Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Small World

Back in August, the weekend before I left to come to Mexico I was in Edinburgh. I had a fun time there which was only partly ruined by the weather (wet and miserable on the Friday and colder than December in Queretaro on the Saturday) and Janeane Garofolo's abysmal stand-up in the one show we all paid to see. Being back in Edinburgh made me reflective - as it always does - of how my life has changed (a bit) since I was a student, so I was in a pensive mood as I boarded the Megabus to return on the Sunday night. Not only was I thinking about Edinburgh and my friends there, but I was extremely apprehensive as I considered that a week later I would be teaching English classes in Mexico.

Waiting in the queue for the bus I got chatting to a South African guy. We ended up sitting next to each other on the bus and he told me a bit of his story. He was flying to S Africa the next day, returning home after a year spent abroad in Canada and Scotland. I looked on this as a piece of cosmic coincidence that I should meet a guy returning home after a year just as I was about to leave home for a year. We chatted for some hours on the bus and two comments he made to me have stuck in my mind as very meaningful. (Also, at least one comment he made has stuck in my mind as complete garbage - no, the Incas weren't aliens).

Above all, the one thing I took away from that conversation was this observation: [reproduced here - in the novelstic convention - as if I could remember every word he said]

"The thing is, yah, it's not like the olden days when people went away from home and didn't see or speak to any of the family or old friends for years. Nowadays it's so easy to communicate with people, yah."

He had a point. It immediately made me think back to some stories I had heard in the museum on Ellis Island in New York. (Very loyal readers of James's America may recall that i spent a good three hours there when I visited Lisa in NYC back in September 2008). A hundred years ago men used to leave the old country, leaving behind parents, siblings, wives, children to go and spend perhaps 3 years working in the states until they could pay for their families to come over. Some of them even had to live in Pittsburgh. If they were lucky they could communicate every couple of months or so by mail. They didn't have phones, email, sms, msn, facebook, facebook chat, or even facebook lite. For a solid 2-5 years if not forever. How could I be afraid to hop accross the global village for a paltry 12 months or so?

Whatever his name was, that S African gave me a boost of confidence before coming here, and his observation has completely borne out for me. I haven't felt homesick at all since moving here and I remain aware that a) it's so easy to stay in constant contact with home that I am effectively not far away at all and b) a year isnt that long.

This has mulled around in my mind a bit lately as it is the festive season. As an expat living in a (relatively) new city, I looked on Christmas this year as a bit of a nuisance. Nice to have the time off work but I would inevitably end up feeling slightly lonely away from my family on the one day of the year (in the post family-holiday era) that we would definitely all spend together.

True to form, my dreams began to take place in London with a bit more regularity by mid-December, and on one occasion (must have been after a very vivid dream) I actually woke up thinking: "Where am I? Oh yeah, God, I'm at home in Mexico. Why the hell did I decide to come here again?" It was a very fleeting moment but one that has stayed with me and amused me since.

In the end, I had a really fun Christmas. I spent Christmas Eve (Noche Buena - the night Mexicans celebrate) with my colleague Lety and her extended family just outside the city of Queretaro. I had a great time and was full of cheer (not to mention rum, wine, cider, tequila) by the time I went to bed that night at 5am. On Christmas Day I lazed around, eating off my hangover and chatted to my family in London standing on the terraced roof of my house in the 22 degree sun.

So, reflecting on the smallness of the world, I have just remembered that, what with the time-difference, the fifth day of Australia v Pakistan began an hour ago in Melbourne and I had better log on to watch it now before Pakistan lose any more wickets, and before I head out for a game of pool in a couple of hours. By the time I come back, England should be romping to victory in Durban against --- South Africa. I wonder if old whatshisname from the Megabus will be watching?

Hasta la proxima!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A day in the life

After the rather unique event described in the last post, I’m serving up this: a description, cut and paste from a recent email, of an archetypal day of my life here in Querétaro. In fact, a day so archetypal that it hasn’t actually happened – it is just an archetype.

[written about a week and a half ago]

Let me tell you a typical day, seeing as you asked about my students etc. Say on a Monday night I go to bed watching David Letterman interviewing somebody on TV at around 10.45pm (so early, I know) then I wake up on Tuesday morning at 5.45am, get dressed etc and walk out to meet my colleagues on the road beside my house. It is COLD right now (for Mexico) so i will wear a hoodie and maybe a scarf too. After a 45 min drive chatting about cricket with Mark, or ESL with evrybody and/or singing Mariah Carey, general Christmas Music or Elvis with Morgan and Lety I give an hour long class (which usually starts fifteen minutes late) to 3 or 4 middle aged professionals. Intermediate level. Then I ride back to town and make it home for breakfast by about 8.50am. And my free time begins. Maybe I go online for a bit then watch Felicity (my new fav show) from 10 till 11. Then maybe I go to the laundry or supermarket or have a cup of coffee and read or do whatever for a few hours. By 2pm I am checking what classes I have that afternoon and prob preparing a little. At 4pm I will teach, say, Juan Carlos and Francisco (aged 14 and 16, elementary standard) a basic class on grammar structure, littered with references to baseball, soccer or attractive actresses. At 5pm I teach Emanuel, 10, Fatima, 7, Mariana, 11, Karina, 10 and Adrian, 7. I am a nanny for an hour basically. We play games in English and I boss the kids as much as I can, telling them where to sit etc. The next two hours I will have varying conversation/grammar classes with a range of students aged maybe 25-55, generally either mid-twenties or middle aged. Generally higher standard. We might just do some grammar but, for example, I have designated this week as "German History Week" so I have my German flag up next to my map of europe and we will look at articles and have discussions/roleplays related to the Berlin Wall. At 8pm I will have my last hour of classes for the day, maybe with Adriana, 16 and Cesar, 15, (elementary standard) a brother and sister who are good fun and do what they are told (apart from actually conversing consistently in English). I go home after that, eat and sleep. It's a weird schedule but I quiet like it and I enjoy the vagaries of being a teacher. (I am not jaded yet)

Notice that my free time begins at about 9am. That is the equivalent to the feeling of 5.30 or 6pm in an office job when your working day ends and you can start to do what you want. It is weird but I like it.

A heart-stopping (and heart-warming) moment

I would say that the second most filmic moment of my life in the last few months took place in George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston last month. It was on Sunday 25 October, to be precise, at about 3pm and is worth recording here.

I was on my way back from Eleanor and Gabe’s wedding (and the Smith’s family holiday) in North Carolina, and had just made it to the departure lounge of Terminal B, a good two hours before my final flight of the day (to Querétaro) was due to depart.

I hear the following announcement:

“This is a message for JAMES SMITH. Please call extension 3000. This is a message for passenger Mr JAMES SMITH. Please call extension 3000. JAMES SMITH please call extension 3000.”

Here I am faithfully repeating the announcement as best I can recall it. At the time I was far too bewildered to actually catch what extension number I had to dial.

The announcement lasted about 8 seconds, and in those eight seconds I went through roughly the following range of emotions:

Amusement: “Ha! Someone has the same name as me.”
Surprise: “Wait, it must be me they’re making the announcement for.”
Embarrassment: “Have I lost my passport or wallet or something.Shit.”
Calm: “No, hang on, I’ve got both.”
Anxiety: “They probably want to search me or something. I thought that guy had put some mark on my boarding pass, but then they didn’t stop me at security.”
Outright fear: “What’s happened to my family?! Shit, shit shit. They were flying today as well.”
Calm again: “Wait, no. They would never inform people of plane crashes like this. How would they even know where the hell I was?”
Curiosity: “What the fuck can it be?”

It was one of the more emotional eight-second periods of my life.

(You may notice as well that my internal monologue probably curses a bit more than I do out loud.)

Bemused and baffled I wandered over to the US Airways desk where a typically friendly assistant (love the South) told me that I should probably call the paging service on one of the airport information phones.

After finally locating a phone that worked, and figuring out what number I had to dial, the following exchange (transcribed here in full) took place:

-Hi, my name’s James Smith. I think there’s a message for me.
-James Smith?
-Do you know Rachael?
-Give her a call.

Earlier in the day (and the previous night) I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact my dear friend Rachael in Michigan. After my last voicemail she had surmised roughly what time I would reach Houston and – after a call to a friend of hers in California, I think it was, to get the number for George Bush Intercontinental – had called the airport and given the impression that it was essential that JAMES SMITH contact her. An announcement had then been made right across the three or four terminals of George Bush, to the best of my understanding.

We did eventually have a conversation some minutes later.

In the movies, she would have told me she was outside the departure lounge, or was boarding the same flight as me but had got stuck in traffic. She wasn’t. But still, a beautiful, heart-warming, filmic moment.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

When Saturday comes

Today is Saturday and I have finally finished a long week’s work. I woke up at 5.45am Monday to Friday but then had a lie in today – I got up at 6.30am. I finished work at 9pm Monday to Friday although I did have about a 6-hour break every morning/afternoon, when I would snooze, watch US Open tennis or cricket and prepare for afternoon classes.

I was waking up so early in order to get a bus to the industrial area of Querétaro, about a 40-minute ride away, to teach one of two classes of business professionals in their offices. This was a new contract agreed by my school and I stepped in to fill the gap at short notice – it will not be a permanent arrangement, and I at least made sure I will be well paid for it. This morning was my last class there. Next week, I will wake up early on Monday to escort the new teacher out to the industrial area for her class, and then I will sleep in every day until Saturday, not starting classes at the school until 4pm. Nice.

Each morning, leaving the house in the dark of night and eating a solitary banana (no breakfast till after class for me) I would feel tired, but not apprehensive, even though in most cases I had not yet prepared any activities to fill my hour-an-a-half slot in front of 5-8 professionals. I enjoy the classes, and as tired as I feel on the bus, I am never sleepy once I’m standing in front of the class. I suppose it is a little bit like going on stage.

It’s early days as yet but I am enjoying teaching. I still have a lot to learn, especially in my grammar teaching techniques. Sometimes I feel I pitch my classes to the wrong levels (like too basic for the advanced students, or too advanced for the basics), and I think I love the sound of my own voice a bit too much in the classroom (the idea with “communicative” teaching of English is to minimise TTT – “Teacher Talking Time”) but I rate myself as an OK teacher, who at least makes things fun. Eventually I hope to be a good teacher who makes things fun.

But now I finally have some free time. I realised last week that I had been in Mexico for four days before I had my first beer. The previous time I was in Mexico –October 2008- I was in the country about 20 minutes before having a beer. Last Saturday, though, I did make up for my prior temperance at a party organised by one of the students at the school for one of the teachers. It was a great house party and I didn’t get home till 5.30.

As for this Saturday, this afternoon I’m joining Jason, sort of my boss from the school, in going to a football match. The local team have just been promoted to the top division this season and they are the “West Bromwich Albion” of Mexico, so to speak – weekly whipping boys for the top teams. I doubt they will have much to cheer today against the usually-strong Monterrey.

After the football match we are going to a bar with some of the other teachers to watch... a football match. Mexico against Costa Rica is a critical clash in the World Cup Qualifying, as Mexico began their campaign disastrously under Sven Goran Erikkson’s command. Sven is now gone, having earned $4M in about a year, but the damage remains as Mexico are still out of the automatic qualifying spots in the CONCACAF region. If results go against Mexico in the next few weeks, watch out for Honduras in the role of “West Bromwich Albion” in South Africa, 2010.

So tonight will be my first trip to a bar this time in Mexico, about two weeks to the hour since I arrived. The previous time I was here, it took me, once again, 20 minutes to get inside a bar....

But I’m liking my lifestyle here so far. I have even had a flashback to my long train rides to and from Amersham a year and a bit ago – this week I have been tearing into Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter every morning on my bus ride home. It has made me laugh (almost out loud) consistently and though the ending provided much less drama than I had hoped, it has galvanised me to read another of MVL’s in Spanish. I finished it today sipping a latte in Starbucks. The grande skinny latte was a rare treat and provided a sensation that might be familiar to loyal readers of James’s America - that of finding a little bit of home in a good old American multinational franchise. Don't knock it.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Picture diary

A little flavour of Queretaro:

1. Outside my fancy hotel, Sunday morning

2 & 3: The road the school is on - one of the busiest in Qro, and not one of the prettiest.

4. The name of my street. Can anyone pronounce it?

5. The street itself. Weather has been gorgeous all week. Hot and sunny but not ridiculous.

6. The front of the house. In my experience of L America, big fences out front = nice neighbourhood. This is no exception. Every time I pass someone on the street they say hello. (And one day I will find out definitively why it is they paint the bottom of the trees white...)

7. The little patio/courtyard inside the house.

8. Mike's very good-natured dog, Roddy.

9 & 10 ...not as cute as little Henry in London, is he?

Look! He's got a "Learner" plate and everything! Now THAT is comedy for you.

Chapter two begins

I am back on the western side of the Atlantic, teaching English to Mexicans in Queretaro, a city just to the north of Mexico City. That means it's time to ressurect James's America from the abyss of laziness that had laid to waste all my plans for more "reflection and analysis" of my previous trip from New York to Buenos Aires.

ALready, I feel I have a lot to cover from this, the first week of my fourth trip to Mexico, and so I will begin with that rarity for this blog: a succinct account of what I have been up to with as few half-cocked observations about Mexico as possible. Here goes:

My first flight left London at 9.05am last Saturday morning. I slept most of the way to Frankfurt, where I had a three-hour lay over. I had a coffee and some Bratwurst in an airport cafe to tide me over. It was fun ordering in German (this was the first time I had been In Germany since studying in Hamburg in 2006) but then the polyglot waiter decided to address me in Spanish when it came to settling the bill etc. I have no idea why, but he was a nice guy, and he cracked the same joke I had heard him use in French with the table to my right. I didn't leave him any tip - I was in Germany, after all.

The flight to Mexico was uneventful. I had an empty seat to my right. Good. I slept half of the 11-odd hours. Good. The in-flight movies were awful. Awful. If you ever have the chance to watch Bride Wars with Kate Hudson and A. Hathaway, maybe you should take the time to gouge your eyes out and cut your ears off first, so you will be less offended by the content of the movie. Zac Efron's vehicle 17 Again was perhaps marginally better.

I arrived on time, completed my swine flu declaration form. No sore throat, headache, fever etc. No problem. Got 180 days on my tourist visa. (The maximum available). Got a green light when I pushed the button at customs.

My plan was to get straight on a bus to Queretaro where I would meet Jason, the academic director of Bridge Institute, my school here, and Jason would take me to my appartment. In the event, I couldn't get through to J, but got the on the bus anyway. As an experinced backpacker in Latin America, I had researched a cheap hotel in Qro as a fallback option just in case.

I fell asleep almost immediately I boarded the bus to Qro (it left probably 2.5 hrs after my flight landed) and woke up three hours later in my new home town. I was so tired I had decided to go straight to find this hotel and go to bed, rather than trying Jason again. As it turned out, Allen, the head of the school, was in fact waiting for me at the bus station, based on the info I had left on Jason's voicemail, but we missed each other, and poor Allen ended up hanging around till 1am waiting for me...

Anyway, I got in a taxi and headed for the centre of town. I eventually located my US$25-a-night hotel but it was comepletely shut up by this time (about 12.30) and I was exhausted. I walked a block and found another hotel, which quoted me a price of US$110 for a room. I got a discount to about $80 and wasn't prepared to walk any further to find an alternative, so asked to be shown to my $80 room.

As an experienced backpacker in Latin America, I had NEVER stayed in a place like this. From the colonial courtyard I was shown into first the living room of my suite, then the upstairs dressing room and then, up ANOTHER flight of stairs, was my king sized bed, cable TV and bathroom. The guy's question: "You like it?" seemed ridiculous.

I showered and slept like a baby. In the morning I went for a brief stroll round the old town of Qro, checked the cricket score in the Ashes, and had breakfast. Returning to my hotel room, I realised I could get WiFi in my room (of course) and listened to the final overs of the Oval Test. I was in Mexico as England regained the Ashes, just as I had been in 2005. I wonder where I'll be next time...

I called Jason and he came to pick me up straight away. Mike, my new housemate, drove the car. Mike is about 50 years old from Iowa. He has lived and taught in Qro for three years, initially with his wife, before they separated and she returned to the States. Mike is a very good cook and we have got along well so far, discussing largely English teaching, Obama and Mexico.

Jason ran me through my rough schedule for this week at Bridge. I would be substituting for one of the regular teachers who was away on honeymoon. That meant 7am starts Monday to Thursday - plus 9pm finishes pretty much all week. Straight into the fire - and probvably the best way to go.

Monday morning, I walked the 2o minutes into work in the dark, and sat awaiting my first students. I awaited and awaited some more until I decided they definitely weren't coming, and went to check my email and cricinfo instead - an excellent start to my teaching career.

I did take a class later in the morning - a converstaion class with two youngish advanced students. Both loved football and I invited them to discuss Real Madrid, while attempting to go over some debating vocab: "I see your point that Kaka is an excellent player, but I would say that he is unnecessary to the team..."

I sat in on another, elementary class given by Jason, and then had a few hours' break before returning to the school at 4pm to teach Denisse, a girl of about 10 years of age. This was somewhat harder, but we got on OK.

Still on Monday, my next assignment was to cover a "company-class". This meant a 45-minute ride with a few other teachers (Horacio from Mexico, Jenny, Morgan and Megan from the US) out the Colgate-Palmolive industrial plant outside of Qro (in fact, it is in another state - Guanajuato). Another conversation class - this time more business oriented, and with two students at least five times the age of Denisse, and then I headed back to the school. Walking home at 8.30pm, I reflected that this was the first time in probably 6 years that I had gone to work before light and returned after dark.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were similarly busy. A company class from 7-8.30am meant getting up at about 5.45 each day. This class was roughly the same group of 30-40-year-old professinals each day. The level was elementary and in fact we had a lot of fun (especially Tue and Wed - we were all pretty tired come Thurs).

Each day I had about two more classes in school, and Weds and Thurs I was back out at Colgate - on Weds to debate the Lockerbie bomber with one of the guys from Monday's class, and on Thurs for an hour-long chat about all things Peruvian and Latin American with the Lima-born head of HR for the company.

In between these compant-classes, I have had another class with young Denisse (better than the first), sat in on advanced classes and taught grammar and vocab to two high-school teachers.

Today, Friday, I don't start till 4pm, mercifully. I've woken up at about 8.30am, sat and had a cup of PG tips (left by a previous lodger at Mike's) and a bowl of Cheerios, read a little Vargas Llosa in the little courtyard-patio of the house (pics to follow) and now written this lengthy post.

I've taught probably about 15 hours' classes and I'm looking forward to a few more this eve. So far I am loving the new challenge. And for those who are interested, by the end of this week I will have earned.............. about $100.

Eso es la vida mexicana.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


On my way back from Buenos Aires I thought it would be a really good idea to paint a few verbal portraits of the most memorable places/times I had found myself in over the previous few months. This was mainly just to help me remember them as I'm sure no one is reading this blog any more (although, it is also obviously to emphasise what a great time I was having and all the fascinating experiences I had - which is kind of the whole point of a travel blog anyway.)

A few months later than planned, I feel like taking a break from writing about cricket to begin this list.... (in reverse chronological order, let's say.)

Buenos Aires Tango parties

Three nights that stick in my head were the nights I spent with Nira and her friends Roberto, Jan and others in a few milongas. Having learnt a bit of salsa in the past, I imagined that I would turn up, watch the Argies dance a bit, get an idea of the steps and then have a go. How wrong I was.

The first party I went to was on my second night in BA, at Salon Canning. This was an old-school tango hall, named after the original title of the street it stood on, which was, in turn, named after the British Foreign Minister of the early nineteenth century who first recognised Argentina's independence. Apparently, BA was once full of English-named streets, squares, statues etc, but they were virtually all renamed after the Falklands War. Canning was about the only guy to survive with some honour intact. (I realised last week that his statue stands in Parliament Square in London, behind Churchill and next to Lincoln, so he must have been a big cheese).

Anyway, Salon Canning was the most traditional of the milongas I would go to. There was one large, well lit room, with a square, wooden dance floor in the centre and tables around the outside. In Salon Canning, the traditional tango rules of engagement were observed. This means that a man cannot simply ask a woman to dance. Couples make eye contact with one another accross the room and then a nod or a wink will lead to a meeting on the dancefloor. The worst thing you could then do is talk to your partner. You must remain in silence until the end of a song, at which point everyone stops and introduces themselves or has a chat. Then another song will start and the couples will shuffle round in the hypnotic motions of salon tango. After about six or seven songs, the music stops for ten minutes or so and the dancefloor empties. If you invite the same girl to dance after that, you are basically asking to sleep with her.

Tango dancing is clearly a very sensual experience. Women tend to lean in towards the men, usually with their eyes closed, and dance very closely. Serious tangueros do not laugh or make jokes whilst dancing. But it is not just about getting off with each other. I noticed on my first night a pattern that was borne out through the other milongas I attended: I had never seen so many beautiful women dancing with so many bald or fat or old or ugly (or all four) men in all my life. Rather than dancing with the most handsome guys, all the women would go for the best dancers.

Halfway through the night, the band stopped playing (it was mostly recorded music, but a band did play for about 1/3 of the night). An MC came out, thanked everyone for attending and announced the next event at the Salon. He then invited two professional tangueros to come out and give a show for those watching. Out stepped an immaculately dressed man in his sixties and a woman of indeterminate age who probably had the same plastic surgeon as Annakin Skywalker. They danced a song or two and I was mesmerized.

(Below is a video of one such demonstration at Salon Canning. Of course, this isn't the night I was there, but it gives you an idea. This particular couple show what a subtle, un-flamboyant dance tango should really be.)

A couple of days later, I went with Nira to a tango class and learnt a few basic steps. Nira and Roberto teased me for my mirada del tanguero : the look somewhere between concentration and seduction that I kept on throughout my lesson. Later that night (probably about 1am - you never turn up to any place in BA until at least an hour or so past midnight) we went along to another milonga. More modern than Canning, this place was larger, darker and with an average age about five years lower. The style of dance was tango moderno: a showier, more variable form of the dance. It was Roberto's last night in BA and he danced with Nira whilst i photographed them several times from the side of the dancefloor.

Once again, halfway through the night an MC invited one of BA's star dancers onto the floor, and this time I could barely stop myself from laughing a short, morbidly obese guy in a black suit stepped out onto the floor with a stunning, twenty something Argentine on his arm. I actually asked myself for a moment if he had a cushion under his jacket, so absurd was his body shape. But then he started dancing. Not only was he amazing, but his particular style was to make a lot of very quick, very intricate steps. Cristiano Ronaldo, at least 5 inches taller and 50 pounds lighter, could not have matched this guy: it was remarkable.

As I watched him dance to two songs, I became conscious of how dreamlike this setting was for me. I was so far away from any of my previous experiences and from my own culture and completely captivated by this new art form I was discovering. I understood a shred of the reasons why the people i had met there from ths USA, Turkey, Germany or Italy, went to such lengths to come to Buenos Aires and dance tango. It was a world within a world that Nira had drawn me into.

(This photo actually is the fat man dancing that night)

After another hour or so of my usual routine of sipping a beer, chatting on the sidelines and enjoying the dancing and music around me, i decided, after my one lesson, that I would have to take the plunge and try it myself. Nira was pleasantly surpirsed as I invited her onto the floor and then fumbled around, moving with the most basic steps and doing my best not to bump into anyone. Nira had been dancing constantly for a few months at that point, and was no slouch on the floor herself. But, as in all Latin American dance, a couple is only as good as the man who leads. So we struggled round and i achieved my objective: by concentrating hard enough I didn't bump into anyone, didn't knock Nira over, and didn't look a total idiot for two songs. I must say that it didn't help when I looked to my right at one point and saw the chubby chavo who had given the demonstration earlier. After one lesson, I was dancing next to one of the world's greats. I was the caveman rubbing two sticks together, whilst some bloke walks past with a Zippo.

Soon afterwards we moved on to another, ultra late night after party, where I met my instructor from earlier in the day and some friends of his. The place was like a disused theatre with bizarre statues hanging off the walls and an empty dancefloor. Every so often, one of these professionals in our group would pick a partner and dance a song or two on the empty dancefloor. needless to say, after my achievment earlier in the night, I was happy to stick and not twist. N, R and I stopped for coffee and croisants at 8am on our way home and another BA night ended.

The next milonga I went to was on my last night out in BA: on Friday 13 February, my birthday. We had tried, unsuccessfully, to locate a viable kareoke bar in St Elmo, BA's trediest district, and ended up going instead, to the free milonga at the Armenian cultural centre (yeah, i don't know why Armenian either...) I chatted to Jaime from Harvard and Jan and Nira and eventually danced the far easier steps of some merengue as the lights went up at the end of the night. Obviously, the hours watching dancing ahd rubbed off as i suprised myself with a few inventive steps which actually came off.

It was a magnificent end to my trip and - simoultaneously - to my "early twenties" as I danced mernegue at dawn with a wonderful Nepalese girl in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One which I shall never forget - especially now I have committed it to cyberspace. More to come...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

A bitter-sweet adiós

It's 12.19pm in Buenos Aires and I'm sitting in the most expensive internet cafe of my entire trip, getting rid of my last pesos before my flight to Heathrow (via Sao Paolo - a second hop into Brazil for me).

Buenos Aires has been an ideal end to my trip. (So ideal that I have been unable to write a blog post for over two weeks.) Highlights have included:

-a taste of the bizarre world-within-a-world of Buenos Aires tango halls

-taking a tango class myself and braving the austere atmosphere of a real milonga porteña (Buenos Aires tango party) to actually dance tango after that one lesson. (I was awful, and will stick to the salsa and merengue in future but most men learn for months without actually dancing in public, I'm told)

-watching two Boca Juniors matches: one in Boca's home stadium, the curiously shaped Bombonera ("the chocolate box"), and one in Jujuy, a city 21 hours' bus ride to the north of BA. My host Nira and I, therefore, completed a 42-hour round trip to watch the match - a feat almost unherad-of in European soccer these days

-never going to bed before 4am. BA is without a doubt the most nocturnal city I have come accross. No local eats dinner before 10pm (and more normally 11pm) and clubs, bars etc really don't get busy before midnight in the week, 2am on weekends

-and a chance to spend time with a dear, intercontinental friend.

Now I have a casual 14 hour flight to reflect on what has been an incredible 5 months. From sophisticated Buenos Aires bar life to ruddy northern Mexican pool halls, Colombian jungle to Andean mountains and deserts, and from civilised Seattle an Sacramento to, well, Colombia, Bolivia or most of South America this trip has encompassed so much and I am sad to end it. I am leaving South America with a longer list of places to visit than I had when I arrived.

But of course I am very pleased to be coming home. There are so many people I'm looking forward to seeing again, and so many things I have missed. (In a way, winter is one of those things...) Now I just have to figure out what exactly to do with the next few years of my life.

So I'm signing off for this journey - but not quite this blog. Stay tuned to James's America for more post-trip analysis and comment.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

6,000 down, 1,000 to go (roughly)

It's a very quiet Sunday in Bolivia. Today the country goes to the polls to vote (mostly "yes") in a referendum to change the constitution. It is such an important vote that it makes the international front page of bbc.co.uk. (Of course, not that we Lateen Americans care what Europeans think... but really, amigo, ¿ees on the front page?!)

It is also such an important vote that just about everything is closed today in Santa Cruz, including most restaurants and all but this internet café, it seems. Apparently, this is part of Bolivian electoral law, along with a bizzarre rule which bans campaigning in the two days before the vote. So all this week I've seen demonstration after demonstration - mostly "no" voters as I happen to have been in the affluent part of Bolivia - but then Friday and Saturday were weirdly quiet.

Anyway, my achievement on this quiet day, when I couldn't even find a place showing Liverpool v Everton (imagine!) is this: a map I've been meaning to draw for a while with my route so far and the last bit I plan to do this week...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The heat is on

Today I arrived in Santa Cruz, after a two day mission from Sucre, the capital of Bolivia (if you believe the Bolivian constitution.)

The reason it took so long from Sucre was that I arrived in the bus station there too late on Thursday evening to get on a bus straight to Santa Cruz, so made the decision to board a different overnight bus and spend a day in Cochabamba instead. (Like going from Amsterdam to Berlin via Frankfurt).

In the end, I had a lovely day wandering around Cochabamba, where the weather provided me with the proverbial four seasons in one day. Cold and wet in the morning, the sun came out by lunchtime, it stayed warm enough to cause a thunderstorm in the afternoon, after which it settled into a grey, chilly evening. Then I got on a second consecutive overnight bus to Santa Cruz, and arrived here this morning.

Last night was, I think, the 13th night I've spent on a bus in this trip and Monday night will be the 14th. Two whole weeks. Monday's bus will take me to Asunción, Paraguay, arriving (depending on whether I believe the bus company or the Lonely Planet) sometime either on Tuesday or Wednesday. I'm actually looking forward to it after forking out 200 bolivianos for an "ethnohistory" book on North America to read.

Travelling on buses has been such a staple of this trip that I have got pretty good at it. I can sleep (hence the fact that i was actually able to enjoy a long day in Cochabamba on Thursday after a night on the bus) but I think the crucial discovery I have made is to put myself in a trance-like state where I slow everything about myself down.

Say I get on a bus at 3pm. I settle down. 10 mins. I think about reading my book. 15 minutes later I actually reach into my bag and get my book out. I read for a while. I start to feel thirsty. 10 minutes later I get my water bottle out. I read an interesting paragraph. I take 20 minutes to think about it. It's 4.30pm and an hour and a half has gone by and in my mind the journey has barely begun.

Of course, you have to be prepared to take delays in your stride as well. Almost every vehicle I have used in Bolivia seems to have broken down at some point. Most dramatically, the bus from Uyuni to Sucre last week actually went off the road at one point, causing an hour's delay in which most of us male passengers had to push the bus out of the mud beside the road...

Anyway, so I am looking forward to Monday/Tuesday's journey through the Chaco - the territory annexed from Bolivia by Paraguay amd supposedly one of the continent great bus journeys - but the point of this post was meant to be Santa Cruz, the city where I am now.

These are the last days for God knows how long that I will spend within the tropics. And boy does it feel like it. Santa Cruz is sweltering. This is in fact, the first heat I have felt for weeks since leaving Lima, Peru with Claire. And before Lima, I would have to go all the way back to Cartagena, Colombia, for my last bit of real, tropical heat (ie before that one post I wrote about how nice it was to be cold. No pleasing some people, I know.)

This heat is, to me, the Latin American stereotype, and I'm glad to be back in it. In fact, Santa Cruz is a very stereotypically Latin American city. Flat, hot, filled with traffic and car horns, various smart-ish restaurants and comercial buildings outnumbered by run-down shacks and food stalls, friendly people but with a slightly rough-round-the-edges feel. And colourful. I am convinced that somehow blue is bluer in this continent. Green is deffinitely much greener.

Santa Cruz is all of this. If you close your eyes and picture Latin America, it looks a lot like here, and very little like La Paz or Bogotá.

Maybe some pictures will follow.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

An historic day for Americans

Today was a monster, monster big day in the history of the USA and, by extension, all of America. I was glad to be here for it. (NB It is - in Che Guevara's words - "America with a capital 'A'", "América con 'A' mayúscula" that gives a title to this blog. And, if you ask me, given the historical links/similarities of Latin and North America, the concept of "The Americas" is not as pretentious as it sounds.)

It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama will make a great or even a good president. So far, he has done one thing right: on a day of great joy and pageantry, he confronted his audience (the world) with a sobering message, reminding them of the difficulties he (and the world) faces, whilst giving his message of hope with eloquence and clarity.

And he has another thing going for him: just like a comedian coming on after Jim Davidson, Bernard Manning or, er, Michael Richards, he does not have a tough act to follow. (Did anyone else notice the difference on George Bush's face before and after Obama's speech? At first politely greeted by the crowd, he then had to sit through 20 minutes of "America has screwed up. Let's start over again." I almost - amost - felt sorry for the poor bastard.)

But whether Obama succeeds in the face of all the adversity or not, a black man becoming president marks a proud day in American history.

Europeans are often touchy around the subject of race. Our idea of "political correctness" tends to be ignoring the concept altogether. One Swiss girl I met in the north of Mexico exemplified this: she insisted that race did not exist amongst human beings. She was beginning a very long trip through Latin America when she said this, and I preferred not to argue with her on the point. I don't know where she will have got to now on her journey south - but if she has travelled with an open mind she will have changed her opinion altogether by now.

American history can be seen as a history of race (in analogy to how Marx, the European philosopher, saw "all" history as the history of the class struggle? Please discuss in 20,000 words...), as "America" only began to exist as a concept when white Europeans first arrived in the New World. Later they would wipe out the natives (North America) or procreate and create a new race (Latin America, as celebrated on "Race Day" on 12 October) and bring over African slaves. Therefore, the day when the continents' most important and influencial nation anoints a leader out of what was once the slave race is undeniably a huge moment in that historical process which began with Colombus in 1492. African-American culture has been a part of America for centuries. At last that non-dominant culture is given the political leadership.

I watched the ceremony and speech after traipsing round Sucre - the historical capital of Bolivia - for a good 45 mins to find a place where I could definitely watch CNN in English. After finding a few places showing it in Spanish and one in German (yes, German) I eventually persuaded the owner of a pizzeria to show it in English, and settled down to watch with a couple of Bolivians

A certain analogy to Bolivia can be made here. Bolivia's president is Evo Morales. A "socialist", he is the first indigenous president of Bolivia. He is therefore descended from the "Indians" who worked the mines and haciendas of Spanish America, and on the 25th of this month, he will likely win a referendum to allow him to stand for election after his present term finishes.

He is very popular, largely because he represents the lower classes - or, as a Bolivian might say, the darker-skinned people - and is not a dictator (unlike Hugo Chávez of Venezuela) but was elected fairly.

I wonder how Obama and Morales will get on?


"Así se creó un nuevo paisaje y se produjo una nueva sociedad. América, como ningún otro sitio, fue lugar de fecundo mestizaje biológico y cultural."

"And so a new land was created and a new society was produced. America, like no other place, was the site of fertile biological and cultural mixture."

- The Palace of the Inquisition, Museum, Cartagena, Colombia

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Mexico in under a thousand words

I have been a more active blogger of late, and now I think I’ll go one better by sumarising my trip through Mexico, keeping it as brief as I can to try and avoid the type of excessively verbose posts that have become typical of this blog. So here goes:

(BTW, I’m not counting this preamble in the self-imposed 1,000-word limit.)


I arrived in Mexico for the third time in my life on 1 October. Technically speaking, I then arrived for the fourth time in my life on the same day: Sam, an English bloke I had met that morning, and I had to go back into the USA for ten minutes to remove our green cards, when we realized we could literally just walk into Mexico like some kind of free, open-air concert. How apposite.

Everything I had heard about Tijuana made me decide not to stay there long. Two hours was enough. We had a beer in a tacky, touristy square and then headed to the bus station. On the way, I had my first of countless conversations with Latino taxi drivers – all of which follow roughly the same lines. This driver, as I recall, was interested to hear if we had seen the movie King Arthur and quizzed us on the truth of the legend. Anyway, Sam and I boarded the same bus that evening. I got off after 12 hours – in the city of Hermosillo - while Sam continued all the way to Guadalajara.

Hermosillo was a very northern, very working-class Mexican town, where I inexplicably spent four nights without really meeting anyone. My one cultural experience was going to a pool hall on the Friday night I was there. I left everything of value in my hotel room, took just enough pesos in case I needed to gamble, and went alone to a pool hall a few blocks away. Entering the room was a classic everyone-stops-talking-and-drinking-and-stares-at-the-gringo moment but soon I had settled down to a game of eight ball with the pretty waitress – until she warned me that her extremely jealous boyfriend was watching. I then played several racks and drank several beers with the local drunk, an interesting character called Califax, who played variously outstanding and appalling pool. I left after about two hours.

But I don’t have time to go into that much detail if I want to keep to my word limit. I will have to be more sweeping and poetic.

I left Hermosillo after four nights with the hope of bussing it to Creel, a small town in the Copper Canyon and on the Chihuahua-Pacific railroad, supposedly one of the world´s most beautiful railway journeys. I could have made my task easier by going straight from Hermosillo to Chihuahua, Chihuahua, but for some reason decided not to. History no longer records that reason. My journey to Creel effectively took two days (see an earlier blogpost for the description of that trip), but when I arrived I knew it had been worth it. After five days alone, without seeing a single gringo and without speaking any English, I immediately (and I mean immediately) met a big bunch of gringos and went out for a beer.

The next day I met Richard from Jersey in a hamburger place and, as backpacker groups are want to do, from the two of us a gang snowballed out until – later that day – I had agreed with Tanja and Annette from Denmark, Vivian and Nathalie from Switzerland, and Carol and Kent from New Zealand to do an excursion to the village of Batopilas, 1800m deeper into the Copper Canyon. The drive the next day lasted five hours and transported us from one climate to another: from cold, arid Creel to baking, even more arid Batopilas. A swim in the river was a delightful respite from the heat.

Two days later I had returned from Batopilas and boarded the train to the pacific. There was only one slight problem: a hurricane warning was advising us not to travel to Los Mochís, the city at the end of the line. But, hardy traveler that I am, I ignored this and headed straight into the hurricane’s path. It was a dramatic journey. The scenery was stunning, I chatted to the charming Angelita for a few hours and then, as we approached our destination, the train began to shake and rattle in the face of gale-force winds. It didn’t help knowing that a train had been de-railed in recent days. But arrive in Los Mochís we did, and Tanja, Annete and I hitched a lift into a city with no electricity or running water, found a hotel room and went to sleep in the heat of the Mexican pacific.

Very few words left: can I do it?

After a night in Los Mochís I travelled alone overnight to San Blas, a small town on the coast about 5 hours out of the place that had loomed over me for so long: Guadalajara. San Blas was sleepy, quiet and nice. I read War and Peace and swam in the Pacific for the first time in three years. After two days I set off for Guadalajara with almost equal amounts of excitement and dread. Seeing Darcy, Hugo, Gustavo and my “grandma” was sweet and moving. If I have a regret: I didn’t make time for a trip to Sandra’s grave. If I have a regret. Next Morelia: a city I had always wanted to see. Beautiful, colonial, northern climate, southern vibe, it makes it into my top five Mexican cities. Quickly now: Papantla was next - a small town on the other side of Mexico City. I went there for my one set of ruins on this Mexican trip: “El Tajín”. Not a disappointment. I boarded a bus to Mérida, a Mexican island in the Yucutan peninsula and a lot of fun. Backpackers came and went I went eventually: to Izamal – on the toss of a coin. Mistake. Next Playa del Carmen. A mini USA. Coin toss: tails – Puerto Morelos. Beautiful solitude for one night. Then Saturday night: Cancún. Tanja and Annete wanted to mark the Day of the Dead. I was skeptical. But we went to a cemetery and I reflected. A single red rose for Sandra and the end of my Mexican trip. Sunday, Monday: beach. Tuesday 4 November: Obama; Colombia.

999 words

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Thought of Today - español

A wonderful South American phrase:

No soy el único dueño de la verdad.

I am not the sole owner of the truth.

Selling out

That's right. I now have Google ads on my blog, so I apologise in advance for the "Hot celeb girl pics" and everything else that is advertised to the right of this post.
I will point out that this development shall not in any way compromise the artistic integrity of this blog.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Globalisation - sometimes you gotta love it

I arrive in a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I have an hour-and-a-half wait for the fourth and final leg of my journey from Cuzco, Peru to La Paz.

So, after strolling down to the shores of the lake and taking a few snaps, what else is there to do other than have a quick look at my email, check a cricket score from Sydney and an FA Cup result from Gillingham? In the process I learn that Man Utd have just kicked off against Southampton. With 45 minutes still to kill, I decide to stroll down the road to see if I can't find a bar that's showing the match.

Twenty metres away I find a bar where the following exchange takes place: [transcribed in full and translated]

-Hi. Do you have ESPN?
-Oh, the English Cup?
-I'll put it on.

Sitting with a Coca-Cola I watch as United besiege the Southampton defence. AFter one critical tackle by Chris Perry on Micheal Carrick, the commentator runs through 35-year-old Perry's career, including a mention of... [drumroll]... WIM-BLEH-DON!

So far away from home and yet - in the new global village - so close.

Of course, a part of me thinks this is pathetic. I'm sure it would have been far more interesting and rewarding to travel Bolivia back in the days when ESPN was only available a few thousand miles to the north; an order of "coca" could only be made on dodgy street corners; and only the soccer anoraks of the country had ever heard of Man Utd, let alone Chris Perry.

But then, after a 14-hour, stop-start bus journey from Peru, it is nice to find a home away from home.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Thought of Today

The good deed done for no recognition or reward is the best good deed of all.

*Thought of Today is an occasional new column on James's America. It is in no way affiliated with BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day™. All rights reserved.

Friday, 2 January 2009

A thumbs up for Peruvian (public) healthcare

I've been extremely lucky so far on my trip in that I did not have to seek any medical help whatsoever until this week (about 108 days in, for any statisticians out there). As some of you will know, the cause was a spider bite I picked up on my elbow in Lima a couple of days before Christmas.

The bite was merely annoying for the first few days but began to swell and get more painful by about Sunday. My first stop was a pharmacy in Lima, where I was given two anti-histamines (I might have been a medical journalist previously but I will apologise in advance for some spellings here). These drugs at first lessened the pain, but then it came back with a vengeance by Monday, at which point I was by the beach.

I sought out the only local clinic - a very clean, very upmarket affair in a westernised shopping centre 5km down the Pan American highway. I was seen immediately by a doctor who spoke perfect English and he set about removing the pus that had built up in my elbow. An excruciating half an hour later, all that remained was for me to pick up my drugs and pay the bill.

Eighty-three pounds sterling.

When, two days later in Cuzco, I made my way to the public hospital to have my wound cleaned again, it transpired I had been given the wrong antibiotics for my elbow and made to pay through the nose for them.

At the public hospital I was seen almost immediately and referred from one doctor to another before being given some (correct) antibiotics and having the wound cleaned. (A mere five excruciating minutes this time). The cost of all that?

Five pounds sixty.

Yesterday I needed to go back to have the wound cleaned (the first time in my life I've been to hospital on New Years' Eve and New Years' Day, and hopefully the last) and whilst the staff were under considerable strain, and I did my best to let people in front of me in the queue (everyone had something worse than me) I was still seen inside 45 minutes by polite staff who never seemed to take a moment's rest. The antibiotics I had been given were clearly working, as the actual cleaning of the wound barely hurt and barely took three minutes. Two pounds twenty.

Part of this impressive service, I think, is that a public hospital is one of the few places in Latin America where gringos may get genuinely preferencial treatment without paying a penny more than an ordinary latino. The thought process I imagine to be something like this: "What the hell is that white man doing here? Does he realise there are private clinics all over the city? I bet in Spain or the USA, or wherever he's from, he would be seen by three doctors inside two minutes! We'd better show him that Peruvian healthcare is nothing to be ashamed of."

If any of the doctors had not been run off their feet I would have loved to discuss with them what the NHS is actually like. Personally I am a huge defender of the National Health Service but I had already formulated a Spanish phrase in my mind to explain why I instinctively brought a book with me to the hospital: nunca se paga; siempre se espera - you never pay; you always wait.

Of course, I'm not going to be naive enough to give total endorsement to a third-world health system. Waiting in line yesterday I saw a woman in considerable pain and distress being treated in the waiting room. Another man was brought in unconscious and seriously injured by a pick-up truck - presumably because that was better than waiting for an ambulance. And I'm sure a city of Cuzco's size could use a more modern building with larger wards. But, as far as I have seen, the professionalism of the staff cannot be faulted (in the public hospital, that is, not the private clinic. Cost differential: roughly 1500%).

As a backpacker, I do consider myself lucky to have avoided the doctor's surgery until this far into my trip, but I also consider myself lucky now to have had a genuine cultural experience in Peru: one that you don't see in the guidebooks or the tour offices. (Who needs Machu Picchu?)

So now it is January 2 and I'm off to spend my morning at... the hospital. The wound needs to be cleaned up again. Bloody spiders.