Tuesday, 26 April 2011

DOM-TOM Perignon

Firstly, an apology. I'm ever so sorry it's taken me this long to write the penultimate Samerica blog. The only excuse I can offer is that going home after such a trip is hectic to say the least.

Anyway, on to business...

Leaving Suriname for French Guiana was strange, as I knew I would be heading into Europe once more. You see, French Guiana is technically part of France (see the name of the place for more details), and as such is part of the European Union. They use Euros, receive money from Brussels and use European/French laws. It also costs a similar amount to Europe (i.e. a lot) and thus was by far the most expensive part of the continent. It's a little outpost of the Old World in the midst of the new one. It really was a peculiar thing speaking French, being surrounded by buildings of the same style one would find in mainland France and yet having the world's largest forest being half an hour away. 

The difference between French Guiana and the rest of the Guianas was startling. The climate and landscape was more-or-less identical, but the disparity in finances was evident to all. To give but one example: the roads in Suriname along which I travelled to get to French Guiana were dirt roads filled with random dips and holes. As soon as I crossed into French Guiana, the roads were all paved and of a much higher standard. It's the little things you notice.

Perhaps it's a sort of envy that has prevented there being any major transport links between French Guiana and the rest of South America. The only way in or out of French Guiana from/to other South American countries is by road. There are no flights, no trains, no ships, just dodgy people carriers driving at 80 mph. Or if you enter the way I did, you can climb into a tiny wooden boat and go across the river that divides French Guiana from Suriname.

It was hardly Royal Caribbean, although there was a similar number of sick people

French Guiana is what the French call a 'DOM-TOM' (Départements d'outre-mer - Territoires d'outre-mer) and receives literally billions of Euros every year from Paris in support. For this reason - or so it is widely believed - French Guiana and many other DOM-TOMs always give a stern "Non!" when asked whether they would like independence. There is a negative side to all this Parisian interference, however. Many Guianese to whom I spoke complained about the long and painful decision-making process for anything major. For example: if they decided an enormous and expensive bridge were needed, the regional government (in French Guiana) would have to ask the national government (in Paris) if this was alright. I'm told this decision-making process takes roughly two years for such projects as French Guiana is - perhaps understandably - seen as a bit of a minor issue in mainland France, meaning issues considered more important are addressed first. Two years later, when the decision has finally been taken, the regional government can then start looking into the finance and planning of said hypothetical bridge. The mind boggles...

What's it like then? Well, to put it simply, it's exactly like France, just with more black people and a lot more sun. It's France, but Caribbean-ised. 

Caribbean take on Carrefour

Unsurprisingly, the predominant music genre is reggae... in French, which kind of works, or at least works a lot better than the Dutch reggae encountered in Suriname. The general psyche of the population is also very Caribbean in its nature - generally relaxed and very laid-back. I recall being the lone passenger on one of the sparse public buses in Cayenne, the region's capital, when the bus driver pulled over at a fast-food joint to get his lunch. I ended up sitting on the bus on my own for 15 minutes waiting for the driver to re-emerge. Where it is far from Caribbean is in the Gendarmerie (or 'police' to the Francophobes among us). During my time there I did not see one black Gendarme. Whether this was by coincidence, or whether there is something more to it I do not know. However, I did get a feeling that there was still an underlying current of racism and/or prejudice present. In fact, this went both ways to an extent: the service in restaurants was generally terrible. When I enquired as to why this might be, seeing as restaurants are a very French concept, I was told that many black serving staff at restaurants felt resentment towards white people for the slave trade and thus were loathe to serve whites, lest it appear like servitude again. 

They do occasionally get down to business around these parts. French Guiana is actually home to the Centre Spatial Guyanais - the Guyanese Space Centre - from which over two thirds of all commercial satellites are launched every year. I'd never even heard of it.

The question remains whether I would recommend going to French Guiana. In short, not really. It has a slight novelty to it, but that quickly wears off. If you want to live among the French for a few days, it'd be far more worth your while going to mainland France - not even the French come on holiday to French Guiana.

So there we have it. That concludes my blogs on all the many wondrous and interesting countries I've visited over the past two-and-a-bit months. Next time will be the very last blog in the series, and yes, I do indeed have a treat lined up for you.

Au revoir, and please, don't have nightmares.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Shipping out to 'Name

My next stop on my exploration of the mysterious and completely-unknown-to-almost-anyone Guianas was the former Dutch colony of Suriname and in particular its multicultural capital, Paramaribo. Interestingly, Suriname used to belong to the British until the Dutch came along and swapped it for a little place called ‘New Amsterdam’ or ‘New York’ as it’s now known. The question I set out to answer is “Who got the better deal?”

Well for starters, the Surinamese tell me Paramaribo is the third safest country in the world. This is supposed to be due to the Surinamese police, who sound like the best police in the world. Let me explain: it is alleged that the police are more than willing – or maybe lazy enough – to turn a blind eye to minor offences, such as speeding or littering. They are also reputed to be incredibly friendly… if you stay in their good books. Where they really concentrate their efforts - and the reason you’d want to avoid their bad books like a Dan Brown novel - is on coming down like several tons of bricks on serious offenders. You know the type: murderers and violent offenders. Now of course Suriname and Paramaribo aren’t perfect: the drug and robbery hotspot of the town is actually a pleasant garden full of palm trees, perhaps the size of one city block, i.e. a hundred square metres. It was one of the nicest-looking crime hotspots I’ve ever been to. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I were to be murdered, I’d prefer it to be in Paramaribo’s Palmentuin. 

New York on the other hand is a cesspool of crime, full to the brim with major criminals and not a place most outsiders would feel completely comfortable in on their own. The crime hotspots there aren’t likely to feature on any postcards and I’ve heard all the police there are of Italian or Irish descent, all with hilarious stereotypical accents. I haven’t had much contact at all with New York police officers, but I imagine that is exactly how they are.

Suriname 1 New York 0

Next, the people. Suriname is renowned for its multiculturalism, as well as the social harmony which it accompanies. This is beautifully illustrated by the Caribbean’s largest mosque sitting two houses down from the enormous Neveh Shalom synagogue. It may not sound especially spectacular, but it is quite a bizarre sight. In New York, they deal with different religions by flying planes into tall buildings and locking people up in Cuba.  

 Religious harmony?

Furthermore, I found one of Paramaribo’s best qualities to be its lack of Brits. I was there for four days and didn’t meet one person from the UK. It was like some sort of wonderful dream where The Sun, political correctness and Big Brother didn’t exist. Paramaribo was, however, packed full of Dutch. I was slightly concerned that with so many of them in Suriname, there would be no one to look after the Netherlands while they were gone. Everywhere I turned all I could here was a phlegmy noise created by the speaking of Dutch. In their defence, they were all impeccably behaved and the Dutch don’t have many places in the world where their native language is spoken, so they were probably just taking advantage of one of their few former colonies. I also happened to be lucky enough to spend an evening in my guesthouse’s bar with two lovely Dutch girls (both predictably with perfect English), so there were also those who behaved a bit like Brits.  

New York is full of Brits gawking at ghastly modern architecture and being asked if they know the Queen. The architecture in Paramaribo is colonial building at its best: with a bit of TLC, these black and white wooden, colonial houses could be simply beautiful. As it is, they are still a fantastic sight, especially along the UNESCO-listed Waterkant (saying that in a Dutch accent is something of which I could never get tired, especially when talking about a former boss of mine). 

Top architecture

Suriname 2 New York 0

So how about the culture? Paramaribo has a vast array of eateries, serving cuisine ranging from Chinese to Créole, some of them better than others. Also, like most of the Caribbean, Suriname only really has one genre of music: reggae. You may think reggae in itself is fairly ordinary and nothing special. This soon changes when you hear reggae in Dutch. It is one of the most unnatural combinations I’ve ever heard. To put it bluntly, the first time I heard some Surinamese reggae, and the singing began, I thought it was just Bob Marley clearing his throat before he began with his lyrics. Truth be told, I didn’t much care for it. One incident of note regarding the Surinamese and music was driving along dirt roads to French Guiana at about 70 mph in a fairly knackered old people carrier. As I was praying for survival, the driver and other passengers were all singing along (in broken English) to Wham’s hit Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Had we crashed, I would hate for that to have been the thing I was listening to as we turned over again and again.

Art musea and the like are nowhere to be found, which struck me as being disappointing for a country which has so many Amerindian threads woven into its cultural fabric.

The musical and culinary offerings available on the banks of the Hudson River are immense, as one would expect from such an enormous city. The city can include itself in the list of culinary capitals of the world and there are musea and art galleries in abundance. 

Suriname 2 New York 1

Where Paramaribo and New York are similar is in the fact that both have major waterways surrounding them. Paramaribo is neighbours with 2 enormous Amazonian rivers; the Suriname and the Commewijne. There are plenty of others in this part of the world as well, all of which head down to the mighty Amazon Basin. I was fortunate enough to take a boat tour along the Commewijne , which is home to a great deal of wildlife, including dolphins, caimans and various fish species to name but a few. Along the banks it is also possible (if you get incredibly lucky) to see jaguars, howler monkeys and boa constrictors. During the course of this tour – the primary aims of which were to watch dolphins and the sunset – we were witnesses to the incredible sight of dolphins swimming alongside our boat. It was just incredible and no amount of flowery language and adjectives could ever do justice to one of the greatest sights in nature. This isn’t to say it was like in the movies where the dolphins leapt out of the water constantly alongside the boat, but they would jump out every now and then alongside, before submerging again and popping up again a few seconds later. Some even stuck their heads out right next to the boat as if to say ‘hello’ or to see these strange, pasty, flabby, phlegm-regurgitating creatures. I would happily recommend this experience to anyone, Dutch or otherwise.

    It just popped up to say 'hello', now it's gone back down below. Sadly my photography skills weren't good enough to get any 'in air' dolphin shots.

We also stopped for a snack at an Amerindian village by the banks of the Commewijne. At the risk of turning into a character from the hilarious Gap Yah Youtube hits (I believe youngsters would say they went ‘viral’ about a year ago), the simplicity of their existence was startling. It was the sort of place where the owner of a decrepit moped was seen as the town’s playboy, or where the sight of white people was a day of great excitement. 
 Postcard bliss

New York also… has a river, which is nice I suppose. Good for them. Sadly, the only wildlife of note to be found there is the occasional dead body, or some sort of three-headed fish created by years of unchecked pollution.Obviously it’s a no-brainer.
Final score: Suriname 3 New York 1
So there you have it: the Dutch got a substantially better deal than the British back in 1674. Their possession belonged to them a lot longer than ours as well. A great deal if ever I saw one.
Suriname then: safe, cosmopolitan, Brit-free and naturally breathtakingly beautiful. Just don’t turn on the radio.
Next time I shall be reporting from one of the few remaining European colonies left in the world: French Guiana (I obviously arrived safely enough in case you hadn’t worked that one out by now).
Until then and please, don’t have nightmares. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Going between the various Guianas is surprisingly difficult as it turns out: it either involved 6 hours on a crowded minibus, hurtling along poorly-maintained mud roads at around ninety miles per hour, or it involves flying via Trinidad & Tobago, and more precisely, Port-of-Spain, the capital. I chose the latter, knowing that the former awaits me on the leg between Paramaribo, Suriname and Cayenne, French Guiana.

Travelling via Port-of-Spain seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out another former British colony and have a brief glimpse at proper Caribbean life. So that's exactly what I did.

I booked myself into a pleasant little guesthouse - run by 2 of the loveliest people you could hope to meet - on the edge of town and tried to research the tourist hotspots in Port-of-Spain. As it turns out, there aren't any really. The tourist attraction is the people and the country itself, which isn't the worst tourist attraction I've ever visited... not by a long shot.

The first thing one would associate with any Caribbean nation is fantastic weather. Well the weather in Port-of-Spain wasn't in a compliant mood. I don't think I had one day there when it didn't rain. And every time it did rain, I seemed to be caught outside and hadn't had a chance to bring my sensible cagoule with me. This was the sort of weather I had wanted to escape from, but the Devil had decided to vomit in my kettle once again.

As you should know, the majority of T&T's (that's what they call it there) inhabitants are black, and there is also a sizeable Asian community, meaning any 'Honkies' (white people) who go there will stick out like... a white person in Guyana. This can, and indeed did, lead to some racist banter to which I was subjected. Now obviously it wasn't a violent beating administered by a group of 20 Trinidadians or a lynching; it was fairly harmless repartee directed at me as I strolled around town, usually from passing cars. Some highlights include: a car full of young guys slowing right down next to me and playing Vanilla Ice at full volume; another car, with a similar group of passengers slowing down next to me, whereupon all occupants showed me their palms, which of course are white. Besides this there was an assortment of things shouted at me and various car horns being sounded. Initially I thought/hoped there just happened to be a load of women driving past and that I 'still had it', but the truth was not much worse to be honest. I must say that it really didn't bother me one jot and some of it was actually quite amusing.

So what about the town itself? Well, there's a nice promenade named after T&T's most famous son, the cricketist Brian Lara, a man truly revered around those parts. Other than that, there's a pleasant botanical garden - reputed to be the oldest in the Caribbean and not much else.

Brian Lara's statue on the promenade named after him.

T&T is also home to some unique and genuinely excellent cultural aspects, such as 'doubles', a couple of slices of flat fried bread, very similar to a thick chapati, with curried chick peas on top. The trick is to eat it with no cutlery and ideally without making too much mess. In fact, much of T&T's food has its roots in Asia, which makes for a surprisingly excellent culinary experience.

Doubles in all their glory.

Another cultural delight of T&T is their own particular brand of reggae -  heard at all hours, from all places - called 'Ragga Soca'. This is a combination of traditional Caribbean reggae and the Trinidadian Calypso style, which makes for some interesting listening.

So what did I take away from Port-of-Spain, or Trinidad in general? Well, apart from some postcards, not an awful lot. I felt a lot more relaxed, as most of the Caribbean is incredibly laid-back and a welcome change from the chaos that envelopes most of Latin America. In the end, I can't say I'd recommend Port-of-Spain as a tourist destination. In case you hadn't gathered already, I've really struggled to come up with anything interesting or insightful to say about this particular place, pleasant as it is.

I'm sure it'd be nice enough for a beach holiday, but that really isn't why I'm here, so I shall simply say that beyond a stopover destination for flights between the Guianas, I wouldn't bother with T&T. Although who am I to say where's good and where's not?

Until next time, when I intend to wow you with tales of a little island of Dutch in a sea of Spanish. Until then, and please; don't have nightmares.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Georgetown's Guyana get ya

"Guyana? What the hell's that?"

This is an all-too common question when discussing my travel plans with most people, especially Brits. Even most South Americans would struggle to point it out on a map of their own continent, a continent that only contains 12 countries.

Guyana is the only former British colony in South America and thus the only country on the continent where English is the first language. Well, a form of English anyway: I could barely understand a word. Its capital is Georgetown, a city of of some 240,000 people and arguably the least developed city I'd been too so far. I had read that the Guianas were particularly under-developed, but it was quite a shock to the system how far the Guyanese had to go to reach parity even with somewhere like Bolivia.

So there I was, at Georgetown's Cheddi Jagan Airport, which was essentially a large hut with an runway next to it and a few strategically-placed Guyanese flags to remind people where they were. It turned out that this airport, allegedly serving Georgetown was at least an hour's drive away. The actual distance from the town centre is only 40 km, but Guyanese transport infrastructure manages to make this relatively short journey last a lot longer than it should: there was the equivalent of a British 'B' road in a terrible state of repair serving as the major connecting route between the international airport and the capital.

Georgetown itself is hardly a major tourist destination. Even those few who do come to Guyana for tourist purposes spend most of their time away from the city... and with very good reason.

Georgetown was by far the most unsafe-feeling place I have been to so far, even above 'South America's most dangerous city', Caracas. I don't even think my feelings were unjustified: a quick glance at the local paper was one of the most depressing things I've ever read, and I've seen The Sun. Every report was about a murder or a violent robbery, many in broad daylight with lots of witnesses. Many also involving the use of firearms. This general sense of constantly fearing for one's life was exacerbated by the blatantly obvious fact I was a tourist. This doesn't mean to say that I walked around wearing socks with sandals, a large Nikon camera hanging around my neck and clutching a large guidebook in my hand: I tried to dress as discreetly as I could, but there was one tiny, minute giveaway. I was white. I felt like a white sheep in an enormous flock of potentially dangerous black sheep. To give you some idea as to the extent of my similarity to a sore thumb, the 2002 Guyanese census reported that a mere 0.15% of Georgetown's population was white. In a city of 240,000, this equates to 196 white people. I don't think I saw any of them during my stay. Of course I'm not saying all the inhabitants of Georgetown are dangerous - most of them are perfectly nice people - it's just that the tiny minority of ill-harbouring Georgetownians might see me as someone with an enormous target painted on my back for robbery. The 'language barrier' didn't entirely help either. I struggled to understand what the Guyanese were saying in their thick Caribbean accents and many of them seemed to struggle to understand me. So after a few clumsy exchanges, I decided to adopt a very deliberate, perfectly-annunciated RP accent. I felt like some sort of awful colonialist, but sadly this was the only way I was going to be able to communicate with the Guyanese.

With this in mind, I decided to see what Georgetown had to offer. Not much, it turned out. They've got a wooden cathedral, which was nice, but many of their supposed national landmarks were in rather a state of disrepair.

St George's Cathedral - it's the highest wooden structure in the world don't you know.

It turned out the more time I spent in Georgetown, the more Caribbean the place felt. I have to say I was expecting somewhere with general poverty, and maybe a slightly different feel to the rest of South America, but this was entirely different. This was quite a good thing it turned out: the pace of life is a lot slower and far more relaxed. Restaurant staff would finish their conversation before attending to customers; drivers would frequently let pedestrians cross in front of them, even if it was at a really stupid place and I often found myself frustratedly walking behind a particularly slow-moving woman or group of schoolchildren. Noone was in a hurry here.

Slow-moving people were, however, the least of my worries. The mosquitoes were rampant. I must have lost several pints of blood during the 3 nights I stayed in Georgetown. This is despite sleeping under a mosquito net and covering myself liberally with Colombia's most expensive mosquito repellent each night. My feet were a sight to behold after a few nights... I fear there's only worse to come as I move eastwards across the Guianas.

Where I was staying was right next to the town's Magistrates' Court, with my window actually looking over the prisoner transfer corridor-type-thing. This meant I was treated to a unique alarm clock every morning, which consisted of angry defendants loudly threatening to kill someone different every day as they were dragged to the prison van. The potential victims ranged from the magistrate to the officers charged with guarding them. It did provide some entertainment, but it was annoying when this was happening all day long from early in the morning.

This, combined with an otherwise excellent meal spent with with the second worst person in South America (the worst being the German who robbed me in Lima), made me want to leave Georgetown, at least for a day. Handily I had booked myself onto a tour headed to Guyana's Amazonian interior. I was going to Kaieteur Falls, 'the world's highest single drop waterfall' and was rather looking forward to it.

Our trusty steed to the interior.

Kaieteur Falls is South America's hidden gem. Sure, there may be other waterfalls and yes, they might be more visually appealing, but the fact that there would only be 4 tourists visiting the site in one day created a sense of adventure and of seeing unspoilt, unbetouristed nature. So this involved me and 3 other Brits climbing into a little Cessna (flown by an out-of-work American commercial airline pilot, but that's another story) and flying to a little airstrip next to Kaieteur Falls. The scenery as we flew over the rainforest was samey to say the least: all there was were trees as far as the eye could see. It put into perspective how massive the rainforest actually is. As we neared the falls themselves, our pilot treated us to a few swoops over the drop, creating some spectacular photographic opportunities.

Kaieteur Falls from the air.

The falls themselves were stunning. It's hard to describe the sheer power of nature you could sense when up close to them: thousands of gallons of water pouring over a 226 metre-high drop every second. It was breathtaking.

After speaking to my fellow Brit tourists, I learnt that they were there not for the falls, but to see the wildlife. How bizarre, I thought. Kaieteur National Park is home to some unique species it turns out, including a parrot thing called a Cock-of-the-Rock, as well as a tiny, bright-gold frog called, unimaginatively, the golden frog.

The tiny Golden Frog spends its entire life cycle inside giant plants called Tank Bromeliads.

So having seen the falls from various angles, each more various than the last, we hopped back into the Cessna and headed to another waterfall... as if one wasn't enough.

Our next stop was to be Orinduik Falls, a relatively mundane sight as it turned out. These were a series of smaller waterfalls which cascaded over large slabs of semi-precious stone called Jasper. The main point of coming here though, was that you were able to stand under the falls and generally frolic about in the water. This was rather pleasant as it turned out: the water from Orinduik was warmer than that in the shower of the hostel where I was staying. It was invigorating nevertheless.

The best shower I'd had in days.

After that, we flew home in our trusty plane and back to that hotbed of crime, Georgetown.

So that was Guyana. If you're looking for a laid-back, Caribbean experience, but with great opportunities to explore nature up close and personally, then I can only recommend Guyana. Georgetown can't be that unsafe either if an idiot like me didn't get attacked or robbed.

Until next time. And please, don't have nightmares.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

"Caracas, Gromit?" "No thanks, Wallace; it's s**t."

The trip has left the beaten track behind. Gone are the tossers with their silly tea-towel scarves and their seemingly endless bracelets. The world I have moved into is populated by real people, people who know how to sew on a button or cook an edible tomato/pasta-based dish. Sadly, I can do neither of those things, but I'm here anyway...

Caracas then: capital and largest city of South America's most politically dangerous country: Venezuela. Caracas is also widely believed to be the most dangerous city in South America, and as we all know, that's up against some pretty stiff competition. The thing with Venezuela is that it's all about the politics - even my flatmate where I was staying had political reasons for being there, on which more in a bit- of which the three main pillars are the following (in ascending order):

1) Socialism and how great it is.
2) Hugo Chavez
3) Simon Bolivar

Venezuela shocked me slightly when I first arrived. Even in the immigration hall - where I had to queue for a good hour and a half - had huge posters advertising the benefits of Chavez's socialism. We were told how "over a million Venezuelans had benefited from the government's education programme" and how "40,000 children had moved above the poverty line" thanks to socialism. Going from the airport to the centre of Caracas provided me with an endless stream of political propaganda. Everywhere I looked there was a billboard proclaiming how wonderful various things were, ranging from Simon Bolivar to the percentage by which milk production has increased (1220% in case you were wondering). The propaganda highlight was an enormous billboard which must have been more than 100 metres in length simply saying "Let's work!". Brilliant, Chavez, just brilliant.

Airport propaganda

I'm aware that for people who have visited countries which don't have similar styles of government to our own, this may not seem that extraordinary, but for me it was rather intriguing.

At the risk of sending some readers to sleep, I'm going to continue on the political path by talking about Hugo Chavez, the slightly insane Venezuelan president. He seems to have built up a slight cult of personality, similar to that of Stalin, albeit not on the same scale. Many people see him as a great leader and the man to turn Venezuela into a world force. Others dislike him immensely and completely disagree with his policies. This latter group, however, will very rarely criticise Chavez publicly. According to a Venezuelan university professor to whom I spoke, the fear of expropriation is a constant threat. One wrong word against Chavez, and you lose your land quicker than you can say "socialist c***". For this reason, many choose to let Chavez know how he isn't wrong, it's his ministers who have given him bad advice and they should be blamed. Not him, not Chavez.

Sadly, he hasn't really justified his methods or the near-fanatical support of many of his followers. Peru, which was widely perceived as a joke country, run by 'indians', has overtaken Venezuela in terms of GDP. Where Venezuela was near the top of this particular South American league table, it now languishes behind many of its competitors and inflation is relatively rampant, hovering at around 30%.

In an attempt to combat said inflation, Venezuela has an official exchange rate for its currency. This rate is 2.15 Bolivares for every U.S. Dollar. There is also a whole black market of currency exchanging, with rates offered being between 3 and 9 Bolivares to the Dollar. Now not being a complete moron, I opted for some slightly illegal and sexually arousing black market exchange action, netting me rate of 7 Bolivares to the Dollar. 7, compared to 2.15. No wonder the country's economy would be buggered without its oil reserves. Venezuelan people are forced to pay more than three times as much for things as foreigners using the black market (when relative value in Dollars is calculated).

And this shows on the women. Venezuela has produced more beauty queens than any other country in the world (even more than Uruguay!) and you can see why. However, the often stunning beauty of female Venezuelans is very much undermined by their seeming inability to wear clothes that fit them or look at all good. Further hampering my shallow interests was the fact that 9 out of 10 Venezuelans seem to be wearing dental braces. Imagine a gorgeous, dark-skinned, hispanic girl with lovely hair and everything. Now add some baby pink braces. Now dress her in a boy's tracksuit which is unwashed. That's a Venezuelan woman. I honestly believe Venezuelans would rank higher than Uruguayans if it weren't for these drawbacks, but drawbacks they were.

Venezuelan potential.

I must say, however, that Venezuelans have rhythm. I went to a salsa bar with my flatmate one evening and it was a great sight. No, not in that way. I was immensely cheered to see how everyone was dancing, all in pairs as well: anyone standing near the dancefloor was immediately invited to a dance. It was impossible not to feel like a loser in this place (insert joke about me being a loser here). It wasn't drunken dancing either: it was just through the sheer enjoyment of dancing and music that people were in there; not to get drunk like we would in the UK. Imagine a place in Britain where alcohol is served and people go to dance, without feeling at all self-conscious. No? Me neither.

Salsa a la Venezolana

The flatmate in question was a fellow from New Zealand. He was a huge conspiracy theorist (that's not to say he was fat, I just meant he was convinced by various conspi... oh it doesn't matter, let's get back to the blog), who remains certain that there will be a huge global period of hyperinflation and that corporations are taking over the world. He has a point I suppose... He was in Venezuela as a political refugee, having fled with his family - who temporarily reside in California - following various trials at which he refused to accept the court's authority. For a similar case in the British arena, Google "Birkenhead judge arrest". He actually had his original arrest on video, which he showed me, and let's just say I can see why he might have fled New Zealand, a country which is supposed to be liberal and safe. On the video, he seen being beaten rather savagely by 2 'Crown Constables', or policeman to the layperson, for no apparent reason other than he was being a bit difficult to arrest. He was very adamant about his political beliefs, and actually aims to establish a political party in New Zealand and has grand plans about meeting Chavez and getting his support. I'm aware none of this has anything to do with Venezuela, but it was an interesting experience I wished to share, alright?

So back to Caracas. The city itself is only remarkable for its total unremarkability. It has no well-known landmarks, or even much to do. There's a mountain overlooking the city, but even the views from there are fairly mundane. There's no real pleasant architecture to of which to speak either. Caracas does hold the honour of being the birthplace of one Simon Bolivar.

Simon Bolivar is a South American hero. In fact, in Venezuela, he occupies a position in people's estimation just below God. He is the man responsible for liberating vast swathes of South America from the Spanish in the early 19th century. Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Bolivia (named after him) and Venezuela all owe their existence directly to Bolivar. Everywhere you look in Caracas are pictures of the great man. Hugo Chavez actually changed the name of the country to incorporate his great love for Bolivar. Venezuela is officially known as La Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, and the government seems to stick the adjective Bolivariano in at every opportunity. 

One of the many monuments to Bolivar. The text reads " If nature is against us, we shall fight it, and make it obey." Inspiring stuff... for someone... probably.

So having diced with politics and the differences between Common Law and Admiralty Law, a topic I still don't remotely understand, I decided to leave South America. I haven't gone far though, I've just nipped across the Caribbean to Trinidad and Tobago. Let's just say that the words "incredibly different" are insufficient for the next chapter in my voyage...

Until next time, and please, don't have nightmares.

Saturday, 2 April 2011


So I’d left the delights of Peru behind me and headed on up to Colombia, a country famed for its excitement and general hijinks. As it turned out, this excitement and hijinks weren’t as innocent as they sounded. But there again I probably should have guessed that things weren’t going to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the park, what with Colombia being the country that gave rise to the man who would go on to become the 7th richest man in the world in 1989… due entirely to dealing cocaine.

Even the flight to Bogota, a city of some 9 million people and a self-proclaimed ‘Megacity  of South America’ (along with Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Lima), was exciting, but with a heavy dose of vice. You see, when I’d sat down on the plane, I happened to glance to either side of me and notice that both of my neighbours were rather buxom and generally largely constructed of plastic it seemed.

Rather unsurprisingly, it turned out they were Colombian porn stars. As I said, exciting, but you know your mother wouldn’t approve.

So with that particularly bizarre journey behind me, I thought I’d penetrate Bogota itself and I must say, I was unimpressed with what I saw. Bogota did not look like a city of its size. Not by a long chalk. It made Machu Picchu look like a bustling metropolis. The city centre felt tiny, as did the rest of the city.

The people were friendly though. Whilst seeking out somewhere to have lunch one day, I came across an affordable-looking restaurant, so I quickly wiped it off and apologised before entering the premises. This restaurant was jam-packed with Colombian soldiers in dress uniform, with not a spare table in the house. I must have looked devastated, as, before I knew what was happening, I was invited to sit and dine with some of the aforementioned soldiers. In the whole travelling spirit of things, I duly accepted and sat amongst Colombia’s finest. Even though I speak barely enough Spanish to order food in a restaurant, let alone make casual conversation with Colombian squaddies, I had a very enjoyable lunch despite the dire quality of food. The soldiers were incredibly friendly and made me feel welcome and I’d recommend having lunch with the armed forces to anyone.

On the job though, these soldiers were a completely different type of person. Gone was the amiable, talkative geezer, and in his place was the hard-nosed, merciless oppressor, as I found out (very nearly) the hard way. After lunch, I decided to investigate the city’s colonial architecture, which was pleasant and Hispanic enough, despite the best efforts of an American Evangelical missionary group trying to convert people through the medium of new-age dance and football demonstrations. One of said sights was the vast presidential palace, which was heavily fortified. If one covered one’s ears for a moment, it would have appeared a lot like Colonel Gadaffi was cowering there. I was innocently walking along the pavement looking slightly confused one minute, and the next I was confronted by 3 heavily-armed presidential guards, all with assault rifles pointed directly at me. My heinous crime? Walking on the pavement next to the palace. Paranoia? Probably. Unnecessary? Most certainly. Even outside the White House in Washington, tourists are allowed to gawp and take photos all they like without the notoriously oppressive American security forces coming down on them like a ton of bricks. Not in Bogota.

The Evos do their thing in Bogota.

And it isn’t just tourists that the authorities scared. The street vendors peddling their counterfeit DVDs immediately shut up shop and ran for their lives as soon as there was mention of some sort of authority figure approaching.

Bogota, I decided, was not the place for me, so like any self-respecting individual, I left and went to the Caribbean coast and the architecturally famous colonial town of Cartagena.

Cartagena was, in a word, hot. Very, very, very hot. Now I enjoy heat as much as the next man, but this was too much. It is supposedly the playground of Colombia’s elite, and thus has all the typical upper-class trappings: there were big yachts moored in the harbour; attractive, rich people everywhere; a Hard Rock Café. Yet I wasn’t all that entertained. The Cartageneans just didn’t seem like they cared all that much about their town and so there was a constant feeling that it could be so much better, so much cleaner and prettier. And then there were all of the more illegal and unpleasant trappings that accompany money and glamour. Outside the hostel in which I was staying, there was the constant presence, day and night, of the friendly local drug dealer. Every time I exited the hostel, he would immediately approach me, ask me where I was from (I actually played a little game with myself, telling him increasingly unusual home countries. The best I came up with was Mongolia) and proceed to offer me “the finest cocaine in Cartagena”. Goodness knows that was against some stiff competition.

Then there were the prostitutes. They were like bats, unseen during the day, but swarming the streets at night. The most popular ‘pick-up’ line seemed to be “Amigo, f**k me, f**k me, f**k me.” It was all beginning to sound a lot like Newcastle on a Friday nights… except the prostitutes were dressed more tastefully.
Tourists were also, unsurprisingly, a common feature of Cartagena. This helped support the local underground economy and all the thousands of street vendors this involved. There was all sorts being sold: handicrafts, jewellery, DVDs, musical instruments and food. I even saw one thin-looking lady with an equally undernourished child in her arms, sitting on the pavement trying to sell passers-by an old plastic cup with a few coins in it. She didn’t manage to sell the cup as far as I could tell, but several people did seemingly augment the value of the cup by adding their own coins to it.

Tourists come to Cartagena for good reason as well. The town is actually Colombia’s main port, so any boats coming in from the Caribbean will dock in Cartagena, unloading their haggard-looking cargo there. Then there is also the rather wonderful colonial architecture. The old, walled city has lost only a little of its colonial charm, with pleasant balconies and cobbled streets in abundance, as well as the imposing hillside fortress, built to keep Brits like me out of the town. Finally, there is the weather, which, as previously mentioned is mightily warm.

Cartagena by night

The fortress, or castle (I believe both are acceptable in Cartagena) was started in 1639 with the specific aim of protecting the town from French and British invaders. Thus, it was with a slight sense of irony that I opted for a guided tour of this previous bastion of defiance against Britannia’s dominance of the seas. The castle itself was very impressive, with a maze of underground tunnels, some nice views of the city and what looked like Colombia’s biggest flag. What made the tour for me, however, was the tour guide. This was a little Colombian fellow called Umberto who had the social skills of someone with autism and a stammer which could have been the basis for an Oscar-winning British film about a monarch and wartime speeches. Either way, I learned a lot, although I do suspect some of the things I was told about in the castle were made-up.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, complete with enormous flag

After several days of sun, I left Colombia with a great sense of disappointment and headed to what most South Americans consider to be the most dangerous city on the continent: Caracas, Venezuela. But you’ll find out if I survived the crime and the insane, socialist dictator next time.

Until then, please, don’t have nightmares.