Sunday, October 30, 2005

In Prison! Out of Ecuador and into Colombia

After returning from the coast I had a couple of days in Quito to prepare for the trip up to Colombia. In the end I failed to undertake many of the preparations I wanted but instead had a fascinating couple of days - far more important!

The most interesting part and I believe one of the most off the wall experiences I have had came on a day in the old town. Mike, Jez, Dave and I first visited the magnificent Sancturio de Las Lajas. A Jesuit church completed circa 1670 (I think - apologies if my memory fails me) that is supposed to be the most beautiful in Ecuador. Rumours had it that it was decorated with 7 tonnes of gold. Although this was dispelled by the guide, I can see why the sight of the fabulously detailed baroque architecture covered in lashings of gold leaf would have had the Jesuits' desired effect, leaving locals in awe of the power and the beauty of what was in front of them. The concentration on the semi-idolatry of leading Jesuit figures was interesting. I do not think I am any closer to agreeing with the role of the Jesuits but I at least understand more why they were so successful.

Now, to the PRISON. In the hostel there were many recommendations to visit foreigners (i.e. Europeans etc) incarcerated in the city jails. I think many travellers feel some connection with the 100 or so of them because, for many, the situation could so easily be reversed due to their own consumption habits. We therefore set off to Garcia Moreno prison with the aim of bringing them some cigarettes etc and just hoping to break the boredom (some prisoners had written notes to the hostel asking for just this). Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you make of the consequent experience), instead of taking us to the Garcia Moreno prison the taxi driver took us to the prison ON calle de Garcia Moreno - CARCIA NUMERO 2 - a different kettle of fish all together.

Instead of a prison where the foreigners pay more for smaller (even private) rooms with even tv and dvd player, we ended up at something out of Alcatraz. 800 people crammed into 26 rooms in a two storey rectangle around an area the size perhaps of two volleyball courts. The inhabitants were for the most part hardcore drug-traffickers, but there was a fair sprinkling of rapists and murderers for good measure. Of course when we went in we did not know this or in any way what we were getting ourselves in for. An indication may have come when the fully armed guards outside told us to take nothing and I mean nothing in with us. The most extreme illustration was when I was not initially allowed in with shorts. As far as we could translate the reason for this was something to do with them being ripped off and a weapon being shoved in to you - as I say the explanation did not really translate. Jez and Dave went in and after finding a pair of trousers I followed, leaving Mike behind with the bags and his shorts.

After a full-over search and multiple stamps being applied on our arms, we entered the jail. What ensued was circa 20 mins of confusion as we asked to see the English guy from Manchester. The surprisingly helpful guards clearly racked their brains and asked around the prison, but did not come up with any immediate solution. Generally a mood of confusion, especially when we got a peak through the bars into the oh so not safe looking prison yard. After a quick tour of the small workshop (apparently only for 5 people) the guards eventually brought in front of us a small slightly shy looking black Ghanain called Dominic, who spoke reasonable English. After giving him some ciggies we asked/were invited into the prison proper. I had expected to be escorted by guards, but before we knew it we had been locked into this prison yard full of not the most savoury characters and instead of a guard escort we had Dominic and a couple of his mates (the guards were firmly locked on the other side of the bars. I have to say my heart froze as I went shaking hands with the slightly over touchy mass as we were led away to the far side of the yard.

The yard itself deserves more explanation. Cloisters around the sides are chocked full of inmates, with cells lining the walls and a game of volleyball in the centre. Next to the court at the far end is a raised platform where, by what I understood from Dominic's warning, some seriously dodgy characters were hanging - large Latino bros doing their best to look HARD and not looking favourably upon us. Above is another cloister with more people looking over. The place is absolutely packed but only when you get into a cell do you understand the full extent of it.

Once at the far corner (that is as far as is possible from any guards), we were surrounded by a group of rather large guys of African descent. We chatted for a bit with them, seriously wary of our surroundings and what in the hell we had got ourselves into. With shouting from all around and more dodgy looks than in Brixton in the middle of the night, Dave has aptly described the scene as a cross between Football Factory and American History X. Dominic then invited me into to his oh so not enticing cell to which I stalled as there was no way I was going anywhere without the I feared not so protective company of Dave and Jez (I mean in a physical sense as, no insult to them or indeed myself, I have no doubt we could have done bugger all for ourselves in there). We were then escorted and locked into the cell with a few of the guys. To our horror, it was another prisoner who was doing the locking - not many guards around as I said before. What ensued from here was I am relieved to say strangely pleasant, though with a constant undercurrent of agitation on at least my but I believe all our faces. Some music was put on, our ciggies past round and general small chat. Despite what a mate said, I do not believe this was a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Most of the guys were in for trafficking a couple of kg plus of cocaine, but they were relatively nice guys. Especially an Antiguan with whom I naturally chatted about the state of West Indian cricket. They even offered me a smoke to which the obvious answer in Quito's hardest penitentiary was NO, but thank you ever so much for the offer.

Despite the pleasantries of the twenty or so mins locked in the cell, this should not take away from the shocking nature of the place. Horrendous conditions where thirty odd people were staying in a room approx 3m by 5m. Food was apparently horrible, violence and murder rife (we were told people would be writing down names to get them after visiting hour) and for sure not a place you would ever want to find yourself. Add to this the inmates comments about a justice system where if you go to court you are guilty, only serve full sentences (no cutting for good behaviour) and increased sentences are the consequence of any appeal - a pretty standard 8 years for drug-trafficking would become 12 on appeal - and the depressing nature of the place takes hold. Believe me, Amnesty would have more than a field day. The strange thing is that despite this, none of the guys we met claimed their innocence, but instead seemed pissed off at the informant culture of Ecuador (the constant comment of "this is a fucked up country - people talk to much") and wished they were in prison elsewhere - even rather in Columbia. Added to the lack of any Europeans in the prison (because they have embassies) the fact that this was so definitely the wrong prison struck home when I was told that the only foreign visitors were a couple of Germans who came once a month at best - not the general backpacker experience then.

As the end of visiting hours loomed I mentioned we should be off and they were really friendly in their goodbyes and thanks for visiting. I felt sorry for these guys having to serve years in a place I doubt I would survive a fraction of that time. It also became obvious to me as we re-entered the heart-stopping main area that the lock went on the door for our protection against others. I believe those bunch of guys were sheltering us from what lay behind all those dodgy looks. They then escorted us back through the crowds to the gate and after the guard checked our stamped forearms we made our way out with a minute or so of visiting hour to go. Mike, waiting outside, commented on our obvious looks of shock resulting from the obscene amounts of adrenaline pumped into our veins during three quarters of an hour we were within CN2. This was not subsided by confirmation from the guard and Mike (who had enquired around) that we had indeed been in an incredibly dodgy prison full of the real bottom level. The guard commented on how muy peligroso (very dangerous) it was and how we were unique as foreigners to go in. I really feel for any half decent soul who gets shut in there.

Overall it was a thought provoking and more than worthwhile experience, but do not get me wrong, if I had known what it entailed I would never have gone near the place. Sometimes you need to see the best and the worst of the place to assess it and I doubt there is much worse in Quito or perhaps in Ecuador then this place.

This was followed by an evening where I have to admit I was slightly shaken up and a night to compensate and get it out of my system (ended up going to the airport and back at 3am for some reason). The final day in Quito was spent a little worse for wear going to MITEL DEL MUNDO- the equator. Jumping back and forth from the northern hemisphere to the southern, balancing an egg on a nail, playing strange strength games (weaker on the equator) and watching water go anti (north), clockwise (south), and then straight down (equator), while in the distance looking at the official monument in the wrong place (they did not have GPS a couple of hundred years ago when the french marked down the equator) further worked as a chilled out antidote to the day before.

I really enjoyed my time in Ecuador but COLOMBIA beckoned and that is where I am now after a couple of days travels through some of the most startlingly beautiful countryside I have ever been graced to see. Driving along mountain roads of fervent-green flora clad collosi above and deep valleys below, with vibrantly colourful villages here and there - a great introduction to this beautiful country. Add a fun night of drinking games in the border town of Ipiales (the club was shut down for a bit for the machine-gun clad local squaddies to take a look around), a morning at a pilgrimage church set on a bridge across a deep valley and a Halloween night in CALI that I can not begin to describe here (demasiado loco - to much crazy) and Colombia is starting to take shape for me.

From here the plan is to trundle slowly up to the Caribbean coast, Cartahena, some diving, the lost city, Bogata and then the jungle.....

Antedecents in Ancon

One of the most important stops for me on this trip was always going to be to a small dusty oil town on the southern Pacific coast called Ancon, but it exceeded my expectation. My great-grandfather Leonard W Berry (LWB) was head of the oil-field and (as the locals told me) the premier geoligist in Ecuador from circa 1927-46 and he and the rest of the family lived in this strangely charming place. A trip here was a must in particular, as my lovely grandmother lived there for much of the period and I know it has a significant place in her heart.

I knew LWB build the local school and hospital amongst over things for the locals, that the Ingles (English) hanged out in the Ancon Club (many G&Ts I am certain) and the family lived in the La Casa Grande. I did not though know what would be left and was more than pleasantly surprised. After taking a bus from La Libertad (where incidently I unfortunately failed to find the street named after my great grandmother Kitty) Monique (US girl) and I entered a town with one main street that was neither desolate nor bustling. After asking around I got directed to La Escuela de Leonardo W Berry which I found out later still has LWBs picture hanging inside.

The natural next place to head was the church, built and worshipped in by the Ingles. After arousing the Padre and describing my situation as best I could in my broken spanish (I do not think they many backpackers pop their head in claiming to have a 60 year old connection with the place) we were allowed in to look around. I would have been satisfied with what I had seen thus far but, by a stroke of luck (and assistance from my pestering of a few locals about LWB), we met an 83 year old man called Alfredo. He was a contemporary of my family in Ancon (only one year younger then my grandmother - Sheila Mcnaughton) and ended up showing us all the haunts and reminiscing for a good hour or so - I lost track of time in communicatng in spanish and taking tons of photos and videos for the family records. We were taken, amongst other places, around the Ancon Club, to the Casa Grande and up to the gate of the offices where LWB worked and my grandmother was his secretary.

It was a really special experience. It was fascinating to hear of a time past and the part my relatives had to play in it. One difficult question was left to be asked - what did the locals actually think of these foreigners who came to remove their oil? At first I was very wary and was not sure of the vibes I was getting, especially when Alfredo explained how the town was split and that locals could not enter the Ingles barrio after 7pm. I decided the best course of action was to be direct and to my relief the answer was solely positive where LWB was concerned. Alfredo's opinion was that the people liked and respected him and that he did a lot for the people. It is hard to describe but this removed a weight from my shoulders.

It was a delight to hear how he remembered Kitty, both Leonards and somewhere in the haze of memory he seemed to recollect the daughters - Audrey and Sheila. All in all, with the Pacific rolling in, vultures circling above and the oil well just over the houses, it was a place that charmed me through the freedom of imagining it at another point in time and through the memories of my grandmother and the ever so friendly and informative Alfredo.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Poor man´s Galapagos

An hour up the coast by road from Montañita and circa an hour and a half by boat out into the Pacific from Puerto Lopez (I´m not certain as I was sleeping off a hangover on the way out and distracted by huge seabound mammals on the way back) lies ISLA DEL PLATA. This differs to the Galapagos as it is part of the continental shelf (and not volcanic) and is lacking in most of the wonderful species that make those sets of islands world famous, but at $42 for the day as opposed to $1000 plus plus for a week it worked out to be a fabulous budget option.

Trekking (or hobbling with my blisters) around the island you see dozens of blue footed boobies mainly on their nests seeming jolly confused at what these bipedal camera clicking things are. You can walk within a foot of a nest (you have no choice as they seem to enjoy nesting on the path with projectile excretion all around them) and they will at most look confused if they pay attention to you at all.

All in all the island is a bird-spotters paradise. I saw masked boobies, red-footed boobies, frigate birds (robbing other birds in mid-air just like in BBC nature programs), vultures and large pelicans diving down to the water for their catch. The highlight on the island was though undoubtedly the sight of a large ALBATROSS chick waddling off into the brush followed by the sighting of an adult on the nest. A real privilege to see such giant fliers in person (they live the rest of their lives at sea) - wonderful.

This was followed by a great snorkel amongst numerous fish species including large wrasse, trumpet fish, blowfish, starfish, a single tuna (I think) and large showels of beautifully coloured and shaped fish.

The trip back to the mainland more than capped off the day with a fantastically fortunate sighting of a mother, father and infant humpback whale. Fortunate in the respect both that it is out of season and you are always fortunate to see such incredible creatures. We cruised alongside them for I guess 10 minutes or so, but I was lost in their beauty and in such situations a sense of timing is rather lost. I have been incredibly lucky to have had very close encounters with humpbacks in Australia, but the unexpected nature of this sighting was special. Not even one of the crew swiping (I suspect) my knife could dampen the memory. There were a lot of smiles as we cruised back into the sleepy fishing village with numerous pelicans improving the scenery. Such occasions make you look closely at what you're doing with your life day to day - as good days as this do not come along too often in good old blighty.


I spent 4 days in this surf bum town. After nearly exactly 12 hours on the road overnight from Quito (with a toilet stop in Quayaguil no less) Monique, Eliana, Talia and I made it to what is effectively a surf/backpacker designed hangout on to the beach with a sizeable community of zoned out surfers (locals and extranjeros) waiting for the waves and sun to come in a month or so. The place has a hint of disney surftown and reminded me of an incredibly nicer and more chilled out version of Hat Rin on Ko Pho Ngan (I can never spell that bloody island). I know that is not exactly complementary but I really liked the place.

The day we arrived was apparently the sunniest for a longwhile. I immediately dived into the pacific before playing beach footie that so ripped up my feet that I could not dance for a couple of nights and lets just say it put a spanner in the works of any potential surfing career until the next time I´m in such a place. Hobbled walks along the beach and staring out accross the immensity of the great Pacific were causes of great joy and contemplation. The thought of the vastness and unknown quantity of what lies before you is certainly humbling.

The weather did not shine on us the rest of the days and enterntainment came in incredibly strung out meals, setting up this blog thing, reading in a hammock and some interesting partying at night - my favourite example of which being impromptu drinking until the wee hours on the balcony of hostel del amigo (see picture). You really get some characters in these places and you here some stories. Lets just say the sight of a guy sitting in the mud in the middle of the street with a fazed look on his face was not totally out of place here.

For the fun I was glad to get out of this place after a few days. People seem to get stuck here. An incredibly petulent ATM and consequent building credit in restaurants for many does not help. Montañita is a bubble of surf cool where everyone greets each other with giving some skin (palm stroke) and a clashed fist. Bongos play at night and for many, days drift in to weeks etc. It is a fun place but not for me right now after just a few weeks - give me a couple of months and this could be just the sort of place I could do with!!!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Dos semanas en Ecuador

I am currently in a little surf bum town half way up Ecuador´s Pacific coast chilling out after a hectic but highly enjoyable couple of weeks in Ecuador. This time has been spent learning Spanish and going out in Quito, with a wee adventure to the north in the middle.

Quito is an interesting city. The new town is nothing much to speak of, but the old town is packed with colonial architecture that is really shown off with the backdrop of Volcan Pinchincha, a 4,600m odd volcano that dominates that city. A trip up to 4,200m in a cable car was a real highlight as you could see the 1.5m people city laid out infont of you as if in sim city. To see a plane slowly fly in and land over 1000m below you is interesting. The altitude definitely takes some getting used to, as I found on my first night out where I had to go home knackered after barely any dancing. That night in itself was a story as by total accident I bumped into Laurence (friend from law school) within 5 minutes of walking into the first bar – the world is a small place at times.

Essentially I woke up, saw a bit of the town, did 4 hours of Spanish (at $4 an hour individual – amazing) with my teacher Ginna, then got sucked into either rum and coke night (litres of free rum at hostel Mitel del Mundo and a lot of consequently messy people) or something similar before various clubs (including salsa – learning slowly) and the cycle continued.

The people here are so passionate about everything and this was illustrated wonderfully by the two probable highlights of my stay. The first was going to see Ecuador v Uruguay, at which the hosts qualified for the World Cup. The explosion of joy, fiesta and yellow everywhere was breathtaking, and they really know how to celebrate. The stadium was literally packed to the rafters hours before the game. There were fly overs, parachutists, long chants of “vamos equatorianos” and the comic insults to anything or anyone remotely Uruguayan which I shall not repeat here.

The second event was of the riot variety. I was having a lovely morning wandering around the old city with an American girl called Monique when we bumped into a seemingly peaceful march of a few thousand mainly university students and school kids. I believe it concerned Marxism etc as there were red flags and Che Guevara images everywhere (alongside FUEU signs). After what appeared to be little provocation, the police decided to spice up things a little by firing into the crowd. This caused general panic and a mini stampede. What they had fired turned out to be tear gas (not uncommon here, earlier in my stay a comic incident occurred in a bar when someone lit up a cigarette and everyone started choking at what was believed the smoke but infact was a gas bomb the police had fired outside.). What ensued was about an hour of the police firing gas, everyone running (half in joy with smiles), the gas clearing, everyone going back and the cycle staring again. The whole experience was both interesting, exciting and strangely fun as that was undeniably part of the prevailing mood. There are though always a few idiots at these things, and beyond the stone throwing at police tanks, the event that stuck in my mind most was when someone tried to steel my sunnies. I know I was being stupid wearing my oakleys on the top of my head, but it is still rude for someone to wait for three gas bombs to be fired right next door to me, grab the glasses off my head and then run into the gas as the crowd ran the otherway. I´m afraid to say I did something a bit foolish and awakening some long lost rugby instincts ran after the git and got in a good tackle. He then nicely handed me my glasses (to which I for some strange and idiosyncratic English reason said “lo siento” sorry) but as I searched through the smoke for the side bits that had fallen off he and his mate had the cheek start kicking me. Luckily Ecuadorians are very small and they legged it on seeing how pissed off I was. All in all this was rather a strange but interesting incident and I consequently decided to leave the demonstration and go learn some Spanish. Fortunately the effect of the gas was only minor and temporary but it has genuinely shocked me that the police so liberally fire the stuff on school children – perhaps an unpleasant side to the passionate national character.

In fact Quito in general does not seem to be the most relaxed place, so after much fun and meeting many nice people I felt the need to get out.

The first major excursion was a 5 day "Avi tour" with 3 lovely Israelis (Avi, Eleanar, and Talia – all apologies for the spelling) and a lovely German (Nicky) to Otavelo and surrounding picos and volcanoes. I will leave the details to the magnificent photos when I return, but here is a snippet. We went to the one of the biggest markets in South America at Otavalo, that was great with all the vibrancy, colours and local friendly people. We swam in the freezing crater lake (Cuicocha) of a 4600m active volcano (Cotacachi) before watching the sunset over the mountains. We road the top of a bus for 3 hours down to some hot baths and back again through windy roads and truly dramatic scenery, went horse-trekking, and swam in waterfalls. The locals indigenous people were so friendly and notably hardy in their traditional dress. Tiny old women would be dragging large loads on their backs that I would struggle with.

BUT, the undeniable highlight was climbing a 4,293m peak – Fuya Fuya. Unbelievable! From the top not only could we see Quito 50 miles away, huge lakes below over peaks, Cotopaxi and another number of volcanoes over 5,00m (and in fact over 5,800 - huge), but also even Columbia. This is exactly what I went travelling for, one of the best experiences I have ever had. The climb was a bit arduous and a bit steep at times, but literally running and sliding down was at times hilarious. So much fun.

Anyhow, I have been rabbiting on. The same feeling of needing to leave Quito and get on with my travels hit me shortly after my return to Quito and hence I have travelled down to the coast with the same Talia, Eleanar and Monique. Here I am resting my blistered feet, before heading to Ancon where my grandmother grew up and then heading to COLUMBIA. It was not on my itinery but the combination of so many good and safe reports from numerous travellers – and vitally no negative ones – and a look at the relatively stable situation has convinced me to head up there with some amigos. It is remarkable how much more of an accurate report on a place you can get when on the ground! I can not wait, the highlands and Carribean coast awaits….

Ocean Drive

I enjoyed Miami a lot and it was a bit of an eye-opener. I spent a day and a half walking around the city. Downtown is nothing special, just some high rise, but little Havana is cool – especially as English is barely heard. I stayed in a really cool and friendly hostel in south beach (just next to ocean drive), which is full of rich Americans and tourists. The one thing that shocked me most in my short stay was the incredible divergence in wealth. There are the unbelievably rich in their protected flats and islands and one block down poverty beyond what I have seen in Western Europe - it is positively developing world with bums everywhere and pawn shops.

I spent my evenings mainly in pool halls drinking pitchers. An American had the cheak to try and teach me how to play pool (as pool obviously does not exist in Europe), to which the reply was 13 and 1 record teamed with my Swiss friend. A cool guy called Andre. All tables are challenge tables and we thought we'd get whipped but our first night we won about 10 straight until 4am when we finally only lost to a Brit who lives here. A little bit of fun as the Americans are so competitve and do not like Europeans beating them at their own game. People who know me know that I am not competitive even in the slightest – hmm.

I was a little shocked to be told about a really cool place in England called Amsterdam where you can smoke pot in the bars. According to an ozzie called hamish, someone in the deep south asked him how long it would take to drive to Australia. I must though be fair and say that the Americans were incredibly friendly to me – it did not matter whether I was taking a bus through Liberty City (incredibly poor African-American district), or in South Beach - they loved to help. The best way I can sum up the country after barely a week (I know I shouldn’t but sometimes you have to take liberties) is adolescent. A friendly, but marginally screwed up adolescent - viva at least some wealthfare state.

I also went to the everglades which was ok, saw a couple of aligators and went on one of those wind boats but not amazing and very tacky. The highlight of my trip came after I met a German who had hired a car and was heading to Key West (the most southerly point of mainland US). And so it was that a German (who had slept) drove a Brit (me of course), a Swiss, a Japanese, and an Italian left after one hours sleep at 6am (I love efficient Germans) down national highway number 1 for 4 or so hours. (A picture of the guys is attached - you will notice how impressively pasty I am.) Only the Americans could have a small set of beautiful islands and drive a road right along them, taking up half of the little land there is with road, Macdonalds and Taco Bell (very tasty). It is nuts, there is one bridge which crosses 7 miles of the Caribbean. In some strange way I liked the quirky nuts place. The other guys then went snorkelling and I dived. Awesome, saw 6ft moray eel, ray, nurse shark (harmless variety) etc., on the way back we cruised down Ocean Drive - very cheezy i know, but had to be done.

Overall it was a stop over that I am very happy I did – in fact it wetted my appetite for New York in Feb rather nicely.

My first blog

How exciting. This is my first blog and it should kill those frustrating mass emails.

The picture attached is the first one from my trip to the Americas. With a pint of guiness at 5am at heathrow terminal 3. A bit corny I know but it had to be done at the start of my travels. Definite excitement alongside obvious tiredness in my expression.

That was 3 weeks ago and shortly I may fill in about some of the stuff I have been up to since!