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.

Happy Ending

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 53 – The King of Bilbania 

Word of the day

Chartreuse

A pale colour between yellow and green, named after the French liqueur (and David Hirtz’s favourite alcoholic beverage) Chartreuse


Blog roll

The internet has agreed that there are approximately 2 million new blog posts written every day. Ridiculous. Let’s assume they’re all written in English, averaging 500 words each (totally made up number): that’s a billion words a day.

Since I never read more than a few thousand blog words in a day, some of which are my own, I am unqualified to judge the calibre of the blogging masses. I imagine every blog has at least one dedicated and delighted reader (its creator), but considering the amount of dross in the media, penned by people who are paid to write words, I can’t help but compare this high volume of blog output to the notorious ‘long drop’ toilets at Glastonbury. While many festival-goers drop something useful, namely toilet paper, into the gruesome cesspits and occasionally something really valuable is dropped, like a beloved piece of jewellery, they’re mostly just big piles of shit.

glasto-long drop

As 21st centurions we are lucky to have the knowledge and understanding of humanity accessible online, but with so much ‘content’ and so little time (even when travelling) we need to be more selective than ever about what we choose to read.

Whether you think my blog roll is full of crap or that I’m churning out nuggets of a different colour, my intention has always been to post only when I have something to say, rather than just blogging for the sake of it.


Bilbao

After a disappointing 24 hours in the Basque Country’s most populous city, with just a few hours of daylight remaining before an early morning departure, I had already decided not to write about Bilbao as I had nothing much to say.

Yes, the Guggenheim museum is an architectural masterpiece and there were a couple of decent Picassos knocking about elsewhere, but I’m no art critic and, after an extremely underwhelming hostel experience, I chose not to threaten anyone’s time or good mood with a negative post.

Guggenheim

Then an Albanian man called Vissi offered me a satsuma and it all changed.


Albania 

Before we get to Vissi I need to sketch out my first day in Bilbao’s Pil Pil Hostel, starting with its 12 bed, men-only dorm. When empty, the room had the aesthetic of a psychiatric ward. When full, it developed the fetid stench of a post-match locker room.

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Its inhabitants seemed to be suffering from a variety of ailments: snifflers and sneezers gave way to loud snorers and sleep-talkers as the lights eventually went off – there was no way I was getting my 8 hours and I hardly slept at all.

During a silent breakfast the following morning the assembled zombies munched on cereal and avoided eye contact. I realised how lucky I had been in Biarritz and San Sebastián, internally declaring my hostelling love affair to be over. Cause of death: sleep deprivation and smelly feet. RIP, which is what I hoped to be doing in my private Airbnb bedroom in Madrid.

With a couple of drunk guys talking and slamming locker doors at 2am the noise was really bothering me and one group of lads in particular was getting on my tits. Ever-present in the hostel, cooking and talking loudly in a language I couldn’t pinpoint, they came across as brash and mildly obnoxious. This hostile assessment was all about my lack of sleep and nothing to do with them.

Until mid-afternoon I stayed in the communal area reading, dreading my second night in the battery farm and wishing these lads would be quiet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and, as I sat there minding my own business, one of them smiled and offered me a satsuma.

I gratefully accepted, ate it (and another two), exchanged names with Vissi then remembered I had a couple of beers in the fridge as we embarked on a silent game of bilingual Chinese Whispers using Google Translate. One of my opening gambits was intended as a mildly humorous compliment:

“You’re a good cook – that pork you made yesterday looked tastier than my pot noodle”

Whether it was the choice of words or the technology, this rapidly escalated into what I thought was a decision to cook together later that day.

I told Vissi I was going out but would be back in time for food, depending on when he wanted to eat. That message clearly didn’t get across as intended, he asked if I was hungry (answer: yes) and suggested that we go to the supermarket together.

I held the basket and Vissi led the charge, navigating the aisles instinctively. The first of our three arguments came at the checkout: he insisted on paying but I ripped away his banknote, replacing it with my own in the hand of the perplexed cashier. Fifteen love.

The second disagreement regarded who would carry the shopping. Vissi demanded that I give the bag to him, I initially declined, but he insisted and I gave way. Fifteen all.

This scene unfolded entirely through body language with smiles, frowns, head-shakes and finger-points serving our communicative purposes.

It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and Vissi had carefully prepared the meal that I realised what was going on: he had already eaten lunch and was cooking just for me. What an absolute dreamboat.

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Vissi wasn’t travelling alone and desperate to make friends – he was staying in the hostel with his cousin Gazmend. He was just being nice.

Our third dispute was over the washing up. This time I refused to back down. While the argument battle ended 2-1 in my favour it was a Pyhhric victory as Vissi had already won the war.

We cooked another delicious meal as a three for dinner and communicated later that night in the universal language of Oktoberfest. I was sceptical at first but no one in Bilbao gave una mierda that it was November, the German four piece band absolutely smashed it and we had a brilliant night.

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Bilbania

I learnt a few things in the day I hung out with Vissi.

The first is cheesy but worth saying: whether it’s a pizza slice in Biarritz or a satsuma in Bilbao, small acts of kindness open doors and start friendships.

Vissi’s kindness and generosity were palpable in every movement he made, from the way he interacted with the supermarket checkout lady to sharing his last bit of pork chop at the dinner table. While language helps us to communicate, I learnt from Vissi that you can be a great lad without saying a word.

In an effort to bridge a language gap as wide as the Grand Canyon I also learnt a couple of Albanian words, namely faleminderit (thank you) and, of course, gëzuar (cheers).

I learnt that avocados, a brunch staple in New York and London, clearly haven’t made it to Albania yet, as Vissi and Gazmend prodded the creamy, chartreuse flesh with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.

The final, and by far most entertaining, thing that I learnt was that Vissi cannot do the YMCA. We were a few beers down and my one-handed directions clearly weren’t helping but it was so funny and endearing, the three of us watched it repeatedly that night and it gets better every time.

Despite all the beautiful holiday destinations in the world, for me it is nearly always the people you meet, rather than just the places themselves, that make experiences memorable. For that reason I will always remember Bilbao as Bilbania, and Vissi as its King.


Next stop: Madrid

What is The Gump Method

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Day 50 – San Sebastián

Whether Chaucer or someone else coined it, the proverb Time and tide wait for no man has been around for hundreds of years. Raising my bat to celebrate a shunemployed half century I now understand it better than ever.

Managing a travel day, like managing a workday, is all about prioritisation. The difference is that at work there is usually a clear winner for what you should be doing.  There is no “should” when travelling; there is only “do and do not” (thanks Yoda) and options are limitless.

While I’m enjoying my freedom it’s easy to get sidetracked; time is only on your side if you force it to be. After 4 days of pancake-flat water at a renowned surf spot I’ve realised there’s not much I can do about the tide.


Time 

Shunning the structure of the working week I anticipated an abundance of ‘me time;’ I would be gaining 40 plus hours each week, surely resulting in time aplenty for my stated travel objectives and other favoured but neglected pastimes such as reading, sitting and Netflix.

That assumption proved naive:

  1. A pleasant but unforeseen effect of publicising my shunemployment was a succession of coffees, lunches and nights out. It was brilliant catching up with so many friends, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, but it’s no surprise that retirees wonder how they ever had time to work.
  2. Time evaporates when travelling. Days not filled with activities are spent researching destinations, arranging transport and accommodation. Personal time can be hard to come by, especially when sharing a bedroom with 11 people.
  3. To top if off I’ve been writing this blog which takes forever. I just hope someone out there appreciates the lack of spelling misteaks.

As a result my first 50 days have whizzed by, I’m still only 71% of the way through Sapiens and haven’t watched a single minute of Stranger Things 2.


Tide

With the Biarritz surf scene approaching its annual low tide I made the short trip across the border to San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basque Country locals. Famed for its culinary scene, San Seb boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other European city, an almost unmatched selection of pintxo (tapas) bars and a surf season that extends a couple of weeks beyond its French neighbour.

I rocked up at the Etxea Surf Hostel next to San Seb’s premier surf spot, Zurriola Beach, increasingly conscious of the need to spend my time on things I actually want to do, like surfing. In the lounge area an American guy was freestyling on the guitar. He was a strong musician but a dubious lyricist:

I smoked a bunch of joints, in the morning and the night,

I smoked so many joints, most I’d had in my life. 

Listening to Johnny Hash did not feature anywhere on my to do list so, in line with my new views on time management, I left him to it.

The hostel turned out to be incredibly social with a great atmosphere. While this photo taken on night one by a local bike saddle suggests I was escorting my nieces and nephews to the nearest skate park, the age range in the hostel turned out to be quite broad.

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Despite a few travellers in their 30’s I was clearly the oldest guest until the perfectly named and excellent human being Jerry Valentine spared me that honour.

Jerry is a very young 55 year old retiree from New Jersey who spends his time either chasing waves or saving lives at Avalon beach on America’s Jersey Shore. Give him a high five from me if you see him next summer.

Avalon swimmers will feel extra safe with Crawford, who lifeguards at the same beach, on duty. Stacked like shelves, the de facto fourth Hemsworth brother combines with Jerry, 35 years his senior, to form an unlikely but perfectly balanced travel partnership.

Last but not least is Sebastien – Chile’s answer to Steve Stifler and my first official new BFF – a surfer, skateboarder and future Warren Buffett. Being hilarious in a second language is a skill I do not possess but value highly and the Stifmeister has it in abundance.

I’ll let you guess who is who in the photos below.

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Rather than maximising personal time I took the opportunity to hang out with this crew, which swelled and ebbed as others rolled in and out of town. We were not collecting Michelin stars but enjoyed the rest of what San Sebastián has to offer.

We walked everywhere, taking in the beautiful scenery both in the city and its surrounding hills. We drank Spanish wine, local cider and monster G&Ts. We think we enjoyed but don’t really remember a couple of 5am finishes at the entertaining but creepy dabadaba.

Dabadaba

One thing we did not do a lot of was surfing. One surfable day out of five was a poor return but I was encouraged to catch a couple of clean waves; a glimmer of hope.

Not surfing freed up plenty of time to live like locals, eating delicious and reasonably priced pintxos. To contextualise the brilliance of this city may I introduce Bar Sport.

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If you were to put Bar Sport on Old Street roundabout in London it would contain a selection of strippers and people wanting to knock you out. In San Seb it’s a fine culinary establishment serving exquisite pintxos while Real Madrid entertain on TV.

(Vegans please look away now)

Goat cheese with jamon and chutney, crabmeat vol-au-vent, pig trotter and mushroom fritter, sirloin steak with piquito peppers, foie gras on toast, king prawns on a stick, squid stuffed with crab and two glasses of Rioja for €25.

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It was absolutely banging; I can only imagine the culinary wonders available in this city for those willing to spend serious euros.

Despite the lack of surf in San Seb there was plenty to do (and eat) over 5 days and I would highly recommend a visit. Whether you have time and cash to burn or just want to escape for the weekend on a tight budget, a trip to San Sebastián is both time and money well spent.


Next stop: Bilbao

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