Melbourne Identity

My old chum Marlon Williams has released a self-titled album and it’s superb. All at once haunting and chipper and mournful and hopeful, I listened to it on the shuttle bus to LAX, concrete and tarmac whizzing by the window while I came across an odd thought. Here I was reminiscing about Lyttelton where I’d met Marlon in 2008-2010, after a morning of hanging out with my old friend Erin from two summers of Camp America (2005-06)

 and a previous evening of eating BBQ food with Danny – a guy I worked with in Shanghai (2010 – 11). A whole bunch of previous adventures to call upon, yet here I was sitting next to Catriona facing down the barrel of a whole new escapade – Australia in 2015. It was like a massive “Previously on 24…” but instead of Jack Bauer with his gun it’s me looking puzzled at a Lonely Planet. Of course, it’s taken us a bit longer than 24 hours to get to Australia, quite a lot longer indeed…

On the 21st April, we caught our first flight from Managua, the hodge-podge capital of Nicaragua after 3 blissful days at a hostel called the Surfing Turtle on the Pacific coast. The waves were so ridiculous here it should have really been called the Drowning Turtle, or the Turtle in the Washing Machine.

 We discovered a whole new extreme sport of just trying to survive in the sea, as great walls of water threw us back on to the beach like aggressive bouncers to a particularly wet nightclub. Despite the tempest we were very well relaxed and had the chance to reconvene with Catriona’s sister Ellen, who is still marching southwards towards Panama and we made some new pals in the form of Anya (Canada), Tom (England), Minako (Japan) and Damon (USA). Damon had the endearing trait of including Spanish phrases into his English sentences, such as – “how long you been aqui?” And – “Are we going ahorita?” It speaks volumes on the calming effects of travelling that I actually found this affliction quite charming. To add some tenuous symmetry to the trip, Tom and Anya were a couple based in Whitehorse in the Yukon, which was where G and I had accidentally stolen a Korean girl’s backpack back in October. They were also awesome. Relaxation over, we took the aforementioned flight from Managua to Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

 With an 18-hour layover until our next plane we decided to jump on the bus into town and see what Fort Laudes had to offer. Ah the bus. Public transport in America. What a laugh. After a long wait we spotted one of these rare elongated beasts and hailed it confidently. I slipped a $20 bill into the machine next to the driver. He looked at me incredulously. “Did you just put $20 in the machine?” I nodded sagely, awaiting two tickets and $16.50 of change to appear any second. “That doesn’t give any change!” He had adopted a look you save for old people using their mobility scooters on the motorway. We took our now very expensive bus to downtown and happened upon a great art gallery doing a Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera retrospective. Even more symmetry to the trip considering our previous trips to both their houses in Mexico. Fort Lauderdale was eerily quiet on the pedestrian front, with only homeless people populating the sidewalks. Quite the contrast from any town or city south of the border. We caught the next flight to LA for another showcase in sidewalk aversion.

With Gina, back in 2014, we had circumnavigated LA, but now with 2 days until our next cheap flight, we found ourselves on Sunset Boulevard, filled with tramps dressed as Spiderman and people selling tours to see where celebrities died. We walked to Paramount Studios and managed to bag the last spots on a tour.

 We saw props from Interstellar and Transformers, sets being built (and partially destroyed for a fire scene) and loads of extras milling about. Our guide Richard was a bit of an idiot though. With some of the greatest movies ever made at his fingertips (minus Transformers) he opted to ask us if there were any castles in Scotland and if he could wear a crown when he visited. He then asked the couple from New York if they were ‘there’ on 9/11. Hey Richard, how about you talk about the Godfather and leave the questions for the people who HAVE PAID FOR THIS TOUR.

Our brief sojourn to the States confirmed a few suspicions I had on the last tour – life is tough here. Nowhere I’ve been to has had a sense of community (apart from perhaps Portland) and there seems to be an undercurrent of not just dissatisfaction, but tangible rage at the way things are going. On the surreally empty underground train in LA, a girl slumped down on her chair and declared loudly, “Fuck! Is it Friday yet?” On another bus a lady ranted at us passengers about the inequality of America. As we alighted at our stop with our bags she said, “Welcome to California, enjoy spring break, trust no-one.”

Our next flight was to Fiji, which took a while. I watched ‘Kingsman’ which was enjoyable rubbish and ‘American Sniper’ which was enjoyable Bradley Cooper time. We only had a paltry 8 hours in Fiji but managed to squeeze in a trip to the beach, the pool, the bar and a stir-fry place. Very brief but I can conclude – Fiji is nice.

 It was finally time for the final flight, taking us to Melbourne on the 26th April, concluding our 6-day wander west. Catriona’s already spent the best part of a year here already so her excitement levels were high despite the mammoth jet-lag. I’d been here back in 2008 and remembered quite a high propensity for hipsters and gentrifying old industrial spaces into coffee houses and vintage denim shops. We made our way to her mate’s Steve’s place, who very kindly agreed to put us up for a week. His apartment is in a converted chocolate factory. It resembles something out of an Audi advert. However, like the rest of Melbourne, it is incredible. The city is somewhere between the best of an American city (leafy avenues, groovy shops) and a British city (you know, public transport, people not in cars). It’s so nice that we’ve booked flights to Alice Springs for next week to get bar work for a few months. Go figure.

As a final bit of symmetry, I met up with Alicia the other night, the seventh Camp America reunion I’ve had in the past seven months. As with the whole trip it’s been people that have made it so memorable and enjoyable. There’s been too many highlights to speak of but I’ll give it a go shortly and do a bunch of ‘Top 5’s.’ However, my motto at his juncture would be, “trust everyone and everything. Unless it’s a ticket machine on a bus.”   Here’s a list I kept up of the whole trip:

        PS – you can listen to Marlon Williams’ album on spotify or buy the thing in a shop!

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Children of the Corn

“Meant to be tricky to get there mind, but what’s a prize without a fight?” Said idiot me, in my last post, on getting to the Corn Islands. The prize would still be a prize wouldn’t it? It would be a prize irrespective of the level of hassle and sleep deprivation required to obtain it. A prize is a prize. If we had the funds, we could have flown from Managua. We didn’t. So we took an overnight bus to a place called El Rama, which got there at 3am. We then hopped on an incredibly fast river taxi at 6am to Bluefields, which was where our wonderful ferry – HMS El Rio Escondido lay await for us. She bumped and swayed for 6 hours through the Caribbean swell until Great Corn Island swung into view, like an incredibly green carrot on a very uneven stick. During this six hour ‘cruise’ Catriona and I discovered we had very impressive constitutions, as everyone around us was reduced to vomiting wrecks. One poor sod was so ill he was just chucking up on himself by the end, too weak to make the deck or the toilet. Even locals, who I presume must make the commute from the mainland fairly frequently, were dropping like flies – hunched over the side like dirty laundry, providing a wealth of nutrients to the sea life below. But guess what, the prize was worth it! The Corn Islands are absolutely splendid.

 

Great Corn, which does not resemble anything to do with corn and is in fact a bastion of lobster fishing above all else, is the most relaxed of the two islands in that the locals aren’t really bothered by the tourism thing. Little Corn’s the place for all that, so they just get on with their lives while the most stunning tropical beaches and piercing blue sea lie around almost untouched. We explored the place and just couldn’t believe how undeveloped the place was. On Long Beach, which is actually pretty long, sat one little resort and a pier for the lobster boats. The rest of the coastline was just empty white sand and palm trees. We took a boat (that resembled a launch craft from Saving Private Ryan) to Little Corn and yes, it is more touristy, but yes, it is a little wild slice of paradise. There’s no traffic on this island, just tracks (some paved, some mud) between beaches and the village, and it’s so easy to climb over a headland to discover a cove entirely to yourself you can kid yourself you’re Robinson Crusoe for an afternoon.

I’ve spent the last few days snorkelling, today being particularly eventful as I came face to face with a shark. My mask had steamed up so I was doing the undignified ‘treading in water while spitting and rubbing the glass routine’ before popping them back on and dunking my head under. About 6 feet away a big old shark was swimming straight towards me (a reef shark I might add, about as dangerous as a sea cucumber – but sharks are sharks) at such a rate I almost provided a new brown eel to the local ecosystem. In my other endeavours I also cruised with some massive polka-dot stingrays and most excitingly, a few sea turtles. Back in Mexico we’d been to a turtle conservation project where we set loose dozens of tiny baby turtles into the ferment. Within seconds, seagulls were having an all-you-can-eat-buffet on the helpless tiddlers and I really thought these blighters didn’t stand a chance of survival. Well in the Corn Islands at least, a slither of them do make it, and they’re beautiful!

In other news, I took my first yoga class. Catriona’s a bit of a pro, having done the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing at an Indian ashram so I thought I’d streamline behind her while Jimmy, our tutor for the morning, took us through our paces. Thankfully he was low on the spiritual stuff and high on the practicalities of bending your vaguely hungover frame into poses from The Cirque Du Soleil. I admit I was a little sceptical but seriously had a blast. I reckon I could be a certified ‘yogi’ in no time at all. However, Catriona’s away right now doing yoga on a paddle board out in the sea, so I clearly have a few more downward facing dogs to go.

One week until our flights to Australia! One week until our flights to Australia! People to meet in LA, reunions already planned in Melbourne and a return to the world of working and living like real humans await. Before that, we have to get on the Rio Escondido back to the mainland – it’s enough to make you vomit.

Nic a bock a Ragua 

Seven buses.  That’s how many were required to get from El Salvador to Leon in Nicaragua.  Seven buses, two border crossings (through Honduras) and a taxi.  It took 13 hours.  The taxi was the most interesting as we shared it with a bunch of Nicaraguans who were returning from a cock fight, upon which they’d won a rather large sum of money.  The source of their income, a blood stained rooster named ‘Hop’ was cradled maternally by the leader of their gang – an interesting chap who’d spent 14 years in a Los Angeles prison.  He was nice to us at least, (I presume as we were paying for the majority of their taxi fare), unlike the guy who promised us a safe passage over the Nicaraguan border to Leon, only to dump us unceremoniously in some town beginning with ‘C’ and driving away as we attempted to kick lumps out of his dirty, rip-off van.  It was here we met the cock-fight boys, who rather appropriately, took us under their wing (waheey!).  

 

Once we eventually got there, Leon was very pleasant though.  Big cathedral, big square, colourful buildings and an excellent line in street BBQs.  We met some ex-revolutionaries (to qualify as a Central American country you have to have A) had a civil war, and B) had the USA meddle in it to everyone’s general dismay and detriment) who took us through the story of Nicaragua’s turbid past.  I got to wield a bazooka which was A) really inappropriate and B) awesome.   No shooting though.  Just pretend.  

  

We also moseyed into the obligatory gringo party hostel and signed up to a beach  shindig and a surf down the local volcano – Cerro Negro.   Beach shindig ending rather late and volcano surf starting rather early perhaps contributed to me crashing spectacularly on the fiery mountain in question, breaking my camera, the sled and losing my goggles in the process.  There was a bloke clocking everyone’s speed and I was whizzing along at a healthy 65km an hour when it all went pear shaped. Despite the financial and physical pain it caused me, the experience was well worth it.  

   

Also, watching Catriona careering diagonally across the black mountain between the two assigned “tracks” at a healthy pace was deeply hilarious.  To be fair she looks a lot more in control than me…

  

We opted to head to the Pacific coast for a few days to lick our wounds. 

 

“Oh look!”  I exclaimed, “A little sheltered cove all to ourselves that we can relax in, between our surfs.” Sniffing suspiciously, Catriona opined that we should maybe move – “It doesn’t smell very nice here Alex,” she said, “I think we should go somewhere else on the beach.”  I cavorted around the wee shaded area trying to locate the origins of the smell.  It was then that the large mound of human poo (You can always tell it’s human.  Always.) was discovered.  My flip-flopped foot was placed firmly in it.  The poo had somehow covered much of my right leg and while Catriona cried with laughter, I cried in horror as I attempted to cleanse myself in the sea.  Apart from this, we surfed for three days and there were improvements on all counts.  The waves down here were much more forgiving than the tempest in El Salvador and despite the crazy levels of tourists in San Juan Del Sur – it being the national week holiday of Semana Santa – we managed to have a very chilled time indeed.  

   

With only days left though, we’re planning on some more of this relaxation on the east coast in the shape of the Corn Islands.  Meant to be tricky to get there mind, but what’s a prize without a fight?  

 

On another note, Catriona proffered this scenario to me – imagine Stonehaven was suddenly invaded by a bunch of super wealthy, pyjama wearing backpackers, who very abruptly bought over all the properties along the beachfront and overpriced everything so that only other pyjama wearing loons could afford them.  Would Stonehaven remain Stonehaven?  Or would it become a pyjama playground for bare-footed bangle wearers who’d go on pub crawls together and shag on the beach?  It’s worth thinking about as many places in Central America have become this.  There’s actually a place on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala nicknamed Gringo-Landia.  They’ve not even tried to make it resemble what it used to be. It’s just a retreat for listless foreign teenagers next to a lake. It’s like the west (or should that be east?) came back and took over again.  The Empire Strikes Back but in bloody pyjamas.  It’s worth considering if you’re ever planning to come to this neck of the woods.  It is very, very easy to escape all the fakery, but very, very tempting to join in the fun.  Maybe I’m just bitter about breaking my camera on that bloody volcano.