Thursday, 14 June 2012

Responsible volunteering - some thoughts

Recently one of the readers of this blog asked for my view on responsible volunteering, having read the entries (February to April 2011) for the time we spent in Kenya volunteering at the children's charity Watoto Wa Baraka.  This reader wrote a polite and flattering comment - a surefire way to get my attention. 

Clearly, I'm no expert, having only volunteered once, but with my ego suitably stroked I started typing out some tips by email.  And then I figured what's the point in having a blog if you can't spew out brain-farts into the abyss that is the internet.

What follows is this brain fart, or: responsible volunteering - some thoughts.

1) Do your research
How does the organisation spend their money? What are their objectives? Are they aligned to any other organisations, and what is that relationship? Don't expect a full financial breakdown - frankly, that's none of your business.  But do try to assess what goals the organisation has and how they go about meeting these goals, in the context of point (3) below.
Speak to past volunteers - charities should happily put you in contact with past volunteers, who are normally open to share their experience with you.
Use the web for independent insight, like reading blogs, or by looking at discussion forums or travel websites such as Lonely Planet.  Google is your friend.  Just remember - one person's opinion is just that, one person's opinion, so always take it with a pinch of salt.  Except mine, of course. I'm always right. 
2) Are they sustainable? 
I don't necessarily mean environmentally sustainable, unless this is particularly relevant to the type of volunteering you want to do.  I mean - have they got a structure that can and will continue even if they don't have volunteers?  The volunteering fees* may, for example, be a critical part of their operating budget, but can they still operate if this money dries up?  Do they employ local people to do the core part of the work, and who therefore operate the charity on a day-to-day basis regardless of who is volunteering and when?
It's like when you did work experience at school.  You could help out by doing photocopying and shredding, and learn a bit at the same time, but they didn't expect you to do their annual accounts, and rely on you to operate their business.  Unless they were Enron, of course, in which case doing the shredding was, in effect, doing their annual accounts.
* I realise that paying a 'volunteering fee' is an oxymoron, and prompts huffs of disdain from both the (a) hardcore charity folk, and (b) the linguistic pedants.  To which I respond (a) read this post to understand why a fee is important for many volunteering organisations and (b) what-evs!   
3) Ask yourself the question 'how will I contribute'? 
It's important to be honest with yourself when answering this, but also it's a difficult question to answer.  For example, do you have a particular set of skills that are directly beneficial to that charity?  If they need to build something - do you have building skills?  If they are setting up a school - are you a teacher?  If they want to establish an online presence - do you have web skills?  If they provide medical assistance - are you medically trained? (an important one, that).  If they want to run the charity like a business - do you have business experience?  Good charities will ask you these types of questions when you apply to volunteer. 
It might be that you just want to help out day-to-day, and that the fees you pay are just as important as the skills you share.  This can be valuable too, and often volunteers with the right attitude and general skills can contribute just as much, if not more, than those with specific skills. 
In my opinion it's important to conclude your volunteering with confidence that you had a net positive impact, even if it's just a small and transient impact. 
I'm a realist - volunteering is not necessarily an intrinscially 'good' thing to do.  It absolutley can be, but it can have negative impacts too.  For example, it can introduce a disjointed working environment as volunteers come and go, it can deprive local people of employment, it can put strain on a charity to cater for their volunteers, at the expense of their core objectives.  You're more likely to have a positive impact if you're aware of and sensitive to the ways in which you could have a negative impact.
If you can assess the things I mentioned above, and keep them in mind when you're actually volunteering, I think you will be a responsible volunteer.
In our case, we did a bit of the above before we applied to Watota Wa Baraka as volunteers, but didn't spend weeks agonising over it.  We got lucky - it was a great charity, very well run, and we could find  small ways to contribute in specific ways.  For example, I enjoy writing and my first language is English, so I frequently write the biographies of the children for whom the charity are seeking sponsorship.  Our contribution was small, but I was proud of it at the end of our time there, and it fulfilled our own simple objective of 'doing more good than harm'.
Right, I'm going to stop now.  I'm making this up as I go along.  I'm sure there are many more qualified people than me to comment on the subject of 'responsible volunteering'.  I did some volunteering, tried to be responsible, and by and large succeeded, I think.  That's where my expertise ends.  
Well, other than the fact that I'm always right, of course.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

What’s not to like?

Apropos of nothing at all Ricky walked up to me on the Navimag ferry as we sailed the Chilean fjords and asked; ‘this year away of yours, have you ever not enjoyed it and wanted to go home’?  ‘Good question Ricky’ I replied, ‘no, not really, but there were definitely times when I felt a bit down, and looked forward to returning to certain things back at home’.  Satisfied with the answer he wandered off just as enigmatically as he’d appeared, with a nod and a smile.  The smile was enthusiastically returned by me for Ricky was a charming and inquisitive American gent, someone we’d had the good fortune to get chatting with during the four days sailing through the often narrow channels of the fjords in Chilean Patagonia.  He was also immaculately polite, an admirable trait often found in gents from the southern half of the US, and I was charmed by the way he used ‘ma’am?’ or ‘sir?’ in place of ‘what?’, ‘pardon?’ or ‘excuse me?’

This post isn’t about Ricky though.  It is however linked to the question he asked.  We have just a week left to go on our one year odyssey so I thought I’d mark this juncture by noting down the top three things I’m most looking forward to becoming re-acquainted with on our return home.  Let us first take family and friends as a given, an automatic chart topper in the ‘Things To Look Forward To’ rundown.  The mental video of a joyous reunion that has been running through our minds like a syrupy, lump-in-the-throat Richard Curtis movie is far too sentimental for this cynical blog, so let me focus instead on the more esoteric delights that await us, starting with number one…

(1) You put it where?! Disposal Dilemmas

I’ve got used to it, sure I have.  You really have no option.  It’s just the way it’s done in these parts.

But seriously, if I peer into one more waste bin that is sat next to a toilet and get a glimpse of someone else’s poo-y toilet paper I’m gonna scream.  And then run out of the toilet with my pants around my ankles, clumps of poo-y paper in my fists, foaming at the mouth , and screaming ‘I’m not an animal, I’m a man’ before collapsing into a bereft heap and falling into a twitchy sleep in my new homemade nest. 

Allow me to explain… In many parts of the world the sewer system is simply not built to deal with the flushing of toilet paper.  The solution to this issue is to place a small waste bin next to the toilet in which patrons deposit their tarnished poo rags.  The beasts.  The bin is often accompanied by a notice that politely reminds silly gringos not to flush their waste paper down the loo, the funniest of which read: if you flush paper down the toilet we’ll all drown in poo, and you’ll be to blame. Can you live with that on your conscience?

So, in summary, the first thing I’m looking forward to on my return home is going for a poo and then flushing the soiled paper down the pan, and not putting it in the waste paper bin.  Sister in law – you have been warned. 

(2) That’s right punk, I’m in your blind spot!  A taxi tantrum. 

I’m looking forward to my first taxi ride when I return to the UK;  the pleasant ‘hello’, the inconsequential chat, the cheery goodbye and the driver’s closing instruction to have a good evening/flight/attempt to get your key in the lock.  This is because taxi drivers in the UK are, with some exceedingly rare exceptions, an honest bunch.  The same cannot be said of everywhere in the world, in particular South America.  The near total absence of taxi meters means that the price you pay for a ride depends entirely on how (a) naïve, (b) stupid looking, and (c) willing to negotiate you are.  My default position for these three is most often (a) very, (b) even more, and (c) meh.

So I overpay for taxis and over the year we have been away it has, ever so gradually, begun to seriously piss me off.  ‘What’s that you say? You actually want double what we agreed when we got in? That’s strange, but OK then, there you go, keep the change.  Oh, and you can keep the piss I just did on your back seat too.  Muchos gracias! Have a good evening, adios!’

Over-charging is, however, the least of your concerns when taking a taxi in certain South American countries.  Stories abound about evil taxi drivers, or just thieves who have borrowed a taxi, who pick up gringos, drive them to a dodgy area and relieve them of all their possessions.  I say that ‘stories abound’ about this which basically means that Lonely Planet mentions it.  It has never happened to anyone I’ve met, or anyone they’ve met, and it certainly hasn’t happened to me.  But that doesn’t stop me from carefully scrutinising the driver before I get in to assess what the odds are – ‘yeh, I could have him’ – and then sitting directly behind his seat, in his blind spot, like a bulky shadow.  I sit there for the duration of the trip thinking ‘is this one of those taxi drivers’? In return I hope that he’s sitting there thinking ‘I could rob this guy, but am I absolutely certain that he can’t break my neck or strangle me with my own seat belt from where he’s sitting’?  By the way, the answer to this latter question is maybe, if you’re a taxi driver.  To everyone else it’s probably not. 

So, I’m looking forward to not having to go through this nonsense any more.  I might still sit in the blind spot though, just to be sure. 

(3) I’ve got the power! Putting a plug in it.

Something undeniably trifling that I’m looking forward to doing on my return is hearing the sturdy ‘thunk’ and feeling the reassuring click as a British plug fits smoothly and securely into its three-pronged home.  When I’m King Of The World all power outlets and plugs will be required, with immediate effect, to be converted to the British three pin design.  This is not mere nationalistic jingoism, oh no.  Having spent the last year conducting extensive field tests I can comfortably conclude that the design is the sturdiest and safest of the lot, followed in a close second by the South African model (which, frankly, is a cheeky rip-off of the British design anyway).  Right at the bottom of the table is the North American plug, with its two small pathetic little bars, that meekly request of the outlet ‘I’m terribly sorry to bother you Mr Electricity, but could I please trouble you for a little charge, I’ll fall out halfway through the night I promise, leaving my owner with a dead mobile phone battery’. 

So, to summarise: Me = King Of The World (and owner of all electricity). Plug = British design.  Sewer systems = sturdy.  Taxi meters = obligatory.  Me = King Of The World.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Friends like these


‘So, you know when we all staggered off to our rooms last night’ I sheepishly explained, head pounding, guts gurgling, and the black dog nipping at my heels, ‘well, two hours later I found myself standing in the closet, with the door closed behind me, absolutely convinced it was the bathroom’. 

Our two new Canadian friends raised their eyebrows, as if to say ‘go on’. 

‘Well, I eventually figured out that we didn’t have a bathroom in our room’ I continued, ‘and had to do that mental rolodex thing where you try to remember exactly where you are, and by extension where the shared bathroom is.  Except the mechanism of the rolodex was jammed by booze, so it took a bit longer than normal’. 

‘Ian, does this story end with you pissing in the wardrobe?’ they politely enquired.

‘Actually, no, it doesn’t, not this time.  I did however end up walking the length of the building in my boxer shorts.  I think I may have startled a young lady on the return trip’.

And so began the painful reconstruction of the previous night’s events that had started with a chance meeting on the way to La Paz, and ended with four new friends in their early thirties attempting to nonchalantly swagger out of a bar filled with a young party crowd.  It was only midnight.  We had peaked early.  And we were done for.  And, of course, the swagger we had aimed for on our exit, one that said ‘we’ve seen all this before kids, you have fun’, would have in reality been perceived, quite accurately, as ‘we’re drunk older people, please clear a path or we’ll vomit on your shoes’. 

It was the start of a friendship that I hope will endure, and has made me reflect on the nature of travelling friendships.  They’re funny things, laced with an unspoken set of rules, and riven with neuroses, paranoia and doubt.  It is, for example, a truism that the vast majority of the travelling community is friendly, much more so than one would experience in normal day to day life.  Yet it is also true that, as in day to day life, not everyone will like everyone, despite the best efforts of those involved.  It is no real surprise therefore that, despite the different context, solo travellers tend to fraternise more with other solo travellers and that couples tend to attract other couples.

So with this in mind it is interesting to observe the friendship ritual that plays out between travellers.  It is not dissimilar to the ritual one would observe when two singletons tentatively poke their toes into the world of dating.  There is an initial attraction, a gut feeling that you’d like to spend more time together, before one party takes the plunge and asks the other out – ‘we could share a taxi if you like, I mean if you don’t already have plans, it’s cool either way’.  Then that second of nervous waiting whilst the other party runs a rapid risk-reward calculation – are they psychos? Yes/ No? Will they be clingy? Yes/No?  Is this too much too soon? Yes/No? Will I wake up in a bathtub minus a kidney? Yes/No?  More often than not they will reply in the affirmative – ‘sure, that sounds great, and it’ll be cheaper’.  It’s after this ice has been broken that the real cat and mouse game begins, and sooner or later someone will pop the big ‘fancy coming back to mine for a coffee’ question, namely ‘so, where are you staying?’  The enquirer is at his most vulnerable at this stage for theirs is a question imbued with a multitude of implicit implications – if we’re in the same place we can hang out more, I’d like to hang out more, that’s because I like you, please like me back.  And so the game continues, for hours if you’re lucky, for days if you’re of a neurotic personality.  And then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, something clicks for both parties, and you’re friends, and that’s it. 

There aren’t any more awkward questions, or nervous silences, or things that you feel you can’t share.  Because you’re friends, and friends will support each other, without question, without delay and without judgement.  You realise that the game was worth it, and that your life and their life has become richer for it.  And you reflect on the phrase that ‘it is better to travel in hope rather than expectation’ and realise that surely the thing one must hope for most when they travel is friendship.  

< Well done to Christof who fought off virtually no stiff competition to claim the first prize in the most recent competition. Thanks for reading and for getting involved Christof!  Read the post and Christof's winning response here. > 

Monday, 12 December 2011

High and not so mighty

Peru: Colca Canyon, near Arequipa

I once heard it claimed that smokers cope better at high altitudes due to their pre-existing acquaintance with a lowered lung capacity.  This, I can now scientifically conclude, is bollocks.  It was one of the few notes, since scribbled off, that sat in the ‘pros’ column of my smoking checklist.  Its removal now leaves only ‘makes you look cool and grown up’ to prop up the increasingly imbalanced and utterly imaginary pro/con checklist I carry around with me.

This unfortunate epiphany was running through my mind as we started our three day trek down into the Colca Canyon just outside of Arequipa in southern Peru.  Gazing down from our vantage point at over 3,000 metres into the floor of the canyon, our guide traced his finger over the matchbox villages through which we would pass before lugging ourselves back out three days hence.  A condor sailed on the thermal currents above us, the sun cast mutating shadows against the canyon walls, and there was the type of silence that almost feels as if there is an echo in your ears.  A common conclusion would be that this moment qualified as tranquil, picturesque and exciting.  Not to me though, oh no.  This moment was marked by the unspoken assertion that this was going to be terrible. 

‘Are you Ok’? Helen asked, turning to me as we began to wind our way down the thin and rocky pathway that had been, over centuries, formed into the canyon wall.  ‘Yep, fine’ I curtly replied, keen not to give voice to my fears of how bad I was feeling.  Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author, refers to something he terms ‘cultural DNA’, an approach to life that individuals in a particular culture share throughout generations, often implicitly and without due recognition.  So, for example, descendants of the incredibly hard working rural Chinese carry with them the cultural DNA of hard work being the root of all success, a phenomenon that Gladwell claims is an often ignored contributing factor to the success Chinese students enjoy in North American schools.  I mention this because I think that somewhere in me there are cultural DNA remnants of stoicism and denial that those who survived the Blitz have since become famous for.  The ‘keep calm and carry on’ mind-set that scoffs at whingeing, and implores keeping one’s fears to themselves for fear of bringing the whole artifice of coping crashing down, is one I can relate to, even if it is just in an opaque and watered-down version.  Let’s be clear about this though; it is merely a small remnant of this cultural DNA.  I’m fairly certain I’d be thrown out of the Blitz Club for even writing an overly-confessional blog, let alone for comparing my mildly discomforting altitude sickness to the privations of wartime.  But I’m gonna do it anyway, because I felt bad, and it is my generation’s greatest indulgence to assume that everyone else actually cares how they feel, or to put it another way, what their status is.  
So we slipped and slid down the dry and rocky path, on a gradient that was never quite flat and never quite vertical, making each stride different to the last, allowing the only kind of rhythm to form being the one pounding in my head.  This is another of altitude’s symptoms – the pounding headache.  That, and severe irritability.  It was, on the one hand, nice to have a genuine reason for my severe irritability, but on the other hand makes it more difficult to pass it off as anything other than, well, severe irritability when I’m at sea level.  ‘I don’t think he understands how crappy I feel’ I whinged quietly to Helen during one of our rest stops.
I was referring to our guide, Juan, who was, in considered retrospect, one of the kindest, most considerate and patient men you could ever hope to meet.  Quite what I hoped he would, or could, do for me I have no idea, but it didn’t stop me mentally directing my ire of pounding head, aching knees, and gurgling stomach directly at him.  I know for a fact that if he had been overly solicitous I would have hated it, my distaste for being fussed over even greater than my reaction to altitude.  In short, he couldn’t have won, and I feel guilty for ever thinking such uncharitable thoughts.  At least I knew I was being irrational and tried hard to be polite and friendly to him - there is some pride to be found in keeping one’s manners, even if I lost all other tenets of respectability.  Not least when I lay flat on my back at the foot of the canyon, our descent complete, my legs screaming, my head pounding, my body sweating and shivering in equal measure, and uttered that most pathetic of phrases ‘you go on without me, leave me here’.  Even as I said it I had Vietnam B movie scenes rushing through my head, as if my mildly discomforting body aches were a comparison to a gut-blasting mortar attack. Of course, he didn’t leave me behind, instead gently explaining that our overnight stop was just thirty minutes away, through the DMZ a gentle stroll uphill.

Clustering in the kitchen of our overnight rest spot, the delightful Peruvian family fussing around the fire pit to prepare our evening meal, I sat shivering as guinea pigs cavorted around my feet.  ‘These are not pets, are they Juan’ I asked.  ‘No, Ian, they’re not’ he replied, picking up a plump black one and explaining that not only are the black ones considered to be the tastiest, but also the ones that can ward off sickness.  Circling the startled little beast across my chest, and then my head, he explained that I should now feel better.  Those of you who have gone into a pharmacy and never noticed the presence of plump black guinea pigs lined up on the shelves alongside the aspirin and Sudafed will not be surprised to know that this didn’t work.  As Tim Minchin succinctly puts it; alternative medicine that actually works is called, well, medicine.  I wanted it to work, I really did, but in reality the best use the guinea pig could have been put to would have been the following morning when, after a thirty yard desperate dash to the toilet, I dropped my own version of a napalm bomb and realised there was no toilet paper.  Sheepishly exiting the toilet I came face to face with Ciara, one of our fellow trekkers, who herself was dancing from foot to foot after her own thirty yard dash, and as we exchanged embarrassed ‘buenos dias’’  I slipped into the shower block to clean up.  Grabbing a guinea pig en route to act as a loofah.

The next couple of days passed in a blur of breathless trekking, sleep, and repeated thirty yard dashes, and whilst a small part of me could marvel at the incredible and other-worldly landscape we were trekking through, a bigger part of me was praying for the ordeal to be over.  The final part of the trek is a three hour rigorous ascent up the canyon and no sooner had Juan opened his mouth to explain this on our penultimate night I interjected with ‘I’ll take a donkey if it’s all the same to you’.  Clearly I wasn’t the first to shrivel at the prospect of this ascent and the local community had set up a handy, and no doubt lucrative, alternative to the trek by offering donkeys to ferry the weak up the canyon.  Saddling up my 6’4” frame, albeit somewhat lighter than a few days hence, onto the poor little donkey I felt just a twinge of shame, but not nearly enough to dismount and declare that ‘I ain’t gettin’ on no mule, you crazy fool’.  Plodding up the canyon we passed numerous other trekkers who had taken the hardy option, their faces alternating between disdain and envy as this seemingly healthy hulk of a man trotted past on a donkey whose look undoubtedly said ‘I didn’t sign up for this shit’.

Five days of rest, a course of antibiotics, a nerve wracking overnight bus to Cusco, an increasing familiarity with the inside of toilet stalls, and I was finally feeling well enough to visit Machu Picchu.  An experience that one would be foolish to miss, no matter how ill one was.  Not that we were foolish enough to attempt to trek it.  Oh no, we caught the train, and very civilised it was too, the vista of the ruins no less magnificent for having done it the easy way. 

And my new pet guinea pig just loved it!  The smelly little bastard. 

The long and winding road down Colca Canyon

Welcome to Boots/Pharmasave/Walgreen (delete as per location)

At the back.  Feeling irritable.

Machu Picchu.  Several Lbs lighter.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Searching for the human condition

The weird and wonderful world of t'internet searches

Search engines amaze me.  Surely, but surely, they are one of the modern wonders of the world, along with GPS, anything Steve Jobs touched, the Large Hadron Collider, and She Pees. Perhaps the She Pee will stop the she's peeing in the he's bathroom in clubs - girls, men's toilets are socially awkward enough places without you lot weird-ening up the vibe even more.  Why do you think we pee on the seats?  To warn you lot off.  That, and limited evolution.

Anyway, this post isn't exclusively or even predominantly concerned with the urination mores of the two sexes.  That, I'm certain, is available in explicit and eyebrow raising detail elsewhere.  No, it's about the search terms that people use before they click on a link to my blog.  Of course, if I wanted lots more search hits I'd just need to include the word 'sex' and its cousins lots of times in my posts, regardless of the true contents. But I'm not that shallow, nor that desperate for affirmation via page views, so I would never do it. (sexsexsexsexsexsexsexsexdeviancesexsexgreatestinventionofalltimeusedforthissexsexhairynipplessexsexvanessafeltzsexiwannapukesexsexyuckvanessafeltzsexsexbarfithappenedsexsexifeeluncleansexsex)

I checked my daily search stats when I got up this morning, idly and aimlessly, and was nudged awake by the single search term that had led an individual to my blog today:

Now this got me thinking. Is what I write so bleak that a search term such as this directs the searcher to my outpourings?  Has Google finally achieved a shortcut past expensive therapy and revealed the pathetic little nub of my human condition? 

And then I read the search term again, more clearly this time and noticed the spelling of 'neither'.  'Oh, that's OK', I thought, 'just another deviant searching for love in the nether regions'.  Or maybe they did really mean 'neither'.  I hope they're OK.  I really hope they didn't linger too long on the blog because I doubt it exactly brightened up their gloomy disposition.  If you're still there loveless - we love you.  Yes, all of us, in this lovely little readership community.  Group hug!  You're welcome here, really.  Just keep away from our nethers.

After this I thought I'd check my all time search term stats.  It revealed, in all its wonderful glory, the diversity, idiosyncrasy, and downright weirdness of the internet.  That, and how popular wookies are:

My particular favourite is 'mushroom chewbacca'. Now, just what exactly was that searcher looking for?  Was it the same person who was searching for 'bangkok shroomshake'?  Had they heard an urban myth about the tourist who necked a shroomshake, got all hairy, and started howling at the moon, before shooting off in their imaginary Millennium Falcon? The mind boggles.

And as for 'picture of a kitten on a steering wheel asking if it hit a dog', well that's anyone's guess.  In fact, no. It's your guess.  That's right, regulars, we have another competition.  Whoop whoop!  Come on down! Nice to see you, to see you nice.  All you have to do is stick an explanation in the comments field trying to explain this search term.  Funniest, weirdest and most creative wins.  If you post as 'anonymous' leave a name or handle so you can be identified and fawned over by me should you win.  The first prize is a Bangkok Shroomshake.

Let's see what you got.  Remember, who loves ya baby?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Have a little patience

Columbia: Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Cartagena, Mompos, San Gil, Bogota

It’s a game of two halves, Bob.  Six of one, half a dozen of t’other.  You win some, you lose some.  You can’t please all the people all the time.  Little bit ooh, little bit aar.  This is how I feel about the time we spent in Columbia.   

I like Columbia.  Let me just get that out there.  I like it, a lot.  The people are charming; ready to smile and laugh, proud of their country, and patient with our still spluttering attempts at their mother tongue.  The landscape is lush and varied, the climate sublime, and the preserved colonial architecture quaint and evocative.  We didn’t get kidnapped.  There is a lot to like, and a lot I did like.

And yet, and yet.  It’s not as if anything went wrong per se, it’s just that sometimes things didn’t go quite right.  To be fair this wasn’t exactly ‘Columbia’s’ fault; blaming an inert nation state for your woes is a leap too far, even for me.  It was the repeated drip-drip-drip of our failed attempts to organise various activities, all kyboshed by pure bad luck, that formed the ‘not quite right’ part of our time in Columbia.  Obviously, I don’t actually believe in luck any more than I believe in fate, destiny, astrology or fairies.  But like a spoilt brat of a child I want things to go right all the time.  Who doesn’t?  When things don’t go right I get pissed off, in that utterly futile and unproductive way that characterises impatient people.  And I’m an impatient person, an impatience that borders on the pathological.  “Nobody patient ever changed the world” I once haughtily said to a friend who was gently telling me to be patient, only to be met with a humbling peal of incredulous laughter and the simple but indisputable counter-argument of “Nelson Mandela”?  Fair point. But still, I want my cake and I want to eat it.  That’s why I ordered it.

So if the cake is Columbia – delicious and exotic – then I reckon I got to eat half of it.  Like a greedy fatty I can savour the half I got, but still lament and be impatient with the half I didn’t.   The time we spent in Cartagena exemplifies this gluttony and impatience neatly.  Cartagena is staggeringly beautiful, the walled old town a warren of preserved colonial architecture, each corner revealing an exotic vista of stucco, flower-powered balconies, and at street level vendors ready to sell you dirt cheap but field-fresh fruit to nibble as you happily and aimlessly stroll.  As if this wasn’t enough to sate the glutton then there was also the fact that we’d ended up in Cartagena the weekend of their Independence Celebration, an event that the whole city marks with a gay abandon and the colourful joie de vivre that is so often shorthand for Latin American passion.  Colours, sounds and squirty spray cream; that was the tableau we were treated to, as we wandered through the throng, sporadically getting sprayed by smiling Columbians, a spray that said ‘welcome, join us’ rather than ‘gringo, this isn’t your party’.  Sitting on the wall that rings the old town in the afternoon sun, several beers to the good, we watched the Independence Day parade salsa past in a riot of noise, glitter, sequins and feathers.  With each passing float and each sunken beer I softened, my love for Cartagena growing, my distaste of Organised Fun Plc. lessening.  It was everything that London’s crime heavy and hostile Notting Hill Carnival should be, but isn’t.

On the flip side is the day excursion we took to a mud volcano (Volcan de Lodo El Totumo), just outside of Cartagena, a tourist trap of such staggering proportions that I took an instant dislike to it.  My mood was already darkening as we passed through small towns en route to the volcano, each one with several makeshift roadblocks attempting to halt the bus’s progress.  These roadblocks weren’t manned by shifty looking, gun toting and bribe hungry cops however.  No, these roadblocks were manned by a motley collection of small kids, holding a length of rope across the road, and dropping it at the last minute as it became clear the driver had no intention of stopping.  These kids have grown up in a culture of official roadblocks, run to the dictates of unofficial bribery and corruption.  They see authority figures creaming off bribe after bribe after bribe and think to themselves ‘I’ll have a bit of that’.  So, these kids were just emulating their elders, or were pushed out by parents to do a bit of speculative begging, the law of percentages dictating that sooner or later a group of gringos will stop and dole out goodies.
I deplore this kind of thing, seeing it as a tumour on a society, the tumour of low scale corruption that eats away at a society’s health.  So I was surprised to see, when leafing through a copy of Lonely Planet’s Columbia guidebook in the common room of a guesthouse, that one of their author’s referred to this type of activity as ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’.  Incredulous at the naivety of the author, I may even have said out loud, albeit to myself, “what a fucking idiot”.  Teaching children that this type of thing is OK by handing out unearned rewards just isn’t cool.  Because the next step is the same child, a little older and a little harder, pulling a knife on a gringo in a dark alley in the learned knowledge that ‘gringos give out stuff, and I want some stuff’.  This isn’t ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’, it’s worrying and regressive.  Kids going to school, a social welfare programme that cushions them against poverty, a public health system that turns nobody away, a society that values the rule of law and promotes social mobility – that’s ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’.  Support that by donating to charities that address these big picture concerns or just buy something from them. Don’t hand out sweets and coins to kids who have no access to dental care, but do have a very real need to understand that reward takes effort.
Oh, and whilst we’re doling out advice, don’t be impatient and try to get into the ten foot square mud pool at the soft sun-baked side.  You’ll break the wall, receive some tuts from the other tourists who have been squashed into the pool, and feel, quite justifiably, like an idiot.  Jostling for space in the viscous mud, trying to avoid eye contact with everyone else, I reflected that this wasn’t really my idea of fun, just as a stray foot slapped unseen through the mud and nailed me in the nuts. “Can we get out now please Helen” I asked.  “Well, er, no, we’ve literally just got in, be patient”.  So I let five minutes pass, my face set to convey the messages of ‘I’m having fun’, ‘I’m a patient person’, and ‘I’m a muddy tourist doing something ker-azy’.  Of course, my mind was actually saying ‘this is rubbish’, ‘this is a money pit not a mud pit’, and ‘you kick me in the balls again and this will be your muddy grave chico’. “Can we get out now please” I repeated.  “Yeh, OK, I’ve had someone’s leg between mine for the last couple of minutes and I’m starting to think they’re liking it there a bit too much” replied Helen, in a whisper.  So we got out, washed ourselves off in the lake, and retired to a shack to have a drink, and wait for everyone else.  It was a nervous wait in my case, my cap pulled low on my head, sunglasses firmly in place, as I tried to avoid detection as the hairy flabby gringo who’d just broken their mud wall.  A confrontation and subsequent negotiation about how much I should pay for them to slap a bit more mud onto their wall to repair the, at most, cosmetic damage was something I really didn’t want to engage in.  Pulling out of the parking lot, still undetected, felt like the Great Escape.  As I shook my trouser leg to deposit some mud onto the floor of the bus.

There’s a moral to this story somewhere.  I’ve been trying to work it out for the last twenty minutes.  I thought perhaps it was about that fact that you can’t always get what you want.  Then I thought no, it’s about realising that you can’t ever really know, for sure, what you actually want.  And now I’m thinking that it’s not about what you want at all, because what you want isn’t important.  What you want and what actually happens to you sometimes, indeed often, doesn’t match up. So perhaps the moral is to understand and accept this, and develop the patience that allows you to embrace both triumph and adversity, and the gumption to treat both as opportunities.  

Nobody patient ever changed the world.  But they probably enjoyed it a lot more.     

'Welcome, Join us'.  Eat some foam.

Panorama of the old town in Cartagena
Queuing like ants to get into a mud bath with lots of other ants - Volcan de Lodo El Totumo - 

Useful stuff

OK, some bits 'n' bobs about the places we visited in Columbia.  If you’ve skipped the article above to get straight to this useful part then good for you – your impatience should be applauded.

Santa Marta

  • We stayed at La Brisa Loca hostel and enjoyed it very much.  A grand old restored building with an open air atrium, swimming pool, great bar, roof terrace and comfortable dorms and private rooms.  It’s undoubtedly got a traveller vibe about it, and this can be fun, in small doses.  It’s run by two charming American brothers.  They also run volunteering programmes, starting at a minimum of one week.
Tayrona National Park

  • Getting to the park entrance is easy by public bus; the stop is located on the other side of the public market in Santa Marta.  Your guesthouse will be able to provide directions.  Getting back to Santa Marta from the park entrance is similarly simple – buses stop all the time, so just hop on the first one that comes by.
  • Entrance fee to the park is 35,000 pesos (approx. $18) at time of writing, which you pay at the stand at the park entrance, getting a wristband in return. Jump in one of the minibuses that will take you the 10 minutes into the start of the park proper (4,000 pesos, $2).
  • The hike through the jungle is relatively tough going, but well worth the effort.  There are horses that can be hired to ride you in if you prefer (14,000 pesos, $7, or a bag of carrots).  Pack light.
  • The hike to the first camping spot, Arrecifes, takes about an hour, at which point you’ll leave the jungle and hit the first beach.  We wish we’d stayed there, but carried on instead to Cabo St Juan, an hour further along the beach.
  • Cabo St Juan is indisputably beautiful although the set-up there could be improved.  There are a small number of cabins for rent, and also a small number of hammocks available on a rock overlooking the sea.  Stay in these if you can – the sea breeze will cut the night time humidity.  They were full so we had to stay in the hammock area set back from the beach.  It was cramped, the night was muggy, and the hammocks could have done with a wash.  The food is OK, although it did feel a little like a refugee camp as everyone gathered together in the evening under the harsh fluorescent lights of the thatched restaurant and then queued to order their food.  Albeit a refugee camp with an amazing view.
  • There’s a boat that runs between Taganga (near Santa Marta) and Cabo St Juan in the park, if you don’t fancy the hike (although I’d recommend hiking at least one way).
Panorama of Cabo St Juan in Tayrona NP

  • We stayed at Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani area just outside the old town.  The staff were fantastically helpful, the rooms comfortable and the roof terrace pleasant.  It wasn’t really a party hostel so if that’s your kind of thing then try Media Luna Hostel, just round the corner in a beautifully restored colonial building.
  • El Bistro is a great restaurant in the old town, particularly for their set lunch which is more inventive and tasty than the usual ‘menu del dia’ offerings.
  • The mud volcano – don’t let me put you off, everyone else on our trip seemed to enjoy it.  I'm just a miserable bastard.

  • Getting from Cartagena to Mompos was surprisingly easy, and took about 7 hours in total.  Taxi to bus terminal in Cartagena, bus to Magangue, boat to Bodega, shared taxi to Mompos.  I recommend leaving Cartagena early just in case the boats don’t run all day.  The total cost for the trip was about 60,000 ($30) pesos each.
  • Mompos is a beautiful old town, a UNESCO world heritage site.  There is very little to do other than wander around and enjoy the architecture.  Personally, I think they need to clean the place up as it was awash with litter, particularly the river.  Is it worth visiting?  I’m not sure to be honest, it’s quite the detour.
  • If you do go then La Casa Amarilla is a decent place to stay, a restored riverside house.  The staff were friendly enough, and the rooms were OK.  The deluxe rooms looked really nice, and the dorms only had four beds in each.
  • Getting from Mompos to San Gil takes a bloody long time, about 18 hours.  Leave early.  We took a boat to El Banco at 7.30am (2 hours), waited around in El Banco bus terminal for a couple of hours for the bus to Bucaramanga, got taken back to the El Banco port, put on another boat (20 mins), got on our bus to Bucaramanga in the middle of nowhere (8 hours ride), changed buses at Bucaramanga’s nice bus terminal for the 3 hour ride to San Gil.  Total cost approx. 100,000 pesos ($50) per person.
Mompos from the water

San Gil

  • Hostel Santander Aleman is a smart guesthouse, with breakfast included.  They could do with extending their Wi-Fi coverage to the second and third floors.
  • Gringo Mike’s does good, large portioned, western food and is run by the eponymous Mike, an émigré from Seattle.  Mike also organises mountain biking tours that look great.  I say look great as I was booked to do one but it was cancelled at the last minute due to vehicle problems.  Not his fault though, and he clearly knows his stuff, has top notch bikes, and is a nice bloke to boot.

  • We stayed at La Pinta, in the north of the city.  It was OK but I’d recommend you looked for somewhere else.  The showers were pitiful, the location seemed a long way out of the main historic area, and they asked me if I wanted to tip three times when I was checking out.  I’m normally a good tipper but this pissed me off.
  • Bogota Bike Tours was brilliant.  Really brilliant.  Can’t recommend it highly enough.  For 30,000 pesos you get a five hour tour around the city with the erudite and interesting Mike, seeing areas that you realistically couldn’t cover on foot.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Black Dolphin makes a splash

Venezuela: Puerto Columbia, Barinas, Los Llanos and Merida

“Elena es alegre con bonita cabella.  Ian es gordo”, explained our new Spanish tutor, Fluvio, in order to illustrate both the ‘to be’ Spanish verbs and the new adjectives we were learning.  “Helen is, er, cheerful” I attempted to translate back, “with beautiful hair, and Ian is, um, er, I’m sorry what is gordo”?  “Gordo means fat Ian”.  “Oh, OK, so Helen is cheerful with beautiful hair and I am fat, I see”.  Had this explanation not been said with an irascible twinkle in Fluvio’s eye I might have concluded that this was less of a language class and more of a hard-core, take no prisoners, the truth sometimes hurts fatty, version of Weight Watchers.  Holding my stomach in for the rest of the class we continued with the verbs and adjectives and then all adjourned to a local bar for pizza and beer.  Fluvio and I shared a large pizza.  I let him have the final slice.

Keen-eyed readers of my previous post will be keen to know if Fluvio did, indeed, turn up for our first lesson in stockings and suspenders, thereby permanently consigning my Spanish language ambitions into a grubby little box marked ‘don’t bother, too weird’.  He didn’t.  What we got instead was a delightful, diminutive and dramatic young man, born to be an actor first and a teacher close second.  Fluvio has the most surprising accent on account of the three years he spent living in the UK, an accent that morphs mid-sentence between the places he lived; from Liverpool to Newcastle to Cardiff to Bath and finally to London, all shot through with a soft Latin American warmth and a rolling of the r’s. 

For us this educational arrangement has been perfect; a few hours of private lessons in our makeshift classroom on the open air terrace of our posada (guesthouse) in Merida, south-west Venezuela.   The vista of the Andes mountains is off to our right, and a steady stream of other travellers pop by and do their best not to giggle as we ride roughshod over the subtleties of Spanish grammar and pronunciation.  Despite this, the lessons seem to be working.  Up to a point anyway.  Yesterday I confidently, and very politely, purchased two bus tickets from a swarthy chap in the Merida bus terminal (la terminal de autobuses, linguistics fans).  That’s the point we’re up to.  The rest of what passes for a conversation is still beyond me, not least because I have virtually no idea of what people are saying to me in return.  A crinkled brow and a speculative ‘si?’ tends to be what my interlocutor gets by way of a response.  Perhaps this is why I received a raised eyebrow from our ticket friend, clearly expressing his surprise that these gringos actually wanted to be near the toilet on a long distance bus.

Merida has been our home for the last week, a stop longer than we’d usually make, but one which has not only given us the opportunity to mangle the Spanish language, but also to consolidate some friendships we’d begun to make on a trip to Los Llanos.  Los Llanos is a wildlife rich area of protected flatlands in the south east corner of Venezuela, and we were on a four day trip with five other folk, all European, all utterly charming, crammed together in the back of old but dependable Toyota Land Cruiser.  Helen and I had joined the rest of the group in the city of Barinas which we’d travelled to from the seaside town of Puerto Columbia on Venezuela’s northern Caribbean coast.   And when I say ‘travelled’ what I really mean, at least for the first part of the trip, is ‘catapulted at warp speed over mountain roads in the back of a taxi’. 

Sitting in the back of the taxi, being rocked from side to side as the driver took sharp turn after sharp turn, there were three things going through my mind, excluding the obvious ‘new-pants-required’ fear.  Firstly, there was envy of the driver’s advanced vision for surely, surely, nobody would drive that fast through thick fog, head stuck out of the window to overcome the heavy tint on his windscreen, unless they were gifted with vision superpowers.  Secondly, I was thinking back to a day I had spent rally driving and, in particular, to the lap I did with the professional driver, on a closed course that he knew like the back of his gloved hand.  Now, the rally driver drove fast, that’s his job, but the taxi driver, I’m convinced, was driving faster. On a mountain.  That was covered in fog. And had big drops down into the valley.  Finally, the driver had eschewed the traditionally fluffy dice on his rear view mirror, opting instead for a sticker that sat across the centre of the mirror that read ‘Speed King’.  Well, quite.

You know the end to this particularly story however, given that communication from beyond the grave isn’t yet possible (it’s what the genius Steve Jobs was working on apparently, perhaps still is).  We arrived safely, if shaken and stirred, and after an overnight bus ride found ourselves at Barinas’ bus terminal at three o’clock in the morning.  Our rendezvous with the rest of the group wasn’t until noon, so we presented ourselves at the steel gated reception desk of a so-called ‘love motel’ outside the bus station.  Another strained conversation in Spanish, another raised eyebrow from the receptionist (‘a couple checking in at 3am, with huge rucksacks; must be their kinky toolkit’), and we had our palace for the night.  Now, there were many things that went through my mind when I opened the room door, but ‘love’ wasn’t one of them.  Foremost in my mind were the scenes in CSI when the glamorous team pass an ultraviolet light over a hotel room’s bed-sheets, give each other knowing looks as purple blobs appear, and say ‘well, at least he went out with a bang’.  The bed we were about to sleep in would, I’m quite certain, appear under the glow of the CSI kit as one giant purple blob.  A picture of this room would be a good accompaniment to the definition of ‘seedy’ in the dictionary.  On the plus side, if it turns out that Helen conceived in this dingy hole in dingy Barinas we would at least have a clear candidate for a boy’s name; Barry.  Or Grimy.  Barry’s probably better.  Just.

Rising in the morning, and after a shower from which I emerged feeling even dirtier than I did when I went in, I decided to shave my head.  It seemed like the type of thing one should do in a seedy anonymous motel.  Like we were on the run from the cops whilst we tried to clear our names from a government conspiracy, and needed to disguise our identity until we had proof, proof god-damnit, that it was the vice-president whodunit and that ‘this thing’ went higher than anyone would ever believe.  Suitably disguised we met with our temporary traveller companions (“should we give them our real names Helen’? “We’re not really on the run Ian, now remember to be friendly to the nice people darling”, she replied).  It wasn’t, as it transpired, difficult to be friendly to these people as they were, indeed, nice.  Two Germans, one Dane, one Swiss, and a fellow Brit, we made up an EU Summit of travellers.  The group were incredibly accommodating to our lack of Spanish skills (and lack of German, Danish and Swiss German skills for that matter), and were happy to shift between languages to make us feel included.  Of course, we felt ashamed and embarrassed, and not for the first time I marvelled at the infinitely superior language skills of our mainland European cousins.  I worked in the Netherlands for over three years, in a very cosmopolitan environment where the business language was English, and I never stopped being amazed that my European colleagues could engage in complex and occasionally sensitive discussions with a fluency and incisiveness that made a mockery of it being in their second, or sometimes third, language.  Of course, sooner or later we’ll all have to learn Mandarin as the global balance of power shifts east.  But I’ll be living in a cave eating lichen and talking to myself by that time anyway so for now I’ll just stick to the point-of-need Spanish.

Language shame aside we spent four great days in the Los Llanos area, sleeping in hammocks, spotting caimans and capybaras (or moomins as I preferred to call them), piranha fishing, horse riding and white water rafting.  On a boat trip through the backwaters on the third day we were circled by pink dolphins, the freshwater cousins of the ‘thanks Noel, swimming with dolphins was a dream come true’ grey variety, who were, and don’t tell them I said this, a bit uglier than their grey counterparts, with bunched up snouts and squinty blind eyes that were redundant in the murky underwater world of echolocation.  Having been told in no uncertain terms at the commencement of the ride that we should keep our hands inside the boat (piranhas; whole cow; three minutes was the gist of this warning) it was a surprise, to say the least, when one of the local guides, a cheerful and chubby chap, dove off the boat into the water, seemingly apropos of nothing.  To the laughs and shouts of the other guides (“that’s why we call him Black Dolphin! Swim, Black Dolphin, swim! Ha ha ha”) he emerged, shivering, from the murky water clutching a river turtle, its little fleshy snorkel nose giving away its location to Black Dolphin, a hunter-gatherer of distinction.

The trip was time well spent, affording us the opportunity not only to venture into the Venezuelan hinterland but also to re-engage with other travellers, something we’d missed during our time in the States.  I now just need to get rid of that rash I picked up in the love motel, and we’re laughing.

Helen loungin' in the luurve motel.  Class.
Rooftop wildlife spotting in Los Llanos with Marc (centre)
Where's Tonto?
Black Dolphin displays his catch
With Fluvio (L), Spanish teacher extraordinaire

Useful stuff

I’ve decided, given the large number of folks who seem to visit this blog in hope of finding some useful information and who no doubt leave feeling cheated, to include a few notes at the end of each post that could be defined as ‘useful’.  Moreover, if you’ve got this far down you’ll have got through the claptrap above, and a reward for this is surely the least one should expect.  Here goes…

Puerto Columbia

  • We stayed at Casa Luna, run by the ludicrously helpful Claudia.  A double room with air-con cost us about 18 euros.
  • Claudia will change money at a decent (black market) rate and also has a paypal account she accepts transfers into
Night bus from Maracay to Barinas
  •  We took a taxi from Puerto Columbia to Maracay then hopped on a night bus to Barinas.  It took approx. 6 hours and cost 100 bolivars each. 
  • Night buses are famously air-conditioned to the max.  I liked this, far preferring feeling cold to hot.  Take some warm stuff if you feel the cold.

  • Motel Sierra Nevada opposite the bus station is the name of the place I refer to above.  It’s not available on as far as I can make out.
Los Llanos

  • We did a four day, three night tour with a Merida based company called Gravity Tours, run by the helpful Gustavo.  It cost us 140 euros each including everything except obvious stuff like booze.
  • Sleeping diagonally on a hammock is easier than (trying) to sleep straight.
  • Take bug spray.
  • We stayed at a fantastic place called Posada La Montana.  It has a beautiful atrium full of greenery, comfortable rooms and a decent restaurant attached.  Double room was 180 bolivars per night.
  • We bought our tickets for the night bus from Merida to Maracaibo at the station in the morning of our departure date, with a bus company called Merida Express.  You can probably risk just turning up and buying a ticket, but as it was a weekend we opted otherwise.  The ticket was 90 bolivars.  You need to buy a 4 bolivar departure token from a small desk inside the terminal before boarding the bus.  We didn’t, had a confusing discussion with the collector, and had to dive off and grab one before the bus left.
  • We went on a one day canyoning trip, again with Gravity Tours.  Canyoning, in this instance, is scrambling up a canyon and then abseiling back down through the waterfalls.  It was great, but overpriced at $55 USD per person for what was, in effect, a two hour activity.