Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Nathan Lawrence - bringing civilisation to the savages since yesterday afternoon

Although as far as I'm concerned any culture with cheesecake readily available already qualifies as civilised. Creaminess is next to godliness in my book, especially when presented on a biscuit base.

Anyway, I have a job - teaching English at the Excel Language Centre in Cuzco. Technically I start Friday, but I have two three hour workshops (unpaid) with all the other teachers first.

So the next thing I need to sort out is a place to stay where I'm not paying tourist rates, but I need to have a better idea of the city first.

I was cursing, too, because it felt like the Lawrence effect had struck again. Apparently the rains have been particularly harsh lately and all the trails I was considering trekking are washed out. There's no kayyaking just now, and the whitewater rafting trip I was looking at has been cancelled because it's too dangerous. Wimps. The only trips they're running are one dayers over class I-III rapids, and if you've ever been then you'll know that classes I-III all describe various states of mill-pond. It's not until you get to class IV you even get any ripples worth worrying about.

I had to part company with the Canadians because I was starting to like the accent, I don't know what that's all aboot. Plus one of them was sick and you'd be amazed how much less fun someone is when they're experiencing mind altering diarrhoea. So, in the true spirit of togetherness and unity I said "scr*`w you guys, I'm off".

I'm also on my second cheap watch of the trip. The last one disappeared from a hostel bathroom. I took it off to take a shower and forgot to put it back on. By the time I remembered it had taken a wander. I hope it was stolen to buy drugs, because that's some hit that a knocked off five dollar watch will buy.

Touch wood I've never had a problem with things going missing from dorms, and I've only ever had one problem with a communal fridge (mentioning no names but Roturua, you know who you are with your sausage stealing fiends) but anything you leave in a bathroom is fair game. On the same day I forgot to take my soap, and although it was there when I returned two hours later, I calculated that every single inhabitant would have had to shower three times, lathering luxuriantly, to account for the usage. It wasn't even nice soap, since I'd already used that up myself - it was a nasty little bar I'd liberated from New York.

I'm having ongoing fun wearing my arsenal shirt, mainly with Peruvians trying to trade it with me for items of around a thousandth of its value, and seeming genuinely surprised that I won't barter.

I've so far seen six Peruvians wearing Man Utd shirts and absolutely loads of Barca shirts with pictures of Ronaldinho stencilled on the front. I think they love him here because there is something of the alpaca about him. I've also seen two Peruaños wearing England shirts; you could tell they were genuine because they said "Inglaterra" across the back. Three llamas on a shirt and all that.

I don't want you to think I'm spending all my time watch football, either, but I do love the commentary style here. It's in Spanish so a lot of it is lost on me (although Spanish for goal is "GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" apparently) but it tends to be along the lines of "Walcott, Walcott, Walcott, Fabregas, Walcott, Henriiiiiiii, Henriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, Henriiiiiiiiiiiiiiii GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Come back Motty, all is forgiven.

Or not.

All the best


Etiquette update: it's obligatory when you great someone to assume they speak Spanish, so to say "Hola" or "Buenoes tardes", even if they have the kind of alabaster complexion that Snow White would be proud of and a Union Jack flag on the rucksack. Once this formality is over, then you can ask "¿Habla inglés?" and move forward from there. Especially if they reply "Si, porque yo soy inglés" as I like to do.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Can we not all just learn to love each other?

Here I am in Cuzco, the major tourist hub of Peru. I intend to use it as the base from which I explore for a while.

I've hooked up with three Canadian guys who are pretty cool, but they drink like North Americans. Between us we ordered three beers and a coffee last night, and the waiter told us in an apologetic tone that they only had one litre bottles of beer. While I was still confused, wondering what the problem was, one of the Mooselovers had changed the order to two large beers to share. Afterwards one of the guys complained about feeling light-headed - "it must be the altitude" he said. Shut up, I thought, you've had one pint. I don't care if we're leaving Earth's orbit, a pint is a pint. The guy that ordered the coffee told me that he used to be quite clean living, but now he works with the others he's become quite intemperate. There was apparently one time, he was telling me, they all sat round a camp fire and had three or four shots of whiskey each. Sounds nice, I said.

I bumped into these kiddies on route, taking the same bus out of one of the mountain villages where white faces shine like beacons of gullibility, and we got talking. This is quite unusual because I've discovered that there's a real hierarchy amongst travellers out here, and the real hardcore travellers (the kind of people that don't know how good the Peruvian cheesecake is, for instance) wouldn't dream of speaking to someone that's so obviously ... well, so obviously nothing more than a tourist (spit loudly).

Admittedly maybe the Arsenal shirt and cricket hat wasn't the look best guaranteed to make me hard-core rather than a straight-off-the-plane tourist, but really that boat had well and truly sailed before I left the States - Michael Jackson flies out of NY with a rosier complexion than I did.

On the plus side the football loving Peruvians love to chat to gringos, and all of them have heard of Arsenal, Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool. I even got chatting to a six year old Peruano lad wearing a Beckham shirt who was talking about the Utd treble. On the one hand it was a lovely inter-cultural moment, on the other "thanks for effing reminding me" I thought. Especially since you probably weren't even born at the time.

They do love football here. They love the fouls, too. When they're doing a highlights show, after the brief and grudging resume of all the goals and good chances they´ll do a lingering slow-motion, multi-camera replay of all the juicy fouls. They love it.

The last stage of my cross-land journey, which started off being beautiful and fun, was pretty gruelling. A ten hour bus ride to Andahuaylas, with a woman next to me vomitting for half the journey, and then the following day another ten hour ride into Cusco itself, with a woman with a sick baby next to me, howling the entire way. On that trip I'd also been sold seat number 46 on a 45 seat bus and was hassled most of the way by the conductor - but in certain situations a blank stare and an absolute refusal to understand Spanish come in handy.

My Spanish is definitely improving when it suits me though. I've been conversing after a fashion, usually with the assistance of gesture and mime. One chap I was talking to was either enquiring after my marital status or wondering why my man-boobs were so big, though, so some of the details are still being lost. I've also become quite good at asking for directions, and absolutely excellent at standing idly by while they unleash Babel upon me, and then saying "¿Que?"

I did manage to communicate with a woman in a hostel who was trying to give me a fax for a Nathan Young. I explained that although I was Nathan I wasn't Nathan Young. Once she got the point she said fearfully "There are two Nathans? Here?", and then looked nervously both ways and I swear she crossed herself before taking the fax back.

I really like Cusco so far. It's baking hot during the day - this might really be the altitude, but when I tell you that I got sunburn while wearing sunblock on a cloudy day, you'll appreciate that the sun here is fierce. Then when the sun slips behind the surrounding mountains it's freezing, so you spend the day in shorts and a t-shirt and sleep in jumper and jeans. I've realised why they call it the rainy season, too, though as far as I'm concerned once you've experienced Fijian rain no other form of precipitation will worry you. If it doesn't make your head bled in Fiji then it doesn't really count.

I've even seen my first Inca ruins (it was a series of small walls at the top of a mountain, it was very moving) and I'm investigating a white water rafting trip in the Andes. I say investigating, I've picked up a flier, but it's all research.

Speaking of which, I normally advise people to read up about a country they intend to visit. I don't do it myself, obviously, ten minutes on wikipedia after I've checked the football scores and I feel well enough prepared, but I do think it's the kind of thing people should do. Having browsed a potted history of Peru, though, I'd say that you should under no circumstances learn any Peruvian history before visiting, as it's pretty grim. I mean, there are probably only a dozen countries in the world whose history actually makes positive reading and leaves you with a sense of progress and increasing civilisation, but for your average Peruano in the calle it's been pretty much one thing after another for about a thousand years. Just when you think the tale has reached its nadir you find that "it was round about then that things really went down the sh*tter for the Peruvians".

Hopefully things will pick up for them soon. As soon as I leave, probably.

All my love


Now I'm well and truly free of US jurisdiction I will tell you another couple of things about it. I was in a hostel with a Californian guy called Matt that was complaining about the street layout in Manhatten being confusing - "I just can't get my head round Broadway" he said. It's a grid, Broadway being the exception because it traces a very slight curve, almost an elongated S shape, crossing several of the other streets. That's it - pretty f*cked, huh? This same bloke was planning on coming to London at some point, but I advised him not to. If you can't get your head round these streets, I lold him, we've got alleys in London that will make your brain explode.

I was also on the Liberty Island ferry back to Manhatten and two girls behind me were wondering why the Empire State Building was so famous - "It's really teeny", they said, "you can't even see it behind all those other buildings". I swear, if I'd had a small plastic model of a building in my pocket I´d have introduced them to the concept of perspective in the traditional 'this is very, very small, whereas these are very far away' manner.

Although you'd expect Peruvian for cheesecake to be "tarte de queso" or something, they do in fact call it Cheesecake, just as God intended. Apparently Mango Cheesecake is a bit of a local speciality, though I've yet to try it.

More Cheesecake news next week.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Another country, another keyboard layout to learn

The letters are all pretty much in the same places ¿ it{s just the punctuation] which seems to be littered around the keyboard at random_

Such is the lot of the modern intercontinental traveller.

Anyway, brace yourselves, I think it's gonna be a long one, as the bishop ... etc

I'm currently in Huancavelica, 128km into the Andes from Huancuyo, which was my first stop after Lima. This region is known as the Na çion Wanca, and I got the train here with a German guy I met called Pieter Helm. That's right, I've been exploring the Wanca region with Peter Helmet. You just can't buy that kind of joy in a travel agent, you have to discover it for yourself.

We had some interesting conversations, Mr Helmet and me, because we each had a small amount of various languages in common, so we communicated in a kind of esperanto composed of fragments of poor Spanish, English, German and French. It was quite funky.

I've met a few Germans so far, which I find quite comforting. I regard die Deutschen as the most reliable mining canaries of safe international travel. I mean, the English will go everywhere because we think we own the place. The Yanks are the same because they actually do, via a complicated series of credit arrangements, and heck, if there isn't a war going on when they get there, they'll sure as tootin' start one, darn it.

The Aussies and Kiwis will go anywhere because they regard the entire world as one giant party and no-one told them they weren't invited. The French don't go anywhere, so if you meet anyone claiming to be French they'll actually be a Belgian in disguise. The Spanish will go everywhere, but mañana.

But the Germans - if the Germans will travel somewhere, you know to expect at least a certain semblance of order.

I'm having a fantastic time, though every time I go away I encounter a new and unforeseen problem, something I really hadn't planned for and with which I'm in no position to cope. This trip has been no exception.

Can you imagine how intimidating it is to be surrounded by this many people that can dance? I mean, really dance? Somewhere outside this cybercafe is a one legged beggar with a wasting disease that cuts a better shape on the dance floor than I do. I'm tying my feet in knots under the desk just thinking about it. Damn my rhythmic dyslexia.

Especially since I was exploring the village this morning and discovered they were in the middle of their annual Impede a Tourist festival, when it seems that the entire town divides itself between various bands and dances through the streets - they were literally full of Wancas. On the one hand I felt privileged to see such fun, especially since I have no idea what it was and wasn't expecting it, but on the other I found myself saying "Yes, but they're in my way".

It doesn't make it any easier that the Peruvians don't like to label their streets as it makes it too easy for the tourists, so almost every second turn I took led me straight back to the snake of dancers.

On the plus side, the basics of life are pretty cheap once you get out of the major tourist cities - for instance, I'm currently paying about one pound eighty a night for my room. True, the mattress has roughly the consistency of pizza dough and I'm expected to share it with a few bed bugs and half the mosquito population of the southern hemisphere, but you can't argue with prices like that.

You can also get a reasonable meal for under a pound, too, though the service tends to be on the express side. I mean, I'm not reknowned as a slow and dainty eater - in fact I believe word has gone round the canine population that under no circumstances should they ever mess with me while I'm eating - and I regard the real reason we eat with a knife and fork is so we can shovel food into our mouths with the fork and use the knife to jab the hands of anyone that gets too close. So when I find the next course arriving before I've finished the previous, I know the service is perhaps a trifle rushed. They seem to have a very egalitarian approach to coffee, too - giving you a cup of hot water and a jar of nescafe so you can prepare it to your own liking.

They also do good desserts here, which surprises me, I don't know why. I have dessert magic words, though (like cheesecake and tiramisu) and the Peruvians seem to know them well.

As you can see, I'm roughing it to my usual extent. ;-)

Travel, too, is cheap, depending how much of your personal space you're willing to share with domestic animals and farm produce. I paid about two quid twenty to get to Huancavelica (first class), then an extra quid for a meal on-board. I felt good about it, too, till I looked at my ticket and realised I'd been shortchanged by about 3p. Damn those thieving Peruaños! Mr Helmet believes that the change you're given is pretty random because they don't learn too much maths at school, but I've not been given too much change yet, see what I'm saying?

We also managed to get about half an hour up the track before the engine broke down and we had to get towed back to town to wait for a replacement engine. When we were finally underway we also had to reverse twice because we'd forgotten something. The first time I thought it was cute (can you imagine a train going back because they've forgotten something?) but the second time, when they went back for a couple of sacks of onions - well, they'd better have been good onions is all I'm saying.

Anyway, much love, all the best, (sorry I haven't replied personally to anyone yet, I've wasted all my time typing this nonsense)

Take it easy


ps Below this point is more detail for them's what can be bothered:

I arrived at Lima airport about midnight, and had the traditional white-knuckle cab-ride from the airport. I'm sure they do this deliberately, knowing you're so numb from the plane, frightened out of your wits by the crazy driving and grateful to arrive at the hostel in one piece that you'll pay whatever ridiculous sum they choose to overcharge you, just to be let out of the cab. Taxi drivers in Lima are pretty bad, and there's one firm called Manos de Dios, which (I believe) means that when you step inside you really are putting yourself in the Hands of God - fair enough, but I'd rather rely on safe driving and a well maintained vehicle, given the choice.

Compared to the collectivo minibuses however, the cabs are serenity itself. The buses, already crammed to the aisles with someone sitting on the driver's lap (they seem to be strangers to Mr Max Capacity here), actually race each other to be first to the next stop, corners be damned.

There are traffic cops on almost every street corner in Lima too, so I have no idea what kind of crazy stunt you'd need to pull to attract the attention of one of these guys, given the standard of driving they're perfectly happy to let pass.

My favourite traffic cop moment was in Huancuyo, where they all dressed up as mimes and held 'silencio' signs up in an attempt to get the cars to quieten their horns, which they use constantly. I applaud the sentiment, but think it a quite risky strategy - I think for most sane people the sight of a mime in the middle of the road would be too much temptation for the ol' accelerator foot, and I think most judges would consider it a justifiable homicide.

Anyway, Lima Centro, the part of town where they keep the backpackers, can only adequately be described as un orificio de cack (as you can see, mi spanglés va muy bien). It's also very humid. If you can imagine up-ending a bath and walking into it, and then someone turning a hose on you, then you're somewhere close to getting an idea of how much moisture is in the air.

There are some nice suburbs in Lima, but generally the best thing about it was meeting some top friends of Shane's that he put me in touch with - Shaun and Clair. (Cheers, mate) I also met their equally cool friends Sharne and J ésus. Clair is from the States, and to my ears it sounded like she was saying Shaun when she meant Sharne, but unfortunately there were no predictably hilarious consequences.

However, this is where I discovered the second unforeseen problem of the trip - now I've cut all my hair off, it's a lot more difficult to describe how I look to someone that doesn't know me. Shaun and I arranged to meet over the phone, and when he asked for a description so he could recognise me I was stumped, when normally I'd just say "I'll be the scruffy b*stard with a thick mop of black hair". I restrained myself from saying "I'll be the sad f*cker sitting on his own sin ning ún amigo" and attempted to describe myself. The look on the face of the girl at the phone next to me, what with the breathing problems I was having with all the smog and humidity, as I launched into "I'm wearing a green t-shirt ..." was priceless.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

I'm writing to you from Manhattan's Upper East Side

Very glamorous, I know.

So far I've been in New York for almost a week and I have bumped into neither Woody nor Bobby (as I believe Mr deNiro is known to his friends), I haven't witnessed a single shooting, drug deal or police officer eating a donut, and absolutely nobody, I mean nobody, has said "forgeddabbouddit" within earshot. I know I'm visiting out of season but frankly I'm disappointed.

The city seems safer than various glossy crime shows would have you believe, too. I was even on the 'subway' the other evening and an old lady (a 'broad') was sitting in front of me counting out an enormous wad of 'bills' and no-one else seemed at all bothered - I was tempted to mug her myself just to make the point that this really isn't a safe kind of city, but then I thought she was probably 'packing a piece' and would almost certainly 'bust a clip in my @ss' (as I believe the local lingo would have it) so I decided not to.

All is going well, but I think I'm starting to suffer from Tall Building Fatigue. I find myself wondering if it might not have been simpler all round if, instead of embarking on a vain, frivolous and expensive round of competitive skyscraping, messeurs Chrysler, Sears, Empire State et al had simply whipped out their w@ngers and taken a cold ruler to them. I miss the horizon.

Also, I'm starting to find it tiresome that almost every other street is called Liberty Drive or Freedom Avenue and stuff like that. It must have been particularly galling for the slaves who built them, too.

In fact, the septics banging on about freedom all the time is a bit embarrassing, especially given that what they're chiefly celebrating their freedom from is us. It's like a friend bragging about a new car or something. You start off murmering "Hmm, yes, it's lovely", then you just look for ways to politely change the subject.

Anyway, I'm off to Lima tomorrow - hurrah!


Some of you might be surprised that I'm in NYC, given that at no point in my vague and incoherent ramblings about my travel plan did I mention any intention of visiting the states, let alone the de facto capital. You might have been misled by the fact that for the last few years my stated opinion on the matter has been that I'd rather visit the US when it recovers from its collective insanity and stops starting these many unethical, unlawful and thoroughly unwinnable wars half-way across the globe. However, it didn't cost me any extra cash to stop off in New York on my way to Lima, so here I am.