Toes out for summer
"Your toes" declared Dorset Boy 2 ominously as we strolled along a Costa Brava beach a couple of weeks ago, his sunburnt face lit up as if on the verge of announcing a major scientific breakthrough, "are going to be out
a lot more than they are in
over the next couple of months."
I pondered the significance of this statement before agreeing, yes, his hypothesis may prove correct.
And Sunday was most definitely a "toes out" day.
With nary a cloud in the sky, and my hard-pressing language tutor Manuel having callously set me weekend homework, I sat for most the day outside my hostel learning Spanish nouns, verbs and adverbs.
By evening, as with many a Sunday evening, I felt I deserved a beer.
But the draw that is the Sunday Night Karaoke pub was several thousand miles away.
Instead I chose a bar recommended to me by a fellow travelling Londoner, one which I had graced earlier in the week and found a pleasant if un-noteworthy experience.
Which proved to be once again the case, until the bar's Sunday Night Dance Troupe started.
After a couple of false starts with the backing track, the trio embarked on a glittering array of moves and twirls, with only the occasional knocking of the overhead lighting betraying their overall professionalism.
Feeling rude with my back to the show, I turned my chair to the other side of the table. This would prove to be a ghastly mistake.
For despite this being a small, intimate and, some would say, trendy bar, this dance troupe were no strangers to the words "audience participation".
I was dragged into the salsa dancing.
I had never salsa danced before. And my dancing has not been, even on these pages, beyond criticism. But, my English protests falling on Spanish-hearing ears, I salsa-danced nonetheless.
Participative element closed, I returned to my seat and beer.
Until another break, another routine, another participative element.
I was dragged into the ramba dancing. They asked me where I was from. I used my newly-acquired Fucking Brilliant Spanish to reply, I later discovered, "I have London."
Another break. Another routine. Another participative element.
"No complaino!" shouted my over-eager dancer, as she dragged me into the cha-cha-cha dancing.
Humiliation continued, until my dancing reached the level of my Spanish.
Awaking at 6am for an early-morning cab to Quito´s bustling bus station, I soon found myself bound for Otavalo.
Otavalo is a small town nestled up in the mountains some two hours drive from Quito, and Saturday is its famed market day.
Hurtling through the winding hillside roads at breakneck speed, it was a bus-ride like none I have ever experienced in London.
I had been enjoying using my new Spanish-listening skills to watch a repeat-loop TV ad of an Ecuadorian skin cream apparently generated from snail juice.
My watching however was interrupted by several arrivals of random individuals on the rapidly-filling bus: the first selling breakfast, the second fruit, the the third papers and the fourth shouting a lot whilst circulating a photograph of an amputee-victim.
The bus continued tobogganning along the narrow stretches of road.
Fortunately a nun embarked the bus, reassuring me that we were once again safe.
I chatted with an Ecuadorian passenger until he showed me the roadside at which I had to get off.
My usual English leisurely pace was clearly against Ecuadorian custom, as the bus started pulling away as I stepped off, leaving the ascending passengers to jog alongside to get on.
Nobody seemed to mind.
Otavalo itself was as surreal as the guidebook indicated. Beautiful architecture among the streets in which wander Indigineous Ecuadorians in traditional clothing: so short, they actually get smaller as they approach. Vivid colours and sounds permeated the markets with stalls selling food, animals and crafts.
"Oink! Oink! Oink!" shouted Manuel, my inevitably-named Spanish tutor.
Realising my ten minutes listening to my Spanish CD on the plane before falling asleep would not suffice, I´d wasted no time in booking my first lesson.
Despite the school´s recommendation for a minimum 2-week course, I decided upon two half-days to cover the basic.
"PIG!" I shouted back at the animated Manuel.
"Bien!" congratulated Manuel. I had learnt the Spanish for pig was ´chico´.
Gold star: I knew now that I would be absolutely fucking brilliant at Spanish.
Truth told, being addressed in an unfamilar language for several hours is quite a baptism of fire. Understanding nada
at the beginning, I soon began to convince myself I was understanding some, Manuel´s over-enthusiastic mannerisms no doubt helping my way along. But throughout, Manuel being absolutely convinced that I was understanding considerably more than I actually was.
I had soon got to grips with the dialect, though. Smooth vowels, and soften consonents. Swap ´g´and ´h´, improvise ´c´, and impersonate a lisp. Finally, envisage the campest way possible of sounding any word, then treble that and add some more campness. Then speak: you´re already halfway to sounding Spanish.Facile.
Lesson over, I wandered round the city before catching some twilight beers before my early-morning start.
Moving swifltly through customs, I flagged an official-looking taxi outside the airport.
My Spanish no better than when I left England, I beckoned towards the hostel address in my guidebook.
Hurtling through the frantic streets, it was apparent I was indeed in South America. Lane control seemed a world away, as I reached for my rear seatbelt only to find it secured behind the seat and without a lock anyway. I sat back, knuckles clenched, to enjoy the ride.
Arriving to find my recommended hostel full, I was advised to try the ´Magic Bean´across the road. With its plush surroundings, array of breakfasts, and friendly staff, it seemed as good a bet as any. So I checked in, though my room wouldn´t be available for a few hours.
I don´t know why I ordered breakfast again: I had, after all, effectively had four breakfasts within the previous 14 hours.
But the sun was shining and all felt well with the world, so I tucked in, whilst orienting myself with the city in my guide.
Quito is Ecuador´s capital but only second-largest city. At 2,850 metres above sea level, altitude sickness is a real possibility for those unacclimitised on arrival. The picturesque old town, a heritage site, sits 20 minutes walk away from the new town which houses the Marical Sucre travellers ghetto I was now sitting in.
Market factors having sent Ecuador´s Sucre currency into tailspin in the late 90s, Quito´s then mayor Jamil Mahuad had declared his intent to dump it in favour of the US Dollar. Ecuadorians eruped in strikes, protests and effigy-burning, eventually storming the Congress building forcing Mahuad´s resigntation. His position was assumed by Gustavo Nobos, linked to the core political group protesting against Mahuad´s plans, who decided to storm ahead with the Dollar conversion anyway.
I pondered the poor Ecuadorians having to live under such a corrupt regime of politicians saying one thing then doing another, and thanked my lucky stars I live in Britain.
Brits, I considered, would not make very good effigy makers let alone burners, our politicians generally lacking the required looks or charisma, if ever anyone were ever to not tell the truth.
Stephen Byers, for instance.
Finding myself with a few hours to kill, I wandered down the city´s main stretch Amazonas and into Parque El Ejido.
Enjoying the late-morning sunshine, I found a bench to familarise myself with the city map.
Within minutes, an Ecuadorian bird had chosen to shit directly onto the old town section.
Unlucky man had truly arrived.
The plane landed, to rapturous applause.
This was the third and final stop in an arduous 18-hour journey taking a flight into and out of Amsterdam, then the second flight having stopped for refuelling in Bonaire and then Guayaquil.
Applauding a safe landing unnerved me, because it implied there were some occasions on which landings would not deserve applause.
I pondered. But it had indeed been a good landing. So I applauded too. But did not whoop.
The flight from Amsterdam had started promisingly enough when a Dutch businessman engaged in conversation with one of the air hostesses.
Though disliking being left out of a foreign language conversation at the best of times, I detest it moreso when that foreign language resembles sounds of clearing throats.
But the businessman and hostess were now laughing, courteous conversation now bordering on flirtation.
"You know her, don´t you?" barked the businessman´s English-speaking partner when the hostess finally diverted her attention elsewhere. The flirting businessman merely shrugged.
This was great. We hadn´t even taken off yet, and I was witness to a pan-European domestic.
The flight was painless enough, the presence of a couple of nuns aboard assuaging any fears anyone might have had of flying, and meals served with alarming regularity.
Eight hours into my iPod tunes, I decided to listen to my ´Learn Spanish´CD.
I´d never taken languages too seriously at school, having been too busy reflecting the sunlight into Mrs Stebbing´s eyes, coax Jon H into a tantrum, or studing the bra-line through Tracey H´s school blouse. But this was different, because I had a reason
to learn. Motivated, I would be absolutely fucking brilliant at Spanish by the time we landed. I started listening to the soothing tones of the Spanish tutor.
I awoke an hour later to find we were landing, the sun rising behind the Andean mountains the cradle the valley of Quito.
A few minutes later, I was applauding.
"Oiga!" I proudly beckoned the beautiful waitress in a picturesque Barcelona square, smiling smugly at Dorset Boy #2 at my newly-acquired language skills.
The waitress approached us sternly.
"La questa, per favor" I continued, my smugness continuing.
"You what?" she asked, my intrinsic Englishness showing through.
Then proceeded to disect what little language I had used.
"Oiga" she protested, "is really rude. Like shouting 'Oi! Over here.'"
I sulked like a ticked-off schoolboy.
"Pardona is the polite way."
My eyes lit up.
"But my book!" I defended, "My book said 'pardona' is when apologising, and that 'oiga' is the polite way."
"Well, your book is wrong!" she chastised me, my lit-up eyes immediately reverting to their previous sulk. "And it's 'quenta'!!!"
Back in Blighty, in renowned stationers-par-excellence Rymans, Oxford Street.
I walk up to the counter, about to procure my worldwide travel adaptor, and medium-duty hole punch.
"This might sound like a strange question" asked my Eastern European sales assistant, "but do Canadians speak their own language?"
It was clear that within a few days, my worldly-wideness was there for all to see. It was clear from my purchases that I am a global traveller (the hole punch not the worldwide travel adaptor. Only open-minded, compassionate soulsearchers buy medium
-duty hole punches. Whereas any idiot can buy a worldwide travel adaptor these days). It was clear that, within a few days, I had grown as a being.
"Canadians speak English" I declared, proudly, "except in French-speaking regions. Where they speak French."
She was in awe.
All of which is good preparation for what I face now.
For, with the debacle of late-night and weekend working of my debacle contract put beside me, I currently sit in the internet cafe at Heathrow Terminal 4.
From where I am bound for Amsterdam.
But not just Amsterdam. Because, from there, I fly on to Quito, Ecuador.
From where I plan to visit Galapagos Islands, Peru, Inca Trail, Chile, Patagonia, Argentina, and Brazil, finishing off at a Dutch-owned island off the Venezualan coast.
In two months.
I fully accept this will not be entirely possible.
But I look forward to regaling what does happen with vigour.
Although sporadic, I hope my posts will be more frequent than the wasteland which this overlooked blog has become in recent months.
Wish my luck... my flight's being called.
"We have received your email and have identified that it contains profanity", began the automated response to my hastily-constructed missive.
"Carphone Warehouse is a profanity free environment. Regrettably we are unable to respond to your email in its current format. Please resubmit your email without the use of profanity."
I scratched my forehead, perplexed at how I could possibly have caused offence in the email I'd sent two days previously.
Arriving in Barcelona for a few days with Dorset Boy #2, past experience should have told me misfortune would befall me before too long.
We'd had a nice day. Bit of culture. Good food. Much sightseeing. More drinking.
Rounded off by far-too-strong cocktails in a backstreet bar.
So, when some local lads goaded us about football, we didn't smell a rat. I even dismissed the footlock the Spanish Chav got me in as youthful playfulness.
"Futbol! Futbol" he shouted, as I laughed at him and his tomfoolery.
Until a few minutes later, when I noticed my mobile phone had mysteriously disappeared, and stopped laughing.
And, awaiting our coach at the bus station, took the opportunity to email Carphone Warehouse to kickstart replacing it.
The email which I was now re-proofreading, for profanity.
It seemed innocuous enough, explaining what had happened (minus the cocktails and footlock bit), and I could not for one second see how this could possibly cause any offence.
Unperturbed, I sent a rephrased email.
Two days later, logging in again, I had received the very same automated response.
By this time, my forehead was considerably scratched. I re-read both emails several times, and regarded them notable only for their complete absence of any profanity whatsoever.
Then the awful truth dawned upon me.
You see, the "Unlucky man" monicker is not merely a façade. Not merely a nickname. Not merely a powerful blogbrand. Oh no. Because it also conveniently covers up the fact my surname contains a genitalic reference.
Scrap that… my surname is
a direct term for certain genitals ("The plural", Unlucky dad announces when making telephone reservations, without any sense of irony or shame).
In the eyes of Carphone Warehouse, my surname had been deemed profane.
So, third time lucky, I rewrote the email omitting any reference to my surname, instead furnishing it with superfluous personal details.
Back in London, I walk in to get my new phone from Cuntphone Fucking Whorehouse. The fuckers.
June 2005, we drive to the Isle of Wight festival car park.
It's attracted a real mix of punters, and the sun-soaked atmosphere's chilled - the short ferry-crossing perhaps kidding everyone into holiday mode.
We miss three bands whilst getting to grips with assembling Dorset Boy's recently procured tent with its obviously misleading instructions.
On site, we're privileged to enjoy a traditional festival, as Faithless take to the stage.
July 2005, we amble our way into Southwark Park to the closing bars of Paul Carrack's set.
Burberry-capped children run past us, calling each other cunts.
A pissed bald tattooed man staggers past, carrying a can of Special Brew with its 'Pay Less Food And Wine' price sticker still upon it.
"Shut up, ya fackin' mong!" shouts a Croydon-facelifted mother with orange tan to one of her toddlers.
A mature woman with too-black hair collapses.
"Look!" shouts a Chav-kid, "Mum's gone all floppy again."
The paraletic mother is carried off, as the Proclaimers take to the stage.
I'm fine, and everyone I know is fine. I hope the same for you too.
It was somewhat surreal to receive Thursday's news during an appalling meeting in Stuttgart, and it certainly put mundane issues like work into perspective.
London seemed understandably subdued yesterday morning, with fewer people, quieter shuffling, yet a more courteous nature and by the end of the day a more bullish spirit as we reminded ourselves we've been through such times before.
Lighter posts back soon, but not just yet.
"You need a yellow fever jab, luv" advised the nurse, inspecting my medical records, "Except we can't do it here... national shortage."
This shocked me. In an age where our government scares us into the dangers of ricin and anthrax, I couldn't believe they'd let their guard slip elsewhere. With big cats being spotted in Sydenham, a yellow fever outbreak in Penge is not inconceivable.
I trekked down to a travel clinic in Waterloo, eventually finding it inside a church.
"Yes we've got the yellow fever jab" the receptionist replies to my question, "And can fit you in Friday week."
I booked, but this reduced what was already the minimum vaccination period before my travels. So contact Babyhands to find directions to the nearest BA Travel Clinic.
They had the jab, and can vaccinate me there and then. I stared at the strategically placed picture of a 1970s BA jet to take my mind off wincing like a girl.
"Oh! One other thing…" announced the nurse, as if she'd never had to think of this before, "You may experience feverish and flu-like side-effects in a few days."
So I'm at home today, knocked out having experienced feverish and flu-like side-effects.
I'm slightly uncomfortable with the idea of being injected with a disease. Although I understand the logic of building up the body's immunity system, this logic jars with me.
Lucky for me the Olympics vote was on telly. For the most part it was like watching teeth being pulled, as the South African IT man explained how the IOC members should use their push-button remotes, with a full dry run on voting (based on favourite artist), and a couple of members repeatedly misusing their remotes. The more excited the reporters purported to be ("The atmosphere's really ELECTRIC now!") the more bizarre it felt to be watching strangers in suits push buttons whilst nothing much else happened. It reminded me how as a child I'd been ill at home one day, watching the salvage of the Mary Rose ship. Now, as anyone who's watched the salvaging of a relic will testify, this is quite a slow process. Yet terrestrial TV devoted the whole day to this event. Watching the old codgers today made me realise TV hasn't perhaps moved on as much as we like to think.
Still, the announcement was exciting, and I for one am proud to be a Londoner.
"Oh no" I cry down my mobile phone, "you haven't got them, have you?"
"No" replies Dorset Boy #1, straight and to the point.
I'd only just remembered Dorset Boy #2 had asked for my address just days before.
"The tickets were being posted to me, weren't they?" I ask, by now rhetorically.
They were, and I'd forgotten. So had ignored the pile of post on my doormat this morning, discarding it as non-important. But now, two hours til the cricket is due to start, that pile of post is extremely important indeed.
It doesn't help that I have a last-minute meeting with my IT company in Paddington. It doesn't help that the meeting could justifiably have run on for a couple more hours. It doesn't help when the taxi ordered for me gets snarled in gridlocked traffic around Hyde Park, my delay one of the many consequences of Mr Geldof's insensitively selfish actions. None of this helps.
But beyond Marble Arch, the traffic clears. With ten minutes to go, my cabbie's enlightening conversation on why spiritualism is so important to his life cut short, I stop off at home and check my post.
Sure enough, the ticket's there.
I sit back in the cab, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Sorted!" I declare back via phone to Dorset Boy #1, as I open the ticket envelope to read its contents. "Hang on, what's this about 'Executive Box - Strictly Jacket and Tie'???"
"I know" mumbles Dorset Boy #1 meekly, "I've just noticed that myself."
Shuffling past security in our scuzzy T-shirts and jeans, the officious receptionist tuts at us.
"You boys should know better" she says, as she ushers us through.