Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Trying a Triathlon

What challenge for 2013? A triathlon. To be more specific, the London Triathlon 27 July 2013. A 1.5 km swim in the Thames docks, 40 km cycle through the center of the city finished up with a 10 km run around the docklands.

Why? Basically because I feel unfit, have just turned 30 and want to to drag myself back from a slow physical decline into middle-age. It is all good and well to say I will get fitter this year, but without a set goal I know lethargy will get the better of me. I did a marathon a few years back, practically destroyed myself (marathon blog - my celtic body shape is not designed for 26.2 miles of pounding) and certainly do not want to do that again. A triathlon seems the natural thing.

A good idea? It certainly seemed so when I paid up the hefty entry fee after a few beers a week or so ago. In the light of day, perhaps less so. Having just got in from my first quasi training run, almost certainly not. Half an hour running across, up and down the streets which criss-cross Mount Penteli on the outskirts of Athens and I am beat. The calves ache and the chest is pounding. Perhaps I am not built for this either! Then again, somewhere at the top of a steep rise about half way through my run, I caught a glorious view across the forested norhthern suburbs of the city to the snow-capped mountains beyond, paused, took in a few deep breaths and felt the best I have for ages.

Take the rough with the smooth I suppose (the rough undoubtedly including learning to distance swim, 400 m is pushing it for me, let alone 1.5 km). A lot of pain, the odd injury and adventure awaits. It's all in the journey I suppose.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Route III: The Wet Windy Low Countries

Part 2, day 2: A long way to Maastricht (continuation from Deutschland to Dutch)

Just under two days to get to Brussels, we wheeled our way out of the picturesque town of Venlo to meet the river Maas for the first time. A wide brown mass of the wet stuff running steadily north to the North Sea. Crossing river after river on this trip bought home how the Netherlands is, geographically speaking, a giant river delta draining northern Europe.  Funny, I had never thought of it that way before, but it is the Bangladesh of our part of the world, masked by the ingenious way in which the locals have crafted and tamed the land. Our brief stay in this country would follow the Maas 90km or so south to Maastricht for an overnighter.
After the delectable lunchtime beers in Venlo it seemed such a nice idea. Gently follow the picturesque river past sail boats and windmills all the way to our beds. Instead we got PAIN. OK, a touch of exaggeration, but certainly significant discomfort.

The wind had picked up and was blowing hard into our faces, south to north. There is a reason cyclists go so much faster when tucked down behind each other in tight formation peloton. Simple aerodynamics and I can tell you that for similar reasons it is at least twice as tough to pedal your way into a strong head-wind hour after hour.               

Yes the river and surrounding greenery were pretty, yes there was at least one Dutch windmill, but at the time I didn’t really care. Just head down, body tucked in and follow on the wheel of the guy in front. Fortunately the uber fit Uwe was happy to lead out most of the way, but we all took our turn.

To make it worse cold, driving rain kicked in. Two thirds of the way to Maastricht Erik decided enough was enough and, on passing a rail station with trains heading back east, bid his farewells. After briefly considering curtailing the day’s ride ourselves we fuelled up with cake and decided to push on with the original plan.
Leaving the river to the west, we hit out on what looked like a fast straight road. All good until it started to bend away from our destination. Running out of time, we cut back towards the river until we reached a canal, pushed our bikes up the steep grass bank siding and pushed on. Just at that bit of the day when saddle sore kicks in, we had managed to find a degraded, concrete/dirt path that rattled the teeth and rumbled the posterior.
Predictably the rain came down again, bringing with it a touch of self-induced misery. After an hour of staring down at the path in pot-hole avoiding concentration, we took a break from the downpour under an overpass, chomped some salami, checked a map and got ready for the final push.

Eventually the rain alleviated and we approached the outskirts of Maastricht. For the final couple of kms I was in a bright enough mood to take in some of the scenery and was positively buzzing by the time we found ourselves pedalling into the historic old town. One of the nicest things about cycling is that extra bit of energy the creeps in with the last squeeze of adrenaline at the end of a long day. Here it was accompanied by the quite beautiful combination of the river, the townhouses which lined it and the setting sun.
After a bit of a wild-goose-chase trying to find cheap accommodation around windy back streets, we ended up staying on a funky hostel boat. Not the most river-worthy of vessels, but it sold beer and seemed fitting after we had spent so much of the day cursing the river.

Predictably, a feast of a dinner and local bevies ensued followed by a tipsy tour of the city’s squares and alleys and some chilled out late night conversations on the high banks of the Maas. Then head first onto my rickety bunk, being lulled into a deep sleep by the rocking of the boat and mild exhaustion.

Part 2, day 3: Back to Brussels

Sore, very sore, but in good spirits. As always, Dave and I disappointed the Germans with our slovenly slow getting up. In my defence, my Celtic physiology requires a fair deal of talc’ing and vaseline under all that lycra to keep the chafe away. Not a pretty thought I know, but neither is turning those legs for hour upon hour in the rain with rubbed raw bits.

The sun was out and the road was flat as we cycled out of town.  Across into Belgium and it quickly took a turn for the worse. The rain burst out of the sky cold and almost horizontal. Doing the trip in late April was a risk, but this was a joke. We resorted to huddling behind a bus shelter (not for the only time that day) until it dried up. With pretty pissed off muscles I jumped back on the bike to immediately encounter a long, straight, slow hill. I thought Belgium wasn’t meant to have any of those. Were we not in the low countries? Our plans to take the scenic side roads dissolved with the wet weather as we unanimously chose the boring direct route to Brussels.

To the Belgians’ credit, the road was lined with a beautiful cycle path. As I have found in France, Germany, Holland and now Belgium, the people in the north-western part of the continent have a real respect for cyclists. Such a juxtaposition to the UK where cyclists are barely ever taken into account by road users or road makers.
In between the relative drudgery of the straight road, we passed through one small town after another. Names like Tongeren, Borgloon and Tienen. Alongside the odd bit of ugly dilapidated industry these were pretty enough places. Tongeren particularly stood out with an iconic statue that resembled Asterix in the town square. Some Gaul who stood up to Roman invaders.

Succumbing to the boredom we eventually took a detour through the countryside, finding tight winding roads, nice rustic views and small villages. All well and good, but we made little progress and jumped back on a straight road to Leuven, thirsty for our final night celebrations. The last time I was in this medieval town was as part of a school “economics trip” with my one lasting memory that of being nauseatingly hung over during a morning tour of the local Stella beer factory. Giving it a miss this time we instead found our way to the medieval town square, the Grote Markt. The highlight of the day. Multi-story guild-houses, a grand gothic town hall and an imposing church.

Our departure hastened by some annoying giggling teenage girls (the world is at times reassuringly homogeneous), we jumped back on the bikes and pointed our the wheels in the direction of Brussels. Some more rain, hiding in a bus shelter and hills later we were in the outskirts of the Belgian capital, freewheeling our way to the centre. It had been a fair bit tougher than expected, but we had made it. After last year’s multi-puncture shenanigans, not one between the lot of us…. bugger, spoke to soon, 350 km without a single bike issue and I get a flat on a steep downhill with the end in sight. I had to laugh.
Me and my bike were back where it all started 3 trips before. We rode into the centre basked in uncharacteristic sunshine. High funfs and the odd homoerotic but slap later (if highly charged NFL lycra wearing alpha males can do it, so can we!), we were in a bar with a giant, strong, cold Belgian beer. Then another bar, then another…
Good times. Paris to Hamburg complete and lesson learned about wet northern European springs. Dave and I have since decided to extent the Grand Tour to Lisbon to St Petersburg, so 1,100 km down, a long, long way to go.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

San Francisco, CA

Like most people who have the travel bug bad I do relatively pointless things like repeatedly making lists in my head, in discussion and, when particularly bored, on paper, of the 5 most [insert country/adventure/city…] I want to experience. For the last few years San Francisco has inexorably clung to the must do city list.

I note such tasks are “relatively” pointless rather than simply pointless as they do occasionally spur me on to go to such places and do such things. This then has the added bonus of opening up room on the aforementioned lists, triggering a whole lot more thought and discussion.

This is a drawn out way of saying I was excited to land in San Fran earlier this year.

Intercontinental travel over, I woke up with vicarious baby jet lag (7 month olds and 8 hour time difference are a sub-optimal mix) and stumbled out of our beat generation period ex-brothel hotel into a gloriously sunny morning in the hip suburb of North Beach. All laid back cosmopolitan cafes, retro book shops and the odd bit of red light district.  Nestled in between Downtown and the northerly bay facing docks and beaches, it is a perfect place from which to explore the city. 
A big pile of heart-attack inducing pancakes and multiple all you can drink coffees later, we wander off to see what the city has to offer. The answer is one heck of a lot. Like the best big cities, as you meander around you find yourself in one distinct and interesting neighbourhood after another. From the most extensive and “Chinese” China town I have seen outside of China (streets and streets where you would never know you were in the Americas – a product of gold rush immigration), via the affluence and beautiful views of Pacific Heights to the guide book stated “no-go” we stumbled into south of Market and 5th.

It is often the more gritty areas of a city that appeal to me, but I have to admit that the latter of these neighbourhoods shocked me. Walking through the not especially interesting Downtown (I am yet to go to a US city outside of New York with a standout downtown - a bunch of samey work buildings and shops only saved by the odd grand public building gem) we suddenly, without barely realising it, find ourselves in a different a very depressing world. Abject poverty. Boarded up shops, gangs on corners, shifty looks. We had entered the bloody projects only a couple of blocks from Gucci. OK, I’ve seen worse neighbourhoods in Bogota and Jo’berg, but these are in developing countries, not the richest county on earth. From a European’s perspective it is something very hard to understand.
Where is the basic social safety net? If poorer European countries can afford it then so can the States. That a society should actively choose not to look after its poorest citizens gives cause for some serious introspection. Rant over.  Back to how nice the rest of San Fran is…

What is the archetypical image that pops into the head when you think of San Francisco? Verging on vertical streets giving way to the deep blue bay? Antique cable-cars? The Golden Gate Bridge? Alcatraz? We saw the lot of it and it was gorgeous.
Street after street of ridiculous out of breath steepness. We wandered up and down (occasionally on the odd aforementioned cable car for the uphill part), taking in view after view. A particular highlight was the panoramic views of city and bay from Telegraph Hill on the north-eastern tip of the San Fran peninsula.
Once passed the unbelievable tack of the theme-park old fishing wharfs (all McDonalds and Bubba Shrimp only relieved by the awesome sight of dozens of Californian sea-lions barking the day away below Pier 39), the north coast is delightful. Brown pelicans skirting the waves just off-shore from the beach, the maritime park and an old crumbling pier which gives fantastic views of the city’s crowning glory. The Golden Gate Bridge is just as impressive as it should be, guarding the face of the bay from the wild Pacific.

With Alcatraz so visible from the high points, it lured us in for a closer look. Now part of a National Park, the infamous prison has been turned into a top rate museum full of fascinating tit bits from its dark days as a hard-core federal penitentiary. I highly recommend it. It even comes with strange in bred tourists from Arkansas!
That vital extra bit of colour to our experience was added by a couple of old mates currently residing in the city. Their warm words only added to our impression that this is a very likeable city indeed. Sure it has its rough unsightly underbelly, but what American city does not. It attracts a relatively open minded, liberal and friendly crowd who make you feel welcome. A place I could live if only I could convince a local company to give me 30 plus days holidays a year (I think the US average is 11 days). 

Very satisfied and with the start of a Californian glow, we jumped into our hugely over-sized Chevy Malibu and headed out of town through those famous San Fran morning mists. Route 101 to San Diego ahead! 

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Route III: Deutschland to Dutch

Part 1, day 1: A ride along the Ruhr

The Stockholm to Gibraltar bike tour is rolling on. Having cycled Brussels to Paris in 2010 and Dortmund to Hamburg in 2011, it only seemed sensible to join the two legs this year. So it was that with a few reunion high fünfs and clad in mildly inappropriate skimpy lycra, two Brits and three Germans assembled outside Dortmund hauptbahnhof on a dreary late April morning and mounted our bikes with Brussels as a goal. 

In the interest of adhering to the German stereotype, Uwe, Thilo and Erik were all set and rearing to ride at the pre-agreed time of 10am.  Dave and I were a comparable shambles, clumsily trying to build our bikes from their flight boxes and stuff some carbs into the system through a groggy daze induced by only snatching a scraggy hour or so’s sleep the night before on the hard cold floor of Luton airport (nestling up to our respective bike boxes to make sure nobody nicked them).
Nothing a cup of caffeine and prospective adventures to come couldn’t fix.

A real sense of anticipation as we pedalled our way through the centre of Dortmund and out to the suburbs. The only downer for the ride to come was a rubbish weather forecast and, personally, an itching concern that my fitness level was not what it should be to cycle 120 km day for three days. I always plan to get fit for these trips, but am easily distracted…
Fortunately the rain that accompanied us as we first set off abated and we settled into a nice pace as greenery slowly took over from bricks and mortar. Turning a corner we made it to the first of the three major rivers we would encounter on this trip, the Ruhr. At this place the river nestled in a narrow valley, fed by canal locks. I was dissuaded from stopping off for the first beer of the day (I can’t get enough of good German beer) by Erik pulling out five mini bottles of a close cousin of Jägermeister. Despite Uwe’s insistence, I am not convinced that it was a health drink. Down the hatch it went and on we went following the river.
We spent most of the day alongside the Ruhr, pedalling through pleasant verdant countryside. This almost certainly gave a false impression of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the densest populated regions in Europe famed for its past prowess in coal and steel. We managed to narrowly avoid a series of large industrial towns and cities, including Essen.  This was largely thanks to German planning – my pleas to increase interest by leaving maps at home had fallen on deaf ears – but so was our first travail of the day. Someone had the clever idea of cutting across a tight loop in the river. While this certainly cut down the mileage, we faced a few more tightly packed contours than anticipated. Grade 1 geography tells you that land rises either side of a river, but this was some serious stuff. Starting steep and staying that way, the hill went up and up and up. Erik was the first to give in to walking, followed by Thilo complaining about the weight of his bike. Being fit and all, Uwe and Dave were surging ahead. That left me methodically dropping down gear after gear until I was creeping along in first gear huffing and puffing with each turn of the wheel. Being a bloody minded bastard I just about made it to the mini-summit, but paid for it soon after. After catching our breath, we jumped back on the bike and free-wheeled our way down the long, winding route back down to the river. Such an awesome feeling as you touch 50 kmph, the adrenaline pumping and wind skipping off the lycra. Inevitably this had to end and on the next slightest rise my quad cramped up. A real bugger.

I limped on at the back of the group and was delighted when we stopped for a late lunch that proved to be the highlight of the day. Crossing to the other side of the Ruhr, we discovered one of the riverside beer houses that are so common in Germany. The sun popped out and warmed us as we sat on the veranda, sank a couple of beers, devoured some good wurst and took in the beautiful river setting.
The muscles were a bit pissed with having to jump back on the bike, but we had only done 70 km and had to put in another good leg in the late afternoon. Despite getting lost in an industrial estate of a small town, the going went well as we followed the Ruhr to its confluence with the mighty Rhine at Duisburg. From a big river to a giant river, entering the latter stages of its sweep across Europe. I found it hard to concentrate on the road as we turned on to a suspension bridge and crossed the Rhine. Glimpses of a wide brown mass of water, large freight barges and Duisburg harbour (the largest inland harbour in the world). Impressive.
After another hour, we were passing by the city of Krefeld and starting to think about where we could refuel and rest our heads for the night. With the carrot of an easier next day, we set our sights on Kempen another 20 km on. By the time we got there the day was late, the legs were tired and we were more than ready to stop. We split up to find accommodation, but to our shock found precisely bugger all. We had to push on, tough when the body had started to shut down for the day. Via our mobiles, we located a B&B a few kms to the south, put our weary bottoms back on the saddle, turned the pedals for another 20 minutes and made it just as the sun fell out the sky.
We had landed on our feet, staying at an awesome little place that I would probably remember the name of if I had not been so knackered, filled our stomachs full of pasta and knocked out. 130 kms in a day takes it out of you.

Part 1, day 2: Escaping Jesus to the Netherlands
I awoke early, pulled my surprisingly unachy body out of bed and peered out the window at a cold, yet beautiful morning. Low lying mist giving way to blue sky. A mega breakfast – a great thing about cycle tours is you can eat and eat and eat as it all burns off – and we set off towards the Dutch border.
The legs felt OK as we cut off the main road on to some small country paths. As we winded our way into and through a small forest the track narrowed and deteriorated. This gave me flashbacks of last year’s shenanigans (, but instead of finding ourselves lost in a bog, we were stuck in the outer confines of a Christian camp. A small sign had marked our entrance onto a wild bit of land reserved for retreats of some Christian group, sect or whatever. Jokes of our impending capture and indoctrination were less funny when having made our way safely across the reserve, the path ended at a single broken wooden bridge across a river. Gated off, clearly rotten and missing the odd rung. Thilo was all for turning back, but that would waste time and be no fun. Against his protestations, we flung our bikes over the high gate, clambered over and gingerly crossed the rickety bridge. No drama later, we were able to climb over the blockage on the far side and successfully escape along some nice, flat, tarmac roads.
Deciding not to take any more not so short-cuts, before we knew it we were crossing the border into the Netherlands, the fourth country of this cross-European adventure. A few more turns of the wheel and we ambled into the pretty Dutch town of Venlo. Meandering our way through pedestrians on a busy shopping street we ended our morning in the old town square. Small, yet grand, with a magnificent town hall the likes of which litter this bit of the world. A perfect place for lunch and some large, cool, delectable local beers. The unexpected spectacle of freshly wed couples exiting the town hall in conveyor-belt fashion and, in particular, a Roma couple who were greeted by excited relatives with drums and a bubble top horse drawn carriage. What a great start to the day.
 It didn’t last. Little did we know it, but a long, punishing road awaited to the south.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Flashback 05: Gunpoint in Colombia

We arrived soon after sun down in the small diving town of Taganga on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Having left behind some poco loco times in Cartegena and spent much of the day squeezed on a bus, we were in no rush to do anything. This all changed with the news that two Israeli girls I had met in Ecuador, Eliana and Tali, had left that morning for the fabled beaches of Tayrona. A few beers, some kip in a hammock and we set off in hope of finding them.
Tayrona National Park is 300 square kilometres of stunning nature reserve to the east of Santa Marta. It contains rainforested hills, the famous Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) and as it meets the Caribbean some of the most beautiful beaches you could imagine. And so it was that Dave, Alex, Ryan and I transitioned from taxi to bus to pick-up truck and then trekked a couple of kms through the forest to the sea. The first view made it all worthwhile. In front of us a broad golden beach, hemmed in by imposing granite boulders, lapped by the frothing turquoise ocean and cut by freshwater streams. Behind us large, leaning palms gave way to a thick rainforest flowing up into the wild hills of the sierra. Wild, isolated and inspiring.

We were heading to the small beach of El Cabo. The directions we had been given were simple. Hit the beach, turn right and keep walking. Sounds simple enough, but Dave and I took a “short-cut” around a large outcrop of rocks, climbing and scrambling over increasingly perilous terrain. With packs on our backs we should have cut our losses and tuned back, but instead soldiered on lunging, leaping and, by the end of it, swimming across the choppy waters that filled the gaps in the outcrop. Eventually we made it back on to the beach, trekked another 45 minutes through the forest and arrived at our destination somewhat cut, torn and looking forward to a chill out.
We were not disappointed. In between large boulder outcrops, a tightly curbed beach bridges the gap between sea and forest. El Cabo is nothing more than a small hut, some chairs and a number of hammocks. Paradise.

The first thing I did was to drop my pack, scramble up over one of the boulders and greet our friends Eiana, 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. It had all come together. Great place, great people and time to enjoy it. It seemed we had reached an apex in our travels, making it to one of the most northerly points in South America to relax, swim, get a tan and take stock before the long road south to Patagonia.
After watching the sun set with gusto over the sierra we seriously kicked back. The darkness deepened and the stars came with an intensity only possible when you are nowhere near anywhere. What more can you want then sitting out under the stars with a few mates, a beer in hand and the sea gently lapping at your feet..... a double barrel shotgun shoved in your face.
Out of nowhere, with no warning, a balaclava clad man dressed in black and carrying a shotgun appeared and made some ever so slightly threatening gestures with his piece. It sounds strange, but the initial reaction was not one of fear. A context of armed men being two a penny in Colombia almost certainly played a part in this. Paramilitaries ruled the region, so perhaps it was just a routine patrol. I suppose this was my initial reasoning, but it just wasn’t right. Confusion ruled. In broken Spanish Dave muttered “un momento por favor" as he glugged down the rest of his beer.
The stream of events over the next few hours are not entirely clear to me, but I will do my best to do them justice.
We were herded by an uncertain number of armed, masked and it is fair to say rather sketchy characters into the seating area set back five meters or so from the sea. My attention was drawn to at least one AK 47, pistols and shotguns. 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 and instinctive. Get as close to the centre of the herd as possible and KEEP MY HEAD DOWN. 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 could make out through stolen glances, they spent the next few minutes securing their position, checking for any stragglers and calmly taking total control. Only then did they start to communicate. At this point my Spanish was still, shall we say, sub optimal, so most of what I recall was latterly passed on to me by others. Something along the lines of "we are not robbers… give us all mobile phones… if you still have a mobile you are dead". The word "MUERTAS" got my attention. Can’t think why.
Believe it or not, they talked of us as hermanos (brothers). 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 to the captive’s head until, eventually, he stood back down. To me this was barely real, like watching a movie play out in front of you.
The next hour and a half were the most formative of my life. As the intruders methodically shone torches from the face of one captive to another, I sat with my head down and eyes to the floor. This surreal situation created a unique atmosphere for contemplation and enforced soul searching. I do not particularly want to share the thoughts that went through my head but let's just say that a lot of questions I had been wrangling with for years were answered then and there with a clarity that could not exist without the tangible possibility of a near death.  I am not saying I thought I was going to die, rather that it was a genuine and immediate possibility. Rationalising it as much as I could, the likely paths in front of me were some sort of kidnapping, robbery, or simply death. As the night wore on the odds of each scenario had its time with the shortest odds. I made my peace and was surprised by the ease of acceptance.
I was suddenly snapped out of this dreamlike contemplation by a change in the situation.  A buzz of activity arose from relative silence. “Extranjeros" (foreigners) were ordered to put their hands. Anxiously, limbs started to obey and hung tentatively in the air. I figured that there was little point in violating the order as I stand out like a sore thumb in South America (pasty Celt that I am), so cautiously followed suit. 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 bloody hell is going on now? In my mind, the odds had shifted markedly towards some sort of kidnapping. The thought of the backpackers kidnapped in the same national park two years before ran through and through my head and one detail stood out. Last time they had only taken the fittest 8 of the 16 potential captives, chosen to best survive the jungle trek to the kidnappers base. There were quite a few of us, so if I kept quiet it might not be me.
My thoughts took a different direction. What should I do if I heard shots? They had been marched off into the dark without even shoes - that is not right for kidnapping – were they being executed? Contingency plans darted around my head, but I was conscious that in such situations affirmative action is often the worst thing to do and the local who confronted them was nearly killed. Even so I was determined to do 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? If done en masse, there were enough of us that some should get away, but where to run to? The forest, the sea?  I waited, full of tension.
Two more foreigners were ordered to stand, searched and marched off in the same professional manner. Then a finger pointing at me, and the Colombian lady in front ushered 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, searched and marched off. 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 man who repeated the procedure, and then..... it was obvious where we were going. Partial relief. We were not being marched off then and there but shoved 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 cramped as it was, but people kept on being pushed in, including the girls. That at least was a big relief. It did not bear thinking about what could be happening to them while we were separated. All in all I reckon circa 35 people were squeezed into a shack that consisted of two rooms in total no bigger than 4m by 3m. Legs on legs, bodies bunched together in the tropical heat. Not a pleasant situation.

The general feeling was still one of bewilderment. We were contained but for what purpose? We had no clue if it was temporary or long term and what we could expect next. I relaxed a touch when blankets were offered round by the masked ones. Why would they do that if they were going to kill us? Large breath out. Kidnapping was still high on the potential  agenda. Slightly dazed in the heat and humidity, I kept thinking I heard boats. A multitude of possibilities, outcomes and actions filled my imagination. Such an odd, fucked up situation. For god’s sake there were kids locked in with us, gripping to their parents for comfort.
At the start I was sitting on the bed and Dave was just in front of me. The first words we shared since a shotgun was first shoved in our faces was a joke. A dark one. This was a common theme of our entrapment. A joke here, talk about a good pub in Brighton there and intermittent attempts at assessing 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”. “B”...”Black”. I am sure you get the gist of it.
As time wore on the tension went down half a notch and consequently the noise level in the hut rose as people began to talk. A loud bang and shout of "Do you want to be dead?" put pay to that. Everyone went dead silent and back on edge.
Then the bed collapsed on Heiko's leg. Not surprising with all the people scrunched together sitting on it.  He screamed in pain and writhed, triggering knock-on movement all around. I had a chat to some of the others to see how people were doing and then moved to the other room, getting as far away from the door as possible. This little box room was even smaller. Pressing heat and the sweet smell of sweat and piss. Legs cramped up and bodies rubbing against each other.  Behind me were a few crates of soft drink cans which I decided to spread around. Oh for a beer, but no such luck.
After being in the smaller room for a good hour or so without any noticeable noise from outside the hut, the general thinking was that they were either gone or at least settled down for the night - one possibility was that they were an armed group looking for shelter for the night. This relative calm was shattered by a large bang on the wooden shutter of 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, later explained that there was a guy with a gun looking straight at her and barking orders. He demanded drinks and they were given. Eventually the shutter closed and left us in silence.
No one dared speak. With nerves strained, quiet suspense reigned. Very gradually the tension lowered and we waited and waited. As the night passed I slipped into a subdued contemplative state. 
FUCK. Gun shots rudely forced me back to reality. Possibilities fire across the synapses and fill the head like a charged balloon. Wide eyed glances flicker around the dim room.
Then silence... silence... silence. Exhausted, one by one the captives crashed out on the hard floor. I could not sleep. For what seemed and certainly was hours, I stared out the window at the opposite side of the shack. Waiting for the next bang, I listened to the sea lap the coast. At last, I too succumbed to slumber amongst the entanglement of bodies.
Awake. Faint light outside and bustling impatience in the room. Dripping with sweat, I stretched off the aches of the night. A quiet, yet intense discussion was dominating attention. What to do? We had heard nothing from our captors since the gun shots. Some said we should break out, others cautioned that we should stay.  Eventually the desire to keep our heads down was trumped by the lure of freedom. We decided to bust out of our dank, cramped shack. We bashed against the wooden shutter. No reaction from outside. A few more knocks and it flung open. Cool, fresh air surged into our temporary prison. Indescribably refreshing.
One by one we scrambled out. Scanning the scene, I could see no sign of the intruders. Hell to paradise in an instant. Unbridled elation.
A sunrise I thought I may never see lit up the most beautiful of beaches. I was filled with pure joy to be alive. A sensation I will never and must never forget. I inhaled the intense beauty of our world with gluttonous relief.
A snap back to reality. Our captors were gone, but so where two of the locals who had never made it into the shack.  All over the camp stuff was ripped open and strewn about. They had gone through every pocket, corner, nook and cranny. They stole cash, cameras, sunglasses, knives, money, torches, mp3 players, CD players, speakers... Helpfully, they did not take passports or credit cards, perhaps because they are traceable.
An odd, chilled out morning followed before we headed back to civilisation. We washed the stink off in the sea, intermittently rummaged around trying to find our stuff, sat and reflected. Thankfully, the two hostages returned with the news that the robbers - only at this point could we call them this with certainty - had taken two donkeys to carry the loot, ridden through the forest to the nearest road and jumped onto a public bus.
The events of the next couple of days will not be repeated, safe to say that Heiko, Ursula, Ryan, Geoffrey, Eliana, Talia, Dave and I spent a very confused and, to be frank, screwed up period of time trying to sort our heads out. A lot of us acted quite out of character.
Amongst all the conflicting thoughts and emotions, one thing was crystal clear. I was enthused to be alive and did not give a damn about the stuff I had lost. Life is not about such things, despite what society tells us. Unfortunately the robbers had not learned this lesson. We have good reason to believe that they were caught and shot by the paramilitaries.
Colombia does not deserve the bad impression that these recollections inevitably give. This was a freak incident and is not representative of what is a relatively safe country that has come so far from the dark days of the 1990’s.  It is a beautiful place filled with warm, welcoming people and I highly recommend a visit. Indeed, I can’t wait to return.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Roundup

It's all over and wasn't it fantastic. Bar a sub-standard domestic ticketing system and a good but could do better closing ceremony (where are Led Zeppelin when you need them?), I can't fault the games. Great, imaginative venues, vibrant crowds to fill them and, of course, inspiring performances from the athletes.
As the proceedings drew to a close I managed to squeeze in two final events (numbers 12 and 13). Working from home for the day, I popped out for a 20 minute cycle round the parks on my lunch break and happened to overtake a forthright Bulgarian. As I was passing he asked me if I was heading to the swimming marathon. I said no. He said why not, I said why not and off we went. After following the bloke to what he guaranteed was the best viewing spot, I was at the south-western corner of the Serpentine and watching a flurry of arms froth past in the water. These guys are nuts. A 10 km freestyle swim in less than two hours and what a place to do it. In the pond at the heart of central London's largest park, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans. The sun was even shining. A couple of pics and I was back off home.
Living just south of the river there was no excuse not to jump over Waterloo Bridge, melt into the exuberant crowds one last time and support the men's marathon runners as they flew past. So many had gathered for this final athletics event. Lining the streets 10 deep on either side, clambering on top of monuments, squeezing onto steps and leaning out from atop the bridge to get a glimpse of the action and wish these games farewell.
On that note I will sign off these short scribblings on what has been a simply wonderful 16 days. It has been so refreshing to see the ever pervading cynicism wash away from the capital as the world poured in. London has done itself proud. I can't wait until Rio!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Olympics 11: Taekwando

High kicks, shouts, punches, reverse kicks, screeches, flying kicks and knock downs. Taekwondo is an exciting martial art to spectate. No Brits in action, so the big match for us was a Greece vs Turkey grudge match in the heavyweight division.

The fighters have three rounds to score the most points. One point for a punch or kick to the body, two for a reverse kick to the body, three for a kick to the head and four for a reverse kick to the head. All these possibilities to attack and therefore defend often lead to quite conservative contests. Each fighter weighing the other up, circling, testing with half attacks, but rarely going full out. So the Eastern Mediterranean derby proved. To our disappointment the Turk edged it against the former Olympic silver medallist from Greece.

I would say two thirds of fights were similarly low-scoring affairs but the rest were crackers.  All it took was a couple of high scoring head shots by one of the fighters for the fight to explode into flying kick action as the other fighter was forced onto the attack. One particular fight between a Slovenian and a Kazakh lady was fantastic. The lead must have changed hands six times. It is amazing how flexible and fast the athletes were, the Kazakh drawing level at 16-16 with the last kick of the final round. In sudden death the Slovenian managed to evade her opponent and score the winning kick. Pure elation as she punched the air while the Kazakh fell to the floor in desperation. The razor sharp edge between success and failure is what draws us into such contests.
If I had any flexibility at all I would be tempted to take up this sport (my kung fu instructor told me I was one of the least flexible people he had ever met...). As well as being a high tempo flurry of high-kicking action, it has an interesting Korean heritage. It is great to see they have retained much of this as the sport has spread across the world (there was a fight between Gabon and Samoa!),  the judgements and instructions being kept in Korean. Once you have worked out your chungs from your hongs, you have invested enough mental energy to be sucked into this fascinating martial art. Yet another more minor sport that the Olympics publicises and spreads around the world.
As the morning went on the crowd got more and more into the contest, culminating in the only Jamaican lad being spontaneoulsy cheered on by one and all with "JAMAICA, JAMAICA" ringing around the arena. He was clearly inspired by this fervant backing and so nearly clawed back a major deficit against a giant Chinese fighter. Unfortunatley it was not to be, but he still walked out with a huge grin as the crowd took to their feet the cheer him off. 

Before I knew it another great session of Olympic action was over. We stepped away from the Excel centre for the last time very satisfied and a little less ignorant.

Olympics 10: ATHLETICS

A very special evening. One of those rare times in life when you know, with complete certainty, that there is nowhere you would rather be on earth then exactly where you are. The Olympic stadium for an evening of athletics finals.
From the moment we won the tickets in the draw, this was the event that we were waiting for. Expectation had been building and building. Running out of work, jumping on a tube jam-packed with fans, entering the Olympic park, making our way over to the stadium, up the stairs and we were there. With a sigh of heightened expectation I walked into the arena.
A vast, beautiful theatre of sport. Packed to the rafters with expectant fans, the Olympic flame burning and the distinctive triangular floodlights of the stadium crowning it all. We were based half way up the stand by the 200m start line and had a great view of proceedings.

It started and ended with the men's decathlon. First up was the high jump, each success being greeted by a mass cheer. Last up the 400m, with many of the decathletes falling over that finish line after a tough day of competition. Our favourite was Brad Newdick from New Zealand, who has probably overcome much bullying to represent his country. In between was a whole host of running, jumping, hurdling and throwing. Each roared on by 80,000 people. 
There were of course a few events that particularly lit the touchpaper. It was only a semi-final, but the men's 200m was undoubtedly one of these. It was that man. The man. Usain Bolt. As he entered, the crowd erupted. This is a guy who knows it is his place and his time. Smiling, joking with the volunteers, communicating with the enamoured crowd. Stretch, crouch, on your marks, set.... The split second before BANG is the most magical moment of an athletics meet. The expectant audience takes a collective intake of breath, silence rules and thousands of flashes pierce the panorama. Only an instant and it's gone.
In the first 60m Bolt had destroyed the field. By 100m he was noticeably relaxing, by 150m slowing to a jog. Phenomenal. I just feel for the other guys. The only guy who compared was his training buddy and mate, Yohan Blake. He raced just before, similarly destroyed the field and slowed down so fast that he was almost pipped on the line.
As you would expect in London, the atmosphere revved up multiple notches whenever a Brit competed. Flags were raised and GB chants chanted. Shara Proctor in the long jump final, Lisa Dobriskey and Laura Weightman in the 1500m semi, Andy Turner and Lawrence Clarke in the 110m hurdles.
It was the last of these that put in the local performance of the night. Lawrence Clarke exceeded all expectations to make the final of 110m hurdles, so a fourth place in an Olympic final was fantastic and deservedly received a great reception from the crowd. So close to a medal, but we even got a bit of that with British high-jumper Robbie Grabarz receiving his bronze medal from the night before.
The Greek side of me was also delighted to watch a Greek man star in the javelin qualification. Seeing throws and jumps on TV is one thing, but viewing them in the flesh hammers home just close they come to conquering gravity. Spiridon Lebesis exceeded 80m with the javelin.
The night though belonged to the USA. Winner in the women's 200m, women's long jump and men's 110m hurdles. Only the Russians got in on the act, pipping them to the women's 400m hurdles. Each one fast, competitive races and followed up with flag-draped laps of honour. I was particularly impressed by Allyson Felix storming to 200m victory in 21.88 seconds. It was a privilege to witness these athletes reach such heights and join the crowd's outpouring of positive emotion towards them. 

I walked out of the Olympic stadium stuffed full of joy and so proud that my home city could put on such a show. A night at the Olympics athletics and a real dream fulfilled.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Olympics 9: Women's Footie Final

The grudge match. The USA, the most successful team in women's football history, were left in shock by a penalty shoot out defeat to the Japanese in the final of the last world cup. A gold medal was on offer at Wembley and the Americans were out for revenge.
After a bit of a debacle getting into the stadium where a rude Wembley employee prioritised assisting an NBA star over a heavily pregnant woman (the first example of thoroughly unhelpful assistance we have encountered at the games), we walked out into the top tier stand and were greeted by a wonderful scene. Over 80,000 fans to watch a women's match. A world record and great to witness.
There was a real contrast in style between the sides. The Japanese were all about slick smart passing. A real fluidity to their play and a pleasure to watch. The Americans were more about pace and power. Unfortunately, the more rugged approach of the USA gained them an early goal which meant the Japanese were facing a real uphill struggle.

At least half of the crowd were flag waving Americans who basked in their side's early success. I know I have said it before in this blog, but it is a real pity they cannot learn a new chant. After a while "U S A, U S A" does start to grate. That said, they were really up for it and the USA takes a lot of credit for being the driving force behind women's football. There were a good 10,000 Japanese as well. Shouts of "NIPPON, NIPPON" rang around, taken up by the majority of the Brits in the crowd, as always supporting the underdog. The Japanese lady next door to us was so happy when we chanted along with her. This spurred on our already obvious support for the Japanese side to the clear and comical annoyance of the large American on our other side.
Enjoyable as this match was, it could not keep us away from Mr Bolt. We and I would guess a quarter of the stadium congregated under TVs in the refreshment areas at the start of the second half to watch the Jamaica 1-2-3 in the 200m final. An awesome performance from the big man.
While we were gone the USA had added a second and things looked desperate for the Japanese. This was a real test of character as the Japanese had had the better of the first half, hitting the woodwork twice, but were now two behind. What was their response? A goal. The Japanese then pressed on for the equaliser showing real spirit, but it was not to be. The Americans got their way and they retained their Olympic title.
A top evening and a real showcase for the women's game. It puts the half-arsed mostly under-23 men's competition to shame. It has come a long way in a short time and Sepp Blatter tried to grab some of the glory taking part in the presentation ceremony. We had left by then, but I was delighted to hear later that the crowd booed him en masse. The success of women's football has been achieved in spite of rather than because of such backward misogynists.