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.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Driven to distraction

America’s highways and byways

The following clarifications to the rules and regulations that govern road travel in the United States come into force with immediate effect:

  1. Anyone caught using their cell phone whilst driving will be assigned a cast member from the sitcom 2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps who will permanently accompany the offender, repeating lines of dialogue from the show.  This will continue until the offender either (a) has a nervous breakdown, (b) drives his or her car at full speed into a wall, or (c) starts to laugh.  In the latter instance the offender will be immediately admitted to a mental asylum.
  2. Consistent failure to use indicators when exiting a road will result in the seizure of the offender’s vehicle.  The vehicle will be adapted to include a high voltage electric element in the driver’s seat that is connected to the indicator stick and the steering wheel.  Any 90 degree rotation of the steering wheel that takes place without the accompaniment of the applicable indicator will result in an electric shock.  Not, as one might expect, to the driver, but to a small fluffy kitten.  The images and audio from this will be streamed through the vehicle’s sat nav interface.  The electric element will remain in the driver’s seat.  As a reminder.
  3. Any driver who fails to exit the fast lane of a freeway when there is ample space in the other lanes, thereby causing other vehicles to either slow down or undertake, will be barred from participation in all public holidays and private celebrations.  This includes but is not limited to: birthdays, Christmas, thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, christenings of offspring, and Valentine’s Day.  During these periods the offender will be placed, with other offenders, in a gym that is equipped exclusively with a large loop of running machines.  The offenders will be required to move sideways from one running machine to the next, in a continuous loop.  The pace of the running machines can be, and will be, altered.  The offenders will partake in this activity until they can prove they understand the concept of relative speeds, and by extension the importance of lane control.  Upon successful completion of this course all festivity rights will be restored.  With the exception of Valentine’s Day.  Nobody could love someone that obnoxious.
  4. Any motorcyclist who rides without wearing a helmet will be the instant recipient of a Darwin Award and be publically feted for their selfless and considerate contribution to the national organ donor programme.
That is all.  You drive safe now.

< No animals, especially cute little kittens, were harmed in the writing of this post.>

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Welcome to America

New York, headed north

This is how the conversation with the charming US Border Agent at New York’s JFK airport went, l’esprit de l’escalier style:

Him: You need to remove this piece of paper from your passport, affirmative?

Me: <groggy jet-lagged silence>

Him: AFFIRMATIVE?! Jesus, it’s like talking into a cave!  

Me: Affirmative? Affirmative? Since when were you guys a wing of the military? And since when did your job description morph into outright hostility and rudeness?  And as we’re clearly in a Q&A session why don’t you go fuck yourself?

And this is how it really went:

Him: You need to remove this piece of paper from your passport, affirmative?

Me: <groggy jet-lagged silence>

Him: AFFIRMATIVE?! Jesus, it’s like talking into a cave!
Me: Bit unnecessary. Yes, affirmative. Sigh.

New York is, apparently, renowned for the rudeness of its inhabitants.  I’ve never noticed it in the past though.  Brusque certainly, direct maybe – all OK by me – but not outright rude.  Our border guard friend clearly felt, however, that it was his responsibility to fulfil the stereotype.  To get the newly disembarked all nice and angry before they plough off into NYC so they can fully contribute to the melting pot of passive aggression and poorly concealed frustration that is the low background hum in big cities.  Perhaps if I’d really have said what I so wanted to say he’d have slapped me on the back, smiled broadly and said welcome to New York son, you’ll fit right in, now you have yourself a shitty day, you hear?

I simply wasn’t mentally prepared for this rudeness having spent the last month in the loving embrace of family in beautiful Vancouver where rudeness just doesn’t fly - there’s probably a by-law against it.  Nor was I expecting it, blindly convinced as I am that Americans are the friendliest people on earth.  I mention this arsehole with his little stamp to prove only that there is the exception to every rule, whereas the rule itself (Americans = friendly, keep up) has also been proven time and again over the last few weeks as we’ve been treated with hospitality and kindness, and have a trunk full of free firewood as evidence. 

Let’s get the hell out of Dodge I said to Helen, still grumpy from our encounter with officialdom, gunning the newly acquired SUV out of the airport, and north out of Manhattan, bouncing over the potholes (Obama’s right – the roads in America do need sorting out, the driving standards could do with a bit of an overhaul too while he’s at it).  We were on our way.  Another road trip, this time on the east coast of the states, with no real plan other than ending up in Miami six weeks hence.    It can be slightly overwhelming, having no plan, but it’s equally exhilarating.  And when you have your own car you can just drive in a rough general direction, and pretty much let the rest take care of itself.  Which is what we did, heading north east into Connecticut, with a rough plan to take in Vermont and Maine in the coming couple of weeks.  But that’s a tale for another day.

The road trip had started.  Affirmative? Affirmative?! Geez, it’s like talking into a cave.