Tuesday, July 10, 2012

South America to Scotland on a guitar string!

When I first cast eyes on my hubby he was singing A Hard Day's Night by the Beatles, strumming on his guitar and sporting a suit topped off with a red Santa hat. Well, alright, that's not strictly true.

The first time I ever saw him was actually earlier that same day, walking off in the opposite direction carrying a bulky guitar case (it's a standard size - it just looked overly large beside his small frame). I never saw his face until that night. I only remember seeing him earlier that day because of the blonde dreadlocks. They were hard to forget.

If you've read A Darwinian Love Affair, you'll know that my first impression of his Beatles cover was not most favorable. Admittedly I was in full Brit 'crit' mode at the beginning of his performance when he opened his mouth and a painfully slow version of the Liverpudlian band classic came crawling out. In spite of a somewhat sketchy start, it didn't take a second song to convert me. I was hooked before he made it through the opening cover. We now have a Beatles poster of that same track hanging on our bedroom wall.    

I was a wannabe groupy from the get-go. Half way through the show he came down to meet his audience. We were a handful of backpackers who happened to be hanging in HVH, Quito, Ecuador that night. I remember feeling thrilled when the vocalist with the dreadlocks looked me straight in the eyes and asked me my name. Like he even cared or would remember.

But he did remember - and it soon became abundantly obvious that he cared also. Our romance developed over the following five days in the Galapagos Islands - as did my groupie status - culminating in a seemingly premature invitation for me to move in with him in his apartment in Quito. The rest (as they say) is history.

I don't know if he's ever truly known or believed just how blown away I was by his voice and his performer abilities. To me he was simply incredible - like no one I'd ever met before. I knew if he'd really wanted it he could have been famous.    

He said he did want that - but he also wanted to do lots of other things too, like travel the world, learn 15 different languages, be a photographer - and a painter too. He described himself as a Jack of all trades, master of none. I begged to differ. He seemed pretty damn masterful at anything he turned his hand to (maybe not so much the painting). Singing was such a significant part of his life while we lived in Quito. I'm sad it's taken such a back burner since the kids came along. 

As it turns out he's a damn fine Daddy too ('Jack' my ass).

In South America he earned his living as a teacher, but he tried to supplement that living as a singer, although when I first met him he was little more than an on-stage busker. Other than earning a few dollars in tips and scoring a heavily discounted Galapagos cruise ticket in exchange for providing evening entertainment on our boat - he hadn't really reaped any financial rewards from his music.

Los Confundidos playing in H.V.H, Quito
In the few short months we lived together in Quito he formed a band Los Confundidos with an Ecuadorian Guitarist and a fellow American teacher who played the banjo. The band took him away from me a lot and I hated that, but the gigs got bigger and better - I absolutely loved that.

I soon jumped on the band wagon, promoting them by distributing fliers and pinning posters in various internet cafes and restaurants around Gringo-Land. We added a cover charge and I collected the dollar entrance fee at the door. All friends were free of course, so they still didn't make very much even though the bar was packed. 

His year in Quito was coming to an end, and he was yet to determine where his next 'long term' teaching position would be. 
There was, however, a vague interim plan to head towards his uncle's home in Sao Paulo, Brazil in the hopes of joining a band and singing for his supper for a wee while. 

Band groupies (I'm red eyes on the left)
It sounded like an adventure to me, as did the crazy (cheap ass) plan to get there - but that's a whole other story (gettin' on a boat). I was in. He'd had me at 'cheap ass'.

Before we headed across the continent
Los Confundidos stumbled across some affordable studio time. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so the hubs was pretty much missing in action for the best part of a week while they recorded their one and only album. It mainly consisted of cover songs, but it also had three original tracks on there - written by my hubs (Jack) of course.  

Head groupy - yours truly - was put in charge of the album cover photograph (see pic below). 
The band were pretty broke - my hubs in particular - so once they'd generated the master CDs, they only made a small number of copies (I think close to one hundred in total). I'm not sure how many ended up in good homes, or if they still exist today.

The hubs and I were further limited by how many we could backpack across the continent with us, so we only bought thirty copies or so, a handful of which t
he hubs shipped home to his family

A few CDs were punted - 10 dollars a pop - at the boys' final gig in Quito, and the proceeds split. The rest of ours went with us in the hubs' guitar case, in the hopes we could sell them along the way.

Los Confundidos posing for album pic!
From unpaid on-stage busker to small scale sell-out professional lead singer/songwriter of Los Confundidos - with one album release under his belt - my fella had come a long way. From rags to..... well he was still in rags, but his musical accomplishments in such a short time - in a far away land - was incredible to me. He was my guitar wielding hero and I would have followed him across the world - which I did.  

Unfortunately my hero didn't have much moolah to show for his masterful skills. Before I met him he pretty much flew by the seat of his pants when it came to earning a living. Getting across South America on a shoestring budget would have been a luxury for us.

He wasn't supporting his groupy girl - I'd just ditched my career in the dirty oil industry, remember - I had plenty of my own cashola to cruise around the continent with, if I'd wanted to. Instead, I was hell bent on sharing my hippy hobo's lifestyle, so we made my stash 'off limits' from the get-go, agreeing that I would match my man dollar for dollar along the way.

We made it to the Brazil coast via the Amazon and stationed ourselves in a backpackers paradise called Jericoacoara. In 2003 Jeri - as we fondly dubbed it - was a fairly unknown location, somewhat off the beaten track. You didn't just happen across this place along your travels - you made it there via a raft crossing and a jeep ride through the sand dunes. We were led there by a traveler in the know and it was worth the trek. We rented a beach house for a month. We should have stayed a year.

It didn't take long to secure a few paying gigs in a beach bar. The hubs had a little hostile competition from a local entertainer, who begrudgingly befriended us once my man proved himself to be a worthy adversary - keep your  friends close keep your enemies closer. There were only 5 or so bars in the 'resort' and before long we managed to sign the hubs up at all of them.

At some point along the way I had promoted myself from groupie to manager. My fella didn't seem to mind. I neatly wrote out a kickass playlist then taped it to the top of his guitar so that he could follow it live. He was on fire at the beach in Brazil - literally (but I'll get to that in a minute). I could hardly believe he was mine and we were fulfilling one of his dreams together. The hubs' mantra:

 Better a life of dreams fulfilled than dreams of fulfillment.

At some point earlier in our travels - perhaps we'd been in Peru - I'd been wowed at the beach by a fantastical fire show put on by some local performers. My guy had stood up and asked for a turn and the hippies didn't hesitate.

I watched in fear and fascination as he spun those burning coals magically around his head. 'Jack' my ass -  he was the bomdiggy! The coals were attached to the end of chains with leather strap handles. They were called fire poi, and it appeared my hubs was proficient in this also.

In Jeri he made me a set of 'girl' poi to practice with. Although his intentions were admirable I was pretty pissed at the gesture. After a few hours swinging my 'girl' poi around (unlit of course), he soon admitted he'd underestimated me, and he made me a set to match his own.

I soon became a familiar figure at the beach turning my hands and making my poi dance, mastering as many moves as the hubs knew. It was quite a work-out. My enthusiasm for poi rekindled the hubs' passion and he invented a unique and dangerous move all of his own, which included a forward roll. All well and good, unlit and on the soft sandy beach.    

Finally, after weeks of practicing, we set our poi on fire! After dark, we waited - just the two of us - until the sand path behind our beach home was deserted, then (with our buckets of water on stand by) we lit up the night sky with our fiery circus act.

Final gig in Jericoacoara . My hubs is the one on the left.
The night sky wasn't the only thing that was lit-up that night. As the fire balls flashed around us, I was lost in the flames burning bright in my singer's eyes. I could have gotten stuck in that moment forever.  

Toward the end of our month in Jeri we were approaching local celebrity status. We planned a final concert inviting our frenemy the local entertainer, and some other local musicians to perform alongside the hubs, or take their own set if they wished.

It was a knock-out gig. The best I'd seen him yet. He'd already voiced his intention to light-up his poi during the show. I wasn't ready to join him in front of an audience. I begged him not to try and wow an already sufficiently psyched audience with his fiery forward roll maneuver - of course he didn't listen.

I could barely look as he took on the tricky tumble on the small concrete slab, which served as the stage - at least his dreads gave him some head cushioning. 
I had visions of patrons throwing their alcoholic beverages over him to douse the flames. Of course he nailed it. The man was on fire - in more ways than one - how could I not melt around his heat?

Celebrating a successful final gig. Jeri, Brazil (hubs far right,
his frenemy in the middle) 
It's always good to leave on a high note. That's not why we left though. We'd made plans to be at the uncle's in time for Christmas. That could only mean back-to-back bus rides, from the quiet balmy beach in the North, to the gargantuan over-crowded city in the South, Sao Paulo.

I knew nothing of the Brazilian capital save for its record population and its notoriety for muggins and gun crime. I wasn't really looking forward to the upcoming phase of our adventure, my hubs', however, had his aspirations of fame and fortune pinned on this next leg of his life journey - at the very least he hoped to find a band and be earning an honest penny by New Year...

Christmas was wonderful, and we found ourselves included in all the gift giving and celebrations. My hubs wrote two songs for me - one fast; Rollercoaster Blue, and one slow; Little Lullabye - the lyrics of which are branded across my heart. He surprised me with these on Christmas day. Those days he wrote and played all the time, and even though we lived in each other's pockets he somehow composed these tunes without me noticing.

Unfortunately searching for a paying gig turned out to be like searching for a needle in a haystack, and my superstar was suddenly the tiniest fish in the biggest pond in South America. Like Bugs Bunny, we'd definitely taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. There was no quick fix to replenish the travel kitty which was being fast burned up by our living the high-life on the wrong side of town.

I think we both harbored regrets for leaving Jeri, especially after sharing humdrum fantasies of setting up shop at the beach, whilst snuggling together in our hammock at night. Neither of us wanted to go back though. The Gentle Winds of Change had brought the hubs' to his knees once again. We needed to keep moving onwards and upwards.

Wanting to knock Jeri from our pedestal the hubs' uncle hospitably took us to their holiday home in Ubatuba - a Sao Paola beach resort, which was nothing short of paradise. But it was no place for a backpacker band hopeful attempting to make a few bucks for bed and board - at least not the upend part where these fancy folks resided.

As we were forced to fork out 'only' 10 bucks (ONLY 10 BUCKS would have covered two nights for the pair of us in our usual class of accommodation) for a basket of calamari that neither of us had really wanted, we knew it was time to say our goodbyes. Free digs was turning into a mindless money pit, the extent of which the hubs' high class uncle could not begin to fathom.    

The first step was to escape from the bosom of our Brazilian family without causing offence. We couldn't stay in Brazil then - unless we fibbed of courseWe played with the idea of staying in Brazil for a while, and finally thought better of it. While we still had enough cash to make the journey, we purchased bus tickets to Iguazu Falls. Our course was set for Argentina.

As soon as we arrived in Iguazu we hit the streets looking for a suitable bar for my singer to shine his light in. We soon found one. He demoed a few songs for the bar manager and between themselves they worked out a fair gig price.
Our digs were basic, but we were much happier being hippier. Especially as the hubs was back to being breadwinner.

The hubs and bar manager, Iguazu Falls, Brazil
On the border of Brazil we chopped off his dread locks. They'd been dreaded by a dreadfully amateur crew of teachers back in Quito, and his regrowth had never taken to dreading properly. The roots were somewhat stale and rotten from being permanently water logged by salty sea and sand. Any attempt at washing his scalp was causing the top of his head to fuzz up in a mass of frizz. Not the look he'd been going for.

Sadly for the hubs - just like his dreadlocks - his days of singing for his supper were numbered. I sometimes wondered (much later) if chopping off those locks took away his mojo...

Once we reached 
Buenos Aires, Argentina his veritable vocation became abundantly clear: He'd tried his hand at busking, but a close brush with the law left both of us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Working in a teaching establishment (or a bar for that matter) was illegal but it wasn't quite so obvious a misdemeanor as busking without a permit. We didn't need a second warning. With the musical career taking a bit of a nose dive, the resourceful hubs turned his talents back to teaching. 

I worked on the reception at a hostel in exchange for free digs and I tried my hand at teaching too, but b
etween us we earned peanuts - barely enough to get by, let alone enjoy our time in Buenos Aires. After struggling for 6 months we finally let go of our brutal budget and our break-even aspirations. It was time to dip into my sordid stash...

For our last few months in South America we became budget backpackers like everyone else - a little more bohemian perhaps, and the hubs' still sang for his supper whenever he got the chance. 
Our last night in Argentina we basked in 5 star luxury before taking to the air Texas bound. It was time to meet the hubs' folks.

The hubs put down his guitar, and we dallied in his home town for a while, before crossing the Atlantic to meet my folks. He brought a much littler guitar with him. 
Christmas came and went once again, and with our International romance stunting my hubs' travel capers, we needed a mutual plan. Spain and the sun beckoned, but in Barcelona the same sticky problem arose; the hubs' couldn't legally work in Europe. 

I was back on the 'game' - the dirty oil game - with my sights set on a Petroleum Engineering gig in Houston. Spurred on after reading Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand), I'd started the application process while we'd been 'dallying' in Texas. 

To me it was the obvious solution to all our problems; we'd be rich and legally allowed to live together - well, at least in the same country. Living together 'legally' - and not over the brush - required a contract of a different sort.

It didn't pan out, the location that is, not the dirty oil gig - that I got. 
The hubs, however, had a more permanent solution in mind. Beneath a fluorescent star spangled ceiling, he pulled out his more proportionate guitar and sang to me a song I'd never heard before. The best part went something like this...

I've got stinky feet, a bad memory, and I'm particular about how I like my rice,
But I'm still hoping you'll be willing to be my wife...
So I propose, how many times must I ask you to marry me - before you know it's true?
How many times must I ask you to marry me, before you finally say "I do" ooh, ooh
Do do do do do do do do....
(Getting onto his knees, putting the guitar to one side)

"Will you marry me?" asked my Jack of all trades - master of my heart.
"Of course!" I didn't hesitate. That's all I'd wanted for quite some time.

I still accepted my dirty oil gig, and as man and wife we semi-settled in Scotland. Later that same whirlwind year, out of the blue, my hubs was contacted by a film maker who wanted to use one of his original songs
Disculpame in a movie... IN A MOVIE!

It was a low budget, gay flick, with the only proffered form of payment being possible prestige and a warm fuzzy feeling. Of course he gave them the rights to use his song - who in their right mind wouldn't have?

The moment we watched the movie East Side Story was a true triumph. His song plays for such a surprisingly long time over the most moving scene. I was stunned and so incredibly proud of my husband. That studio time in Quito had been worth every penny.

The hubs recently stumbled across an Ugly Betty montage on YouTube which uses Disculpame as background music. How cool is this?

After this brief glimmer of stardom, our lives took on a semblance of normality in Scotland. I worked for a large oil and gas corporation, and the hubs taught English at the college. He rarely picked up his guitar anymore. Instead he flexed his hidden acting muscles. Would this man ever cease to amaze me?

The hubs playing Fleet in Titanic
I watched in wonder as he sang his hauntingly beautiful Titanic solo center stage in his His Majesty's Theater, Aberdeen. It was a packed house.

During our last year in Scotland, an established local rock band Sanctuary lost their lead singer. My hubs auditioned for the gig and of course they snatched him up. It was during this rockin' time that I got to witness the full force of his performance prowess.

Guitarless, with a stand-up mike as his only prop, his talent for wooing the audience knew no bounds. I was shocked, impressed, embarrassed and brimming over with pride all at the same time! I was a groupy again along with my best friend. We were Sanctuary's  fledgeling following - and we rarely missed a performance!     
Lead singer in Sanctuary, Aberdeen
Some of these Aberdeenshire gigs were the biggest and headiest I've seen him do - especially when Sanctuary performed within Aberdeen city limits. They made pocket change, which paid for the beer - and band expenses. They all had their day jobs, so the money didn't matter - much. Profiting from a performance was a splendid slap on the back though - and I think they'd have all dropped their day jobs to play professionally if some music label had signed them up. Alas, it wasn't to be. 

Sanctuary in full swing and our feet dangerously starting to take root, we took flight once again. We left on a high note - musically speaking. Scotland had run its course for us, and for the next few years we set our sights Across The Pond, to a small Texas Hill country town, just outside of Austin; the music capital of the world.

I could have been a contender George....

Old band buddies of my hubs are now a headlining rock group in Austin, pulling in massive crowds in the larger venues. With frequent radio airplay and their music featuring in various box office hits, they're starting to make their presence known worldwide. 
The hubs can't help indulging in a wistful dream of how it could have been him...

I've no doubt it could have been if he'd stayed put. Instead he chose to travel and see the world. Then he found me. With our third baby on the way, most of his time and performer skills are monopolized by being 'The Daddy'. He may only have the littlest audience in the world but he's a hero in their wide and wondrous eyes.

I know the urge for center stage still burns inside of him  - and he's managed to satisfy his itch with the odd local play here and there. His most recent role as Jesus certainly laid to rest a few demons for the past year or so. But I can hear an ominous beating of a drum. It's only a matter of time before once again the performer breaks loose.

It's bound to happen and when it does, the kids and I will be ready for him.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

am I a travel fraud?

"Yer what?!" My uncle gawked at us both for a few seconds in sheer disbelief, before his brow settled into a disapproving furrow. "Well, yer pair of bloody frauds!" I could detect a touch of wry humor diluting his obvious disgust at our lack of 'worldly' knowledge on the subject in question.

Thinking back, I can't for the life of me remember what the subject was - and it wouldn't matter even if I did. I'm sure I'm no more knowledgeable now than I was then, almost nine years ago, when I first took my not-yet-then-husband to visit my dad's big brother.

Much like my dad - and all of his five brothers - this uncle was a sponge when it came to acquiring knowledge. They all had a passion for learning - a thirst for knowledge that I didn't emulate - at least not to an equal extent.

Thankfully, these days - in the throes of Mommydom - I no longer feel the need to try. Belied by my bouts of baby brain, I'm not the numpty I may have you thinking I am (honest). There's definitely a bit of grey matter between my ears. 

Nevertheless, my lack of fervor for fact finding was (and still is) definitely evident in my trivial travel pursuits. I'm certainly not opposed to some leisurely learning along the way. If my brain happens to successfully absorb some interesting fact - good for me! 

The truth is, even if my brain had successfully banked some titbits of trivia during my backpacking heydays, I guarantee those nuggets have long since been buried beneath layers of what may seem like banal baby blurb to others but what has become paramount parenting particulars for this motivated Momma. 
These days I barely have head space to remember what book I read last week! 

I remember everything about my amazing adventures though and the names and faces of all the incredible people we met along the way. Even after almost a decade has passed, I can still taste our La Paz steaks as if we ate them only yesterday!
"I can't believe it! You mean to tell me you went all that way... blah blah blah.. and you didn't even see......blah blah.... you can't even tell me who........blah blah.... well! Yer bloody Travel Frauds!!"

There it was! My uncle had got us pegged from the get-go. I'd never come up with a label for what I am before. But after barely 15 minutes of sitting on his couch with a cuppa tea - he'd already gotten my hub's and my mark.

Was he right? Were we just a pair of Travel Frauds?

When I started thinking about it I realized I didn't just suffer from a lack of retained knowledge regarding the places I'd been, but in many of these locations I'd actually given many revered landmarks a wide berth - opting for a more fun albeit frivolous option. Like choosing a midnight hang-out in a New York McDonald's with my newly acquired camp buddies instead of taking a fleeting trip to see the Empire State Building on our one night stopover, or indulging in shopping and a massage in the markets of Beijing instead of perusing the Palace.

Had I been too blase in thinking there would be a next time?
 I could always come back, right....?

My hubs - to his credit - at least went to see the Great Wall of China with his own eyes during his stint in China. I lived in that vast and ancient country steeped in world wonders and history for over a year (a different time to my husband) and never made it out to see the fabulous scenery the Great Wall has to offer....  
 or the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace for that matter!

I saw them all at Disney World though (with the hubs) - absolutely incredible!

During my China days I did, however, partake in many shocking live food adventures, squat over a pile of poop so high I had to stand on my tippy toes to avoid touching it, walk street after street littered with thousands of mashed psychedelic chicks and share an eight berth room on an all male (save for me) oil rig for an entire month.

Even more pleasant, I also managed to see the inside of a hospital during the SARS crisis.

I don't regret my experiences - not for one moment. If all I'd wanted out of being in China, was to acquire knowledge about China, I could just have easily stayed home and read a book or a newspaper - or even watched the telly - like my dad and uncle.

Admittedly, even after my firsthand experience, I wouldn't fancy my chances going head-to-head with either of them on a quiz about China. But their education is such a prescribed syllabus of geography, history and facts. Education to me is so much wider than what can be sought from a book! Experiential education is second to none.

I was working offshore in China- but that's not why I didn't take in the sites. I had some days off - and if it had been a priority I could have made it happen. I just cared to use my spare time differently. Experiencing day to day local living as opposed to tackling the tourist traps.

At the time, and considering my youth, it would have felt too much like ticking off somebody else's bucket list! Just visiting places for the sake of saying "I was there" is one hell of a big bucket list - and as far as I was concerned, a total waste of my precious travel resources (time, money and energy).

Me - I was in it for the adventure! And admittedly I would have gladly gone to see any sites if some rapturous traveler had rail-roaded me into it. I never for one second believed The Great Wall of China was not worth seeing - on the contrary - so many wonderful places on Earth can only be truly experienced by being there. A picture, although still powerful, can only show you so much. You can't hear or breathe the attraction from a postcard.

Great examples of these (at least for me) are Niagra and Iguazu falls, and
 the Grand Canyon of course! However, if there's any truth in that crazy statistic, being the average visitor can only stand to look for 15 seconds, then that's a long long way to go for 15 seconds of fabulous! Especially as most of those 15 seconds you're likely looking at the canyon from behind a Canon!

The hubs and I barely lasted 10 minutes gawping at that gorgeous and grandiose canyon before getting back on the road to Vegas. I'm sure if they'd had the Skywalk built back then we'd have stayed at least another ten minutes. We couldn't resist an impromptu stop at the Grand Canyon IMAX on the way out of town though - a very cool way to see all of the Grand Canyon!

It turns out I've been to a number of places, leaving many boxes un-ticked. Had I really visited them? Certainly not like a 'true' tourist would have. But then I never thought of myself as a tourist - I was a traveler. Two very different species.

Would any traveler choose to burn up thirteen days of their life inside the Louvre? Perhaps if you lived on its doorstep maybe. We found the fifty minute Da Vinci Code Soundwalk to be a great way to tackle the museum. What a relief to be guided through such an overwhelming kingdom of culture. It led us right up to the Mona Lisa, and even up to the infamous bathroom featured in the book! A whole lot more fulfilling (for me) than walking down endless corridors perusing painting after painting....

Likewise, why bother going all that way up to the top of the Empire State building, when they've got that Skyride on the second floor - that's how I chose to see 'The Big Apple' the second time around! And I can certainly vouch for the cafe at the base of the Statue of Liberty - there's a great view of the statue, and it's so much more relaxing than fighting throngs of tourists to get all the way up to the crown! I recall my twin brother was pretty appalled that I'd wasted both my first and second opportunities to scale both his favorite NY structures. I got him some mini souvenirs to ease the disappointment.

As it turned out I returned to New York City for a third trip - at Christmas - and again I found my time was far too valuable to waste on landmarks and architecture! Instead we saw The Color Purple, stood at the base of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, and people watched at the side of the ice rink in Central Park. I'm sure I'll be back again, but will I ever see the top of The empire State Building? I wouldn't bet on it....

Even on the great Galapagos Islands, I opted out of several hikes in favor of sunning myself on the upper deck of our anchored boat: blue skys, crystal cool waters, a gently bobbing boat and an new English smoking buddy to swap stories with... not really a hard decision for me.

The not-yet-then-hubs was amazed at my ability to blow-off some of the Galapagos Islands' tours I'd forked out good money for. But what do I care about the volcanic tuffs on the islands? I studied Geology at University. What did I want to go and see more rocks for, when I had such a limited time to lap up my sun-cruise experience?

The hubs did, however, opt to stay outside of Che Guevara's house with me - refusing to pay the admission - when we visited Alta Gracia in Argentina. We were a little over budget to be fair - but quibbling over a dollar? We reasoned with ourselves that good old Che wouldn't appreciate the locals' capitalizing from his childhood home. Plus I was very hungry - and for me it just wasn't worth a dollar or the energy to go inside and look around - no offence Che.

Che's House in Alta Gracia, Argentina
We've been and seen his home from the outside though - at least we've 'ticked' that one off our back-packer bucket list! There was absolutely nothing else in Alta Gracia - not even a place open to eat - so why did we bother to go? I can't answer that exactly. It was something to do I guess - more travel experience - and there aren't that many tourist day-trips to choose from out of Cordoba. It was a joint-venture with some new back-packer buddies we'd met in our Cordoba hostel. 

Like most of our off-beat backpacking detours - we'd been inspired by our fellow travelers' plans. I'd had a fun and memorable day, at least, and the experience was as 'real' as they get. If I remember rightly - it being a Sunday - we were forced to hitch part way back to our hostel. Not the first time, and it wasn't the last I've had to compromise on my rule of  'no thumb'!

I'm sure, if I thought really hard about it, I could list many more half experiences or ones I simply passed up entirely, to hang with fellow travelers at the hostel, visit an internet cafe, shop - or relax and drink coffee or wine, simply just living and taking 'ít' all in......

The world is jam-packed full of wonderful sites, experiences, locations, people and culture. Nobody can do it all, so why bother to try? My traveling days are some of the happiest I can remember. Especially the slower days of visiting the vineyards in Northern Argentina, and basking on the beaches of Northern Brazil.

I have no travel regrets. And if what I am is a travel fraud, then I'm proud of it. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't change a single thing...

I just asked the hubby to proof read my blog draft (he's an English teacher after all) and he clearly remembers the subject matter in question that had my uncle denouncing us as travel frauds:  

We'd been on a UK road trip up North to Edinburgh, Scotland where we had visited the castle (our 
stopover with my Auntie and Uncle in Newcastle was to break up the drive back home to Yorkshire). Upon hearing of our recent adventures in Edinburgh my uncle had asked us if we knew what the real name of Edinburgh Castle was..... 

Of course we didn't. 
I've never found it out to this day - if indeed there even is another name - and we've been back to visit the austere 'Edinburgh' castle on a number of visits!  

Do you know it's real name?

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Out of the frying pan into the fire.....

This piece was originally written in 2004 in an internet cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a detailed recap of my very first day in South America - 3 weeks before I met my husband. It was originally intended to be the introduction to a travel book entitled:

Out of the 'Blue' and into the 'Green and Gringa'
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of my friends.

11 May 2003

I pressed my forehead against the airplane door window in KLM business class, straining to catch that unforgettable first sight of the Andes as the plane tilted left into its circling descent. The landing in Quito was one of the most beautiful and one of the most dangerous - that’s what the suited passengers sitting either side of me had boasted. Not wanting to miss a beat to this nail-biting start of my South American adventure – and to show the passengers around me that I had in fact been listening - I clicked my barely used Canon digital camera incessantly from both sides of the plane. In retrospect my eyes didn’t have the same chance to appreciate what my lens captured.

My seat in business class had been a last minute complimentary upgrade thanks to my ‘Flying Dutchman’ membership and an overbooked economy class - a combination of good fortune that should have dumbstruck me. However, spoiled by a former lifestyle, I didn’t wonder on it too much when I was summoned up to the desk in the passenger lounge to receive my surprise class-upgrade ticket. I waved a nonchalant ‘see you later’ to the good -looking accountant who’d been casually chatting to me, deriving some grim satisfaction from his augmented interest as I rejoined the boarding queue at the front along with the first class and business class passengers.     

I had flown business class on a few occasions over the last year – but more so in the seductive, induction stage of my ‘soon to be ex’ oilfield career with Schlumberger. Still in their wake, it didn’t occur to me then not to take such a luxury for granted – perhaps I hadn’t truly intended on giving it all up at that point. I accepted my good fortune with an ease that belied the worn jeans and baseball cap I was sporting. Nobody would have guessed that I was sipping champagne because I’d timely cashed in a wad of old boarding pass stubs on my last flight out to China – they’d started clogging up my playboy bunny purse - I didn’t act like it wasn’t actually my God-given right to be there.

Once seated and satiated, after a tasty snack and a few glasses of free bubbly, the novelty of all the in-flight activities had started to wane and still too caffeine intoxicated to attempt sleep, I’d been forced to think on the place I was so thoughtlessly heading toward - and even more unwillingly - of that place I had so thoughtfully fled. Ecuador was an obscure destination, or so I’d thought. That any section of the plane could be overbooked seemed a little odd.

I’d felt sure that most passengers would get off in the Caribbean. But when we’d finally re-boarded the plane - after waiting for the all clear on the Quito weather report - my initial prejudices of Ecuador had been subdued when a substantial proportion of passengers remained for the last leg of the flight on to Quito. What was in Ecuador for all of these people with their smart clothes and fancy dresses? My unanswered thoughts meandered from the sure virgin beauty of the mountains to the lush wonders of the jungle, yet inevitably I’d found myself thinking of the oil. There was always oil in the most obscure – unlivable - places. Forcing myself to focus on this cloud’s silver lining, my thoughts flitted assuredly to my good friend and ‘Blue’ colleague Ron Lark, probably already in Quito by now.

Ron’s transferal from China to Ecuador had coincided with the time of my choosing to exhaust my vacation days there; however, the idea of my going to Ecuador had been planted by an external factor, Eric; a drinking friend from my University days, who was currently teaching English in Cuenca. Thanks to my annual vacation allowance I had the freedom to choose anyplace in the world to fly. I first thought tentatively of Ecuador for the simple fact that I already knew somebody there. I further reasoned that Ecuador was as far away from both Beijing and England as could be and part of a mysterious continent of which I was completely ignorant – perhaps the biggest turn on to a born traveler. It seemed as good a place as any to start – whatever I was starting.

But Cuenca was quite far south of Quito, as I understood it, and I was very skeptical of arriving alone on what I considered a high-risk continent. Eric attempted to quash my fears, insisting over MSN messenger that I’d be fine landing in Quito alone – that I had to see the place before I visited him in Cuenca. He assured me it would be no problem to email him when I’d arrived and settled in. I was still dubious, so the plan didn’t turn concrete until the tidings of Ron’s transferal had sunk in.  Knowing that Schlumberger existed in Quito gave me the ‘get out of jail free card’ that buffered the start of my adventure. I could tell myself that this journey was essentially no different; they just would not be waiting in the airport with a sign - as it turned out, Simon would be there waiting instead….

After I’d checked out the exact location of Ecuador on the Internet, and ensured that the British Embassy had not recently warned all Brits to leave, Schlumberger purchased an expensive round trip ticket for me, open-ended for one year. I was leaving China on the pretext of using up my accumulation of vacation days, but with an accepted understanding of my intention to resign. They thought that I might change my mind and I conceded there was a good chance of that happening. I had from then until the end of June - almost 8 weeks in which to find out that the grass was really no greener in South America.

I buckled up now, as the plane leveled out and the seat belt sign indicated that we were soon to land. We were close enough to get a clear view of the snow-capped volcanic landscape skirting the high altitude capital city. I stopped my clicking and stared in wonder at a new beauty. As the extensive development of Quito became shockingly clear, Ecuador earned further reprisal in my eyes. Excitement overwhelmed the usual wave of apprehension as the wheels touched down and the wing fans lifted to break our speed, noisily beating the air stream back giving that false impression of whirring out of control.

My lungs barely endured the waiting as the plane parked and the seat belt sign dinged off, leaving only the forever illuminated no smoking sign. I unbuckled and pulled out my small knapsack from the overhead compartment in one fluid motion. The doors were opened to the outside and I was almost first to leave the air-conditioned interior, straight out into the path of the concentrated equator sunrays. I blinked across to a tiny airport terminal. Somewhere I knew that Simon would already be waiting.

In arrivals a dirty transparent plastic wall cordoned off a lone luggage belt from four immigration desks only two of which were manned. I could see dark, craggy faced men in uniform smoking in the luggage collection area. First inline I smiled my way through and my UK passport was stamped with ‘90 days’ – plenty of time. I glanced left at the immobile luggage belt, happy with myself that I’d not needed to stow any. Fumbling in my knapsack to secure my passport and find my cigarettes, I started for the exit. I slowed my pace when I couldn’t lay my hand on anything remotely cigarette packet like – bollocks…! My box of 20 packs of Marlboro lights was left inside a duty-free bag sitting on the plane! I considered walking away and leaving them for one of the hostesses, but I wasn’t sure if they’d have Marlboro lights in Ecuador. And it was 20 packs….well 18 and a half or so now, it had been a long flight. Somewhere inside of me wanted to delay my meeting with Simon. That thought process alone was enough to leave me gasping… I could really have done with a cigarette or two!

I scanned the baggage claim lounge for help. Nothing really looked hopeful so I approached a man behind a desk in the corner. To say my Spanish was a little limited here would be an overstatement. Unless I had thought to ‘thank’ the man into finding my cigarettes I was pretty much screwed. After my tentative English greeting was rewarded with a less tentative barrage of Spanish, charades became my better option. It had done wonders for me in China. My bad acting involved a lot of simulated puffing and pointing at the plane, and I’d managed to smoke a few of his cigarettes before he found a partial English speaker for me to tell my problem to. They told me to wait and after twenty minutes or so a young Latino came springing through the plastic curtains onto and over the once again immobile luggage conveyor belt with my duty free carrier bag. By now I was the last passenger in the airport in spite of not having stowed luggage beneath the plane. I felt a little guilty about Simon waiting. I was already delayed a couple of hours from the extended stopover in the Caribbean where I’d seen little more than the inside of a smoker’s lounge although I’d felt the heat. We’d had to wait for the weather to clear in order to make a safe landing at Quito’s dangerous altitude.

I still walked incredibly slowly out of the terminal into the late morning sun, hoping to spot Simon before he saw me. Outside the airport was crowded with many people. My untuned hearing allowed me to block out the inane babbling so I sauntered passed cab drivers and numerous promoters without comment or apology.  Just beyond the rabble my eyes focused calmly on a familiar boyish grin, they widened however catching on a small flash of red that followed his wave of recognition. I stopped and looked hard at the rose that he was holding a little unsurely by his side. My tummy squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of romance and I thought fleetingly of Paul in China - I didn't fly across the globe to escape from one messed up relationship only to fall straight into another....

Simon was a mutual friend of Eric’s and mine, also from university. He’d never been more than that. But some boy friends were harder to keep as just that than others. I’d guarded myself well for the three years of university behind a long distance boyfriend, but he’d expired along with my ‘studenthood’. I don’t really understand how or why Simon had fallen into this equation. His planned trip to South America just so happened to conveniently fall in with my flight dates. Mindful of being alone in a new country - this time really being alone without the protection of my company Schlumberger - I allowed the fear of the unknown to override my bravado and in spite of a desire for an independent adventure I agreed for him to collect me at Quito airport.  I told myself it would be nice to catch up, I wasn’t above telling myself a lie in order to kickstart my adventure. The truth was I needed him and whatever I suspected his motives were at the time – I had my own. And, in spite of all, it was nice to see him.

“Is that all your luggage?” Simon was shocked to see my minimalist bag. I’d packed for good weather, deeming my jeans and trainers as necessities then a few changes of underwear, a bikini, and my lonely planet guide ‘South America on a Shoestring’. It had been my most expensive purchase after my ticket. I had my debit card, and there was enough on there to re-supply my wardrobe regularly for many moons to come. I hated the idea of a big heavy backpack and I wanted my mild scoliosis to stay mild. Besides that, I hadn’t planned how long I would be there and what I would be doing. So it didn’t matter what I had with me.. I figured I would figure it all out - in time.

We wandered out of the airport and started to walk, neither of us knew in what direction. It was nice to walk in the sun for a while, especially as I’d been sitting down for so long. We chatted about how we’d both wasted the past couple of years since University. I had a lot of negative things to say about working in the oilfield; Simon talked about his travels in Korea. We talked about what we could do in the next 4 weeks; that was how long Simon had before he returned to England. He wanted to climb a mountain, and scuba dive.  Both ideas sounded fun. He seemed to think we could see Ecuador in the first 2 weeks, then Peru in the other. The airport was a long way out from the part of the city where Simon was staying, and nervous about how many cigarettes I would smoke on the walk, we hailed a cab and the driver took us into ‘Gringo-Landia’ named so after the incredible number of tourists that come to this area. I don’t know how much we were charged. I’m glad I now can’t remember. I was surprised that Simon spoke Spanish. That would certainly make my life easier for a few days.

Simon’s hostel was within the realms of Gringo-Land. He already had a room where we could stay. I hadn’t been planning on sharing my room. The thought didn't even occur to me, so I wasn't used to the idea. I didn’t voice my concern - I simply didn't want to be un-cool about it, so I waited until we arrived at Hostel Del Sol to see what the room was like. Simon took me upstairs into a small room with a single bed. I hadn’t even seen the bed at first with all Simon’s crap exploded about the room. My first thought had been, ‘how does he carry so much shit?’ followed – swiftly – by, ‘does he expect me to snuggle up alongside him in that?’ It wasn’t going to happen. I knew that, he didn’t yet. I dumped my bag down where I could find space and delaying a potentially awkward conversation I agreed to go and investigate Quito.

I’d arrived in Quito the 11th May, midday on a Sunday. Nothing was open. We walked around for more than two hours before eventually finding a restaurant. I ordered a cocktail and Simon had a beer. He’d mentioned something very English, as we were walking around like, “Let’s go and get shit-faced tonight.” I didn't have the heart yet to smash all of his illusions of a fun time with me, so I tried to soften the blow by consuming a little alcohol. I told myself I was just being a good sport. In reality I needed a stiff drink.

The bill went onto my debit card, then we ventured a little further adrift of Gringo-Land finding the dingiest club ever that you could imagine to come across, open midday Sunday – and so of course we decided to go inside and take a look – I really didn't want anything more to drink, so I don’t know why I accepted one. The place was definitely sketchy although I was not far from oblivious at the time and still ignorant to the real threat Ecuador poses. The kids inside were underage, and the beer was rank, so for this reason I steered us out of there almost straight away. We politely sipped our beers until the plastic cups were more empty than full, then we slipped away without being disturbed save for a few steady eyes that surveyed our person intently. I had developed a pretty naïve first impression, and that was ok by me. Nobody really knows when they are being naïve.

As we reentered Hostel Del Sol, I suggested a bigger and better room with two beds. Simon didn’t realize how big a compromise this was for me. He spoke in Spanish to the receptionist and I started to feel an uncomfortable dependency on him. A large part of my naivety was in believing that everybody would try to speak English to me. Ruined by Schlumberger, an unwelcome realization that I’d never before actually been anywhere on my own was starting to set in. Pleading exhaustion I managed to avoid getting shit-faced without actually losing too much face and we both slept a long time.