Alaska to Argentina – A Review!

TOP EXAGGERATIONS:

  • That title. I got to Nicaragua.  G got to Guatemala.  Woeful.
  • “Don’t go to Mexico man! They’ll kill you and cut your guts into drugs.”  No they won’t.  They’ll make me a delicious taco and cut me a slice of lime for my beer.

TOP UNDERSTATEMENTS:

  • “This Jeep Cherokee should at least make it over the Alaska border.” She did quite a bit better than that, Stavros and Ben.
  • “She may have some trouble with the radiator though.” Reduced to walking pace up any hill by her steaming innards, the air con fixed to MAXIMUM HEAT to take some of the furnace off her bubbling engine, I would say she did have some trouble in that department, yes.
  • “You and Catriona might hit it off.”
  • “The boat ride to the Corn Islands can be a little bumpy.” People were Team America spewing.  Everywhere.
  • “I don’t have that much money.” – Zabrina the German who travelled with us for 6 weeks. Pretty sure she still owes me $400!
  • “Moose don’t like humans too much, you should maybe stay out their way.” They are the angriest vegetarians on the planet!  And that includes SNP supporters.

TOP 5 ANIMALS (that we saw, not just in general – that would be irrelevant.  And it would obviously read – octopus, gorilla, puffin):

  • Whale Shark!
  • Manta Rays!
  • Wild Boar!
  • Brown Bear and cub!
  • Sea Turtle!

Unlucky moose.  Marked down for your anger issues.  Same goes to the Coral Snake that slid over G’s foot.  Too scary.  Oh, and the howler monkeys who sounded like orcs.  Or the squirrel monkeys that tried to crap on us.  Or that Reef Shark that swam at me when I was de-misting my goggles.  All disqualified! Rotters!

TOP 6 NATURAL WONDERS:

  • The cenotes of Yucatan, my personal fave going to this one: 
  • The coral reef off Belize. Like an aquatic Manhattan.
  • The Giant Redwoods of California.  Giant.
  • Any bit between Jasper and Banff. Nature just showing off.
  • This volcano. 
  • G’s invisible arse. How he sits on a toilet confounds me.

TOP 5 MAN-MADE WONDERS:

  • Tikal, Guatemala.
  • Boeing Factory, Everett, Washington. Biggest building (by volume) in the world!
  • The works of Diego Riviera. He looked like a constipated toad and cheated on Frida Kahlo with her SISTER, but sir – I am a fan.
  • El Mirador, Guatemala. Biggest pyramid in the Americas.  Basically a mountain but built by people who didn’t have the wheel.
  • A little convoluted, but certainly a wonder and certainly man-made – the wreck of one of the gun boats from the Bay of Pigs debacle, gradually being consumed by the coral and fish, like nature is cleaning up the evidence.

TOP 4 TOWNS OR CITIES

  • Guanajuato.  Just look at it.  Incidentally Diego Riviera’s home town!  
  • Havana – Like a once beautiful salsa dancer now addled with booze and falling apart.  Simultaneously ugly and devastatingly pretty, it’s Moscow + Madrid and it’s fantastic.
  • Portland – A man with one side burn serving you a craft beer while a homeless person brews you an espresso from a gramophone.
  • Leavensworth – For those who say America has no history – go here!  To a town entirely crafted to look like a historical German town!

TOP TIPS FOR BACKPACKING

  • Unsure of where to eat in Mexico or Central America? Look for the restaurant that A) has only garden furniture and B) isn’t empty.
  • Kindle’s save space for books brilliantly. But they are a nightmare for Lonely Planets.  Nightmare!  “Oooh let’s go to this point on the map…”  “Don’t touch the screen!  What have you done!  It’s gone back to the contents page!  How do I find Nicaragua again?!!”
  • Don’t listen to G – travel towels are essential. (Saying that, always check if a hostel will provide a towel for free and never refuse).
  • Also essential: swiss army knives, a good multi-plug adaptor, a silk liner, spare plastic bags and a back pack that opens on the front as well as the top. If you are Scottish – SUN CREAM.  Lots of sun cream.  And only with a screw top!
  • Don’t buy your hiking boots off a stoned hostel receptionist in Anchorage. They will not fit you and become a massive burden.
  • Back packing with a giant SLR camera looks like a right royal pain in the arse.
  • Never refuse an invitation.
  • Beer under a dollar and it’s not a brothel? Stay the afternoon!
  • Hostel has a ping pong table? Stay the week!
  • Hostel proudly proclaims that it’s a party hostel? Guaranteed to be filled with knobs. Stay somewhere else and sneak in for the drink promos.

BEST MUSEUM:

Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.  The guided tour was to be deep fried in a Mayan-Aztec batter.  A whole spectrum of history split wide open like the spleen of a human sacrifice.

 BEST FOOD:

Mexcio.  Mexico.  Mexico.  Specifically – pastor taco with cheese.  (And coriander, onion, habanero sauce and more cheese if possible).    When this is done right you enter another dimension.

BEST DRINK:

There’s a bar in Trinidad, Cuba that does this pina colada.  It costs $3.  It’s served by a man in a red dinner jacket.  It’s definitely the best thing on the planet.  That moment when a young child first tastes chocolate?  Better.  What about when you first fell in love?  Nope.  Won the lottery?  Married Eva Mendes?  Went to space?  Better than those, even if you added bacon.

BEST MEMORIES:

  • Racing a Cuban train on a horse with a bottle of rum in one hand. One of the most exhilarating moments of my life.
  • A night time sneak to the top of El Mirador to watch the stars sparkle.
  • Staying the night in a church crypt in the Guatemalan mountains after the whole village came to our rescue.
  • Buying Gina.
  • Selling Gina.
  • Our final night in Havana. Rum on the Malecon with dozens of locals and fellow travellers.  A solid Cuban farewell.
  • Climbing Mount Hope after an earthquake. And then joining the locals afterwards for a sing-song in their tiny bar.
  • The Corn Islands. Who wants to buy a house there with me?

WORST MOMENTS:

  • Getting Chikungunya fever for the day and not feeling my hands for 3 hours. Mosquitos are proof there is not a God.
  • Eating the free “food” that came with our beer in Campeche. Pretty sure it was ash-tray rolled in toilet paper.
  • Being told by spiritual guru Court Johnson that my twin soul is none other than Graham bloody Fleming.

THANK YOU TO THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE FOR LOOKING AFTER US!

Mark and Letty in Sewerd!  Austin in Anchorage!  Ciaran and Katy in Banff!  Craig in Kelowna!  Colin in Corvalles!  The three carpenters in Diamond Lake!  Griffin in San Francisco!  Michael Jones and the Monday Night Restaurant in Carmel!  Steve, Genie and Court Johnson in Santa Barbara (and the magic bus)!  Chris and Paige in Los Bariallos!  Ale and Pollo in Queretaro!  Papo and his crew in Trinidad!  The church minister in Campur!  Erin in LA!  Steve, Chris and Jeff in Melbourne!

EXTRA SPECIAL MENTION TO:

  • Petra and Zabrina for seeing Gina for the fabulous opportunity she was! Especially Zabrina for sticking around about 4 weeks and 2000 miles longer than you intended!
  • Karen for being our translator and minder in our first foray into Mexico. Your enthusiasm for diving got G annoyingly addicted to snorkelling.  I bet he’s at home right now in the bath with his bloody mask on.
  • Ellen for putting up with me for 82 DAYS. I just counted.
  • Catriona for continuing to put up with me. You are amazing.
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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!

I Cannae Belize It!

So we did make that flight, although a far from smooth transition as we’d spent the previous night with Havana locals on the beach until 7am. We’d met a chap from Switzerland called Adam who ingratiated himself by smuggling two bottles of rum into a salsa club and plying our already translucent Cuba Libres with added ‘zest.’ Through Adam we met Max, a freelance photographer (whose business is entitled ‘Loose Canon’ – very clever) through whom we met every drunk Cuban in Havana. We sang songs on the beach front until I looked through the haze at my watch and figured if we wanted to catch our flight we better get home and sleep a little. Home is an accurate term, as at no point in Cuba (apart from the communist Butlins on the beach) did we stay in a hotel or hostel. All accommodation was supplied by families in “casa particulars,” which were effectively home stays, where you agreed time for breakfast and dinner (and their respective prices) with the matriarch of the family and slept in a spare bedroom they could provide. While this sounds wonderfully authentic and cosy, in reality it was a fairly easy conduit to awkwardness. For instance on our first day in Havana we didn’t make it clear enough that we didn’t want dinner – well we thought we had but we clearly hadn’t. Returning at midnight after a baseball game (they are fanatic about it) and some rum (they’re fanatic about that too) we were confronted by the husband who enquired in gruff Spanish if we were now ready for dinner as they’d prepared it for us. Chicken and vegetables apparently. Lovely. Took ages to cook. We had to grovel and beg forgiveness, as we simply weren’t hungry. In the end we didn’t get fed and we didn’t get forgiven. It’s safe to say we chose a different casa on our return to Havana.

Back in the land of tacos (oh how we gorged ourselves) we picked up a 5th member of Team Gina (our babe of a jeep waiting untouched on a Cancun sidestreet thankfully) in the shape of Ellen’s friend Alison. Car as suitably stuffed as our stomachs we ventured south down the Yucutan coast to Coba – Mayan ruins dotted throughout the jungle which we cycled between. This included a 42 metre tall ruin you could climb up for an all encompassing vista of the green canopy below. Yucutan’s ruins are as varied as they are prolific, and Coba was a solid stab at representing the best bits of all of them – a good intro for Alison we reckoned. We also squeezed in some more cenotes, which apart from ‘authentic’ Mayan mask shops and Pemex petrol stations, are the only things that outnumber the ruins. These cenotes clung to the edge of a glassy lake near Bacalar, allowing us to swim from it’s relative shallows over a narrow shelf and into a 180 metre sink-hole bordered by jungle. It was a grand footnote to our whole time in Mexico. The word Yucatan is Mayan for “we don’t know what you’re talking about,” which is what the locals yelled at the Spaniards when they politely enquired where on earth they were. The name stuck but it could be used nowadays to cover the whole country, especially in response to all the criticism it keeps getting from outsiders. I have no idea what they were talking about. Before we crossed the border we were told by various Americans that the food was terrible (it’s incredible), it was dangerous (not dangerous for tourists, not dangerous at all) and there was nothing to see (I doubt there are many countries on earth with more to see), so to them I say “Yucutan!” Or just, “shut up, stop fear-mongering and go visit for yourself, you may learn something.”

We’re now in Belize, home of Caribbeans, Mennonites, money with the queen on it and a lot of fish. We just spent the day snorkelling amongst them courtesy of a hilarious Rastafarian bloke called Benedict (he liked to call me ‘baby’). G caught three fish with a spear gun, which was incredibly manly. I couldn’t even reload the gun. At one point we were surrounded by 5 foot wide sting-rays and reef sharks. The coral was heaped on top of itself like a huge aquatic bakery, great spans of purple wafting in the current like mouldy crepes.   I stayed in the water for so long I got sunburnt, which seems to be my new inauguration ceremony for every new country we visit. So it appears we’re going to stay on this little island of Caye Caulker for a couple more days before heading to shore and heading west to Guatamala. Gina just loves those border crossings.

Base Camp Morning Report.

Happy Dependence Day everyone! We are family! I awoke his morning, bleary-eyed from my work leaving do to hear the news that Scots had opted for the ‘Better the devil you know’ side of thinking, which was the correct side in my eyes. I spent the rest of the day continuing my mission to compact the previous three years of stuff into a rucksack, via trips to the dump and to some spare cupboards in my parents’ house. I’ve always owned pretty terrible clothes so it was almost more difficult deciding what NOT to donate to charity. Now, I’m sitting in the living room waiting for Cammy to pick me up for the trip to the airport. A flight to Gatwick, a wedding in Worthing and a dash back to Gatwick later I’ll be winging my way to Anchorage, with erstwhile potato baron Graham Flemming for company! I talked to G this morning and it sounds like he’s taking the ‘travel light’ philosophy rather seriously, bringing a back pack that would be too small for a child’s first day at school. I think he’ll be borrowing a few of my terrible jumpers at this rate. If anything else interesting happens over the next 7 months you can trust that it will find it’s way on to here, so keep your eyes aggressively peeled! Until next time – bon voyage!