Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A GREAT IDEA: The World's Most Dangerous Road - on a mountain bike!!

About 30 trucks a year (two last week) and a cyclist or two plummet over what has been labelled the "Death Road". As it happens, mountain biking down the said byway has become quite a backpacker attraction. So it was that a whole bunch of us (notably Dave, Mik, Will, Cath, Nicky and myself) found ourselves in skimpy cycling gear at 4,700m wondering quite what we were doing.

The ride involves 3 stages, adding up to some 67km of adrenaline. The first is on well paved road, hurtling down at some stupid pace on open road and past trucks with monstrous peaks looking down on your insignificance. Then follows a relatively grueling up hill section that made my lungs want to burst. Then the dodgy bit...

From the edge of the newly paved road you descend all the way to 1,200m on a windy dirt track with mudslide-prone overhanging cliffs to your right and precipitous cliffs falling down to the left. To give you some perspective, on much of the road trucks can't pass each other, which leads to some very interesting maneuvers I can tell you. We actually saw a crane retrieving the remains of last week's victims.

Now, for cyclists this is not actually that dangerous. Many people do it every day and I believe only 15 people have died in some 10 years of the activity - it is though really quite a rush. The inevitable few times when you hit a rock or slide and lose a bit of control are quite a sensation. As is the all too obvious precipitous drop that you have to get mightily close to - it is the rule of the road that the traffic coming down (like us) has to drive on the drop side.

So did any of us fall off... or break limbs.. well very very nearly. My only scratches came from a mistimed skid right into Dave, but a very VERY lucky Swede has someone looking over him. After hitting a rock at a mighty pace he lost control and was thrown from his bike towards the cliff edge. As you can imagine Bolivian roads are not littered with helpful road signs as many of our homelands are, but instead the metal protrusions are rather rare. This makes it even more remarkable that an imminent fall (and consequences that it not comfortable to think about) down a very large cliff was stopped by one of these rare posts. If it was not for him rapping himself around the piece of metal and being flung on to his back dazed and confused on the precipice, a fall of several hundred feet may have been the only life experience he had left. Many people took it markedly slower after that incident, others did not.

A rush indeed, but after a bit of relaxation at the bottom, a statistically far more dangerous period of time faced us on the re ascent on the didgery bus. I was on the cliff side where you measure the gap to the edge not in feet or metres, but in inches and centimetres. For a true idea of the absolute comedy of that ride back up into the clouds a video we made does a damn good job - it will be on show!

So there we were, we had made it back up and the driver got a sincere round of applause. In one day including the return journey to La Paz, we had ascended and descended a combined height roughly equal to mighty Everest. Like many other interesting things I have done on this trip - highly recommended.

Oh and one more thing to put a chill down the spine - Dave's breaks failed twice - BUT all are safe and well - we survived the world's most dangerous road!!

Ghost Town and the Reawakening

The top two pictures illustrate what the election did to La Paz. They are both taken from the same spot, the higher on the day of the election, the lower after. A bustling energetic city, that Dave compared strangely aptly to Bangkok, turned into a total ghost town. I took a few walks on the day with Mike and then Claudia and AK and it was the oddest feeling. The streets were silent. There were no cars or bikes or crowds, but instead at most kids playing ball games in the street. I suppose I found it quite serene. Heading towards the centre there were a few significantly armed riot police and a military presence but I did not feel threatened. This markedly strange day was spent in stasis - waiting for something to happen!!

And did it......... no. It became increasingly clear that Morales was the winner. Watch this space as his manifesto includes legalising coca growing (he was himself a coca farmer and the first indigenous premier of this fascinating country) and let's just say that does not run in line with current US policy. The day went in peace!

The nights of prohibition and beyond were spent in hotels rooms sipping forbidden things with what a lovely bunch of people. Generally I dislike travelling in groups but every so often things just fit together and a group of people have a great time. Once the ban was removed the rooms were supplemented by Mango's and Ram Jam's (I will remember for a while transversing the city 4 times solo, but at least searches were successful) and we enjoyed La Paz. Interesting walks round the busy streets (I have never seen so many things for sale that I do not want lining street after street) supplemented the evenings. When it comes down to it, I grew quite fond of La Paz for all its dirt and smells. As always it has been the friendliness of the locals that have really made the place. I can not say that the experience has been as interactive as say in Colombia, but the people I have met have been nice and mostly welcoming. A good base from which to explore the wonders of Bolivia.

The Race to the Election

After a days rest and a bit of fiesta (happy birthday Loki and many greetings to those far away on a truck!!) the focus turned to Bolivia. On Sunday 18th December Bolivia was set to hold presidential elections. In the recent past such occurrences have to say the least caused some interesting situations and so it seemed perfectly natural that we would do everything in our powers to reach La Paz by election day. This even meant leaving a number of sick and wounded behind (Arnie was not leaving his bed) but they could catch up in good time - road blocks permitting. So Mike took Arnie's ticket joining Mik, Dave and I on a night bus down to Puno, Lake Titicaca and the border. After a surprisingly good nights sleep considering my gammy knee (a consequence of running up and down Wayna Pichu), we arrived in Puno and felt immediately satisfied that we had decided to skip through what appeared to be quite a dump. So after a two hour wait and a couple more hours on a new bus skirting the beginnings of the great lake, we crossed the significantly lax frontier into south America's poorest country.

Copacabana - no not a Brazilian beach but a small chilled out port and backpacker hangout overlooking the vast expanse of the highest navigable lake in the world. Was it not for the immediate magnetism of La Paz, I could of happily spend a long time relaxing in the cafe's and eating freshly caught truche staring out into the blue, but time afforded us just two action packed days. The sun was out and the lake sparkled. After a few beers (the 4 day alcohol prohibition over the election was shall we just say successfully circumnavigated by us throughout) some energy welled up in me and along with Mike decided to climb one of the peaks overlooking the town. It is strange, but when spending a significant amount of time at altitude one starts to think less of doing things like climbing 4000m peaks in flip flops but this is what ensued. From the top the view was just spectacular. The sun was gently descending into a bank of cloud on the horizon with the faintest reds and oranges dashing the backdrop. And there it was, a lake at some 3,800m stretching as far as the eye can see and as flat as a village pond.

It was not just the four of us that were trying to reach La Paz in time. Quite a group of people mostly originating from Loki had the same goal in mind. In fact our next week or so was shaped by the time spent with such others. There were the Swedes, the Aussies (I look forward to our big London weekend in Feb) and notably Claudia and AK who had left a bunch of people on a bus to reach the city on time.

After a small night out in Copa and a consequently lengthy breakfast process the next morning, another spurt of energy grabbed me. The two Swedish gals and I embarked on the climb of the picturesque peak which juts out into the lake and forms the cove in which the little port is set. Most people tend to take the steps but the face looked relatively unchallenging and hence took our vote. Unfortunately this turned into a marginally treacherous ascent over steep piles of rubbish and glass (in flips again I am afraid) and at times it is fair to say it was closer to climbing than trekking. Arriving unscarred and only one Swede down, this made the view from the top even more rewarding. In basking sunshine the lake glimmered with the Isla del Sola y Luna making an impressive addition. The waters looked positively Mediterranean but I guarantee you they are colder.

After the descent and some deserved lunch, a bit of manic rush ensued to throw all our stuff together and make the bus to La Paz - I almost left my stick. We just about made it and with silly cowboy hats on embarked on a journey that took me by total surprise - breath-taking! Winding up to absurd altitudes, over and down with the backdrop of the vast, sparkling and quite fascinatingly shaped great lake is about all you could ask for. Add to this a sincerely bizarre crossing of the said lake (the bus crossed on a raft no less), a glimpse of the sadly comic Bolivian Navy (yes it is a land-locked country) and an inspiring descent into La Paz after crossing the barren but inhabited alto plano and you have a journey to remember. La Paz in all its ruggedness stretched before us and we had made it - tomorrow was election day!!

Machu Pichu

So the group of Dave, Mik, Chrissy, Arnie and myself spend four magnificent and eventful days completing the Inca Trail. These days lived up to every expectation but for once I do not think I will go into much detail. It is something that most able bodied people can do without too much problem and that should not be in any way lessened by, so to speak, giving the game away. Trekking in sun and rain through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery with impressive ruins a plenty. For me the highlights were reaching the 4,200m pass, seeing a condor glide gracefully and imposingly above (our guide has only seen 2 before in 3 years - muchos suerte), seeing Machu Pichu in all its glory bathed in the first rays of the day from the sun gate and just relaxing with some buddies at the top of Wayna Pichu letting the mind breath!

I would recommend it to anyone able!

Back to the Inca Trail

Monday, December 26, 2005

Dave´s comedy corner

It has been a life long dream to visit the Amazon, which I and Jim have now both completed.
"how long was the anaconda!"
"rock the boat, don´t rock the boat over!"

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Brief Christmas Message

Merry Christmas to all who read this.

I am now off to the jungle in Bolivia to spend xmas in interesting surroundings chasing Kapibara and Anaconda, but it is the one time that I think I would rather be at home, so especially to all at home - have a lovely one on me!!!

Jimbo & Dingo

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Preview of the Legendary Inca Trail

Un Poco de Aqua Blanca

Thought I had to put a couple of photos up from my first white water rafting experience - fantastic!

Despite a severe hangover and significantly less hours sleep then you can count on one hand, I enjoyed the experience greatly. For those in the know, grade 3 and a grade 4 rapids are a bit more than fun to begin your rafting career on, but I did not get tipped under duress - only when and when we chose. As always it is the people who make the experience and Dave, Arnie, a Liberian and a couple of swedes did that job more than admirably.

It was a real adrenalin rush especially when you go down a few metres drop. I am sure my position at the front of the raft added to the experience- a few screechs of "come on you *******". The only perhaps negative but certainly comic issue was that in my state that morning I had failed to bring spare clothes - cue lunch and a few hours bus ride in a skimpy towel! All in all thoroughly recommended.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

El Peru and Specifically Cuzco

As mentioned before, the finite nature of time means that one has to make choices, or at least choices have to be made for you. A major such choice on this trip is to shortcut Peru a bit. This is because I have a long way to go and not a long time to do it in. Hence my experience of Lima was a a night going slightly mad at the airport (some good chess though) and 2 minutes walk outside. The madness was probably contributed to by being on a run of roughly 1 hours sleep in 50. So onward Dave and I went onto a littler plane and on to Cuzco, legendary capital of the Inca empire.

All said, I spent about 11 days in the Cuzco area and had a fantastic time.

Where to start, well clearly with meeting Arnie (Chris) at the airport and going to stay at Loki hostel. The hostel has a great and quite inspiring story behind it. Four backpackers managed to buy up a desolate old mansion looking over the beautiful centre of town and turn it into a veritable backpacker's backpackers. It is really chilled out and hence I spent a lot of my days here just chilling out. As good hostels usually are, it is also very active in terms of night life and had a general buzz that is conducive to a good time. A number of nights of varying craziness ensued in such predictable but fun establishments as Mama Africa's and Mama America's, the former being by far my favourite and the latter sketchy as. As ever nights out are hard to explain, so here I shall not endeavour to beyond saying there was not much half-hearted about a few of them.

What is worth a note is the nature of Cuzco itself. A charming town in terms of architecture and history (to see the unique Inca stone work actually incorporated into the colonial buildings is remarkable), but in some ways ruined by the tourism that its significance necessitates. When you are in a club packed full of gringos and look out the window to see scores of locals waiting outside in the cold all night just in case you might want one more free drink or a pack of chiglets, it has to make you think. The discrepancy of wealth and the way some tourists act has lead to resentment and the old cliche of just looking like a walking dollar sign is often close to the truth. This makes it harder to communicate with the locals because you can not help but look for ulterior motives and hence act more cautiously and often miss out when the people are being genuine. Perhaps my best source of info on this came from talking most of the night in my broken Spanish to a Peruvian girl. Her summation was that locals see the foreigners in a very mixed light - good and bad. This fits with the reality that the foreigners both make the place prosper and help to remove its fundamental charm.

Despite all of this I really enjoyed my time in Cuzco and, in general, found the people and the place charming. How can you not be enraptured by a night time view like the above?

(Pictures are of Cuzco in the day, at night from Loki, and Dave and Mik in the main square)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bogota - un poco nesecario fiesta

For some reason I did not have highest expectations of Bogota, so the plan was just to head to the city, book a flight to the amazon and move on after a couple of days. What actually happened is we got there (after a 20 hour bus ride), really liked the place and spend a good week living it up just a little.

After the other cities I had visited in South America, the cosmopolitan European feel of Bogota came as a nice surprise. The mega-city (some 8 million people) has many different districts with very different feels to them, but parts of the centre feel straight out of London. My particular favourite barrio was the Candaleria, where we stayed at the Platypus (the only well known backpacker hostel in the city, run by Herman the German and a great laugh). The Candeleria is an old colonial part of town dominated by a university scene with a real edge to it. Loads of cool little rock bars and restaurants. 'La Haim' deserves a special mention as an Israeli restaurant with wonderful food - it got a lot of hungover custom I can tell you.

We spent most of the days sleeping and wondering the streets. Neighbourhoods like San Andresita and a particular local night spot the name of which escapes me are, to say the least, interesting. All in all what made the place was the great crowd of people we hanged round with. German and French Alex's were top company (French one - you have no idea how much the breakfast on the final morning sorted me out after what can only be described as a loco noche) and it was superb to spend some nights with David and the unbelievably smiley Israeli. Margaret and Maria definitely deserve a mention as does Harriet for putting up with a bit of my moaning. From a cool night in a rock club, to an all nighter at a electronica club (I still am shocked that I am seriously enjoying such things), a night at a reggae/ska bar, to the severely odd final night - we certainly got a lot out of our system that was necessary after the "incident" on the north coast the week before.

As for where to go from here, a big decision was made to skip the amazon and jump straight down to Cuzco. A totally snap decision of the best kind. This meant a lot would be missed but unfortunately trips like this are limited and 6 unplanned but fantastic weeks in Colombia forced a change of plans. So with significant sadness in our hearts Dave and I eventually loaded ourselves onto a plane and departed for Peru - to the Inca Trail, Cuzco and beyond. Adios Colombia y gracias - voy a regresar!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Totally FUBAR - Held Hostage in Paradise

Nearly all of me hopes that what I am about to write about is the dodgiest thing that happens to me in South America. First though, I must make it as clear as possible that this was a completely freak incident and is not a fair reflection on Colombia. Hence I would be incredibly disappointed if it put anybody off visiting a country that I have no less then fallen in love with.

Right, where to start!!

After saying farewell to crazy Sebastian and Mark in Cartagena, Dave, Alexia and myself headed east in search of some serious beach time. A four hour bus ride took us to Santa Marta and from there it was only a short taxi ride to the little diving town of Taganga and the Casa de Felipe. There was a nice surprise on arrival as we met up with Kye and Dub again, as well as the two Israelis - David plus smiles. The Israelis informed us that Talia and Eliana as well as Geoffrey no less were already in Tayrona. I had been wanting to catch up with the Israeli girls ever since we left them in Cali and since I also thought Laurence might be there we resolved to head off first thing.

Tayrona is a circa 300 square km stunning national park to the east of Santa Marta. It containes rainforested hills, the famous Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) and as it meets the Caribbean what can only be described as some of the most beautiful beaches you could imagine. And so it was that after a night in a hammock the three of us plus Ryan (cool American who did the Cuidad Perdida trek with the Israelis) took a taxi, bus, pick-up and then walked a not small distance through the forest to reach the sea. Stunning is not a sufficient word to describe the sea breaking on a rugged palm-tree'd beach. The charm in the place lies in its situation, where the densely forested sierra stoops down and literally clashes with the Caribbean. Freshwater streams and large imposing boulders cut up the beach. At the time, what I assumed would be the height of our excitement in Tayrona occurred when Dave and I managed to lose the path and took a rather interesting route around a large outcrop of rocks. The watch word should have been "turn back", but instead we soldiered on literally jumping between and, in my case, swimming through the choppy gaps in the outcrops with a mid-sized pack to reach our destination. After having a cliff-hanger moment, Dave eventually turned back and we met up on the other side a bit cut and torn. We were really looking forward to chilling out.

Another 45 minute barefoot trek though the forest took us to El Cabo - we were not disappointed. A small hut (to be of great significance later), a few seats and a number of hammocks are graced by a tightly curbed golden beach in between more imposing rocky outcrops and as ever the jungle behind - paradise. The first thing I did was drop my stuff and climb on to and over the larger outcrop where I successfully discovered Eliana, Talia and Geoffrey. After a lot of smiles, a couple of hugs and general rapid catch up of the type so common among backpackers, we climbed back over and onto the beach. Even better - there were Heiko and Ursula, the lovely German couple I spent a night chatting with in Cali. All in all we were in great spirits. A feeling that we had reached an apex in our travels, making it to one of the most northerly points in South America so to relax, swim in the sea, get a tan and take stock before the long long road south.

After watching the sun set with gusto over the sierra we settled down to more thorough catch up and a seriously chilled out session. This continued as the darkness deepened and the stars came out brightly to pretty much complete the scene. What more can you want then sitting out under the stars with a few mates, the sweet aroma of flores de dios in the air and the gently lapping sea stretching out in front............. a double barrel shotgun shoved in your face. Out of nowhere. While I was aiding Dave with an instrument, a masked man dressed in black and carrying a shotgun appeared and made not so friendly gestures with his piece. It sounds strange, but the initial reaction was not fear but just confusion. In our state of exhaustion and relaxation and in the context of Colombia where armed men are two a penny this did not entirely surprise me. Perhaps they were paramilitaries, who incidentally control the whole area, doing routine patrols - I suppose this was my initial reasoning. Muchos muchos confusion......

The next stream of hours are not entirely clear but I will do my best to give them justice.

We were literally herded by an uncertain number of armed masked and it is fair to say rather sketchy characters into the seating area set 5 meters or so from the sea. Again utter confusion - what in the fuck was going on. Why would paramilitaries do this? Were they paramilitaries and if not then who the fuck were they?

My reaction was simple. Get as close to the centre of the herd as possible and KEEP MY HEAD DOWN. Although we are by nature hunters, this illustrated a differing innate instinct. What are they doing? What in the heck should I be doing? Try to regain some of my wits and just keep fucking still.....

From what I can make out they spent the next few minutes securing their position, checking for any stragglers and calmly taking total control. Then they started to communicate. My Spanish was shall we say not at its best, so most of what I picked up was latterly from others. Something along the lines of "we are not robbers", "give us all mobile phones", "if you still have a mobile you are dead". Somehow "MUERTAS" got my attention, can not think why. They talked of us as hermanos (brothers) believe of not - a strange fucking country, but I love it. At one point a local guy stood up and confronted them. What resulted was a showdown of heated words, with one of the masked men putting a gun up to his head until, eventually, he stood back down. To me this was barely real, something out of a bloody movie.


The next I believe hour and a half were the most formative of my life. Sitting there with my head down, a unique atmosphere for contemplation was formed by the encaptured situation, with the masked intruders methodically shining torches over our faces. I do not really want to share the thoughts that went through my head but let's just say that a lot of the big questions I wanted to answer this year were answered then and there with a clarity that could not exist without the tangible possibility of a near death. You could philosophise and contemplate for years at home, but without imminence no sure conclusions can be reached. I am not saying I thought I was going to die, just that the rational likelihoods in front of me were some sort of kidnapping, robbery, or simply death. The odds of each were going up and down in my head like those before a cup final - in my head, all three had scarily short odds at different times. I made my peace and was surprised by how accepting one can be of it.

Suddenly I was snapped out of this never deep thought by the situation moving on. "Extranjeros" (foreigners) were made to put there hands up - no point in violating the order as I stand out like a sore thumb, but I certainly noticed limbs being put up limply. The thugs made Geoffrey and Alexia stand up, come to the front, searched them thoroughly (even removing sandals) and then marched them off out of sight. Again......shit, what in the heck is going on now - the odds had in my eyes suddenly shifted markedly towards some sort of kidnapping. The thoughts of the backpackers kidnapped in the same national park two years before had ran through and through my head, especially that they had only taken the fittest 8 of the 16 at the time. There were quite a few of us so I just thought not me.

Another thought ran through my head - what would I do if I heard shots? They had been marched off into the dark without even shoes - that is not right for kidnapping - what in the heck? Contingencies run through and through your head and although in these situations trying to take affirmative action is often the worst thing to do, I was set on doing something if I heard shots. There is no way you can just sit there like a lame duck if they start shooting people. But what to do? Fight, against an AK, not very rational - run, there were enough of us that some should get away, but where to run to, the forests, the sea............

This is just an idea of the sort of thoughts running through my head. I have no idea what I would have done, if anything, if shots had been fired at that point, but thank God I never had to find out. One wants to test oneself but there are limits.

Two more were then made to stand up, searched and marched off in the same professional manner. Then a finger pointing at me, and the Colombian lady in front indicated for me to stand up. Bugger that. I just put my head back down and kept still. I think others stood up and went through the same routine. This happened once or twice more before eventually all hombres (men) were made to stand up and we all went through the procedure. The girls including Talia and Eliana were being left behind but what could you do - nothing.

They took my watch off my hand, and searched me from top to bottom. I was then moved on to another armed thug who carried out the same procedure, and then..... it was obvious where we were going. Partial relief. We were not being marched off then and there but pushed into the sole small shed like building. There I was once again searched and led into the dark hot room already occupied by a good dozen people. The room was already cramped but people kept on being led in, including thankfully the girls. It is not a nice thought as to what could have happened to them. All in all we reckon circa 35 people were put in a building (if that is the right term - shack seems better) that consisted of two rooms in total no bigger than 4m by 3m - I think. Legs on legs, bodies next to each other in the tropical heat - not a pleasant situation.

The general feeling was still one of confusion, but the biggest relief for me came when blankets were offered round by the masked ones. It then seemed unlikely that they were going to kill us - large breath out. Kidnapping was not in anyway removed from the possible agenda. I myself kept thinking I heard boats. This added many other interesting possibilities to my imagination. The situation is one really hard to describe. I mean there were little kids locked in with us lying on the bed hugging there parents.

Initially, I was sitting on the bed and Dave was just in front of me. It says a lot about the mentality that our little country installs in us that our first words were a joke. The joke shall not be repeated. In fact I found this was a common theme of our entrapment. A joke here, a talk about a good pub in Brighton there, broken by an attempt at an assessment of the current state of affairs. Oh, and one could not forget the little game of ¨I Spy¨, ¨I spy with my little eye something beginning with D¨....¨Dark¨, or ¨B¨....¨Black¨..... I am sure you get the the jist of the game.

A bit too much noise was made as people seemed to relax a little, then came from outside "do you want to be dead?" Things quietened down.

Then, the bed collapsed on Heiko's leg, pain, and movement all round. I had a little chat to some of the others to see how people were doing and then moved to the other room. Get as far away from the door as possible. This little box room was even smaller and hotter. Legs cramped up and bodies rubbing against each other. Behind me was a whole lot of soft drink cans which I decided could be spread around without payment. A bit pissed off though because I could not find a beer - Lord that would have made me feel better and again add a layer of dark comedy to the situation.

After being in that room for a good hour or so more - with the heat, the sweet smell of sweat and I suspect piss - and no noticeable noise from outside, I think we generally thought they were gone or at least settled down for the night (another possibility was that they were an armed group looking for shelter for the night). This illusion was shattered by a large bang on the wooden shutter to the room I was in. It was opened and again I put my head down and avoided any possible eye contact. Alexis, who was at the far side of the room, explained that there was a guy with a gun looking straight at her and ordering stuff. He was asking for drinks - they were given. Eventually the shutter was closed and we could relax slightly.

Again a large period of silence, a lowering of the tension..... BANG BANG BANG.

FUCK - all the possibilities fill your head like a balloon. In these situations you seem to get strangely blase until something like this brings reality home.

Then silence...... more silence..... more silence. One by one people started to fall asleep on the hard floor, exhausted. I could not sleep and for what seemed and certainly was hours, just stared out of the window at the opposite side of the shack, listened to the sea lap the coast, the noises of the night and contemplated. Eventually I too knocked out and had a patchy 40 minutes sleep amongst the entanglement.

AWAKE - faint light outside. Bustling impatience in the room. Some saying we should break out, others to stay put longer. Eventually a rough decision was made to bust out the wooden shutter. Bang, bang...... it flung open. The first rays of the day and an air indescribably refreshing poured into our prison.

We escaped and I experienced a feeling of elation like I have never felt before.

To see a sunrise that I did not know I would ever see over a paradise beach filled me with a joy to be alive that I will never and must never forget. Life is so precious and our moddy-cuddled society allows us to forget it all too often. Life and the world we live in is so God damn beautiful and to not appreciate it is a shame. At this moment in my life I appreciated it at an intensity I did not know possible.

There was such relief, but even this was dented by the realisation that two of the locals had been taken off with the bastards. We looked around - stuff was everywhere ripped open and strewn about the place. They had gone through every corner, pocket nook and cranny. They stole cameras, sunglasses, knives, money, torches, mp3 players, CD players, speakers to name just a few things. They did conscientiously leave passports and credit cards (traceable). I lost over $1000 worth of stuff BUT I just did not care. In such a situation possessions do not matter - people matter!

A very strange chilled out morning ensued where we sat and contemplated, occasionally rummaged around trying to find our stuff, washed the stink off in the sea, and just sat. Thankfully, eventually the two hostages returned with the news that the robbers (only really at this point could we call them this) had taken two donkeys to carry the loot and ridden through the forest to the nearest road where they had jumped on a bog standard public bus.

The events of the next couple of days will not be repeated in detail, safe to say that Heiko, Ursula, Ryan, Geoffrey, Eliana, Talia, Dave and myself had a very confused and to be honest very screwed up period of time spent sorting our heads, getting smashed and trying to convince the police that we were telling the truth. A lot of us acted quite out of character but that was only to expected.

To conclude this little tale I want to make two points. The first is highlighted by the first local we met on the long walk through the park that morning. He exclaimed embarrassment and apology that such a thing should happen to us in his country. These are a lovely people and they do not deserve the bad publicity from this freak incident. I feel I have to tell of what happened because it was so significant for me, but must emphasise just how unrepresentative of this beautiful country this incident is. I would recommend this country more highly then any other I have had the privilege to visit.

Secondly, to relate just how strongly this enforced upon me the importance and beauty of the life we lead and the unimportance of simple possessions. While they are convenient they are not what this life is about. Unfortunately the robbers seem to have learned this the hardest possible way. We have good reason to believe that they were caught and shot by the paramilitaries. It just is not worth it!!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Have just left Colombia and am missing it already. The 6 odd weeks I spent there were some of the most interesting and fun I have ever had. Colombia has so much to offer - the friendliest people I have met, awesome scenery, fantastic Fiesta - but most importantly it is the most alive place I have ever been. Consequently I have felt so alive there tambien. Despite some of the sketchiest experiences in my life (news of AK 47's and hostages will follow), I have no regrets other than I have to leave this wonderful country and I say with as much surety as is possible that I will return to this country pronto.

Unfortunately Buenos Aires is far away and hence I am now in Lima waiting for a flight to Cuzco. I suppose one must not complain but it is going to take something special to compare to the country I have just departed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Despite having an architectural gem of an historic old town that would rival nearly anything in Europe, the city was my least favorite place I visited in Colombia.

First of all I will outline the positives and there were many as it should be understood that being my least favorite place in Colombia does not mean that a place is not very nice indeed and well worth a visit. A very impressive outer wall encases street after street of time warp. Aesthetically pleasing colonial edificios dating from the 16th century onwards are on every side and everywhere. There are beautiful churches, government buildings, mansions, plazas and equally interesting colonial buildings from the poorer parts of the old town. To sit in a plaza at night, eat a beautiful steak and watch the people go by is really quite special. In the day it is a buzzing place with much to see. Wandering around the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (a huge fort just outside of the walls) and down into the tunnels was particularly impressive and enjoyable.

A very peculiar incident occurred while wandering into a posh Argentinian (more steak) restaurant with flip flops, wife-beater and not in the best of states, but they served us seemingly happily and there was sumptous amounts of hilarity.

Cartagena also gave us a few fun nights out. These highlighted the problem with the place. Unlike the rest of Colombia that is relatively untouched by tourism, Cartegena is overrun. There is nothing per se wrong with tourists – I am one – but when there are a lot of foreign dollars about people tend to treat you as a walking bill not a human being. Part of what has enchanted me with the rest of Colombia has been how locals have so welcomingly embraced our presence with barely any noticeable attempt at exploitation – it has been a delight. In Cartagena almost everyone wants to exploit, from beggars, clubs 90% full of prostitutes, to every vendor trying to charge absurd rates for everything. All in all pretty frustrating. Now I do not blame the locals for this, as it is almost inevitable when so many people come off cruise ships etc dripping in money. There is easy meat to extract money off, but it is still unpleasant. A good example are the little boys who threaten you with broken glass bottles or on one occasion the sharp end of one of those long fluorescent bulbs that frequent class room ceilings. I barely even noticed them asking for as little as 1000 pesos ( less than 30 pence) because they were so small. Sebastian’s answer to the problem was to do a little dance with the kid which worked pretty well - that guy has an enviable ability to confuse.

It was here that we said goodbye to the ever so slightly very crazy pair of Sebastian and Mark who sailed off towards Panama on a little yacht. A great idea that Dave and I seriously considered (alongside Venezuela), but my limited time coupled with the imposition of Colombia, let alone Pananma, being exceedingly far from my ultimate destination of Buenos Aires, acted as sufficient detterent. It had been a crazy and ridiculously enjoyable few weeks with Sebastian and 10 days or so with Mark that I will certainly not forget. I hope they are having fun and have not killed each other. (Authors note: Some time later I discovered that the captain of their ship had decided to force them to smuggle drugs at knife-point before the ship ran aground, they were forced to swim to shore and were then stranded on the Darian Gap for a week)

Anyhow, Categena it is a city worth seeing, but if you go there before the rest of Colombia do not take it as typical because it is far from it and to leave Colombia at that would be to miss the heart of the place.

Cheeky Luxury and Playa Blanca Reunion

The next morning we awoke with similar problems to before. Moving around in the area to the west of Cartegena is not generally a well trodden backpacker route, so things do not fall into place with any ease. As it happened (and indeeed often happens), this worked to our advantage as the only way to move towards Playa Blanca by boat was via a relaxing morning on a luxury island resort – damn. So four quite smelly backpackers arrived on an island that costs 250,000 pesos (about US$120) a night to stay on. We had some breakfast, saw my first toucan and quite cheekily went to lie in their hammocks overlooking the pristinely cared for beach, ordered a beer from the staff and had a bit of a swim – sweet!

After this we took a couple of lanchers to Playa Blanca. This is a beach that would not be embarrassed in the company of many others, with its bleach white sand, palms, and turquoise crystal-clear water lapping against the shore. After failing to recover my sandals from the boat (grrrgh, but at least I have Havanas to replace them) a very pleasant reunion occurred as we bumbed into what seemed like the majority of the Medillin crowd. Amongst others Crispin, Dub, Alessandro, Kye etc..etc and had a extraordinarily chilled out night before collapsing into hammocks. Seeing a whole herd of cows get led along the beach was a notably strange addition to the experience.

The next day was spent in much the same vein (I have not played with buckets on the beach for many years but it proved fun - notably on this occasion we had no spades). Rum coconuts aided the relaxed confusion of a lovely day on the beach. Even stepping on something that left some not unthreatening spines in my foot did not lessen the day as self-surgery was surprisingly successful.

On we all jumped for a final hour or so on a lancher towards Cartegena, the legendary Spanish port where the gold of the new world was send back to the Hispanic peninsular, if they were not rather impolitely intercepted by pirates (or as we like to call our own British ones – naval heroes – god bless Sir Francis). Approaching the extensively walled and defended old city was quite a sight – and the whole bunch of us were rearing for another big Saturday, notably as a send off to Alessandro.