Wednesday, August 31, 2005

  Dirty laundry in public

“Listo, per favor?” I bound in confidently asking the receptionist as I wave my laundry receipt, as if my confident boundiness makes up for my admittedly-less-than-fucking-brilliant Spanish.

She looks embarrassed.

But I notice she is unable to prevent her eyes wandering towards the frantic activity that surrounds her.

A middle-aged man to her right (my left) is folding my T-shirt.

An old man to her left (my right) is folding my underpants.

I look embarrassed.

Watching strangers fold my clothing would grate against my whole intrinsic Englishness at the best of times. But when that clothing happens to be my oldest, baggiest, downright dankest pair of underpants, that grating becomes amplified. And when that stranger happens to be a meek-looking old man, that grating is singing from the rooftops.

It shouldn’t have happened like this.

I’d stretched a week’s supply of laundry for a fortnight, unable to wash it either on-boat or in a weekend-closed city. Which called for a certain amount of creativeness: not just stretching out useage beyond the hygenic optimum, but mixing swimming trunks with formal trousers, for example, or on one extreme day wearing my Dating Pants without a date in sight on the horizon. So, first thing in the morning in Santiago, I’d put my laundry in. And then courteously arrived fifteen minutes later than it was due be ready, in a city which had otherwise hitherto shown itself to be a model of efficiency. Even if that fifteen minutes had in actuality been caused by my less-than-efficient getting lost and having to flag a cab back to the launderette.

But, happen it did. And, suddenly realising the owner of their current load is present, both men (middle-aged and old) immediately start putting additional effort into their folding. The middle-aged man folds the sleeves of my T-shirt in perfect symmetry. The old man methodically, meticulously, and completely unnecessarily folds the torn edges of my dank underpants.

Embarrassed, I hastily pay the embarrassed receptionist, who takes the folded load of the embarrassed men, and leave, still embarrassed.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

  Winter wonderland

Thirty-five degrees centigrade.

That’s what I´d got used to in Guayaquil. Tropical. Toe-toasting.

But, stepping outside, I realise I had indeed heard the pilot correctly as we landed.

For some reason, I’d had it in my head this would be an ´internal flight´. Which, in continental terms, of course, it was. Except this is a fucking huge continent. Five hours, two countries, one time-zone and over 2,500 miles later, I´m in Santiago, Chile.

And it’s two degrees centigrade outside.

I shiver in my North Face microfleece, ignore the recommendations of the commission-earning cabbies to book my preferred hostel, flag a cab outside and, before day fully breaks, am checked in.

Although tired, I’m awake enough to observe it’s an impressive, converted-mansion of a hostel on a bohemian outskirt of the city. Elegant chandelier-adorned wooden corridors make their way to large rooms. One of which is mine. It’s huge. Which means it’s fucking freezing. The rising sun shines eery crucifix-shaped light through the window-shutters and I huddle under my four layers of blanket for some much-needed kip.

Rustling a couple of hours dozing, I make my way out downtown.

“Romeo’s Cafe”, the neon sign flashes, its implicit Italian-ness and use of colour indicating an establishment from which would eminate the unmistakeable arome of strong coffee.

But as I approach, I smell no coffee. Instead, I hear bad Eurodisco. I see the cafe is blacked-out, its doorway blocked my 1970s style multicoloured bead strings. And see ‘Romeo´s’ logo rather resembles a labia. This is enough to tell me this is no ordinary cafe, and I turn back before my sense of touch is tested.

I walk past a cinema, and briefly check its listings. Unsure if ‘Pure Anal’ is a romantic comedy, I continue on before checking the rest.

I walk into a small restaurant, and order myself a cappucinno. Outside, I watch a stray dog suck its erect cock.

Once again, Unlucky man had truly arrived. I sip my drink, soaking up the ambience.
Monday, August 29, 2005

  Ecuador'd out

I´m staying at the Hilton.

Not staying in an overnight sense, you understand, just for the day.

But all bloody day.

And it´s hard work, I can tell you.

Because, after the weekend’s aborted airticket-buying mission, I’m determined to see somewhere other than Ecuador so am back in the Hilton’s travel agency to meet the only person who could possibly help. And help, they do. Within half-hour, I have onward tickets booked to Santiago, Buenos Aires and Curacao, my final destination before heading back to London. Which leaves me – ooh – just over twelve hours to fill before my overnight flight.

I’m stuck at the Hilton.

“I’m sure it won’t be a problem” reassures the concierge, before he consults the luggage storage manager as to whether a non-staying guest who has politely explained will be staying all day spending mucho dollares in their bar, restaurants and shops, could kindly store their rucksack for a few hours, before he returns with shaking head. “I’m so sorry, Sir” he apologises, “but I did try.”

So, burdened with my rucksack and daypack, unshaven in T-shirt and travel combats, I wander among the besuited guests, conference attendees and dignitaries like a sore thumb. For hours. And hours. And hours.

I pick up my tickets. Wander round the shops. Pick up a Miami Herald. Have a beer whilst watching Fox Sports in Spanish. Wander round a bit more. Have some lunch. Read the Miami Herald. Have another beer whilst watching Fox Sports in Spanish. See if I can pre-book at Hilton Curacao. Find out I can’t. Wander into their internet cafe. Wander out again after discovering the price. Grab a snack. Read some of my book. Consider getting my haircut, before deciding that too would be expensive, besides which I’m headed for colder climes. So have another beer whilst watching Fox Sports in Spanish.

I’m tired, and the sun hasn’t even set yet.

But through the day, I have noticed an increasing police presence. Rolling out of red carpet. Setting up of a security checkpoint outside the main lobby. Minutes before I’m due to leave, a TV crew arrive, and I watch an agitated reporter rehearsing his lines before the live transmission.

Just as things are getting interesting, it’s time to go.

I leave to find numerous police surrounding the main lobby, walk down the red carpet up to the security checkpoint and see a plethora of cameras before me.

Stepping into a cab outside, I ask what’s going on.

“El presidente del policei” he explains, before continuing in fucking brilliant Englsih, “he gives a talk to-night.”

Airport security’s going to be like London during the G8 summit, I think, as we speed ahead to the airport.
Sunday, August 28, 2005


Having aborted the previous day’s efforts to book onward tickets (everywhere I was told would be open and/or helpful either closed or with the only person who could possibly help not back til Monday), I decide to spend the day with my toes out at the Parrot hostel.

The Strange Old Man is sawing a piece of wood to cover the small manhole cover by the pool, as his Strange Old Woman looks on appreciatively.

I read my book, and catch up on my post.

Once of the benefits of having someone as reliable as BankBoy look after the Unlucky flat whilst I’m away, is he’s considerate enough to forward on my Important Looking Post.

My attention naturally gravitates to the California-franked envelope adorned with a name I don’t recognise.

“I am a visual effects editor working in Hollywood” the extremely meek and polite letter begins, “and am writing to you with a very special request.”

“Please read the following message and enclosed magazine article” it continues, “I look forward to meeting you soon.”

“I am on a quest for signatures from the cast and crew of ALL SIX FILMS on one very special STAR WARS movie poster” it explains, “You are one of the few who has not yet signed this poster”.

It goes on to urge me to join the ranks of Lucas, Neeson and McGregor in compelling detail.

I realise immediately what has happened.

Having Google-searched myself previously, I am already aware of my namesake having starred in the first film.

I reread the letter to my amusement as to how it makes no acknowledgement of even the remotest possibility that it may find its way to the wrong person.

So my dilemma is: (a) Own up that it wasn’t me; or (b) Agree to meet the rubbish stalker in London and sign his poster thus invalidating the worth of his labour of love?
Saturday, August 27, 2005

  Mean streets

“I think it’s this way!” I confidently tell one of my Galapagos companions, as we bound out for the Scottish Rock Bar back in Guayaquil.

We pass an old man carrying a big gun.

“I think it’s this way!” she confidently tells me, perusing my map.

We pass another old man carrying another big gun.

“Very religous but very wild” I’d commented to the Laid-Back American in a Quito club but a few days into my arrival, observing the arguable double-standard of crucifix-wearing Catholic girls having tequila poured down their throats as she shook their stuff on top of bar tables.

“Religous and wild” agreed the Laid-Back American, “but with an oddly high tolerance for crime.”

Back in Guayaquil, the local rozzers roll past, and don’t bat an eyelid. So we safely assume the old men to fall under the banner of ´Securidad´ rather than be part of any underground tourist-shooting gang.

We finally locate the Scottish Rock Bar again, where we are met by the soft Scottish rock of Annie Lennox dueting ´Under Pressure´ with David Bowie on the overhead screens.
Friday, August 26, 2005

  Tip-Top time

“So, what did we miss?” asked the Sarcastic Anglo-German tourist.

Just days previously, I had been the one trailing group. The shameful laggard. Yet here I was, but days later, heading the group. Their natural leader.

“Well,” I replied, boastfully, “you missed me wrestling a shark.”

“You wrestled a shark on dry land?” queried the Obese American tourist, the sarcastic nature of her questioning mirroring that or the Sarcastic Anglo-German, and the disbelieving nature of her tone mirroring that of Disbelieving Swiss.

“Yes” I defended, feeling myself lose ground, “I detected a new species. And you all missed it.”

It´s difficult to summise an experience as eye-opening and galvanizing as the Galapagos Islands, so I won´t attempt to do them justice here. The islands are quite simply unique to our planet in the degree to which the Park staff, guides, and supporting scientists are volunteers work together to sustain their combined mission of keeping the islands “undisturbed by man”.

But for me personally it was an experience of many firsts, beyond nature. So not just the first time I had swum with a penguin. For it was also the first time I´d had my personal future predicted by a self-proclaimed clairvoyant yet clearly barking-mad Italian woman as we strolled avoiding turtle-eggs on the beach. And the first time I´d been shouted at by relative strangers for steadfastdly continuing to read my book and refuse to join in the crew´s game of football whilst a sixty-eight year old mad inflicted facial injuries upon himself as he repeatedly crashed to the rocky, sandy ground. Not to mention the first time I´d sat through an entire Shakira album – though this happened several times, as the barman had unwittingly left it on repeat play.

Above all though the journey through the islands of San Cristobal, Genovesa, Santiago, Santa Cruz and Floreana exposed me to the most diverse array of terrain and fearless animals I had ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

“It´s not raining” explained our guide, as we ascended the lush highlands, “Due to the high altitude and low cloud-cover, we call this guara.”

“It´s sure not-raining hard” I replied, slightly cynically.

“So, what happened to Tip-Top One?” I later asked her, at an opportune moment.

“Ah” she replied, clearly having answered this question many times before, “Tip-Top One met a rather sorry end…”
Friday, August 19, 2005

  It could happen to anyone

“I can´t believe that just happened to you!” exclaimed the bizarrelly-Irish-accented Swiss girl sharing my cab to the airport as she stared at the blood seeping from my cut hand just minutes after I had held her responsible for my almost getting run over by an overeagerly-driven bus whilst I waited for her to pick up her delayed laundry, the aghast look on her face evidence of her sincere disbelief.

“It didn´t” I reassured, matter-of-factly, “I just did that as I was putting my rucksack in the back of the cab.”

I tutted at Disbelieving Swiss´s naïve stupidity, in exactly the same way the old Ecuadorian woman had tutted me as I ran out of the way of the oncoming bus.

Bemused at our instructions to arrive at the airport over two hours before departure for what was after all only a domestic flight, the reason soon became apparent as the relative calm of improvised queuing, luggage checks, more queuing, security checks, more queuing and eventual check-in gave way to the superseding storm that was the hordes of passengers who had clearly not received similar instructions.

“I´ve been booked on a boat called Tip-Top Two” I explained to Disbelieving Swiss as we boarded our plane. “Which concerns me”, I continued, “as what could possibly have happened to Tip-Top One? Because if Tip-Top One had really been tip-top, there would be no possible room for improvement and a successor.”

Disbelieving Swiss looked worriedly and disbelievingly at my rucksack-inflicted wound, already improved from the power of self-healing.

On landing I left Disbelieving Swiss to follow some Germans she´d spotted compliantly wearing ´Tip Top Two´ badges to locate my guide and my hopefully-safe boat.
Thursday, August 18, 2005

  New best mate

“I´m glad I´m walking with you” I complimented my newfound fellow Essex traveller, as we headed out through the threatening streets of Guayaquil´s relatively affluent northern suburbs, “because you have got a tattoo.”

“I´m glad I´m walking with you”, he replied returning the compliment, “because you´re a tall bastard.”

He was right, a short tattooed man alone was not going to help us out of trouble. Short Tattooed Essex Traveller´s girlfriend remained silent, but it was obvious she was glad to be walking with us both. Combined with a tall unlucky man, we were all safe.

Our evening preceded a ´filler´day, the city being the necessary stopoff to fly to Galapagos, but not a bad stopoff at that.

Following my guide´s recommendations to a tee, I´d eschewed the unspectacular centre in favour of its Millennium-regenerated waterfront, an impressive showcase of modern architecture, planted parkland, and entertainment & leisure complexes. Spanning the entire city, it was a positive example of what Ecuador can become. Stepping aside only to check out the city´s iguana-populated plaza (like Soho Square, just with iguanas in place of bronzed gay gentlemen), I strolled for a few hours, before ascending the 450 steps up pastel-coloured Mediterranean-style Las Penas walkways up to the traditional Santa Ana church overlooking the city – purely because it was there, so I could say I had done it. I done it! Not only in 35 centigrade heat. But also with a stonking hangover, the sole fault of the Tattooed Essex Traveller.

As I had been enjoying a restful afternoon, I of course could not possibly have known of the nightmare day my yet-to-be-met Tattooed Essex Couple (only he tattooed. And from Essex. To the best of my knowledge) were experiencing in their attempts to book a bus across the Peruvian border.

“It´ll just be one of their banana strikes again” the Hippyhostel owner was reassuring them as I returned, the Strange Old Man rubbing an etching against the textured tiles bordering the pool. “It´ll all have blown over by tomorrow.”

Which is how our Essex-shared paths crossed so many thousands of miles away from home.

It was good to share a cab with someone with worse Spanish pronunciation than my own, but we eventually reached the Scottish rock bar.

“Thanks for being my new best mate for the night” bid a slightly pissed an emotional Tattooed Essex Traveller, as we wished each other well as our paths diverged once again at the end of the evening.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Arriving from my early-morning flight to find, as my guide had forewarned, dream-inspired wall murals in place of the more traditional hanging sign, I located the heavyweight locked door and rang the buzzer, and on hearing the immediate chirrup of birdsong among the bustling suburban streets, suspected this would be no ordinary hostel.

I was not let down.

Crashing the door behind me, I wandered into a small palm-tree covered courtyard, stepped by a turtle-filled pond, and ascended some stairs to pass some baby monkeys, all the time acutely aware of being overlooked by a veritable menagerie of green and blue parrots, and a rather Strange Old Couple sitting by the small pool.

I can wholeheartedly recommend that no holiday should pass without this exact same experience.

“We were wondering when you were going to arrive” announced the owners, my earlier email having primed them.

Though early, I was pleased and somewhat relieved to be escorted to my already-cleaned room only minutes later, and to find it orderly, animal-free, and comparatively sane to what was outdoors.

A talkative Swede and an abrasive Scot welcomed me as we headed into the local mall for some lunch, like what normal people do.

They invited me to join them dancing for the evening, but I was wanting to spend some quality time with the monkeys.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

  Not to be

The unsmiling receptionist shook her head, at possible the fourth, fifth or eighth kiosk we´d tried.

Despite an apparent plethora of competion – dozens of operators at the city bus terminal apparently vying for the tourist dollar – the reality was that not one, it transpired, was willing to transport us to the local National Park we´d wanted to visit for the day.

Not that this had been my first attempt to visit Ecuador´s National Parks. Au contraire, my good friends, this was my third attempt!

My first attempt ended in abject failure, the story of which will just have to wait for another day.

Then my second attempt was cancelled fifteen minutes after proudly booking it, the agency telephoning my hostel to explain they had only just realized that my being the sole passenger would render the trip unprofitable.

The Nice Norfolk Couple (and, believe me, I´ve met some utterly hideous Norfolk couples) were shaking their heads in dismay at this, my third attempt.

“Road closed!” explained the tourist office ´assistant´.

And when one road closes in Ecuador, there´s seldom another to take its place.

Visiting an Ecuadorian National Park, it seemed, was just something I was destined not to do.

Either that, or the infrastructure is not quite yet in place to rise to the growing challenge of meeting the burgeoning tourist trade the country finds at its feet.

No matter, because my trip to its biggest National Park – albeit technically dispersed over a series of islands several hundred miles off its coastline – had been confirmed.

I knew I would be going places.

“Shall we just head back in to town?” I suggested to the Nice Norfolk Couple, shrugging my shoulders in a relaxed fashion to reassure them I had experienced such disappointment before.

We headed for a bar, before checking out a museum which contained real shrunken heads.
Monday, August 15, 2005

  Withdrawal symptoms

“The trouble is” piped up a fellow Essex man from the tour agency I´d met earlier in the week, “that nothing ever bloody works the way it should in Ecuador”.

“Nothing at all” replied the Kent barman, as we all nodded heads in agreement.

My final night in Quito had been spent supping pints with likeminded Brits in a mock-English pub. It seemed somehow a fitting end after indulging in enough genuine Ecuadorian fare over preceding days.

“Their buses are the worst in South America” continued a Hertfordshire lad.

“Nobody gives a shit that nothing runs to time” continued the Kent barman.

“And no shops are keen to give more than a couple of dollars change” continued the Essex tourman, “even if their tills are full of notes.”

Unfortunately, I have to concur.

As beautiful as Ecuador is (and it is), and as amiable as many of its folk (and they are), it´s still a largely impoverished, developing, somewhat desperate country.

Take bank cards as just one of the many examples of things we take for granted. Though Ecuador has them, it purposefully ensures only certain cards work in certain machines, and only a subset of certain cards work at certain vendors. All of which means in order to pay for my Galapagos “holiday of a lifetime” – no small wodge of my cash but six month´s salary in local terms – I had to withdraw to the daily maximum from ATMs (about 20 pence per day) and pay the proceeds directly into a deposit account. At a branch of a specific bank. Over several days. Then fax the paperwork as evidence.

Thankfully sorted, I fly there Friday.
Sunday, August 14, 2005


It was only a matter of time.

In fact, it was inevitable.

“Donde es?” came the innocent enough starting gambit as they served me in one of the few restaurants open in Cuenca on a Sunday.

A restaurant bordering the city´s main Plaza. The beautifully sculpted plaza housing walkways, benches, plants, and flaura. Its beauty somewhat diminished by the booming from loudspeakers of Lloyd-Webber panpipe music, or bad 80s rock ballads. But nonetheless a restaurant I´d graced a couple of times already during the week.

“Soy de Londres” I replied, correctly this time.

The ice had been broken.

The questions came thick and fast: Where had I visited? Where was I going next? Did I like the city? How long was I staying? How old was I? What was my name?

They seemed never ending but, I thought, the guides tell you it´s good to engage with locals.

Then the questioning upped a gear: Did I have a girlfriend?

No, I replied, truthfully.

And then the bombshell: “Tue es muy simpatico” they said, “you know… handsome.”

This is true. I am indeed incredibly handsome. And this is a burden I have to wear every day. Add to this my natural charm, and magnetic personality, and unforced modesty, and it´s slightly surprising no Latin American had fallen susceptibly for my charms sooner.

And finally came the crunch-question, brushing black jet black locks of hair: “Would you like to go for a cervesa… a beer?”

I was speechless. Didn’t know what to say. So I instinctively feigned miscomprehension. Confused my dates. Pretended I was busy.

Now, I know traveling is supposed to bring out a wild, adventurous, carefree streak. Help shake off inhibitions of conventional life. Break self-imposed boundaries. But I just couldn’t accept.

I fumbled for some change, mumbled my excuses and left.

Perhaps I’d just misunderstood, or squandered a blatant opportunity, I thought.

But, try as I might, I just didn’t fancy him.

I ran for the Andean hills, and booked my flight to Guayaquil.
Saturday, August 13, 2005

  Happy talk

“Heh! Heh! Heh!” boomed the deep, dulcet laugh of the Laid-Back German, as we basked in the sun on the hostel terrace during a mid-afternoon break from, well, nothingdom. “Shumone eez gruwin a happy plant, yez?” he observed as he stroked the green sprouts emerging from the otherwise innocuous-looking potplant next to him.

“It would seem so” I replied cagily, trying to seem like someone who knows about such things.

“By zee times I comes back here” he continued, “Zeez plant vill makes me very happy indeed!”.

He was laughing, and is bigger than me, so I laughed along, this seeming the right thing to do.

“So, how long have you been over here?” I asked, this officially being Fellow Traveller Question #1.

“Ah” he replied, supping from his pipe, “Just a few months.”

This was a typical response. Whereas I am comparatively breezing through, two months constituting little more than an extended work holiday, many others are taking six months, a year, maybe two, out of whatever it is they usually do.

“I vorks on exporting zee Ecuadorian products back to Germany” he explained.

I watched as he took another draw from his pipe, jumping to the conclusion of exactly what these products might be.

“Clothes, crafts, textiles” he continued, helpfully, before I had a chance to make any false accusations. “Eez not much monies, but eenuv to fund my next project.”

This begged the question. “Your next project?” I asked, naturally enough.

The Laid-Back German explained how much he enjoyed the rich terrain Ecuador had to offer. The mountains, the forests, the lakes, but not the desert. When I enquired as to why and he explained he´d been in the first Gulf War, I felt it right to ask no more.

“But what I likes most of all” he confessed, “eez the jungle. Solitary survival, avay from uvver humans.”

I listened, intently.

“So I vill stay there vrum two to six months” he said.

I was silenced as I considered just how differently how some view traveling compared to my own extended holiday.

“Perhaps I vill take deez happy plant vith me!” he joked.

I laughed, but didn´t believe he was joking.
Friday, August 12, 2005


A sharp shard of sunlight cascading from the conservatory skylight casts a mellow hue through the calming filter of my cream-coloured curtains as they motion slowly in the early-morning breeze.

I turn restfully under my ample bedding, nestling my sumptuous pillows into shape as the soft twirping of Ecuadorian birdsong echoes from the garden, soothing me into a state of deeper slumber.

The gentle toll of Catholic church bells send me into further bliss far, far away from the excess noises of London.

The doorbell rings. Its electronic chime permeates through the hostel from the loudspeakers housed both front and back.

An almighty crash of the heavy wooden door resounds from the rear of the building, the Flat-Footed Receptionist guaranteed to be situated at any time busy doing something else at precisely the furthest location distant from where she is now required to be.

I know she is flat-footed, from the sounds I know I am about to hear again now.

The noise begins with a single, subdued thud, quiet to begin with, but so solid in its conviction as to only possibly be attainable through the phenomena of the entirety of one´s foot (especially one so slightly built) to come into immediate and full contact with a hard wooden floor.

Each thud is naturally enough followed by a subsequent thud, each growing in volume in rapid intensity, amplified by the effects of reverberation traveling along the hallway floorboards, into my bedroom, and up the wooden headboard which resides directly beside by earholes.

Maddenly annoying though these thuds are, any resulting negativity is put into perspective by the: (i) intervening ´sweesh´ sound between each thud, an effect resulting only from the rapid brushing together of legs of corduroy trousers; (ii) a second, third or even fourth successive ring of the doorbell, depending on the level of impatience of awaiting visitor (generally Dutch, French or American respectively, in ascending order); (iii) the insensitively loud pigeon Spanish conversation that inevitably occurs on the eventual opening of the door, depending on the level of brashness of greeted visitor (generally Dutch, French or American respectively, in ascending order).

I find myself fully awake, ready to start another day.
Thursday, August 11, 2005

  Never been this far away from home

My alarm wakes me early.

After my regular morning dump, I check the rotation of the toilet flush: anti-clockwise.

I fly to Cuenca, although only Ecuador’s third-largest city, its calm, cobblestone streets providing a seaside-town-esque contrast to the hectic bustle that was Quito.

Within half-hour, I’m at my hostel (which I’d pre-reserved in Spanish. Well, me trying Spanish. Them replying in English), and it’s clear I’ve landed on my feet. A family room, comprising two double beds, with en-suite bathroom. Bordering the indoor conservatory. Which leads to a private garden, and restaurant. It’s esquisite. And all for under $20 a night.

After my regular mid-afternoon dump, I check the rotation of the toilet flush: clockwise.

Other side of the world.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005


I won’t pretend I’ve been doing very much these past few days.

Because I haven’t.

Just over a month ago, I was working my arse off. Evenings, weekends. Work overtaking social life: no time for real friends, or virtual friends. Little time was spared.

But I am now reaping the rewards of this effort in this trip. If there’s one thing that’s surprised me, it’s how quickly I’ve unwound to travelling pace. To relaxation. To nothingdom.

Having indulged in a bit of Ecuadorian culture, my last Friday in Quito found me slumping in front of the hostel TV. There was a bad 1980s Christian Slater copfilm on, which seemed just what the doctor ordered. No sooner had that finished, than the Oirish couple I’d met earlier in the day with their purchase: a $2 DVD of ‘Madagascar’. Ecuador streets is rich with shops selling rip-off DVDs: it’s clearly the booming market. Shops, not stalls, but then I guess copyright and intellectual property laws are not top of Ecuador’s list. We were soon joined by the Laid-Back American, and Laid-Back German, and Madagascar’s charms seemed global.

Film gave way to Mexican, restaurant gave way to bar, and bar gave way to club. The first time I’ve been propositioned in a club, and unable to respond not owing to my first language, shall stay long in my memory. A good night was had.

Saturday was different; hangovers seem worse at this altitude. So an antidote of culture seemed in order. I visited the city’s cultural centre: an anthropological museum, and an art gallery. I felt enriched learning the history of the diverse indigenous and invading cultures that form the fabric of this magical part of the world. But there’s only so many carved sculptures of men with erect penises (peni?) as high as their eyebrows you can see, especially with a hangover. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The gallery made a welcome change.

And then the week became a toes-out, book-reading fest. Researching Lonely Planet, the Hollywood Blockbuster-by-numbers ‘Da Vinci Code’, and Michael Moore’s ranting but compelling ‘Dude, Where’s My Country’. I managed to pop in to the book exchange before leaving Quito to pick up a Stephen Fry book for the next leg of my journey.

Nothingdom is great.
Thursday, August 04, 2005

  Lost in translation

"Hola!" I greet the goaty-beared stranger sat atop the concrete bollard outside the tour agents at this ridiculously early hour in the morning. "Quilotoa?"

As there was nobody else about, there was a fair chance he was also waiting for the minibus to take us to one of Ecuador's many splendid lagunas.

"Si" he replies, before we revert to English having exhausted my fucking brilliant Spanish.

Pretty soon, the minibus arrives, and we're joined by a couple of girls and our tour guide.

Winding through the breathtaking roads exiting Quito for the mountainous surroundings, my travelling companions are all getting on fabulously but, despite Manuel's intensive training, I'm not following a word.

In fact, in contrast to the delicate, soothing phonetics taught me, their conversation takes a harsh, raspy, back-of-throat tone.

I explain this to Goaty.

He laughs and tells me I'm in a bus full of Israilis. Better here than there, I think. I realise my mistake.

If nothing else today, I´ll end up fucking brilliant at Hebrew too.
Wednesday, August 03, 2005

  Cold mountain

Arising early to catch the balmy morning sun before the clouds settle in, I set out in my de-rigeur tourist garb of T-shirt, shorts and sandals, and flag a passing cab.

"Quiera ir a" I begin, slowly, pedantically, milking the last drip out of every phonetic of my fucking brilliant Spanish, "el Telerifico, per favor."

The driver looks perplexed.

"Donde?" he exclaims.

"El Telerifico", I repeat, this time gesturing up towards the top of Mount Pichincha which casts its immense shadow over the city.

"No" he shakes his head, still perplexed.

Embarrassed, I unscramble the piece of paper on which the hostel receptionist had written the word I was just trying to pronounce.

"Ah!" the cabbie sighs in immediate recognition, "el Teleferico!".

We both laugh at my slightly less than fucking brilliant Spanish as he gestures me in.

Yet despite these very same language difficulties, it's surprising how quickly I've managed to attain exactly the same level of conversation as I do with London cabbies:

"Mucho traffico!" I begin as we hit a snarl, and as a means of breaking the ice.

"Si, much traffico!" the cabbie will usually tut in weary indignation, before asking me where I'm from, whether it's my first time in Quito, and what I do for a living.

Admittedly, my Spanglish doesn't quite yet stretch to asking my cabbie what time he (it's a man's job, here) is working until, and what he thinks of the realignment of lanes around the ring-road.

"Todos los dias?" I ask my driver as we hit another set of traffic lights with another group of tracksuit-adorned young men pitching to sponge-wipe his already clean windscreen.

Tracksuit-adorned not through mere whim of fashion. Borderline begging permeates Quito. If it's not sponging windscreens, it's selling newspapers, or fruit, or sweets. And if it's not young men, it's women. Or women with children. Or just children. And which, in a bizarre twist, sees many adorn the tracksuits of mobile phone sponsors, Ecuador apparently oblivious or immune to the shameless manner in which commercial capitalism exploits poverty.

"Si" he replies, "todos los dias", as he beckons the young men away.

We continue our journey, through the city and up the winding road that ascends Mount Pichincha.

Now, you may think with my unlucky pedigree, that taking a cable-car up an active volcano might be taking a chance too far. And maybe you´d be right. "Volcanoligists predict these mountains to erupt every 120 years or so," a tour guide had told us, "and it has been 127 years since the last eruption. Pretty soon, the natural beauty that surrounds you will be devastated beyond oblivion". But the fact remained the cable car site had only been opened a month. Surely one of the world's less well-off countries would not have invested money in such a venture if the risk were significant? Though, noticing they'd already put the price up from $3.50 to $4, perhaps they did know something we didn't.

We arrive at the cable-car car park, and I pay my cabbie.

A minibus takes myself and other tourists up the few hundred yards to the entrance.

The entrance opens to an indoor mall selling merchandise, food and gadgets.

The mall leads to an outdoor area, with cafes, a mini theme park, and escalators.

The escalators take us up to more areas, with more cafes, and more sites banging for the tourist dollar in a way I hadn´'t seen anywhere else in Ecuador.

Eventually, I reach the booking hall, where I paid my $4 for the 'Regular' queue with the Ecuadorian families and school groups, whilst some fat Americans bypassed us in the higher-paying 'Express' queue. I am unwilling to squander what was effectively a day's wages in front of my hosts for the sake of saving fifteen minutes.

Standing in my summer garb, I had taken the prudent measure of buying un boutella de aqua sin gas from one of the overpriced cafes. It is a hot, sunny day, I realise, and I am not about to get roasted inside a cable car as the sun beat down on it. Water is necessary, I think, and am rather surprised none of the foolish Ecuadorians have seemed to share my superior English foresight.

But, as the queue shuffles forward, I notice a distinct breeze at the circa 3,000m altitude we now stand. The assistant, wearing a fleece and scarf, ushers us on. The cable-car shunts into action, then rises rapidly. Wobbling from its hanging, it jerks violently every time it passes over a cable pylon. At approximately 3,500m altitude, my ears pop, and the mild breeze filtering into the car becomes a cold torrent, and the ascent suddenly increases. Nearing 4,000m, my ears pop again, before the car shudders to a stop, and another fleece-covered assistant lets us out.

It is fucking freezing.

The foolish Ecuadorians unpack their fleeces, jackets and scarves, and ascend the remaining 200m to the summit.

Sandals being less than ideal for hiking, I abandon following them after a few minutes.

I mill round for a bit, take some photos, warm myself up with a coffee, and head back down to warmth and safety, thankful it didn't erupt.
Tuesday, August 02, 2005

  In the plaza

Treating myself to a taxi to Quito's old town - all of three US Dollars - I stopped off in the city's resplendant Plaza de la Independienca.

Soaking in the sun amidst the abundant culture around, I sat back on a bench, smugly pleased with myself.

A grey-bearded Ecuadorian tramp shuffled past, scooping himself a cup of water out of the central fountain, his trousers in tatters around him. As he turned, his tattered-trousers revealed a sorry-looking arse on full display. A policeman ushered him away.

My silent contemplation had already been interrupted when the stranger next to me on the bench asked something in Spanish.

Despite my Spanish-speaking being fucking brilliant, my Spanish-listening still clearly had some way to go. "Lo siento", I replied, "no comprendo."

"Ah! British!" he replied, asking me the time in perfect English.

We got talking.

Though instinctively suspicious of the young lad's motives - and let's get any Glitter-esque accusations against me out of the window right away - it indeed proved Paol, as he was named, just wanted to improve his English, as I just wanted to learn more about Ecuador.

And, abridged from the afternoon's conversation:

Paol was 22 years old, from the West Coast, but miday through University in the city.

Paol explained how, on my commending his standard of English, it was compulsory for Ecuadorian graduates to study a second language.

Paol, despite my commending his world-heritage protected city as "beautiful", yawned as he dismissed it as "churches, churches, churches".

Paol instead was proud of the achievements of Columbian export Shikira, though was unaware her breasts were "small and humble, so you don't confuse them with mountains".

Paol was disappointed the only "big" bands to have visited Ecuador were Bon Jovi and INXS (minus Hutchence).

Paol commented how bad he thought it was Ecuadorian plazas celebrated the achievements of Spaniards, despite it being they who invaded, raped and pillaged the indigenous communities. I agreed this seemed rather inappropriate.

Paol likes tennis and soccer, despite being aware of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, chooses to support Tottenham Hotspur as his UK Premiership team.

Paol stated he did not think he had ever seen a Greek person before. When I explained what they looked like, he admitted he probably had seen one without realising it.

Paol also stated he did not think he had ever seen a ginger person before. When I explained what they looked like, he agreed it was probably no bad thing. (In retrospect, in Paul Scholes, he had)

Paol said he'd only been out of Ecuador twice, once to Columbia, another to Peru on a day-trip.

Paol explained how the average Ecuadorian graduate would expect to earn $300 per month, which probably made the $20 lunch I'd bought inappropriately expensive.

Paol admitted he'd only eaten cuy (guinea pig, a local speciality) once, and found it "bony", and preferred Italian or sushi.

Paol complained how his ex-girlfriend was overly jealous, texting him requesting camera-photos if he were with a girl. But how she had also texted him camera-photos of herself in the nuddy, so life was not all bad.

Paol waxed enthusiastically about his band, he on acoustic guitar accompanying a wispy female vocalist, which had a name I forget now but roughly translates as "tears of sorrow" or "slashing of wrists".

I'd enjoyed my time with Paol, but decided to give his band a wide berth.
Monday, August 01, 2005

  Lesson two

"Gasolina! Gasolina!" sang Manuel excitedly. (Though his Spanish pronounciation sounded it more "Hayohina! Hayohina!").

Squinting my eyes to verify my disbelief, I reopened them to discover that, yes, Manuel appeared to be not just singing but dancing in a slightly distressing fashion, his office swivel-chair jostling from left to right on the other side of the desk on which my Spanish-learning texts sat.

This perplexed me.

Because we had already earlier covered the Spanish verbs for sing ("cantar") and dance ("bailar").

Unabated, Manuel, his diminuitive Ecuadorian frame covered by his charcoal grey suit and sober tie somewhat at odds with his freeform actions, continued.

"Gasolina! Gasolina!" Manuel sang, his eyes seeking a glimmer of recognition. "Do you know it?"

Manuel, you see, was merely having fun. Having realised my Spanish was already fucking brilliant, he could afford to take his foot off the gas, and indulge in some whimsical amusement.

"Si!" I replied, faking enthusiasm, "Si, Manuel."

I recognised the song only too well. A song I had heard countless times since my arrival in Ecuador, not least through the thin hostel walls.

Manuel sat back, relieved, his efforts having paid off. We could return to the syllabus.

The lesson ended on a more sober note. Manuel, having pointed at the front of what I assumed was a childrens book, had promised he would return to it later. I had looked forward to this with some anticipation.

In the event, what began as a magical-sounding story of a midday eclipse, transpired to be, from what I could detect from Manuel's Spanish, a slightly bitter tale of betrayal, beheadings, revenge and sacrifice.

Story over, I sat silent, before thanking Manuel.

"Gasolina! Gasolina!" I sang to myself, returning to my hostel.
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