All night I sweated like a pork sausage in a condom in an oven in a Caribbean rainy season.
Finally, at 1am, tormented by Cartagena’s heat, I stood under my shower – the water like a boiled kettle atop my skull.
I’ll be tired for class tomorrow I guess. I lay sprawled under my bed with my fan so close it was like a cat purring, curled on my chest. A slight reprieve until my skin dried. Not quite enough to sleep.
Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński nailed this feeling in his description of Africa:
“I was dripping with sweat, but others, too, were drenched – sweat prevented you from being incinerated on the summer’s blazing pyre.”
I woke in the morning to a small miracle. The sun was not out. I was immediately distrustful…. probably it is still night, my sleepy brain thought.
Deliciously however, it was 6:30am and raining lightly. I stood on the top floor balcony and looked out across my street. This was a nicer street than where I’d been living – it was considered middle class in Cartagena.
The roofs however were corrugated iron sheets and the powerlines linked to the homes in a dizzying entanglement of black against the drizzly sky.
A creek ran perpendicular to my street and was adorned on both banks with garbage. Once I saw an iguana beneath the bridge there. Skin like hard-boiled leather, green and huge and regal.
“Sorry about your home,” I whispered to him. “Humans are stupid.”
You couldn’t really walk alongside the creek alone because you might get robbed. You had to cut through the suburb and then cut back to the creek simply to cross the footbridge over it. There were a couple of elder gents who took turns sitting on the bridge with a collection tin marked ‘bridge security.’ You could pay them a coin for their efforts. They also sold iceblocks, hedging their bets.
Like usual in the tropics, the sun bit off the head of that delicious fresh morning after about 30 minutes, and resumed its ruthless governance of the sky.
The blind dog and I sat together outside for breakfast. The ideal companion while your brain swims sleepily into the consciousness of day is a dog. It will simply greet you warmly and then shut up. Not like those chirpy morning people who sap your energy before you have cultivated it.
I looked around. Mosquitoes were waking from their potplant nests and shouting at each other that a human (AKA breakfast) and a blind dog were stupidly waiting to be molested.
The baby’s pants, like tiny flags of humanity hung in rows above our heads. The avocado vender bellowed his wares through his megaphone, the wooden wheels of his cart pushing through the streets, his brow and lip beaded as always with pearls of sweat.
The coconut palm in my neighbour’s yard waved lazily in a rare breeze and children, those being who wake with the sun, were already shouting in their street baseball match – snatched moments before their mums wetted and brushed their rebellious curls and marched them off to school.
The Caribbean was waking up.
A passenger jet cut across the sky overhead, a reminder I would be on one in just two months. I pushed the thought out of my head. I could easily live here another two years.
What to teach today.
My 1pm class had at least nine very bright students who wanted to learn English – a true blessing for an English teacher in a Latino country. My 4pm class had around the same.
The problem lay with those who didn’t try. The thing about a language is if you chill, process what has been said to you and implement an ounce of cognitive reasoning it is possible to learn.
Some students however throw up a roadblock in their brains.
“That isn’t Spanish!” yells their brain in a panic.
“We can’t understand that.”
Others watch my actions, think about it and hazard a guess.
Yesterday one of my favourite students was leaving school as I arrived.
“¿A dónde vas?” I asked him.
His English was not good but he always showed up, participated and was respectful. And he had a cracking sense of humour, which I loved.
In Spanish he explained his cousin was killed in a gang shoot-out in Turbaco, a small town about an hour out of Cartagena. The funeral service was in an hour and Turbaco was an hour’s bus ride away.
Well what the hell do you say to that? I excused him from my class.
When something awful happens here the journalists print pictures of it.
I am not talking pictures depicting it; I am talking pictures of it.
When I worked at a newspaper in Australia there were many car crash fatalities. They were often avoidable. As I stood speaking with the police officer beside what was once a person or a car, my heart grieved at the pointlessness, the waste of human life.
I would print a picture of the mangled wreck of the car in hopes it would jolt people into the realisation that sending a text or overtaking with barely enough space can end like this – twisted metal and burnt flesh.
In Cartagena however the pictures are of the dead. A widow, roadside, crying over the body of her husband as he lies beside his crumpled motorbike. Red blood gone black on the bitumen.
A teenager with his skull opened in a machete fight, the contents of that skull spilled out and printed right there, in colour, on the front page of all three local newspapers.
The thing about this information is you cannot judge it through western eyes until you have lived here. Here life is cheaper, simply because there are less rules, less means of safety. People take motorbike taxis because they are half the price of taxi cars. Unless you plan to fly to Colombia and cover the difference you cannot judge the safety measures here.
For around 240 days I have been living here, and for about 200 of those days I have caught moto-taxis. I have had around 5 close calls, where my heart flew into my mouth and I thought, well, at least I got to live my dream before I died.
Fingers crossed I make it through two more months of these rides. I have already seen three who didn’t.
And yet there is a joy here.
When you ask a Colombian how they are, they will very often reply without hesitation “Excelente!”
This never fails to buoy my spirits. These are the people I talk to every day. Street vendors, taxi or moto drivers, fellow professors or housewives sweeping the fat green leaves from the street in front of their houses.
They are not rich but perhaps this is their secret.
This country is filled with music and noise and life. If you cut a Colombian’s arm, music will come out. In the tiendas (little stores that sell everything), on the buses, in the taxis, on the beach, from the boomboxes groups of friends sit around, from the boots of parked cars on Sunday afternoon. It is a place saturated in music.
I often feel like my life has a soundtrack as I walk around on my daily happenings in this city.
The one gift Colombia has given me is contentment. It has re-taught me what I once knew. (I was far more intelligent at 12 than in my 20s).
Life is temporary. At any moment you could be hit by something bigger than you and killed. Especially here!
So enjoy it.
When someone asks you how you are, if you are not replying “Excelente!” it is time to ask yourself why not.
The one thing I will take away from this country is a renewed appreciation for life.
My lungs breathe air and my legs bend whenever I tell them to. I (usually) have food to eat. This already gives me more reason to be happy than a lot of our Earth’s population.
One day I caught a taxi into the historical centre to run errands.
Windows down, and palms beating out the rhythm of salsa on his steering wheel; I looked at my driver’s face. Sea breeze blew into the taxi.
“¿A dónde va mi amor?” he asked me with the chopped coastal Spanish of los costeños.
Where are you going my love?
On the coast they use mi amor (my love), mi reina (my queen) and mi vida (my life). It is something I will dearly miss.
When I asked him how he was he replied “Excelente!” without a second thought.
“Por qué?” I asked.
“Mira,” he said, swinging one hand towards the ocean, “y escucha,” he said, turning up the dial on the salsa.
“La vida es Hermosa.”
(Look…and listen….life is beautiful.)
By the time I’d learned to say it correctly I had fallen under its spell.
Miles of nothing. Then mountains the colour of Bolivia, and nothing moving save a goat or open-mouthed lizard.
Forests of spiked succulents shouting their resilience into a blue dome that gives nothing back – just looks down at the desert with dry, blue eyes.
It was a total shock to the system after the highly tropical, beach life I’d been living.
My two housemates had already made the trek up north, so I was chasing them by a day. It was incredibly fun to be hoofing it on my own. Just me and my work-in-progress Spanish!
If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, wanting to get to Colombia’s northern desert region, this is how you do it.
Catch bus to Santa Martha (4hrs).
Flag any bus heading north from Santa Martha. Your destination is Riohacha, however you could be dropped in various towns.
Get off where bus drops you (in my case Palomino).
Stand on side of road with local woman, trying to figure out what you are both waiting for.
Ask local tienda (shop) to use bathroom. Response = “Solamente para chi chi.”
Figure out new word. Wee wee = chi chi.
Get in car with woman and pay 4mil to head north to next town.
Get out and wait on road again.
Get on next bus heading north. Stare subtly at woman feeding baby green parrot on lap.
Stare subtly at shoeless, Indigenous Kogi people, clad in white-linen moo-moos. Marvel at their jet-black hair. Feel like you are in a National Geographic episode.
Ask various people where to get off. Get various responses. Practise Spanish with cheeky teenagers. Get called Mona a lot.
Get off at town called Maipaca….or something.
Buy weird chicken thing from children who told you it was vegetarian.
Ask more people. Find expensive buses and search for cheaper option.
Turn down solo male car driver who wants to drive you there for ¼ of usual price.
Stand in what seems to be bus cue. Whole cue leaves without warning.
Bus pulls up from nowhere and collects you only.
Get out at Riohacha.
Find out friends are four more hours to the north in some place called Cabo de la Vela.
Write ‘Cabo de la Vela’ on your arm and crack your second bag of peanuts.
Follow woman with two sons because you here them say a northern town’s name.
Share car-taxi with them.
Watch giant sun slide into horizon. Think of Africa. Learn the secret Spanish talk of two little brothers.
Get off at Uribia. Wind blows, people feel a little wilder. Am I in a frontier town??
Meet some university students and cram into a truck/jeep for a reasonable price.
In the jeep we sped through a darkened desert. I was so excited for morning to see what it looked like. Show me your colour, desert.
We smelled a dank odour.
“Un animal?” I asked my new pals.
“Si,” they confirmed.
It smelled like fox to me.
“Es como un pero?” (like a dog?)
There was a mysterious desert animal out there. Smelling like a fox, but not looking like one. I’d have my eyes peeled for tracks the next day. Not sure what they’d look like. Maybe it flew, and there’d be none.
I met Ayumi, a perfectly-cheekboned Japanese girl who had been travelling the world for three years. She had all her stuff in a netting bag. She had two dreadlocks and was cool in that way only Asian travellers could truly rock.
I shared my trail mix (con chocolate), remembering that Colombians were a collective society and that meant the whole jeep needed a handful. It was a hit.
I accidentally stepped on a puppy in the darkness. I spoke to two desert sisters who were on their way back home to their little desert town, Cabo de la Vela. (I was on the right track, yes!). One wore the beautiful, flowing cotton dress of their region, the other skinny jeans and a singlet top.
One of their friends was working the outside of the jeep. Hanging on the back and swinging round to unstrap huge bags of water, backpacks and supplies like onions and toilet paper as we dropped people in the middle of nowhere.
We rolled into Cabo an hour or so later.
Little town. Hot, dry, with a perfect blue sea lapping the little houses. There was a friendly feel sitting in the back of that darkened jeep, as the guy unloaded everybody with their supplies, said hello and goodbye and swung with grace back onto the jeep.
The sisters showed me their bags, hand woven in the La Guajira region by women who had passed down the method for years.
“Ciao Lisa,” they called, getting off with their puppy.
“Bienvenidos para café por la mañana.” (Welcome for coffee in the morning.)
Their mama came out and made sure all supplies were in order at the drop off. Not getting your water in the jeep run was a big deal in this part of the country.
Eventually we arrived at Glamar, the hostel/restaurant my friends were at.
It had been a long day, and I fell into my hammock with thanks. There were three strung in a row for us, with the sea at our feet.
I slept; a desert baby in my bright cocoon.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gladis (the owner) and her family having breakfast, a few metres from our hammocks.
I had noticed something in this region: the women were calling the shots. Not in an overbearing way, just calmly and with great competency. It was a matriarchal society, and the hisses and catcalls of the southern coast were blissfully missing here! Yahoo.
I watched Galdis juggle a family, a busy restaurant kitchen, diffuse a drunken men’s argument and make us girls feel welcome all at once. It was impressive.
We spent a fabulously lazy day. The region was strange on the eye, the red sand a total juxtaposition against jade seas.
We hired motorbike drivers for the day and jetted into the blinkless face of the desert. My driver was a young hot-shot who sped up to everything, skidded us through the sand and never listened when I asked him to chill out. He reminded me of me at seventeen.
A sign of my age perhaps, that the kind of driving I’d once broken my collarbone with was now making me anxious.
The drivers would pull up and us girls would explore up hills of cacti. Millions of spikes in brittle grey and khaki-brown pushing themselves up on straightened elbows from the red dust.
Against an endless cliff wind we’d push uphill until our breaths were stolen clean away by the stunning view thrown out below us.
Was there anything so strange and beautiful as a desert meeting the ocean?
That night we paid 5mil for a bucket of water and crowded into the small toilet stall to wash. Three white bums, three sets of white boobies – the rest a jumble of brown limbs covered in red dust. A life lived in bikinis for two months!
We walked around as the evening chill set in, a welcome visitor in this terrain. We bargained gently with the La Guajira weavers, seeing the work in each of their mochilas, and each bought a stunning bag to remember the trip and the people by.
That evening the feel of the place changed. All Colombians were now on holiday and those bent of partying flooded into tranquil Cabo.
Gladis had her hands full. A fat, drunk man insulted guests at our little ‘hostel’, made jokes about us sharing a hammock with him (blurgh), blared champeta music all night and all morning, and the next morning (to my delight) crashed his car into his other car while drunkenly trying to reverse it at 5am.
I told him in the best version of my bad Spanish it was lucky he’d hit his own car not one of the little kids who were staying with the families on holiday here.
“You’re not from this land,” he said.
“You’re not from Cabo de la Vela,” I said.
After that frustrating dispute, where he still refused to turn the music off (it was now 5am) we decided to walk into the desert and watch the sunrise.
Sometimes you just have to walk away.
It was truly stunning. It refreshed us, washed the memory of a sleepless night away, and reminded me what beauty there is in the world.
I found dog tracks, the tracks of a baby donkey walking beside its mother and, sadly, no trace of the mysterious animal that smelled but not looked like a fox.
We caught the next ride we could find out of there, keen to get away from the dank partygoers, and preserve the tranquil memory of the place that had wormed its way into our hearts.
Women floating by in their cotton, flowered dresses, wrapped headscarfs and an easy way of being.
Landscape that looked like the moon. Or Bolivia. Or a Bolivian moon.
Pastels and greys and burnt orange, with hills streaked in purple standing silent in the distance.
The shock of red against blue. Cacti forests and prickly pears that stretched on forever.
And one sight, which often rises unbidden to my eyelids when I lie in bed after a day’s teaching: the pink petals of a cacti flower, curled outward to reveal the yellow wad of its centre. Adorned with black ants and fresh as linen in that first light of a sweltering desert day.
You are magical life. Whenever I die, may it be in nature.
I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.
The great thing about visiting friends scattered across the United States is the variation in places that we visit.
We touched down in Buffalo, state of New York, with images of hoe-downs and chicken wings racing through my mind.
While I didn’t see the first, the latter was in delicious abundance. Nobody does Buffalo wings like a Buffalonian.
After reaching our friend’s house (she was at work) we sat on the couch, ate a bagel, and woke up in a daze one hour later. I have always liked how your body calls the shots. If it’s exhausted it will just shut down, without warning, like a flat microphone.
She had left the keys to her Jeep, and feeling very Americana, we drove the hour to the school she taught at to offer ourselves as Aussie show-and-tell.
The neighbourhoods were so American it was funny. I felt like I was featuring in Dennis The Menace. Front porches sporting American flags stood proudly on green lawns that ran to the road without fences. There were maple trees lining the streets and people doing wholesome things like tending gardens.
Memorial Day weekend was coming up so patriotism was in full swing. Every second house had a flag.
As we got closer to the school I noticed the neighbourhoods drop in affluence. I knew it was a lower socio-economic school, which made me only more keen to see it. Having gone to an girls private school it was completely the opposite.
Cool groups of kids hung around the lockers in the hallway, teachers and students were in dress, and everyone was more relaxed and in my opinion more grown-up feeling than when I sat in front of a blackboard.
We visited art class. A girl with eyeliner and a cool fringe told us about the places she’d lived. She was cool and collected, far more mature than I remembered myself at her age.
Another kid up the back was bent quietly to his work. One of the best students, his teacher told us. After the class emptied the teacher showed us a chair he had painted. It was beautiful. She explained the scenes on each side and their meaning was sad and simple in places, dark but hopeful in others.
Kids never cease to amaze me. Youth is an amazing thing. I find it often more truthful than the lives many adults are living. Before it has been corrupted by expectations or norms. It’s probably the closest we come to being who we truly are in some ways.
The kids couldn’t carry backpacks until the bell rang due to gun security. I thought sadly how the power of the gun lobby in America continued to block gun control reforms and put people’s lives at risk. As I walked down the corridors I imagined shots ringing out and the blind panic of hundreds of bodies trying to cram through one small doorway to safety. It is a mind-boggling concept that the safety of American children can be out-muscled by the greed of companies selling steel.
While we were in the States 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed to death his three roommates and then shot down three people in cold blood before killing himself. None of them had turned 23 yet.
It went down in Santa Barbara, California. A really nice town with excessively high prices that we’d stopped in for lunch on our road trip the week before. One victim was shot down in a sandwich shop.
Rodger’s parents had alerted authorities about concerns over their son months before the May 16 attack, but no grounds were found to detain him or search his premises.
In a manifesto published online Rodger cited a history of rejection from women as his motive. Just another messed up kid given too easy access to murder. If he couldn’t walk into a store and buy a gun perhaps he would have done something else destructive. I used to pinch a carton of eggs from the fridge and pelt them one by one at the horse trailer to deal with my own inexpressible juvenile angst. Nobody was ever killed during this ten minute release of anger.
The pro-gun lobbyists say it’s people not guns that kill. Stabbing three people is one thing, but standing metres away and letting the pull of a trigger mow down three more is a damn sight easier.
Maybe one day the head of America’s powerful and filthy rich National Rifle Association will have someone they love gunned down in cold blood. Until that day they will continue to pour money into opposing any kind of gun reform in the United States. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs and one I have little patience for debating anymore. Every time they pick the young body of a school massacre off the ground I wonder dully how it is even still up for debate.
We walked down the hall where some kids were painting a mural on the wall.
“Good job guys,” said our teacher friend.
She walked to a boy kneeling down painting the white caps of waves.
“I think we need to get a little more shading on this light coming out of the lighthouse,” she said.
“See how it’s blending too much with the water?”
Leaning back on his haunches the kid surveyed his work and agreed. He dipped his brush in a darker yellow and began adding a subtle shadow line to the lighthouse beam.
people need is nurturing, a bit of guidance and the space to grow and achieve things for themselves.
Seeing my friend interact with the kids was beautiful. She was fun, cheeky and patient with them. I could see how they loved her. If the world had more people like this lady we would be turning out more kids who felt they had options for help, rather than feeling backed into a corner with the need to lash out. My hat off to the great teachers toiling in this world. I know the work doesn’t stop when the bell rings.
I decided a long time ago I wanted to take in foster kids. There seem to be so many souls who aren’t given the chance from the outset. They don’t need much. Just someone who gives a shit and a bed they know they are safe in at night.
That night we gathered at our friend’s parents’ place for a good old fashioned American dinner. Luckily for us they were from a long line of chicken farmers, and their great-grandparents had even paid good money for a secret recipe back in the day.
Just like the KFC legend, before it was commercialised to death!
I love meeting people’s families. People are generally a product of their nature and nurture. Gretty’s family were like her: gracious, hospitable and friendly. And her mum had the same booming laugh I loved her for.
It erupted without warning, pure as honey and honest to its last resounding note.
After her dad found out I worked as a journalist we had some great chats around the barbecue. The US was having fracking dramas with exploration for gas/energy sources similar to Australia’s. I explained our huge underground water table and the fears of local farmers that such a dry country was risking water security for the short term dollar.
Mr Gretty basted the split chicken halves with the secret sauce his ancestors had paid for those years ago. The meat looked out of this world delicious. He wouldn’t tell me the ingredients, a true flavour guardian of the oldest order.
“You should see this place in the winter,” he told me, as we looked across the stunning green spread of his lawn.
“Everything is white. It’s just melted not long before you guys arrived.”
Their house was beautiful, they’d done well. I looked up the street and was sorry I wasn’t here in the waist-deep white of winter. I imagined how red my coat would look against the blanket of white. I imagined the kids dining each others’ doorbells and standing back to pelt snowballs when the door swung open. How different to my dry, inland upbringing of gumtrees and red dirt!
Our hosts covered the table with enough food for a small country, and we ate with relish (the enthusiasm not the condiment) as we envisaged the strict budget ahead for the next five months.
Buffalo probably doesn’t feature high on the average US itinerary, but I was glad we went. The next morning we ate in the garden, cold air on our faces. A red breasted robin and a squirrel frolicked in the garden. I waited patiently for Snow White to step out of the greenery, fawns at her heels. It was very pleasant after the concrete rambling of San Fran.
We visited Niagra falls, spectacular but marred by the casinos on either side. Nature should be natural.
The Hornblower boat glided underneath the hallway of blinding white water, its deck packed with poncho-clad tourists. I pictured the spray raining down on them, their cameras taking blurred snaps of nothing much. Their eyes goggling at the might of it .
That night we went for beers and buffalo wings at a little local joint. Dark and great. A sign on the wall declared “if it needs a blender we’re out of that.”
A moose head hung above the beer taps. The bartender shouted a shot of local whisky. I always hoped I’d find bars like this in America.
We also squeezed in a night out on the town, which was highly amusing. Cinnamon flavoured shots are a big trend at the moment in the US. A bit like shotting pureed bakery items, but tasty nonetheless.
We left the industrial town of Buffalo, with its pretty outer suburbs and unassuming galleries and vintage shops, and clambered onto a bus for New York City.
Little did we know it would be the quickest of our bus trips over the next six months.
30 soles for a Swedish massage….why not.
We limped with aching muscles up the stairs, the two Peruvian ladies leading the way. Peruvians are tiny and beautiful, like the Burmese.
“No ropa, solo las bragas,” she said. (No underwear, just nickers).
Hmm….problem number one. I explained in atrocious Spanish I’d put almost everything I owned into laundry that morning and wasn’t actually wearing any.
“No problem, we are all women,” she said in Spanish.
She began working on my back, running her knuckles down the length of my spine to the plump of my bum.
I pointed out the two ferocious knots on my right shoulder begging for attention and she did her best to skirt this problem. Sigh.
It was soothing nonetheless, as oil and touch inevitably is.
By this time her little daughter had climbed under my table and was firing a rapid succession of “hollas” at my upside down face.
“Holla,” I replied once to her ten. She was cute as a button in her little red trench coat and striped stockings.
She found the sight of an immobilised gringo impossibly funny and kept kneeling so her face was an inch from mine.
She was about four and told me her name was Mina….or something like that.
“Mi nombre is Lisa,” I replied.
I blew her hair and she giggled so much she fell over. I tried to focus on the massage while I laughed. Deciding we weren’t quite close enough she brought her nose right up to mine and rubbed it like a bunny. Only in a South American massage! I liked the informality though, it felt more natural.
Eventually her madre took her outside.
“Ciao chica,” I called to my new friend.
The small lady began massaging my hair, which was more like mussing, less like massaging.
The shoulders, though brief, felt good.
“Muy fuerte (stronger) por favor,” I requested.
She climbed on the table and used her tiny frame to lean into her elbows.
It was similar to a small goat walking across my back.
She moved to the base of the table and wrapped a hand around my big toe, lifting my leg by this odd hoof-handle.
It reminded me of a baby clasping your finger.
With the other hand, which felt smaller and stronger, she began pounding my tender calf.
Dear God. Give me back the Inca Trail….. the thousand steps of death were like feather fingers in comparison.
A tear sprung involuntarily from my eye and sat in a pearl on the carpet beneath my face.
It took a good 10 minutes to soak in. Must be the same carpet old people put in their bathrooms. Weird.
I couldn’t help worrying about the views she was being subjected to from her vantage point at my spread calves.
“Change positions,” she said in perfect English.
Then the brand new experience of a pectoral massage. The arm massage enlightened me to muscles I didn’t know existed, and the quad massage required a teeth-clench. Oh Inca Trail you were cruel.
Overall the experience was painful but freed the muscles to some extent. You certainly get what you pay for though… as all requests in poor but decipherable Español to work on problem areas were ignored.
It was very much a repeated process for each client, rather than the necessary tailored approach per client.
The ferocious knots would have to wait until a better-researched option in Lima. At least some of the Inca Trail pain had been persuaded out of my legs.