffy dice on his rear view mirror, opting instead for a sticker that sat across the centre of the mirror that read ‘Speed King’.  Well, quite.

You know the end to this particularly story however, given that communication from beyond the grave isn’t yet possible (it’s what the genius Steve Jobs was working on apparently, perhaps still is).  We arrived safely, if shaken and stirred, and after an overnight bus ride found ourselves at Barinas’ bus terminal at three o’clock in the morning.  Our rendezvous with the rest of the group wasn’t until noon, so we presented ourselves at the steel gated reception desk of a so-called ‘love motel’ outside the bus station.  Another strained conversation in Spanish, another raised eyebrow from the receptionist (‘a couple checking in at 3am, with huge rucksacks; must be their kinky toolkit’), and we had our palace for the night.  Now, there were many things that went through my mind when I opened the room door, but ‘love’ wasn’t one of them.  Foremost in my mind were the scenes in CSI when the glamorous team pass an ultraviolet light over a hotel room’s bed-sheets, give each other knowing looks as purple blobs appear, and say ‘well, at least he went out with a bang’.  The bed we were about to sleep in would, I’m quite certain, appear under the glow of the CSI kit as one giant purple blob.  A picture of this room would be a good accompaniment to the definition of ‘seedy’ in the dictionary.  On the plus side, if it turns out that Helen conceived in this dingy hole in dingy Barinas we would at least have a clear candidate for a boy’s name; Barry.  Or Grimy.  Barry’s probably better.  Just.

Rising in the morning, and after a shower from which I emerged feeling even dirtier than I did when I went in, I decided to shave my head.  It seemed like the type of thing one should do in a seedy anonymous motel.  Like we were on the run from the cops whilst we tried to clear our names from a government conspiracy, and needed to disguise our identity until we had proof, proof god-damnit, that it was the vice-president whodunit and that ‘this thing’ went higher than anyone would ever believe.  Suitably disguised we met with our temporary traveller companions (“should we give them our real names Helen’? “We’re not really on the run Ian, now remember to be friendly to the nice people darling”, she replied).  It wasn’t, as it transpired, difficult to be friendly to these people as they were, indeed, nice.  Two Germans, one Dane, one Swiss, and a fellow Brit, we made up an EU Summit of travellers.  The group were incredibly accommodating to our lack of Spanish skills (and lack of German, Danish and Swiss German skills for that matter), and were happy to shift between languages to make us feel included.  Of course, we felt ashamed and embarrassed, and not for the first time I marvelled at the infinitely superior language skills of our mainland European cousins.  I worked in the Netherlands for over three years, in a very cosmopolitan environment where the business language was English, and I never stopped being amazed that my European colleagues could engage in complex and occasionally sensitive discussions with a fluency and incisiveness that made a mockery of it being in their second, or sometimes third, language.  Of course, sooner or later we’ll all have to learn Mandarin as the global balance of power shifts east.  But I’ll be living in a cave eating lichen and talking to myself by that time anyway so for now I’ll just stick to the point-of-need Spanish.

Language shame aside we spent four great days in the Los Llanos area, sleeping in hammocks, spotting caimans and capybaras (or moomins as I preferred to call them), piranha fishing, horse riding and white water rafting.  On a boat trip through the backwaters on the third day we were circled by pink dolphins, the freshwater cousins of the ‘thanks Noel, swimming with dolphins was a dream come true’ grey variety, who were, and don’t tell them I said this, a bit uglier than their grey counterparts, with bunched up snouts and squinty blind eyes that were redundant in the murky underwater world of echolocation.  Having been told in no uncertain terms at the commencement of the ride that we should keep our hands inside the boat (piranhas; whole cow; three minutes was the gist of this warning) it was a surprise, to say the least, when one of the local guides, a cheerful and chubby chap, dove off the boat into the water, seemingly apropos of nothing.  To the laughs and shouts of the other guides (“that’s why we call him Black Dolphin! Swim, Black Dolphin, swim! Ha ha ha”) he emerged, shivering, from the murky water clutching a river turtle, its little fleshy snorkel nose giving away its location to Black Dolphin, a hunter-gatherer of distinction.

The trip was time well spent, affording us the opportunity not only to venture into the Venezuelan hinterland but also to re-engage with other travellers, something we’d missed during our time in the States.  I now just need to get rid of that rash I picked up in the love motel, and we’re laughing.

Helen loungin' in the luurve motel.  Class.
Rooftop wildlife spotting in Los Llanos with Marc (centre)
Where's Tonto?
Black Dolphin displays his catch
With Fluvio (L), Spanish teacher extraordinaire

Useful stuff

I’ve decided, given the large number of folks who seem to visit this blog in hope of finding some useful information and who no doubt leave feeling cheated, to include a few notes at the end of each post that could be defined as ‘useful’.  Moreover, if you’ve got this far down you’ll have got through the claptrap above, and a reward for this is surely the least one should expect.  Here goes…

Puerto Columbia

  • We stayed at Casa Luna, run by the ludicrously helpful Claudia.  A double room with air-con cost us about 18 euros.
  • Claudia will change money at a decent (black market) rate and also has a paypal account she accepts transfers into
Night bus from Maracay to Barinas
  •  We took a taxi from Puerto Columbia to Maracay then hopped on a night bus to Barinas.  It took approx. 6 hours and cost 100 bolivars each. 
  • Night buses are famously air-conditioned to the max.  I liked this, far preferring feeling cold to hot.  Take some warm stuff if you feel the cold.

  • Motel Sierra Nevada opposite the bus station is the name of the place I refer to above.  It’s not available on as far as I can make out.
Los Llanos

  • We did a four day, three night tour with a Merida based company called Gravity Tours, run by the helpful Gustavo.  It cost us 140 euros each including everything except obvious stuff like booze.
  • Sleeping diagonally on a hammock is easier than (trying) to sleep straight.
  • Take bug spray.
  • We stayed at a fantastic place called Posada La Montana.  It has a beautiful atrium full of greenery, comfortable rooms and a decent restaurant attached.  Double room was 180 bolivars per night.
  • We bought our tickets for the night bus from Merida to Maracaibo at the station in the morning of our departure date, with a bus company called Merida Express.  You can probably risk just turning up and buying a ticket, but as it was a weekend we opted otherwise.  The ticket was 90 bolivars.  You need to buy a 4 bolivar departure token from a small desk inside the terminal before boarding the bus.  We didn’t, had a confusing discussion with the collector, and had to dive off and grab one before the bus left.
  • We went on a one day canyoning trip, again with Gravity Tours.  Canyoning, in this instance, is scrambling up a canyon and then abseiling back down through the waterfalls.  It was great, but overpriced at $55 USD per person for what was, in effect, a two hour activity.      

Monday, 31 October 2011

Keeping my nerve

Venezuela: Caracas

I’m no stranger to the type of sleep that precedes an early morning flight; for several years it was my Sunday night routine. The startled awakenings to check the time, the hazy feeling of gratitude that it’s only 2am and there are still a couple of hours of sleep left, the anxiety dreams of oversleeping and naked security checks, and the sickening sound of the alarm going off that will inevitably be the looped soundtrack for my eventual descent into hell.  I once had a boss whose ringtone was the same as my alarm tone and I involuntarily shivered in discomfort every time his phone rang, which was often.  Anyway, a night of such sleep is often more exhausting than not sleeping at all, a sure fire guarantee for starting the day in a bleak frame of mind.  The rushed five minute shower comes with only the darkest thoughts of the soul as company.  This is a glass that is not even half empty; it’s been dropped onto your foot, smashed, and the shards have severed your Achilles tendon.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but try doing it every week for five years and then come back to me with your Monday morning half full glass.  If it is half full then it’ll be full with tears, mark my words.

This bleakness nipped at my heels as we checked in at Miami for our flight to Caracas.  It followed me through security as I flicked the robotic compliance switch; queue, boarding pass please, belt off, laptop out, arms up, scan, retrieve belongings, no I don’t mind if you take a look in my bag, thank you, play hunt the gate in the shopping mall.  It sat on my shoulders as we taxied onto the runway, shot through the clouds, and cruised over the Caribbean Sea.  It was only after an hour into the flight that the bleakness began to lift, that I began to shake my pre-conditioned Pavlov’s dog reaction to a disturbed sleep and an early morning airport routine.  Hang on, my subconscious said, you’re not going to work, you haven’t just said goodbye to your wife for another week, she’s right next to you, and you’re still on holiday.  So cheer up dickhead. So cheer up I did, and as the plane began its descent into Caracas I was approaching excitement, albeit an excitement cut with nervousness.

Regular readers will recognise at least part of the cause of my nervousness; a complete lack of preparation.  We’d failed to achieve even the most simple of preparations by not booking a room for when we arrived; dispirited as we were by the high accommodation prices in oil-rich Caracas.  I’d shot off a speculative email late the previous night to a hotel near the airport to enquire about a room in the naïve and lazy mode of sod it, we’ll figure it out when we get there, time for a crap night’s sleep. But, you know what, we got lucky.  As we stood outside the arrivals hall trying to look cool, urbane, and not daft (a difficult trick if you’re me) in order to deter the rat-like mass of touts and ne’er-do-wells a hotel bus pulled up.  Not just any hotel, but the hotel I’d speculatively emailed the previous night.  Reservacione? the driver enquired as I confidently started throwing our luggage onto the bus.  Si, si, I replied, trying hard to give off the impression that ‘of course we have a reservation’ rather than the more accurate impression of ‘well, I emailed them, and frankly your guess is as good as mine as to whether we actually have a room reserved, so let us just cadge a free ride and see what happens eh amigo’.  They did have a room as it turned out, and later that evening I received a confirmation email from the hotel informing me that they were looking forward to greeting us; a nice if somewhat belated touch. 

There were two other causes of nervousness however, one temporary, the other rather more enduring.  The temporary one first - Caracas is famed for being dangerous, a den of vipers that will rob, extort, and kidnap you then, if you’re lucky, spit you back out onto the street shaken, poorer, but still alive.  I’d read a little about Caracas from internet articles and two particular commentaries stuck out.  One chap on Trip Advisor had broken the mould of ridiculously overstated, poorly written and exclamation mark heavy reviewing (BEST. PLACE. EVER!!!!) in favour of the following nugget of advice: If you're thinking of going to Caracas then I suggest you’d be better served by going to your nearest metropolis, sitting on the pavement next to its busiest thoroughfare, taking off your shoe and repeatedly hitting yourself around the head with it.  It’ll be more fun. An article in The Guardian, whilst not as amusing as our Trip Advisor correspondent, cheerfully dropped this line into an otherwise positive report on Venezuela: Caracas is widely considered to be the most dangerous capital city in the world, outside of Baghdad.  So this is where I’d like to report, macho war correspondent style, that it’s all nonsense, that Caracas is a pussycat.  This is what I’d like to do.  But I can’t, on account of the fact that we took the cowardly option and steered clear of the city completely, staying in Catimar instead, 30 km north of the city centre.  So, we’d flown into the airport servicing a dangerous city, jumped onto a complimentary hotel bus that took us further away from the city, checked into our room, and locked the door.  A Pulitzer Prize is surely on the cards to recognise this act of brave and incisive investigative reportage.  The temporary cause of nervousness was, at least, dealt with swiftly.

The more enduring cause of nervousness still tugs at my belly now, 10 days after we arrived in South America for what will be the final leg of our yearlong round the world trip.  It is this: I can’t speak Spanish.  I’m embarrassed, even a little ashamed, by this.  Shame aside, I’m even more concerned that it will be a major stumbling block for our travels, something that will cause not just difficulty in the basic everyday interactions of eating, finding a place to stay, and getting to the right place, but more fundamentally it will also insulate us from interactions with the other people.  Ay caramba! 

I spent a year studying Spanish when I was fourteen and remember hardly a word.  I don’t put this down to the oft-mentioned lamentable standard of language tuition in the UK, nor do I solely conclude that it is my own lack of aptitude for learning languages that is holding me back.  No, I blame it on a pair of suspenders.  That’s right, black suspenders that attached to the lacy top of a pair of sheer black stockings, the ivory skin above peeking out through the thigh high slit down an otherwise respectable skirt.  My Spanish teacher at school was, I’m guessing, mid to late twenties and pretty if not classically beautiful.  Of course, to a class of pubescent boys who are controlled exclusively by the twin forces of hormones and their nether regions she was a goddess.  I’ll call her Miss Titillation-Tease in order to both protect her innocence and assuage my fear that she may one day Google herself, read this, and simultaneously vomit and call the police.  

Miss Titillation-Tease would often conduct her classes from a position sat on her desk at the front of the class, the top of the desk causing the slit on the side of her skirt to ride up her thigh, revealing two square inches of stocking-ed thigh.  Or, to put it differently, reveal a vista of heaven to twenty schoolboys.  If you listened carefully as her skirt rose up her thigh you could hear the click click click of mental photographs being taken and locked away nice and securely in what was commonly referred to as our ‘wank-banks’.  Reflecting on it now I wonder if she had any idea of what impact she was having on the adolescent mind, whether she thought the undivided attention she received was the happy result of a conscientious class and an engaging teaching style.  Not having a pair of stockings and suspenders in my wardrobe means I’m not really qualified to pontificate on why one would choose to wear them, or how they would make the wearer feel.  But I have read the odd issue of Cosmopolitan in my time, and occasionally been forced to sit through an episode of Sex and the City, and from this extensive and faultless research I can only conclude that Miss Titillation-Tease knew exactly what she was doing and, dare I say it, maybe got off on it a little bit.  Who can blame her?  Everyone needs something to relieve the tedium of the working day, that’s why Facebook was invented.  But one thing is certain; the temporary charms of a milky thigh have had a longer term impact on my Spanish skills, an impact that I now have to face up to.

So we’re booking a crash course in Spanish fundamentals.  With a man.  If he turns up in stockings and suspenders then, frankly, I’m giving up and will spend the next three months pretending I’m deaf and dumb.  The latter part should be easy enough.

Useful stuff

I’ve decided, given the large number of folks who seem to visit this blog in hope of finding some useful information and who no doubt leave feeling cheated, to include a few notes at the end of each post that could be defined as ‘useful’.  Moreover, if you’ve got this far down you’ll have got through the claptrap above, and a reward for this is surely the least one should expect.  Here goes…

Venezuela and Money

  • Bring cash, lots of it.  Specifically, US dollars.  The money situation in Venezuela is an almighty pain in the arse.  Firstly, there's two exchange rates, an official one and a black market one.  The black market rate is approximately a third to double the official rate, so do that.  It hovered around 7.5-8.2 bolivars to the dollar when we were there, but this changes.  Most posadas will change US dollars.  Just make sure you have enough.
  • Complicating this is the fact that ATMs rarely work for foreign cards.  Users are required to enter a two-digit security code after the PIN number.  Try '00'.  This won't work in all ATMs, but does, I'm reliably informed, work in some.  You'll get the official exchange rate for ATM transactions which brings me back to my first point: bring cash, lots of it.
  • As a general rule Venezuela is cheaper than the US, Australia and Europe, but more expensive than Asia.
  • Carrying lots of cash obviously has its risks, especially when you arrive at Caracas airport, so take a look at some security tips, from a previous post.  

  • As mentioned, we didn't bother going into the centre, and should you choose to do the same thing then Hotel Catimar is close to the airport and offers a free shuttle to avoid you taking those occasionally dodgy airport taxis.
  • Alternatively, arrange to go direct to your destination with your guesthouse, who will be able to help you out.  In other words, do as I say, not as I do, and be a bit organised.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Letter from America

North to South American road trip: New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina,  Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Florida.

The motto that adorns the side of Key West’s police cars reads Protecting and Serving Paradise. I’d like to think that God’s business card has the same motto, perhaps with an asterisk appended and some small print that reads *no, this isn’t the place with all the virgins, that’s the other place, but  before you try to scuttle off there read the entry criteria carefully.  Fortunately for us, reaching this version of paradise had simple enough entry criteria, lying as it did at the southernmost tip of the continental US, the tail end of the Florida Keys.  Driving down the overseas highway that connects the different keys by bridges I was struck not by the aquamarine colour of the sea (for it was pouring with rain), nor by the triumph of bridge engineering (triumphant though they undoubtedly are), but by a nagging desire to pinpoint exactly where it was that Arnie blew up a section of the bridge with a rocket launched from a recently hijacked fighter jet in the magnificent spy satire True Lies.  Certain we were passing the spot I mumbled to Helen ‘this is it I think, Arnie, fighter jet, True Lies’, receiving the response ‘oh, really? What’s True Lies’?  And yet in spite of this distinctly underwhelmed response, and Key West’s claims to the contrary, if paradise isn’t a kitsch action movie with Arnie that includes a striptease from Jamie Lee Curtis then, hell, I just don’t know what is.

With a storm closing in on the Keys our camping plans began to look more foolhardy than a swarthy terrorist taking on the Governator. Hunkering down in a series of cheap but shady motels, the rain pounding a relentless drum beat on the roof, cabin fever slowly began to set in.  It was when the maddening and near constant intrusion of commercial breaks on American TV started to become less maddening, and I found my hand poised over the phone to order a space-saving spice rack (but they give you another one completely free!) that I realised it was time to move on.  The plan to flog our camping gear on to other campers in order to recoup at least a fraction of our costs was jettisoned to the incontrovertible logic of if there ain’t any campers there ain’t anyone to flog it to.   Instead, and somewhat reluctantly, we handed over our complete stash to a surprised but thankful lady we met in the parking lot of a of a kitten rescue thrift store, the unverified agreement being that she made a donation to the kitty shelter in exchange for the hundreds of dollars of kit.  To be unencumbered by stuff for the first time in a long time was liberating – we were back to a couple of rucksacks, and as we checked into a condo in Key Largo to sit out the storm in relative comfort, it was a good time to reflect back on our jaunt down the States.

The odometer read over 4,000 miles, and we’d visited eighteen out of the fifty states, albeit some of them very briefly. This served as a lesson that ‘united’ though these states may be, their unison is less pronounced than their differences.  This, I think, is one of the many joys of taking a road trip through America; it’s not dissimilar to visiting a series of different countries, but with the inconveniences of border crossings removed.  Though the major corporations, not least the fast food ones, are doing their darnedest to remove these differences by decorating the highways and byways with an identikit vista of urban sprawl, it’s easy to look past, or maybe through, this blight and instead settle one’s gaze on something more fundamental and visceral.  The accents, as an example, gave us a changing audio soundtrack as we snaked our way down from north to south, the clipped and precise tones of New England slowly morphing into the syrupy and enticing drawl of the Deep South.  The southern phrase y’all marked, for me, this transition neatly, a multi-purpose piece of dialect that was a neat substitute for ‘are you’ or ‘you two’ or ‘have you’.  So, ‘are you ready to order?’ becomes ‘y’all ready to order?’, ‘you two enjoy your evening’ becomes ‘y’all enjoy your evening now’ and ‘have you noticed the sign?’ becomes ‘y’all seen that sign, now get off my land before I open a can of double-barreled shotgun on your pommie ass’.  The last one may be a touch of dramatic license for nobody, to my knowledge, either threatened or actually did open a can of anything on my ass.  That type of activity is a strictly private one between me and my betrothed or, in extreme circumstances, between me and my doctor.    

The smells too marked our gradual journey south, and it is no surprise to me that smell is held to be the most evocative of the senses, the one most closely linked to memory.  The smells of the north were of wood burning and slowly decomposing vegetation as summer turned to autumn and the leaves began their return to the forest floor, going out in a blaze of glory.  The smells of the south were the newly damp dust of Texas as the long and worrying drought came to an end as we left Austin, and the tropical tang of humidity in Florida that reminded me of lazy days in Thailand.  The scents in our car also changed as the cooler weather gradually turned warmer which, in turn, caused the car to morph from a tepid refrigerator to a food spoiling greenhouse. ‘Um, I think I’ve figured out what the smell was’ Helen said, pulling what I think was a decomposing corn cob from the depths of the boot, but could equally have been a stray squirrel trying to cadge a ride south who prematurely ran out of nuts and water in its little handkerchief tied to a stick.    

If dead squirrels aren’t dark enough for you then I do have another observation. It touches at the grey (dark is perhaps overstating it) at the heart of a road trip; the price of freedom.  It would be remiss not to reflect a little on the concept of freedom when discussing a trip through America, for the word is emblazoned everywhere, often on bumper stickers that read ‘freedom isn’t free’.  Quite what this phrase really means I’m yet to figure out, and reluctant to expand on (because, frankly, we’d be here all day, it would only be fun for me, and I do try to keep my literary onanism to myself.  Well, all types of onanism in fact).  However, the implication that freedom has costs attached is a fair, if clichéd, observation and one that struck me in a very parochial way as we enjoyed the freedoms that having your own car affords.  We could go anywhere, we were captains of our own ship, and we were bound only by a self-imposed date on which we’d promised to return the car.  Wonderful as all this is there is a cost attached; the cost of insulation.  Insulation from the outside world is easily overcome by parking up and getting out, but insulation from other people is a cost that I hadn’t thought about, or expected to pay.

I’ve written on numerous times in the past about how the people we’ve met - the good, the bad, and the just plain weird – have added the crucial colour to our round the world movie.  What struck me about driving ourselves around is that this colour is, if not lost, then washed out a little.  Sharing a journey with a stranger can be a profound and joyous event, and the profundity and joy can take on an almost infinite number of forms; from learning something new, to making a friend, to just the solace a piece of unexpected human contact provides.  Driving yourself limits these interactions and although we did, on occasion, share our movie with a stray extra who bought colour and warmth to the narrative, it was all too rare.   So there’s an irony that comes with driving yourself around; it’s the things you don’t, and can’t, control that tend to have the most profound impact on your life, and yet the more control you have over your life the freer you are considered to be. The freedom of having our own car gave us a lot, but it took away a little too. 

Would I give up the car next time and jump on a Greyhound bus? Probably not. In a land where the car is king the bus is the jester, a preserve of characters you’d love to meet, but also a few you’d really not want to.  What our car-induced relative isolation meant, however, was that when the opportunity presented itself to spend some time with people we knew we jumped at it.  It was time to get out of the car, and dust off those social skills (remember what we talked about, Helen said, you can’t just pee in the bushes when we’re in company).  First it was to Austin, in Texas, a last minute decision to spend some time with our friends Sarah and Bradley.  Regular readers will remember Sarah from a previous post, the brains behind a charity that’s bringing water to isolated areas of Kenya.  As Bradley pulled into our motel in his suave black SUV we all agreed that this was, you know, a bit different from our last meeting in the Kenyan bush where we’d pushed jerry can laden wheelbarrows up hills and shared raised eyebrows as we politely tried to finish our heavy bowls of ugali.  A happy evening was spent noshing down on tex-mex this time, catching up, and Helen and I drinking the pregnant Sarah’s and supportive Bradley’s allocation of booze.  Austin is famed for being a liberal enclave in conservative Texas and as we merrily threw about our shared left-of-centre views I was simultaneously both happy to be in such great company, and slightly concerned that too many words out of place would cause the other diners to enact a can, open, ass scenario.  Didn’t happen of course, and as we said our goodbyes in the sultry heat of the Texan night it was not just the spice and booze in our stomachs that had left us enriched.

Invigorated by meeting Sarah and Bradley we took the decision to get some miles behind us, and set off on a two day drive across Texas, Louisiana and Alabama to reach Sarasota in what was to be our final state; Florida.   Interstate driving in America has none of the appeal of driving the quieter and more scenic roads but in such a vast land it’s sometimes necessary, and we had a goal in mind that justified it; meeting two old friends, Maria and Kelvin.  Maria and Kelvin are the parents of one of my school and later university friends, Alex, and a serendipitous piece of timing meant that their holiday in Florida coincided with us passing through. 

Sarasota is one of the wealthier areas of Florida, the uniformly manicured gardens of the housing complex Maria and Kelvin were staying in attesting to the controversial development of a state that was once nothing more than a big swamp.  I’ve always loved spending time with Maria and Kelvin, even when I was a schoolboy and other friends parents were supposed to be just that; parents but nothing more.  Their wit, good nature and intelligence makes conversation flow as freely as the waves that lap against the shores of Sarasota’s incredible beaches, beaches that we wandered along discussing this beguiling country we were all visitors to.  Maria told us of an incident during their last visit to the States, just before Obama won the election, and when the talk of not just this town, but every town around the world was if America would get its first black President.  A member of staff in Wal-Mart had referred to Obama by the ‘n’ word and this not only tells you a little about why the United States can be defined as much by its division as by its union, but also a lot about why Maria is so great.  Instead of taking the meek and relativistic stance of ‘I’m just a tourist here’ Maria fronted up to this bigot and in icy tones informed him that in the UK he’d be arrested for that kind of disgusting language before turning on her heel and walking out.  I’ve never really understood the dictum that you should never discuss religion, politics or sex, especially with strangers, and this post would be a whole lot shorter if I’d stuck with that advice.  I far prefer the dictum that evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

Saying goodbye to Kelvin and Maria, and also to the sun as it transpired, we headed to Key West, and then on to Miami to conclude our US road trip.  We’d scrambled and hiked the hills of Vermont and the wilds of Acadia National Park in Maine.  We’d moved from the European feeling Boston to the American heartland of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  The colours of the leaves on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina had given way to the sounds of country music in Nashville.   The desert of Texas slowly changed to the lushness of tropical Florida.   

A country of contradictions was behind us; the beauty of the landscape set against the glow of the golden arches, a soaring freedom as we sailed from state to state against an insularity of a box on wheels, the crisp air of an autumn day against the muggy humidity of just another day in paradise.  Contradictions maybe, but one thing was very clear.  I love this country, it can be a paradise sometimes, and I’ll be back.  Provided that the can stays closed, of course.