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.