Friday, 9 November 2012

Baños and baños

South from Otovalo through Quito and on to Baños. Watched a film on the bus about a Muslim man with aspergers, sort of a brown Forrest Gump. It would have been good if one of the key characters hadn't been killed by a football to the chest.

Baños is a fun place to be, hired a bike for $5 and cycled 60km to Puyo, which is less impressive than it sounds, it's all downhill. Made some one day friends, had a night of travel chat and attempted Salsa dancing.

After Baños I had to hurry up in order to get to Lima in time to meet my brother so carried on south to Cuenca for a night which was a nice enough city, then on to Loja where I went in to a hotel and checked out the crappiest room I've had this trip. It smelt bad, mouldly with a hint of public toilet but I'm not fussy so I left my bags in it and went down the three flights of stairs to pay $9. Back up in my room I discovered that the toilet not only had no seat but it was broken and didn't flush so back down I went with my bags to ask to change rooms. Describing the problem required a silly mime of the shape of a toilet and me doing a flushy flushy motion followed by waggling my finger and saying 'roto el baño'. I was told there were no other rooms, despite there being more than a dozen keys still hanging on numbered hooks behind her but someone would come up and fix it.

I left the hotel for the evening, had dinner and found a pool bar where I played alone, used their toilet and later returned to my room to find no improvement in the toilet situation. Quite a depressing evening, not real depressing like spending every day in a loveless relationship and a job you hate but certainly not fun... that is until, Forrest Gump, the actual one (I don't want to call it the white one, that sounds bad, although I don't think it is), came on the tele in English with Spanish subtitles. ¡Corre Forrest, Corre! Along with the tele the room did have redeeming features, a family of fifty or so flies in the shower were well behaved, quiet and kept themselves to themselves. There was also a plastic garden chair which no self respecting hotel room should be without, so I made sure I had a go on that to get my money's worth.

After a day in Loja it was night bus to Piura in Peru and that is where I am now.


For some reason South American bus stations are usually nowhere near the cities. Quito's was no different so instead of taking an hour and a half on two buses I got in a cab. My driver drove, even by South American standards, like a fucking lunatic. He must have learnt how to drive on Mario Kart, he flew from lane to lane with his foot flat to the floor then hammered on the brakes when he realised the empty lane he'd cut across in to had a parked car in it. When I told him I was going to Otovalo from the station he made a phone call and after swerving to avoid one of Wario's green shells he said he'd take me all the way for $70. If he'd have asked for $70 not to take me, I'd have paid up on the spot. Somehow we made it to the station after 45 minutes of me clinging on, him waving his fist and beeping lots, he had even had a second horn installed in case his first beep wasn't loud enough. Then it was a much more relaxing bus ride to the market town of Otavalo.

As well as wandering the market that on Saturday engulfed the whole town I visited Parque Condor, a bird of prey sanctuary. I don't like seeing birds caged up, doesn't seen right. Bugs like corners so sticking them in a box is probably a bit of a treat but birds are meant to roam free. These had been rescued from somewhere worse and couldn't be released because they were now reliant on humans for food so it's not too bad but I still can't take as much pleasure as I should from some of my favourite animals. Two wild humming bees on the way out did the trick though.

Another of my activities in Otavalo had me setting aside the bird  lover in me to go and to cock fighting (And before anyone posts a comment, no I wasn't one of them). Let's just lay out the facts of what an evening at the cock fighting entails:

  • There are thirty fights and each fight has a time limit of ten minutes and twelve seconds - no idea why.
  • There were men, women and children present and most had a cockerel to fight.
  • Before a cockerel goes in to fight he is prepared by taping a curved metal spike to the back of each leg, clearly not enough damage was being done by the beaks and feet alone. 
  • There is a referee with a whistle, not sure who the whistling is for, and another man who helps pull the birds apart when their metal spikes get tangled or one is seriously injured. 
  • Although there is some effort to stop the fights when one chuck was struggling, out of the five fights I saw there were at least two lifeless birds who didn't get to go home - dying in the ring counts as a defeat as well so a pretty crummy way to go. 

The sport is brutal, more so than I'd expected and I didn't enjoy it as such; it was interesting, in a way, to observe from a cultural point of view though. It's like if there was a public hanging, you might all be against it but if it was going ahead regardless you'd at least be a bit curious.

Adios Colombia, Hola Ecuador

Moved on to Cartagena for a night, walked round the pretty walled city then back to the hostel to read and break the front off the air conditioner.

Next morning I successfully made it to the airport and even to Bogota, after that my performance was piss poor having not properly priorly planned. First I went to the wrong queue and then from the right queue I was sent away to get a leaving stamp.

When I made it back to the front of the check in I discovered that in order to enter Ecuador you need proof that you are leaving it either overland or a flight out of South America. I was told I could go to use the internet to book this then come back. First of all, this is a stupid rule because anyone could have a bus booked and not get on it. Second of all, half way to the internet I realised I wasn't going to be able to book anything as I still had no bank card.

I apologised to the girl who was going well out of her way to help me and almost resigned myself to missing the flight. One final roll of the dice was to install Skype on the computer in the internet cafe of the airport and then use it to phone home and home Mum or Dad could book me a ticket. Fortunately this worked out but at the expense of an open ended trip. Bus website was broken so ended up with a reasonable flight back from Rio on 10th December.

It all worked itself out, as these things usually do, and I made it to Quito. Shared a taxi from the airport with a Swede and a Brit I'd met on the flight and the following day successfully picked up a Western Union money transfer. Things were back on track, touch wood.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Call Centres

Christ on a bike I hate call centres. Spent two days on Skype banging my head against the table and talking to a never ending line of banking people none of whom could help me.

My wallet was pick-pocketed in Taganga on what was supposed to be a last night with my temporary travel family. I can even pin-point the theft to within a minute, it was between me buying four drinks and me dropping a bottle of beer, smashing it on the floor. Still enjoyed the night but after I'd cancelled the card the aftermath was just a big ol' pain in the arse.

I had a few pesos, some U.S dollars and a cash passport with a few quid on it that I'd kept separate but it wasn't enough to cover my hostel bill and onward travel which needed me to get to Cartagena in two days for a flight to Ecuador.

'So the new card can't be sent to Colombia it can only be sent to my U.K. address and takes 2 days?'
'Yes sir'
'Can I make a payment from my account to my cash passport please?'
'Not unless you have telephone banking set up'
'Can I set that up now?'
'Of course you can'
'Excellent let's do that'
'Certainly sir, It will take five days to process before you can make payments'
'Oh. Is there any way I can get hold of some cash or make a payment'
'Yes, I see you have on-line banking set up, you can use your pins entry machine to do that'
'I did bring my little machine but I need my card for that don't I?'
'Yes sir'
'So... any other ways?'
'In any Barclays branch'
'We've already established I'm in Colombia, they don't have Barclays here. So without my card there is no way of getting hold of cash or card?'
'No sir, sorry'
And then we sat on the phone in silence for about 30 seconds.
'Well thank you for your time, you've been helpful, Barclays' systems have been frustrating'

I know it's my fault, I should have known about these sorts of things before I left but I just assumed that as they must deal with this sort of thing every day I'd be fine. In the end I had to rely on Ida for a loan of 100,000 pesos and then I got my parents to Western Union transfer some cash to Quito. If it wasn't for these lovely people I'd have had to resort to making jewellery or selling my body and it would have been several months before I'd be able to buy a bus ticket through those methods.

Back to School

In Taganga for a week to study Spanish with a tutor. Life there fell in to a routine staying in Villa Mary, basically a family home with a few spare rooms ($5 a night) and here is a typical day:

09:00 Wake up sweaty. Shower.
09:30 Sweat some more, scratch bites, peanut butter sandwich for breakfast.
10:00 Do some homework and go over the previous days lesson.
12:00 Pop round the corner for lunch to a house that has a couple of tables outside it. The choice, chicken or beef served with rice, chips, patacones, beans and salad with ice-tea. Filling and tasty ($3).
14:00 Start school, I say school, it was a roof-top balcony with a view out of the sea. We even did some of our conversation in hammocks.
18:00 Finish school, head hurting from too much information, buy Aguila beer ($1.50) to start relaxation time.
19:00 Back to Villa Mary to read and play with Daisy, the family's dog. Daisy has a very ugly, loveable face and stupid pink hair ties giving her pig-tails. She smells.
20:00 Dinner somewhere then read Che's biography and maybe study some more before bed.

My tutor was a nice man who'd had an interesting life. He spoke such good English because when he was in his mid twenties he left behind his wife and kids in Colombia and went to work on a cruise ship, not enjoying it much he got off in Maine, U.S.A with only $5 in his pocket and managed to stay for four years. Our conversations were a bit odd, he'd tell me things in half Spanish, half English so that I could understand them then ask my opinion. Things like what do you think about the idea of a socialist republic in Colombia or what was my opinion on him cheating on his wife once while he'd been in America. It's pretty hard with very limited Spanish to answer these questions, perhaps this is why we're taught about simple topics like pencil cases when we learn in England.

On the final day of lessons I blocked the toilet. There's a sign saying don't put paper in the loo but after 26 years* of wiping and dropping it's hard to break the habit so I slipped up a few times. Anyway, probably a bit too graphic. Thinking my Spanish was better than it is I tried to explain the problem to the friendly woman who runs the hostel, from the moving of furniture and mime display that followed what I'd actually said was 'the toilet is a roadblock'. Still a long way to go with the learning.

*This is a rough estimate, you'll have to ask my parents when I started doing this for myself.


Took a day trip from San Gil to a quaint little town called Barichara with Luke, Rae-Anne, Gesine and Ida and here I had two servings of brownie and ice cream for breakfast. We asked the way to walk to another village called Guane and the four people we asked all gave contradicting directions but we managed to find the path and an hour later, Guane, very pretty. Tried a local speciality called Chicha, it's a fermented maize drink - bloody awful.

On from San Gil overnight bus to the Caribbean coast and a night in a shabby little fishing village called Taganga then with Luke and Ida on to Parque Tayrona which as you'll see from the picture is more than a little bit pretty. To get to the beaches we first took a bus and on the bus we were treated to live adverts, first a guy selling crackers and then a man selling some sort of toothpaste. He had pictures of decaying teeth and gums and seemed to give an excellent presentation, so impressive was his spiel that all but two of the other people on the bus left having bought a packet of the paste and at least one toothbrush! After the bus you have to hike for an hour and a half through the jungle which adds to the fun of arriving in paradise.

After a lazy day, swimming in the bath-warm water, our second night in the park ended sat on a rock looking at the stars and getting a bit deep discussing life, death, the universe and everything. It was one of those perfect travel moments you picture before leaving.

The next morning the reality of Paradise hit in. I was covered in mosquito bites and added a bee sting to my toe by stepping on one barefoot on my way to the showers. My tent and everything in it were covered in sand and mud and I was sunburned all over. Look out through the palm trees to the sea though... definitely worth it.