Dog burger

Wednesday 04 April

This traveling quickly malarkey does have its drawbacks.  I’m falling massively behind in my writing, demonstrated by the fact that I’m attempting this entry nearly a week later.  I will apologise if the accuracy is sketchy.  Also I seem to be on a bus more often than not, which is not a pleasant experience.  The upside is that I’m seeing more cool stuff; unfortunately not including today.

It’s another early start as we’re making for the border town of Ipiales, some seven hours drive away.  The town’s one saving grace is the beautiful Las Lajas Cathedral, which spans imposingly across a gorge, striking out from the rock face.  The Lonely Planet informs that you don’t have to stay in the town to see the main attraction, and you can drop your bags at the bus station and manage it in a couple of hours.  Yet with the length of time you’ve been on the road already from Popyan (which is really the only place you’ll be before the border) you’re not going to have time to see the Cathedral, subject yourself to crossing into Ecuador, and then make a decent town with a suitable place to stay.  An overnight stop in Ipiales is required, but believe you me I wish it wasn’t.

After swapping a nice big bus for a cramped small one, five or so hours into the journey, we’re winding our way up through yet more beautiful Colombian countryside.  There is no doubt about it, this nation certainly has it’s fair share of stunning views and rolling hills, so much so I wonder if Peter Jackson considered it as a Lord of the Rings possibility.  It’s just a shame I can’t get the right shot from the bus window, probably down to the hair raising speeds the drivers decide to reach.  That and overtaking on blind corners on a wing and a prayer, it seems safer to stay inside with the window closed and braced in the crash position.  Unless you see it, you’ll just have to take my word; Colombia is gorgeous.

For what seems like miles, a long possession of what appears to be school children have been hiking up the road in the near dark.  We’re guessing that this is something to do with the holy week festival, Semana Santa, which is obviously still continuing.  Indeed when we reach our hotel for the evening, we’re informed that they do the pilgrimage every year, timing it to arrive at the Cathedral on Easter Sunday.  Rather them than me; I’m totally shattered after being on a  bus all day.

We’re at the Belmonte Hotel, which is once again a Lonely Planet pick if you have to stay in Ipiales.  My word of advice is don’t.  Just don’t.  The whole area has the shady border town feel after dark, a fast food van called ‘Dog Burger’ on the corner and the worst, bug filled mattresses I’ve ever slept on.  Spend a little more and stay somewhere you might not catch something from the toilet.  They also didn’t have Wifi, which means someones getting murdered.  Probably myself.

In a terrible choice of cafe, Paddy manages half a ‘chicken sandwich.’  I must admit it looked nothing like one.  I spent a few Pesos more and opted for the ‘Gordon Blue’ steak.  Although the misspelling of this culinary classic could put you off, it was actually not a bad meal.  This only lasts as long as it takes for it to digest.  I’m convinced I damaged the germ infested ceramics of the hotel lavatory.  This might not be a bad thing.

I’ve suggested we close and lock the door, push the dresser up against it and pray it’ll hold.  I’ve seen this kind of set up in motel horror films.  The flickering light, the flies round the bin, the toothless, wrinkle-face proprietor.  I’ve more to fear from whatever keeps attacking my legs under the duvet.  Tomorrow cannot come quick enough.

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Shake, rattle and roll

Tuesday 03 April

Little do we know we’re going from the sublime to the ridiculous that almost makes the purity of yesterday obsolete.  Waking early, we both make the executive decision to go right back to bed.  Partly due to how tired we are, partly due to a sore saddle arse.  We’re walking like John Wayne to breakfast when we eventually decide to surface.  The very simple plan is to return to Popyan and then push for the border town of Ipiales, making Ecuador in the next couple of days.  What we’re not prepared for is the nightmare journey back the way we came.

Opting for a bus at 2pm, we’re still parked by a San Agustin roadside at 3.30.  The fear starts to take hold as we realise we’re the only people in this little, somewhat unmarked minibus.  Surely we should be in a similar transport as the one we arrived in?  It’s a long wait until our driver turns up wearing what appears to be an official coach company uniform.  In gets his mate riding shotgun, and we finaly set off in what we can only hope is the right direction.

It isn’t.  I’ve fallen asleep for half an hour yet wake to find just myself and Paddy alone in the vehicle parked off the road at some random roundabout near what we think is Pitalito.  The driver and his buddy are nowhere to be found, and after what seems to be an hour he comes sprinting up in the rain without his uniform shirt on.  Paddy and myself are both raging, but we can’t make head nor tail of what is going on.  Further alarm bells are ringing when he removes the ‘Popyan’ sign from the windshield.  Paddy’s knife is out, and my pepper spray rests within arms reach between our two seats.  We’re ready to take on FARC.

The thing with these companies, is nobody tells you anything.  At home a driver would stand up, enter the aisle or turn around from his seat and inform the passengers we’d be having a ten minute break outside Watford Gap.  Then the Mega bus would break down and you’d be stranded for three hours eating a plastic ham sandwich and a bag of pork scratchings.  Here, and indeed throughout Centre and South America, I’ve had experience where they’ll just pull over to the roadside and think nothing of jumping out to buy a new table and chairs.  Meanwhile you’re crossing your legs on board wondering if you’ve got enough time to visit the john, while with each ticking moment you realise you’ve left it too late, and your choices are watching the bus drive off with all your stuff or pissing yourself.  A little courtesy would go along way.

After some further speculation, we’re convinced he’s been told to travel down this way to get more fares, hence the wait back in San Agustin.  Most buses only go when they’re full, so if you’re unlucky enough to arrive too early you could be in for a long wait.  Apparently he’s going to cut a 7 hour journey down to 4, all on THAT road.

It’s agony.  Sheer agony.  Whether it’s the constant bounce and lurch of the vehicles failing suspension, or repeatedly climbing to altitude, but I’ve one bastard of a headache and no painkillers.  By now it’s also nightfall, and we’re on a route that we didn’t want to be on when it’s dark.  Trying to maintain an alert state of focus with a jackhammer behind the eyes is near impossible.  I have no idea how that crap mini bus managed to make it back to Popyan without ripping itself apart.  If the wheel can fall off my Peugeot 206 sitting at a red light on Pollokshaws road then surely this afterthought of transport will collapse doing 50 over moon craters.  It is with so much relief that we make it back alive into a quiet bus station.

There is little time to do anything else save stalk people on facebook, play chess and watch porn.  I’m so tired from the stress of the day I don’t manage any, crash into a welcome bed, and fall asleep convinced my bones are still rattling from the potholes.

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A near perfect day

Monday 02 April

Stupid o’clock for the bus to San Augstin in the morning and with a bit of luck we’ll run into the girls again.  By girls I mean Dani.  What we’re not prepared for is the utter ridiculousness of the road conditions.  Everywhere I’ve been so far in Colombia I’ve managed to get there via decent enough highway.  You would have thought that the main (only) connection to one of the countries top tourist attractions wouldn’t literally resemble a lengthy slice of rocky road.  I’m slightly concerned that the dodgy eggs and rubbish coffee eaten in the bus station greasy spoon will be revisiting.  The whole experience is improved by how rammed the vehicle is, how small the leg room, and the two young schoolies sitting up the back shrieking everytime we dip into a pothole.  And that’s a lot.  Consider travel sickness pills, ear plugs, headache tablets, rope and duck tape.

Fair play to the government though as it looks like they’re at least trying to pave the disaster.  The only problem is the obviously slow progress they’re making.  “ROAD!”  Yells a delighted Paddy as we lurch onto tarmac, only for it to be 30 metres long then back onto the roller coaster.  Don’t even attempt to sleep without a Valium.

We’re offloaded and transferred to a new vehicle after a mammoth seven hours of the vomit inducing bus rally.  “He’s where we get mugged”, comments my companion as we’re squeezed into the 4×4 by shady local types.  Spot the gringos.  It would be very easy to rob us dry of everything, but so far since Nicaragua I’ve been really lucky.  The trend continues here and we make it into the town hanging out the back of the jeep with white knuckles.

From here on I can honestly say I have one of the best days on my travels, and you’ll be delighted to know it didn’t involve a girl.  Kind of.  We’re greeted at the hostel by a local chap by the name of Jose, and I get very excited at being told we’re horse riding with the chicas in the afternoon.  Two of my favourite pastimes.  San Augstin is famous for it’s many archaeological sights and parks, with standing stones, idols and statues dating back centuries from indigenous tribes.  You have the option of touring the country by jeep or horseback.  It’s a total no brainer.

Back on the beast once again in the early afternoon rain I realise just how crap I look on a horse, particularly when I’m trying my hardest to impress Dani.  I’ve got no doubt I’ll be flung from it’s back as I try to show off my limited skills, attempting to kid on I’m an accomplished rider.  Paddy has a hat.  It’s an Indiana Jones number that makes him look better than me.  A young dutch couple have joined us, wearing decent looking trek trousers, waterproof jackets and trail shoes.  The girls are provided ponchos.  I’m wrapping my camera in my t-shirt to protect it from the rain, exposing my ever increasing ghost white beer belly, wearing jeans I found in Medellin and tennis shoes.  Panties would be dropping.

When the clouds pass the sun bathes us in a perfect glow and we trot up into the surrounding hills.  They’ve put me on a bolshy animal that likes to bolt with little encouragement.  This I have absolutely no problem with, and delight in opening her up whenever I get the chance.  I inquire as to her name, with no doubt my steed has a call sign befitting a hero sheriff ready to save the inhabitants of a mid west town from the fearsome grip of the cruel Black-Diablo gang.  “Muñeca” comes the reply, which is Spanish for Doll.  I’m utterly devastated.

Eventually we arrive at our first archaeological sight; three stone heads under a recently built shelter.  Our guide appears very knowledgeable, however I would have gone into detail regarding the history behind the stones if I spoke Spanish.  I managed to glean that nobody really knows which tribe carved them, and that they’re very old.  Google it.  I spend the informative sessions taking pictures.

We continue on to a number of different sights, stopping for freshly squeezed juice and enjoying some incredible views.  The weather could not have turned out better, as the golden sun colours the countryside with that late September haze.  “Have you ever kissed anyone on the back of a horse?” I grin at Dani as I pull along side, but by now I’ve realised I’m not going to get anywhere and it’s all in jest.  At least she’s still laughing and not reaching for the mace.

By the time the sun is sinking behind the green hills, we’ve seen some beautiful sights, enjoyed each others company, felt total freedom and bruised balls on the back of the horse (not the girls) and created cracking memories.  I’m leading the group back to town as darkness falls, and it’s just simply exhilarating.  My mind plays through movie roles as the stranger rolls into town, locals eyes wide at the appearance of an outsider.  Dismounting and whispering thanks to my steed, I have a small moment where I consider this one of the best days of my life, and I don’t feel the need to chase the kiss to complete it.
We say our goodbyes to the girls taking the night bus back to Bogota and enjoy English style chip shop chips, fried eggs, half a chicken and an ice cold beer from a local eatery.  A homely, hearty meal to complete a near perfect day, worth every minute of the shakey bus journey here.  My days in Colombia might be numbered, but it’s certainly been an experience to remember, and it won’t be too long before I return.  Next time I’ll buy a hat, and just maybe get that kiss in lazy afternoon sun on horseback.

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Palm Sunday…

Sunday 01 April

Today see’s the beginning of the week long easter festival of Semana Santa (Holy Week). This being a particularly religious part of the world, they really go to town with their celebrations.  People come from all over the world to witness the processions, services and parades, all centred around the passion of the Christ.  We’re woken by the two girls to go and see this for ourselves, and while desperate for eggs and bacon, we stand lining the streets to view Jesus on a float.

I do have a deep respect for people who have faith, but no interest in organised religion.  My upbringing was one in the church, with my dad becoming a local preacher and a very good one at that.  However the older I get the more cynicism takes over, and I acknowledge it is not a path I will be treading.  I was a Christian for a short while in high school, but this was entirely down to a girl I fancied in the church.  Not the best basis for getting to know god.

People need to believe in something, but with so many conflicting beliefs, the result has been many lifetimes of senseless violence.  I read somewhere that if religion didn’t exist, the world would be at peace.  I don’t know how true that is, but I’d be willing to bet it wouldn’t be any worse than it is now.

So once again finding myself awake at an (un)godly hour I stand in silence as the first of three floats depicting Jesus are carried past.  Many people are carrying bunches of leaves and palms as they populate the busy streets.  A military band provides the soundtrack, complete with smart uniforms and sombre faces.  We’re actually a little disappointed as it is only a small ceremony, with the rest of the festival kicking off later in the week.  Apparently hostels and hotels double their prices as hundreds of people flock to see the spectacle.  I’m not sure Jesus would be very pleased about that.  No room at the inn.

Missing Danni’s lips and nearly snogging a building wall  has hardly been mentioned, although I am making some light heated remarks to cover my embarrassment, as well as displaying my intentions in not giving up.  After a truly horrible breakfast we decide it’s best to return to the hostel and watch a film, where I’ll continue to swim after a ship that’s long since sailed.  God loves a tryer.

Nothing happens, everyone hate’s my film choice (Thor) and before long it’s time to catch the bus to San Augusin.  Thank fully the girls are going the same way we are, and we have plans to all go horse riding to archialogical sights tomorrow.   I have at least one more evening to attempt to charm my lovely companion.  Except we don’t make the bus.  It’s full.  The girls do though, as they’ve had the foresight to book tickets.  They’re both due to leave San Augustin tomorrow evening for Bogota.  The next bus is at 6am.  My one night to impress turns into one night back at the hostel with Paddy desperate to crack one off as he hasn’t done in two months.  Palm Sunday.  Romance is well and truly dead.

A fake Salmon in blue cheese sauce does little to lift my spirits.  Perhaps I need to start buying into the church again after all.  Someone somewhere clearly doesn’t want me to get the girl.

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Three bottle of rum and a breath of fresh air

Saturday 31 March

I’ve got chipwood in my mouth as I wake to the dulcet tones of Mancunian accents, as the hostel buddies from last night are preparing to leave. For a few minutes I contemplate staying in Cali to simply recover from my nocturnal escapades, then it dawns on me that I would be staying in Cali.  I need little persuading from Paddy McShamus to get up, and we parade around the hostel still half cut until we muster the strength to bolt for the Popayan bus.  The need to leave Cali behind out ways the need to cure the hangover.

The five hours to Popyan pass without significant incident, perhaps because I’m asleep for most of it, and we’re pleased to have left the disappointment of the city behind.  The tedium is broken by locals forcing foodstuff into our hands, then attempting a sales pitch at the front of the bus.  If you don’t want to buy the goods, you simply hand them back.  A packet of crisps is fired through the window.  Just what I needed.  Very soon we have swapped dusty humidity for the cool, calm, colonial splendour of Popayan.  The beautiful white washed walls of the town seek to rid the mind of the hustle and bustle of Cali, Manizales and Medellin.  It feels like I’m going on holiday from traveling, and whatever the weight was on my shoulders has lifted.

Arriving at the Hostel-trail we discover our smart clean dorm room has been taken over by what appears to be a couple of girls.  This bodes well for the evening.  We indulge in a little dodgy detective work, acknowledging the female toiletries, clothes and literature in English.  Colombian author Gabriel Marquez’s seminal work 100 years of Solitude adorns a bed.  One of the few classics I’ve managed to read, an astounding novel, and one that hopefully will give me some common ground with the surely smoking hot girl to whom it belongs.  The need to eat prevents us from checking bra sizes and trying on underwear.

Popayanis a city of culinary (that was a joke)  excellence, with plenty of eateries and restaurants to choose from, serving delicious fare from around the world.  We opt for a French café that serves wonderful food, much needed in light of all the rice and beans.Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of the place, which makes me a pretty crap travel writer.  If you plan to visit, it’s up by the church at the top of the hill where the beautiful Colombian wedding was happening.  Perfect directions.

Upon returning to our digs, we congratulate ourselves on the fine investigation we undertook earlier.  Two very attractive girls, one from Philadelphia and the other from some totally unknown and unusual Caribbean island, have graced us with their presence.  We hit it off with Dani and Tess right from the off, and it in spite of them just out the shower and wearing pajamas, it doesn’t take much persuading for them to come out for a few drinks.  They arrived last night and armed with some local knowledge they lead us to a classy salsa bar called Iguana’s.

I’m already having an infinitely better night than Friday, partly due to the salsa establishment being more vintage and less sleaze, with an incredible music selection on vinyl.   Partly also due to Popayan not being shit.  Predominately however it is due to the beautiful and intoxicating Dani who has caught my attention.  She’s fun, bubbly and an interesting conversationalist, where there is never an awkward silence or rolling of eyes.  Somehow a couple of drinks turns into three bottles of rum and some serious salsa, while Paddy has a game of tick-tack-toe on a local girls arm with a ball point pen.  Eventually taking a break outside with Danni I make my move, and get a mouthful of fresh air.  Apparently she ‘never kisses.’  I then get my usual head on and shuffle off back to the hostel alone.

Never log in to facebook at 5am in the morning after a night on the lash following a rejection.  You’ll only end up making a total plank of yourself.

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A Swede!

Friday 30 March

Cali has an edge” claims the Lonely Planet.  If it does it’s the only thing it’s got.  We take a dander into the ‘old town’ and discover a sweaty, smelly, dirty, polluted, vehicle infested city centre with maybe two decent looking buildings.  There is nothing here.  It’s going to take some serious persuading from the night life to convince me it isn’t one of the worst places I’ve been to.  I shan’t be hanging around for long.

Admittedly it does it’s best as the city comes out to play.  As much as I don’t like Salsa, we manage to find a great little venue that isn’t as in-your-face as some places appear to be.  I’ve donned the kilt once again to give myself the peacock edge.  I need all the help I can get.  It appears to be working on a very attractive Swede.  A person not the vegetable.  Finally a Swedish person actually interested in me.  All my hopes and dreams have come trueI give her a kiss on a balcony in a terrible, overly expensive club.  She asks if I want ‘dorm sex’.  I reply that I’m a little bit more romantic than that, and decline.
I said no.

Seriously.

Attempting another kiss back at the hostel I’m met with a swift rebuttal, and enter a troubled sleep wondering if it was down to my smokey breath or the fact I said no to humping in a dorm room.  Did I mention I said no to having sex with a gorgeous Swedish girl?  I need my head examined.

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