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. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"I'm just gettin' on a boat" EXTRACT 4: packing strategies

Monday, 27th October 2003

Today is day six of Daniel's and my jungle adventure down the Rio Napo. Only two days after leaving Quito, Ecuador we crossed the historically dangerous South American jungle border, which separates Ecuador from its former enemy in the south, and arrived at our current location, Pantoja; a small Peruvian community sited next to a large military base. We've been living here for the past four days, standing by until the boat anchored at the side of the river – the boat we’ve come to know as the Lancha – departs, and the next part of our river journey across the continent can begin.

8:00 pm: packing strategies

Only 8 o’clock in the evening, and we’re both already happily snuggled up in our respective hammocks, middle deck on the Lancha, complete with sleeping bags and pillows. There aren’t so many mosquitoes over the river so we’ve packed up our nets – I wish I’d known that a few days ago! Our packing and transportation mission has been a success! Everything we own is now strategically positioned behind the back wall of the crew cabins, front centre of the middle deck - not quite directly - beneath our hammocks. Our hammocks are hanging from the centre rail to the port side rail, offset from all of our possessions - a slight cause for concern! We’ve attempted to minimize risk by fastening everything together using old hammock rope and wrapping the stringed-together-luggage inside a large black waterproof sheet like an enchilada. Dan’s guitar is the furthest possession away from us - and incidentally his most valuable – so we’re hoping no one will be ballsy enough to attempt a robbery.

Getting items in and out of our bags is a delicate operation, one which we have a few days ahead of us to master. I’m in charge of the small green bag - the same bag that contained all my worldly possessions when I first set foot on South American soil only five and a half months earlier - allocated for: all necessary food items like crackers, bowls and - most importantly - Nescafe; entertainment i.e. books, sketch pad and diary; ablution necessities such as toothbrushes and TP; and all miscellaneous items that we can’t possibly live without for 3 days, and that hopefully no-one else would want to nick, items such as Dan’s glasses, sun cream and insect repellant. I’m also accountable for my medium sized blue bag – initially bought for trekking Machu Picchu - which now contains both of our limited wardrobes.

Daniel is our designated padlock-key master, responsible for the security of the big blue hold-all containing all semi-necessary items, more valuable possessions like our cameras, and his ‘Gregory’ rucksack half full of currently unnecessary items. Daniel also holds the key to the removable top section of his rucksack, housing his CD’s and player, which he’s keeping by his side. Passports, money and bank cards have been hidden deep inside the main section of Dan’s rucksack, in a place that we hope is completely and utterly inaccessible. So far we’re both pleased with our luggage system, and it’s a great weight off Dan’s mind in particular to have everything secured and ready for the boat departure in the morning.

Daniel is quietly attempting to read his pirated Spanish version of the latest Harry Potter he bought in Quito. I’m bored with writing in the diary, and like a kid on Christmas Eve; I’m far too excited about the next part of our journey to just sit quietly and relax. I want him to talk to me some more about our adventure and to help me brainstorm ideas for our book, so I keep pestering him. I’ve been asking him the most distractive questions I can think of; yet, all I can get out of him are faint murmurs that barely acknowledge my existence. I’m sensing he’s a little anxious about leaving tomorrow, a Paddington Bear trait I’m now very familiar with – I need to make him laugh, that should loosen him up a little. On top of this anxiety, he’s not yet completely satisfied with his hammock set-up; apparently the sides of the hammock are now looser than the centre. I suspect he’s afraid of falling out when he rolls over in his sleep.

Watching him intently has rewarded me with a begrudging shadow of a smile - or maybe I could be imagining it…. No, there was definitely a flicker of amusement. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him turn a page for a while now….. It’s time to steal his book!

“Jo!” Dan reprimands, but there’s no real anger......... he likes the attention.

I smile mischievously. The diary is left open in my lap.
Boy in La Lancha

“You’re ornery” he accuses me...... Never before Daniel had I come across such a word…..

“I’m always horny,” I laugh at him, purposely ignoring his comment.

He pulls my hammock to his to kiss me - Making out really is the nicest thing in a hammock….

Eventually I give him his book back. I’m still not ready to go to sleep though, in spite of it now being close to my Napo bedtime.

“Why don’t you quit buggin’ me and write in your diary?” Dan suggests - I think he’s forgotten that the diary is supposed to be a joint venture. On a different note, he’s also discovered that he likes to swing our hammocks in sync while he’s reading. Maybe he’s gotten more reckless as a result of now having a not-so-fatal falling distance down to the deck. I don’t appreciate the rocking motion as much as he does, especially as right now my hammock isn’t hanging freely, and my bum keeps grazing the bags below me on each pass. It’s also impossible to write legibly! I resist the swinging motion by pushing my hand against the cabin wall. The close proximity of our hammocks means we both have to swing or neither can – Sorry Dan. The cute whimper of protest coming from Dan’s hammock draws a smile to my lips.

Before I go to sleep, I want to make an attempt at completing today’s diary entry about the afternoon’s packing venture…. Daniel has promised me he’ll make a contribution tomorrow…

While writing my previous diary entry earlier this afternoon, numerous inquiries from Daniel as to the whereabouts of this and that finally forced me to put the diary down and help him with a most worrisome task of his: moving and securing all that we have to our temporary ‘home to be’ for the next three days. To get the ball rolling – and to emphasize to Ruperto that we were in fact moving out today - we took our hammocks across first.

Contrary to Captains advice - he’d advised us to hang our hammocks behind the crew cabins to break the wind - we elected a corner spot, starboard next to the stairs connecting the lower and middle decks, as we were more concerned with the safety of our possessions as appose to being windswept, and we thought we’d be better able to guard our bags if they were in a corner. The captain came up to see how we were getting along. He saw our set-up and explained to us many reasons why we should move to the front of the deck, sheltered behind the cabins. He gave a very convincing argument, and because we were already really warming to him, we decided to heed his advice; after all, the Captain must know his ship best!

Before carrying anything more across, we decided to take advantage of the sun’s drying capability and wash our accumulation of stinky clothes at the watering hole. We also needed to wash the dried rice from our neglected lunch pots before we could pack them away. Hermila let us use her plastic bowl, and with only our gritty pink dish soap we set about cleaning the pots and clothes at the communal water supply at the side of the river.

José sauntered passed the watering hole on his way back from lunch, and on seeing us, he stopped to make fun of Dan’s scrubbing clothes. He pretended to be offended that we hadn’t invited him to share our lunch, but his permanent cheeky grin belied him of any true feelings of resentment, and rubbing his large belly he proceeded to gloat about the delicious lunch he’d just eaten for $1US a few houses up from Ruperto’s. Laughing we agreed to go there with him tonight.

After we’d finished washing everything, our arms and legs were itching from dried on soap splashes, so we decided to rinse off; however, we couldn’t resist throwing panfulls of the refreshing filtered river water all over each other to cool ourselves. We’d been at the watering hole for close to an hour by then and seen many villagers come and go: some to collect water in buckets for cooking, some to wash pots or clothes like us, and others to bathe themselves. Having spent this extended period of time sharing the communal wash area with a mixture of inhabitants from Pantoja, watching them cleanse their bodies with their hands beneath the clothes they were wearing, I felt my inhibitions draining away along with the soap suds. For the first time in four days I washed myself properly – not counting dips in the river - using our pink dish soap and clad only in bra and shorts. I finally had the courage to copy the villagers and intangibly wash my private parts in public. The experience was a delicious one – I’m proud of this newfound confidence to wash alongside all villagers; man, woman and child. I only regret it has taken me four days to have the nerve! We didn’t have our razors with us, so we agreed that before dark, we would return to shave all undesirable body hair in preparation for the boat journey ahead.

Girl carrying her washing back the watering hole
On the next trip over to the Lancha, I carried the ‘clean’ clothes and left Dan on the middle deck to start organizing our belongings while I headed up to the top deck to hang them out in the sun; however, I was abruptly overcome by an urgent toilet need. Oblivious to the whereabouts of the toilet on the Lancha I raced back to Ruperto’s house only to find him already sitting there, brazenly, with the door wide open for all family and guests to see! The sight of him shocked me, and I quickly retreated hoping that he hadn’t seen me see him – I doubted he would be embarrassed. Strangely I was more afraid that he would be angered at this invasion of his privacy – despite him openly occupying the only toilet in the guest house. The proof of somebody actually sitting on the seat-less bowl, that I was afraid to hover over and loathe to even stand on without rinsing my shoes off afterwards, was enough to take my mind off the formerly imminent diarrhea, and I managed to hold on and wait a very precarious ten minutes.

Once the emergency was over, I collected the miscellaneous items left in our old room and headed back on over to the Lancha to check on Dan’s progress. By this time Daniel had cleverly secured my mini rape alarm, a convenient gift my big brother bought for me a few Christmas’s ago, between his guitar and the big blue hold-all, now being utilized to securely house the majority of our belongings. This is Daniel’s ingenious solution to the problem of leaving our things unsupervised. The rape alarm is by no means loud enough to alert the captain – it’s doubtful it will even wake the person in the next hammock - but hopefully just its presence alone will be enough to dissuade any potential thieves.

We didn’t finish arranging all our belongings to Dan’s satisfaction until late afternoon, and we were left with just enough time before dark to return to the watering hole to shave. Our small palm held mirror makes it incredibly difficult for Dan to shave by himself. I’ve tried holding it for him, but as it turns out, it’s much easier and more intimate to shave him myself. After carefully removing Dan’s stubble, I quickly shaved my arm pits and legs while there was still sufficient light. Both shaven, together we returned to our hammocks on the Lancha, and side by side we watched the sun set over the Rio Napo from Pantoja for the last time. Swinging gently, we discussed the possibility of, maybe one day, transforming our diary entries into a novel telling of our Napo adventures.

Pantoja Sunset
I’m getting really tired now and even though there’s much more to write, it’s about time I put the diary down and close my eyelids. I set heavy eyes upon Daniel, still deeply engrossed in the realms of Harry Potter. I can’t wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll be embarking on the next part of our journey…..together.

“I love you.” I say…… He smiles back at me, but I’m already asleep.

"I'm just gettin' on a boat" EXTRACT 3: chainsaws and turtle tracks

Monday, 27th October 2003

Today is day six of Daniel's and my jungle adventure down the Rio Napo. Only two days after leaving Quito, Ecuador we crossed the historically dangerous South American jungle border, which separates Ecuador from its former enemy in the south, and arrived at our current location, Pantoja; a small Peruvian community sited next to a large military base. We've been living here for the past four days, standing by until the boat anchored at the side of the river – the boat we’ve come to know as the Lancha – departs, and the next part of our river journey across the continent can begin.

2:00 pm: chainsaws and turtle tracks

It’s early afternoon, and the heat outside is incredible. We’ve just finished eating our egg and rice lunch. In spite of Dan’s attempt to spice ‘that shit up’, it was painfully bland, and so incredibly filling that I couldn’t finish it. José kept shouting through our bedroom door that he was hungry, wanting to know when lunch would be ready. Once he got bored teasing us – a long time after it became boring for us - he disappeared somewhere to eat. Neither he nor the plastics salesman is eating Hermila’s meals….. Maybe the high prices are universal, and we’re not being charged the Gringo tax that our cynical, travelled minds have come to expect!

Dan has started packing up our room. He’s already taken down my hammock, impatient to secure the best spot on the Lancha, so now I have to sit on the hazardous splinter thin wood that Ruperto thinks qualifies as a bed in order to write this. I want to record the details of our canoe trip before the memory diminishes. Dan will have to pack around me until my heavy lunch has digested.

Kids playing on the river
Armed with water, cushions and cameras and with high-factor lotion covered bodies, we followed Rodrigo the short 10 meter distance from house front to riverside. Rodrigo’s elder brother, his sister Anna and their cousin were all coming with us. We’d no idea what they had in store for us, and I felt more than a little uneasy when the STHL chainsaw was lowered into the boat. I didn’t want to amuse Daniel with my new and more ridiculous malaria dream; he already thinks my imagination has been influenced by too many horror movies.... I couldn’t help but glance his way to see if any fear registered in his face. He gave me an ironic smile and squeezed my hand. With a reckless rush of adrenalin fighting the tight feeling of apprehension in my gut, I held firm to Dan. I hoped he’d remembered to bring his knife.

The small canoe felt crowded with six people and a chainsaw. We sat quietly in the middle of the boat facing forwards with the ‘limb removing device’ at our feet. Anna sat at the front of the canoe, sometimes facing us, and sometimes watching out over the front. Her brothers and cousin sat behind Daniel and me at the back of the canoe with the motor.

The Napo today, like all others, was a rippling brown vast expanse of water. We were covering the same segment of river that we had come down four days earlier in our haste to get to Pantoja. Within seconds my shoulders were ablaze, despite the factor 30 Daniel had liberally applied to my body only a few minutes earlier. As we passed the numerous unmanned military outposts, Ecuadorian and Peruvian alike, green clad men would race down to attention at the sound of the motor. Ruperto’s family are familiar faces in these - all too recent - hostile parts of the jungle border; we, however, are not, and a dreadlocked Americano, sporting a white redhead on his arm is definitely worth at least a short amount of the military guards’ attention. Most would shout a greeting or just smile and wave; others however, not having so much to occupy themselves with during their lazy days, would want to chat and ask questions. Gladly, none were hostile, and there being witness to this ‘chainsaw outing’ was mildly comforting to me if not a little naïvely.

We didn’t see any animals on the way upstream, except for a Kingfisher that Dan pointed out flying over the canopy, and nobody else spoke a word. Rodrigo and Anna seemed to be preoccupied looking for something. Daniel thought at first that they were trying to find an elusive anaconda for us, but soon, we understood that they were scanning the river banks for turtle tracks. The canoe glided upstream for thirty minutes or so before being brought to rest on a flat sand bank island midway across the Napo.

Anna was the first to scramble off into the silt sludge. Everyone climbed out of the canoe after her. And so, unquestioningly, I followed, stepping tentatively over the chainsaw and sinking my feet ankle-deep into the soft sediments of the river bank. Anna and her family members spread out like fingers across the sand bank to cover more ground. Daniel and I headed to a higher grassy region beyond the flat sands to attend to a call of nature in privacy. I couldn’t help glancing back over my shoulder to make sure that the chainsaw was left inside the canoe.

After a stolen toilet stop we found the others and joined their search strangely aghast at the errand in mind. From what we could make out, they were trying to track turtle nests to steal their eggs for food, and to take any turtles too if they could find any. I followed with a hidden determination to undermine any successful discovery if I possibly could. I was very relieved when they couldn’t find any turtle eggs - admittedly, more relieved that Ruperto’s family weren’t planning on chainsaw massacring us on this particular sand bank of the Napo!

We headed further upstream and stopped again at another sand bank. This time Dan and I stayed in the boat in silent protest for the endangered Amazonian turtles. The cousin stayed with us, and so Dan used the opportunity to ask him where we would be stopping to spend our Ecuadorian dollars. He looked at us with a blank expression and replied, “No hay.” When the family of turtle poachers returned empty handed to the boat, they started to turn the boat south, an indication that we wouldn’t be going any closer to the Ecuadorian border than this. A little frustrated, we tried to reason with Rodrigo that we needed to buy some rice with our dollars. He told us that supplies had all been sold yesterday, and there was nothing to buy here. It had been a fruitless mission from the offset. Like his father, Rodrigo tried to appease us – or at least to postpone our disappointment - by suggesting that we try and use our dollars at either of the Ecuadorian military outposts that we’d already passed a number of times now, on our way back downstream. We agreed, resigned to the fact that we would have to keep hold of our Ecuadorian coins a little longer if not indefinitely, and the canoe started to cut through the water more effortlessly south on its course home to Pantoja.

As we neared a large fallen trunk trapped motionless in the tributary, their was a sudden burst of excitement from our family of guides as they shut off the motor and tried to steer the canoe towards the drift wood – had they spotted an anaconda; why else would they be this agitated? After a failed attempt from Anna to secure the canoe to the tree trunk as we sailed past, the lads had to fire up the motor and turn the boat one hundred and eighty degrees upstream to try again. This time they used the engine and slowly lined the boat up alongside the fallen tree, successfully securing the canoe still.

Rodrigo and his chainsaw
Seeing our perplexity, Rodrigo enlightened us with the simple fact that they were planning to take this large wood trunk back to village; apparently drift wood is easy pickings out in the jungle. This was the obvious reason for a massive chainsaw, accompanying us on this short trip upstream……. My insane relief was immense, and finally I could laugh full heartedly at their antics. The cousin drew the proverbial short straw and had to get into the river and push the trunk up from beneath, so it could be cut out of water. He was very reluctant to get into the murky brown fluid - I don’t know whether he was more afraid of piranhas or anacondas! Anna teased him mercilessly making the whole party laugh, even me, although I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said.

They encouraged me to hold the chainsaw so that Dan could take my picture. I didn’t want to go any closer to the object of my malaria dream, but I went along with it anyway, so as not to dampen their infectious light spirits. The chainsaw was then used to cut the trunk into two decent sized pieces that could be towed back to Pantoja. After the job was done, they started to play around, and I really began to relax and enjoy myself. They tied the trunks to the back of the boat, one on either side of the boat, and we set off home.

By this time my feet were burning, once again a vivid red square pattern strapped in my Columbian sandals. The time was approaching 11:00 am, and the ‘close to’ midday sun radiation was increasingly unbearable. We sacrificed our backside comfort and used our cushions in order to protect our feet. Rodrigo was suddenly on his feet again and quite animated. I glanced towards the direction he was motioning half expecting to see another fallen tree of sorts, but I saw nothing. Dan, however, was already on his feet, camera lens fully extended, his breath held on one small word…. ‘Fin.’ My memory flashed back to another time on another boat in the Galapagos when Daniel had uttered that word to me. The dolphin display that had followed is still now too incredible in memory for me to do it justice in text. I knew his eyes were already on target, and my eyes followed his to the rippling water just upstream from our canoe.

This is what we’d been watching out for since we had first set eyes on the larger than expected Amazon tributary. Two - as far as we could tell - incredibly shy pink dolphins, playing beneath the murky brown, sweet waters of the Napo. They showed their fins a few times, but they didn’t come any further out of the water, and Daniel only managed to get a few rippling water shots. I didn’t see any pink, I could barely make out a full fin, but Dan’s Canon lens told him a clearer story. They were heading upstream. And despite Rodrigo’s attempt to track them a little, they never showed themselves again. I think they were scared away by the close proximity of the canoe motor. These dolphins weren’t anywhere near as showy as the Galapagos dolphins. Maybe they aren’t as used to tourists, but it didn’t matter because these dolphins were fresh water dolphins, which are a rare breed, and we were both euphoric to have seen them.

All this excitement happened next to the Ecuador out post. The soldier there on duty subsequently informed us that all food supplies had been exhausted the day before. But after the dolphin episode, we were far too keyed-up to consider our money situation. Eager to further our budding Napo education, the soldier pointed out that there were many fish in this part of the river, and that was why dolphins frequently swam here. On the short ride home Rodrigo told Daniel they had some pet turtles at home suggesting that Dan take some better photographs. I think Rodrigo was concerned that Daniel didn’t manage to get any great shots on our outing and that we might be disappointed. On the contrary, we’re just super grateful to have even been in the presence of such fairy-tale creatures as pink dolphins!

Daniel and I had a disagreement as the canoe pulled into the river bank. The trip is bringing out a personality clash that we hadn’t yet come across during our five months together in Ecuador. Both of us are more strong willed than either will admit to the other, and in our stupid stubbornness, we can’t avoid ‘back seat’ cooking, cleaning… you name it, the other can do it better! Even irrelevant decisions are cause for debate, like which knot is better for hammock safety? We make quite a mutinous team. Dan keeps telling me, ‘All teams need to practice’…… we’re definitely getting a lot of that! This particular dispute came from a terrible attempt to agree on a plan of action for the afternoon move. We were both feeling ravenous and far too hot to boot, but before we could stave our hunger, we needed to buy groceries. Hermila’s next door neighbour, like a few other women in Pantoja, sells an extremely limited selection of items out of the front of her house. Hers is the only place we’ve found so far to buy a cold coca cola for a dollar, but only after ‘first dark’ when the electricity has kicked in, and her fridge has had time to cool down the drinks inside. I was preoccupied with sorting out lunch, and Dan worked hard to convince me to cool down at the watering hole first. On this occasion it turned out that Dan was right, and I really did need to cool down. After thoroughly soaking ourselves through, we felt loads better, and we were laughing again. At the neighbour’s house we bought supplies for the boat journey; and, in a strange twist of fate, the extremely friendly lady accepted our Ecuadorian dollars without batting an eyelid! Funny that… our hosts had told us they weren’t valuable here in Pantoja! We returned to our adverse guest house to prepare lunch.