Tuesday, November 06, 2007


"At the present, our whole thought process is telling us that we have to keep our attention here. You can't cross the street, for example, if you don't. But consciousness is always in the unlimited depth which is beyond space and time, in the subtler levels of the implicate order. Therefore, if you went deeply enough into the actual present, then maybe there's no difference between this moment and the next. The idea would be that in the death experience you would get into that. Contact with eternity is in the present moment, but it is mediated by thought. It is a matter of attention."

- Bohm

Monday, November 05, 2007

Language, the Word Virus

Q: Do you think there is a word for everything? Do you think there is stuff which doesnt have a name yet, or there isn't a word for?

A: I think you have to change the question: words are a replacement for, rather than a reflection of what they attempt to describe. Language is the greatest barrier between us and what we experience: as soon as we put a name to something we change it, and as soon as you start thinking about life in terms of language you negate its objective qualities: its everythingness. Words take on their own identity, ultimately usurping the very thing they were intended to represent. Burroughs called it the 'Word Virus'.

"My general theory......has been that the Word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with it's human host....The Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of a virus: it's an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself."

Think about why writing is so effective: is it because the words literally contain meaning, or because of what they stimulate in you? Everyone interprets everything differently, and all language is ultimately inadequate.

So, in a word.

Friday, May 25, 2007

San Agustin and the Mayan Calendar

Short story submission for the Bradt Travel Guides Travel Writing competition 2007

The fire crackled and licked, conversing wordlessly with the crystal messengers in the night sky above. I had gathered the wood myself, erecting a teepee of twigs over a humble candle flame until a ravenous fire took shape. We sat around it under the stars, my teacher Ernesto beating a drum softly, chanting the words of the shamans. His strangely distorted voice echoed out into the darkness as a huge fireball burst across the sky, startling me with its brilliance. It looked like a spaceship crashing to earth; the most unearthly Christmas of my life.

A week earlier I was wandering down a muddy, sun-scorched path to the Pelota archaeological site, blissfully unaware of the surreal turn my journey was about to take. The warm-hearted people and simmering political undercurrent of Colombia had given me a wonderful taste of South America, but it wasn´t until I reached the south that I discovered the place that was to have the biggest impact on me: San Agustin.

An oasis of tranquility, the cosy town´s environs were all dirt tracks, low-lying mountains and elusive, unique archaeological sites: one-of-a-kind in a country with very little indigenous presence. After six days of relaxation I set out on a long walk to the Pelota - a set of standing stones excavated from the neighbouring hillside, daydreaming of Mayan and Inca temples. Arriving lethargic and craving good coffee, I entered the cafe next door and sat beneath the shade of a deck umbrella.

A long-haired guru sat in the shade of the veranda, surrounded by colourful, arcane charts. He glanced in my direction, stood up and lurched towards me with a huge grin on his face holding a chart. "Would you like to know your Mayan sign?" he said, his accented voice musical. "How much does it cost?" I asked cautiously. "Nothing," he said, still grinning from ear to ear. Taking my birthdate, he sat behind his desk intent on some kind of formula, his long hair framing his Hispanic features. I soon discovered that I was Yellow Rhythmic Seed, or ´Uac Kan´ in Mayan.

Introducing himself as Ernesto, the maestro produced various scraps of paper bearing Spanish explanations of my sign´s characteristics. It seemed that this was no mere tourist attraction: this was a place of Mayan study. “You know what the Mayans called themselves?" he asked rhetorically as we sat shaded from the hot morning sun. "Earth wizards. They believe they came to this planet to improve it. In 2012 much change will occur, the Earth is getting ready to do some exercise.”

For the next three hours Ernesto and his companions taught me the workings of the Mayan calendar: the 13 months of 28-day cycles perfectly synchronised with the lunar and solar orbits, the Tzolkin key, the spellwaves of the body and the order of the 20 elemental seals of creation. We invite people to stay with us and learn," he told me at the end of our chat. "Some people stay for seven days, others stay for 28 days. It is up to you." He showed me around the guest cabin: beautiful, secluded and rustic. Unable to resist, I decided to stay a week.

We spent much of the following seven days slumped in hammocks, discussing the Mayan schools´ beliefs; their goal was to reharmonise with the planet by synchronising with the natural cycles of the Mayan Calendar. We collected water, we gathered wood; on Christmas Eve we conducted the fire ceremony, a test of my hunter-gatherer mettle, scattering ashes soaked in sacred oil.

On my last day, Ernesto took me across town to another ranch. He had something important to show me. Making our way up a dirt path we emerged into a small field with rough, ploughed furrows. Ernesto excitedly explained that this was their main project, their path toward self sufficiency. I made approving noises but sensed his disappointment that I didn´t share his enthusiasm; I had been expecting something more than a small patch of farmland – perhaps a crashed UFO.

Later that night, Ernesto announced that we would be watching a documentary about the Mayan prophecies. As we sat waiting for the show to begin, Ernesto appeared behind me. "Would you like to see something interesting?" he said. I walked out onto the balcony and followed his gaze toward a mesmerising light, flashing red, green and blue in the night sky over nearby Pitalito. I couldn´t believe my eyes. "I asked a question at the fire ceremony,” Ernesto said gravely, “that is their response."

I´ll never forget the feeling of that moment, nor the day that I left the ranch, Ernesto´s words echoing in my ears as I walked up the path: "Remember, you are welcome to stay with us. When you decide to return, the doors of the time ship will be open."

Friday, May 11, 2007

Metro Blog Awards

Well, well! Since returning from South America I have been randomly informed by a friend that this site made it to the Brit Blog Awards 07 shortlist for best travel blog! Madness! Especially as no one from the Metro newspaper found the time to inform me; if it weren't for the tip-off I would never have known...


Anyway, watch this space for more on Colombia - you can take the boy out of South America but you can't take South America out of the blog...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Befuddlement on the Caribbean Coast

Please indulge my lengthy words once again and spare me no ire. I write this latest instalment from Puerto Varas, Chile where I´m staying with an old companion from the Camino de Santiago (a pilgrimage I walked back in 2002). Soon I´ll return to Argentina for the last leg of my trip and spend a good few weeks in Buenos Aires; much Spanish to be learnt, much steak to be eaten, much wine to be drunk...

Before making the trip here I travelled south from Bolivia into Argentina via Salta (beautiful colonial city), Cordoba (cosmopolitan and largely dull), Mendoza (heart of Argentina's wine country, and hearty the wine certainly is), and finally Bariloche - faded lakeside holiday town for Argentina´s elite, full of logs and chocolate. Very Swiss. And yet my journal is still stranded at the beginning of my trip, in the mythical lands of Colombia. Already my memories of that time are being obscured by clouds of nostalgia, and I'm starting to worry that I'll never catch up with myself - nay, I know I never will - but the thoughts and feelings are numerous and complex and the words never sufficient. But as ever, indulge me...

To Taganga

Leaving Shaun sniffing pale and squalid in the doorway of the Macondo hostel, I bid him and the Australians farewell, filled with a desire to learn jangly blues guitar after the nights spent listening to Ant`s affected Southern drawl and expert fingerwork. Earlier that day I´d visited the beautiful Parque Naturale, a small eco-park with paths linking incredible prehistoric trees and babbling streams that ran directly into a river that somewhat resembled the Mekong Delta. I sat for a while in an atrium and thought about teradactyls, a pleasant last few moments before going back on the road.

Jumping onto the first night bus at hand with minutes to spare, Debbie and I started our 12-hour journey up north to Santa Marta. This was to be my first experience with the face-numbing 'aire condicionado' prevalent on all long-distance Colombian buses. Like many aspects of Colombian society, the enthusiasm of the populace seems to exceed the logical benefits of modern technology - hence, any new innovation is milked beyond reasonable measure. If there`s even a slight trace of warmth or humidity in the air, you can guarantee the bus will be overwhelming, unstoppably, inhumanly cold. Why do they do this? Why are they incapable of moderating the temperature to a pleasant, balanced state? Do they do it out of spite? These questions, and many others, will forever be at the back of my mind.

So, my coach to Santa Marta started out mildly frigid and rapidly became a travelling freezer. Even after swaddling myself with the extra layers stored in my day bag and wrapping my head in a scarf, my nose was numb and my extremities incapable of circulating blood. Plus, the porter on that particular coach was an angry little tick who regarded everyone with a look of long-suffering hatred, stalking resentfully up and down the bus without doing anything productive, perspiring with the sweat of those doomed to a life of subservience.

To make matters worse, after finally managing to drift into a super-cooled state of hibernation we were rudely awakened by the porter who demanded our tickets and babbled something about Santa Marta. Debbie immediately assumed that our bags had been stolen. We left the bus and, dazed and confused, looked about us at our surroundings. The bus had stopped at a petrol station on a dusty main road in the middle of nowhere. The dense humidity hit us like a wet blanket as we stepped out of the bus, and we were immediately surrounded by predatory, feral taxi drivers who almost started a fight with the porter over our fare (his angry facade finally cracked and he started to look genuinely fearful). It seemed that they´d forgotten to wake us at Santa Marta, continuing for 26 kilometres beyond the town and had only just realised their mistake.

The angry shouting became a cacophony; Debbie began to quake silently beside me in fear of imminent death and destruction. Too spaced out to care about the violent atmosphere, I asked the porter what the hell we were supposed to do. He jabbed at the closest taxi driver and told him to take our bags, which he did - grabbing them roughly and tying them with string to the rack on top of his rusting, decrepit, almost totally defunct car. The other drivers, mostly dressed in shabby trousers and vests took umbridge at this and started shouting at each other, at us, at the porter and finally at Dios himself, but before an orgy of violence could ensue we were shoved into the taxi and swept away in the early morning heat, back towards Santa Marta.

The environment had transformed completely. Apart from the Caribbean climate, the landscape was tropical; palm trees dotted the fields and riversides as low-lying mountains grew larger on the horizon through a haze of moisture. I saw it all through red-rimmed eyes and painful fatigue. Another couple got into our taxi: a spiv sporting a striped shirt and a freakish-looking women with terrible skin and eyes spread far apart like a snail`s, obviously a match made in heaven.

Eventually we arrived in Santa Marta and dropped the odd couple at their hotel, continuing directly to Taganga, the neighbouring seaside village recommended as a traveller`s alternative to the more 'upmarket' Santa Marta - ironic, considering that Santa Marta resembled a French seaside town after a cluster bomb attack. Tacky hotels everywhere, streets badly maintained and architecture lacklustre. I was surprised, especially after the many glowing recommendations I`d received from Colombians (including a girl I`d met in Bristol), describing Santa Marta as a `beautiful`, premium holiday spot. As far as I could tell, there was nothing picturesque about the place whatsoever - except perhaps for the garish posters advertising travelling circuses, shows and suchlike, and the ever-present political graffiti. There was a sea front but its glory was faded and forlorn, the streets shabby and strewn with dirt. It was early though, and I wasn´t feeling overly receptive.

Our driver wasted no time after the spiv had finally found his change, and we began wending our way to the outskirts of town, crossing a railway track that sat incongruously on an elevated surface that ran down the middle of what was now a dirt road. Our taxi bumped and rocked as it crossed the tracks and we were suddenly driving down the narrow streets of a slum; bare-chested latinos strolled about aimlessly, children played in the dirt, and in a moment of unspoken synergy myself and Debbie both had the morbid impression that we were being driven somewhere very scary and undesirable. But our fears were, as on many occasions in Colombia, unjustified. Soon were on a sealed coastal road and the sudden view of an unspoilt, fantastically tranquil little village nestling in a small bay raised our spirits. Taganga.

Pulling into the town, the taxi driver asked some locals for directions to our hostel, La Casa de Filipe, and we were soon pulling up to the main gate. Taganga is a small, rustic town with rough dirt roads and a beach front crowded with cafes, restaurants and dive schools; it felt relaxed and sleepy, a place where the pace never rises above a stoned amble. Located at the far end of the village close to dense, sloping foliage, the hostel had a natural view of the sea. The air felt even heavier with lethargy inspiring humidity, and after paying off the taxi driver (Debbie objected to the cost, claiming we were being ripped off despite the pitifully low fee), we lugged our bags inside. I was very tired.

My Spanish failed me as I tried to talk to the receptionist, but she made it clear that there were no beds available at present and we´d have to wait. Outside, the patio was patterned with wooden tables and hammocks. There was hardly any breeze. It felt eerily reminiscent of Koh Phangan, Thailand and my subconscious started to throw up odd flashbacks to my arrival at Thong Nai Pan Oi beach three years previously.

Debbie bought breakfast for herself while I was enquiring about the Ciudad Perdida trek inside, and when I came out they´d stopped serving. This annoyed me somewhat. I did, however, get a free passion fruit juice that came vaguely close to almost bringing me out of my walking coma. The women working at the cabana bar were one-country removed from the people of Bogota and San Gil - obvious Caribbean influence resonated in both their faces, physiques and dark skin. Another backpacker sat at a table nearby attempting to eat a breakfast, looking hungeover and haggard.

I sat and looked in my bag for the copy of ´Breakfast at Tiffany´s´ I was halfway through reading, but realised with a burst of frustration that I`d left it tucked into the back of a chair when we´d been rushed off the coach (I was roughly 50 pages in and still haven´t been able to find another copy). I took out my copy of ´The Yage Letters´ as Debbie quietly ate her breakfast but couldn´t focus on the words. My mind started to drift back to Bogota, analysing the changing landscape of this journey - I felt like it was taking me a bit longer than usual to get into the swing of things.

On my last day at the Platypus hostel I´d fought a battle of wills with Rocio about meeting up in Taganga within a certain time scale, coming out of the heated discussion with the feeling that I´d compromised my freedom within just five days of starting the trip. Already I was lumbered with this odd, unreadable Israeli girl who claimed she wanted to be a career actress after playing a hooker in an amateur stage production. Her knowledge of cinema was pitiful. It would be fair to say that she was getting on my nerves. I felt dirty and abused by the necessities of long-distance travel; the only saving grace was that I´d remembered to take my toothbrush on the coach with me and didn´t have a mouth like an armpit.

Other people began to appear on the patio and I recognised Christine from the Platypus hostel, a German who, as it turned out, had spent six months working in Romford. Poor girl. We sat and chatted and soon Nezke appeared, looking tall and typically flambuoyant even at this early hour in a dress and thick eyeliner. It seemed that the Bogota massive had already converged on La Casa de Filipe via Cartagena and the western coastal route - I thought about the bar we´d visited on the 40th floor of a high-rise building in the dank Colombian capital city and looked around me bleerily: where was I? How had I come to this crazy Caribbean beach?!

(Incidentally, these kind of meetings are typical of travel throughout South America. Due to the nature of the cross-continental circuit (what the Israelis call waves), people can meet, travel together and encounter one another again in random locations months later. The feeling is that you´re part of a mass exodus, and for my particular wave Jerusalem is Buenos Aires.)

It was 10am and everyone looked wasted, tired, hungover and stoned. I tried to convince Nezke to come on the Ciudad Perdida trek with me thinking that her sizeable personality would guarantee an entertaining trip; we talked for half an hour, me enthusing over the wonders of jungle trekking, and came pretty close to winning her over before discovering that she had absolutely none of the required equipment - not even a pair of shoes. She was a sandal-wearing, louche purveyor of music and whimsy through and through, a child of the moment addicted to her violin and all-night binges. Possibly it was the fact that we´d have to leave early the next morning that put her off.

Soon a room became availabe and we secured our bags. The bathroom smelled like the toilet had been backing up, sickening in the fetid air. Later that afternoon I had a brief meeting with an all-too-smooth and slightly patronising man from the local ´Magic Tours´ office, who spoke to me with a sympathetic, knowing smile and explained what the trek would entail with a map and itinerary list. Knowing the Ciudad Perdida´s reputation I was reluctant to trust anyone involved, suspicious that they were all somehow in cahoots with the Paramilitaries, but I took his word for it. The seven-day looked marginally more challenging so I opted for that option - oh, if only I´d known better...

Rocio soon put in an appearance with Pablo in tow and started to lavish attention on me (much to Pablo´s obvious disdain and my amusement), calling me "the most handsome Englishman I never saw". I´m not sure that Pablo appreciated this - were they really getting on? I sat at a table and talked to some other travellers for a while, lay in a hammock and went for a baguette at a local cafe, Cafe de Maria, which someone had recommended. The night brought on festivities of all kinds, with the inhabitants of the hostel sprawled all over the patio batting away mosquitoes, drinking and smoking dubious substances. Unfortunately, I had to leave the fiesta early wishing that I´d had another day to settle in a bit, and ended up sharing a double bed in a room with three girls - Nezke sprawled on the top bunk opposite and Christine on the bottom. We were all intixocated, but even the three huge fans in the room did very little to dispel the close humidity and my sleep was sweaty and restless.

The next morning I woke up at 9am on the dot and had my bags packed, waiting for the minibus to pick us up at 9:30. Paul and Jess, an English couple that I´d met the previous day were also waiting, and we started to worry that there was something wrong. The bus was taking ages: had we somehow missed it or slept solidly through an entire day? Still heavily sleep deprived, I started to feel quite disorientated, but this being Colombia the bus was simply 45 minutes late. Apologising, they shuttled us to Santa Marta and dropped us off at a hostel where we sat in grand dark wood chairs at an antique coffee table and waited for an hour and a half, initial English awkwardness soon fading into relaxed conversation.

We bought a sickly sweet coffee from a random hobo, thinking that breakfast was included. It wasn´t. My eyelids felt like they were being pulled closed by tiny clockwork elephants, and I felt a sudden urge to lie across the coffee table and drape my limbs wherever they fell, kicking the furniture and abandoning any pretension of sociability. One day I shall live the dream, mark my words...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

From the depths of the jungle it came (Colombia, Part Three)

Avenida Montes, La Paz

I´m peering out of my hostel window over a scene of barely controlled mayhem. A herd of indigenous Aymara city dwellers have ganged together, creating a human cordon across a three-way intersection. Occasionally police on motorbikes turn up, dismount, wander nonchalantly over to the protesters, kiss some of them hello, and then stand around aimlessly watching the screaming motorists. A taxi tries to sneak by the blockade by driving up on the pavement directly below my window, peeping out from behind a tree, and nearly makes a getaway before one of the ringleaders (a woman dressed in typical indigenous shawl and wonky hat) notices and leaps in front of it. Soon it´s surrounded by indignant protesters who all but shove the cab back where it came from.

This is but one of the many highlights of my first day in La Paz, Bolivia´s capital city. There´s a huge festival taking place, the biggest of the year, and the whole town has become a hotbed of Super Soaker-toting nutjobs and children specially trained to lob water bombs at anyone who looks remotely like a gringo. Everyone is a potential enemy - every window a possible snipe position, and I can only venture out into the streets with a raincoat and hope for the best. Fortunately, I look Argentinian/Colombian enough to avoid major-target status, while my two companions (an Irish woman called Kerry and an Australian fella by the name of Mike) take direct hits every 20 seconds. I walk ahead of them, wrapped in my raincoat, and watch as two girls ignore me and pelt them with party foam and water). I laugh a lot.

Later, I see a woman walking towards me through the market with a multi-colour shawl on her back. Indigenous women typically carry their babies this way throughout Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the material securely knotted across their chests. I glance into the shawl as she passes and see, not a baby, but a monkey. Little, beady monkey eyes peering out at me. Furry face contorted in glee. I recoil in shock and awe.

Later, I see eight miners crucified across the windows and pillars of the San Francisco cathedral in the city centre, a huge poster plastered across the exterior proclaiming:

5 meses trabajar sin comida
(5 months´ work without food)

Jump forward a week. I´m not actually in La Paz, I´m in Potosi – the highest city in the world at 4,070m, and home to the once-greatest silver mine in South America´s history. There´s not enough air here and the hostels all smell suspiciously of insect repellent, but I think it really might be all downhill from now on. After this I´m heading onto the ´hallucinogenic´ (Lonely Planet´s wording) salt flats at Uyuni, then onto the wild-west environs of Tupiza and finally, the long-awaited mecca that is Argentina. And steak; monumental, voluminous, indescribable mountains of cheap, cheap steak …

So, having messed with your temporal sensibilities I´ll leap further back in time and regale you further with my travels in Colombia.

I woke up on my first day at the Macondo hostel in San Gil drousy and dirty. The air in the room was stuffy and humid and I´d been disturbed during the night by my traveling companion, Israeli Debbie´s weird, provocative sleep moaning. As I awoke I heard what sounded like blues, something like John Lee Hooker or Kenny Brown, emanating from my neighbours´ room on the second floor outside. Assuming it was a stereo, I wandered out and half-climbed the stairs, peeped over the lip of the floor and discovered that the sound was actually coming from Anthony, who was strumming away to himself as his girlfriend, Christine, sorted through her things. I climbed back down again and went back to my room, feeling like a voyeur.

They were the only guests staying at the Macondo, a cavernous ex-private school with an internal courtyard decorated with hammocks, wicker table and chairs to the right and a large wooden table next to the kitchen at the back. Arriving the night before, we´d gone straight for dinner at the local pizza restaurant – Debbie´s choice, and probably the worst meal I ate in Colombia. I ordered a Hawaiian and received a plate of grilled biscuit dough smeared in pineapple puree, topped with canned ham, mushrooms and bland cheese as white as a fat lady´s thighs. By the end of the meal my plate was a mess of mushy cake fragments and discarded scraps. I considered telling the waitress that I hated her, but decided not to.

Returning to the Macondo, I entered and went straight for the kitchen for water, offering a jovial "Hello" to the couple at the table. Ant watched me pass with an amused, goggle-eyed look - long hair, baseball cap and unkempt beard all present and correct. At first I mistook his unreadable attitude and unblinking, myopic stare for arrogance, but quickly realized that he seemed to find everyone he encountered an object of surrealistic mirth. We spent the night talking Colombian politics with the dreadlocked, oddball Australian owner, Shaun, and the resident language teacher, Flo. Debbie and Christine sat with us at the table and mostly listened.

Both from Perth, Christine and Ant had recently walked the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek in northern Colombia, embarking from Santa Marta, which was where myself and Debbie were headed next. They heartily recommended that I do the seven rather than six-day trek, which I later realized, after naively taking their recommendation, was probably their idea of an amusing practical joke. It turned out to be one of the most physically exhausting experiences of my life (a t this point I was still feeling uncertain about the Ciudad Perdida trek and almost tempted to go directly to Cartagena, but their enthusiasm clinched the decision).

As we sat round the table that night, Ant told us how they´d been sat down by one of the guides on the fourth day of the trek and given what sounded like a politically biased, pro-Paramilitary talk about the events of the mass-kidnapping that occurred at the Ciudad Perdida in 2003. Colombia´s most socially acceptable mass-murderers, the Paramilitaries had supposedly put the boot into the ELN (a rival paramilitary group), and its attempts to extract money from the various Israeli, Spanish, German and British families involved in the kidnapping. You may remember seeing one of the two Englishmen appealing on behalf of the ELN in a pre-recorded video broadcast by the BBC news (upon release, the same bloke admitted that the worst thing about the three-month ordeal was that the kidnappers didn´t understand the offside rule). Incidentally, two Australians - also part of the tour group - were almost kidnapped, but left behind at the last second for being too fat.

Shaun was full of conflicting conspiracy theories about the incident, and indignantly concerned with the plight of Colombia´s inhabitants (as many ex-pats tend to be about matters that they don´t really, actually, quite understand). His overriding belief was that the Ciudad Perdida tour groups receive anti-guerilla protection from the Paramilitaries, and that the official cover story of the kidnapping is a construct of the Colombian media - and a pro-Paramilitary propaganda exercise. Apparently, the Israelis in the group received special attention because of the ELN´s misguided believed that, as military graduates, they would be experts in weapon manufacture. So basically, the kidnapping was about weapons, not money. Or vice-versa. Or neither…?

What this discussion ultimately boiled down to was Shaun´s overriding conviction that by paying for a trip to the Ciudad Perdida, you´re actually giving money directly to the Paramilitaries. Being largely ignorant of guerilla activity in Colombia I had no idea whether this is true, and was inclined to believe that Shaun´s talk was largely paranoid and gratuitously conspiratorial (although when Ant mentioned that the trek included a tour of a working cocaine factory I started to wonder if he didn´t have a point).

Later the conversation turned to the book I was reading: William Burroughs´s ´Yage Letters´ - a search for the healing shamanic drug Ayhuasca on a journey through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Shaun then told us about his own Ayhuasca experience near Iquitos, Peru. Traveling with a friend to the isolated northern jungle city, they gained the confidence of a local shaman and were taken to a stationary floating raft somewhere off the Amazon, ingesting the vine with some other travelers. Without wanting to repulse you with excessive detail, Ayhuasca is famous for making you lose control of your bowels and stomach almost simultaneously – the result being a total cleansing of the body. After enjoying this initial process of total self-abasement, Shaun entered a waking dream populated with spiraling snakes and animal forms; later, he swore that he saw (among other things) the dark silhouette of a boy trying to climb onto the raft. The shaman also saw this thing but somehow managed to keep it at bay (Shaun told us that his younger brother had died when he was still a child, which would be consistent with the indigenous belief that Ayhuasca is a portal to the spirit world).

Later, Shaun returned to Bogota and came down with Lychmenosis - a rare flesh-eating virus that he contracted through sand fly bites during his time in the jungle (on our first night he proudly displayed the nasty scar on his leg where the parasite had eaten through to the bone). The Colombian authorities kept him for almost three months in the hospital, the condition being so rare that few other countries would have known how to treat it. After his release he spent another few months recuperating in an annex opposite the Platypus hospital (where I began my journey), looked after by travelling wunderkind and hostel-owner Germann. Then, with nothing better to do and considerably more time in Colombia under his belt than he`d intended, he opened the Macondo hostel in San Gil. And then came down with Dengi fever. The moral of this story? Answers on an e-card please!

So, after my early-morning musical awakening the next day, the four of us banded together and made our way to the local colonial town of Barichara, a place of undisturbed tranquility and hot, dry sun, where we sampled the local delicacy - grilled Cabra (goat). Afterwards we hiked for an hour and a half to Guane – a minature replica of Barichara that created the peculiar illusion of having walked an impossible circle. Of course we hadn´t - Spanish colonial towns all seem to be the product of one tried-and-tested mold.

The scenery on the way was fantastic; starting at the top of a valley, we descended with a breathtaking view of the mountains on the opposite side, vibrant green in the intense afternoon sun and hazy through the lingering humidity. We encountered a few locals coming the other way along the earthy path, and a tree festooned with old-man´s beard - an ethereal, ghostly white parasite that sprouted from the branches like seasonal decoration.

Returning to San Gil in a local taxi, we ordered what was to be the first of many grilled chicken dinners. Chicken in Colombia is excessively salty, grilled or fried, and always served with papas criolla (boiled potatoes with the skin), rice, a few slices of tomato and a few wedges of boiled yucca - a super-bland root vegetable - a bit like potato - and the staple diet of Colombia.

I seem to remember the rest of our time in San Gil spent mostly eating fruit cocktails in the bustling local produce market, shopping for hats, and trying to work up the motivation to go paragliding. I didn´t of course. I did, however, bask in the natural rock pools, learn Spanish with Flo and the Ozzies, and spend a night at a club with our new friends and patron Shaun (who, after returning to the hostel very drunk later that night, bemoaned his horrible lack of money, success and prospects. He was hugely in debt by Colombian standards and no one, not even his brother, wanted to bail him out). The next day he had the most revolting hangover I`ve ever seen; it hurt to look at him. Even his dreadlocks looked nauseas.

Despite the general oddness of our host`s demeanour, I remember San Gil as beautiful and secluded, with a pristine town square and bemusing excess of trendy shops. From there we took a long night bus to Santa Marta and the neighbouring seaside town Taganga: jumping-off point for the Ciudad Perdida jungle trek...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Colombia - The Second Instalment

Since my last communiqué I´ve been gallavanting across South America like a bison with a rectum full of San Pedro, ducking, diving and avoiding customs officials like some kind of venomous plague. I´m now in Huaraz, Peru, preparing to embark on an epic, ten-day hike known as the Huayhuash trek. Scarily, I have also just discovered that this is the very place where John Simpson (made famous by the incredible docudrama ´Touching the Void´) almost met his maker.

Without wanting to put you off, I´m afraid that this entry may end up acquiring a dimension that may be described as ´large´. Others might call it ´gargantuan´, while still others might attempt a comparison with a long-extinct, elephantine beast (ahem, ´Mammoth´).

So, so, so. Yes. I should start. Where did I get up to? Answers on a postcard. No, no, no. This isn´t right, let´s try again.

Bogota: place of strange contradictions. One street can be lively, modern and vibrant, while the next is deserted, decrepit and devoid of any feeling of life. A grey nothingness. The weather is mostly cold and rainy, and it´s almost impossible to warm up. The air seems to chill to the bone without ever getting really cold. This doesn´t reflect the spirit of the people however; Colombians seem perpetually jolly and optimistic despite the still-precarious balance of their society after years of violenzia, and are incredibly friendly to travelers. In fact, Europeans seem to possess an almost-celebrity status among the youth of the country, who will readily accept you as their new best friend. They are openly reaching out to the world with open palms.

President Uribe seems to have done a good job of appeasing the various guerrilla groups (FARC, Paramilitaries and ELN), and the country appears to be entering a new era of prosperity. Colombians have embraced their newly emerging culture with an almost-alarming disregard for their violent past (and who can blame them?) – hence, Shakira is probably their greatest living national hero. The day before I arrived in Bogota, most of the Platypus crowd had been to see this bastion of Colombian culture shaking her booty at the local arena, and very few were displeased with what they saw.

Another sign of the country´s growing wealth is that many Colombians in their late 20s or 30s have dental braces - presumably because modern dental practice has only become affordable (or available) in the last few years. Men in suits and mature students proudly beam mouthfuls of steel as they pass in the streets and chat in cafes, bringing back contrasting memories of my own experiences at secondary school, suffering such enigmatic nicknames as "train tracks" and "metal mouth". Horses for courses…

Similarly, Bogota and Medellin are now global hotspots for laser eye surgery and cosmetic augmentation. One afternoon when I was relaxing at Hostel Sue with Neske and Jack, an Irish girl walked in looking like she´d just gone one-on-one with Prince Naseem, ran through the courtyard shouting, "Don´t look at me", and locked herself in the bathroom. After ten minutes dousing her eyes with various cleansing fluids and steroid drops, she emerged wearing huge, black sunglasses like a blind Jackie ONassis.

Come to Colombia ! The cheap and cheerful way to better vision…

Did I mention that I ate a lot of steak in Bogota? In retrospect, I´m rather glad that I indulged that particular vice, because the food in Colombia goes from bland and uncompromising to bland and deeply dull. Three food groups seem to exist in the hearts, minds and fields of Colombia: rice, plantains and chicken. Local people are happy to eat this heady combination day after day, with little sign or want of variety or seasoning. Fortunately, I love chicken. I can eat it for breakfast. And so I did, most days that I was in Colombia. Fortunately, their fruit is excellent and makes a laughing stock of anything you can buy in England – especially the mangos. My most enduring memory is of maracuya, a spherical fruit that you crack open to scoop out the insides, which resemble unhatched tadpoles. A very tasty and subtle flavour, somewhat similar to passion fruit, and supposedly very good for the digestion (since writing this entry, I have been helpfully informed that maracuya is in fact passion fruit).

There´s very little else to say about Colombian food, other than that it´s simple, unchallenging and easy on the eyes. The empanadas are great though – if you´ve never had one, think big, stodgy samosas filled with rice and/or potato, chicken and/or beef/dog.

I´m drawn to another memory of my friend Rocio´s Argentinian boyfriend, Pablo. That week at the Platypus was the first time they´d met in the flesh (having originally met on the internet). In keeping with Argentina´s reputation for inordinate cultural pride, Pablo had brought with him a receptacle that looked a little like a giant, stainless-steel eggcup, complete with shiny metal straw. With this marvelous frabtraption he concocted a mouth-numbingly bitter tea (known as maté), which he sat and sipped with superior satisfaction, gaining even greater joy from the looks of revulsion that greeted him every time he offered someone else a sip. "Everyone drinks this in Argentina", he would say, and go back to sipping his bilious slurry like a lord of leisure.

Also that week, my American friend Chris taught me a great song on the guitar, which I have as-yet failed to perfect. It´s called ´Sons de Carrilhões´, written by a fella named João Pernambuco. I´d highly recommend getting hold of a copy if you have a weakness for classical guitar.

But enough of Bogota . After finally agreeing to meet Rocio, Pablo and hopefully Nezke in Taganga on the Caribbean coast, I spent my last day impatiently waiting to leave. I´d decided to see as much of Colombia as possible via a counter-clockwise tour of the country, rather than simply shooting south through Ecuador. There was simply too much to see and do. I was set on trekking to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) near Parque Nacional Tayrona, lured by tantalizing reports of little-known ruins and notorious kidnappings, having seen enough museums and gold-clad churches to last well into the next life.

Incidentally, Bogota has a fantastic gold museum (mostly plundered from small, confused people), and a thriving cultural scene fuelled by the huge student presence. The Botero museum displays bizarre images by Colombia´s most celebrated artist – bloated, spherical people standing in mute poses – along with a surprisingly eclectic collection from artists such as Lucian Freud and Picasso. But I´d had enough of the bars, the MP4 music videos, the trendy bohemian culture, and the 40th-floor penthouse clubs of Bogota. It was time to hit campo.

On my way to San Gil with Israeli Debbie in tow, I was immediately struck by a feeling of liberation – adventure. It took us ages to escape the industrial, concrete grip of the city in our cheap, rickety school bus (Debbie had insisted on taking it because it was cheap), but things rapidly improved as the city fell away and the verdant, rolling countryside took hold. I spent six solid hours staring out of the window at the pastoral scenes rolling by, and never got bored.

Incongruous sites along the way included an estate of peculiar, multi-coloured castles resembling a miniature Camalot, set away from the road - the purpose of which shall forever remain a mediaeval-latino mystery. Later we drove past a peculiar circular diner that would have perhaps felt at home in the middle of a cheap British theme park, set on the lip of a beautiful valley, completely deserted and impotent. Here and there, I spotted a few indigenous-looking types, but these were to prove few and far between.

Colombians north of Bogota (and perhaps all over the country) seem to deeply enjoy wrestling with large animals. Two hours into the drive I spotted a woman dragging a belligerent, semi-enraged oxe along a roadside as her children skipped about, poking gleefully at the beast while she postured and screamed, cursing its impudence. The oxe was clearly unhappy with its lot in life, lolling its head violently against the bank and tramping its feet disgustedly amidst clouds of dust. Later, I saw an old man attempting to push a donkey clearly possessed of a similar spirit of disobedience, screeching to the point of collapse as its owner attempted to rant it up the hill.

Passing though narrow valleys, I was surprised to see cloud skirting the mountains around us, only 40 meters above our heads. We passed through various small towns and suddenly the air was warm and humid. I realized that I was breathing more easily, my mind clear. Debbie sat nervously in the back, eying everyone for signs of insurrection and betrayal. Eventually night fell, and lightning began to flash soundlessly outside as we moved at great speed through the darkness. At one point I hopped off the bus for air and had to hop back on almost immediately, running for the still-open door and diving back in at full pelt as the bus took off again without warning. I´ll never forget the look of frozen horror in Debbie´s eyes as she saw her chaperone almost disappearing into the night forever.

Arriving in San Gil around 7pm, we took a taxi directly to the Macondo hostel, me constantly assuaging Debbie´s fears that we were not being taken to a backpacker sausage factory and that our backpacks were not about to be stolen from the boot. Creeping around the corner of a narrow and incredibly steep cobbled street, the taxi finally let us out at an anonymous door with a piece of paper sellotaped to it, labeled ´Macondo´. As we shouldered our backpacks it opened to reveal a tired, scrawny apparition with blond dreadlocks and no shirt – the ozzie proprietor, Shaun. "You´re Mark, right?" he said. "Yes", I said, and in we went…

Phew, that went on a bit. Next up – San Gil, the Ciudad Perdida and various other pictoral depictions in word form.