Saturday, March 15, 2008


Ah, travel update. Well, I left you last in Lima, where we were passing the hot, lazy days in the cinema in Miraflores, or whiling away our time eating cheap delicious food (though, also eating a lot of fast food, as our hostel was barricaded on all sides by McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King and KFC). We finished our cinema madness with the incredibly moronic, yet strangely entertaining, Rambo 4...if only the real Burmese junta were as easy to oust, eh? Myself, Alan and Welly also took a stroll to the beach, and spent a frustrating hour climbing down a shingle slope to pounding Pacific waves, which threw me on my ass more times than I care to mention and, on one memorable washing-machine experience, almost tore my bikini off....exposing some unwilling surfers to probable blindness!! But, it was refreshing to swim again, and as it was only my second dip in the Pacific, I savoured the swim/battle with the waves. The situation in Ecuador was fast deteriorating, so bus travel was definitely out. We searched and searched for cheap flights to Bogota, but all the airlines were coming in at about the same (high) price, so we settled on all-inclusive flights with LAN for 300 dollars...pricey, but our only option at that stage. I had some fond memories (mainly of Dunkin Dohnuts) of the airport in Lima, and spent the check-in stages wandering around the Duty Free shop, finally finding a solitary bar of Cadbury`s, and thinking myself blessed! We also found a multi-country adaptor, which is something we`ve been searching for all trip, but as we went to pay for it, with the dollars Alan had just purchased from the bank downstairs in the airport, we discovered that one of our $20 bills was a fake!! Damn it! It was too late to go back from airside, and then come through security again, so we had to pass the situation off to experience, and I whipped out old flexible friend to salvage things. The flight was very comfortable, and we were given free drinks and a little snack on the way. Myself and Alan made a deal that I would be at the window for this flight over the Andes, and then he could have the window for flying to Cuba. Unfortunately, I came off rather rawly on that plan, as the weather was low and cloudy for the entire flight, so I saw narry a mountain!!

Bogota airport, when we landed, was TINY! Mostly prefabricated, and fairly lacking in anything in the way of facilities, it was a bit of a shock after the modern hub of Lima. Immigration was fine - despite my worry! I swear, I cannot step near one of those immigration men without somehow feeling criminal, and I begin to sweat and turn red at the thoughts that I must look suspicious to them, and the more I try to look LESS suspicious, the more I feel like I look suspicious. Vicious circle! I also always worry that somehow, between my getting on the plane and walking through, someone has managed to stow four kilos of coke in my bag. It`s a constant worry! Anyway, in the event, the guys were quite friendly. They spoke only Spanish, which didn`t really settle my nerves, because I worried that any hesitation in answering their questions would lead to my being brought into the eponomous "back" for questioning! One question he asked me, "De dondè pais?", was said so softly that I was forced to say "Què?"....he leaned forward and repeated his question.....I said "Irlanda", and his head shot up quickly..."Norte o Sud?", he snapped...."Sud!", I replied. He smiled, relaxed, and said "Bienvinidos a Colombia".....phew!! Damn those `Colombian Three`....they`ve shot my nerves to shit!

Outside we procured a van very similar to the A-Team, to my travelling companions delight, and proceeded into the city to find our hostel, Chopi-Norte, and settle into the city. The omens were not good - low cloud hung across the grey skyline, and a decided chill hit us as we exited the airport. The taxi driver could not find the exact address of the hostel, so we hopped out of our taxi on the street where it was supposed to be situated, confident that it must be close by. As an intersection was listed, we took off in four seperate directions on the streets attempting to find the elusive place, but to no avail. To top it all off, it began to rain, so we took shelter beneath a building. A student passed by, and I showed him the address. He couldn`t help, but a nearby lollipop lady heard our query, and came over to try give aide. And the funny thing is, they both looked so startled to find tourists in their city that they couldn`t stop staring at us! She asked me where we were from, and when I said Ireland, there was such a look of wonder in her face, you´d swear she`d never met an Irish person before. Come to think of it, she probably hadn`t! For those of you who are unaware, due to the activies of the Colombian Three, Irish people were banned from entering Colombia until January of last year, and since then we haven`t exactly been flooding in droves to the country ever since, perhaps the lollipop lady´s shock was not so shocking. Anyway, she had never heard of our hostel either, but ran off into the rain - which was now falling in earnest! A few minutes later, she came running back and beckoned me to follow her, so we all picked up our bags and jogged after her to a little restaurant close-by. The men in the restaurant were apparently expecting us, because they took the address from my hands as soon as I got through the door. They bade us sit down, and put our bags in the corner, as they discussed the address amongst themselves for a while, before dashing out again into the heavy rain. We sat open-mouthed as the man from the restaurant next door came in to add his sixpence to the proceedings, and they all ran about in the rain trying to find our hostel for us. Eventually, the owner let me use his internet, and we found a better address. He looked thrilled on seeing it, and asking me to go with him, we ran out into the rain and across the road, where we found a pathetic A-4 sheet of paper hidden in a dark corner proclaiming the Chopi-Norte hostel - and he looked as thrilled as I was to find it! We arrived back in the restaurant like conquering heroes, his waiters and the man from next door shaking our hands and laughing delightedly at our success. We felt it was only fair to have a drink in their restuarant, as they had been so helpful, and as we sat sipping, the waiter dropped over two big complimentary bowls of a local piping-hot dish - baby potatoes smothered in butter and salt, and fried pig intestine. Hmmm....we ate quite a few (Alan mainly - after watching him eat raw reindeer in Barcelona, I knew that pig intestine would be no bother to him), but only out of courtesy - I can`t say that I´ll be chasing down that particular culinary experience with too much urgency!! So, leaving our new friends we headed across the street to our hostel, full of the joys of Colombia, and happy with our welcome to this most dangerous of cities! And then the bubble deflated slightly....

Our ´hostel´, which had looked so clean and modern on, was - to use a lovely term from back home - a kip! The three bed dorm advertised for the lads was a double bed with a single bed above it in a bunkbed. The double bed was tiny, and the top bunk was dangerously close to the exposed lightbulb hanging low overhead. The double room that myself and Alan were to sleep in was bare and cold, with a low dirty bed close to the floor - within nibbling distance of rats, as I liked to look at it! Not what we were expecting! There was no facilities, bars on all the doors, and the toilet was horrible, so we went straight to the internet cafe downstairs and booked something else in Bogota for the next night, and left that hole the very next day! Our next hostel was down in the Candeleria section of Bogota - the south of the city, and supposedly the more dangerous part. However, The Bogota B&B was absolutely gorgeous - perhaps even more so due to the horror we just left! - with hammocks hanging indoors, a lovely kitchen, clean spacious rooms, sparkling bathroom and friendly and fun staff. Perfect! We settled in completely, and I had a novel experience! As the hostel was full, I spent my first time of the trip on the top bunk.....usually Alan takes the top, as I am not the most graceful of people, and it has also been pointed out that I am quite clumsy, so rather than suffer my grunts and squeaks as I attempt to haul myself upwards at night, he has taken every top bunk so far. However, due to an Iron Maiden gig in the city, the place was full of people, and I was in one section of the 10-bed dorm, sleeping over a porty Venezuelan man, and Alan on the opposite wall. The portly gentlemen had two friends also sleeping in the dorm, one of whom was on a top bunk end-to-end with mine. That first night was somewhat hellish for me! I have been used to the lads snoring on the trip - I have beaten Bones with an empty water bottle in Buenos Aires, thrown packets of Oreos at Ed in La Paz, and now chucked towels at Welly`s head in Bogota - but I had never had to sleep simultaneously above a strange snorer, and feet-to-feet with another. So, I employed my time-honoured technique of sneak attacks.....first, I held either side of my bunk, and shook myself violently from side to side in quick succession. This woke up the guy below, stopping his snoring momentarily. I knew I had a small window in which to work - snorers return to sleep very quickly! The guy at my feet on the other upper-tier was also nasally challenged, so I leaned forward and grabbed the end of his bed, then gave it two quick, but strong, jerks. He snorted awake, but not before I had returned my head innocently to the pillow, giving a very convincing impression of sleep....I could hear him muttering and looking about him for the disturbance for a while. And in this small break of confusion and startled snorers...and blessed silence...I went to sleep. This was quite a regular occurance, and I`m sure by the third night they knew it was me, but what could they say about it?

Anyway, we stayed in Bogota for a few days, as we were waiting for Mac to arrive up from Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, as he had changed flights recently, and then had to change them back again, he had to stick with a very awkward plan of Buenos Aires to New York, and New York to Bogota....God bless the intellect of airline companies! Anyway, he arrived with us on his birthday, and while Bones and Ed went to the airport to meet him, myself, Alan and Welly cooked up a birthday barbeque and popped some nice wine - and when Ed came back, he broke into a bottle he`d been carrying since Mendoza. Special occassion, and all that! It`s lovely to have Mac back with us - he`s a great travelling companion, interested in everything about him, and always able to meet new people with a smile. So, once we were all sufficiently lazed up in this hostel, we moved on to Medallin. It is called `The City of Eternal Spring`, and we were very much hoping that this would be the case, as Bogota was one long dreary rainy visit. Coupled with the fact that you can`t really go out after dark in Bogota, and the fact that you have to carry a photocopy of your passport and a leaflet with your residence listed for police checkpoints, we were looking forward to a city with less restrictions on our travel. The other strange thing about Bogota was the lack of other tourists! We were in the main sections of the town, strolling about, and could see neither hide nor hair of anyone remotely foreign looking. If there were any other gringos in town, then they were winning a monster game of hide-and-seek!!

We took an overnight bus from Bogota, and it was bloody freezing, and the driver drove like a frickin lunatic, so every corner he hit I was practically thrown off the seat. Needless to say, I didn`t sleep much! We met a student on board who invited us to a college party in Medallin, where there would be many international students - but no Irish. Anyway, we arrived in Medallin and headed out to Casa del Sol, a hostel recommended to us by our previous hosts, which turned out to be fabulous. Samuel, his pregnant girlfriend Paula, and their friend Diana welcomed us like friends, and we relaxed into their lovely clean hostel at once. Medellin has equally turned out to be a beautiful and open-armed town. Obviously the wealth has all come from non-savoury means - this is, after all, Pablo Escobar`s town - but you cannot help but be impressed by the winding streets, teracotta tiling, and surrounding hills. It really is a beautiful town! The metro is, as usual in every city we`ve come across with a metro, indispensible! For about 45 cents you can go anywhere in the city! And the ticket even includes a long cable car ride up into the hills, which we took last Sunday in the blistering sunshine. The suburban area it lets down in - after all, it is not a tourist attraction, but merely a convenient means by which to traverse a very steep incline to a section of the city - was teeming with people, kids playing in the parks, music coming from every home, families strolling in the streets...a real party atmosphere. It was lovely! And, yet again, we seem to be the only tourists in the place! Strange feeling....

We have ended up spending a week here, despite our intentions to only stay a few days. This happens a lot when you are travelling - you find a homely hostel, and get used to the area, and you settle in. It`s no bad thing, but we need to head for the coast soon, as everyone is on something of a time limit. Myself and Alan are trying to buy tickets for Cuba at the minute, but the Cubana website isn`t working. We`re gonna fly from Caracas, so that means we head to the coast and then overland into Venezuela by mid-April. Alan`s cousin, Stephen, who plays for Cardiff City is in the semi-final of the FA Cup in April, and we`re raging we`re not gonna be there for it! We think, if they get into the final, we might fly home early to try see the game, as it is only a week and a half before we are due home anyway. After all, it`s not every day something like this happens!!

While we have been in Colombia, the government stormed into Ecuador and bombed a FARC training camp, killing a leading official. The Ecuadorians were obviously not impressed, and sent troops to the border and ambassadors were pulled home. In the raid, Colombia discovered evidence that Chavez had funded the FARC`s, and threw the gauntlet down at Venezuela, who responded similarily to Ecuador. So, both borders were lined with troops, and some action seemed iminent. However, it was all resolved in a handshake, so we should be safe to continue with our travels!! Fingers crossed, eh??

So, that`s things pretty much up to date. Cartagena is our next port of call, by overnight bus tonight, so here`s hoping for sunshine, sand, and blue, blue ocean.......

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