Day 294 Part II – How I announced a fairly major life decision on Colombian TV

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Yes, that’s just a screenshot (hands up if you clicked on it).

We’ll get to my one minute of fame shortly, but in order for this post to make some sense please indulge me briefly as I take you back to the beginning.

The Gump Method was so named in order to reflect my general approach to the journey on which I’ve since been. To quote myself (not for the last time in this post) here is an excerpt from the original explanation:

“I don’t yet know what I’m running towards, and I’m definitely running away from something I didn’t like, but for the time being I am just running: The Gump Method….If it ultimately helps me to focus in on what’s important, and how that might link to future career and life plans, that would be a bonus.”

The plan was always just to go wherever the wind took me, moving on whenever I felt like moving. More importantly, I wanted to stop and spend a meaningful amount of time in any place I really liked.

That place, for me, has been Colombia. It was about as close as you can get to love at first sight; I think the moment it hit me was my first night out in Bogota with Walter and our Danish pals Jacob and Esben. I just could not believe how open and friendly everyone was towards us; above all the local guys.

firework launchAfter an epic New Year celebration in Medellin complete with handheld firework launches the love affair grew stronger as I traveled along Colombia’s beautiful and vibrant Caribbean coast, before it peaked in Cali. Despite never having danced salsa in my life before arriving in Colombia I was learning every day, somehow holding my own in the home of salsa and loving every minute of it.

As I approached the end of my first two months in Colombia I tried to extend my stay but the cost was prohibitive. Instead I continued south on what I have subsequently named the ‘Yo-Yo Tour.’ My route from Central America to the southern tip of the continent and back again towards Panama via a second visit to Colombia makes very little sense logistically or financially, but that’s just how things turned out.

I enjoyed my time in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Mendoza and both the Argentinian and Chilean parts of Patagonia, but did not particularly warm to Peru or Ecuador. While all these countries have amazing histories, unique cultures and natural wonders aplenty, it is the approach to life and the incredible warmth of its people (especially towards tourists) that for me differentiates Colombia from its neighbours.

Four months after leaving Colombia for Peru back in February, a miserable 24 hour, three leg bus journey across the Ecuadorian-Colombian border landed me right back in Cali, the capital of the Valle de Cauca region. I had already booked my onward journey to Cartagena but after another week in Cali I wasn’t ready to leave and decided to skip the flight. I signed up for 10 more hours of salsa lessons with my excellent teacher Luis at Rumba y Salsa, one of Cali’s many excellent dance academies, and a month later I’m still here.

While my time in Cali has mostly revolved around dancing and nightlife, the Colombia versus England World Cup match was probably the highlight. After the match I was interviewed by a news programme called TV Noticias 5, or Noti5. With my improving but still basic Spanish I doubted whether I’d make the cut, so was surprised to find out that they had done a little segment on me. The full show has since been uploaded to YouTube.

If you hadn’t already guessed where I was going with this post it’s about time I got to the announcement, so what better way of delivering it than live on Colombian TV, in Spanish…

It is cringe central and I still have to watch it through the gaps between my fingers but here it is for your viewing pleasure. The segment starts at 9:40.

For those of you that don’t speak Spanish, here is my best effort at the transcript and a translation to English:

Reporter: Hoy en un centro commercial al oeste de la ciudad, las miradas se las llevó Oliver Jones por su doble pasión. Un corazón que le tocó dividirse entre su país de nacimiento Inglaterra y Colombia el que ha empezado amar. Por lo cual el resultado de hoy le generó sentimientos encontrados.

  • Today in a shopping centre to the west of the city we saw Oliver Jones with his split loyalties. He has had to divide his heart between his country of birth, England, and Colombia, which he has began to love. Today’s result therefore gave him mixed feelings

Me: Estoy super emocionado ahora – no sé como sentir porque como puede ver, soy ingles pero tengo un corazón de los dos ahora. Vivo aqui. Estoy triste pero….muy emocionado.

  • I’m really emotional now – I don’t know how to feel because as you can see I’m English but have a heart of both [countries] as I’m living here. I’m sad but…very emotional

Reporter: Independientemente del resultado este ingles ahora seguirá su apoyo por Inglaterra que avanzó, pero continuará en esta tierra que lo ha cogido de gran manera. 

  • Regardless of the result this Englishman will now carry on supporting England who progressed [to the next round], but will continue in this land which he has fallen for in such a big way

Me: Llevo un mes, sí pero me encanta el país, la gente Caleño (Caleña, disculpa). Y sí, voy a vivir, quedarme acá mucho tiempo, espero.

  • I’ve been here a month but I love the country, the people of Cali and I hope to stay here for a long time

So there you have it – my first Colombian TV appearance and a somewhat unconventional way of telling everyone that I have found an apartment and decided to move myself to Cali for the time being.

Through a combination of my limited vocabulary and wanting to say some nice things for the camera the exact words I used in the interview didn’t quite reflect where my head is at, but the general gist of it is accurate.

I love the city, the Caleño culture, the people, the dancing, the near-perfect climate, the nature and the fact that you can eat a different tropical fruit every day. After so many dark years in the past I believe that Colombia, and particularly Cali, is a land of great opportunity and am excited already to be working on some (salsa-related) business ideas.

If things don’t work out on the business front then I might lose some money but at the very least I will get to a decent level of Spanish and become a bad ass salsa dancer (of this I am sure) which would still be a pretty acceptable outcome in my opinion.

Any questions? No? Excellent.

Football is coming home and so am I, but not for long. I will be taking a short ‘holiday’ in the UK from mid-July to early August before heading straight back to Cali, so for those of you who are in or around London during that time I hope to see you soon.

Day 214: The Seagull That Stole My Innocence (not like that) in Buenos Aires

Word of the Day

Gullible: Easily deceived or duped; naïve, easily cheated or fooled. From gull + ible, or Middle English dialect gull meaning “newly hatched bird”


Despite my inability to publish any posts in the last couple of months I´m pleased to report that yes I am still in South America and have been having a lovely time thank you.

With such a long stint of inactivity I´ve had to field various questions about why I´ve stopped blogging. The general assumptions were that I was either bored of writing or having too much fun.

Neither of these reasons were accurate, but rather than explaining myself now I´m going to postpone writing about my time in Peru and Chile, instead jumping straight to Argentina last weekend where I had an unfortunate encounter with a seagull with stomach problems.

A Little More Action

To set the scene here is a quote from my original description of The Gump Method:

“I hope my benevolent disposition will deflect all bad karma but I expect there will be some scrapes along the way too for those who like a bit of action.”

After 213 days on the road in Western Europe, Central and South America the only real scrapes I´d suffered were literal ones – the familiar schoolboy scrape of knee along tarmac as I slipped while running during a Medellin thunderstorm, and of gravel ripping skin when I fell off a bike descending a mountain in Peru. Both were avoidable, weather-related accidents where I had only myself to blame for going too fast – the mountain-biking fall was particularly foolish considering the conditions that day.

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IMG-6451Aside from these self-inflicted injuries, in all that time I hadn´t once felt seriously threatened or had anything stolen. The absolute worst thing that had happened to me was getting charged multiple times for a bus ticket in Nicaragua. With a total financial loss of $10 it was barely newsworthy and only made the blog because it was funny.

While I had recently started saying to people that I was sure my luck would run out at some point, in all honesty I didn`t reaIly believe that it would. I was starting to get complacent, genuinely thinking that by smiling and saying “hola” to everyone I would somehow discourage them from doing anything bad….why would I steal from this confident, friendly gringo when there is a non-smiling potential victim just over there?

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Forrest Gump, the inspiration for this blog´s title, was not blessed with a high IQ, and one could be forgiven for thinking that my box of chocolates had a few missing when I succumbed to a classic manoeuvre last Saturday in Buenos Aires.

Walking cheerfully outside the main Retiro station at 3pm looking for a bus stop I felt something wet hit my head and back. A benevolent stranger explained that a bird had done a massive dump on me as she looked in her bag for a tissue.

My initial reaction was to laugh, a lot. I was absolutely covered in its foul-smelling, murky excrement and as I started to process what had happened the thoughts came in quick succession:

“It must have been a seagull to produce that volume of crap…maybe it spotted an Englishman and saw an opportunity…whatever it was that got me, it got me good”

That last thought turned out to be more accurate than I realised. As the lady poured water over my head to help clean me up another guy asked me where I was from, speaking quickly in Spanish and pointing at something in the distance.

Another fast-talking man added further confusion as I noticed my original female helper looking on from a taxi. Still oblivious I waved and thanked her for her help as she drove off.

It was another 20 seconds before the accomplices had disappeared and I realised my small bag of valuables including passport, laptop, camera and a lot more had also vanished.

I kicked my rucksack in frustration for being so gullible and made my way to the nearest police station where I had plenty of time to think about what had happened. This facial expression is an accurate depiction of how I felt, but the many posters left by families in search of missing relatives put my misfortune into perspective.

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While I´m gutted to have lost 6 months of photos, disappointed that the small print in my insurance policy means I will not be able to replace everything, and constrained by the emergency passport I will need to continue on my journey, the saddest part is that I can no longer proudly say that I´ve been travelling for X months without anything bad happening.

I wore that fact as a badge of honour, not for myself but for the countries I´d visited. While this could just as easily have happened in London or anywhere else it´s a shame it happened here as I´d love to have been able to return home with a clean record.

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Of course I will learn some lessons from this, like the fact that ´backing up´ your camera photos on your laptop works really well until they are put in the same stolen bag.

I will also try to replace my pre-seagull naivety and innocence with a healthy scepticism towards strangers. I will not dwell on the theft itself, and have no bad feelings towards my muggers who did a fine job on the acting front and probably needed the money.

The main lesson I learnt, or re-learnt, from this, is that there are extremely kind and loving people all over the world who will go out of their way to help. I made a big noise about the hospitality and generosity in Colombia, but in every country I have been to people have displayed incredible kindness despite hardly knowing me.

I could give countless examples but the best ones always seem to revolve around families. From being invited to a huge Christmas Dinner in Santa Teresa, to New Year with my Colombian familia in Medellin, to massively outstaying my welcome with the wonderful Donoso family in Santiago, to Comisaria 46 in Buenos Aires where I was picked up by Juana and her mum Carola.

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Juana was one of my very patient (and unpaid) Spanish teachers in Costa Rica. We remained friends after I nearly squashed her with my out-of-control moped in Santa Teresa and, after the imaginary seagull got me, Juana and her family have been my saviours, putting me up in their spare room while I sort myself out.

IMG-7284.JPGTaking me to an asado (a much better, Argentinian version of a BBQ), sharing their mate (which Argentinians may love even more than Brits love tea), malbec and oodles of dulce de leche they have treated me like a member of the family and shown me the very best of Argentinian culture.

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I´m Not Leaving

My immediate reaction to the mugging was that this could be a sign it was time to go home. However, on reflection, and particularly thanks to the warm welcome I´ve received in Buenos Aires (big shout out to Gogui, Chino and Valeria as well – more strangers who treated me and my sister like long lost BFFs), I have come to the opposite conclusion.

It would be shameful to let this one incident end my trip and I will not let it impact my forward-looking travel plans – the show must go on. As one friend (who loves gambling) advised me, it´s sometimes better to double down than cash out.

I´m not leaving.

(And that´s not because I don´t have a passport)


 

Day 155 – Barranquilla – South America’s Second Biggest Carnival

Whether it’s through this blog, my social media accounts or old fashioned talking and texting, most people who know me also know where I am. I’ve not kept it much of a secret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly as February approached I was contacted by a few friends from home, as well as people I’d met travelling, with some variation of the following:

“I’m coming to Rio for carnival – where shall we meet?” 

They had assumed that as I was travelling in South America during February I would be somewhere in Brazil, most likely Rio de Janeiro, for the annual carnival. I couldn’t really blame them for thinking it – where else would I be?

Well, I was in Barranquilla, a city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, for what is purported to be South America’s second biggest carnival.

Where?

Yes, Barranquilla. One friend in particular (hi Wally) really couldn’t understand this decision and did not mince his words:

“If you’re travelling in South America and you don’t go to Rio for the biggest party in the world you’re a ****ing idiot.”

While he may have had a point there was some logic behind my decision:

  1. Practicing Spanish is one of my priorities, and they don’t speak it in Brazil
  2. With a flight already booked from Bogota to Lima a peak season return trip to Rio from Colombia didn’t seem like an efficient use of cash
  3. Barranquilla is the second largest carnival in South America – surely that’s a big deal?

Looking back those first two reasons were pretty lame (I’ll come onto the third) but once the decision was made that was it; I was being joined by Kenny and Ben and we were fully committed to making the best of whatever Barranquilla had to offer.

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Carnival Day One – Foam FOMO

Upon arrival we headed straight to La Troja – a large bar which acts as the colourful epicentre of the street party. We were clearly playing catch up as most of the revelers were already hammered and covered in a sticky mix of flour and sprayable foam. We caught up pretty quickly.

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Once we realised it was perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to spray what was essentially high pressured shaving foam in the faces of strangers we filled our holsters with as many cans as we could carry and got stuck in, receiving plenty in return.

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While Kenny appears to be offering  his phone in sacrifice to avoid further punishment, the night’s first foam-related casualty was Ben’s wallet, which was plucked from his pocket while he wiped his eyes clean after a full frontal espuma attack. Immobilizing your victims just before you rob them is such an effective method I was surprised it didn’t happen to all of us, and I later met a number of other travelers who had succumbed to the same trick.

After an incident-free 6 weeks in Colombia this was a disappointing development, but on reflection it could just as easily have occurred at Notting Hill Carnival and definitely beats being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, which seems to have happened to a worryingly high number of people this year.

Ben was good humoured about the whole thing and after cancelling his cards the revelry continued unabated. As I had found elsewhere in Colombia, the locals all wanted us to party with them, dishing out shots of aguardiente and kindly ensuring that every part of our faces and hair were covered in flour.

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Day Two – Getting Our Charlie Chaplins Out

Our first full day of carnival was also the day we chose to don our rather peculiar fancy dress outfits. After originally planning something Charlie Chaplin-inspired with braces (suspenders to the Americans), hats and baggy trousers, the eBay journey somehow led us to ‘tuxedo style boxer shorts’ complete with bow-ties, providing the bows for our barely concealed packages.

For the first time in a long time I was a little reticent about getting my bits out in broad daylight and kept my jeans on for the most part. Kenny had no such qualms, stripping down upon arrival to the delight of the assembled Colombian females.

Es un téléfono en tus calzoncillos o estás feliz de verme?

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We paid very little attention to the ‘crowning of the carnival Queen’ taking part alongside us – the procession was underwhelming and we were having too much fun with our espuma cannons. Not wanting to be caught short in a shoot out I typically carried three at all times.

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Following the previous day’s blueprint we drank, we sprayed foam, we danced to Cumbia (a northern Colombian music genre which provides the soundtrack to most of the carnival’s events), we made friends and had another great day and night out.

Day Three – Same Same But Different

On the third day Ben and Kenny returned to Los Estados Unidos and I finally paid attention to one of the carnival’s formal events for the Gran Parada de Comparsas (The Great Parade of Groups).

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This was a procession of dance troops from all over Colombia, making their way through town in choreographed unison along with a wide selection of marimondas – colourful Colombian carnival characters who don disturbingly phallic face masks.

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It was great to watch and surprisingly interactive, with dancers stopping for photos and spectators dancing alongside the passing groups. I was encouraged to get involved and did my best to overcompensate for the black t-shirt and jeans with some unconventional dance moves, mixing cumbia and twerking to create a new genre Twumbia, which went down surprisingly well.

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After the procession we headed back to La Troja where I ingeniously navigated the full body search, somehow smuggling in a full bottle of aguardiente using my sock and jeans.

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Once inside we drank, we danced, we…well you know the drill by now. Always the same.

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Tricky Day Four

On the fourth and final day of carnival I had absolutely no interest, cowering in my hotel room in the foetal position muttering “please make it stop.” Three days of heavy partying after a couple of big nights out in Cali in the preceding days were more than enough.

This gave me time to reflect on whether I had made the right decision in being in Barranquilla and not being in Brazil. With the wider context I do think it was the right call, but had I planned further in advance I may have done things a little differently.

While Barranquilla may host its continent’s second largest carnival and we had a great few days of fiesta with the locals, it’s really just a big street party and doesn’t come close to the scale and ambition of the annual events in Rio. Watching videos of the ‘Sambadromes’ and parties on the beach, visitors should not confuse Barranquilla and Rio as being even remotely similar spectacles. To paraphrase a quote from one of my favourite films “it ain’t the same ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same sport.”

A fun party it was, and I’m glad I went, but next year I’m going to Rio. With the speed at which the months are currently flying by there is a decent chance I’ll still be out here…


Next Stop: Adios Colombia, Hola Peru 

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Day 146 – Plant Therapy – From Cocora Valley to San Pedro via Yoga

Word of the Day 

Dendrophilia: the love of trees. The term may sometimes refer to a paraphilia in which people are sexually attracted to or sexually aroused by trees.


Since starting my travels I have often oscillated from one extreme to another in an effort to derive some kind of balanced existence. This has taken many forms: periods of aggressive partying will be followed by abstinence and a renewed interest in the gym; after travelling with friends I have enjoyed some alone time (and vice versa); from the bustle of city life I’ve yearned for the tranquility of a beachside bungalow or a mountain retreat.

One of these switcharoos was required after the work I had put into my recent attempts at self-improvement. In search of relaxation and serenity my destination of choice was Salento, a breezy 9 hour bus ride through steep winding roads from Medellin.

Salento

Salento sits in what is known as the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Region, of Colombia, as its consistent year-round weather conditions are perfect for growing the stuff. It is a quiet little town surrounded by lush countryside which for me (and anyone old and British enough to remember) is reminiscent of the backdrop for Postman Pat, with hills and trees so green and perfect that they must be fake.

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Other than visiting one of its many coffee farms, which is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, you can also play Tejo, a Colombian sport/pastime (depending on who you ask, a bit like darts) which involves throwing heavy metal pucks at a gunpowder-filled target 20 metres away, creating a mini explosion on a successful impact.

My game, including a cameo performance from two visiting Profumos (hi Proffo and Steph) was, as usual, accompanied with a bottle of aguardiente, so we sensibly played the gringo version from half distance. Still, with the neighbours’ pucks whizzing past our ears at great speed we were relieved to emerge unscathed.

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Tree Love

The real draw that brings the backpackers to Salento is a tree – Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm, which is most prevalent in the nearby Cocora Valley.

I didn’t realise I was a dendrophile (not in the sexual sense, I might add) until recently but, on reflection, I have been fascinated and surrounded by majestic trees since my early childhood. Living in a house called Redwood, named after the giant conifer in our garden, I also loved the weeping willows of our neighbours, the towering oaks at my first school ‘Oakwood’ and the ancient yews of the nearby Kingly Vale (see below). The mystical power of trees is hard to put into words but Herman Hesse does a pretty amazing job here (thanks for the assist Julia).

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The wax palms of Cocora Valley are very different from all of the above but truly spectacular as these trees, sometimes growing as high as 60m, all trunk and no leaf, seem to have somehow outpaced evolution. With no obvious need to be so tall relative to one another or their neighbours they are really just showing off.

Often compared to the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, their dimensions and general appearance are certainly surreal. With the perfect sunny day and a mountainous backdrop we couldn’t help but keep taking photos.

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Yoga Love

Returning to El Viajero in Salento after 6 hours of walking, a free yoga session put on twice a week by this excellent and great value hostel (shout out to my El Viajero amigos) was the perfect way to stretch out and wind down. Yoga, a traveller staple, has not played a huge part in my trip but I have enjoyed it when available, always feeling energised and motivated by the practice.

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The yoga sessions in Salento were hosted by Vladimir, an excellent instructor with an immediately warm and loving energy. He was spiritual in a genuine and unforced way, and sang beautifully at the end of each class.

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I felt somehow drawn to Vladimir and was not surprised to find out that he was a practicing shaman. After my recent ayahuasca experiences I hadn’t been planning on taking any more plant medicine, but they say the plants call you when you’re ready, and I had a strange feeling that I was supposed to meet Vladimir at this time. It turned out he was hosting a san pedro retreat on the only 2 days I had free before meeting friends, cementing my belief that the universe wanted me there.

San Pedro

San pedro is an Amazonian cactus, one of the three main ‘power plants’ along with ayahuasca and peyote. Albeit less potent than ayahuasca, san pedro is also a psychedelic, well known for its healing properties and its ability to rekindle people’s love and enthusiasm for life.

Not having any ailments to be healed, nor feeling short of enthusiasm or love for life, I perhaps didn’t need a san pedro retreat like some of the other participants, but I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was.

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The ceremony, conducted entirely in Spanish for 12 people, started at 10pm and finished at 11am the next morning, without interruption. We drank, chewed and ate the san pedro, also known as ‘huachuma,’ throughout the night while sat around a bonfire getting increasingly ‘chumado’ while singing and chanting with the assistance of tribal drums, guitars, panpipes, rattles and various other instruments. It felt a lot less weird than it sounds. No photos were allowed during the ceremony but this was the aftermath.

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We took turns to pass around the Talking Stick (that’s my inaccurate translation from whatever the Spanish was) whereby each person got to hold a stick and speak to the group about anything on their mind. My statements in Spanish were short and jovial, as the huachuma only made me feel a little silly and spaced out, but for many of the people involved this was an extremely emotional coming of age. Most of them cried some combination of happy and sad tears, and left the following day as new people, rather like I had felt after my ayahuasca experience.

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Perhaps the language barrier softened the impact of the shaman’s words, but for me it was an unusual and entertaining night rather than a life-changer. Having said that, watching the sun rise from complete darkness behind the mountains was a beautiful sight that I will never forget, as was this goat doing yoga on the verandah.

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Next Stop: Carnaval de Barranquilla

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Day 113 – Medellin Part I – Mi Familia Su Familia

I have a lot to say about Medellin. Spending a few weeks in Colombia’s phoenix, formerly regarded as the world’s most dangerous city, I have, like many recent visitors, developed a strong sense of affection for Medellin and its people.

The city occupies a long, thin valley formed by two Andean mountain ridges. The valley’s steep sides ensure that everyone in Medellin has some kind of a view – up, down, or across. The city is not architecturally beautiful: imposing municipal buildings sit alongside soulless residential towers, with poorer residents occupying the higher slopes. However, while Medellin has no truly memorable landmarks, when viewed from a high vantage point on a sunny day the cityscape as a whole is iconic.

colombia-medellin-panoramic-wallpaperInternational visitors to Medellin are immediately greeted with this view as its major airport sits at a higher altitude to the south of the city. The drive down into Medellin is breathtaking, both as a result of the panoramic vista and the taxi drivers’ ridiculously aggressive downhill overtaking manoeuvres.

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Paisa Hospitality

The positive atmosphere in Medellin and the openness and hospitality of the ‘Paisas’ (Colombians of the Antioquia region) towards foreign visitors are immediately palpable.

Our first night started in an authentic salsa club – I say ‘authentic’ based on the fact that we were the only foreigners – but it seemed legit. Arriving late we were offered the only remaining table upstairs, away from the action. A couple of old guys saw this and demanded that we join their table in prime location next to the dancefloor. After plying us with aguardiente (“fiery water”) they introduced an equally steady flow of dance partners who were extremely patient and accommodating of our 6 left feet.

It was a great taste of what was to come. In a city which has only recently gone from global murder capital to the jewel in Colombia’s crown its people clearly love having fun and are proud of what they have collectively achieved, showing it off like proud parents.

Our New Colombian Familia

We met our Colombian-parents-in-waiting the following day, travelling to Itagui in the south of the city, where the hospitality levels went through the roof. Our affiliation with them was very loose – Walter and Patrick knew a Colombian guy back in New York who suggested we meet his parents in Medellin. Sure. Next thing we knew they had found us accommodation, sent a driver to collect us from the airport and invited us to what we thought was a light lunch on New Year’s Eve.

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From the moment we arrived in Itagui we were treated like long lost family members; within half an hour I had been offered the spare room for the duration of my stay in Medellin. After a delicious (and very typical) lunch of chicken soup and tree-tomato juice we were led outside by our new tour guides, walking down the hill to view Pablo Escobar’s grave (more on that in a separate post) before going on a magical mystery tour, riding Medellin’s immaculate subway and taking a round trip in a cable car over some of its hillside neighbourhoods.

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As dusk approached we suppressed a few yawns and started to regret a big night out on the 30th. Worried that we were peaking too soon for New Year’s Eve we suggested to our new Colombian dad, Gildardo, that we go for a couple of sharpeners while Eugenia (our new Colombian mum) went back home to pray.

We should have said our prayers as we proceeded to get hammered on aguardiente. Over the course of a three-legged bar crawl (there were three bars – we didn’t tie our legs together) we polished off an unknown quantity of the good stuff – every time we thought we were going home Colombian Papa ordered another ‘media’ (half bottle) despite being absolutely shitfaced. The more we drank, the more likely we were to be found dancing with any Colombian women that came near us (mostly in the 50+ category).

By the time we returned to Itagui our yawns had subsided; concerns about peaking too soon had been drowned in aguardiente and we were fully committed to seeing in the New Year with our new fam. We were led around like royal visitors and introduced to more family, friends and neighbours, always with a shot of tapa azul (“blue top”) to ease things along.

We weren’t quite sure how we’d got there but we went with the flow that night and loved it. Colombians regard New Year as a time to be spent with family and we couldn’t have experienced a more typically Paisan family New Year, including the obligatory handheld firework launch, which went surprisingly well for me.

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I have never been made to feel so welcome by people I have just met, and went back to visit my Colombian parents again a few days later, this time taking my real English dad. It’s not often you get to spend one-on-one father-son time and this was the start of a brilliant two and a half weeks together.

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As well as “mi casa su casa” it felt like “mi familia su familia” – they welcomed Jonesy senior as another member of the family before randomly taking us on a 40 minute drive to a roadside chorizo potato ball specialist.

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While our incredible welcome from this family was just one example it seems to be representative of Medellin and Paisas in general. The generosity and goodwill I have experienced in Medellin is unrivaled anywhere else.

From indescribable hostility 25 years ago to overwhelming hospitality today, the city has undergone a personality transplant. While the Paisa people are known throughout Colombia for their hospitality I can’t help thinking that Medellin’s current character is at least in part a backlash against its troubled past.

When we tentatively asked Eugenia about her memories of the bombs and murders during Pablo’s reign her face dropped and eyes glazed over as she said “Lo vivÍ” (“I lived it”). After the darkness of the Escobar days Medellin now has light, and its people are delighted to share it with the world.


Next Stop: Medellin Part II – Pablo Escobar

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Day 109 – Two Nights and No Days in Bogota

After saying goodbye to Andy and Jolie in Nicaragua I spent a whole 10 days travelling alone in Costa Rica, having to talk to strangers and make friends without anyone to hold my hand. Proud of this independence I quickly returned to my comfort zone in Bogota, meeting up with two good friends from New York: Walter and Patrick.

I love how quickly friendships can grow when you meet the right kind of people. It was only just over two years ago that I met Wally, Paddy and the rest of their family (they are 2 of 6 brothers, with no sisters) and immediately knew they were keepers. A year later I was invited to a brilliant 2016 Thanksgiving weekend at their family home in New Jersey, and another year on the three of us are ringing in the New Year in Colombia.

This photo of them on a boat has nothing to do with our time in Bogota, but they look cute and, as you will see below, it was slim pickings on my phone and camera.

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A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?

Before I met up with the boys I had a few hours to get to know Bogota and, after 6 weeks in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, it felt a lot closer to home. Smooth roads, high rise buildings and a much more familiar temperature. I described its 15 degrees Celsius as “absolutely freezing” upon arrival and meant it – clearly it doesn’t take long to get used to ‘traveller temperatures’ in the mid to high 20s .

Despite its low latitude Bogota never gets much warmer (yes, that’s a weather chart below – knowledge is power) due to its ridiculous altitude. At 2,640m it is comfortably higher than any European ski resort, and a few times I became aware of my breathing as I involuntarily gulped for additional oxygen.

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Arriving in the early evening I had a quick walk around the old Candelaria district as night fell. Despite advice to exercise extreme caution after dark, and despite being offered cocaine approximately every 2 minutes, I did not feel under any pressure walking around town at night. Locals were happy and friendly, and there was a consistent police presence across the city with cars, motorbikes and the occasional segway positioned tactically on busy squares and corners.

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One thing I did keep seeing, moreso than in Central America, was locals staring at me with their mouths wide open. I’d claim it’s cos I’m so damn goodlookin, but in reality blonde haired travellers remain a novelty in a country where post-Pablo-era tourism is still relatively nascent. I’ve quickly learnt that the best way to deal with a 500 yard stare is a smile and a ‘hola’ which, 9 times out of 10, elicits a smile and a hola in return.

Aguardiente and Afterparties

While it had nothing to do with this follicular revelation, I made friends with a couple of young and extremely blonde Danish guys at the hostel, one of which looked like a miniature Thor. Jacob and Esben joined our nights out in Bogota, transforming an already quite foreign-looking group into a Scandinavian family holiday without mum. Sadly (for me) this seems to be the only photo of the four of us together.

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In Bogota’s ‘Zona T’ we followed the sound of music up some stairs before launching ourselves into a very lively club, causing double takes across the room as the Von Trapp family entered. Stood at the bar we noticed a few gringo hunters surreptitiously relocating a table before introducing themselves, along with their salsa and bachata skills.

Suddenly the music stopped as a fully decked out mariachi band serenaded a local birthday girl for what seemed like 20 songs. We exchanged confused but satisfied glances as the scene unfolded – despite having no idea what was going on we were loving it.

The night flew by in a blur of beer, rum and the local favourite – aguardiente. This drink, distilled in Colombia, for Colombia, has a subtle aniseed flavour, like sambuca but much more drinkable at only 29% ABV. The typical approach is to buy a half bottle (una media), which comes with a number of shot glasses to be shared among friends and strangers. Bottles are always served on their side on the bar – I have no idea why they do that but it’s a nice touch.

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Tour guides and websites will tell you that Bogota nightlife ends at 3am but, while the majority of clubs do shut down at that time, there were plenty of late night spots to choose from (some more dubious than others) as we meandered our way to another club. Later, as the sun was starting to rise, we milled around on the pavement outside and were surprised to hear talk of various house parties, and even more surprised that we were invited.

It didn’t take long to realise that the people of Bogota were very happy to have us there. Locals would approach us and introduce themselves as if it was completely natural (which it is). Everyone wanted to chat, hear what we thought about their country and integrate us into their groups. In complete contrast to the territorial approach you see from men in most countries, the guys were just as amiable as the girls.

We made our way to a house party somewhere on the edge of town which got very weird but was a lot of fun, ending sometime around 9am. This photo pretty much covers it.

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Jacob and Esben were completely spaced out as we ushered them into a taxi and made our way back towards the hostel in broad daylight, singing our hearts out to classic rock and Britpop songs to the driver who hated us.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as we then had a brief run in with a drug addict who chased us up the street with a knife (much more hilarious and less scary than it sounds). When the coast was clear and we’d stopped giggling we decided it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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As Bogota made its way to work we finally decided enough was enough, had breakfast and went to bed, satisfied with a solid first night in Colombia.

I would write about our second night, but we did almost exactly the same again with the addition of Patrick and the omission of a knife-wielding drug addict. While we did manage to get to the Botero museum (which was amazing) just before nightfall, our time in Bogota was largely nocturnal.

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Bogota doesn’t get much hype as a travel destination relative to the other big Colombian cities, but does have a good reputation for nightlife. However, despite our warm reception from the locals, Bogota’s cold weather is its Achilles heel, so after two great nights and no days in Colombia’s capital we made our way to Medellin – the city of eternal spring.


Next stop: Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia

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Day 105 – A Christmas Gift from Santa (Teresa)

I’ve always wondered why people take so much pleasure in hitting certain numerical milestones – what is it about the number 100, or any round number, that gets us excited? My 100th day passed by completely unnoticed, but now does seem as good a time as any to take stock of progress. So, how am I doing?

Well for starters, my travels in Central America have been very smooth. No yellow fever, no food poisoning, no aggro from locals or travellers, no muggings at gunpoint, no dodgy moments at all really (apart from that $5 bus ticket I paid for 3 times, which was funny). I don’t believe in tempting fate, but feel free to touch wood on my behalf (how is your mum?). I’ve spent a bit more cash than intended, but that was always going to happen.

True fans of the Gump Method (hi Mum, hi Dad, hi Rebecca) will remember the promise I made to myself back on Day 12; I wanted to ‘get good at’ Spanish, Surfing and Salsa – the three S’s. I concede that these are not the most noble of objectives – I’m not building any wells or teaching English to orphans – but for now I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and it’s great. 

Unfortunately, after my last post, 97 days into not working and travelling in mostly Spanish speaking, surfable countries I was, in all honesty, having a 4th S – a Shocker. Marks out of ten would have been: Spanish 2/10, surfing 3/10, salsa 0/10. Must try harder. 

Santa Teresa 

Keen to make meaningful progress in at least one area I made my way to Santa Teresa, a surf Mecca on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast with consistent, year round waves and a distinctly higher than average ratio of beautiful people riding around on quad bikes.

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Athletic physiques, sun-kissed bodies, long hair (especially on the men) and a LOT of tattoos were the first things I noticed on arrival. Occupying, at best, one of those four categories I knew I would have my work cut out to fit in, but I arrived with a steely determination and some factor 50 with one objective in mind: surfing.

After an epic journey south from Nicaragua involving 8 public buses and a ferry in one 24 hour period, I arrived in a hot and dusty Santa Teresa in the week of Christmas. As a festive treat I decided to splash out, spending $30 per night on a private room at Tranquilo Backpackers; rock and roll.

iguana.jpgSadly when I rocked up I was met by an extremely tranquilo unoccupied building: I had booked 6 nights in a hostel that had closed 3 months earlier. Shiiiiiit. Thankfully Booking.com resolved the situation quickly, so all was well as I settled in at a new hostel with a friendly local iguana, before enjoying my first beachfront yoga session, assisted by a local pooch who had a few moves of his own (and a wandering right paw).

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Pura Vida

Everywhere in Costa Rica locals use the term ‘Pura Vida.’ The direct translation is ‘pure life’ but they seem to apply it to anything from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’ to ‘cheers’ to ‘isn’t this great!’ At first I found it annoying, but after a week in Santa Teresa I finally got the idea.

At first glance Santa Teresa is little more than a friendly and chilled out surf town, but to fully understand its Pura Vida lifestyle you need to experience another 3 S’s – sunrise, sunset and surfing.

As the clock approaches 6am the beach is quiet but surfers are guaranteed to be making the most of the glassy, warm waters as the sun rises and the yogis complete their early morning practice. It is a beautiful, cleansing and peaceful time to be alive (disclaimer: photo below is not actually sunrise but pretty much captures it).

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The true essence of Santa Teresa can only be experienced at sunset. Every evening, without fail, what feels like the whole town makes its way to the beach as the sun goes down. Families and friends, locals and travellers all socialise around huge bonfires as incredible sunsets illuminate the silhouettes of surfers catching the final waves of the day. Its simplicity and purity can only be understood first hand.

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Surf (and Darts) Club

While I must give a shout out to the amazing (sexycute) crew at La Posada Hostel, with whom I shared much of my leisure and surf time, the story I want to tell here starts and ends with an Italian surfing legend called David.

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David followed his passion for surfing to Santa Teresa 18 years ago when it was barely more than a dirt track with 3 or 4 cars passing through daily. He bought up some land (which has since gone up in value by around 20x), fell in love with a lovely Canadian woman (hi Jessica) and proposed to her in their first week together (lad).

They now have 2 great kids, loads of friends, a surf shop, some lovely rental accommodation (Check out Rio Carmen Rooms), surfing on the doorstep and more Pura Vida than you could imagine.

I approached David’s surf shop, “The Shit Hole” (the name came to him in a dream) looking for a rental board and a lesson. What I did not expect from this visit was great friends, significant improvements in both my Spanish and my surfing, membership of Darts Club every day after sunset, and even an invite to Christmas dinner.

But first, the surfing. If I was going to break the Rules (surf instructors must have neck length hair, deep suntans and washboard abs), I might as well break them in style. I’m guessing David’s abs were last seen sometime in the 20th century (sorry David if that’s inaccurate), and as he donned a hat with a chin strap to keep his face out of the sun, he did not look like your typical surf dude with attitude.

Appearances can of course be deceiving, as David was undoubtedly the coolest (and most effective) surf instructor I’d ever had. When he wasn’t tiptoeing up and down his longboard he was giving me great tips and advice, helping me to catch some decent sized waves properly for the first time.

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I had been waiting for something to click and, in Santa Teresa, surfing day-in-day-out for hours on end it finally happened. Rather than sitting there thinking about all the technical points I had to remember – wave direction, board position, when to paddle, when to pop up – at some point I stopped thinking and just did it, which is when it started to work.

To be clear, I am still a crap surfer on an 8 foot 6 inch board, but after a few days in Santa Teresa I was finally getting there, catching big, green waves and riding them laterally (rather than in a straight line towards the beach). It was an incredible feeling.

(Another disclaimer: the photo below is not of me; I was somewhere nearby, probably underwater).

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Santa’s Gift

Surfing on Christmas Day in Santa Teresa was yet another lifetime highlight which I will never forget. After a couple of days spent out of the water due to a big swell, the waves were still pretty huge and I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but I was determined to make the most of my remaining time before an early morning Boxing Day departure.

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While I enjoyed every minute of it, I had a really tough day. After catching a couple of early waves I spent most of the morning and afternoon in the ‘washing machine.’ As the sun descended on my final evening session I gave my camera to a friend in the vain hope (both senses of the word vain) of capturing some shots of me actually surfing before I left (spoiler alert: she didn’t get any).

I don’t know if it was the pressure of it being my last day, or an awareness that the camera was rolling, but I got the crap kicked out of me more in that half hour period than in the whole previous week.

While my time in the water might have looked unpleasant to an observer, there is a weird sense of enjoyment in getting thrown around like a lottery ball by the natural forces of sea and moon. Still, after about 15 or 20 minutes of constant battering the adrenaline wears off and you just want a hug.

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Desperate to catch one last Christmas wave I finally found a long enough break in the sets to make my way to the calmer water outside, straddled my board, looked to the horizon and prayed to the Surf Gods:

“Dear Surf Gods, I know I haven’t always been your greatest disciple, but you have really taught me a lesson in the last half hour and I would be so, so grateful if you could let me ride one last wave in to the beach. I don’t care about photos or videos, I don’t want anyone to see – this is just between you and me.”

Less than two minutes later a big set came in. I saw that the second wave was a ‘left’ (easier for me) and paddled like crazy as I felt the board lifting up behind me. I took off and immediately turned the board left, saw a load of whitewater (I had misread the wave, which was actually breaking to the right), did a big heel-side turn, rode it along the shoulder and, as per my request, surfed it casually all the way back to the beach. It was the perfect Christmas present – thanks Santa (Teresa).

As I eked out the last bit of energy from the wave I saw David and the gang waving from the beach. Proud of what was definitely my best ever wave I did a little salute, before realising that they weren’t celebrating my success but were frantically trying to signal the rocks immediately ahead of me.

I jumped off just in time, averting a couple of hundred dollars of board damage, at which point I simultaneously thanked the Surf Gods and apologised to them for showing off. Pride comes before a fall, but I still couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

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I followed up my best ever wave with our daily game of ‘darts cricket’ back at the Shit Hole while listening to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and other old favourites. With the only shared language of this international Darts Club (hi Luca and Ezekiel) being Spanish I also finally made some progress in that area (thanks also to Mayla and Juana, mí profesoras de la ‘playsha’).

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The 25th ended with a huge, international Christmas dinner at David and Jessica’s house with around 30 guests, all of whom brought a dish from their own country (I made shepherds pie). The fact that they annually invite so many people into their family home on Christmas Day speaks volumes about these people and, for me, is Pura Vida on toast. Friends, family, beach, sunshine, surfing, food, drink and fun.

It was a brilliant finale to a wonderful day and week. Big thanks to David, Jessica, their family and friends, Darts Club, the La Posada Hostel crew and all the other wonderful people I met in Santa Teresa. I will be back.

Pura Vida.

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Day 97 – Canyoning, Surfing and Turtles – the good, the bad and the ugly

After eating volcano for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the first few weeks in Central America I was relieved as we headed to lower altitudes. First on the agenda was a trip to Somoto, in the far north of Nicaragua, just a few kilometres from the border with Honduras.

I haven’t yet mentioned the poverty in Nicaragua, but the further we travelled from the main cities, the more evident it became. In the north the ratio of horse-drawn carts to cars was noticeably higher, and the quality of housing deteriorated significantly. We were shocked to see our second dead horse of the trip, in a crumpled heap at the side of the road, seemingly left for the vultures to clear up.

Our family-run accommodation in Somoto was rustic – they had a large selection of poultry on site which was killed and plucked on demand depending on our dinner orders. It was the closest I’ve been to my food and, being rather squeamish for a grown man, I found it a bit of a mental struggle as I tucked into a grilled chicken I had made eye contact with a few hours earlier.

On a lighter note, the chickens spared for egg-laying duties roamed free with the geese and turkeys, climbing up a tree whenever they felt like a nap.

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The Good – Somoto’s Canyoning Cooperative

The main attraction of Somoto is a deep canyon, ‘discovered’ in 2004 by European scientists but known to the indigenous people for millennia as La Estrechura (“the narrow”), and originally formed somewhere between 5 and 13 million years ago.

As a way of sharing the economic benefit of their natural phenomenon, the local communities in Somoto formed a cooperative, distributing the guiding duties evenly between people from the various local villages. In an area with so much poverty this can only be a good thing.

We climbed, swam and jumped our way down the river which runs through the canyon. Despite it being dry season with lower than average water levels the adrenaline flowed as we jumped into the water from a 12m ledge. I didn’t get any photos of that but here are some towers made from rocks. You’re welcome.

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The Bad – My Surfing Abilty

After Somoto we made our way to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur (SJDS), a surfing town well known for its party scene and especially Sunday Funday – an all day ‘pool crawl’ where participants travel between three different pool parties getting increasingly twatted. In a country that is generally cheap for travellers I was impressed by the entrepreneurial instincts of whoever came up with this concept, which essentially involves charging people $40 for a t-shirt. After going too hard on the Saturday night we never made it to Sunday Funday, but this is apparently what it looks like.

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By the time we caught up with the revellers later that night on the beach, the well-behaved Fundayers in the photo above had transformed into swathes of staggering zombies, high on a cocktail of rum, vodka and various other substances unknown, except for the Aussie couple who happily informed us they were on acid as they whirled in and out like a pair of Tasmanian devils.

After making limited progress in the South of France and Spain I was excited to try some surfing in the warm Pacific waters of Central America. With a range of surf spots and consistent-but-not-too-scary waves, SJDS is a good place for beginner surfers, so I grabbed the longest non-foamy board I could find and got amongst it.

While I was able to catch a decent number of ‘green waves,’ the best of my (inauspicious) surfing career thus far, I was still a way off from really getting the hang of it, riding them in a straight line towards the beach, unable to really turn the board at speed. We didn’t get any photos of me surfing, but my efforts were broadly as successful as Andy’s attempts at a yoga headstand.

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It was clearly time for a lesson. I followed our Rule Number One of Surf Club, which was to find a deeply tanned instructor with hair to chin level or below. Tony was my 22 year old mentor; he gave me some useful tips on technique and, crucially, how to read waves, but seemingly to no avail as my abilities deteriorated – the conditions were sub-par, but so was my surfing.

As the waves got bigger and the wind blew harder I ate an increasing number of ‘salt sandwiches,’ spending a few precious seconds on the board before Mother Nature sent me cartwheeling underwater. Like a trainee pilot amassing flying hours I hoped that my perseverance would eventually pay dividends, but after another 4 days in the water it just wasn’t happening. On the plus side, we did some excellent synchronised jumping.

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More Good – Turtle Hatching

A few miles down the road from SJDS is Playa Hermosa, an epic, windswept and largely deserted beach that stretches as far as the eye can see towards Costa Rica. On the first night I spent in the Playa Hermosa Ecolodge I was one of only two hotel guests, sharing an incredible view of a clearly illuminated Milky Way with only the geckos, turtles, and a German bloke called David.

The Ecolodge is active in its protection of the turtles that lay their eggs on the local beaches, taking some eggs for safe keeping and hatching before releasing the baby turtles back into the sea.

P1000245 (1)We watched one of these releases, as the lucky little turtles were treated to a beautiful sunset on their first ever swim in the Pacific Ocean.

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The Ugly – Turtle Soup 

In Popoyo, another surf spot to the north of SJDS, I witnessed what would have been one of the most beautiful natural sights I had ever seen, had it not been ruined by a local egg thief. Reclining in a beachfront hammock I noticed a stir and followed a few people down towards the shore, where a large female turtle was struggling up the beach with a full belly. As the fascinating scene unfolded we kept our distance as she dragged herself slowly along the sandbank.

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A local guy was with us, watching intently as she reached her chosen destination and started digging a deep hole. I naively assumed he was there to ensure that none of us disturbed the turtle with our photography efforts, but it soon became apparent that he had a more sinister motive: his breakfast.

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Accepting the sad reality of what was about to happen I made my way back to the hostel; I didn’t want to witness the rest of the proceedings. A German couple were less acquiescent, challenging the man as he picked up the turtle and moved it down the beach.

Their valiant effort was most likely in vain as they reburied 8 of the 60 or so eggs that she laid in a different hole. The man disappeared with the remainder in his t-shirt-basket, leaving a distressed turtle flapping away, trying to refill a non-existent hole.

Perhaps I imagined the sad expression on her face, but the turtle looked genuinely dejected as she eventually made her way back down into the sea, concluding a sad chapter for both turtles and humans.

Maybe this man had a starving family to feed; maybe he was unaware of the turtle’s protected status. We consoled ourselves with the fact that there are many successful conservation efforts going on throughout Nicaragua, and hoped that this was an exception rather than the norm.


Next Stop: Christmas in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

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Day 87 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

In our debrief after the tortuous experience of ascending Las Maderas we realised that the primary source of our disappointment was the lack of any discernible reward at the summit. Had there been something to do or see up there it could have been very different, but climbing a volcano just for the sake of it wasn’t really my idea of fun.

While I had no interest in re-climbing Las Maderas, or climbing any other volcanoes for that matter, that is exactly what we did in the following days, but with much better outcomes. Our subsequent ascents were all undertaken with a specific purpose in mind and, as a result, were much more enjoyable.

First up was a walk to a waterfall about an hour and a quarter of the way up. With our legs still burning from the previous day’s exertions it was a struggle, but the huge blue butterflies flapping alongside us were a source of encouragement as we cut through a majestic gorge.

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The waterfall was just reward for the effort of climbing up, and we were grateful to be bathing in the cold, refreshing cascade, rather than the muddy swamp of the previous day.

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Part III – Partying on a Volcano

Our volcano-based activities took a festive turn the next time we decided to trek up. We went to a ‘pizza party’ at the very cool and organic eco-hostel Zopilote where we were told about another party happening at a secret location on the volcano the following night, in celebration of the coming supermoon.

We packed our bags for the 5.30pm group hike up the volcano but got to the meeting point late and missed the departure by a few minutes. With the next group not ascending until three hours later we returned to our hostel to engage in our favourite pastime – word games. A few rounds of Boggle and Bananagrams were washed down with half a bottle of rum, at which point Andy and I decided we would much rather stay put than climb up that ******* volcano in the dark.

Jolie, to her credit, argued that we could play Boggle anywhere in the world, but we were not anywhere in the world – we were in Nicaragua, about to miss a supermoon party on a volcano. Still not convinced, we compromised by deciding our fate on the toss of a coin. Chance spoke in Jolie’s favour and we made our way up with the 8.30pm group, pumping out tunes on our portable speaker and, for once, enjoying the walk.

As we approached the party we could hear the beats growing louder, and when we finally arrived at the large wooden structure, lit up by the enormous supermoon, we knew immediately that we had made the right decision.

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With another 100 or so people that had made the trek up we partied all night around the blazing bonfire and had an amazing time.

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As the sun rose it illuminated an incredible backdrop, down the valley and across to Ometepe’s other volcano; it was another one of those magical moments of clarity where everything in the universe seemed perfectly aligned.

Part IV – Volcano-boarding

Departing Ometepe a day later than planned, to get over our volcano-party hangovers, we made our way to León in the north of Nicaragua for my birthday festivities. With our faith in volcano-based activities restored we signed up to volcano-boarding on a small, freshly-formed (‘fresh’ in that it first appeared in 1850), active and aptly named volcano Cerro Negro (‘black hill’).

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On a gusty 45 minute hike up we struggled to stay upright with our boards strapped to our backs, but the walk was again worth it with 360 degree views of Nicaragua’s diverse landscape stretching out for miles in every direction.

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The volcano-boarding itself was enjoyable but not quite the adrenaline rush we had expected, at least in part due to our cautious approach and generous application of the brakes (our heels) on the way down. Fearful of the stories we had heard about broken arms and other such injuries, we later found out that a guy in another group that day had been hospitalised, requiring a lot of work to remove volcanic grit from his face.

Happy to be physically intact as our volcano adventures finally came to an end, we staged a spontaneous karaoke session in the minibus back and sang our hearts out to the delight of our guide and bewilderment of the many local Nicaraguans who heard us along the way. Boggle, Bananagrams, a delicious Polish-Sri Lankan fusion dinner and a salsa club followed to round off an excellent birthday celebration.

After an inauspicious start I will look back fondly to the time we spent on Nicaraguan volcanoes. It is often said that there is no success without sacrifice, and on at least 3 of our 4 trips up their treacherous slopes the reward was absolutely worth the effort. Maybe as time passes I will change my views on our first ascent of Las Maderas, but for now I’m just delighted to be heading to the beach.


Next Stop: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (via Somoto)

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Day 85 – Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts I and II)

After an aborted trip to the southeastern tip of Nicaragua (due to a bridge which appeared on the map but not on the river we had hoped to cross), the next stop on our Grand Tour was Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua formed by two majestic volcanoes.

Active as recently as 2012, Concepción (on the left) is the aggressive elder sibling, peaking at 1610m, while Las Maderas, its deceptively cute little sister, reaches a mere 1394m, still a good 50m higher than anything in the UK. Topped by cloudy toupées they are imposing yet serene from a distance, and increasingly ominous the closer you get.

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We made our way to the island by crossing Lake Nicaragua on a small ferry, grateful for an uneventful journey as they handed out life jackets in anticipation of a rough crossing.

We navigated straight for the southern tip of Ometepe in our trusty steed, the affectionately named ‘Suzi,’ a tiny Suzuki Alto with the power of a mid-sized lawnmower. Suzi is the kind of car you’d buy for your partially-sighted grandmother, for damage limitation purposes, and was ill-suited for Ometepe’s steep gradients, potholes, ‘puddles’ of unknown depth and scattered rocks of the jagged, puncture-causing variety.

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Having already lost one wheel to Nicaragua’s roads we were extra cautious, sputtering along just above walking pace, but made it safely to Finca La Magia, our home for the next two nights.

Part I – The Bottom of a Volcano 

I’ve got a lot of good things to say about the bottom of (inactive) volcanoes. At an altitude of 50m, Finca La Magia is a secluded, verdant rural retreat, positioned on the lower slopes of Las Maderas which looms in the background. Taking the large thatched pagoda-cottage-hut for around $10 a night each we were glad to be off the beaten track as we tucked into a healthy, home-grown dinner.

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It was at this dinner that we met Anna, a diminutive Spanish traveller from the rural outskirts of Barcelona, who suggested that we join her on a trek up the volcano the following day. She had hired a guide, which would be cheaper if shared among four people – simples. We warmed to Anna and enthusiastically signed up.

From our brief conversation with Anna I got the impression that we were going on a 4 hour hike (2 hours each way) for a swim in a beautiful freshwater laguna on the volcano. While some of those words (such as ‘volcano’ and ‘hike’) were accurate, the sentence as a whole bears very little resemblance to what ensued.

It would be easy to blame our misinformation on the language barrier, but really it was our complete lack of research or questioning that got us into the subsequent mess.

 Did we stop to ask Anna why the walk was due to start at 5am? Nope.

– People leave early to give themselves time to complete the 10 hour round trip before dusk

Did we check any reviews? Noooo.

– It recently became illegal to climb the volcanoes without a guide due to ‘too many deaths’ 

Did we ask about suitable footwear? Another no.

– I wore my Gump-branded Nike Flyknits, barely suitable for a brisk walk into town let alone a 1400m volcano ascent

Did we pack sufficient sustenance for a hike of this nature? Of course not.

– We each took a single cheese sandwich and a litre of water 

Part II – Climbing a Volcano

Negotiating the 5am start back to a leisurely 7.30, we departed at around 8am, still not realising that we had a whole day of trekking ahead.

We met our guide, who spoke no English and potentially no Spanish as he spared the pleasantries and started walking. Puffing on a cigarette he had the distinct air of not giving a shit, which soon proved to be an accurate description of his approach to guiding. Not knowing his actual name we christened him the Little **** as he blazed up the volcano with no discernible interest in our location or well-being.

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The hike started at a blistering pace as we left another group far in our wake. The Little **** and Anna (who turned out to be a mountain goat, not a human) almost ran up the path, closely followed by Jolie (a half-human, half-goat creature, think Mrs Tumnus), with Andy and me trying to look composed as we struggled to keep up.

The Little **** paused occasionally but would get going as soon as we caught him, meaning there were very few rest breaks in our ascent. Having set off late we knew we were behind schedule, but this pace was ridiculous and surely unsustainable. Apparently not. This view from half an hour in was approximately where my enjoyment of the day ended.

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As the sweat poured off us and our breathing grew louder, Andy and I exchanged bewildered glances as, one hour into our hike, we were knackered, the climb was getting steeper and the pace was not relenting.

We decided to ask how much further there was to go.

It was apparently another 3 hours to the top, and the terrain was about to get a lot more challenging. This was a very disappointing answer for at least 2 members of the group, who had expected to be at least half way to the crystal clear blue laguna by now, soon to be tucking into a cheese sarnie and turning around for the gravity-assisted journey home.

This precipitated our first discussion regarding ‘expectations management.’ Had we expected a 4 hour sprint up a volcano we might have been pleased with our progress thus far. To be told at this stage that we were effectively about a quarter of the way up felt like a punch in the stomach.

As we finally entered the cloud cover at the upper reaches of Las Maderas the temperature dropped, visibility reduced and our hike became a climb. With the Little **** far in the distance and the path barely perceptible we did our best to keep moving in the right direction as we climbed between fallen trees and crossed exposed ledges.

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Things got properly sketchy as we approached a 5m vertical cliff which could only be ascended by rope. With the increasingly treacherous conditions we were all a bit nervous (Little **** and mountain goat aside), as the reward for slipping on a muddy ledge or letting go of that rope was quite likely to be death, with steep precipices greeting us on every side.

By this stage my Nike Flyknits were covered in mud and utterly useless, meaning I had to adopt a Gollum-inspired climbing technique, trying to keep as many points of contact with the floor as possible.

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We finally made it to the summit, with exquisite views of about 10 metres in every direction. As a special reward for our efforts the Little **** told us it was another hour’s hike if we wanted to see the laguna. Ummm what?

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The mountain goat frolicked with glee at the prospect of another two hours of fun, Mrs Tumnus pulled a sympathetic but unconvincing frown, while Andy and I did our best to facially describe how we felt about the day so far.

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We’d eaten most of our sandwiches by this stage and drunk most of our water. In another example of the disparity between expectations and reality we asked the Little **** whether the water in the laguna was drinkable. He chuckled and shook his head.

Descending one final rock face we expected a breathtaking, clear laguna, the pinnacle of the journey and the reason we were all there, but were instead met by a shallow, muddy bog. Gallows humour prevailed as we waded into the deep mud, gave ourselves volcanic face masks and emerged like sexycute monsters of the deep.

P1000115We met another group at the lake who looked relatively unfit but strangely composed. They were not covered in mud and none of them were about to break into tears. Talking to them, we discovered there was an ‘easier way’ and a ‘harder way’ up the volcano: we had taken the latter.

After a day in which the goalposts had been repeatedly moved further away, Andy and I saw this for what it was – our one shot at redemption. Negotiations started immediately.

Looking to me for support, Andy suggested to the Little **** that he and I follow the other group’s guide down the easier route, leaving the goat-humans to go down the hard way. The Little **** warned us that we would have to pay the second guide an additional fee, at which point my fight or flight reflex kicked in and suddenly I spoke decent Spanish, successfully explaining “Venderiá mi abuela para tomar la ruta fácil” that I would sell my grandmother to avoid taking the hard route back down (sorry Nanna, I knew it wouldn’t come to that).

We decided not to split the group; Mrs Tumnus required a little arm twisting and the Spanish mountain goat was visibly disappointed but the Little **** acquiesced and we took the easier route back down.

The easier route soon turned out to be a misnomer, at least for me as I slipped and stumbled down, grabbing onto whatever sturdy looking vines, branches and roots I could find to reduce the load on my trainers, which were now soaked through and functioning like muddy ice skates.

I took a couple of sharp branches to the face, fell over too many times to count and at one point straddled a tree with one leg either side, barely preserving the Jones family jewels.

We finally made it down to the lower, flatter slopes of the volcano, and saw some beautiful nature along the way, such as this smiley faced butterfly, and some enormous trees.

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At the bottom of the mountain, Mrs Tumnus changed back to Jolie and proclaimed, non-sarcastically “that was fun, wasn’t it?” When Andy and I looked at her in horror replying “no” she relented with “yeah but do you feel a sense of achievement?” At that point, no not really – we were just delighted that it was over.

Looking back on this it is pretty cool to think that we climbed a volcano, higher than anything in the UK, despite being completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the task. Every time we see Las Maderas in the distance I feel a reluctant but tangible sense of achievement. But did I enjoy it? Absolutely not!


Next stop: Volcanoes, Four Ways (Parts III and IV)

What is The Gump Method

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