Thursday, 19 November 2015

The trip - part 3

The spiel:

After leaving my teaching job at a Oaxaca university I have embarked on a three month trip in Central America.

I'll be backpacking, couch surfing, ukuleleing and volunteering around all of the countries between Mexico and Colombia, oh and I'll be home for Christmas.

The itinerary: 

On this leg of my journey I took a (very cold) bus to Panama City stopping in San Jose, Costa Rica. I then spent some time organising a five day boat trip from Portobelo Panama, to Colombia and then sailed the high seas with a group of twelve.

After arriving in Cartagena, I partied hard in the sweltering Caribbean city, then travelled to the cool mountain climate of Medellin and the coffee country.

The people:

Capitano Andrea
Pilot, artist, poet, captain, chef and musician. Just how many man points can one person acquire?

Our boat captain was a great character. Most 64 year olds that live on a sailboat that travel the seas have probably got some stories to tell and Andrea was no different.

He spoke in broken English and good Spanish but no matter what language you talked to him in, the only person he listened to was his Colombian first mate (also called Andrea). He had a passion for the Beatles and for pasta so after the five day trip I was glad to avoid those things for a while.

I never saw Andrea put any sunscreen on (even though he was balding and semi naked most of the time), or drink anything but alcohol (though he never got drunk).

It must be difficult to share your house and life with 9 strangers going back and forth doing the same trip, but he was normally pretty chipper and is now enjoying a well earned vacation on land.

The martian
A Korean girl came with our group on board the Micamale, but she didn't have as good a time as the rest of the passengers. As we boarded the vessel, and sat down to our first meal before departing (pasta), she told us she felt sea sick even though we weren't moving!

Needless to say after five days sailing, she still felt sea sick and probably felt like she had paid $500 for nearly a week of torture. She spent almost the entire journey sitting on deck with her eyes closed trying to block out the gently bobbing surroundings. She looked like she was dreaming of a far off world and was also spaced out on sea sickness pills 24 hours a day. She was already thin but seemed to go almost inverse as she ate so little and then went back to concentrating on nothing in particular with her eyes closed.

I really feel like she had WiFi sickness, as even with her aquatic malady she proved most unsociable. She dived into the internet like a starving prisoner would attack a roast chicken when we landed in Catagena. She quickly ditched the rest of the group as we checked into a hostel, and she went to . . . you know . . . that other hostel.

Coin Dexter
I encountered a tall, curly haired bespectacled fellow in my hostel in Catagena. He really looked look a young mad scientist. I even speculated that he engineered waffles and other Belgian snacks.

Although I didn't speak to him much, he really looked odd, especially when covered in carnival paint. He also paraded his pasty, gangly body around the hostel for a good two hours whilst he was waiting for he clothes to be washed.

Gonzalo and Igor
In Medellin we plumped for an AirB&B lodging as we thought it might be more relaxing and private than a hostel. The host Gonzalo made sure that nobody felt comfortable.

He was an amped up, drug dealer playboy, who had a nice house that he let out for extra cash. He spent his time following us around at every moment asking incessant questions sticking his hand out for extra charges all the time. To give him his dues, he was pretty funny as he really didn't give a damn. He drove like a maniac, took every opportunity to pay the girls compliments and talked about nothing other than sex for two days.

"Are you going to your friend's party today Gonzalo?"
"No, I don't like to party no more, I just like to stay in my house and fuck"

What made the experience even stranger was Igor, Gonzalo's toothless skinny Venezuelan side kick. He shuffled about the house occasionally washing up or speaking on the phone. He seemed to receive an endless stream of male house guests who didn't stay long, or say much, Although he spoke good English, he only communicated in clipped phrases and would creep up on you, lean in and just whisper 'sup'.

5 highlights

1. Seeing Spiderman in Panama City. A guy dressed as the superhero was swinging around from slack lines attached to bridges. He was just doing this to earn some spare change from the drivers stopped at the junction. Whatever happened to juggling or riding a unicycle?

2. Writing a song about our sailboat and its inhabitants. The Micamale was a really cool place to sit on deck and strum the ukulele looking at palm tree islands and crystal blue waters. I even had a jam with Captain Andrea and his guitar, although all he wanted to play was the Beatles. Here's the audio, and if I ever get my hands on the video of 'Micamale', I'll post it here.

3. Being grumpy about turtles. The German girls on our boat went crazy for turtles. They wanted to see turtles, swim with turtles, adopt the turtles, it never ended. I just don't get it. I know turtles are endangered and rare, but I don't understand the love for them. To me they are snappy, ugly wrinkly flappers that seem to be celebrated for their inability to protect themselves.

Anyway, a couple of indigenous locals approached our boat in San Blas trying to sell us a turtle. They didn't want to kill it really, but they were drunk and bored enough to try their luck selling it. Under pressure from the girls, the captain had to pay them to leave the turtle with us which was then 'released' in a big ceremony a mile away from the boat.

Its bad to go along with things like that because the locals will just catch the dumb beast again and repeat the trick on another boat of unsuspecting tourists. The funniest thing is that we chowed down that night on lobster that we bough from the same guys. Turtles lives are worth more than lobsters apperently. Here are some boat trip pictures.

4. Carnival in Cartagena. When we arrived in Colombia it was carnival season which brought all sorts to town. The main parade consisted of pirates and people on stilts dancing along whilst everyone sprayed each other with foam. I remember one night an old thin black guy came into the bar wearing a gold Santa hat and camply writhed around to the song 'murder she wrote'. He came over and promptly told us that he didn't drink, but he liked drugs before grinning and continuing his dance.

5. Germans speaking English. I've met a lot of Germans in the last few weeks including five on my boat trip. Over numerous conversations, it has been established that the only German I know is how to ask where the train station is and of course most Germans speak English very well. What I find most impressive, is that they continue to speak to each other in English even when in a purely German group. In the same bar where Gay Santa came in to dance, I remember the five Germans switching to English so that I could understand even though I wasn't involved in the conversation!

Some thoughts:
Border control
Borders always make people nervous. There's some extra document you need, or something you've forgotten. There's certainly a real art to spending up unwanted currency before crossing. Several countries in Central America use the American dollar, but give you back local currency which is of no use when you cross that border. How much currency you have left after exit fees and transport costs will determine if you exit the country like a prince or a pauper. When I'm flush at the border I take luxuries like taxi rides, first class buses and dole out change to beggars like there's no tomorrow. There have also been a few occasions where I've only had enough money for one bread roll and take a long walk to the cash machine.

Geriatric travellers
Another thing that Central American countries tend to have is a weird old American guy living in the hostel. It's undoubtedly a cheap retirement plan as these old folks bed down for $10 a night, but I can't imagine it's too comfortable. These old boys never leave the hostel and spend all of their time shuffling around, reading the news and prying into everyone's business.

When they're not disturbing you, you're disturbing them, because they go to bed at 8pm and snore like hibernating bears waking with the first sensation of light.

As the elderly get poorer, cheap stay-cations are going to be more common. Maybe someone should open up a hostel for septuagenarians.

The Silver Surfer Hostel:

Large print books available
Bingo on Sundays
Meals delivered
Pilates classes
Weekly shopping trip
Free shuttle to the hospital

2nd chapter adults 
I had a thought about the kinds of travellers I've met on this trip. Most of them between 25 and 40, don't have families yet and have changed careers, quit their job, just finished studying or live abroad.

I've travelled with a German army captain who went into HR, then got fed up and went travelling. Another friend backed out of a relationship to split his time between travelling and earning money to travel. Another guy just finished a masters in Philosophy and is busily contemplating life.

As someone who fits comfortably into this rather nomadic group, I'm not planning on entering phase three of adulthood yet (whatever that is).

University challenge 
As somebody who went from a history degree, to teaching via advertising, my studies influenced my life indirectly. I believe what you really gain from university is the method, rather than the content. How to manage your finances, how to construct an argument, how to play the system, how to survive.

Maybe I'm just callous about other peoples' interests, but I don't care about the ins and outs of your dissertation, or the important research you are doing for your PHD. Everyone I meet seems to put so much emphasis on what they studied and how it affected their job etc, but seem to have forgotten that they should still be learning from travel. What ever happened to the university of life?

Here are the pictures from the Panama and Colombia leg of the trip.

Next time I head to Ecuador and travel back towards Bogota on the final leg of my journey.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Top 10 examples of Gringo Logic

gringos abroad

A little while ago, I wrote a post about Mexican Logic, so I thought it only fair to comment on how the Gringo mind works too. Having been in the Americas for a while now, I have a good grasp of how westerners behave here, what frustrates them, and some of the dumb shit they do.

Disclaimer: To avoid throwing stones from a glass house, I will admit that I have practiced much of this silly behaviour myself.

1. Business logic

Westerners want mo' money. Latin Americans don't.

That is a grand oversimplification, but it does explain to some extent the stream of business based questions that many Westerners have:

  • Why don't they want to sell more things? 
  • Why don't people negotiate here?
  • Don't they want to be more successful?

Gringo Logic: If I want to be a millionaire, why doesn't everyone?

People have different ideas about success. Here's a great fable about a Mexican fisherman and why he didn't want more.

2. Punctuality logic

punctualityTime in Latin America is a concept. It's a rough guide for when things are going to happen, but it's not something to set your watch to.

A recent travel companion told me "people are zo zlow 'ere, in Europe we do everyzing zo fast 'uh?" (He's French).

There's no incentive to go fast here, you just get more work or have to wait for people to turn up.

Gringo Logic: I'll turn up on time, I don't want to miss anything.

I once saw some Americans in Oaxaca wanting to leave an Easter procession to go to their dinner reservation. No one else was in the restaurant because they were all waiting for the procession, It boggles my mind that they wanted to leave to keep time.

Pro tip: Turn up whenever you feel like it, because everyone else will do the same.

3. Line logic

good manners
I'll wait my turn just doesn't cut it in Latin America.

I've spent three years trying to lead by example allowing ladies, children and students onto the bus first, but it just leads to more people trying to cut in front of you.

Manners may never go out of fashion, but venting about being treated unfairly is so Gringo.

Gringo Logic: I'll give the attendant a stern look to express my disapproval at not being served in an orderly manner - that'll teach 'em.

The only way to get 'fair treatment' is to do what locals do. If they don't think it's rude, it isn't.

If you can't beat them, join them.

4. Politeness logic
In Europe and the US, it's polite to refuse, to act reserved. In Latin America nothing makes people happier than feeding you, and sharing things with you.

Gringo Logic: I don't want to impose, I'll refuse the offer of food for the fourth time.

Nobody likes a moocher, but you should go with what people want, and that's for you to accept their kindness.

5. Language logic

Speak English
English is probably the most useful language to possess, but that doesn't mean that it's useful for everyone.

It can be frustrating when people don't know how to help you understand in a foreign language. A lot of Latin Americans will just repeat what they said, us more complex language and not slow down. However, this isn't an excuse for blindly asserting that 'everyone must speak Englsih'

Gringo Logic: Why don't they speak English? They need to learn if they want to be more successful.

Even in tourist locations, us Gringos have to accept that not everything is tailored towards us.

6. Internet logic
Internet logic
The internet here sucks. Outside of big cities, a lot of the connections are satellite which falters when it's windy, rainy and whenever it feels like it. Funnily enough, developing countries have developing infrastructure. People seem to think that complaining about a slow connection will make it faster.

It's often much quicker to ask for information in person here too. You certainly get the most up to date prices and schedules if you ask in person.

Gringo Logic: I can do everything on my iPad . . . wait, why isn't all of the information online? And why is the WiFi out?

I remember an infuriating prolonged conversation I had with a rather dim witted ex housemate in Argentina.

Him: People aren't responding to my emails about jobs.
Me :That's because they don't really check emails, you have to go and see them in person.

A day later . . .

They still aren't responding, it's so annoying.
That's because they don't really check emails, you have to go and see them in person.

A week later . . .

It's really hard to get a job, because no one responds to your emails.
God damn your feeble brain . . . I give up.

7. Trusting logic

Many a Gringo has been tricked by smooth talking Spanish types. I'm not talking about getting conned, just believing the bullshitters.

Latins don't like to say 'no', or admit that they don't know something. Normally they just misdirect you, or tell you to come back later. It's always worth getting a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th opinion on your question in case number one was full of shit.

Gringo Logic: I'll come back tomorrow, he said it would be ready by then.

Coming back later, means at least another two trips.

8. Safety logic

Travel safetyGringos have strange ideas when it comes to safety. They can't really tell the difference between 'dangerous in general', and 'dangerous for tourists'.

San Pedro Sula in Honduras is branded the world's most dangerous city because it has the highest murder rate. But none of those murders are because an American tourist wouldn't give up his or her money belt.

I always said that Buenos Aires is much more dangerous for tourists, than Mexico (contrary to the public perception of cartel violence). Tourists need to avoid places with high levels of petty, not organised crime.

Gringo Logic: Colombia is dangerous because of Pablo Escobar, they're all druggies there.

An Aussie girl once told me that she couldn't go to Oaxaca, because she had seen a safety warning about the state online. "It's totally safe for tourists" I said. "I live there". "Yeah, I really wanted to go, but I'll have to see it another time." she complained.

9. Bad service logic

Service in Latin America isn't the best. There is less of a tipping culture and only very high level businesses understand the importance of good service for their customers.

It's something you have to get used to, to amend your expectation levels. Remember, if you are asking a question starting with "Why . . ." in Latin America, the answer is most probably " . . . because they don't care"

Gringo Logic: The louder I complain, the better the service will be.

Just yesterday I saw an American complaining about the lack of filling in an empanada she bought at the Panama Canal. The poor girl in the coffee shop spoke no English, and when she finally understood that the ample framed woman wanted more food because of her disappointment she just laughed.

10. Home comforts logic
Americans abroad
It's natural to be more comfortable with what you know, but Gringos seem to want the same as what they have normally, all the time.

I often wonder why these people travel at all, if they want the same experience and convenience they have at home. I love reading one star reviews on Trip Advisor as they highlight people's crazy expectations. One hotel in Huatulco, Mexico was blasted by an incredulous customer because "They didn't even serve fries on the menu". Oh the humanity!

Gringo Logic: Why won't they accept my dollars in McDonalds, and why are the names of the burger different? It's an America chain ain't it?

I'll leave you with the image of a worried black American preacher I met in Mexico city who was asking for help with his luggage issue. He seemed bamboozled at who to ask because of the lack of evangelical churches and was just pacing in circles repeating "Everything is so different here. So different".

Yes sir. Different countries are different.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The trip - part 2

The spiel:

After leaving my teaching job at a Oaxaca university I have embarked on a three month trip in Central America.

I'll be backpacking, couch surfing, ukuleleing and volunteering around all of the countries between Mexico and Colombia, oh and I'll be home for Christmas.

The itinerary: 

On this leg of the trip I spent three weeks in Nicaragua, a diverse and kind of happy go lucky country. It's relatively unspoiled by tourism, but a Chinese canal project means that it won't be long before the green forests turn brown with smog. Apart from canals, and pissing off America, Nicaragua is also famous for, cigars, beaches, lakes, and rum . . . oh and rice and beans.

After canyoning in Somoto we travelled to to Estelí and visited a cigar factory. I spent a couple of nights in the mountain town of Matagalpa before heading to Leon where I stayed for the best part of a week. 

Leon is a colonial town and was the capital of the Liberal effort in the civil war. It's not the prettiest city, but has some interesting sights and is located between volcanoes and the pacific beach. From there I went to Granada, a prettier town close to lake Nicaragua and another big volcano. 

The island of Ometepe is situated in the middle of lake Nicaragua and is formed of . . . you've guessed it . . .. two volcanoes. This makes it a pretty unique blend of forest, beaches, little towns, and monkeys.

From here I visited the Pacific surf town of San Juan del Sur before crossing the border into  Costa Rica.

The people:

Grandma Mima-
An 84 year old American lady was staying in the hostel in Estelí with her son, who was trying to get her set up with assisted living. I assume it is about 1000 times cheaper to do this in Nicaragua than in Yonkers, NY but it sure was an odd situation. They were a couple of classic neurotic New Yorkers who worried about every mouthful of food and had a story about every situation they could relate to the 80s or the 50s.

Every day, they were embroiled in interviews with Nicaraguan carers and were having awkward Spanish lessons. "You're gonna have to learn some English" she would crow.

The son had originally greeted me by saying "Are you from Holland?" and then proceeded to play on his electric piano he had brought all the way from the states. He was very interested in my ukulele (about which he had several stories of course), and I endeavoured to bust out the only golden oldie in my repertoire - The window cleaner by George Formby.

Luckily Grandma Jew didn't find the lyrics to racy for her taste, although she wasn't that amused.
"He never did anything in the States" she said.

My Couch Surfing family - 
I stayed with Leon resident Harold (so named after the American writer of an medical textbook) and his mum, (a dentist who read said textbook).

Harold was a really good guy and works as a computer technician from home. He likes metal music, rice and rum although he doesn't like organised religion and beggars too much. Anyway, he showed me around town, came to the beach (resolutely dressed in his rockers boots, black jeans and Pink Floyd t-shirt) and we had a few alcohol induced deep conversations too.

His mum was pretty funny. She was on vacation from her job, and spent all day watching 'destination TV'. We would be talking about different countries and she would say
"It's so beautiful in Argentina".
"Oh have you been?" I asked.
"Oh no" she said with a smile "I just know it through the TV".

A day later, a French student Xenia came to stay too. There aren't many other Couch Surfing hosts in Leon, so Harold gets pretty popular. She studies languages, so it was nice to meet a French person who actually wanted to speak English for once! We took a couple of trips together and I bumped into her in Granada too. Harold's mum scolded us a couple of times for daring to suggest that we would find something to eat in town rather than eat her food.

Although my stay cost me a little in terms of rum, it was a great experience. Sharing what little you have to meet new people is what Couch Surfing should be about, not just crashing for free. So many backpackers are interested in saving the $5 it costs to stay at a hostel, but you have to give something back too. Just chatting to them and being thankful was enough for Harold's mum to insist on giving me his Hugo Boss graduation shirt (which is too big for him).

Ein Dirrection - 
Xenia knew a couple of guys from the hostel she had been in, and we planned to go to volcano boarding with them. Leo, a 20 year old blonde German special forces wannabe greeted us with a big grin, a hipster undercut and no shoes. His dislike of footwear eventually came back to haunt him when he got kicked out of the cinema for not having shoes.

He looked like a boy band member and although he had some odd dreams ("It vud be zo cool to skateboard around on a Panama container ship ya?") he had a very positive 'can do' attitude.

While we ultimately didn't manage to do volcano boarding at our first attempt, his fearlessness of the wild paid off, as he managed to hike and camp at another volcano without a guide despite torrential rain and lighning storms and  not knowing the route.

Blofeld - 
What do you get if you cross a diabetic snowboarder, a bossy know-it-all, and a social worker? Blofeld, that's who! You may think it a strange nickname for a girl, but considering her love of cats and that her highest form of praise is "I am satisfied", I think branding her a Bond villain is pretty spot on (although he was Polish not Swiss).

I've been travelling with a group through Nicaragua, and while she's not the most chilled out traveller, she's part of the furniture now.

Our guide in Somoto described the Swiss as the most delicate and difficult customers, to which her incessant questions, and price negotiations would seem to agree with.

Blofeld makes us go around and look at 5 different hostels in each town to see if we can save a dollar, get a better free breakfast, or have a private bathroom. I normally just check in and get a beer if the place has a bed and a shower.

She sure gets her money's worth out of any tour or package or restaurant. To be fair, it can be pretty useful to have a pitbull travelling with the group for taxi negotiations, and hostel complaints. We just get her to 'open up a can of Blofeld'.

Some other highlights of hers include her English phrases of "Big Fun" and here overly formal requests:

"Might I could maybe use de leptop please?"

She's not always that polite though, she'll just grab chips off your plate without asking, try to kick guests out of their chairs because she sat there first and she once wished that a hostel would 'have a fire' because they didn't have room for us.

5 highlights

1. Playing Ultimate Frisbee with a group of expats in Matagalpa - We got invited to a game by chance and Blofeld almost lost her shit with excitement as she plays for a team back home. "Did you saying a real game of Frisbeeee???"

2. Failed volcano boarding - Although we did manage to do it the next day, our first attempt to walk to Cerro Negro and rent equipment went wrong as all of the tour groups were returning as we arrived after our very hot 14km hike. It was fun trying to cheat the system by not paying $30 for the tour, I even managed to get a free chicken bus ride after correctly guessing the price (so the others paid).

3. Drinking bad rum on the street - Harold told me that 70 people died in Leon and many more went blind after drinking a bad batch of rum around 10 years ago. After a beers few in the cantina though, I let him talk me into a suspicious looking litre bottle that cost less than $2.

Within an hour, we were surrounded by a few of his friends, a Honduran artisan, a rasta machete juggler and a street kid from Matagalpa. It was actually a cool experience to speak with the street kids, they're in a pretty bad situation without families and most of them sniff glue every night. I tried to teach them a bit of English and bought one of them a burger.

"What time will you be here tomorrow to buy me breakfast?" he enquired, stuffing down the food.

4. Garden visitors - I was reading on the front porch one afternoon, when a herd of cows came down the road and came into the garden and started tearing up the lawn with their big molars. They chomped away for ten minutes then went on to the next house. I asked Harold if this was normal, as it seemed a funny moment to me.

"It's just the way people feed their cows here" he said with a shrug

5. Getting out of hippyville - After spending a mosquito infested sweaty night at the hippy paradise of El Zopilote on Ometepe island, we were ready for a change. Maybe we could even find a hostel with walls, running water and a menu which didn't spend two pages extolling the virtues of 'Moringa powder'.

We got to Merida, a quieter destination on the volcanic island, and all broke out into smiles as we found a hacienda with fans, mosquito nets, a great menu and plenty of hammocks. I went and immediately jumped into the lake before Blofeld could change her mind and search for a cheaper option.

Some thoughts:

The chance encounter -
In Central America backpackers, go up, or down. There aren't too many alternative routes. That means you bump into people again . . . a lot.

This can be great, but it results in a lot of awkwardness when you only met the person for a day or two. No one can remember names, and you see the same conversation throughout hostels all over the continent.

"Oh hiiii"
"How are you?"
"Where did we meet again? . . . oh yeah"
(awkward pause)
*awkward hug / handshake
- both parties silently praying the other can't remember their name either so they don't get found out.

Taking the back seat -
Sometimes backpacking can feel like a graduate recruitment day. Everyone is competing for airtime, trying to give the best advice and prove how great they are.

"How long have you been travelling for?"
"Oh, only 18 months, ya know . . . no biggie."

I like to keep schtum for a while as I don't feel the need to compare notes with everyone, every day. Sometimes when I break out some Spanish after a couple of days with a hostel owner or local and all of the other dweebs who have studied Spanish in Xela for a month look at me like 'where the hell did that come from?'

Sometimes I keep the usual questions to myself as it's nicer not knowing everything about someone straight away.

Chicken bum - 
This may be a predictable moan, but the Chicken buses are killing my arse. Small seats squished next to toothless grandma with her four baskets of bread, are not designed for 6'4" Englishmen. Even though I've been staying put in each location for 4 or 5 days, I seem to be on a bus every day, so my skinny butt never gets time to recover from the bone shaking.

Maybe some kind of thermarest bum pad should be sewn into boardies for the backpacker with a less ample posterior.

Enjoy the pictures from part 2!

Next time, I whizz through Costa Rica, see a man about a canal and travel to Cartagena Colombia by boat.

You might like . . .