Wednesday, 1 August 2007

How to get jet-lag from a three hour flight ...

... across one time zone.

It sounds like a tall order I know, but I'm here to assure you it can be done. It's all in the preparation.

First you have to make sure you book an early flight - let's say six forty five am - which means that due to the ridiculous security restrictions you have to arrive at the airport the night before - say four fifteen am.

Then, and this is the clincher, you need to spend the previous sixteen hours drinking heavily, and make sure you get no sleep at all. That way, once you've landed and spent an insane amount of time finding your hostel, you're sure to pass out, sleep through the day and wake up at night, still feeling rough and having become suitably nocturnal.

I know, I know, it sounds a lot to ask, and believe me if I said "Right, today I'm going to spend the equivalent of two working days with my face in a beer, skipping all the major meals and any semblance of sleep" then I would be happily tucked up with a John Grisham before the bartender even had time to shortchange me.

However, if you regularly intone the mantra "I'm going to have one more, then I'm going to bed" you'll soon find yourself looking at your watch and exclaiming "Jes*s, my cab'll be here in five minutes", just as I did. It helps if you vehemently deny any intention to keep drinking whenever challenged, responding "Are you mad? I want to get an early night, I've got a plane to catch!"

It helps if you can arrange to have a load of lads taking advantage of the WIFI facility at the hostel by spending the afternoon listening to Test Match Special on a laptop (I know, travel has changed a lot since the first time I went away, too). It further assists the project if you can get them to start drinking at 10am when play begins, and already be happily on their way when you join them at midday. Of course you should decline the first few offers of drinks, but a few overs of depressingly vicious seam bowling later and you'll find yourself into the beers with the rest of them.

And basically, just don't stop.

So I arrived at the airport in a state that could most accurately be described as 'munted', checked in with difficulty due to the language barrier (the desk clerk spoke perfect English, but I was thinking in fluent Drunken-ese), managed to get through security despite swearing black was white that I was never given a boarding pass (the security officer merely pointed to it, since it was sticking out of my pocket at the time) and somehow boarded the plane without breaking any major limbs. I'm really not sure how all this happened, since it's all a bit of a blur.

I was given the window seat in the very last row despite the plane being only half full, and I'm willing to believe this is standard procedure for anyone that turns up at the airport wearing parfum de brewery like I did. You could see the expression on the faces of the flight attendants change as they made the long walk back from the last row of civilised passengers to my hellish corner of boozed up nonsense.

Over the course of the flight I sobered up somewhat, and found myself increasingly paranoid that I'd boarded the wrong plane ("Just please let it be going to Peru", I was praying to myself "even if it lands in a different city") and I became increasingly concerned about where my luggage might end up since I had no recollection of what happened to it. I could imagine myself explaining my potential difficulties to a bemused Brazilian airport employee, and when faced with the question "How did you end up in Sao Paolo? Your ticket says Lima" I would have to reply shamefacedly "I have no idea, I was drunk at the time".

Anyway, I somehow managed to get where I wanted - I had a strange desire to finish the trip in Lima despite not being impressed with the place the first time round. This time, though, I know that I'd rather chew off my own kneecap than visit Centro, so I've spent all my time in Miraflores and Barranca (the good bits) in order to gain what I believe the Oprah watchers amongst us would call closure. It's nice to finish this trip where I started, because all the alien and unfamiliar things that freaked me out way back in January (like, Peruvians) seem positively quaint and endearing now, I'm so travel-hardened and cosmopolitan. ;-)

So this will be my last email from South America, but hopefully I'll be seeing everyone either at a wedding or in a London pub very soon.

Alpaca to the sauce

Nathan

ps This mail has gone out to a limited distribution list. Specifically, I haven't sent it to my mum because she tends to worry and I don't like to give her any more nightmares than is absolutely necessary.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

So cold even my thermometer's stopped working

It seems that the Chilean government want to get more US dollars into the economy, because there is a new law that says if you pay for anything with dollars you don't have to pay the purchase tax.
Eating here is expensive by Latin American standards (I just paid a fiver for a sandwich and a couple of cups of coffee, and you could eat for a week on that in Bolivia) but most other things are pretty cheap, and once you knock off that 19% tax you can get some real bargains.

With my customary powers of foresight, though, I changed all my dollars for pesos on arrival, getting a laughably bad rate of exchange in the process, because I didn't want to arrive in the capital with no spending money. I still haven't been properly robbed yet, but that double whammy really felt like it.

However, I also haven't been sick yet, either, so I have a lot to cram in to my last few weeks.
I've made it over the Andes once again, braving the snowstorms in my nice air conditioned bus ride to Santiago, and am now in Puerto Varas in Chilean Patagonia. Although the road was impassable for trucks due to the heavy snow, my bus had barely a slip or a slide through the narrow passes. From what I hear the weather's been worse back home than it is here, though, so I hope everyone's well and hasn't suffered too much from the flooding.

Meanwhile I'm making a daring raid on deepest, coldest Patagonia, in the hope that the weather gods are distracted by concentrating on ruining a perfectly good English summer. As long as no-one does anything stupid to alert them, like emailing a whole load of people telling them of the sneaky plan, all should be fine. Uh-oh ...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

I've been told that this is the coldest year in Latin America since records began

I think records began five minutes before I arrived, though, with meteorologists saying "One of the Lawrence clan is on his way over, get the hurricane shelters ready".

One day I'm going to go somewhere and be told that it's the hottest, dryest weather they've ever had. It'll be a desert, let's face it, or I'll have gone there to go kayaking in the now dried up rivers, but it's going to happen.

On the plus side I have made it as far south as Bariloche in Patagonia, and it's gorgeous. Really, truly stunning, even in the snow. I have modest hopes of making it further south in the time remaining, so I'll be making regular sacrifices to the Latin weather gods from here on in. Where's that bl00dy goat gone?

On Sunday I watched the Copa America final in a bar in town. I'd eschewed the offer of watching it in the living room of the guy who runs the hostel, with the crate of beer he'd prepared especially, in order to soak up a bit of the atmosphere for such a big game. I got there nice and early and secured a great spot, and all was looking good until a crowd of Brazilian girls arrived five minutes after kick-off, stood right in front of me and promptly started comparing earrings. They weren't very tall, but they were all wearing three inch heels, and they didn't look particularly interested in the game - though from their animated gestures and exaggerated movements I got the impression that their jewellery was fascinating. Before too long a crowd of body builders snaked up and stood around them. They didn't look like they had the mental capacity to look rugged and follow the match at the same time, but from the backs of their shoulders they seemed quite interested in the girls' accessories.

Unable to see too much, I spent most of the second half mentally inventing a scanner that rates a person's interest in the match as they walk into a bar, with 100 being a genuine fan of one of the teams involved, and 0 being 'ooh, is there a game on?'. Anyone scoring less than 10 (willing to push past to go the toilet at the exact moment a free kick is being taken) would be refused admittance, and anyone scoring under 5 ('I thought it would be a good place to pick up') would be immediately electrocuted, dissolved into their component atoms and recycled as Man United shirts.

I think it'll catch on.

Anyway, from what I could see it was a thoroughly one sided drubbing as Brazil beat Argentina 3-0. It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for an Argentinian football fan (must ... stop ... mentioning the hand of God - oh no, I did it again!) but I very nearly managed it as their local rivals were lording it over them in huge style. Imagine, only ever having won two world cups, the very shame. As well, in all the games I've seen Argentina have looked every inch the part, whereas Brazil spluttered and stuttered their way through and were lucky to make the final at all, so to see them outclass the opposition was something of a surprise. Poor old Argentina.

I'll soon be off to Chile, the last country I'll be visiting this trip, so I'll send you my usual balanced and fact-based reportage when I get there.

All the best

Nathan

ps
Some of you may remember that a few months ago I sent an email complaining thus:
"The other day I got caught in the Cusco rain (I'm here during the rainy season, the clue's in the title), slipped over on a wet cobblestone and hurt my back."

I recently raised this little mishap in a conversation about silly and embarrassing accidents and a Canadian medical student I'd just met took a keen interest in the case. After I'd explained my symptoms (difficulty sitting down and standing up, sheer agony every time I laughed, coughed or sneezed, and the inability to get out of bed without rolling sideways and crawling on all fours) plus the duration they lasted (I was still feeling twinges a couple of months later) he was adamant that I must have fractured a rib, without actually breaking it.

Now I want you to forget for a moment that I did this falling on my backside in a public street, during the early afternoon, and concentrate instead on the fact that I mountain biked down the Death Road, went whitewater rafting, did the Inca Trail and even used The Clash lyrics* to teach English to the future tour guides of Latin America, all with a fractured rib. Probably.

* 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go?', demonstrating 'should' and 'if ... then ...' conditional statements.

All's healed up nicely now, and I know it's not exactly Bertie Trautmann finishing the FA Cup Final with a broken neck, or Suart 'Psycho' Pearce trying to run off a factured leg, but believe me, if I'd known this at the time I would have complained a lot more loudly, and considerably more often, than I actually did. Which was, to be honest, quite a bit.

pps
Sorry about the last mail, which prompted a couple of "I was eating at the time ..." complaints, and was rejected by quite a few Questionable content filters. All clean, wholesome and above board from now on.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

I think I've just made the world's fastest trip to Paraguay

More for the stamp in the passport than anything else. Most people skip it, and according to the Foreign Office the whole country only receives about a hundred and fifty visitors from the UK every year. Having now been there myself, I'm quite surprised it's that many - the place sucks @rse like a five dollar wh0re. The statistics don't record how many people wish they hadn't bothered, but it shares one border with Brazil and another with Argentina, and on first impressions I found myself thinking that if these two countries decided to start a war to seize territory and wipe Paraguay off the face of the map, I would probably chip in a tenner for the war effort.

Obviously on mature consideration I reconsidered such rash and hasty thinking, and decided fifty quid would be more appropriate.

I'm willing to be contradicted by anyone that's spent time there and really gotten to know the place, especially by anyone that visited the North (where I couldn't summon the life force to go), but really I felt that that I'd rather get to know Josef Mengeler.

So my passport records that I entered on the ninth and left on the tenth, and in between spent a considerable amount of my valuable leisure time staring out of a bus window at the dull and uninspiring landscape, trying hard to ignore the fact that the girl next to me was being repeatedly, violently and above all copiously sick.

Yet who would have thought the young girl to have had so much barf in her?

If the human body really is over sixty percent water as the scientists tell us, then I reckon this señorita was at least another twenty percent nausea.

After a couple of hours of this, during which time I gave a few sympathy retches myself, the conductor came to remonstrate with her and sent her to the toilet at the back of the bus. She didn't return for the rest of the journey. Then he placed a tea-towel sized cloth over the heap, sprayed some disinfectant on it and warned me to be careful where I put my feet. Such advice was hardly necessary as I already had my bag on my lap and my feet up against the seat in front, uneasily and constantly aware of the spreading, sliding, growing mound of ooze below.

Later, when a frail and delicate old lady went to sit down in the empty seat I panicked and tried to alert her to the situation. I guessed the word 'vomito' correctly, which was lucky since this particular piece of vocabulary hasn't featured in any of my rudimentary Spanish efforts thus far, but instead of 'cuidado' meaning 'careful', I blurted out 'ciudad', which means 'city'. So my attempted 'mind the vomit' warning ('cuidado del vomito') could probably best be translated as 'city of the vomit'.

Which, to be fair, wasn't too bad a description of what lurked beneath her sandled feet.

Mind you, by the time the poor, confused old dear had trodden in it, slipped a bit and spread it around the floor while attempting to regain her balance, it was far more a suburban sprawl of sick, a Milton Keynes of regurtitation, if you will.

When it finally came time to leave the bus, only an hour later than scheduled, the stepover I did to avoid it would have made Ronaldo proud.

I'm now back in Argentina, a country I'm almost ashamed to like as much as I do. I'm currently in a pretty little city called Rosario.

It does mean that once again the Falklands are raised in every conversation I ever have with the locals, who seem to feel the loss surprisingly keenly since as far as I'm aware they're just some rocks with sheep on. They don't do themselves any favours mind, since they include them on all maps of the country and spray 'The Falklands are ours' slogans on walls - full marks for patriotism there, but minus ten for accurate grasp of reality. Whenever an Argentine brings it up, I refer them to Maradona's hand of God goal. In terms of the scale of global injustice, invasion and nearly two hundred years of occupation by the British set against one blatant World Cup hand-ball, I think we're just about even.

I have however brought with me the coldest weather the place has seen for nigh on ninety years ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6286484.stm), and the snow looks to have put paid to my plans to visit Patagonia. This is probably for the best, since I'm a complete big girl's bottom when it comes to the cold ... and rain ... and strong winds ... in fact, even a light mist is enough to seriously discombobulate me, so the logic of visiting one of the coldest inhabited regions on Earth during their winter was always questionable at best. If I'd had a well thought out plan - let's face it, if I'd had any sort of plan at all - I would have started off there.

Still, it gives me the excuse to come back one day and discuss the ownership of the Falklands some more.

All the best

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Buenos Aires blues

I'm bored of Buenos Aires now, and desperate to head off, so this afternoon I'm on a bus to the Iguazu Falls, which are supposed to be amazing.

However, I saw my favourite typo ever in a hostel the other day, a sign in the dorm saying "Please do not turd on the lights while the others people are sleeping".

Speaking as an others person myself, I'd really rather you didn't turd on the lights while I was awake either. Just if it's all the same to you, old boy.

Anyway, being as I'm such an others person, I just made some new friends in my hostel. An English couple asked me over breakfast what I was planning to do that morning, and I made the mistake of telling them I was heading up to a famous street in La Boca.

"That's a good idea", the girl said, "We'll join you".

"Are you ready to go?" I asked.

"Yes, I just need to go and get changed".

This was, of course, that particular interpretation of the word 'ready' that some people have that means 'not ready at all'.

A few minutes later, when she toddled back, she told me her boyfriend was in the shower. I looked at my watch pointedly and she ambled off. Shortly afterwards she returned with a Brazilian guy, who she said wanted to join us.

"Good idea", I said, "let's make it a party".

After only a bit more pointless waiting around everyone was finally ready (according to my definition of the term) and I got my city map out.

"No need", said the girl. "I know where we're going, I asked for directions".

It took less time to get lost than I'd spent waiting in the hostel reception.

The problem hinged on the fact that we were supposed to take a turning after a local landmark called "The Yellow House". We were definitely on the right road, and we thought we were roughly in the right place, but where the yellow house should have been was a rather non-descript looking block of flats.

On the other side of the road, however, was a large, prominent building set on about an acre of land, painted (and this was the clincher for me) a bright and luminous yellow.

When I mentioned for about the third time that I believed this to be the place, I was firmly shot down.

"But Nathan", the girl said, "It's on the wrong side of the road"

"Yes, Emily", I replied with as much equanimity as I could muster, "Maybe the guy was wrong. Maybe you heard wrong. Or maybe you happened to ask some useless f*ckwit who doesn't know their left from their right".

I filled the silence that followed by saying "Well, I'm going this way" and strode across the road, but to my chagrin the others followed.

After we'd found the street, which was of course behind the yellow house, and took a few photos, we decided to take a spot of lunch in a charming little place called the Palace of the Fried Potato ("El Palacio de la Pata Frita").

I ordered a beer with mine, and when it came to the Brazilian guy's turn to order the waiter asked him what he wanted to drink.

"I'll share the beer" he answered.

This was news to me, and while I was trying to formulate an appropriately polite response in Spanish, something along the lines of 'if you so much as look at my beer in a funny way I shall rip off your testicles and beat you to death with your own scrotum' ('si usted tan mucho como ...'), English John chimed in with "Let's get two to share".

"No", I said, "I'll get a beer and you can get your own".

There was a brief moment, then the other guys decided to split a beer. Later, when John mentioned that he was out of beer, and then said a few seconds later that he was still thirsty, I suggested they order another one. This option wasn't even discussed.

When the Brazilian asked me flat out if he could have some of my beer, a lesser man might have weakened ('what is this, dinner at the tight-@rse cafe?'), but I stuck to my guns.

"No", I simply said.

Then conversation turned to our plans for the afternoon, but this time I was ready. First I asked everyone else what they were thinking of doing, then said I was going to do something else. On the other side of town. In a different space-time continuum.

I also think I made some friends in the street the other night. I was walking along, it was dark but not too late, and a couple of local lads were right behind me. There was something about them I didn't like, so I stopped, crossed the road and studied the goods on dislay in the nearest shop window.

They carried on walking, and just as I was starting to think I'd imagined it (besides, none of those dresses would have suited me), they stopped on the corner of the street to admire the elegant contours and sleek lines of a parked volvo.

I looked at them long enough that I'd remember their faces if I saw them again, then headed off back in the direction I'd just come. They were both tall but skinny, so I wasn't sure how much of a problem I'd be in if they followed me, but I felt I'd rather not chance it.

Thankfully they didn't turn after me, they continued down the road away from me, and everything was all right after all.

Phew.

I've just come back from a visit to the stadium of Arsenal de Sarandi, a team from the province of Buenos Aires, but just outside the city itself. I'm trying to cure myself of my addiction to buying football shirts (honestly, I can handle it), but I had to get this one.

All the best

Friday, 29 June 2007

As much Art Deco as you can eat

I've just been to Uruguay, the hosts and winners of the very first world cup.Not that they go on about it much, with the commemorative t-shirts, replica trophies and other assorted merchandise on sale on every street corner. While there I had a depressing vision of what England will be like in 2066, if we still haven't won anything else by then.

It's a relaxed and charming place, though, with a predominantly 1930's theme to the decor - and since that's when prosperity last paid the Uruguayans an extended visit, I wasn't sure whether it represents retro-chic or that was just the last time they could afford to decorate.

I'm now back in Buenos Aires, and am almost embarassed to admit how much I'm enjoying being in Argentina. I'd strongly recommend it for a visit, though there's one particular sports shop in the centre of town which is covered in four foot high photographs of Maradona's Goal of the Century against England in 1986 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rW-lK9F6TU). There's photos of him strolling past Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid, past someone that is apparently Terry Fenwick (forgive my slack memory), beating the lunges of Ray Wilkins and Terry Butcher, and then finally rounding Shilton and shooting. As a true born Englishman I'm not sure whether to applaud his skill or set fire to the city, but I can't help wishing he'd scored that goal (and the other one - you know the one I mean) against Germany so I could appreciate it's magnificence without grinding my teeth.

They love Maradona here, warts and c0caine ravaged nose and all. I'm told most Argentinians own DVDs of his 200 greatest ever goals, and several restaurants have signed Maradona shirts on the wall. I bet he never had to pay for a meal here in his life.

I'm also appreciating the little things, like the fact that the male toilets here are labelled "caballeros". There's something so swashbuckling about that word that I find myself swaggering a little as I enter every men's room. Obviously the wine is good and cheap (I might have mentioned that before, forgive my slack memory), and I've been to see River Plate to add to my Boca Jrs veteran-hood (and like a true football fan wh0re I have both shirts and wear them alternately, akin to wearing both Man Utd and Man City shirts in Manchester). I even watched a tango show in which some people danced, some of them wearing suits, and some red dresses. It was great. I think the ones in suits were men and the dresses women, but the lights were dimmed and I've heard stories.

I've also hooked up with the Aussies again, and am enjoying such weighty intellectual conversation as "If you were a cannibal, which part of the body would be your favourite cut?" and "If you had a death ray, which nation would you enslave and why?". Take away a few inches of waistline and add a few inches of hair and I could almost be back at college.

Other than that no real news from me, but I'll be heading up to the Iguazu Falls as soon as I get myself together to organise the trip.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

"Aconcagua is the highest peak in the world outside Asia"

"... and offers breathtaking trekking experiences for everyone from beginners to advanced climbers."

blah blah

"Equipment: During the winter season (June - August) you should bring a tent capable of withstanding one hundred mile per hour winds, and clothing and sleeping gear suitable to temperatures below minus forty degrees centigrade."

Ooh look, here's a leaflet for a wine tour.

Personally I love trekking (it's what you call walking when backpackers do it), but when the promotional literature uses phrases such as "100mph winds" and "below -40 degrees C", at fifty dollars US a day, the words that come to my mind are "f*ck" and "that". These are the times that us hardened international travelers like to feel the fear and go straight back to bed. Fortunately Mendoza is also the wine growing capital of Argentina, so there's plenty for me to do. Not that I've taken the soft option, either - some of those Semillon Chardonnays can be positively treacherous for the inexperienced.

Yes, as you've probably realised, I've left the Land of God and entered the Land of the Hand of God (never forgive, never forget). From Rio to Buenos Aires, then a four day jaunt to Mendoza (bottles of wine consumed: 6; treks completed: 0; treks attempted: 0; treks even seriously considered after reading the brochure: 0) and now I'm back in BA.

It's been a real culture shock - not just because all Argentinians are dirty cheats (never forgive, never forget), and not just because in Buenos Aires they know what winter really means, whereas a winter's day in Rio means almost uninterrupted sunshine and a thermometer in the high twenties. We could do with more summers like that, quite frankly.

It's because Buenos Aires is so incredibly familiar - to look at the architecture, the cafes, shops and bars, even the people, this city could be anywhere in Northern Europe, the mediterranean, or even some of the more civilised parts of the US.


They do integrate some of the traditional aspects of Latin American culture, such as the fact that a large supply of small coins is a vital requirement for everyday life, and yet change is incredibly difficult to get hold of and near impossible to keep. A shopkeeper will vehemently deny that they are able to change any note of greater value than about one pound fifty, but after fifteen or twenty minutes of alternate pleading, cajoling and threatening you get them to grudgingly accept that they might be able to give you correct change after all, and they open a drawer that looks like a vault of Fort Knox, stuffed full of gleaming coins. I'm sure the woman at the bus station had gold sovereigns, doubloons and pieces of eight in her change drawer that she'd jealously hoarded since the Spanish invasion - and I may be wrong, but I thought I saw the profile of a distinctly roman nose on one of the little silver ones.

There are also some things that are just strange. For instance, in most places when you ask for the bill, they'll tell you how much your meal cost. Fifty nine fifty, they'll say. Okay, you reply, show me some documentary evidence that the price of what I consumed amounts to that sum and maybe I'll believe you. I'll tell you what, why not write down a list of the things I ordered and the corresponding values in a column on one side? Why not add a total to the bottom? That way I can be sure the money I give you is correct. In my country, we call this a bill.

A lot of menus in Brazil were strange, but I forgot to tell you about it. In the northeast in particular, what was written on the menu bore little or no relationship to the food that was actually available. Once I was given a hand-written piece of paper, scanned it quickly, and asked for the only option that appealed to me. "We don't have that", came the reply. I looked again, and selected something that I didn't really want but was willing to accept. "We don't have that either" was the response. "What do you have?" I enquired, politely as I could. "Chicken" the waitress said. I looked down. Chicken wasn't on the menu. "Why have you given me this piece of paper?" I asked. "Que?", she said.

Probably my favourite example was in Manaus, in one of those classy establishments where they have the menu nailed to the wall. Above the lengthy list of options, written across three pieces of blackboard, was a single piece of paper, upon which was written "we have soup" in a childish scrawl. Initially I assumed that this was a proud but last minute addition to the restaurant's repertoire, but a short conversation was enough to establish that the menu was simply a guide to what the chef would serve in an ideal world, no more. What they actually had was soup. No flavour in particular, just soup.

I'm currently in a hostel with a gas heater that can't be switched off. I'm free to choose either of the two settings, 'Oven' or 'Furnace', but I can't stop the thing throwing out heat. Even in this cold weather, in order to make the room even vaguely habitable I have to put the air conditioning on full blast, all the time, and open the windows. So look no further for the cause of the hole in the ozone layer, it's me, right here in BA.


All the best from your eco-friendly chum

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Friday night clubbing in Ipanema

I did that. It was me, that was. Clubbing. In Ipanema. In Rio.

It didn't look too promising initially, since I'd only arrived that morning and hadn't slept at all the night before. I also couldn't check into the hostel for about five hours and had to hang around in my sweaty clothes when all I wanted to do was sleep, and by the evening I was exhausted and was about to go to bed. However, I was convinced that it was a sin to miss out on a Friday night out in Rio, so I dragged my carcass out of the hostel.

The evening was spent listening to loud music in a hot and sweaty room and paying far too much for drinks - so totally unlike anything I've ever experienced, except for the last five hundred times I've been out anywhere in the world.

Okay, maybe the dancing was of a marginally superior standard to the average Hoxton hangout (in the same way that winning the lottery would be marginally more welcome than losing a limb), and there's certainly no minimum clothing rule for the Brazilian women, but it was still not the near-religious experience I was led to believe.

To be honest, I got a little bit bored. Fortunately one of the rooms downstairs was showing the Botafogo game live, so the evening wasn't a total right-off.

Still, that's me - wouldn't know a good time if it samba'd right past me. And of course I will be starting every story I tell from now on with the words "Yeah, that reminds me of the time I was clubbing in Ipanema ..."

By far the best parties in Rio, as far as I'm concerned, are held in the Maracana stadium, where a game of football is merely an excuse for a party. The sun rising in the morning is an excuse for a party in Brazil, and when it sets in the evening that's merely a cue to pick up the pace, but a football match is a big deal.

I went to see Fluminense beat Sport 3-0, ninety minutes of good attacking football from both sides, and the atmosphere was like nothing else I've seen. It was a standard league game, but you'd have thought it was the world cup final from the way the crowd behaved. They have drumming bands in the crowd and chants you can actually dance to, so I shook my hips more at the game than I did in the club the other night.

Of course I'm now a huge Flu fan, but it was just luck of the draw - if any of the other teams had been playing at home this weekend I would now be wearing their strip and raving about their fluent attacking play, I'm sure. Unless it was Flamengo scum, us hardcore Fluminense supporters hate them.

Other than that I've been to Copacabana, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf mountain, and spent a lot of time hanging out on the beach in Ipanema.

Yeah, I know, it's dreadful being me. :-)

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Salvador - it's the energy centre of the new paradigm

According to an incredibly loud American I overheard in an internet cafe. I have no idea what that means, but fortunately I don't think he does either.

He was also doing some telephone banking that day - his Bank of America account number is 52017941 and his mother's maiden name is Rogers*.

* these details have been changed to protect the f*ckwitted, but some people seriously deserve to be robbed.

Anyway, even in low season Salvador seems a vibrant and friendly city, with random dancers and drummers in the streets every evening, along with the legions of beggars, trinket sellers, drug dealers and prostitutes. They're pleasant enough, but persistent. Despite their strong and unwavering convictions, I find that I really don't want to buy a bead necklace or a cowboy hat with the Brazilian flag on the front, and I'm pretty confident I shall never develop an interest in peacock feather earrings. Sometimes no really does mean no, in English or Portuguese, and the guy that offered us coc@ine seven times in one day ("What, you *still* don't want any!? You guys are loco!") should come to terms with that.

We're staying in the old quarter of town, which is all cobbled streets, colonial buildings and steep hills, and stands in stark contrast to the new town of skyscrapers and flat concrete down at the harbour. The other night we ended up at an evening mass for a few minutes, and I was able to admire the interior of one of the grand and stately churches for the first time. It was very nice if you like that sort of thing, a series of obscenely large walls with gold on.

I didn't understand much of what was said in the service, but the gist seemed to be that we were all thanking God for his tireless work in the past and very much wishing him well for the future, which gave the whole thing something of the tone of a retirement presentation. I was expecting any minute for someone to appear with a gold watch in a presentation case, but fortunately we left the church before my heathen thoughts brought down His pipe and slippered wrath on our heads.

At some ungodly hour in the early morning / middle of the night we fly to Rio. Gulp. I'm told that today is a public holiday and everything kicks off, so we'll probably leave Salvador just as the party starts and touch down in Rio, exhausted and bedraggled, as it really gets going.

I think it could be much, much worse.

Monday, 4 June 2007

The rain gods have caught up with me at last

After a blistering start to my time in Brazil, the deluge has begun. Everybody's stunned, they don't know what's going on, they've never seen weather like it at this time of year, blah, blah, blah, yeah, yeah, yeah, heard it all before. Pretty much everywhere I've ever been, in fact.

Still, it's not raining all day, and as long as you avoid the faintly disgusting and thoroughly dodgy cities, the east coast of Brazil appears to be one long series of stunning and beautiful beaches. Even in the tropical rain it's a pretty cool place to be, especially if you're drinking as many caipirinhas as I am.

Since I'd never heard of it myself until a few weeks ago, I'll just tell you that a caipirinha is a drink made with cachasa (a local cane spirit), fresh lime, loads of ice and enough sugar to make a dentist reach for his favourite drill. It's cool, refreshing, incredibly strong and sweet enough to set your teeth on edge, then come round and smash them with a hammer.

My only real other news is that the other day I swam with a bottlenose dolphin. Not the tame, fed from a boat kind, but a real dolphin that swam in from the ocean, took a couple of turns up and down the beach, and then came to check me out. He swam about three metres away for a while, then seemed to give a little dolphin wave and headed back out to sea. It was awesome.

This evening I'll be flying to Salvador, cheaper than the bus and much, much faster.

More bulletins as events warrant.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

I know it's not a race

... but I'd hate to come second.

I'm currently in Jericoacoara (
http://www.gobrasil.net/images/CE-jericoacoara02-300.jpg), a town I've only just learnt how to spell. It's a beautiful little beachfront resort that very few people seem to have heard of, though maybe they just can't spell it either. There are very few tourists here, but the place is so lovely I imagine it'll become a major destination soon enough.

I'm with a couple of Aussies and a French couple, and we were tipped off about Jericoacoacoacoacoara by a Portuguese guy we met - he was travelling with his Brazilian wife by motorbike across Latin America, starting off by following the Che Guevara route from The Motorcycle Diaries.

He had sponsorship and everything - mainly in the form of motorbike spares and tyres that were too big and bulky for him to bring. You can read his blog at
http://www.rotacheguevara.blogspot.com/ , as long as you can read Portuguese. He has a photo of the boat to Belem on it (http://bp3.blogger.com/_FS73odwlkDc/Rkc6Qz0_l8I/AAAAAAAAAdk/O5D3OlfXsj0/s1600-h/DSC00158.JPG ), and you can see a tiny sliver of my red and yellow hammock just above the head of the boy in red. I must have been in the bar at the time, or attempting to hang myself from the back of the boat by a string of spaghetti.

It's fantastic to be here after the boat trip, but I seem to have picked up a cold. This is irritating, especially because the temperature only drops below thirty at night here so it can make a really determined assault on forty the next day. Having the sniffles seems somehow inappropriate, but it's not a bad place to recuperate, especially since the company is good.

For the most part the entertainment has been provided by a guy we met in Sao Luis. He was Israeli, but that's in no way relevant to the story. I merely mention it in order to provide a little local colour.

He'd already irritated me once that day. I'd tried to be friendly to him in the hostel and he blanked me completely as he was with some friends. So when he came up to us (alone) while we were having lunch and asked if we'd mind if he joined us, I said "Yes". Unfortunately this was treated as a joke and the Aussies told him to sit down and make himself comfortable.

He then proceeded to annoy them by complaining loudly about the food, both in terms of quality and cost - it was all you could eat for two pounds fifty. This was right in front of the English speaking owner, thus undoing all the good work we'd done in befriending him. As Aussie Jim said later "I gave him a chance and he let me down"

It was a few more minutes before he offended the French couple, though. The owner was from France, too, and they got chatting to him for quite a while. Mr Isreal was sitting next to them, and when the owner spoke to him en français the tone in which he said "What, do I f*cking look French?!" would have had Job spitting out his dummy and throwing his toys out of the pram.

Over lunch he explained to us in great detail how disastrous his trip had been, because the universe simply wasn't built to his exacting specifications. "What's been your favourite so far?" asked Aussie Jim. "Nothing, really" he replied. "How long have you got left?" enquired Aussie Mick. "Four months, but it's too long, I want to go home now" was the response, which was met with silence, though I reckon we were all thinking the same thing.

I like to think I'm not a bad whinger myself but I'm a mere dabbler next to this guy, who'd turned whining into such an art form he could have exhibited some of his better works in the National Gallery.

He'd just come back from Jericoacoacoacoacoacoacoacoacoacoara himself, and he didn't like it because it was too busy. Honestly, there's about a dozen people here, and on the kilometer long stretches of beautiful sandy beach yesterday you could just about make out the hazy image of a lone windsurfer in the distance.

He also complained that "there were too many bars and restaurants". I don't know about you, but I hate that in a town. It was particularly rich, too, because he'd already complained that there was only one restaurant in Sao Luis. Judging from the fact that we've found seven here, I think four is his ideal concentration of eateries in any one location.

After listening to a few lifetimes of this I was about to head up to the smokers' end of the table, preferring the possibility of lung cancer to the inevitability of brain death, when things picked up a bit.

It turned out that he'd already visited a few of the same places we had, including a place called Sorata in Bolivia. You may remember that I was less than complimentary about the welcome afforded to tourists in that country*, but it's a beautiful part of the world and I have the photos that completely fail to prove it.

* I think I might have used the phrase "they're a bunch of miserable lying toads", and if I didn't then I should have

While we were discussing Sorata, to which the Israeli judges awarded nil points, Aussie Mick asked him "Did you visit the underwater lagoon?"

I must admit I spent a couple of seconds thinking "underwater lagoon? how does that work? where was that?" before I got it, and Mick was continuing "Oh yeah, it's the most beautiful place I've ever been, it was incredible".

I think Aussie Jim caught on round about the same time I did, because he started waxing lyrical about other fictitious places no-one should have missed, and between us we spent some considerable time describing a kind of fantasy South America that after a while I wished I'd visited myself. It sounded a lot better than the trip I'd had.

Which was of course the point.

My favourite part of this conversation was:
Aussie Mick - "Did you visit the pygmy village?"
Israel - "Pygmy village?"
Aussie Mick - "It was incredible. It's a tiny place in the jungle, and it's been untouched by human civilisation for thousands of years"
Israel - "Was it easy to get to?"
Aussie Mick - "Yeah, they run tourist buses out there three times a day"

Class.

Once we'd exhausted that reserve, we enquired about his future plans and were delighted to discover that he was heading back the way we'd come. After recommending some dodgy hostels and smelly boats, we started advising him on the prices to pay, insisting we'd paid about half of what we did for everything and telling him that he had to haggle more or they'd rip him off. So, having set him up for a few weeks of aggravation, we left.

Maybe it was a little unfair, but I enjoyed it. The best was yet to come, though, because in his honour we launched an unofficial whinging competition that lasted for several days.

We took a trip to a small desert nearby, which had a series of rainwater lagoons in the middle of the white sand. It was lovely, but we spent the entire time complaining, tongues firmly in cheek. Mostly it was the usual kind of thing, "These dunes are too sandy", "This lagoon is too wet", etc, but I took the lead in the bar that night. We were having cocktails to celebrate Aussie Mick's birthday, and after taking a sip of a surprisingly good rum and coconut milk concoction, served in a real coconut, I said in my most plaintive voice "These drinks are too nice", which went down very well.

However, Aussie Mick nailed it shortly afterwards as we sat with more cocktails watching the sun set over the beach (which was perfectly dreadful, as I'm sure you can imagine).

As the sun turned a particularly intense shade of orange, lighting the horizon with red fire and turning the sea to gold, Mick took a sip of his caipirinha and said

"It's not very disappointing, is it?"

Sometimes you just have to settle for second place.

All the best

Sniffles in Brazil

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

See you in Rio

I just said that to the Dutch couple I met, and it felt like an almost impossibly glamorous and exciting arrangement to make, like "Meet you in the Red Lion at half past eight" but with added international pizzaz.

Sorry, I had to have a slightly smug moment there, because the last few days have been gruelling - almost as bad as being at work, in fact. Maybe it's a hangover from the Manaus aggravation, maybe it's gustatory ennui after spending a fortnight eating pasta, rice and beans every meal, maybe it's claustrophobia due to lying *rse against elbow with a load of sweaty Brazilians on a boat that couldn't accommodate a tenth part of their body odour (Brazilians don't shower much. I think it interferes with their mojo). I don't know what it is, but I've finally come to the conclusion that river boating the length of the amazon has to be considered one of life's great mistakes, like Luton, pickled gerkins and wearing your trousers round your *rsehole so people can see your pants*.

Mind you, by the time you next hear this story it will all have become a fantastic adventure and jolly exciting with it. Time is a great healer, as they say, and blatant lies are pretty useful, too.

* I hope that modern youths are getting married like this. I want them to look back on their wedding photos in thirty years or so, when their brains are fully developed, and say "Why did no-one tell us?"

(Obviously if any of you wear your trousers in this way, it's only a joke. It's a good look. It suits you)

Anyway I have no better way to express the full horror of this recent five day boat trip except to say that on the first afternoon they ran out of beer.

Day one, no beer. Day two ... no beer. Day three ...

Brazilian beer isn't great anyway, to be honest. I can think of many ways they could improve it (avoiding the flavour and aroma of badger urine maybe), but adding some alcohol would be a good start. After you've been drinking solidly for more than three weeks and have consumed the equivalent of about three cans of stella, you start to get some funny ideas on the subject, but I definitely want to tell the breweries here that fermenting some yeast until it actually generates alcohol would be a pretty neat idea.

Because it's so hot they serve it in thimbles as well, which an elderly asthamtic basically inhale in one fairly shallow breath. This enables you to build up a really good relationship with a barman since you'll get to see him every twenty seconds or so. The Brazilian barmen like this, since they view all forms of trade and commerce as impediments to the serious business of flirting, so they try to keep the disruption to a minimum.

Brazilian guy - "Wow, have you finished your beer already?"
Dutch girl - "He's English, remember, this is like water to him"
Me - "I thought it was water"

It might have been hysteria caused by lack of alcohol, it might have been the result of some bad pasta, rice and beans at lunch, but I swear that at one point on the boat I could feel myself sobering up.

Note that my first boat out of Peru didn't even have a bar, and that was okay because we all bought some at the numerous stops. Obviously having a bar with no beer is far worse than having a beer with no bar.

I think this boat was run by the temperance movement, because this time you weren't allowed to bring your own booze, and they'd packed six crates of small beers to supply about seventeen thousand people for four days. Six crates of twelve cans of 300ml of weak beer. That's twenty one point six litres, which is thirty eight pints of beer for the entire boat, for five days. I don't think they ever intended to run a bar, I think that was the first mate's personal stash. Luckily several of us had wisely ignored the bring-a-bottle prohibition and the otherwise undrinkable cane spirit kept us going for a while, but when we stopped for supplies on the third day I think there would have been riots if the ship's captain hadn't bought the entire town's beer supply.

That lasted another couple of hours, I think.

I managed to wangle the first can of the new batch. The barman didn't want to sell any because they were warm and they'd give the drinker indigestion, but I patiently explained to him that I would no longer consider myself an Englishman on the day that I couldn't stomach warm beer.

So I'm now in Sao Luis, on the east coast of Brazil, where the river gives way to the beach, the jungle gives way to surf, and mosquitos make way for ... more mosquitos. At least I'm now out of the malaria zone, or so I'm told by the same kind of people that swore there was no malaria in Brazil anyway.

I think a country admitting to having malaria is equivalent to a school-mum admitting that their child has headlice.

A lot of what you hear about Brazil is myth - for instance, the music is rubbish. I'm sure that there's some great stuff going on in exclusive clubs somewhere, but what the average Brazilian is listening to makes Europop sound like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. They can dance to it, mind, but I think that's a result of the sugar cane alcohol, booze that makes even rocket engines splutter and cough. There may be an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but it's almost all undrinkable filth. I was told the infrastructure was more developed than Peru, but it's now been three weeks since my last hot shower.

Mind you, if there ever was a nation in need of a collective cold shower it's this one.

After all the hype, Brazil really is football mad to an extent that makes England seem like a country that watches the odd match, in between the cricket and the curling tournaments. When Brazilian children are born, they come out practising their goal celebration. When they cry, instead of "Waah!" they scream "Goooooooooooooooooooooooooool!". When they're baptised they're not given a bible, they're given a tiny pair of boots and a copy of the rule book.

And so on.

On the boat we drifted past many a tiny settlement, with three houses, a church and a football pitch. One place we passed consisted of one shack in the middle of the jungle, except that the guy that lived there had cleared enough space beside his hovel for a very well maintained five-a-side pitch, just in case nine of his closest friends dropped by for a kickabout. I pictured him as the kind of person that would complain if a decision went against him, whining "It's my pitch, and you're not playing!" every time he got tackled, though maybe I'm doing him a disservice.

On the boat I watched Flamengo beat Botafoga to win the Brazilia Cup, a 2-2 draw at full time and then straight to penalties. After every goal, everyone watching went crazy, no matter who they were supposed to be supporting. In Belem I watched on TV as Romario scored his thousandth goal and you'd have thought he'd risen from the dead the way they carried on.

Their love of football seems to be so great that some of them even support the England team. I've seen more England shirts here than in anywhere outside England, which almost seems perverse when you have such a heritage to fall back on. Possibly they like the understated charm of our single world cup star compared to their five, or possibly they wear the shirt in an ironic way, as we now watch the TV shows from our childhood - you know they're dreadful but they have a certain naive charm. Perhaps our style of football seems strange and exotic to them - like our dignified unwillingness to run up the pitch, our reluctance to score goals even in penalty shoot-outs, or our gentlemanly habit of hoofing the ball upfield to the opposition whenever we get hold of it.

Although football is clearly the state religion, nominally Brazil is a catholic country. Every business has a picture of a very white and very blond Jesus behind the counter, because the Son of God likes to rip off the gringos as much as anyone. In terms of actual behaviour patterns, however, it's a cross between Dirty Dancing and the Wicker Man, but Brazil has all the charm that Bolivia doesn't, so I'm looking forward to heading down the coast for the next few weeks.

All the best

Nathan

Monday, 14 May 2007

Bem vindos ao Brasil

Bem Vindos, of course, is both leader of the rebel alliance and "welcome" in Portugese.

Portugese, or at least the Brazilian version, is like badly pronounced and ungrammatical Spanish, so I'm having no trouble being understood here - I'm doing better than in the Spanish speaking countries, in fact. For those of you that have never heard it, Portugese sounds a lot like Sean Connery speaking Spanish in a Russian accent.

By rights I should now be out in the jungle, tracking jaguars and wrestling crocodiles. Sadly, there's a strike by the Federal Park Rangers and we couldn't get in - though this didn't stop us spending a day getting deep into the rainforest and then turning round and spending another day coming straight back out.

After three of us (myself and a Dutch couple) spent two and a half hours arguing with the guy who booked the trip, he agreed to a partial refund and turned out his pockets to show a couple of crumpled, small denomination bills. This is all I have, he said. This was late Friday night, and the banks all close for the weekends, though the ATMs work, we reminded him.

The guy kept on complaining about the expenses he'd incurred to organise the trip, how out of pocket he was and it wasn't even his fault, even telling us he wouldn't have anything left to get a mother's day present after giving us all his cash. I may have looked pretty p*ssed off, but inside I was weeping for him, I really was.

At one point he got really aggressive and was squaring up to me, shouting in my face an inch away from my nose. This was sparked because he was insisting that he had no money in the building, and I pointed at the safe and said "Open that, show us there's no money in it, and then I'll believe you". He made a big deal of pretending to call the police, shouting and screaming, and then came across the room as if to hit me. I was almost hoping he would, to be honest, because then things would have gotten really interesting. However, the Dutch girl started crying and the moment passed.

After that he spent ages pretending that he was going to open the safe but being unable to, fetching a girl with another set of keys who was also unable to open the safe, until it just became pathetic to watch and I told them not to bother.
I wanted all of our money back, but in order to get any kind of settlement and get to bed we agreed to split the costs of the trip between us and the agency - after all, there was a note in our contract to the effect that in the event of cancellation due to circumstances beyond their control, they weren't liable to give us anything. I wasn't convinced at the time but the strike is genuine because it's been on the news, so they could have tried to wriggle out of it completely. I was unhappy about this compromise, but was one vote in three.

When we started to break down the costs the guy plucked some random numbers out of the air, even on items we'd seen purchased so knew he was lying, and implausibly high on others - for instance insisting he'd spent 300 Reals on food, which would feed Bernard Manning and a kennel full of rottweilers for about a month over here. This tiresome charade continued for quite a while.

My favourite part of the argument, though, was when I said I didn't believe him about his expenses and he said "Well, maybe I don't believe you, eh, eh?". If he was from the US I believe the phrase he'd have used would have been "So how do you like them apples?". But we're not saying anything, I said.

Eventually we agreed a sum of about two thirds what we'd paid in compensation, and we'd get it in small installments over the weekend. We weren't really convinced we'd get anything, a suspicion not helped in that every time we were supposed to meet him for money he wasn't there.

As I write this we have most of the money he promised, and in about half an hour we're supposed to go back for the rest.

I think that if he wasn't planning to pay us, the turning point came when we turned up at his house on Sunday evening. Ostensibly it was to tell him something about the hotel the Dutch couple were staying in, but really what we were telling him was "We know where you live", and also "We're not going to give up on this", and a little bit "We're going to hassle you until you pay up".

One thing we did manage to get out of the whole debacle was a swim with pink dolphins on the way to the park. There's a family in a small jungle town that have been feeding a family of dolphins for nearly ten years, and now they're tame enough for paying guests to swim with. As long as you feed them fish first.

There were half a dozen of them, and when I got in the water they were all swimming around me, nudging me in the back and being generally playful - and none of them were paying any attention to the other two. However, I was finding it difficult to swim with all those tails, snouts and dorsal fins in my way, and I found myself wanting to say "Do you mind, I'm trying to have a spiritual moment here?"

The woman that runs the place said "They like you, you must have a good spirit", which normally I'd have dismissed as a piece of New Age claptrap and assumed that they were fascinated by me because my swimming technique most closely resembled an animal in distress. In this case, though, I was willing to believe her, until I found myself thinking that the pink dolphin isn't the prettiest member of the dolphin family and on cue all of them swam off to play with the Dutch guy. "You've changed", they seemed to be saying.

Anyway, soon I'll be taking the next boat down the final leg of the Amazon to Belem, from which point I shall be heading South down the coast.

All the best

Nathan (friend of the pink dolphin)

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

End of the rainy season my soggy white @rse

Nobody seems to have told the Columbian rain Gods that the Dry Season should have started by now. Yes, I'm in Columbia, a bit. For a few days at most. There is a three way border between Peru, Columbia and Brazil on the Amazon river and hopping between them is pretty easy. My boat docked at Santa Rosa in Peru, then I took a five minute trip across to Leticia at the southern-most tip of Columbia (where I was told it was the best place to stay) and last night I walked into Tabatinga (wild west Brazil) for a drink.

Now I can say that I've visited Columbia, in the same way someone that's spent a couple of nights in Land's End has visited England.

Originally there were four of us gringos, all from the same inbound boat, but the other three were scared to go to Brazil so they've gone to central Columbia instead (qua?). One of them had her head spinning that she'd been in three different countries in one day, but being a good European this impressed me far less. Been there, done that. I did realise, though, that I had six currencies in my wallet - pesos (Columbia), soles (Peru) and reals (Brazil), plus the near universally accepted dollars, a few quid for a coffee in the airport when I get back, and some leftover euros from New Year's in Athens. G*d, I'm so cosmopolitan. It felt just like travelling in Europe used to. Thank the lord for the Euro - good enough for the foreign johnnies, but not good enough for the Brits.

On Saturday I'll be taking passage on another boat into central Brazil, in preparation for which I've been to the Federal Police station in Tabatinga to get my Brazilian entry stamp done.
The only problem with getting a VISA was that the Brazilian policeman was disappointed that I wasn't from Liverpool - "The Beatles, yes?". I strongly advise anyone that grew up remotely near the Mersey to come to Latin America with a LUFC shirt and a suitcase full of moptop memorabilia - you'd clean up.

As I write this I realise I can now add Brazil to my list of countries that sound like slang for something vaguely saucy when used as a prefix - a Brazilian entry stamp sounds like something you'd have done at a tattoo parlour or body piercing salon, and "I'm having problems with my Brazilian entry" sounds like it requires a visit to the clinic. For coffee here I've had both Columbian roast (which sound like it's dr*gs related) and a Brazilian roast, which sounds like something footballers do in hotel rooms.

My favourite country for this is Holland - Dutch anything sounds thoroughly dodgy. "He's visiting his Dutch cousin", "She's got the Dutch ham out" and "We'll be riding the old Dutch tandem all afternoon", off the top of my head. I encourage you to try it. Next time a friend is buying four cans of guinness (or Stella, or even Strongbow) why not say "Ooh, he's gone for the old Irish (or Belgian, or West Country) four pack there, I see".

Anyway, my favourite place in Columbia has been the restaurant with no menu. You had to just describe to the waiter what you wanted and he'd say if they could make something close. This stumped me, to be honest, coming up with something off the top of my head like that, but when I finally thought of something to order, plus a beer with it, he dutifully popped off quite happily. About five minutes later I saw him walk in carrying a supermarket carrier bag containing what was unmistakably a single bottle of beer, which was immediately brought over to my table. If I'd understood the situation I would have asked him to get in a six pack, or better still set up some sort of pressurised hose system for them to draw off beer at will. A pump, I believe it's called. For me this beat the Streep-Tease Bar hands down. We're didn't go in, but I liked the idea of a bar full of pranksters making faces, putting stickers on her back and shouting "He's behind you!" every time poor Meryl turned around. It also beat the sign for Amazon Tours, the misprint on which made me disappointed not to be carrying my camera - It proudly read "AMA-TEURS, trading in Columbia".

My favourite person in Columbia so far has been definitely this US guy we met who's carrying a twelve foot wooden cross round the world on foot. He was telling us proudly (ooh, I spotted a sin) how he's been carrying it for twenty two years, has visited 170 different countries and spoken to all kinds of different people about "the ways they can let Jesus into their lives".
The responses in our party were varied, but I think the others all agreed that my first question ("So who pays for that exactly?") was the most cynical thing they'd ever heard - until my second and third questions. Belated registering the phrase 'on foot' I wondered aloud "But you're travelling by boat now, right?", thinking that if this guy was actually walking the length of the amazon carrying a machete and a bl**dy great cross then I'd slip him a few quid myself. He explained that he carried the cross *in* places, not necessarily *to* them, telling me that it was all about making contact with people and talking to them about the gospels, the trinity and "what God means in my life".

By this point I was thinking that this sounded like a great scam and I wanted in on the action, so I politely enquired "So how long every day do you actually carry the cross", at which point you could see the jungle tumbleweed rolling. His answer, long-winded and evasive as it was, could be boiled down to "I pose with it just long enough to get a photo".

This is me in Peru, carrying the cross ...this is me on the amazon, carrying the cross ...and this is me ... oh, where was this now ... anyway, look, I'm carrying the cross ...

When I get back I'm going to have a whip round, and if I raise enough money then I'm going to travel the world with a six foot inflatable guinness can, talking to everybody I meet about the three stage pour system, those great mambo ads they used to have, and what the Irish black gold means to my life.

Seriously, though, watch out for this guy's book, it's just a matter of time and I'm sure it'll be a corker. As one of the USians said afterwards, "I wonder if he knows how greasy he sounds?". But you've got to admit he'll get people talking about God and Jesus everywhere he goes. As in "Jesus, what's that idiot carrying that cross for?" and, "God, I hope this guy leaves soon".
For anyone that's worried that I'm currently staying in the kidnapping captial of the world, my guide book says there are no guerillas in the region, and who am I to question the mighty Lonely Planet? See, it's not all drugs and gangs here. I hope.

I've already been told a couple of times "Columbia doesn't have a problem with cocaine, Columbia has a problem with the US. The US has a problem with cocaine", something I also heard in Peru. Mind you, in Peru I was told that "Peruvian mosquitos don't carry malaria", which made me wonder how they know. Do they get to the border and have their own little mozzie customs post, with an officious little mosquital pr*ck saying "Anything to declare? Any malaria, dengue fever, anything like that?". Or is it more like Union regs, where the malarial mozzies get to the border, have a cup of tea and light a rolled up fag and say "Carry malaria into Peru, you're 'avin' a larf. More than my job's worth mate".

Regardless of this, I'm still taking a daily cocktail of anti-malarials and anti-histamine, and smearing myself liberally with the strongest repellant I could find, something that claims to be 98% deet. It's foul. It takes the print off books and food labels, and even melted the frame of my sunglasses where it touched my face - really.

I'll tell you who hates the US, though, it's the Columbians. I mean, you might think that you think George Bush is a c0ke-snorting, drunk-driving, draft-dodging, war-mongering, thoroughly demented son of a b*tch ("That's son of a Texan b*tch, boy!") but you if you want to meet a bunch of people who really feel they've been d1cked around by manifest destiny, it's these guys. Maybe in Palestine you'll find more yankee bile per square kalashnikov, but these guys will be running them close.

Nor, as I was told after I'd worn my Cienciano shirt for a day, are they overly fond of los Peruaños here. Over the years it seems Peru has fought bitter wars with most of its neighbours, and they're barely on speaking terms with each other now. Think of them as the Germans of Latin America.

What unites the whole continent though, as far as I can make out, is their common hatred for the Argentinians, who they view as aloof, pretentious and arrogant. Think of them as being the French. When the Argentinian economy went into meltdown I'm surprised we couldn't hear the collective cheer down Brick Lane, they loved it so much.

Did I mention before the cab driver who thanked me personally for winning the Falklands war and putting the uppity Argies in their place? I believe I was busy playing with my Hans Solo at the time ("They're not dolls, it's Star Wars!") but it's nice that my contribution has finally been recognised.

Anyway, below is a long description of what taking my first riverboat down the amazon was like, for those that want to read it. It's huge, the result of me being stuck in a boat for several days with very little else to do.

For everyone else, all my jungle love

Nathan

My Amazonian Adventure

by Nathan Lawrence

*ahem*

I went down to the docks to find out when the next boat downriver was leaving, and after a while of aimless gawping I started talking to some salty old seadog who showed me round one particular vessel with pride, explaining the strict departure schedule (sometime Monday, maybe Tuesday at a push), and boasting about the fact that there would be music on board. I thought he was the captain until he introduced me to the man that actually expected payment (whose demeanour strongly suggested that while there might be more unwelcome creatures on his boat, at least they could be scraped off and hosed into the water), and then he wandered off the ship when I did, facing the nearest bar and asking me for a tip. I figured that I'd never have sorted the trip out without his help so I gave him a small amount, and his expression (no trace of pleasure, not quite actual disgust) indicated that I'd probably given the right amount.

I've now learnt enough Spanish to mistake what people are saying to me, rather than simply saying "que?" as before, so the entire transaction was peppered with misunderstandings and confusions on my part. When I was told later that we'd need our own cutlery in order to partake of the meals (a piece of information that turned out to be wrong, and irrelevant) my first thought was "Nobody told me that!" and then I realised that someone probably did tell me, I just thought they were talking about something nautical and ignored it.

Before the boat set off there was a stream of hawkers and vendors, and because I was now fearful of having not brought enough food (I had a packet of crackers, a few bread rolls and half my bodyweight in boiled sweets) I bought a sack of bread for about 80p. Bread that turned out to be stale, I found out the second we hit the water.

I say it was irrelevant because when the first meal came round it was rice, potatoes and a piece of meat so small that in Poland it would have been considered a vegetarian option (the real veggie option, of course, was to sit down and shut up), so I manfully tried the bread. It's like breadsticks, I tried to tell myself, and failed.

I'd arrived early, as advised, intending to bag a prime spot for my hammock - near the front, close to the window, not underneath a light, I'd been told. I got a good one, too, and was feeling pretty smug when, about a week and a half later, everybody else arrived slung their hammocks any old where, often in far inferior, locations. Then more hammocks were put up, then more, then still more, until I was crushed into an space that would have had the average battery hen picketing for an increase in living room. There were people either side that had put their hammocks so close to mine that when they f@rted, I could feel my cheeks vibrate. Then more people came along and put their hammocks in between.

In the Guide to South America (1964) it says "Bus trips are better than railways for the scenery, and offer unparalled insights into local life and ways for the tourist". I used to think that, too, but now I realise that nothing beats a boat if you want to experience, the sights, the sounds, and most particularly the smells, of a hardworking Peruvian on the road (© Spinal Tap, you know I like to quote the greats) .

To my left was a small family of about fifteen, four and a little 'un to a hammock. Closest to me was the mother and eldest daughter, a tight matriarchal unit that lay lengthwise across their hammock and proceeded to invade my personal space in ways that would make a proctologist blush. They're a tactile race at the best of the times, the Peruvians (though not so much touchy-feely as argy-bargy) but at least a trained medical practitioner uses gloves.

And before you get all Peter Stringfellow on me here, we're talking about a Biiig Mamma, and a Not-so-diddy-daughter, you wouldn't have wanted to swing in that hammock, if you get my drift. A death slide, maybe. The elder was wearing a t-shirt for the entire voyage that read "I'm now single", and I did think, lock up your menfolk girls, this woman, her three daughters and her seven chins is back on the market.

To their left was their screaming baby, and because I'd gone a couple of bus rides without, I felt I was owed one. He was a trooper, too, bless him - he started crying the second he got on, continued to wail without cease during the voyage (with one brief, merciful period of peace while he watched in fascination as I made marmite sandwiches, which ended when I ran out of rolls), then, clearly realising that despite his heroics he still hadn't got up to quota, he redoubled his efforts when it was time to disembark.

Fortunately the entire clan left quite early on, well before the mountain range of fruit pith, pip and seed that they'd all liberally spat onto the deck started attracting flies.

To my right was an American, who when she arrived said "I'm so glad there's someone else on board who can speak English, otherwise I think I'd go insane". Later, after I'd read another few chapters of my book, she hinted "Are you always this talkative?", to which I felt that the only suitable answer was a slow and lugubrious nod.

Taking the hint, though, I proceeded to make polite small talk, explaining to her my firm conviction that the French should ask for the Statue of Liberty back since there is no longer any liberty in the States*, until at one point she asked me to tell her about the book I was reading.
* I love saying this to USians, mainly because so few of the ones I've met actually know that the Statue of Liberty was originally a present from the cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys.
Shortly afterwards, while she was explaining to me why she was cutting her trip short ("So like, I thought, 'I've seen the jungle, I've seen the mountains, I've seen the beach, why not go home?' I mean, otherwise I'd just be going to, like, a-nother jungle, a-nother mountain or a-nother beach, ya know?"), I offered to lend it to her.

Later, when space opened up further down the deck, she moved her hammock.
This is something the Peruvians never do - the girl who replaced the family from hell didn't move hers for ages, even though loads of space opened up to her left. After a while I began to wonder if there was a motive for this, so next time I caught her eye I smiled.
Sure enough, first chance she got she moved her hammock.

Behind me was a large gentleman who'd slung his hammock across mine in such a way that when he got in my head dropped alarmingly towards the floor, and when he got out I was bounced upward and almost catapaulted across the deck.

At my feet was a hammock belonging to two young ladies, which attracted the attention of all the young studs on board, who took to wandering over and leaning nonchalently on the nearest hammock while chatting amiably on the topic of the day. That hammock was, of course, mine. You'll be pleased to hear that I eventually found a way of expressing "My dear chap, would you mind awfully not leaning on my hammock, it does tend to make it drag so?" in such a way that it required no Spanish whatsoever.

Those two ladies were surprisingly forgetful during the course of the voyage - you'd be simply astonished at how many times they were forced to hike from one end of the boat to the other, bending and stretching past all the hammocks containing all the young gentlemen, simply to fetch some small trifle or other.

I didn't get to meet many of the other passengers. I did get chatting to a guy called Pedro, who was from the jungle but worked as a painter in Iquitos, and whenever he could he'd leave the urban sprawl to head back to his roots. He gave me his number and told me that if I was ever in Iquitos again I should give him a call and we'd go out dancing.

I was told later that there's a large and thriving gay scene in that town, because it's about the only place in Peru that didn't persecute homosexuals in the eighties and nineties, and with retrospect there may have been an ulterior motive to Pedro's kindness. Pedro, or Peter the Jungle P00f as I now think of him, had a large and colourful, dangly earring, his nails and toenails painted, and was rather enthusiastic in his appreciation of modern dance. Sadly I lost his number during the next rains, but I wish him well.

I also saw a young black woman walking round with a big, red faux leather book in her hands, chatting to people about the contents. At first I took it to be the bible, but when I got a closer look I discovered that it was a Reader's Digest Abridged Version of several of Nancy Fairbanks' finest.

I'd been warned that petty theft was common on these vessels, so I was careful with most of my stuff, though not alert enough to prevent the theft of an old pair of trainers that I left on deck, lying underneath my hammock. From that point on I even locked my toothbrush up, thinking that anyone that would steal those smelly old sneakers would nick anything.

Just as we started I was asked to move my bags from the tiny, airless, dusty storage room they'd been in because a family of four would be sleeping in it. I wasn't sure if this "cabin" would cost them more or less than deck space for a hammock.

The toilet was an exercise in voluntary constipation. I mean, I'm no stranger to revolting toilets (I've been to France several times) and I've become accustomed to the Peruvian habit of providing one loo for every three or four hundred people (half of whom are experiencing strange eruptions in their stomach that are making them go the toilet a great deal more often than they are accustomed, and the other half are having to go with rather more urgency). I'm also aware that sometimes that single toilet might even work.

I've even become inured to jungle bathrooms, where you'll find yourself queueing alongside far nastier creatures than you'd find even in an average English town on a Saturday night.
However, taking one look at this lavatory was enough to make you realise that maybe you didn't want to go all that badly, at that.

I think the next advert for Imodium should simply be a photo of this toilet with the caption "Because you really don't want to bare your @rse to that".

This is a joke of course - I'm sure it would be tremendously bad for you to misuse Imodium in this way (don't do it kids). Mind you, actually using this toilet wouldn't have done you any favours, either.

The dining table was quickly commandeered as the cards table, always populated by two hardened young river hands (they sat across the table from one another, and might as well have been wearing fins). Around them a series of travellers came and went, usually lighter in the wallet than when they sat down.

One lucky chap had his wife to help him. She stood behind and offered suitably encouraging hints like, "What are you betting on that for? You've got nothing" and "Oh, that's good, keep that one" and even at one stage "That's great, you'll win this time, for sure". A second man was soon joined by his wife, and the two of them began every hand with an animated discussion of the comparative merits of their husbands cards.

After they finally called it a day and walked away from the table, you could still hear the wives - "You see? You don't know how to gamble, you've lost your money!" - and I was reminded of the phrase that behind every great man there is a great woman.

Later on I noticed that the two women were playing alone against the young sharps. They appeared to be doing rather well.

I'd had visions of slowly drifting down the amazon, luxuriating in my hammock, reading, writing in my diary, taking the occasional stroll on deck in order to capture a photographic masterpiece or point out a particularly interesting specimen of the local fauna to the less experienced jungle travellers.

However, because of the crush of people it was pretty difficult to move around the boat, and after only a day I could feel my feeble leg muscles already starting to atrophy, to complement my "haven't lifted anything heavier than a pint glass for years" physique.
On the rare occasions that I did manage to escape from the hammock jungle to get out on deck, I inevitably encountered the same young woman attempting to breastfeed her baby. This isn't something that embarrasses me necessarily (though I don't regard it as a spectator sport) and the women here are usually fairly casual - you'll often see women swaying down the avenue with a baby strapped to her stomach, suckling away at her exposed breast, nobody giving her a glance.

However, I do find it a little disconcerting to be casually admiring the view knowing that two feet to your left there's a young lady and her baby who probably wished you'd go and admire it somewhere else. I could imagine her thinking "This is a lovely quiet spot where I can feed my baby in peace - oh no, it's that dratted gringo again!".

Once while I was brushing my teeth I could see her through the open door (the bathroom door was open because I couldn't bear the thought of being shut in with that smell), naked baby in one hand and soiled nappy in the other, giving me a look that seemed to indicate that she felt that her need was more pressing than mine and I should make way. She watched me reproachfully as I brushed, making sure to clean the back of the mouth thoroughly, as my old dentist used to tell me, and didn't thank me when I held the door open for her after I'd finished.
I'm surprised she waited since in Peru generally the attitude towards queuing is 'don't bother', so while I'd be standing outside the door waiting in a state of absolute dread, some youngster or other would barge past and walk straight in. At one point a nun and what I can only describe as a baby nun (she was about eighteen months old, wearing the full nun outfit) stood behind me and made doe eyes at me until I caved and let them past. However, knowing what awaited, I think it would have been kinder to make them wait.

We'd just landed at a village of nuns, one of many on the river, where the young children would board the boat with fruits and other foods for sale, and leave at the next stop. The prices were generally higher and the quality poorer if you bought from the nuns, but who could argue? Transactions for Jesus and all that.

Looking at all these prepubescent nuns, I did start thinking about the idea of them being "brides of christ" and there being a legal marriage age - they were far too young to have made an informed choice in the matter ("Did I say I wanted to become a nun? I'm sorry, I meant to say that I want a pony"). I assume they're orphans, and I don't know what their options are as regards leaving, but I reckon I have a better chance of becoming P0pe than all these children remaining in the order once their hormones start kicking in.

We stopped at many small jungle settlements, several hundred kilometres of river separating them from the nearest convenience store, places where saying "I'm just nipping to the shops, does anyone want anything?" will yield an answer slightly more lengthy than "Ooh, could you get me ten B & H and a packet of maltesers?". The standard order seemed to be three barrels of gasoline (for the boats and electricity generators, if they're lucky enough to have one), forty eight crates of beer, several large boxes of assorted toiletries and a few bottles of non-brand cola. Given that these boats supply the villages twice a week, if they're lucky, I was surprised they needed so much coke.

One afternoon, I was standing at the deck rail, I heard a slight splash and looked down to see a bit of a commotion in the river, caused by a small feeding frenzy of sleek, silver fishes. Then another plish followed by lots of froth and fish leaping from the water. A couple of young girls were throwing pieces of orange peel into the river and the fish were rushing to the surface to attack them. One of the girls noticed me. "Piranhas", she said, with a wicked grin. "They eat everything".

I wasn't convinced (I felt they were too long and narrow for piranha, based on the movies I've seen) but I watched the pair for a couple of minutes, disposing of their garbage in a thoroughly biodegradable way, and was enjoying their fun. I wished I could join in - if only I could lay my hands on some unwanted food to throw ...

As soon as I returned with my sack of stale bread I began to throw it with gusto, and between us we soon had quite a fizz going on in the water below. The boiling water attracted a small crowd, and everybody was joining in with whatever they had to hand. The girl hadn't lied when she said they eat everything - drinking straws, paper tissues, plastic bags, even a used condom (don't even think about it, I really tried hard not to), and it seems I wasn't the only one to have been caught out by the stale bread. All were thrown into the water, all were ruthlessly attacked, and, if not eaten, then at least shredded in the murky water.

The trick was to throw the right sized piece - too small and it would immediately disappear with one gulp, too large and it would be seized by one of the bigger fish and triumphantly carried away. You could see these larger pieces surfing on the ripples, smaller fish trying vainly to nip at the sides, carried by the unseen jaws of an obscenely large piscine beast under the surface.
Get it just right, however, and your piece would attract the attention of some half a dozen piranha, each eager for a slice of pie (or melon rind, or guava stalk, or whatever it might be). This would often spark some nasty competition between them and they'd start taking lumps out of each other, the smaller ones leaping out of the water to avoid their bigger neighbours' teeth, brief silver flashes against the dark Amazonian water. I was hoping that one of them would take a big enough bite that his victim would become the next target, but alas it was not to be. I'm not sure if piranha are cannibalistic, but I felt they wouldn't be so pernickity as to let a wounded comrade go to waste.

When we were running out of things to throw one lad enterprisingly spat into the water, only to see his sputum rapidly attacked and swallowed. This quickly became the new game, twenty or thirty people spitting into the river and watching the piranha making the river seethe. I didn't spit myself because in this heat I've come to regard all bodily fluids as something precious and not to be wasted, but all in all we spent a very pleasant half hour, feeding the piranha in the bay.

bout six metres away, some young children were bathing in the river as their mother washed clothes.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

The hour of the leaving is at hand ...

... so I thought I'd set down some semi-random, unconnected thoughts.

Just like normal, then.

I'm currently still deep in footprints on the ceiling territory*, but soon I'll be leaving Iquitos and heading down the Amazon to Brazil, if only to gain some temporary respite from the infernal panpipes, and I may be gone some time.

Two or three days, maybe.

* The first time I saw this phenomenon was in Greece as a callow youngster, and I didn't understand it till a few days later, covered in itching bites, when I found myself chasing a recalcitrant mozzie round the room with a flip-flop in my hand. "Oh, that's how you get the footprints on the ceiling" I realised as I lashed out again at the little flying f*cker.

Anyway, I don't think Iquitos can decide whether it wants to be a palace of virtue or a den of iniquity. In the main square is a rather public Alcoholics Anonymous building (for the incognito dipsomaniac who wants to be seen around town), a cohort of Christian evangelists who try to introduce you to G*d in this rather unlikely setting, even if you've merely paused for breath, and a big sign saying "Say no to child sex tourism", whose very presence seems to indicate that, sadly, rather too many people must be saying yes.

Just off the plaza is The Yellow Rose of Texas Bar and Grill, where the waitresses wear what you'd imagine was traditional Texan dress if your only frames of reference were Daisy Duke and a young Dolly Parton. That's next to the Iron House, where the bar staff wear the uniform of a nineteenth century English butler, and next to that there is the Casino (No Gambling). Now I'm not exactly a high roller, but even I know that if you have a casino with no gambling then what you have is an empty room and a set of playing cards.

The town is a lot like Puerto Maldonado, another jungle town with such a different climate to Cusco in the mountains that it feels like a different country.

Iquitos has the added bonus, though, of being almost ten degrees of latitude closer to the equator, so its even warmer. Gosh. The day starts off fiery in the morning sun, is seriously baking when the sun is directly overhead, becomes ovenlike in the afternoon, then somehow seems to get even more blistering when the sun goes down, and progressively more roasting through the night. Then the next morning the whole sorry procession starts again.

Iquitos also has a level of humidity such that when it starts to rain it doesn't so much increase the amount of moisture in the air as merely give it direction.

In this situation you perspire at such a rate that you'd need to be hooked to a saline drip to replace the fluids you're losing, you just can't drink fast enough, and rehydration has to be a significant part of your daily budget. I'm spending more than I spent on a room for a night in Bolivia on bottled water, and am still thirsty.

Speaking of drink, I like what appears to be the naming convention of Peruvian beers - I've had Cusceña (which I think I mentioned translates as 'girl from Cusco'), Arequipeña ('girl from Arequipa'), and now Iquiteña ('girl from Iquitos'). I hope this continues into Brazil, because it would amuse me to be ordering a Girl From Ipanema in some seedy bar.

So with that I'm off

Alpace to the sauce

A return to the old school:

Travellers' Glossary
apparently (adv) "It says in the Lonely Planet that ..."
Bolivian (adj) aggressive, unpleasant and confrontational, as in "He's a good bloke, but he gets a bit Bolivian when he's drunk"
hot (adj) not a solid sheet of ice, but pretty d*mn close, as in "of course this hostel has hot showers"
leg room (n) (LAm) no information associated with this entry
safety standard (n) a legal ruling intended to ensure that the minimum number of tourists dies in the pursuit of any particular activity, or at the very least, if they do die their relatives can't sue; (LAm) no information associated with this entry

Walk a mile in flip-flops, see what a stupid idea it is