Friday, 19 December 2008

99th Day Spectacular!

Since the second week of my trip, I have been keeping a diary of about 5-10 words per day - just to keep track of what I've actually done all the way through the Americas. The days are numbered rather than named, as "Tuesday" or even "Sunday" are virtually meaningless words when backpacking, and that's how I know that today is the 99th day of my trip.

So what better way to mark this statistically significant day than with a run down of the highs, lows and stats of the trip so far?

(Some readers might wonder why I am doing this on the 99th day rather than the 100th. I'd like to say that it is a motif for the fundamentally imperfect nature of life that travelling has taught me; and a comment on the pointlessness of overanalysing statistics. I'd like to say that but actually it's because I will probably be trying to get through Peruvian immigration all day tomorrow and won't have time for the comfort of the internet cafe.)

So, first up, a few stats:

I set off from Orlando Road, Clapham 99 days ago, on September 12.

Since then, I have taken 4 flights and - according to the best estimates available - roughly 60 bus rides - including 7 overnighters - spending over 300 hours in transit from A to B, and covering 4,500 miles overland. (That's an average speed of 15mph.)

I have slept in 44 different beds, hammocks, sofas and mattreses along the way.

And of the 99 days so far:

  • 19 were in the USA

  • 34 in Mexico

  • 39 in Colombia

  • 7 in Ecuador

The Highs:

Top 5 cities (in no particular order and excluding the two cities I had previously visited - ie Guadalajara - which would make the top 5 - and Cancún - which wouldn't make the top 20):

The home of one of the world's most recognisable, globalised brands has a strangely homely, small-town feel, and it's own kind of style. Add in the evocative, misty weather on the day I spent there with Rachael and the beautiful boat ride and there is a city which will dffinitely stay in my mind.

Mérida, Mexico
The Yúcatan it may be but Mérida still feels very Mexican - especially in terms of the great Mexican qualities of being laid-back and friendly. The salsa dancing in the street on my first night there was - I'm told - fairly typical for a Saturday night.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
My first ever view of South America was arriving by plane in Cartagena. It was a cloudy, wet, misty day and I saw the high-rise peninsula of Bocagrande - a mile outside the historic centre - emerging from the gloom. Not what I had imagined for my first view of this continent, but Cartagena delivered the goods in the end for it's mix of colonial buildings and colour in the centre; western comforts and American brashness in Bocagrande; and some reliably squalid but friendly Latin America in Getsemaní. Loved it.

I mentioned how happy I was to arrive in Bogotá in a previous post. The weather was genuinely chilly and it felt comfortable after a bit too long on Colombia's Caribbean coast. What I didn't mention was the dramatic setting, sprawling out of the hills just to the east of the historic centre. A great cable-car ride gave views as far as the eye could see (not far at all, though, unfortuneatly) and the feel of a really big capital city.

New York City
It's New fucking York. Enough said.

Top 5 Hostels:

1. The Platypus Hostel, Bogotá
Permanently full (I was lucky to get into a dorm), this place has a well deserved reputation on the circuit as a great place to hang out. A trust-based policy for the beers means you tick off the Aguilas as you drink them. You only have to worry about the cost when you check out. David from Kilmarnock managed to break the hostal record with 72 beers in 5 nights' stay. Good times.
2. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico
Start the day with a hearty breakfast of eggs, tortillas, orange juice and unlimited coffee. Enjoy the pretty tourist town of Creel in the day. Eat a home-cooked three course dinner that will definitely fill you up in the evening. Sleep under warm blankets in a cosy bed. Pay $8. Unmatched in Mexico.

3. North Star, Cartagena
A cast of characters as colourful as any Latin American soap opera made this one a winner. There's Luz, the 50-something cleaning lady who takes a shine to all the gringo males of the hostel, cuddling them, making them feel at home but warning them not to get any girls pregnant. There's Luis, the football-loving night guard who referees matches in the town on Sundays. Enjoy his company in front of the television, but he won't stand for any monkey business. Off-setting him is fun-loving Charlie, just arrived in the city from Santa Marta, but with a mysterious past. Did he really marry an Irish backpacker? And could he really be moving from sunny Colombia to rainy Dublin? And pulling the strings behind them all is the handsome young Pedro. Always smiling, always cool, always with a new lady on his arm, Pedro is the star of the show. You couldn't make it up.

4. Green Tortoise, Seattle
In a country where most hostels refuse to allow any alcohol on the premises, in a city that prohibits smoking in public places, the Green Tortoise is a shining beacon of debauchery with its smoking room, seemingly full of cigars, joints, bongs, cigarrettes and drunken backpackers 24 hours a day. Plus, when have you ever seen a hostel dorm with curtains around the beds? Fantastic. Only problem was you never knew if you were alone in the room or there were five people asleep.

5. Hostel Trail, Popoyán, Colombia
This Scottish-run hostal deserves a mention just for extreme tolerance. What other place would let you turn up early and us someone's private shower; drink all afternoon taking up the whole living room; smash Christmas decorations and glass bottles in a roudy drinking game lasting till the wee hours; spill beer, rum and coke all over the shared room (and I mean ALL over); settle the bill at 2am; not charge for the internet that was supposed to cost 2,000 pesos and hour; and not bat an eyelid when the hostel's reference copy of the lonely planet goes missing? (I will point out I was not guilty of all of these - but our motely crew of a Kraut, a Frog, a Rosbif, a gook and a Canuck collectively was.)

Top 5 eats: (In cronological order)

Pizza slices and garlic balls in New York
Maybe I've just been missing good pizza in South America but these pizza slices with Lisa in New York and the little garlic ball things she ordered stick in my mind as being so damn good. And cheap.

First tacos in Hermosillo
My first full day in Hermosillo and I headed straight for a cheap little taquería. The taste of the meat brought back memories - and reminded my why Mexican food outside Mexico is never the same. The salsa is critical as well, of course. Red or green, ¡it's calieeeeeente!

Breakfast in Guadalajara
Going back to stay with my granny I was looking forward to her cooking. What was really sweet was waking up to see the little bowl of three chopped fruits covered over in cling film waiting for me on the dinner table, whether I was up at 7.45 or midday - just like when I lived there a few years ago. Plus, there was no guava this time.

Curry in Cartagena
Day 55 of my trip, my first ever in South America, my first meal there - in the German-owned restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet - and what do they offer but beef jalfrehzi and chicken massala. My first Indian food since day -1 in Clapham. Gorgeous.

Chicken, rice and beans in the Colombian jungle
To be honest, it has been downhill ever since that first curry in Cartagena. I am not a fan of South American cuisine (hence also my longing for a good pizza slice above) but on the first night in the jungle, having worked up an appetite with a 4-hour trek, ending in the rain and the dark, this dish really hit the spot. (Even if it encouraged me to build up for a "rice-off" on the last night of the trek. Three plates of rice that last night was probably the culinary low point of the whole 99 days.)

Top 5 days: (the toughest list to compile, in chronological order.)

Day 8
Seeing a dear friend again in the poetic greyness of Seattle. Drinking a venti latte (that tasted exactly like every other one ever) in the first ever Starbucks. A boat ride. Some beers. Simple but beautiful.

Day 13
With renewed peace of mind after recovering my bag from Greyhound buses the day before, I took a short bus (for once) to Chico and met up with another old friend. With Brandon and his mates, saw a bit of the town, picked up the best cards ever in poker, spent very little money buying everyone drinks and rounded it off with a car-park cricket game with a croquet ball at 4am. A true college-boy's day - and the only day so far where I've made a profit.

Day 46
With John from Australia, Mary from Ireland and Adyam from Germany, I took a bus ride, a bicycle taxi, and a donkey-train out of Mérida to go swimming in the most beautiful and refreshing setting immaginable - the water caves of Yucatan. Perfect on a 30 degree day. Then chill out with a few beers in the afternoon, evening. What a Monday.

Day 73
The final push of the trek. Three and a half hours, mostly downhill, with just four river crossings for good measure. And then beers, food and - remarkably - pool tables while we wait for the bus back. A proper shower. Contact with the outside world again online. Bumping into 2 groups of trekkers by coincidence at the hamburger place outside the centre we'd all been dreaming about for five nights. And a night out partying.

Day 93
Triumph in adversity. Our ragtag bunch wakes up at 5am to get straight on a minibus for 7 hours, taking us to the Ecuadorean border. We find the Colombian border is closed for 1 hour, so we wait 2 hours until it is actually open. Crossing to the Ecuadorean side we join the back of the queue and wait. And wait. Just after it gets dark we are at the front of the queue, inside the immigration building, when the electricity cuts out. No computers: no visas. After 10 minutes, Claude whips out her full bottle of rum. After 40 minutes it is finished, the lights are back on and we are legally in Ecuador. Just 5 hours later I am sitting in a bar in Quito watching Andrew Flintoff batting, live from India. A tough, but remarkable day.

The Lows:

The 5 worst journeys: (in order)

1. Seattle to Sacramento
After a bus in front of us had "broken down" in the middle of the night, forcing on board an extra 25 unhappy passengers and delaying us, I arrived in Sacramento without my bag. Only after they had demonstrated even more incompetence in the lost luggage office, and given me a form to claim compensation for everything in my bag, did Greyhound finally get my bag back, in effect costing me a day in the USA.

2. Hermosillo to Ciudad Obregon to Cahuisori to San Miguel to Creel
Firstly, I headed out of Hermosillo confident (though not certain) of finding a bus from Obregon to take me into the mountains to Creel. Reaching Obregon, I was told that the only bus going near left at 8am in the morning. So after a night in the completely forgetable city of Obregon, I got up early for my bus, and was told it would take 5 hours to reach Cahuisori, a village just next to Creel. Three and a half hours into the journey, i was told it would actually be another 5 hours. Arriving - 3.5 hours later than expected - in Cahuisori, I was told I was in fact still a long way away from Creel. I would have to go another 2.5 hours, to be dropped off at San Miguel - which turned out to be a total of two buildings, standing at a crossroads. Inquiring in one of these, a friendly cattle farmer showed me where to wait for the bus. Fifteen minutes later it arrived, and 2.5 hours later I was in Creel - just 9 hours later than hoped. (Or a day later - you could argue.)

3. Cartagena to Bogotá
See my earlier post. Latin music all night + crappy dubbed movies + live Colombian band and singer + 5 hours' delay = not the best journey

4. Chico to Los Angeles
Probably my last experience for a while of the Kafka-esque North American public transport system. I woke up at 4.45 am for my bus from Chico, which then had to stop in Sacramento for 30 mins (everyone off the bus) before my scheduled transfers in Stockton and Bakersfield ("The arsehole and the armpit of California," as Brandon put it), between which I sat backwards on a train. Eventually made it into LA on time, but it didn't help that I was to hungover to read or sleep properly that day.

5. Baños to Ambato to Guayaquil to Machala
Neatly, this monster blog post finishes with how I arrived where I am today - on day 99 - in Machala, a city I had never heard of until about 8 hours ago. Leaving Baños last night at 10.30pm with Chris from Bavaria and Tibo from Paris, the plan was to go overnight to Cuenca, changing in Ambato. Firstly, we waited 1.5 hours in Baños, then when we did arrive in Ambato, we were told that there were no buses from that station to Cuenca. It didn't help that it was tipping down with rain, we were exhausted, and Ambato was supposedly very unsafe. Quickly, we decided to jump on a bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador's biggest city, a bit to the south west of Cuenca. Only when we arrived in Guayaquil, at 8am did we pick up the Lonely Planet to discover how limited our options in the city were. So we agreed to split: Chris and Tibo making good on their plan to go to Montñita and me moving closer to the Peruvian border by taking a 3.5 hour bus to Machala. So the wrong city, about 6 hours later than planned. Here I am, 99 days in.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Sunday double header

Here are a few pictures of the wonderfully grey, concreted centre of Bogotá where I'm based: (taken today)

This contrasts with what I might term the "colourful squalor" of central Cartagena:

How do you spell home comforts? C-o-l-d.

I arrived in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, yesterday afternoon. I came straight from Cartagena on a bus trip that was supposed to last a casual 20 hours but due to standard delays (traffic, guerillas) was actually 25 hours long.

The journey doesn't make it into my top 5 all'time worst bus trips list. That list is dominated by north Indian buses in 2003. Peter and Gergely, if they are reading, will know what I mean. However, at times the bus's "entertainment" did threaten to push it up into the hall of fame of worst bus journeys. There were Spanish-dubbed DVDs: Rush Hour 3 (astonishingly, the second time I have half-watched this on a bus in the past two weeks), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (few laughs in English, very few laughs in Spanish), and Die Hard 4.0 (I was asleep). Throughout all these movies and all night long the driver played his music at the front of the bus. It ranged from Latin pop, to salsa, to merengue, to vallenato, to Latin rock. I didn't enjoy this - particularly at 3am when all I had brought with me on the bus in terms of music was The Stroke's Is This It? (I listened to it approximately 5 times). What I appreciated even less, though, was the bunch of Colombians near the back of the bus who had brought their own instruments and spent most of the journey looking for any excuse to start playing and singing. They played an impromptu concert at first light at 5.30am - over the sound of the driver's tunes. I was not amused.

It reminded me of a line I read in the Lonely Planet last week:

How do you spell "life" in South America? M-u-s-i-c. Without it, life would grind to a halt.

To which my immediate thought was: How do you spell lazy, stupid cliché...?

Anyway, what did I think of to take my mind off the constant blairing away of "South American life"? The old continent. E-u-r-o-p-e.

I thought a little of winter Saturday mornings in London and Edinburgh. (Something I have consciously missed in recent weeks. Bacon sandwiches; grey skies; long coats; Saturday Guardian or Sun; the Premier League, the FA Cup or even the Six Nations on the TV.) But for some reason, on that bus journey up into the Colombian mountains, I thought mostly of other parts of the old world that exist in my memory. September in Vienna. April in Hamburg. February in Turin. Summer in Budapest. A late August morning in Munich. Autumn in Warsaw. June in Paris, and November in Paris, and January in Paris.

I don't know why this was in my head. Maybe it was partly because I was finishing off Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate. But mainly my theory is that - 86 days away from home - I'm not exactly homesick but I would enjoy something a bit nearer to home. Streets that don't smell of sewage or trash (Santa Marta and Getsemani, Cartagena - stand up). Reliable pavements. Reliable pastries ("Oh that looks nice and sweet. It'll go perfectly with a cup of coffee! ... Oh, it's full of cheese, you say. And that's salt, not sugar, on the top. Never mind.") Good food. (Something I have been severly disappointed by since Mexico. Apparently it won't get better until Argentina. Hard times.) And some European weather.

So I am loving what I have seen of Bogotá so far. Driving into the centre from the north and west it actually looks like Eastern Europe! I never thought I'd be so pleased to see concrete tower blocks and grey and red pavements.

And the cold. How I love the cold. Last night I was wearing a T-shirt, sweater and scarf just sitting in the hostel (having my first proper English conversation in a good week and a half too. Home comforts.) I went to bed under two blankets and a sheet, inside my sleeping bag, wearing a T-shirt and boxers and slept like a baby after my musical mystery tour from Cartagena. Admittedly, my first hot shower in over a month this morning was a 90-second let-down, but after a long time without experiencing anything below 25 degrees centigrade, the weather here is great.

It's a lovely, grey, chilly Sunday; I've already managed to get hold of a bowl of cornflakes and I'm wearing my jacket. Time to stop blogging and go explore my "home" of the next few days.

Monday, 1 December 2008

New Look!

I've attempted to make this page less painful to look at... and removed the now-defunct "disclaimer". What do you think?! Here at James's America I value your feedback and hope to make your web-surfing experiemce an enjoyable one... etc BTW, I can't seem to find a better colour for the main heading.

Without prejudice

I know there are some people out there who are looking forward to a neat, historical account of my trek through the jungle, revealing some of the interesting tit-bits I learnt about Matthew Scott's kidnapping, and probably telling various amusing and disgusting stories about snakes, spiders and mosquitoes. But those people will have to wait (for a few days anyway).

Instead, you can chew on this, a half-baked, half-arsed treatise-cum-rant on a subject that has been floating around my head without reaching any neat conclusions, which, if you ask me, is what blogging really should be about anyway:


Travelling on your own teaches you a few things about the world and a lot of things about yourself. In the past couple of weeks I have come to realize just how much I can enjoy my own company – it’s scary how long I can go without feeling the need to get away from the internal monologue – and I have reflected on one of my main dislikes in life – prejudice.

I think what started me off on my reflections on prejudice was when a top English bloke I went trekking with told me how pleasantly surprised by me he had been. He said he’d initially expected that I would not be good craic – but in the end we got on very well. I didn’t want to pry him on this subject any more than I did, but I was left wondering: what was the initial prejudice he had against me that made him assume I would be boring?

It might have been:
  1. the standard prejudice against middle-class southern English people (I have this prejudice myself. Posh twats.)
  2. or the standard prejudice against solo travelers. (I have this prejudice myself. Fucking wierdos.)
Even though I probably would make the same snap judgment about myself, if I were in someone else’s shoes (draw your own conclusions about how these prejudices of mine are against people like me), it really irritated me that he had initially made a negative judgment about me.

I think this is because there is one kind of prejudice that no human being can stand. Like everyone, I have my own hierarchy of which prejudices are least acceptable (for me it goes – in reverse order of acceptability – racial, then national, then religious, then class. For some, I’m sure class will come first. Other racially sensitive souls might look the other way on a bit of religious bigotry etc etc.) but there is one kind of prejudice that is absolutely the worst and least acceptable of all: prejudice against me.

This is very relevant to being in Latin America for an extended period of time. The resentment towards gringos can be staggering at times – making unprecedented levels of rudeness quite standard. Of course, not everyone is like that, and some people are just arseholes: they are rude to everyone. But at times it does get me down that I am being treated badly because of how my racial ancestors from a country to the north of here have tended to abuse and look down on the peoples of this continent and culture.

It does annoy me – but I don’t want to get on my high-horse about it. I’m as susceptible to prejudice as anyone else. (Cf my two prejudices above, which morph into a blind bigotry when I overhear middle-class southern English solo-travellers…. “What? How dare he intrude on my trip!? He can’t possibly be appreciating this continent as much as I am! Oh, thank God, he can hardly speak Spanish. I’m better than him… It’s OK.”) Anyone who pretends to be above prejudice is undoubtedly an even bigger wanker than the many millions of decent human beings who happen to have the nasty habit of routinely judging people on the spot, based on what their religious/racial/national antecedents did 50/250/2000 years ago.

I’ll always remember the period around late 2006, when The Observer columnist Nick Cohen (pictured) used to have attached to his masthead the tagline “Without prejudice”. This was such a ludicrous, grotesquely pretentious conceit that I enjoyed having a mental argument against Mr Cohen every week when picking up the main section of The O. Of course, he saw sense after just a few weeks and removed his tagline – much to my disappointment.

Anyway, I’m continuing to travel, continuing to broaden my mind and continuing to meet new people, some of whom are undermining my own prejudices about solo-travelers, Spaniards etc, whilst some small kernels of prejudice remain… the fight is never over.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Hablas muy bien español!"

Today I am back in Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, after a couple of days in Valledupar, a city a few hours inland from here.

I had planned by now to be on the second day of a six-day trek to la Ciudad Perdida (aka The Lost City - aka the sight of Matthew Scott's infamous kidnapping in 2003 - don't worry - security has improved drastically since) but the trek has been delayed basically because my Irish friend Jenny and her mates were still on their way here from Cartagena. So, at a loose end for the weekend, I decided to take up an offer from a Colombian girl I had met on a bus last week to visit Valledupar. I made this choice largely because of (not in spite of) the fact that Valledupar gets not one word of mention in my Lonely Planet guidebook. Not one. And it has a population about the size of Edinburgh.

My choice was rewarded by an authentic couple of Colombian days. Previously (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday morning) I had been in Taganga, a tiny village stuffed to the brim with western backpackers and - I would estimate - more budget hostel space than the whole of Edinburgh. In Valledupar I saw not one westerner. Not one. Even in the "touristy bits", which included - amongst no others - a pretty river and an impressively large main square.

I was quite pleased too to spend the whole time talking in Spanish with my new friend Jessica, her mates and the family she was living with.

For the past month and a half I have been - depending on the people I meet - varying between days of speaking almost entirely English, days of speaking entirely Spanish, and days of hardly speaking at all. (Estimated respective distribution: 50-35-15%).

I've found that my level of spanish in this time has oscillated considerably. Some days (or hours) my tongue feels completely tied and I make tons of mistakes and forget words. Other hours (or days) it all flows off the tongue readily and I have no difficulty. In general, though, my level has dropped quite a bit from the high of 2003. I have forgotten some words; I hear myself making mistakes but can't avoid them in time; I speak a bit slower on the whole; Colombian Spanish is tricky for me to understand.

The measuring stick for how well I speak is how often people complement me on my spanish. The more I hear "You speak very good Spanish" the worse I am speaking. If I'm not complemented at all, I know I'm on good form.

This rule of thumb rests on the following assumption: you only complement someone on their language if they a) speak to an acceptable level and b) sound like they need encouragement. If someone simply speaks a language, there is no need for you to remark on it, beyond perhaps: "Where did you learn to speak Spanish?"

I was pleased that over the course of the weekend and several hours' conversation, only once did I get the "Hablas muy bien!" treatment, and once I was able to pass as a native of Bogotá to a cab driver in order to keep the cost of the fare down. (Admittedly Jessica did almost all the talking in the cab.)

I've now set myself up to be vaguely studious with my Spanish, after the past weeks of simply staying still with it, practising but not improving. I'm reading García Márquez (the price which I haggled down with an elderly bookshop owner in a part-excahnge deal. After our chat about South American literature, he even commented on the irony of a white man negotiating a deal with a Colombian to save a few pesos on the cost of a Márquez novel. A classic moment which I'm only faintly ashamed of) and I'm making notes on the words I don't know.

But still, in keeping with the rythms that have built up in my trip of the last two months, I'm looking forward to a few days of just English. Yin and Yang.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

November 11

Here in Colombia, November 11 marks the indepedence of the city of Cartagena from Spain. And what better way could there be of marking this historic occasion than the Miss Colombia contest, which concludes this Friday? (Sadly I have now moved on from Cartagena, as I felt I couldn't justify chilling out there for than than the week I had already spent. So I will miss the major Miss Colombia events. But I did see the beauty queens at least once, at a go-kart race organised by Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian Formula One driver.)

November 11 is also a national holiday in all of Colombia (or at least the nearest Monday is, or something. It's hard to tell when a day is a holiday in a country like Colombia, which combines the lazy Latin/Caribbean stereotype with the trademark Third-World work ethic - shops are open all day, all the time.)

In Cologne, Germany, November 11 marks the beginning of the carnival period, which concludes in February with Ash Wednesday. In fact, der Kölner Karneval begins at 11.11am on 11/11.

Meanwhile, in the UK, 11am on 11/11 is a time for sober reflection of Armistice Day. I believe the same date is Veterans Day in the USA.

I've often wondered how some Brits would react, learning that a bunch of Krauts are using the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to mark the beginning of several months' festivites and debauchery. Now I learn that a whole load of Spics over this side of the Caribbean are holding a beauty contest to mark the most sombre day in the offical calendar of the USA and also Her Majesty's Commonwealth....

It reminds me of how I've always thought that us Brits are missing out big time when it comes to Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans they have Mardi Gras, in Rio de Janeiro they have Carnival, in Britain we have... pancakes.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Safe and sound in, er, Colombia

So I managed to enter Cartagena de Indias OK without an onward ticket.

In fact, at the eleventh hour in Cancún (well, about 9pm on Monday) I met an Argentine who showed me how to make a free flight reservation just to calm my nerves. But then they didn't ask me anything when I got to Cartagena, despite what I would call a shaky performance at immigration. ( I always get so nervous).

They did, however, thouroughly search my bag at customs - but only because when I pressed the button that randomly shows a red or a green light*, it came up red. Obviously I used up my good luck at immigration. No complaints there.

*The same thing had happened coming through Tijuana on October 1 - to both me and Sam who I was travelling with. (Very bad luck apparently). The guy at the desk said how annoyed he was with this new system of button-pressing. It meant he had to search good fellas like Sam and me and left him unable to discriminate, he explained, nodding towards a bandanna-wearing Mexican walking past us. In the end he gave our bags only the most perfunctory search immaginable. I could have been carrying a small nuclear detonator and 5kg of cocaine and he would not have noticed.

The customs officer here in Cartagena was sincere but sympathetic. I got a laugh for my hip-flask of Tequila and kid's cricket bat and was on my way after about 7 minutes.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Low- and higher-stakes gambling

Today is my last day in Mexico. I spent it as I had always planned to: on the white-sanded, Caribbean beaches of Cancún. It was a nice day and I took another small step towards evening out my farmer's tan. (Still many steps on that path. I may never make it to the end.) But I must say that after my third trip through Mexico, having taken in a broad sweep of the country from north to south, I am really underwhelmed by the Yucantan Peninsula. Mérida was nice, but the Caribbean Coast is very much the American Costa del Sol. Beautiful beaches, gorgeous weather, and no need to trouble yourself with local food, currency, customs or language. For a "hardcore", adoptive tapatío/mexicano like me, it just isn't right. The parallels with the Costa del Sol even extend to the fact that both areas were deveolped at the behest of non-democratic governments in the 60s/70s. I like my American history to go back at least 60 years....

Anyway, having given myself a fair bit of time around the Peninsula, a couple of times I found myself at a bit of a loose end as to what I should do. Embracing the freedom of not knowing where I might sleep the next night, and in keeping with my mini-philosophy about the randomness of life and how often decisions needn't be mulled over, I found myself tossing a coin a couple of times to decide where to go next. The coin came up tails both times and, as a result, I have still not been to Chichén Itzá, the most famous Mayan ruins in the peninsula. Instead I have been to Izamal ("The Yellow City"'s yellowness was - as far as I could see - it's only notable quality) and tiny Puerto Morelos (very pretty, almost as quiet as I was hoping).

But today I'm deciding to gamble for slightly higher stakes. Technically, to enter Colombia I need an onward ticket out of the country, or at least South America. I don't have one, and I've decided to risk it, in order to save the cash I would otherwise have to shell out (the pound isn't doing so well, after all) and retain full flexibility.

The (rather flimsy) evidence I have gathered suggests that border officials in Colombia rarely bother about the onward ticket or the evidence of sufficient funds (which I do plan to have covered if necessary) but still, my next blog post will either be coming from sunny Colombia (the first South American, and the first equatorial country I've ever visited - exciting!) or perhaps a detention centre in Miami.

The question I will have to ask myself, waking up at 3.45am tomorrow, is: do I feel lucky....?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A couple of things I love/hate about Mexico


The food. The big number one on this list. Being here over the past month has reminded me of how I was when I first came here, with Pete in 2003: obsessed with eating. Whenever possible I try to eat a full breakfast of fried eggs (spicy style, a la mexicana, is my favourite) with tortillas, beans, a little salad, coffee and juice. This usually costs around 2GBP. With the rhythms of my days here, I might eat a breakfast this size around 10.30. I will be hungry again by 12.30 and thinking about lunch. Wherever possible I will seek out a cheap restaurant, and have something like tacos, fajitas or burritos. The meat in Mexico is outstanding. So much fresher than I'm used to. I have something like a taco fetish at the moment, and I am sure I will miss them when I get to Colombia. Dinner is the smallest meal of my day, which is the real way they do it in this country. I might just have a sandwich or anything I can find for cheap. But sometimes I treat myself to another sit down meal. At worst I will pay 5GBP for this. I have put on a bit of weight over the past month...
The weather. Mexico is not blisteringly hot all the time. The altitude of most of the counrty makes it quite pleasant in most places. Even quite chilly in places like Creel, Chihuahua, where I was a few weeks ago. One night coming back from a bar there I was freezing, even when wearing a jacket. And my AFC Wimbledon scarf has been put to good use various times. (Albeit, mainly on over-air-conditioned buses). I did, however, throw away the long-johns I had been carrying just the other day. I reasoned that a South American summer will probably be reliably warm enough for me not to need my watching-football-in-Edinburgh-in-February gear.


The queuing. (Or "waiting in line", for any American readers out there). Not that I can't stand it. Just that Mexicans can't do it. It's always a bloody shambles and people push in from all angles in no discernable order, or there will be something strangley inept about the whole arrangement. Example: yesterday I was in Wal-Mart here in Playa del Carmen. Now, you would expect that in a completely agringado (Americanised) environment the queuing would work. But in the twenty items or fewer lane (incidentally, one woman was taking the piss - with about 10 watermelons) people were waiting in line for the 4 or 5 tills available, then, when they got to the front of the queue, just randomly selecting a till to go and stand behind, thus creating a second tier of queuing and destroying the whole point of the queue for multiple tills!! Deep breath. This probably sounds ridiculous. Like I am a really anal, stuck-up Brit. And I suppose part of me is, beacuse this really does irritate me!

That is all

El coronel no tiene quien le deje un libro

A brief postscript to my last post: (hence the excessively laboured attempt to adapt another García Márquez work for the title of this post, which - mercifully - only Spanish speakers will understand and groan at.)

  • My 15-hour journey to Mérida was actually only 14 hours long. Sometimes you get lucky with vague Mexican bus schedules.

  • The movie they played was a French RomCom (in Spanish) with a plot that was conspicuously Hollywood-esque and reminiscient of What Happens in Vegas... starring Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, which I sat through leaving Tijuana on October1. I watched the French movie because the light on my seat wouldn't work.

  • So no Rebus until about 1am when I woke up, realised the bus was half empty and there was no need for me to sit right next to the Mexican girl in seat 13 beside me, and moved to a seat with a working light and read for a while before going back to sleep.

  • When I arrived at the hostel in Merida, it turned out that the book exhchange in the hostel was suspended do to excessive abuse of the take one, leave one policy. So I had lugged War & Peace all the way there and still couldn't exchange it. (Though I did give away the one Rebus book I finished to Daniel from Israel.)

  • Now I am in Playa del Carmen, reading Laura Esquivel's Malinche in Spanish (not loving it), and the book exchange in my hostel has a total of about 10 books to choose from, about 7 of which are in English. Not a good selection. Assuming I finish Malinche in the next couple fo days I think I will be exchanging Tolstoy for Andy McNab. How droll.

All of which goes towards proving something close to a point from an earlier post: you never really know how things will go until you actually live them.

Friday, 24 October 2008

One hundred hours of solitude

Today I'm sitting in an internet cafe outside the bus terminal in Veracruz, Veracruz, a port city where Pete and I spent a few days of diahorrea and drinking back in 2003. (It was a bit more fun than that sounds). This time I am only passing through, from Papantla to Mérida, and into the Yucatan peninsula. This will leave me a stone's throw (3hrs) from Cancún and the final destination of this overland leg of my trip, which began in Seattle five weeks ago.

Mérida is just over 2,500 miles from Seattle, as the crow flies - and my route must have been a fair bit longer than that. I thought about this lying in a hotel bed the other night in Papantla, and calculated that I must have spent around 100 hours in transit so far on this trip. Certainly, the 15 hour journey I'm about to embark on will take the total into three figures.

The reason why this came into my head the other night was because I had found myself, earlier in the day, feeling restless in the last hour of my 6 hour trip from Mexico City (11 hours total from Morelia that morning). This must be the first time I have really wanted to get off the bus I was travelling on throughout the whole of the last few weeks. In fact, more often i find myself - at the end of an overnight journey - wishing that the bus ride was a little longer so I could sleep some more.

The only reason why i was so restless arriving in Papantla was because I was finishing War and Peace, and was left badly disappointed by the second half of the Epilogue. As Tolstoy drained on in the last 50 pages, repeating his view of history for the umpteenth time and using his 2,000th metaphor to dismiss conventional historians, I seriously considered giving up the book and finishing there. ...But when you're 1300 pages into a book...

Still, it was a superb read on the whole, even if it can't match One Hundred Years of Solitude for a rhapsodic ending.

So I am looking forward to jetisoning W & P when I next reach a youth hostel. (I couldn't bring myself to leave it in a hotel room or dustbin - so I will carry it for today's 20 hours' travel just to make sure it finds an honourable resting place. I wonder which brave backpacker is going to choose to lift it off the shelf I will leave it on.)

But having W & P really did serve a purpose: one which has now become clear to me. As I got on that bus ride to Papantla on Wednesday, the two women searching my hand luggage in Mexico City had joked at the immense size of W & P and my Mexico guidebook, to which I replied: "Well, at least i won't be short of something to read." Two days later, I may be running short.

I began an Inspector Rebus novel yesterday and I'm now just over 100 pages from its end. To be sure of having enough to read for my impending 15 hour ride, i will have to dig into the bottom of my backpack for ... another Rebus novel, which I picked up in San Diego. But frankly, I'm loving the prospect. I have realised - in totting up 100 hours' bus and train travel - how much I enjoy the process of travelling for its own sake.

15 hours to Mérida and nothing to do but sleep and read ... depending on the quality of the movies they play on the bus. This evening I'm hoping for some 1950s Mexican film that won't distract me. We'll see.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Leaving Guadalajara

Today I arrived in Morelia, Michoacán, after a 3.5 hour ride from Guadalajara. On the bus I watched two movies: the ridiculous Jumper - on pirate DVD in English with some of the worst subtitling I have ever see -, and Coach Carter in Spanish. It was a Samuel L Jackson double bill. I probably would have prefered to sit in quiet contemplation of leaving my third city (London; Edinburgh; Gdl; Hamburg) and read some Tolstoy, but I couldn't help getting into both movies, and found myself absurdly moved by Coach Carter. The experience was reminiscient of flying out of Mexico City in 2005, when I was almost crying into my airline meal watching Russell Crowe and Renée Zellwegger in Cinderella Man. (I've seen it since and it is nothing special.)

Gdl was not as sad an experience as I was expecting. In particular, it was wonderful to stay with the same family as I did in 2005, to sleep in the same bed, eat at the same table, in the same seat. Some things have changed inexorably, excruciatingly in that city. Some things are exactly the same.

I hung out with Gustavo on Friday and Saturday, the grandson of the woman I lived with. G is about my age and now teaches Italian to uni students and English to school kids. We had a lot to talk about and I managed to drag him along to a match at the Estadio Jalisco, where his father had seen Gordon Banks make THAT save from Pele 38 years ago. It was good to hang out with G and I'm sure we will meet again.

But mainly it was lovely to be with my Mexican "grandma" again, and I reflected on how lucky I am to be close to a person from such a different world as mine. Very Catholic and in her mid-seventies, she gave up on a career in medicine over 50 years ago to devote herself to her husband and her family. She has 8 children, at least 16 grandchildren, of whom I have met roughly half. I feel as if I have learnt a lot from her about another view of life.

Last night she was telling me the sad story of a North American who fell in love with her sister half a century ago, but was rejected because the girl was too devoted to her mother (ie. my granny's mother). The mother died earlier this year, a few months short of her 100th birthday, and the two sisters went to Texas to visit the sister's suitor. The man never married, remaining in constant contact with his "novia" for half a century, even though they never married, never had any children. He became rich working in the pharmaceutical industry, but is now very ill and alone, with no family other than a couple of elderly sisters (one estranged). He is too ill to move to Mexico and marry his love. She refuses to relocate to Texas so soon after her mother's death. He is still waiting.

A remarkable story which seems to make sense of García Márquez's idea that magical realism is only a European term for what real life is actually like in Latin America. This is a theory I have expounded - with limited success - in European classrooms. If it weren't for Señora Guerra de Orea I doubt I would understand it.

But being in Gdl was not all happy. For me there is a huge hole in that city that can't be refilled. I suppose a large part of why I have now travelled over 2000 miles overland from Seattle was to confront the memory of Sandra's death. To "come to terms with it" or "get closure" to use the standard clichés. Of course that hasn't happened. I was sad today to think how I can never see her again, never wish her well and never prevent what happened. And at times in the future I will be sad for exactly those reasons.

But it helped to see Hugo, someone who knew S better than I did and who must have felt her loss more acutely. We reminisced a little; but more than that we acknowledged each other's grief. And we had a fun night together as friends, ending up with Darcy in a low-grade kareoke bar. (Believe it or not - most kareoke bars look classy compared to this place). I dedicated New York, New York to Sandra. It was the song I had sung on my last night out with Sandra, Hugo and others in Gdl in 2005. Singing it again on Friday was fun and funny and sad.

I was also very glad to see Darcy again, who had been in the same school as me in 2005 and lived in the same place as I had initially three years ago. She now lives there as a full-time student. We talked about our old mutual friends and chatted to her boyfriend - probably the most artistic dentistry student I will ever meet.

Even if the 2008 me still envies a lot of the 2005 me, this was a new experince in Guadalajara. And a good one with no regrets at all.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The end of the beginning

The same day in Guadalajara and I have a couple of hours to kill before arranging to meet Hugo. I'm now psyched to finish off the account of my trip through the USA.

I realise that I have subconsciously been aping the temporally-disjointed style of a Latin American "boom" narrative: I began with a recollection of the beginning, before jumping into the middle (which was then the present), then going back nearer the beginning and now finishing the beginning from the present perspective, which is somewhere near the middle. Carlos Fuentes would be proud. Maybe this blog will one day be looked on as groundbreaking in its stylistic innovations. Maybe it won't.

So I was heading down to Los Angeles. I should note that San Francisco had sadly slipped off my itinerary. The reasons for this were (in order of significance): I was spending to much money in the USA and needed to get somewhere I could stay for free (LA) and get nearer to Mexico (LA); I had been to San Francisco at least twice before, most recently aged about 13, so I felt under less pressure to see the city; and Perrine, who I knew from salsa classes back in Gdl, is European and I expect i will one day see her over there again. (In fact the previous time I had seen her, I was dressed as a pornstar and she as a French maid at a party in Oxford, circa February 2006. the costumes may change but we will meet again.)

So I arrived in LA at about 5pm on Friday September 26, more or less exactly two weeks after my initial arrival in the USA. Sarah, a friend from London, picked me up at the Amtrak station and drove me to her neighbourhood in East LA (50mins). We stopped off in a Starbucks for a chat en route (I think I see a theme developing in this trip around the US, which I hadn't quite noticed before.) Then we made it to her home.

Sarah was born in the USA to Mexican parents - her dad is from Guadalajara, in fact - and she lives with her parents, brother, sister, cousin and neice in a house in the Mexican bit of town (actually LA County rather than LA). I was somewhat apprehensive about arriving there, based on my knowledge of Mexican family dynamics. The unnattached, male friend coming to stay with the youngest sister of the family is not necessarily a character who will be welcomed with open arms. I had intended to shave my week-and-a-half's beard off in advance of my arrival to look younger, but didn't find time. I did at least pick up a box of Belgian chocolates at the last minute. But I needn't have worried. I was warmly welcomed by Sarah's dad, and was soon having some beers on the porch with Sarah's family and friends (all Mexican by origin or birth).

Despite my protestations that I was exhausted after 1.5 hours proper sleep, a long journey and two nights' drinking behind me, I really enjoyed the evening with these guys. George, in particular, a native of Morelia, Michoacán, was a very interesting guy to speak to. A semi-legal Mexican immigrant, a metro-sexual lover of Morissey and The Stone Roses, an enemy of feminism - he was one of those individuals who was such an interesting mix of conflicting characteristics that he has stayed in my mind vividly. All of Sarah's friends were very welcoming, though. When I said this to S the next day she guessed that it might have been my Mexican credentials which served me well. At one point I did crack out some proper Mexican spanish for the first time in ages, and the loosening effect of several beers and minimal sleep made it flow off my tongue readily. I honestly don't think I've been able to speak so well since I've actually been in Mexico! I do remember, though, when it came to telling a few (anti-)Mexican jokes, my standard two went down a treat but the third was like a lead balloon. It goes as follows:

Why was Jesus Christ a Mexican?
Because he believed that his mother was a virgin and left home aged 30.

*My other two jokes are available on request, but I don't want to publicise them too much, as I always get great mileage out of them in this country.

That was the only point in the evening where I felt i might have overstepped my welcome as a white Englishman in East LA in the home of some welcoming Mexicans.

Overall I really enjoyed the evening and I was conscious at the time of the cultural shift i had experienced over the course of 24 hours, moving from Northern to Southern Cali, from a white college town to the heart of Latino Los Angeles. I was loving it.

The next day, S played tourguide, taking me to the observatory, from where we could see the Hollywood sign (1hr) and then to Hollywood Boulevard (15mins), where we walked up and down, looked at the hands at Mann's Chinese Theatre and then went to an excellent Thai restaurant for a late lunch. The best salad I can remember having for a long time.

In the evening, I was still gunning for a quiet night, but it was Saturday and I couldn't let down S, so we went to her friend Liz's appartment in Long Beach (1.5hrs). I had breifly met Liz once before in London. We then went out to a street in Long Beach, picking up more people on the way (20mins), where there were three store openings going on. One was a sort of kitsch-cool baby clothes store, another a vintage clothing store, and the third a rollerskating/clothes store, which had a rollerskate fashion show at one point. All these stores, within 2 mins walk, were giving out free drinks and the baby store was giving out free food as well. What economic slowdown? AFterwards we went to a couple of bars, one of which I found myself left in for a while, as someone had forgotten their ID and I was again lured by the pool table, leaving a trail of destruction as the generous American pockets made me look like some kind of superstar.

At about 1am we went back to S's friend's flat and I and fell asleep in front of a vintage horror movie, as did Liz's boyfriend, whilst S sobered up enough for the drive back to her place in East LA (30mins).

The next day I went for breakfast with S, her sister, cousin and neice. I had said I was up for some proper American pancakes, so we headed for the nearest IHOP (can't be bothered to spell out that acronym. Whoops, now I've spent more time explaining that than....) But in the post-church Sunday rush we couldn't get into the nearest one so had to drive to another one in the vague area (45mins). I had an awesome dish of blueberry pancakes, ate about two-thirds of it and was stuffed, courtesy of the Rodriguez family. I noticed at one point in the meal (as the girls were teasing the neice for looking white) that I was the only non-latino in the place: staff and customers. I loved it, particularly as I knew I was heading to Santa Monica that day, which I sensed would be somewhat different.

It was. S drove me there and I thanked her for the fantastic job she had done as chauffeur and tourguide. I would estimate that we spent at least 5 hours in the car from Friday till Sunday afternoon (the true LA experience that many tourist will fail to see), and I got to see Hollywood, so I was happy.

In Santa Monica i checked into the HI hostel, where a classmate from Edinburgh, Lene, was staying. The fact that I was meeting Lene at all owed to the chance that she had read my facebook status update the week before when I was in Sacramento, and it turned out that she was heading to LA that weekend as well. Not wanting to stay overly long at the Rodriguez household, and not knowing how the hell I would get to Rafe's, in downtown LA, or what i would do there, I jumped at the chance to spend a couple of days by the beach in SM.

I eventually met Lene that evening, after a game of Facebook tennis that was getting progressively more frustrating. (L had a British mobile in LA but it stopped working the day I tried to call her, so our only chance of communicating was via Facebook messages.) We went for a civilised drink in SM (I had been hitting it hard the past five nights since arriving in Chico) and retired to our dorms in the hostel.

I slept about 12 hours that night, only interrupted by the violent snoring of one guy in my dorm. A Scotsman accross from me eventually had to wake him up and tell him to roll over. Remarkably, it worked. In the morning I met L and we agreed to meet on the beach later that day.

It was a lovely day at the beach and L and I played a lengthy game of gin rummy. Since I began evangelising this classic game of the 1970s, L is the only person to have a 100% record against me. Eventually, i will have to hunt her down to win back some honour. I have never once hung out with L within the UK. We happened to be in Hamburg at the same time in 2006, and we happened to be in LA the same weekend this summer. Odds are we might both wind up in the same part of Mongolia in a couple of years. I'll be sure to have a pack of cards.

L went off to San Pedro, another bit of LA that night to stay with some friends of friends and I wandered round SM in the evening. There was a really nice promenade (nice compared to Hollywood, anyway, L said she thought the place was incredibly tacky - but then she had just come from SF) and I ended up picking up a book by an American sports writer who moved to the UK and followed Portsmouth FC for a year. War and Peace it wasn't, but I enjoyed reading it that night and the next day.

I had made vague plans to see L the next day and visit Catalina Island, just off the coast. However, when i looked into how difficult it would be to get out there from my hostel, and how expensive, and how hard it would be to meet L along the way, what with neither of us having a phone, I decided to make the much easier (and cheaper) trip to San Diego. I had spoken to Rafe the day before, but it looked like meeting him would also be very difficult and "cost" me an extra day in LA. I will see Rafe back in London before long.

So I left LA the next day. I took my one public bus in that city to get back to Union Station (1 hour) and then got straight on a train to San Diego (2.5hrs). I was delighted to get out of LA. I had had a great time with S and then a nice day on the beach with L (barring a degree of sunburn: I was far too blasé about sunblock) but i still felt delighted to get out of the city with the worst public transportation I have ever encountered.

In SD I checked into another hostel, wandered around town briefly and went to bed. I decided to leave the next morning for Mexico.

SD was a place I had been looking forward to visiting and heard many good things about. However, for me it was the first destination i had been to (bar Sac, which I looked on merely as a stop off) where I didn't know anyone. And I wasn't particularly keen to get into the hostel vibe of meeting fellow backpackers when i was just about ready for things to get cheaper (and easier) in Mexico. Also, I did have a ticket booked on the Greyhound that next day to get to Tijuana. (I booked this ticket, for $12, back in the UK with little intention of actually using it. The date I picked, 1 October, sounded about right but I only purchased it in case i would have to show US immigration that I was in fact intending to leave their country.)

The next morning, i ended up meeting Sam, a guy from Birmingham, who was heading down to Tijuana that day. We quickly agreed to do the trip together. He was a sound guy, who I realised immediately I'd be happy to travel with, and maybe he realised that my experience of Mexico could help him on his way. In any case, in that strange way that friends are made whilst travelling, within 5 mins of meeting each other, we agreed to make a trip of several hundred miles together.

Half an hour later we met in a Starbucks (...) and headed to the greyhound bus station, beginning Greyhound experience number two:

They accepted my email reciept for arrival, checked my bag with no hastle, and i settled down to watch the end of Mission Impossible 2 (or 3) in the departure lounge, whilst Sam went off for what must rank as the one of the worlds's speediest haircuts (to my knowledge he didn't even know where he was going when he walked out the station). We waited a while. And waited. A bus which looked like ours arrived, early. And left.

No warning. No call for anyone to get on. The driver didn't even enter the bus station. S and I explained this to the people at the desk and the supervisor eventually gave us refunds, and then we walked off to the nearest tram stop. We payed $2.50 ($9.50 less than the greyhound) to get a tram down to the border. This must be the only time in my life I've taken city public transport to a different country.


Next I will continue the narrative at the Mexican border, and soon the temporal paths will coincide somewhere in central Mexico, late October. Before I inevitably dip back into the USA to give a more reflective account than the blow-by-blow stories of this post and the last. For now, Churchill's words will suffice: the end of the beginning.


Today is my second day in Guadalajara and I feel quite sad and rudderless. Later on I will have to work out how to do a polite shuffle from Darcy and Abraham's flat in the north of the centre to Gustavo and the familiy's place in the West, whilst hopefully catching up with Hugo downtown. We'll see.

But for now I'd like to give myself something else to think about, so I'll return to my trip through the states.

We pick up the story with our hero still in Seattle, on Sunday 21 September, having said goodbye to Rachael and planning to head to Sacramento that night:

This day gave me my first experience of Amtrak and Greyhound. What a grey day it was. (I'm not talking about the weather. In the afternoon the sun finally shone and it was a pretty Sunday in downtown Seattle.) First I walked to the Amtrak station, about 12 blocks east of the hostel and right next to the football stadium. The Seahawks were playing at home that day so I drifted through the crowds, idly debating if it would be worth forking out around $100 to scalp a ticket (no) and found the station. More reminiscient of Warsaw than Washington, the station had a board with the 5 or 6 trains that would be leaving that day. There was none to Sacramento until early the next morning, and I think that was fully booked anyway.

So I turned round, picked my way back throught the crowds of football fans and walked about 25 blocks to the greyhound station. More Clapton than California, this place did at least have a variety of buses available heading south. I plumped for the 1815, slated to arrive in Sac at 10am the next morning, changing once in Portland, Oregon.

I can't remember much of what I did in the next 5 hours or so. A bit of wandering around town; a cup of tea; some more War and Peace; and a bit of book on screenwriting, now that I think about it, and I was back in the greyhound station by 5pm.

Everything I had heard about greyhound buses had made me incredibly anxious, so I waited with a lot of trepidation. The first bus couldn't have been more comfortable though. I sat on my own and probably slept 4 out of 4.5 hours.

Then, changing in Portland, I was assured my bag would be transfered so I should just wait and get on my next bus. I should never have believed the woman who said this. I did check with the driver of the next bus, who seemed altogether more competent, but again should not have believed his lukewarm guarantee that my bag would be loaded.

So, after a 12-hour ride to Sac (I studiously sat next to an old lady near the front of the bus, a decision that paid dividends when the bus was loaded with 25 extra, irate, passengers from another greyhound that had "broken down" along the way at 3am), I was only half-surprised to find my bag wasn't there.

I agreed with the people in the baggage reclaim place that I would return later that day to see if my bag would arrive on the later bus and set out to find the hostel I had earmarked to stay in.

This place was a 150-year old manshion converted into a generic HI hostel, in a sleepy bit of sleepy downtown Sacramento. I checked in - after having to kill some time in yet another Starbucks - and found that most of the residentsof this hostel were local residents with learning difficulties, on a programme to provide them accomodation and some work. Not understanding anything about this at first, I was slightly terrified to be stuck in this town with only Tolstoy, my glasses (thank God!), my wallet and passport, in a hostel where the only other guests grunted at me as I walked past them. It didn't help that as I left that morning to wander around town, one of the guys in the hostel (a carer, I later learned) stopped me to ask what cologne I was wearing. After 16 hours greyhound, no change of clothes and no shower, this should have been a smart-alick wisecrack. Which I would have appreciated. It wasn't.

I went back to the bus station that afternoon and instead of getting my bag, I was given a claims form, which asked me to describe my bag, where it was lost and EVERYTHING IN IT. I started to fill this out, then thought better of continuing. Either the bag would be there tomorrow or I would be totally fucked. I bought some food, a toothbrush, socks and underwear and had a quiet evening in the hostel. Lonely, and stuck in a city I didn't really want to be in, in a hostel I hated, with almost nothing of my possesions, faced with the prospect of losing almost everything I had, I cried dry tears in the cold shower that Monday evening.

The next day I woke up, had some fruit for breakfast and went straight to the bus station. Before I even asked José, the supervisor, if anything had turned up, i could see my bag waiting behind the counter. I almost kissed the guy as he handed it to me. Instead I mumbled some thanks in Spanish and set up, with the proverbial skip in my step. It was a beautiful, sunny California morning, and I was in a charming, quiet city, where people say hello to each other on the street (Sac's population is bigger than Edinburgh's) and I could go and do whatever I wanted.

What a difference a day makes;
24 little hours....

...I whistled to myself walking around town that day. I got my laundry done (first time on the trip), spoke to an 80-year-old Australian backpacker who had onced played cricket against Richie Benaud (at under-16 level, mind you) and booked my ticket back north about 100 miles to Chico for the next day. I was in a great mood that day, and got together a game of monopoly with the minimal hostel residents for that eve. Will from California took the moral victory, but I did have a considerable empire of hotels and capital by the time I conceded defeat to go to bed.

The next day I was in Chico by mid-afternoon, reunited with my old buddy Brandon. B is a Californian who I had known in Hamburg, where he spent a year. I hadn't had much contact with him in the past 2 years but facebook had kept us close enough. He was happy to put me up for a couple of nights (in fact one night less than planned, thanks to Greyhound) and show me around his town.

As soon as I got to B's place I realised I was in for an experince I either hadn't bargained for or thought about: the classic US college party students. The flat was littered with empty bongs and unwashed dishes, and I met Mike, one of B's two flatmates. B and M took me for a walk around the small town, which meant going past the high school football practice into the campus itself, then walking through the park, which itself was littered with sunbathing students.

After chilling out playing Nintendo 64 for an hour or so that afternoon (I had never played Super Smash Brothers. I had been missing out) we went to B's buddies' place for a game of poker. $20 in, these guys played with two decks of cards, so one was always shuffled and ready, and even for a poker-lover like me, the pace of the game was breathtaking.

Now, sometimes in poker, you have a night where nothing goes right. My last proper game before Chico, months previously, had been one of those nights in Shoreditch. Every time I reached for my cards, I had eight-four looking back at me, or jack-three, or two-three. Horrible.

But some nights everything runs your way. Every flop seems to help you and ace-queen is more common than queen-four. Chico was one of those nights for me. Two hours into the game I was about $60 up, but the last hand made my night. It was about the last hand we had time for before heading out drinking, and I picked up two eights. Raising pre-flop I was called by the second biggest player. An eight came out on the flop and I had three of a kind. Hoping to get some last-hand-histrionics going, I tossed $5 into the middle. The re-raise from my opponent was $35. After a sharp intake of breath from all at the table, I debated for about two minutes and called. I had three eights, he had two pair, my triplet held for a pot of about $85, and I had won about $120 in 2.5 hours. I doubt I'll forget that game.

We went out after that for "buck night" in a couple of bars. (every drink costs a buck) and even though the drinks were on me all night, I don't think I spent more than $25. I also made my authority felt on the pool table of one of the bars for an allround excellent night of hustling.

Several beers later, Mike and I had a game of cricket in the parking lot accross from the house with a croquet ball at about 3.30am, and I woke up the next day shortly before 1pm with a considerable headache. B took me to Inn-n-Out Burger, a Californian tradition, before he went back to class, leaving Mike and me to chill out for a few hours. Leter that evening, B and I went out for a relaxed few drinks before going home for a civilised chat about politics and religion (at least a lot more civilised than the previous night's effort) and we spoke by computer with Elena in her uni library accross the Atlantic.

My alarm went off at 4.45am and B dropped me off at the Amtrak station for the first leg of my trip down to LA. We said goodbye and I felt quite confident that we would meet again in similar circumstances. Perhaps not doing the college experience (B will graduate this winter) but I'm sure we will always be able to hang out and have a good time.

And so began my trip to Los Angeles. Bus, train, bus for about 13 hours. I dozed intermitently throughout, not quite exhausted enough to sleep solidly, but not awake enough to read.

I'll pick up the story in my next post.

Travelling with Tolstoy

A quote from today's reading of War and Peace:

The human intellect cannot grasp the full range of causes that lie behind any phenomenon. But the need to discover causes is deeply ingrained in the spirit of man. And so the human intellect ignores the infinite permutations and sheer complexity of all the circumstances surrounding a phenomenon, any one of which could be individually construed as the thing that caused it, latches on to the first and easiest approximation, and says, 'This is the cause!'

Leo Tolstoy has been my constant companion on my trip so far. I think I'd read about 200 pages of W & P when I set off for New York, and I'm now about 1100 pages in, another 300 to go. In that time I picked up and read a sports book inside a day in LA/San Diego, but Tolstoy really has been a great constant on my trip. At times I haven't picked it up for days on end: mainly when I've been with groups of people, and/or drinking too much to focus. But there have been other periods where it has been my main interest and activity for a couple of days.

I will be glad to finish it - simply because it will free up some space and weight in my luggage - but perhaps I will miss my companion. Still, there are 300 good pages to go.... Of course, I know how the War element will wind up, it's the Peace I'm more interested in. Surely Natasha will end up with Pierre somehow. I can't wait to see how it works out

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The themepark of nostalgia

I will get round to filling in the empty weeks of my trip summary, but for now I'm in Guadalajara and feel like putting down something of my initial reactions to coming back here.

The moment I had imagined and fantasised about for years came at around 7.40pm yesterday. I sat in the plaza in front of the cathedral with my big bag, alone and contempleting being back. I didn't cry but my whole body jarred and quivered as I sat in the emblematic centre of Gdl, the place I remeber visiting after my first day of school, having a coffee with Sandra and Lee Ann on the way to a soccer game, buying Rachael a rose, ill-advisedly.

Afterwards I walked past Sandra's old appartment a few blocks north and then went to meet Darcy, walking a further 20 blocks north. We had a great chat and I felt happy to be back. Then we went out and got hammerred, as you do in these situations.

Of course, my thoughts here have centred around Sandra. Curiously my main reaction, driving into the city by bus was one of denial. I imagined that I might just see her again. That somehow everything that hat happened was a misunderstanding or a cruel trick. Every woman I saw of about 5ft 2in in the shadows of Sandra's barrio I thought might just be her, walking out to the shop. None were. Thinking about it in the light of today, I remembered that none of them had the walk that she had: "la camina Sandra" as I used to call it. She always strutted like a model and I loved it. Maybe being here will bring backmore memories of her.

It has already brought back general memories I didn't know were there. Mostly the prosaic sort like: that was my favourite cafe, people used to dance tango in that square some nights, I remember drinking in that bar. And some memories are funny: William from New Orleans with his diary and how I used to tease him: "Dear diary, James was being really horrible to me again today. And I wish Vera would understand the way i feel about her. But she doesn't love me like I love... etc".

I am happier than I thought to be back here, but sad in a slightly different way to how I imagined.

It only reminds me of the truth I learnt a year ago, and which Katharine L has been quick to remind me of lately: you never know how you will react to a situation until you live it.

Even as I sat in the plaza yesterday it was... 7.40pm, getting dark and busy as people finished work. I always imagined I would arrive there on a typical sunny Guadalajara day..........

Monday, 13 October 2008

This blog

I wrote the first post of my blog (below) by hand on a bus from Los Mochis to Tepic last night. I will soon add a summary of the rest of my trip so far before getting more into the business of blogging. By that I understand:
  1. random, incomplete thoughts on whatever subject is in my head
  2. an account of my travels for anyone who wants more than the occasional email or facebook message
  3. pseudo-diary entries
  4. pictures.

Watch this space

The trip so far: USA

My long-imagined trip through the Americas began with a flight to New York City on September 12. Looking at it now, my trip through the USA was the perfect expression of the travel-philosophy I developed a few years ago: that is “people not places”. I find that my memories of places I visit, sights I see, fade in time, leaving memories of the people I meet. Whether I enjoy a place or not depends almost entirely on the people I meet and the interactions I have with them. This is an idea, a theme, that I expect I might examine in more detail in this blog, but for now I ought to return to the start of my narrative, making the point that I planned my trip through the USA without an atlas but with a hitlist of friends. Nira was no longer in Boston, but Lisa was in NYC, Rachael would be in Seattle, Perrine in SF, Brandon in Chico (wherever that was in California), Sarah and Rafe in LA.

So I set off to NYC in anticipation of seeing Lisa, and of possibly a very long time away from London, family, friends and Elena. What had barely crossed my mind was the fact I was arriving in one of – if not the – world’s great city(ies), a place I had hoped to visit for at least the last ten years.

The instant I stepped out of Penn Station into the buzz of midtown I was struck by the excitement of being in NYC and – literally in that instant – remembered how I had longed to visit Manhattan. An instant later I met L, and within five minutes we were in a Starbucks, catching up.

The truth is, L and I didn’t get on as well as I might have hoped. In the past weeks I’ve wondered about the reasons for this. For one, I’d say we were, to use a cliché that is as irritating but as useful as all clichés, “in very different places”. L was going into the last week of her PR job, in which she had been a great success and which she enjoyed. I, having finished my job a month before, was in the slightly morose, jet-lagged and homesick mood that I have always found myself in at the start of a long trip away from the UK. Secondly, I had known Lisa in the neutral territory of Guadalajara, and now I was meeting her on her home territory: the city and the flat that she had lived in for a year, and with the friends she had made. This all meant that the goalposts of our friendships had changed, from equals in a foreign country to me being the foreigner bumming on her couch, and her the leader and local. Plus, I was in a stage of culture shock that made me go into my shell tremendously. (The USA really terrifies me in some ways that I may attempt to describe another time.) Thirdly, I was pretty wasted on my first night of travels and acted kind of ridiculously, but that would have to be the lesser of the factors.

In any case, it was not exclusively awkward between L and me. I was extremely grateful to her for showing me around the weekend I was there and to her and her flatmate Kelly for giving me a place to crash (sleeping till 9.30-10 every day after they had gone to work hours earlier.) But I ended up loving NYC the place more than the people (although again I add the caveat that karaoke night with Lisa, Kelly, Brian and their metropolitan friends was great fun on my first night – if only the jet-lag, lack of sleep and extensive choice of beers hadn’t taken their toll.)

NYC is a city that will live long in my mind for its vibrancy and scale. No other city looks the same, to my mind. I was pleased to “tick off the list” the Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, the UN, and visiting the Ellis Island museum (for a good 3 hours) fulfilled an ambition which began with watching the Godfather part 2 almost ten years ago.

In the middle of the week in NYC I went to Washington DC. This was partly to tick off the list the White House, the Capitol, Lincoln et al and to visit the Holocaust Museum, but mainly to avoid overstaying my welcome at L & K’s flat in Queens.

I went by Megabus (22 POUND return) and on the first night immediately met Nick from Ipswich, a few more English blokes and Ivi, a very nice political scientist from Hamburg. We went out drinking together and I couldn’t have asked for a better night. For a homesick, culture-shocked, sport and politics-loving Londoner who once lived in Hamburg, there couldn’t have been a better bunch to go out with that night. We sat in an Irish pub talking cricket, Newcastle United and American culture and girls. To paraphrase Tolstoy - in possibly the most inappropriate situation ever - this chat was “balm to my soul”.

My next day in DC was also successful as I ticked all the monuments off my list and spent a good few hours in the Holocaust Museum (excellent but Berlin’s Judisches Museum still beats it for me.)


Two days later I was on a flight to Seattle. In keeping with my “people not places” Reisephilosoph* I was heading there purely because it was a convenient place to meet Rachael, an old friend-girlfriend from Gdl, who I had not had much communication with in the previous three years, but a person who remained vivid in my thoughts over much of that time. In short, Rachael was a person I could not have bared to not see again and now, even if our paths were never to cross again, I would feel glad to have spent a weekend with her in Seattle. Seattle it was, but in my mind it might just as well have been Tokyo, Addis Ababa or Aylesbury. There was (almost) nothing at all I wanted to see in Seattle but Rachael, and for her sake I got on the 7-hour flight and one-hour bus into town.

* "travel-philosophy” feels far too pretentious for me to write it a second time, so I am inventing a more manageable German word, which will – ironically – seem three times as pretentious to anyone interested – or bored – enough to be reading this blog.

(I should also mention – and give thanks to Facebook - for the circuitous route by which I got back in touch with R, which involved her unusual surname and lookalike – but apparently very different – sister. But I’ll save that for another post on the wonders of F’Book.)

Strangely, as I walked the last couple of blocks to meet R at the Green Tortoise Hostel in Seattle, I began to feel very anxious. What if we didn’t get on after three years? And what was I really expecting from seeing her again anyway?

I needn’t have worried. Partly because we got on so well, as 3 years’ gap melted to what felt like 3 days’, and partly because R’s natural sketchiness of habits meant she arrived at the hostel an hour after me in any case.

We went to a bar on that Friday night and had one of those conversations you have with someone you haven’t seen in too long, where you are left with points you can’t make, avenues of conversation you can’t explore, simply because time is precious and you have so much to hear and say.

The Saturday was a lovely day. (I’m not talking about the weather. It drizzled most of the day and I didn’t see the sun once. Seattle lived up to its reputation.) It was a lovely day as R played a sort of tourguide in this city she had never before set foot in. But we were in her country, after we had known each other on neutral, Mexican ground. We went to the original Starbucks (worth waiting 40 minutes for a latte in my book) and saw the Space Needle (not worth paying $15 to go up, we thought, so we didn’t) and took a ferry to sleepy, picturesque Bainbridge Island, where we shared a glass of port and wandered round the little harbour. On the ferry back, dancing salsa to no music in the mist and the freezing cold of the upper deck, with the skyline of Seattle in the background (like a parody of a romantic, filmic setting) I thought how wonderful it was to learn again what I loved about R, and how I enjoyed time with her. Over the previous three years I had remembered the outline of why I liked her, but to see the detail filled in again and to feel as if three days had passed, where three years had gone by, was a real joy. Even if I now longer felt romantically-physically for R, as I had done back in Gdl, I was still excited and delighted to be in her presence.

We had an eye-opening conversation about all things American later that evening, which exposed at least one major point of disagreement – on the idea of health insurance and the role of government. And the next morning we parted, agreeing to meet somewhere in Europe in two years’ time.

Lying half-awake that Sunday morning in Seattle, I decided to head to Sacramento later that day. The reasons for this were: with R going north I lost my reason for being in Seattle (“people not places”); Sac is close to Chico, where I was planning to meet Brandon; and I had chanced to pick up a flyer for a cosy-looking hostel there, where I expected I could spend a quiet day doing some laundry before heading to Chico.