Monday, 22 June 2009
So, we’re still in Colombia according to my blog...oops!
Actually in Bolivia now (yeah, like two months later), but, hmm, well...suspension of disbelief n’ all that, eh, folks?
Well, so the next stop was Medellin, once the drugs capital of Colombia, infamous for being the brutal harem of cocaine, violence and corruption, the domain of Pablo Escobar and his notorious drugs cartel...they would have it that it is now a prosperous city, boasting an excellent overland metro system which I utilised to its full capacity by buying only two tickets and riding the entire length and breadth of the city for about £1 (excellent value and entertainment...for it even straddles the surrounding mountainous residential areas stacked upon the hillsides within which the city is encapsulated via cable car! No extra cost. Splendid. My Norwegian companion, Murray, did not have a camera, through choice not as a result of a Flynnarific style misdemeanour, which is often the fate of many a fellow traveller (R.I.P. Casio Exilim (1 and 2)...and Nikon...and Angkor Wat photos...sob). But, playing around the marvellously voluptuous and often entertaining sculptures of the famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero (born in the city in 1932) in the main plaza in his name and searching for decent ice-cream was all very well, but my goal was to hit the capital, Bogota, for the weekend.
Who would assist me in revealing the immense night of ravedom? Santiago and friends! Hurrah! A bunch of loaded students that didn’t have anything better to do at the beginning of the Easter holidays than show their resident couch surfer the sights and delights of their city. Nice. One. Arriving at the apartment at around midnight to find a few boys and girls slightly loaded on ‘Fire Water’ (horrendous diluted version of zambucca...eugh!), I emerged out of the lift into the plush-as penthouse suite, tastefully decorated, with the kids playing MGMT, wearing skinny jeans and discussing further education at London School of Economics...the discourse enlightened me to a few interesting facts (courtesy of Santiago, being an economics student and all), such as Colombia’s raking in the Genie Index being one of the highest in the world (i.e. the discrepancy between the country’s affluent and poorest peoples is most polarised), of which the top 1% of Colombia’s elite earn 40% of the GDP. Insane. And, do not fret...the penthouse primary earner was an architect. So I was told anyways...
Cruising the sights of Bogota with a slightly sensitive headed Santiago, we ventured out onto the TransMilenio, the super rapid bus system that has its own special lanes dedicated to...a metro with buses but explained through the most complicated system of diagrams, colour codes and assumed tacit knowledge (which I, being there less than 24 hours, cannot claim to smuggle). I love the London Underground tube map...name of guy that created underground...Legend. As it was Saturday and we were planning a rather massive night out, we sort of thought about getting me some suitable shoes for bopping until the sunrise, but gave up, checked out the main plaza with its grand government edificios, as well as the 100 or so displaced peoples that had been moved from the countryside due to the guerrilla and drugs war, and pretty much dumped in the capital, ‘for a better standard of living’, although camping in the equivalent of Parliament square didn’t reveal itself to appear too liberating. We scooted around La Candelaria, beautiful cobbled streets and white stone buildings, with a browse around the ‘Donación Botero Museo, and a saunter around Santiago’s university (the architect of the new space-age engineering department being a chap I shared a room with later in Colombia!)
Diego, Santiago’s pal and fellow Couchsurfing host, together with two British CSers in tow, converged with us in a dingy little bar in Bogota’s Camden, Parque Santander, and got cracking on some ‘Aquila’ (or, for the more beer connoisseur) and ‘Club Colombia’ cerveza (beer) and got what was to prove to be a heavily fuelled evening kick-started!
Rustled up some grub at Santiago’s pad, then out. ‘The End’ was to be the venue for the night’s revelries. Indeed, if this name is familiar to some of you London peeps, that is because it is actually a party that is promoted by the very same dudes that sorted out the nights at the club of the same name in London before it was closed (earlier this year...probably because there was a ban on a-symmetrical haircuts and the trendies quit going). The curfew in Bogota is 3am. But, this underground, dirty gig was situated on the top floor of a 38 storey building, under the facade of a private party in a private apartment...that just so happened to have a massive dance floor space and other rooms with copious amounts of charged beverages. Bouncing on the door were militia armed with somewhat substantial firearms, all of which looked about 17 years old (the chaps, not the guns). Hustled in with the cool kids of the night, the luxury lift swiftly delivered us to the pinnacle, where the lights of the capital lacerated the landscape that oozed out from our epicentre, indulging us in an alveoli-like weave of gold leaf. It glowed all the more avidly as the night progressed, as the waves of electronica fused with the energies roused amongst the densely packed mass of flesh, oscillating between sentiments of all encompassing euphoria and complete immersion in movement. The DJ was intense, and before we knew it, the orb of warmth was penetrating into our molecular mentalities and tempting us back into the sanctity of a peaceful Sunday morning.
Well, after dancing around the apartment complex’s gardens under the caresses of the morning rays as I couldn’t sleep (well, the security guards just left me to it), our Sunday dawdled into meeting the other guys into town, watching street story tellers entertaining the masses with funny anecdotes, juggling in the square and people watching. Ell, Ked and I (the Brits) cooked a good traditional dinner for our hosts...a solid vegetable stir-fry and noodles. Yummy. Typical dish at which Diego was astonished by the little amount of oil and salt that we utilised in its preparation, for many a dish in Colombia is born of the deep fat fryer! Haha. Arepas are fried maize cakes, that are often sold with a solid lump of South American cheese (which is really mild, sort of like goat’s cheese and is basically the only style of queso in the whole of Latin America!) or fried eggs. If you are interested, the main structure of a Colombian meal is arroz con pollo, which is simply rice with roasted chicken, with some kidney beans and some fried plantain (a savour type banana)...and maybe a slice of tomato is you are lucky!! Hehe. Usually, at lunch time, you could get an almuerzo set lunch for $1.50, which consisted of a drink, a sopa (soup) and some variation of the chicken&rice plato...cheaper than chips!!
So, after wowing the boys with our culinary skills (it was actually really good!) we had Venezuelan hot chocolate and watched ‘Apololysa’, a 1980s Colombian produced film about a bunch of wily young drug users in the epoch of deep guerrilla conflict, police corruption, kidnapping and extortion; dark humour with an interesting insight into youth culture...with interesting translation of Colombian street slang!!
A good sleep and a road trip to the famous Salt Cathedral was the order of the next day! After the somewhat scenic route enforced due to closed roads and typical South American directions...”yeah, yeah, it is straight down there...” Why do they not just admit they haven’t got a bloody clue rather than send us off in the wrong direction??! Well, we arrived at Zipaquirá, the home of the famous underground cathedral, set amongst the original salt mines. The first cathedral was created and dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Rosario (patron saint of miners) in 1954, but was declared unsafe, with a new, minimalist salt cathedral opening in 1995. It had incredible carvings in the salt stone, including an impressive (or somewhat surreal) Stations of the Cross, captured in symbolic uses of the rock, including some sculptures of the crucifix being 2m high and over 4 tonnes in weight. The effect of the lighting created a very austere and mysterious atmosphere, whilst being as deep at 150m below the surface, standing in an enormous space where mass is held, was somewhat unnerving. But, a chomp on a chocolate miner in the ‘deepest coffee shop in the world’ soon quelled any misapprehension, and a decidedly dubious 3-D video of the evolution and development of the salt mine network, presented by some robot ensured the evaporation of any religious sentimentality (I had to keep moving my red-green specs off my face to decipher what was 3-D or not...).
My final day in the capital was certainly devoid of cultural activities...unless if imbibing hot chocolate and watching DVDs in your pyjamas all day counts as a cultural enlightenment (I was with a Colombian in Colombia after all)! YAY! One of the simple joys of being in someone’s house instead of a hostel is that you can just make a brew when you want, bum around and generally not worry about too much - including wearing your pjs to the supermarket for more stodgy supplies. Santiago was a wealth of info on the old world of film and music...which I am somewhat annoyingly ignorant. “Flynn, have you seen...” usually receives the enlightened response of, “I think I saw a poster for that on the Underground...” or, “Maybe I heard of it, but...” Such a new media culture vulture, I cannot profess to be. But, if you care, we watched a wicked pair of films, one called “Before Sunset”, set in Paris and in real time (the realism and issues dealt with in the context of a somewhat soppy but endearingly romantic scenario), whilst the other was a low budget British production set in Ireland, “Once” captures the power of how something beautiful can be created and captured in such a short space of time...and is basically about a bunch of musicians and the sound track in actually pretty good (‘Once also being the name of the groupo)!
So, Bogota was a whirl of indulgence, euphoria, sloth and sleep-deprivation with a couple of really interesting and intelligent Colombians, with a half-hearted dash of cultural enlightenment, but still, the true travelling backpacker knowledge seeker has yet to emerge...this Couchsurfing is detrimental to elevating oneself from the state of philistine in the high-brow sense of museums and galleries (although we did venture into a few of those), but is certainly rich at a deeper level of experience with regards to local knowledge, perspectives and relationships. You can easily visit cities and observe the cultural heritage, but nothing is superior to the experience of the present, which, after all, feeds into the trajectory of a history and a culture.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
How does literature have the incredible ability to really resonate with the time and space within which you reside at the time of reading? It is almost as though books find you, rather than you stumbling upon them. Whilst in Asia, ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’ really connected with my feelings of transition, of metamorphosis and generally becoming less innocent to the world around me, although I cannot admit to debauchery in opium dens, unfortunately. Then there was ‘The Life of Pi’, which again was about a journey of self-discovery and challenge but more on a level of basic survival and understanding the barbarity human nature, as opposed to the superficial considerations of appearance and the world’s value of youthfulness and superficial beauty. ‘On the Road’, was utterly devoured in the mission of a week across the wide of China, the semantics goading me on to make it to Nanjing for a taste of a Chinese variant on a perceived normality...”go, go, go”. This time, it was Kazuo Ishiguro that subtly mirrored sentiments and considerations as a bounded through Colombia...’Artist of the Floating World’ worked with the concepts of the world at night, a place of fun and indulgence, but was fleeting, an phenomena that artists and poets were to capture in their work, to provide the revellers with a fragment of the urethral utopia that had fled by the morn. It is perhaps for this very reason that many photos do not incorporate the acts and experiences of hedonism that only presence can absorb and grow euphoric on to an almost tangible degree. Yes, Colombia. The forbidden frutas de Latin America, a country of contradiction, controversy and the creator of a profligate. It was not that there was a conscious choice to engage in licentiousness, but it crept up upon you, engulfed and indulged you. A grant for a liberating licentious licence for Colombia, no? It began in Cartagena, a beautiful seaside city that has UNESCO heritage status, and rightly so because it is bloomin’ gorgeous. After a couple of free dives with my lovely dive master, I hopped aboard a bus west bound, condemned to near arctic conditions for a whole four hours. Yes, Colombians have a masochistic streak, a self-flagellation that resulted in me developing a somewhat snotty nose. In short, they have the air-conditioning on so high, it is essential to board the bus with hats, jumpers, and certainly, socks, if one is to make it through. They bring BLANKETS!! It is over 25°C outside the auto bus; they will not need fleecy, gaudy printed insulation for miles except in the icy interior of the bus. WHY?? It is forbidden to query the bus driver, a breaking of sensitive taboo. Maybe a cultural exchange ought to be introduced so Colombians can see what an English winter’s eve is like and then they might change their minds. Ahhhh-chhhooooo!! Adopted by a young police man, I was kindly escorted to la casa (the house) of mi amiga, Ervine in Cartagena. What a nice chap. He navigated the local buses that through me down the aisle as they swung around 90° corners at high speed, slinging the returning school children from the open door at their leisure. On arriving in Boca Grande, the area of Ervine, he marched in and introduced himself as the police, whilst I sheepishly looked on behind at the astonished faces of Erv and two other couch surfers. I meekly said it was OK, and that I for some unknown reason had been adopted and thanked my young (he looked about `17) whilst ushering out into the elevator. “WHO IS ERVINE?” “What is Couch Surfing?” Your thoughts leap from the page before I’ve even written it. Response to first question...Erv is French-Tahitian lady who lives in Cartagena, is a translator for a company in America, a dive master and super, funky, cool. How do I know her? Well, I met her for the first time with my authoritarian amigo. Yet, we had chatted through the cosmic medium of ‘Couch Surfing’. Ooooohhhhh...aaaaahhhhh. Yes, the CS Project. The cult of budget travel and cultural emersion on a whole new level. I have already explained the concept of Couch Surfing, but, after Couchsurfing my way pretty much through the whole of Colombia, I have become immersed to a greater degree than simply “Oh, Couch Surfing. Yeah, you stay at someone’s house for free and it is cool.” If I could do my dissertation again, I would do it on Couch Surfing...it is so interesting! Basically, it seems that every city in South America has CS hosts, especially in Colombia! Under the Umbrella of ‘Couch Surfing’, there are groups that people belong to, much like Facebook, and cities often have their own group where people post messages and things, so it is a whole social network...people in cities know fellow Couch Surfer hosts...and there is competition between hosts regarding who has the most number of friends, who hosts the most (i.e. who attracts the most number of travellers that want to stay with them)...there are politics and antagonism between hosts as some are so keen that they organise weekly ‘Couch Surfing Meetings’! haha! There are AMBASSADORS for some cities...AMBASSADORS! These are the people that utterly BUM Couch Surfing, are supposed to be the best hosts in the world, giving you tours, entertaining you and enriching you in all things associated with their city. And that is just the actual activities...then there is the whole psychology of what is actually online...you have a profile. This, of course is a contrived element, again, echoing the sentiments I feel about Facebook. The self-sculpting of image, of the presentation of one’s self, the ‘me’ one wishes to portray. Whilst writing my profile, I felt somewhat in a conundrum, especially as I had only had an account for two minutes and was still naive to the ferocity of passion for CS, the types of people using it and the depths into which people embroiled themselves into it...it was simply a tool of economy and cultural curiosity initially...and it still is. What was I to write about, erm, me? What does one write without appearing to be an utter loser (or, rather, in my case, conceal this very fact)? “Yeah, I am Flynn and I am fookin' funny and well cool and you totally wanna let me sleep at your house ‘cos I’m ace! Top banana! Woop! Woop!” or “So, I like to travel. I like to meet people. I like table. I love...lamp.” I mean, honestly. Well, whatever I have written, which, may I add, was under duress because I had to write something of no-one would host me, and added 3 dubious photos (obviously), and then the messages came flooding in. “Hi Flynn, I see that are in Colombia. Let me know when you’re in Bogota and I can show you around, go for coffee or whatever. Bye! Adrian.” “Hello Flynn. I see that you are in Cartagena. I am here on my holidays from Boston and was wondering if you would like to meet up. Cheers, Tenor.” Utterly comedic was a query from a photographer in Bogota: “Are you in Bogota?” My reply: “Yes.” Final response: “Good”. Hahahahaha...he actually replied! I think the winning random message was from a chap in India: “Hello Flynn. I really like to met new persons from other cultures and countries. Please let me no when you are in Juipur and we can go for a coffe.Bye, Tomal.” Bye! Bye! Hahaha, it cracks me up. And obviously, why not pop over to another continent a few thousand miles away for coffee? I’m an amiable person. And I have a sari. Hoho. Apparently, however, after consultation with fellow (male) couchsurfers, this is not a normal state of affairs, this random messaging. And no, there are no ‘blue’ photographic materials on my profile, as, I believe, would be a less than motivating means of self-advertisement. I have no assets. E-hem. So, now you know a little bit more about the world CS. This was a world I was to inhabit for nearly three weeks continually in Colombia. And so, we return to Ervine in Cartagena. After clearing up the policeman escorting incident, we sat and chatted whilst I checked out her freshly applied paintwork of brilliant orange, but, as it was eleven at night; it didn’t quite have the potency to be revealed the following morning. I shot-gunned the hammock that hung along the 3m front window, and was utterly enamoured with the stunning view of the Caribbean ocean that stretched out but 50m from our 12th floor apartment. This was the beginning of a weeklong habitation of Erv’s gloriously simple yet bright and buzzing place. I accompanied Erv to the gym after stealing her trainers and hit the aerobics class. ¡Buenos Dios! The aerobics instructor was a flame retardant fag or the highest degree (no offence to non-heterosexuals, but...) and had most certainly missed his way to Broadway and Flash dance. Aerobics? Erv and I were prancing around at the back of the class as he executed sharp and fluid pirouettes, sweeping arm gestures and accurately preformed swivels whilst the congregation of middle aged ladies clad in abhorrently figure-hugging fuchsia velour stumbled about the token gesture of a ‘step’, the full length mirror mocking recording the preposterous failings of health, age and coordination. I ran on the running machine for half an hour after that, simply because I wanted to sweat a bit and make donning a pair of Reeboks worth the effort. Ah! Gym in Colombia? Where are the drug cartels? The poverty stricken images of Asia...the children scampering with but a rag to conceal their modesty? Nope, not in Cartagena at least. Gym in the morning and then off into the city centre to check out what all this UNESCO heritage shizzle was all about. And my, my, what a beautiful ‘Old Town’. ‘El Centro’ is the walled ciudad Antigua, a fabric of intricately woven streets, awash with brightly coloured walls, majestic colonial buildings and quaint, tranquil spaces...you just need to know where to look. In was founded in 1533, and grew to be one of the most significant ports in the newly colonised world, a throbbing artery for the shipping of treasures back to Spain. For you little history boffs, a little tale. Our very own Sir Francis Drake himself managed to capture the practically impenetrable walled city with a crew of 1,300 strong in 1586, yet were defeated later again by Spaniards. Just think, could have been speaking English here! Shame, eh? Wonder what Colombia would be like as an English speaking country...probably very different to what it is now, hmm? After fleeing the sunny tapestry of old, I was a wandering the area of Getsemani when a young chico peered at me from above his sunglasses. “I know you...” Yes, we had met but four days earlier whist drunken in a club in Santa Marta. You know me, I had vague wisps of recollections whirling in my mind, but these were put aside when he enquired as to whether I would like to come and see their boat. Ahh, soon I was sat aboard the ‘Moonraker’, a gleaming white sail boat, anchored amongst a series of highly shiny and expensive yacht, sipping a beer and chatting to four rather delicious Argentineans! Not too shabby, not too shabby. They are planning to sail around the Caribbean, up past Panama, Honduras, up to the States, and then back round past the islands for six months. Didn’t manage to get an invitation for the long haul, but introductions to the decks, bunkers, and seamen were splendid all the same. Chiva. Chiva bus. What be this thing? It is the organised fun of party buses...ron ron ron! Davido (Swiss) and Michael (Dutch), fellow couchsurfers fell victim to an obscure power cut that affected only Erv’s apartment, and as the dusk drew in and Erv was nowhere to be found, I devised the only solution plausible as we squinted amongst the final sunny juice drops of illumination at around 6pm; “Anyone fancy a rum?” A hearty agreement ensued, and soon, a whole crew of Europeans (we doubled up on the Dutch and the Swiss), Erv and I were merrily guzzling down Colombian rum in the dim glows of Michael’s ‘Lucky Candle’. Shame really, as this was the first time he’s actually cracked it out in 3 months of travelling, so, erm, not that lucky really. But, Chiva time soon came, and the remnants of our bottle were soon replaced by a whole fresh batch aboard the party bus. Six of us squeezed into the pew behind the band (one member of which I am sure was imaginatively utilising a cheese grater in his melody making...) and soon began to become the somewhat raucous aisle of fun-seekers! The music was pumping and the shimmer of Cartagena’s aquatic and antiquarian skyline slurred past as we chanted along to the Caribbean beats...”Mas ron! Mas ron!” The Chiva diva delivered, both rum to us and us to the great fortified wall of the Old Town...and then to a club and then...well. All in the name of Ron, eh? This was Thursday night. Friday morning found me rough and anti-Ron...the b*****d. But, guess who was to replace the now fragile Europeans, but my very dearest, primero Couch Buddy, Andreas (CS alter ego, ‘Snuggler’)! He sauntered into Erv’s place, not knowing that I was already there...unawares that I was hiding behind the bedroom door whilst Erv nonchalantly mentioned another person for London had been there...fortunately for him, he didn’t say anything too slanderous, so I popped out and surprised him. Think he was about to say something bad, but... Returning to the CS interest. Snuggler is perhaps the perfect example of a ‘keen bean, Couchsurfing machine.’ He is a lovely, intelligent, good looking chap, but. But. It took me a little while to notice, but Snuggler is always, ALWAYS on his computer. He is the king of CS, and is in fact that one that immersed me so whole-heartedly into the political depths of this abstract/tangible/globalised community. For e, Snuggler, when he is not in immediate reach of his Vaio, is entertaining, witty and fun, and also very astute. However, if the wireless status is one of ‘Connected’, his thoughts default to the comp. What is he doing on his laptop that requires such dedicated attention? He is organising Couchsurfing meetings...YES! Contemplating what his next destination is and organising with CS ambassadors, meetings for CS hosts in that city and any other random surfer that happens to be in the vicinity! He is talking to people who he has hosted in London at his place (he has done that a lot), to people that he was hosted by in Latin America, and messaging prospective new hosts...but what about the now? It is almost as though he is living his life vicariously though CS, yet not actually involving himself with the immediate present. He is also a further example of a type of person that uses CS for a somewhat specific purpose. Recall, that this is the man that claimed he knew why I’d joined CS within 5 minutes of meeting me; “Well, it’s because you’re a desperate northerner, isn’t it?” I. Rest. My. Case. And so, Friday night, my night of alcohol abhorrence, was CS Meeting night. Yay. Ppppfffff. So, along I went, just to be sociable, when in all honestly I felt like I’d eaten the toilet brush and only very transient and non-communicable thoughts stumbled through my foggy mind. Consequently, I was utilised in a conversation between Erv and a French chappie as a beer-bottle-holder-3rd wheel-ornament. Suited me fine, as their sumptuous French syllables spread over me like a luxury cheese on freshly baked baguette. Soon, Mr. Sausscine, the self-proclaimed French Sausage was interrogating me about the shiny lights of Blackpool and he coxed me somewhat outta me drinking facilitator role into something a little more lively. (He later sent me this CS link, come on t´pool! http://www.couchsurfing.com/
Friday, 17 April 2009
A bus-hussle and a couple of hours later we arrived in fairly late into Taganga, a beautiful little fishing village on the Caribbean. A few drinks with a couple of lovely Ozzie girls and a trio of Israelis and it felt great to be on the backpacker trail which simply did not exist in Venezuela. Yet, missioning it half way across a country in just less than six days certainly took it out of me a smidge, so languishing on the beach and eating fresh watermelon was the order of the day. It is simply wonderful how salubrious snacks are always so readily available, with fresh smoothes made on demand...mango, pineapple, passion fruit, star fruits, YUM! After the alarming void of fruit and veggies in Venezuela that generated my paranoia of developing scurvy, it was simply divine, especially as you slurp whilst watching the sunset from a moored fishing boat, whilst the locals get stoned behind you. Ha.
Getting into the swing of things, Ben, from Israel, agreed to cook an Israeli dish, shaksuka, if I sewed the hole in his faithful traveller shorts. Ahh, my grandma would have been proud, although she said she didn’t like the look of the poor lad from my photos. Hahahahaha. ‘La Garaje’ was party bar of choice for this fine Wednesday, and I was soon being swept off my feet Colombian stylee by a local chappie. The movements are not as one would often expect of Latin America, for the main movement is with the hips and it is a slow, controlled small step, which, of course, is wiggled out at intense personal proximity...the concept of the personal space, ‘Smartie Tube’ is nowhere to be seen. It felt really quite restrictive not being able to whizz my arms around in my personal crazy dance style, but pretty darn cool!
Princess Gina and Edwin were the loveliest Colombians, christening me ‘Flannie’ and generally being wonderful. I stayed at Divanga, a lovely place run by a couple of French, and would certainly recommend! A trip to ‘Parque Nacionale Tyrona’ was simply gorgeous. Hiking for just over a couple of hours and I’d pottered through thick vegetation, heard toucans hooting away and ambled along beautiful stretches of beach to arrive in the final campsite at Cabo, where I picked myself a pleasant looking hammock and then skipped off to the BEAUTIFUL beach. This is perhaps the nicest beach that I’ve since yet which is almost on a par with some of the Asian paradises. Which then got me a-thinking (no, don’t groan yet!). The culture in Asia is very conservative, appearing almost a-sexual in some instances and there is a great respect for their country, for women and generally is a very safe place to travel. There is an intense and unremitting curiosity and reverence to foreigners in less specifically touristic areas...in some places in Java for example, we couldn’t walk down the street more than 500m without someone asking for a photo with us! This is simply not the case in Latin America, or at least up to now. There is a vague interest and people do stare a little, but that is probably because I look like a hobo. I prefer to romanticise my tortoise appearance with my house on my back to that of a hippie in a spiritual transit of holistic development, looked upon with awe...but I merely look like a ridiculous gringo that needs to wash their feet and develop a sense of style rather rapidly.
There is an almost tangible sexual charge here, expressed through the music, the lifestyle of partying and really enjoying life, for everyone is always smiling and very open, as opposed to the serious nature of the Asian population. But only an hour ago that a less than spritely senora who engaged me in short converse commented, whilst I languished in the afternoon heat with Gabriel Marcia Marquez upon my lap, “Aqui es muy tranquil; no problemos.” Yes, after a month of travelling, she summed up my entire Colombian experience in a noncelant, yet insightful observation. The reason Colombia is so wonderful is simply because everything is so relaxed. Even the abundant – and highly armed – military, whose presence is always highly visible, are pleasant and smiling. As one gentleman said, “The law is so lax. This is why my country is so great; but it is also the reasons for its troubles.” He lived in the USA for half the year anyways, which he informed me after exclaiming, “Why are you here??”
So, what are the underlying causes for such distinctly different lifestyles, perspectives and attitudes to lifestyle? Perhaps it is the language? The melodious Espanola that crossed the Atlantic and infused a continent with Colonial rhythm and spirit, a fluid and fun language whose reach in this continent are not as deeply rooted as those of the long standing Asian tongues of Thai, Malay or Khmer, whose script is a indecipherable as hieroglyphics to the untrained eye, that have evolved and been nurtured in cultures that are still being to break out into the realm of a world outside their villages after hundreds or thousands of years of independent agrarianism and closedness to the greater global-political landscape. Or in a similar vein, it may be religion. Buddhism and animism reign in the East. Mantras of self-improvement, pacifism, respect and reincarnation, or simply a belief system of powerful external metaphysical forces placated with daily offerings of flowers, fruits and on occasion, Polo Mints. Everything is respected as the post-mortal ramifications can be great and every behaviour can contribute into the next realm of getting closer to Nirvana or not. Asia is not so very dangerous as one might suppose, although there are always the souls that care not a jot about the ‘after life’. Catholicism, however, being as dogmatic as it is, always allows for the opportunity for recompense and forgiveness through the sacrament of ‘Reconciliation’ or, more plainly, confession of one’s misdemeanours to the priest (the doorway to the Lord) and then absolution of one’s sins through the power of the God’s Servant. Devout Catholics, with all their iconography and ritual, in the end, believe that they are destined to get to Heaven, and if something goes wrong, God will understand, for did Jesus not sacrifice himself for all our doomed souls? Jajajaja (Spanish version of ‘hahaha’), what am I twittering on about? This is all very much speculation and very probably typed out diarrhoea (which, I am yet to suffer from on this little venture), but all thoughts would be very much welcome...’Let’s have a heated debate!’ Please note, I write ‘Catholic’ and not ‘Christian’, as many a Calvinist would most certainly beg to differ!! Not, however, am I using religion as a scope-goat for the narcotics trade, or course...
Annnnyyywwaaaysss, so I’m in Tangana, not in the Theology/Anthropology department getting a Third for my efforts. A splendidly cheap option for the old scuba, scuba, so after recommendation for a couple of lovely Auzzie ladies I met in Tyrona, who, very kindly, saved me from my continually impending doom once again as I ventured into another hole on a boulder heavy trek to see Pueblito, an archaeological site of Tyrona relics deeper into the park. Like the beetle scrambling on its back, I was wedged between a boulder and a big crevice, but escaped with a mere scabby knee...no head injuries to be reported. Scuba diving with Santiago, this super funny and cool guy was organised for Sunday afternoon and...dooo doo doo doooooo, my first night dive! “Don’t be getting drunk tonight”, said he, and I, in all sincere intent, ensured him nothing of the sort would transpire. Yeah, a couple of beers with the new house peeps won’t do me any harm...and then I was in another town called Santa Marta being bought Mojitos by three gay Colombians who had decided to adopt me for the evening...”Daaaarrrlllliinnnng! You are so gggrreeeeaaaatttt!” However, the true depth of their homosexuality was distinctly challenged for me when I turned to find the main protagonist was snogging the face off some Russian chick, whilst her boyfriend looked on none too chuffed!! “But she was gorgeous, daaaarrrrlllinng!!” Maybe it was her boyish, elfin hair cut. Jajajaja (Don’t you think that jajajaja just looks so funny?? Conjures up images of someone hocking up phlegm as they chuckle into their Arripa)!
So, Mothering Sunday and I awake with a stonking hangover...but all duties are successfully executed with little detection from the Western Front! Yes, mummy, I think I may have been a bit drunk when I spoke to you, but the chaos of being at aunty Neesie’s I think put you off the scent. Plying myself with water and stodge, I waddled to the dive centre, hoping Nitrogenarcosis wasn’t going to net my pescado self. In fact, the dive was wicked! We had a little underwater scooter that pulled you along like 007...zip zip weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Then off I went checking out the cool corals, seeing a few moray eels bare there fangs many a fishy wish. What was incredible was the fact that on average, a dive lasts about 35-40 minutes, maybe a bit longer if you are lucky, but I had a dive for about 1`hour 10 minutes!! As we emerged from our watery world, my fellow divers exclaimed their astonishment at our being so long...guess I just don’t breathe much, eh? THAT is what was cool about Santiago...we were there to dive and there was no rush for anything. Sandwiches on a nearby cliff-house and we watched the sun amble down to reach its place of slumber as we discussed the merits of a leisurely lifestyle verses the manic rat-race and the malleability of one’s perspective on life after travelling (Santiago did welcome me into his office of a beautiful ocean sunset, which is probably only the token desktop image of most people’s office space). Could we really survive on a farm, isolated...or as a fish-watcher? A who-what? Como? Yes, perhaps the most sought after occupation must be this. Envisage, a man’s body floating face down in the water. “Goodness, is he dead??!!” your internal monologue cries?? No, no. This chap is far from deceased. He is watching fish and you notice his little snorkel bobbing alongside his submerged cranium. All of a sudden, he flounders around, waving to the shore, and a flurry of tanned flesh is galvanised into action, wrenching and yanking on a long rope that slices into the ocean. What, ho?? They feverishly heave this lifeline, encapturing the school of fish that were unfortunate enough to meander into the netted hell and be ensnared as it comes up around them and dragging them to the dry, asphyxiating shores of land. Yes, what a job! To be a shrivelled prune that tells his mates when the grub is up, simply waiting. Tick tock, tick tock and all that Guinness philosophy. Bet he would like a pint of Guinness too...have to just put up with a Club Colombia servesa and agualianta (local spirit which is like a diluted version of Zambuka...ming!). So, taking all CVs for the new position of ‘Executive Fish Finding Assistant’. Basic rate + Commission. Starfish experience essential.
But the highlight of the day, or night rather, was mi primero noche bucear!! Seeing the realm of the sub nautical by night, illuminated with a mere flashlight was astounding. The moray eel of earlier was no longer simply peering out from a tubular within a glorious coral, but was slinking through the current. Lobster, a ravishing red radiated in the beam, his antenna flicking all about him, playing the multi-tier church organ before him. The giant Blowfish, at least 1.5m in length levitated in the glow as we looked on with bulging eyeballs. Under the heavy glare of three torches bearing down on a creature simultaneously simply generated a clarity and intensification of colour I’ve only seen in Bali, but the activity of these aquatic creatures was simply breath-taking. Yet, what made it for me (be aware, I am about to get very cliché!) was during our five minute safety stop, but 5 metres from the surface. Off, went out torch lights, and an immense, yet comfortable darkness engulfed us. Momentarily, there was nothing. No sound other than your darth-vader breathing and the pressure on the water against your wetsuit. Then it happened. Perhaps the singularly most profound and beautiful natural experiences that I have been privileged to encounter. Slowly, the water began to become saturated with tiny particles of light. I moved my arm in an arch and a cloud of glittering dust glistened in its wake. Awe swelled up and knotted in my throat whist I desperately tried to suppress the ........smile that was endangering me of imbibing salty water from the edges of my regulator mouth-piece. We danced underwater, twirling and swirling, swishing and swiping at the magical substance that created waves of enchanted phenomena, appearing to emanate from our very selves. Fish would flash by as though they were the shooting stars of the sea. As we floated up out of the cosmos of the ocean, the star saturated night perpetuated the magic. I. Was. Speechless. The power of luminescent plankton (for those who wish to know what the blinking ‘eck it was) and simply soaked all the power of words up and away from me. The night sky provided solace in its attempt to sustain the enchanting marvels of the deep. Ahh, but one of many hedonistic firsts that Colombia was to offer me, but none were as intensely astounding as this.
Friday, 27 March 2009
“No worries. Where is it you’re off to then?”
“Oh, well I’m going to South America, first stop Venezuela.”
“Wow. On your own? You must be very brave. I’ve only ever been abroad once to Ibiza.”
Waiting in Preston train station and how very lucky I am slaps me in the face and I’ve only left my cosy nest of Blackpool for half an hour. Eccentric as my brothers may feel I am, I know that it is simply opportunity, education and something innate that isn’t precisely quantifiable nor describable that differentiates me from this lovely lass from Burnley.
Well, why finish exploring this little old planet when you have a further few months free before one’s baptism of fire into the proverbial rat race? Why be content with what one has experienced when there is so much more to see, watch and enjoy beyond the realms of our great green lands? No need to be complacent or proud of the extensive range of cultures and peoples one has been lucky enough to encounter and engage with, for there are so very many more witness and learn from.
After a week of much merriment and mirth with a whole bunch of amazing people I simply have not seen enough of lately in t’bridge and Londres, including the amazing invitation to be bridesmaid for my beautiful college wifey along with a couple of the most wonderful girlies (Eek! JoJo is getting hitched...bloody Christians ;) ), I was off on another intrepid adventure. This time, however, this was solo. Nope, not a whiff of a little Samiad in sight, nor a flash of Klo’s botty to keep me company, but on my tod. Another day and another continent to encounter. Yes, Tuesday 11th March, 2009 was the beginning of another Flynnie Winnie venture, again to climes tropical, but of a decidedly different spirit of the Far East Asia of 2008. This five month trip to South and Central America is a fluid exploration of both the lands I travel and the limitations I myself will encounter as a single, solo chica.
So, to Gatwick airport for my flight to Porto, Portugal, where I had to curl up on a nice metal bench for the night whilst awaiting my flight to Caracas, the ‘Massively DANGEROUS’ capital of the oil rich and politically controversial Venezuela. Ahh, one would assume that things wouldn’t go amiss until I’d at least left safe old Europe, but whilst checking in, it seemed that since my return flight was not within the 90 allowance, I needed a visa. BUGGER. How, exactly, was I to obtain such a document whilst in the obscure suburbs of Portugal before my flight was scheduled to leave (i.e. in 1 hour 30m??). I wasn’t that was simple. So, by exchanging my GBP to Euros at an abysmal rate,(take some Euros when you have a connecting flight in the EU) I managed to log onto a computer and book a flight out of Venezuela to Quito, Ecuador, much to my displeasure...I couldn’t afford it nor did I want it! But, a print off was obtained and access to the flight went on smoothly, making it to the TAP Portugal flight in the nick of time. Phew! So, the 8 hour flight began and immediately my ideas of vegetarianism were challenged. Fish or chicken? I prepared myself for having to be somewhat lax with how stringent I would be to keep with my newly revived decision to not eat meat, but maybe it was somewhat foolish to do this before heading to the biggest meat-eating continent on the planet. So, I agreed with myself to avoid it where possible. Blah.
So, Caracas. Basically, since this was to be the first trip I’d ever made to an unknown place where I knew precisely zero people, I thought it would be nice to maybe set up some contacts before I went. And so it was....I became integrated into the social network of what is known as ‘Couch surfing’. Give you a very quick briefing. Couch surfing in a network of people that basically offer strangers a place to crash whilst they are on their travels or holidays or whatever. You have a profile, much like Facebook, and once you have set this up, you can search the city that you are staying in and look for people you think you’d like to stay with. You message back and forth to arrange, then you turn up and stay with them for a night or a few days or whatever you agree. It is utterly wicked!! Annnnnyyyywwaayyysss, back to the journey. I’d arranged to stay at the home of a nice chap called Leo, and he had very kindly enlightened me in our email converse that the city was massively dangerous, especially for a traveller, for, as one can well envisage, you are a bit of a sitting duck with your big pack on your back and all your worldly possessions in your immediate vicinity. Hmm. He also explained that there are currency controls in Venezuela, which didn’t really dawn on me properly until I landed...I knew that you could get a better rate on the ‘black market’ than from the official bank rate (the latter is 2.2 Bolivars to $1 USD, whereas you can get as much as 5.7Bolivares to $1 with the former...almost 3 times as much!), so I felt quite the knowledgeable traveller as I hustled with the dudes in the airport. Just wish I had brought more USDs as Venezuela is expensive if you are using the official rate!!
Adopted by a taxi man, I was ushered into the hot, dusty metropolis with fear gurgling in my gut and plans of escape and fantasises of self-defence scenarios whizzing round my little mind, when I was delivered to the lobby of a 5* hotel where I was to await my host. Sweet! Rather comic having a big old pack and near on two days of non-showering whilst the elite breeze by. Leo arrived and hilariously had assumed I was a bloke (such that I had avoided clarifying in emails – hurrah for the ambiguity that my name engenders!), and soon I was tucked up in an old banger with Leo’s centenary granny and her nurse and was scooted back to Leo’s abode. Ahh, the place was like something from Great Expectations, yet Miss Haversham was Venezuelan and had a little bit more of a shuffle that usually portrayed (granny was in fact called Sophia, which I thought quite becoming), yet the house was indeed a time warp. The colonial style of an educated family of French decent was apparent in the style and quality of furnishings, yet had sadly fallen into disrepair. I was in my element!! Poking (as politely as possible) around the extensive rooms of this dilapidated treasure trove revealed Singer sewing machines, antique hairpins, piles of paintings and boxes of disintegrating books...as well as some wonderful vintage dresses, all feeding into my imaginings of the days past when this was headed by an elegant women of high society. Certainly not what you’d get a snapshot of simply staying in a hostel! So you begin to see the delights of Couch surfing!
So, the next morn, after a traditional style breakfast of juice, arripas (a maize based bread cake thingy) stuffed with cheese (and ham if you like), scrambled egg and onion thingy and lots of tea or coffee, and I was whisked to the bus station to get my ‘Caracassss’ right outta there and was swiftly headed west-bound for Choroni and the beach, Puerto Colombia! (If you were wondering, for no apparent reason, my card was declined so never had to pay for that flight to Quito...hehehe). This little place was set back deep within the ‘Henri Pittier National Park’; a quiet fishing village composed of clusters of brightly coloured, single floor houses, populated with crispy uniformed school children and scatty little pooches. On the connecting bus from Maracay I was lucky enough to stumble across a couple of German lasses on their holidays from their volunteering placement in Bolivia – Marta and Anna. We chipped in for a room altogether which was very nice of them and soaked up the chilled atmosphere...but the place was so quiet and the beach was okay, but nothing overwhelming. Nice to just observe the fishermen loading up their catches of the day and then to munch on it!
But time is money in Venezuela, and the next day we’re back to civilisation and ready for couch surfing experience number two in Maracay! A mysteriously free, boy-racer stylee whizzing return to the city along the winding rounds of the park by night plonked us amongst Abby and her swimmer chums, who were excited to meet us...and then sprung on us that we were off to a party! Looking mightily rough, I, together with t’other travellers arrived in the open-air stairwell of our host’s aunty. A family birthday party! Ahh, little did we know what was to transpire! Politely chatting (or grinning inanely if you can’t speak Spanish, i.e. me) then out of no-where, a whole Mexican style band popped onto the metal stairwell and began to sing to the birthday lady! Wow! Elaborately embroider jackets, sombreros, trumpets, guitars, violins and hip-shaking a-plenty, the whole bunch of us was saturated with the sound of Latino grooves! The aunties were swaying away, particularly loving the old classics, whilst the kiddies wiggled their little bottoms, itching to break out into something more energetic then their restrained space allowed them. AAArrriiibbbbbaaaa!!! Bloody brilliant, to be sure! Then the rum began to flow and the birthday cake brought out, where we all contributed a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in our native tongues, before the ‘the youngsters’ pumped up the beats in the tiny apartment living room space and grinded our way into the night! Ahh, “You are their new toy” the gorgeous Mariangel commented, as the drunker they got, the braver and more raunchy the dancing became! Goodness, these lads could show you English chappies a thing or two about shaking ya shimmy and my thighs certainly had an unforeseen work out! Beers, post-boogie arripas and chilling at Abby’s house ensued and everyone became more confident and forthcoming with their English...wicked for me, the ignorant little Brit. Ha. Miguel particularly enjoyed saying the ‘F’ word, especially since no-one else seemed to appreciate it. Hmm.
Then to part with the German ladies as they were to hitch a ride to their next destination, whilst I hopped aboard a bus to the UNESCO heritage site, Coro, always bearing west to the Colombian Border. This little place was really quaint, but so quiet! It was somewhat bemusing as I simply was unsure where exactly all the people were! It was founded in 1527, and the colonial area where I was staying was somewhat beautifully maintained, with a stunning lemon church and pretty little plazas that gleamed in the early morning sunlight. A trip to the peninsula just north of the town together with some French travellers was a little disappointing as it was the WINDEST beach in the world...I morphed into the Samiad after an hour! With sand in every orifice the bus was grabbed back and our collective disappointment with Venezuelan food and prices culminated in French style pasta, cheese and bread whipped up in our hostel. These guys were on a holiday for two weeks and were generally disappointed. The best of Venezuela, according to Lonely Planet and much tourist information was nothing more than mediocre according to these guys, and I think Couch surfing is what made Venezuela for me.
So no time to waste, I was off to Maracaibo, the largest city in the west of the country and another couch to be surfed! Paola was amazing! She shouted the cost of my taxi as I’d run out of cash (due to avoiding withdrawing dinario from el banco), sorted us out with a lovely lunch and generally was really sweet. It is here that I met my first Londoner (despite him being of Germanic-Persian descent), and we were to become border-buddies the following day. Andres and I were to venture across the no-man’s land between Venezuela and Colombia early on Tuesday morning, encountering a lovely flat tyre on the way and deeply depleted funds. Without him I would have certainly been screwed on the money front! After the continual police checks at what seemed every 500metres, we finally obtained our stamp, endured the privilege of paying to leave the blinking rubbish ridden country (the attitude to litter is quite outrageous...it is simply a case of dropping whatever wherever, which is a real shame. In some places, it looks as though a gust of wind has carried a bunch of trash from the rubbish heap and belched it across the landscape), and off into Colombia we ventured, passport in hand, ready for a kidnap....or not.
Thursday, 23 October 2008
Ha! No sooner have I amputated my bruised and bumped person from the sympathetic and predictable sanctuary that was Carrie's sunny Nanjing flat, I was again a wisp of starch at the mercy of the Chinese rice cooker. No, Chengdu was my destination on my premier in-country flight, but t'was not to be the place of landing. Xi'an, some 4000km away from 'Du was where I was plonked, due to 'severe weather conditions' battering the runaways in Sichuan Province. Great. I am about to embark in a little Chinese project of (hopefully) a three month duration in a city that suffers from atrocious amounts of rain and storms. And, it won't let me in. I sleep in the purgatorial lounge clutching the complimentary 'Tuc-Tuc' biscuits, yet the moreish crunch soon inflicts a river-side dust eradicating all moisture from my mute-mouth. Dostoevsky lulls me into a tetchy slumber, until we're back on the airborne vehicle. A text message from He Qi Le, my Chinese colleague, greets me on the 4-hour delayed arrival with "Car has run out of petrol on motorway. Maybe you need to take taxi." Brilliant. Am I destined to do this? Clues from Fate appear to suggest a 'nope'.
But I make it and I meet my boss and am soon having dinner with him and the Singapore partner over a Mexican BBQ in their 5* hotel. Chengdu is grey and bleak. The sky is the same flat grey as the towering buildings that border the Technology Park within which the office and my apartment reside. And it appears to me that I'm in the middle of no-where! The city twinkles on the horizon and I can't even orientate myself in this business park due to being excessively chaperoned in driver lead cars to sample Chengdu hotpots and Babi II bars. Friday night and my mobile rattles into life. "Hiya Flynn. It’s Owen. I'm at the bus station." Owen being a traveller met in Yunnan province and he was now in Chengdu. Right. I only have my obscure address in Chinese and I haven't the faintest where I am. Or where he is for that matter. Great host, eh? "Erm, I'm in my pyjamas and sat in a flat that I've no clue of its precise location." Muttering something about an 'Incubation Park', I leave him to decide if he thinks he can make it or just shack up in one of the city's hostels. An hour later and he informs me he is at the entrance. "HOW??" I incredulously and massively impressed query. He didn't know. And so, the trials and tribulations of the traveller continue to be a mystery in their solution.
So, a taste of Chengdu was for the pair of us, since we were both new to the 'most second most livable city in China.' And, after a few days of non-traveller for me, it was National Chinese Holidays for a week...play time! No.1 Club was our host for party times, with a bottle of beer to lubricate the limbs, supplemented with tactical attachments to local imbibers for jovial cries of 'Gan ba!' to cheekily slurp a shot or two of whiskey or vodka and, of course, a generous refill. Not paid for us of course. A strange and very annoying system operates in Chinese bars and clubs. If you want to indulge in, say, a Vodka and lemonade or a G&T, you cannot simply have a measure in your glass and be done with it....no, no, no. One has to invest in an ENTIRE bottle! Unless you're in a group that is willing to all drink the same, what is one to do? Be a liquor leech in our case. By the end of the evening, I had obtained a collection of Chinese masks, a wiggle on the podium and a distinct lack of sobriety for not many pennies at all! On return to the Incubation Park (by what manner neither of us have the faintest), I was so disorientated, in response to Owen's assertions there is a lake near my apartment, I stormed, "there is definitely no pond here!" and then promptly fell in it. The hero jumped in after me whilst I flailed around in about half a metre of water. Not that I'm dramatic when drunk or anything...
So, what are the tourist activities which one is to revel in? We hop aboard the pea-green number 26 and clunk our way over the fly-overs that divide my residence with the rest of Chengdu civilization. Evicted into Tianfu Square, we’re greeted with the celestial wave of the Chairman Mao, whose figure towers from on high. He is the colour of the first page in a note book – unadulterated and seductively white. But he blurs out of focus, for he does not much contrast with the skies of ‘Du. They continue to laboriously harbour the foggy clouds that squat heavily in the troposphere, creating a 2-Dimensional water-colour of the city’s architecture. Onto the “People’s Park’ for a jaunt around the lake (no, I didn’t have a dip in this one) to watch the Chinese at play, peddling about in boats and slurping on yogurt. Yes, they are a big fan of yogurt, but not of other dairy products, which is interesting. Owen and I absent-mindedly nibble on an oven baked sweet potato from a street vendor as two little girls lace our sitting place with rainbow flaunting bubbles. It is almost like sitting in Stanley Park (Blackpool, for those unfortunates who have never fed the ducks there). Except everyone is Chinese instead of Sand-grownian. Daring as we are, we pay 8RMB to descend into the bowels of the park within which a horror-ride awaits us. The Indian Jones Picaro figure beside me, that claims he desperately desires to be forced to stitch his own wounds out in some wilderness and live to tell the tale, excretes a careering car tyre screech and leaps behind me as I fumble about in the dusty darkness. A wizened rubber mask attached to some fabric adorned stick pops up from the abyss and an echoic cackle resonates around the tomb. We yelp, and then are ashamed at the fact we actually allowed a pit of fear to percolate in our guts and then to make it public though a pathetic squeak and squeal whilst beseeching the other to turn the next corner first. And this was no high-tech, atmospheric ghost tour, but a series of boxes which housed mechanized geriatric ghouls of varying mobility. The faint hearted would probably have asked for a refund. Like true English, the only solution was a cuppa, so we pulled up a crude bamboo seat and grabbed a green tea at the much famed Teahouse.
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary was a particular delight! It is home to over 30% of this bamboo-chomping endangered species. Little Roland fact**A giant panda may consume 12-38 kg of bamboo a day to meet its energy requirements.** But that may well be because there is hardly any nutritional value in this stuff, strong as it may be. The little baby pandas were sooo cute, and it was wicked super cool to watch these crazy carnivour–turn-herbivores killing time. A bear that actually has a bit of a badger look about its snout, that lounges around and no-one knows whether they’re male or female! And costs about 30quid to get a close-up and a stroke. Gave that one a miss.
Back in Chengdu city, we hit the ancient streets, sauntering down alleys around Renmin Zhonglu, we mooched around Wenshu Temple a monastery which dates back to the Tang dynasty, and is allegedly Chengdu's largest and best-preserved Buddhist temple. The highlight perhaps was the pond in the centre of the monastery that was saturated with terrapins!! They are cruising around, some giving other cheeky rides on their shells, or simply hanging out on one of the artfully placed rocks. I like their little feet. After working up a fierce hunger, and bamboo not really whetting our gourmand appetites, we head to a local Hotpot restaurant with a newly acquired nomad, Mark. The concept of the Sichuan hotpot is not to be undervalued. "Huo Guo", the actually translation being ‘fire-pot’ is the quintessential Sicuhan dish. A large steely bowl is set in the centre of a table upon a naked flame, inciting the dark myriad of spices to bubble and boil in the chili saturated soup. Once the soup is as hot as its ‘mingzi’, a variety of raw ingredients are added and then plucked out by nimble chop-stick manipulation once their cooked. Well, we had a great array of meats and ingredients that we chose to added to our cauldron of fire, such as mushrooms, potato, tofu, cucumber, ducks’ heart, thinly cut beef (Ge rou) and sticks of chicken (Ya rou), but perhaps the most exotic was the pig brains. Yes, the cute and compact pink spongy matter was cradled delicately in a ladle so as not to crush it whilst plundering the pot for other delightful morsels. Unfortunately, there were no fava beans, nor a nice Energon kiante to accompany my slice of convoluted cortex.
Exhausting the ‘Du, the rapscallion and I aboard the 16 hour choo-choo that is chartered for Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. One of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, it has a history of over 5000 years, and was capital during the Qin, Han, the Sui and Tang dynasties. Another little fact for you historians, is that Xi’an is the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road, and that’s perhaps why there is a lively and interesting Islamic quarter within the ancient city walls, which are host to an excellent array of street snacks of breads and meats, with crazy deep-fried sweets and gooey rice cube soup.
But it is not for the food that we journeyed to this city which boasts such a colossus legacy. Ejected from our hard-seat of too many hours into the hustle of the train station, we grab a cab and find solace and showers in our hostel. An afternoon of exploration leads us to the Bell and Drum Towers in the centre of the ancient city, juxtaposed with the surrounding onslaught of modern commercialism. The ‘Bucks and the Mc’s fluorescents are awkwardly vulgar against the glow of the ancient gold and red architecture. But then, this is China and it is this fusion of stark clashes between the ancient and the modern that characterises many cities. We sample the street food of deep fried bread with chili and lettuce (??!! A significant first of fresh salad style foodstuff for me in China!) and hit the hay for sleeping in preparation for our Big Xi'an DAY.
Yes, to the much famed Terracotta Warriors went we. Based an hour from the city, we tumbled out of the bus to be greeted by a market of polished pomegranates, pregnant with sweet seeds and proffered by the tens of local sellers from their wicker baskets. But the fruits of contemporary local labour was not our port of call. Into the museum and anticipation gurgled in our tums, for the 7000 Army figures had lay underground for over 2000 years. The site is divided into three separate pits, Vaults 1, 2 and 3. They found that the first discovered and largest vault is Pit 1, where over 6000 pieces reside, and are thought to be the army infantry. The other two pits play host to the cavalry and main officer units…yes, horses and everything! Incredible are the range of hairstyles, facial expressions and stances that this army exhibit. Incredibly, this whole ancient masterpiece was only discovered in 1974 by farmers, whose well pulled up fragments of the warriors!! This entire construct is a form of funerary art which was buried with first dynasty emperor, Qin Shi Huang in 210BC. Similar to the Egyptian concept of burial ritual, the purpose of the army is to assist Emperor Qin lead another empire in the afterlife.
National holidays are but only a week long and we were eager to squeeze as much Shaanxi shenanigans as we could. So back to the city, and then into a bus queue for our next destination, Hua Shan, (华山). This holy mountain stands at 7, 218ft high (2200m) and is one of five in China that is held sacred by Taoists. Well, we certainly were privy to the pilgrimage of Hua Shan! Adopted by a group of Xi’an university students, the leader introduced himself as “I am Candy – sweet like candy.” I stifled a giggle as Owen jabbed my rocking ribs. We were to follow them up this trail to the East Peak, the peak which is to reveal the most spectacular sunrise. Yet, we were not alone. Apparently over 2000 Chinese were to be accompanying us on the ascent. This, I have to really, emphatically point out was the oddest mountain climb I’ve ever encountered. Firstly, it was at night. Yes, an all nighter on the mountain with a couple of bread buns in our bag for sustenance. Like many things in China, it isn’t what one would expect. There are stairs all the way up to the pinnacles, lanes and paths that are flanked by ‘shops’ providing noodles and cucumber and water and eggs and respite from the grueling stairwell.
It was incredible! The path was saturated with people, and sometimes a bottleneck would form at narrower points on the trail. Young people such as ourselves scooted about in jeans and Converse, whilst little old men and ladies heaved themselves peak-bound upon their walking sticks. I was knackered, to be honest. It revealed how very unfit I had become since the mauling of my ankle and head, and my lack of agility was shamed by the tenacity of these Chinese elders. The path thickens with sleeping bodies and even tents the later it becomes and the higher we climb. A stab of jealousy slashed at me as I see people huddled in large army jackets nursing cups of tea as we surge on. True miner style with a flashlight on my head, we bumbled up and up and up for over seven hours, only to find that the peak which we wish to clamber up..is full! It is 4am and the twinkling lights of the mountain are blaring before my fatigued eyes. And it is getting bloomin’ cold! A Chinese proverb goes as follows: “here is one path and one path only that goes to the summit of Hua Shan.” And yes, the underlying suggestion that it is hard work is definitely the case.
So on we plod, to the South Peak, where we will sneak ourselves past some authority in order to find a suitable stony seat for the spectacle we came to view. We wait. The theme tune of the Guinness advert spins in my aching mind…dun dun dun de dun dun. Is it going to be worth all this effort and exposure to potential contraction of pneumonia?? The skyline begins to glow at around 6.11am, whilst I dance about in a concerted effort to remain awake and obtain some feeling in my chilled digits. A sunrise has never been so eagerly awaited and we fawn over each extra degree of light that emanates from the horizon. A cheer resounds across the five peaks of Hua Shan as the yokey orb peeps out from behind its rocky shell. The sky slowly metamorphoses from an inky cape intricately embroidered with Swarovski Crystals into a myriad of purples flecked with fiery hues, gradually intensifying in such richness and strength,that even the most exquisite silks of Imperial Qipau could never recreate the kaleidoscope of colours that adorn the mountain peaks. The optical spectaculum crescendos at 6.44am. The plight of capturing the point at which the sun rising is at its most esthetically perfect by digital camera leaves me in awe of Monet’s avid switching of canvas whilst attempting to recreate such natural beauty with paints. He summarized his aim of painting in 1926: "I have always had a horror of theories, my only virtue is to have painted directly in front of nature, while trying to depict the impressions made on me by the most fleeting effects" .
We pottered around the remaining peaks in the crisp morning light, checking out the amazing views, the ‘Sea of Clouds’ that nestled amongst the nature rock sculpture and tussled with the thousands of Chinese back down the mountain…well, half way, because then we cheated and took a cable car back to the lowlands!
Back to Xi’an and we are TIRED but satisfied! Crashing into my bunk bed, sleep suffocates me into unconsciousness almost instantaniously…and a celebratory ‘Great Wall’ rouge is the celebratory tipple of choice for the eve.
Which brings us to Saturday, our final day in the ancient capital. We spend it zipping around the top of the city wall upon a lovely set of wheels. It is the most complete city wall that has survived in China and was built during the Ming Dynasty, standing at 12 metres high. The top of the wall was quite wide, being 12-14m across…and still Owen managed to have a crash up there with a fellow cyclist!! I was pretty darn tired after speeding around the entire 13.7km of wall, so we decided to indulge in a nice cup of tea and some steamed dumplings as a reward.
And so, the train back to Chengdu. Owen was off to Beijing and then Mongolia, but ‘normality’ rather than ‘nomadity' was to be my lot. The train journey, however, was to impress on my mind that travelling can be an arduous task at times. For it was the end of my holidays and that of the entire population of China, so, needless to say, it was a distinctly busy train. Thank goodness I had a set reserved, even if it was to be shared with several others! Along my bench which seats three, was occupied by a mother, father and child, myself and another Chinese chappie, perched on the end, whilst many simply chilled out in the aisle. Going to the toilet was not an endeavour to be taken lightly, especially since I was in the middle of the carriage! The collective groan that sifted up through the smoking air when the food trolleys slugged through, dislodging inhabitants of the grimy floor always made me chuckle.
With child crying to my left and sunflower seed crunching to my right, the amazing patience and lack of need to entertainment in the Chinese simply astounded me. There was I, iPod, Phone, books and so forth, whilst others simply looked on. Sixteen hours and a mysteriously broken flip-flop later (I was asleep when it happened), we’re back in Chengdu…now to really see what living in China is like.