Tag Archives: solo female travel

A Shitty Thing to Write About

6 Jun

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It was a bus shelter empanada that made me break that bathroom in Cartagena.

Three hours before consuming it, I was in a seedy cantina with my new friend, Atlanta: an ex-army medic and survivor of the Fort Hood massacre. Atlanta’s PTSD had pushed him to the north east of Colombia where he volunteered at an isolated jungle hostel, periodically returning to civilisation to replenish his stocks of rum and cocaine. It was on one of these trips that we met, striking up a conversation as he urinated on a police car—the sort of introduction you can only have in Cartagena. After an evening of mayhem and laughter, he decided to smuggle me back to the Sierra Nevada, too.

We found a bus shelter hidden in a laneway that, for reasons unknown, was still selling tickets in the middle of the night. We asked the emaciated Morlock behind the counter for two on the early bird bus to Buritaca.

“And,” I added as an afterthought, “one of those empanadas.”

“I wouldn’t eat that,” Atlanta said, eyeing my Colombian surrogate midnight kebab.

He had a point: it’d been baking under a heat lamp like George Hamilton for the better part of the millennium, and the hands that plucked it from the cage were varnished with grime. Nevertheless, I took a bite. It was basically Whiskas in shortcrust pastry; and while a reasonable person might think, ‘Yuk, if I wanted to eat something crusty and fishy, I could just track down Lindsay Lohan and have a gnaw on her’, I was too stubborn to admit that he was right. So I forced it down with the vigour of a dickhead.

Back at the hostel, I clambered into my bunk, set an alarm for quarter past dawn, and dropped into sleep.

My stomach woke me before the alarm could. Apparently the piscine abomination I’d just consumed was so fetid that my body’s only option was to violently expel it. Right. Fucking. Now.

I vaulted off the bunk with an athleticism that I don’t possess and spent the next hour trudging to the bathroom and back until I gave up and lay on the floor, my head resting on the tiles, breathing shallowly through my mouth like a pregnant kelpie. I was okay with this—what little pride I had was lost when vomit had leaked through my fingers when I didn’t make it off the bunk in time.

And, on a side note, I’d like to apologise to the girl in bunk number seven. If you send me the dry-cleaning bill, I’ll reimburse you.

At about 3:45a.m., my belly gave the sort of ominous rumble that tells you to find a toilet, trash receptacle, or tin-can of sorts. Exhausted, but desperate, I grasped the side of the sink, intending to use it to lift my turgid carcass from the floor. As I pulled myself up, the basin came out from the wall, separated from the porcelain column it rested on, tottered elegantly in midair for a moment or two, and then crashed to the ground like Newton’s apple.

So—to recap—I was trapped in a bathroom wearing a Peter Alexander singlet in fetching, vomit-fleck yellow, and men’s Target-brand boxer shorts with an erroneous, easy access crotch panel. Half-digested Nemo could be found in my hair. My hands clutched part of a sink with the remainder scattered in shards around me, and, to be honest, I probably smelt like a sex crime.

My stomach rumbled.

Oh, and I still needed to go.

The remainder of the basin dropped from my fingers.

 

Shortly later, I snuck to the reception for confession.

The night porter was sitting at the desk, his feet crossed at the ankles, a block of chocolate resting on his belly. He was engrossed in his laptop, which was playing pornography. He jumped when I approached him, dropping his chocolate (which is a nice euphemism for what I’d just been up to myself, really), adjusting his glasses and offering an uncertain, “Hola?”

I attempted to explain in manic Spanglish, trying to highlight the fact that I hadn’t intended on smashing the bathroom like Keith Richards on crack, but an empanada (“Which might have been cat food. You know, el gatto.”) caused me to vigorously evacuate everything from my system which had, inadvertently, caused me to break the bathroom.

Perdon?”

“I’m not on drugs you know,” I babbled. “Honestly.” For some reason it was very important to me that he know this. “I mean, I know it’s Colombia but I’m not.” I blinked, my anxious eyes jittering across his face. “I promise. But the bathroom is—”

From the desk, the naked woman on the laptop let out a moan. We both glanced at it. With one hand he slammed the lid.

“—completely fucked.” I finished.

He explained that his English was not very good, and even if he spoke fluently, he’d struggle to cohere the nonsense that I was hurling at him, so I should just shut the fuck up and show him whatever the hell I was ranting about.

To paraphrase.

I led him to the bathroom, head bowed like a war widow. He looked in. Coughed. Crossed himself.

I glanced up.

The toilet hadn’t flushed properly.

Fuck.

“The other bathroom,” he began, a smirk on his lips. “She is okay?”

I frowned. “I guess so.”

He locked the door. “Then use other bathroom tonight.”

That was it?

Wait—that was it?

He just shut the fucking door? I could have done that! In fact, why didn’t I just do that?

“They fix in morning. Now it’s late. You sleep.” He laid a paw on my shoulder and, remembering the porn, I tried not to think of where it had been.

“You need something else?” he asked.

“Do you have any Gastro Stop?”

He frowned. “I don’t know what this is.”

“How about a cork?”

“Goodnight, miss.”

 

The following morning, Atlanta was in hysterics. “I told you not to eat that shit!” he crowed.

“Be kind to me,” I mewled.

Dehydration had pulled my eyeballs into my skull and the soles of my feet were laced with micro-cuts from the porcelain. Brittle and wan, I was shaking like a dild—

…um, like a…llama. With Parkinson’s. Yeah.

I’d run late for the bus, too. Which was total bullshit. Colombians operate on ‘Colombian time’: a vague assemblage of moments distinguished by phrases such as ‘mas tarde’ and the idiom ‘ahorita’, which, to Colombians, means ‘Nowish…ish.’ It’s impossible to be behind schedule when even a nebulously binding reference to time is abstract. This bus driver was apparently a German expat because Atlanta had to bribe him to wait for my leaky arse.

“You want drugs?”

I peered at him through knock-off Raybans. “You think cocaine fixes everything.”

“I’m not sharing that. I mean these,” he fossicked in his pockets, dropping loose tobacco, receipts, lint, and lighters on my lap before presenting a battered pill packet.

I turned it over. “Codeína?”

He nodded.

“You want me to take,” I squinted at the packet, “sixty milligrams of codeine for food poisoning?” In a distant part of my brain, my nurse training came online. “I don’t think it’s indicated for that.”

“Codeine causes constipation,” he began with forced patience.

It’s true, codeine can turn chia seeds into concrete…and we had eight hours before we reached Buritaca…

“If nothing else, it’ll help you sleep. Keep the pack,” he grinned. “I’ve got shitloads.”

That pill packet would resurface a year later on a bus in Nepal.

 

My gorgeous sister and I had travelled through there in January and—aside from a slightly rapey overnight train, a pair of sunglasses landing with a squelch in a squat toilet, and a clutch of hysterical pilgrims that nearly swallowed my blanket-wielding sibling whole—we’d navigated it without incident. I even swam through crap and corpses in the Ganges, managing to emerge free from sin and dysentery. So when I kissed my sister goodbye in Pokhara, feeling bulletproof, I did what any cocky tourist would do: I gave salmonella prevention the middle finger and ate a discounted hamburger.

The following day, when the rancid meat was somewhere in my jejunum, I boarded a bus to Kathmandu, fragile and cranky. Initially, my ire was blamed on the obnoxious Americans behind me: the ones comparing the selfies they’d taken with malnourished, haunted, but tentatively hopeful Cambodian orphans on their recent poverty-porn world tour. At the first rest stop—with six hours left on a bathroomless bus—I sprinted off to abuse a roadside toilet. It then became as clear as the second line on a pregnancy test that I was screwed.

Buying a bottle of water, I downed the Colombian codeine along with a handful of Gastro-Stop, hoping to calcify the evil that was incubating within me. It worked and six Gastro-Stops later, I was in Kathmandu.

I disembarked into chaos, knowing that my hostel was somewhere, unsure of where, but trusting HostelWorld’s claim that it was a $3 cab ride away. The first two taxi drivers didn’t know where somewhere was, but could get me everywhere else for $5. I declined, and since they didn’t want to go nowhere, they followed me around until I tersely said that I wouldn’t be going anywhere with them.

The third driver didn’t speak English, but nodded with the sort of earnestness that I find charming. I showed him the address on my iPhone—a move which proved to be as useful as a bathroom door around Oscar Pistorius—he couldn’t understand it and I couldn’t pinpoint where Samjhana Street was in the melee before me. We drove through crowds, sporadically stopping to ask random strangers for directions, my iPhone proffered like pocket-sized oracle. In three Gastro-Stops we found it. I checked in, went upstairs to my room, and passed out on the stained futon.

I awoke just before midnight in a batten-down-the-hatches state that can best be described as ‘gastrointestinal Armageddon’. Throwing open my door, I bolted downstairs to the dingy washrooms. This became my first evening in Kathmandu: a veritable red, white and green kaleidoscope of bad decisions punctuated by a shitty staircase. In desperation, I took my entire stash of Gastro-Stop, something that may have caused mild delirium because I recall kicking open the toilet door at one point and swaggering to the bowl like John Wayne after an enema, snarling, “Hello again, you old bastard. Remember me?”

Even though I’d booked the hostel for three nights, I decided to leave early the next morning, because fuck running up and down stairs like Tom and Jerry. I splashed out on a hotel that had a bathroom in the room, packed my bags, and headed to the front desk.

Not wanting to pay for the whole stay, I approached the clerk with a smile and said, “Hello, my grandfather’s dead. Can I check out?”

In Australia, a family emergency trumps a cancellation fee. In Nepal, it opens up a negotiation. With a small nod of condolence, he tallied my bill, swiped my card, and presented me the receipt as if it were inconsequential: bacon rind given to a hungry dog. I glanced at it.

“You’ve charged me for three nights.”

“Yes.”

“But I’m only staying one.”

“Yes.”

“But,” I paused, trying to direct my thoughts through the fog of fatigue. “Can’t you…?” I trailed off, letting the sentence rot in the air between us like a bag of liposuction fat.

He slid a notepad and pen across the counter. “What is your offer?”

I stared at him. “What?”

“You tell me what you want to pay and then we discuss.”

“But…I,” pause. “No! My—”

“And I’m sorry for that.” He tapped the pad, looking delighted. “Your offer?”

The only offer that felt appropriate was a bucket of dicks for him to suck but I had no idea where to unearth such a treasure—not in Nepal, anyway—so I gave up. I reasoned that the money wasn’t worth the very real danger of shitting my pants mid-negotiation—a tactic that could have worked in my favour, but seemed like the sort of thing I’d ultimately regret.

 

Outside, the streets were still quiet and I stopped at the only pharmacy that was open. I bought the essential narcotics from the white-smocked clerk, neglecting to do the currency conversion in my head. Later that evening, I discovered that he’d charged me roughly three times the amount he was supposed to. A fact which bothered me roughly three times the amount it should have.

Sure, it was a minuscule amount of cash to me but a modest amount to him, but I was vexed: It was wrong, I was just a tourist. And I was sick. Vulnerable. He was taking advantage of that. He was shitting all over me. I had to say something—for colonically-challenged travellers everywhere.

Two days later, lathered into frenzy, I strode to the store with my indignant inner monologue juggling words and phrases in my head like linguistic Sudoku. I stormed up to the pharmacist, struck my fist on the counter, and said—among other things—“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

Yep. Apparently food poisoning turns me into Dorothy from Oz. I mean: who says ‘ought to’ in general conversation? What the fuck was that? Why not just go all-out and put my little soliloquy into iambic pentameter?

At the end of my rant, he was flummoxed. Here we go, I thought. He’s going to find some ridiculous justification for it.

“Madam,” he began delicately. “I’ve never seen you before.”

My first reaction was shock, “What?” which slowly gave way to confusion, “I was just in here the other day,” then realisation, “Oh,” and finally, a throbbing mortification: “You didn’t serve me, did you?”

He shook his head.

I looked around, trying to pick the offender from the line-up of neat men in matching uniforms. “Does your twin brother work here?” I gave what I hoped was a charming, disarming, and completely non-racist smile. “Maybe he served me?”

“Madam, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Okay,” I turned, and then looked back. “Just, you know, don’t overcharge tourists. Not that you do. Because, um, we now know,” grin, “that you don’t.” Pause. “I’m a nurse by the way! Yep. An egalitarian nurse who is totally supportive of refugees and…”

I prattled on like this for a while, determined to dig myself out of the hole I’d just placed myself in.

Perhaps I should have just buried my shit in it instead.

Most cats do that, you know—bury their crap.

But not this one.

This cat flings it into the ether of the internet in a scatological frenzy.

Sharpening claws with a Swiss army knife

24 Jan

Switzerland was a girl that you simply couldn’t feel neutral about.

Ha! See what I did there?

Don’t get me wrong, she was quite friendly; but she was also a European princess, the only daughter of rich parents, who would frequently say offensive, ignorant and moderately hilarious things, then chastise you in a prim voice (“You have no right to speak to me like that!”) when you dared to question her questionable logic.

I’d managed to conduct a few surface conversations with her when I first arrived at The Royale, always with a moderate amount of social lubrication, usually without incident. But, like a cancerous tumor snaking it’s way through your white matter, she would eventually wear me down and annoy the shit out of me.

Bärengraben

There were two things that Switzerland hated in this world: dogs and poor people. And, after a week of incessant teasing from Atlanta and I, I’d say that we now occupy spaces 3 and 4 respectively.

Virtual high-five to my jungle comrade.

Her hatred for poor people became apparent during a conversation Atlanta and I had with her about zoos.

Switzerland: “I think zoos should be banned. It’s completely cruel to the animals.”

Atlanta and I debated with her, bringing up conservation efforts, breeding programs, care for sick and wounded animals that may die out in the wild…

“I don’t care. It’s cruel. Lions should not be suffering in a cage in Switzerland.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “They aren’t really suffering. They’re in large pens being taken care of by people with degrees in zoology. It’s not like they’re living in the ghetto.”

“I don’t agree with it.”

I tried a different tack. “Okay, how about this: not everyone is fortunate enough to travel to the Serengeti to see a lion. Does this mean that they haven’t got the right to see one in their lifetime?”

“I don’t see why animals should have to suffer because some people are poor. It’s not the animals problem that they don’t want to work.”

Yeah. Uh-huh. That’s right- fuck all you poor people.

“It is cruel,” mini-Rinehart continued thoughtfully. “Switzerland is cold, you know. A lion has no business being there.”

“I had no fucking idea it was cold in Switzerland,” I snapped. “Thank you for the geography lesson.”

Pet Semetary

Switzerland fell in love with a stray cat that occasionally hung out at The Royale. It was a horrible little black thing that I christened Church due to the fact that it looked like it had come from the wrong end of the Pet Semetary. Switzerland would cuddle it, coo at it, and feed it spoonfuls of her dinner. From her fork. While she was still eating. When Atlanta and I began to wind her up she would retreat to the hammock, holding the cat like a security blanket, glaring at us, and smacking the nose of any canine that came within a ten feet radius of her precious pussy.

One lunch, as she was feeding the beast prime backstrap beef that had been cut from a freshly slain cow that morning, Atlanta was watching her in bemused horror. He elbowed me and whispered drily, “I’m sure there’s some local Colombians who would like that meat. I’m going to kick that cat so fucking hard when she leaves.” He paused, then said loudly, “CC, did I ever tell you the story about the cat empanada that I was served?”

“Cat? As in cat food?”

“No, as in cat meat. El gatto.”

“Bullshit.”

“It’s true. There were no pollo empanadas left so I ate cat. Doesn’t taste too bad, actually.”

Switzerland spooned a mouthful of soup, willfully ignoring us.

“You’re not doing that cat any favours by feeding it, you know,” Atlanta piped up.

“Why?” she asked, stroking the creatures head.

“Because you are taking away it’s ability to procure food for itself.”

“It’s a domestic animal.”

I took up the bait. “He’s right. That’s why you can’t feed the birds in wildlife parks, they lose the ability to hunt. That cat is going to wind up starving to death if you keep feeding it.”

“Cats don’t hunt.”

“Yes they do,” Atlanta and I said as one.

“It’s someones pet,” she huffed.

“This is a Colombian cat,” Atlanta offered. “Colombian cats aren’t like regular cats. They’re tough. They carry a switchblade and-”

“I’m sure someone will feed him,” she stroked the cats chin and continued in a baby voice, “he’s so lovely.”

“I won’t feed it,” he added cheerfully. “It’s going in the furnace as soon as I get hold of it.”

“Wait,” I said, putting down my spoon. ”Do cats carry a switchblade because people try and make empanadas out of them all the time?”

Inner Beauty

I can’t be too unkind to Switzerland. She did have a good appreciation for aesthetics:

“I really want to get married one day, but only to a blonde man. With no body hair. I hate body hair. That’s why I hated Brazil. It’s full of little, ugly, hairy people. I like blonde men and they have to be from a good family. I haven’t had sex in six months you know, I had to mentally prepare myself when travelling Africa for no sex because I don’t like African men, but I thought I’d find at least one blonde man in South America,” she turned to me and added thoughtfully, “I loved Australian men.”

I wanted to tell her to get her manicured, upper-class claws out of the pool of Australian men that my friends and I fish from. I should have pointed out that there are more blonde men from good families in South Africa than South America and that she should probably just fuck off back to Cape Town. She could even buy the baby she always wanted: “I’d love to buy an African baby. But only a cute one. Not an ugly one.”

And there was the time she did acid: “Everyone became ugly. I couldn’t stand it. I hid in my room for the night because I was just surrounded by hideous looking people. It was really quite frightening.”

Despite being constantly frustrated by her, I travelled with Switzerland for a bit, purely for the convenience and safety of having a human being beside you as you traverse Colombia. If you’re thinking that I was only using her- well, you’re right. I was. If you are tittering at what a horrible human being I am- well, you’re wrong. I’m fairly certain that she was doing the same thing: “I’ll stay at the hostel you are staying at in Santa Marta…maybe I’ll find some cool people to travel with there. It’s a drag being with the same six people every day. I need to find someone fun to hang out with.”

When international relations collapse

But, one evening, I very nearly throttled Switzerland.

We were at the beach, drinking fresh juice and staring at our phones, willfully refusing to converse with one another. We’d spent the better part of the afternoon bickering like pensioners at the bus stop. We’d heard a story a few days earlier about a rape ring that was once operating out of a popular party hostel in Medellin. It was a horrific tale that scared the pants off me- oh my, what a terrible pun that was- Switzerland, however, didn’t want to believe it because she had plans to stay there.

Switzerland: “I don’t think that people were really assaulted in the hostel in Medellin. They would have said something.”

“They probably reported it to the police who hushed it up.”

“Yes but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t write a bad review on Tripadvisor.”

Imagine reading that: Cindy gives XXYXY Hostel, Medellin 1 star, ‘The gardens are lovely but there is a good to fair chance that you will be viciously raped in them.’ 

Switzerland was staring at me. “Um…,” I said finally, “Shame?”

“Well they don’t have to put their real name.”

“Look, sexual assault is handled by every person differently and many people don’t shout about their experience. Most sexual assaults go unreported, actually. It’s that Victim Guilt thing.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that.”

I stared at her. “Well, honey, mental health is my fucking job and I know a little bit about this.”

“Yes, but I’d report it.”

“You don’t actually know what you’d do until it happens.”

“I’d go to the embassy and create such a fuss that the hostel had to be shut down,” she continued. This was a debate technique that she employed often. When your point trumped hers, she would continue on as if you hadn’t spoken. This would then cause an agitated silence from my end, and after a beat she would say in a little girl voice, “I wonder how the kitty is.”

At 5.30, I ask her if she wants to head back to The Royale. She agrees. Two minutes later she asks, “Oh my, how are we going to get back?”

I tell her it’s not a long walk. “But it’ll be dark soon, we’ve got to go now.”

She pays her tab, picks up her thongs, walks into a tent, and engages in a fifteen minute conversation about handmade bracelets while I tap my foot and swear under my breath outside.

“We have to go,” I urge her. “Now.”

“Yes, yes, I just want to buy a bracelet.”

You’ve had all fucking afternoon to buy a bracelet you vapid whore, I shout in my head. Get your silver spoon arse off that chair and let’s fucking vamos, Swissderella.

Eventually we leave. Somehow the conversation falls to the minimum wage in America.

“You know, I wouldn’t even get out of bed for $6 an hour,” she said.

“Well, some people don’t have a choice.”

“I used to babysit my brother and get $250 a week from my parents just for eating pizza and watching movies. And I got $30 an hour for my other babysitting jobs. I don’t see why they can’t just do that.”

There you go America: your economic woes have just been solved.

“I miss being fifteen. Life was so easy then.”

It’s bait that I can’t help but take. “Easy? You are travelling through Colombia,” I spat. “You haven’t even finished uni yet, what, exactly, about life is hard?”

Silence. Switzerland has now fallen ten passive-aggressive metres behind me. On the main road, we pass the marker that states it’s one kilometre back to the Royale.

“Should we get a lift?” Switzerland calls out.

I stop, looking around at the complete absence of anything. “From where?”

She points at a nearby farmhouse. “I’ll ask if they can drop us off.”

She approaches the porch and asks a random Colombian for a lift as if this is perfectly normal behaviour. I wait by the road, the darkness growing as quickly as my ire. We waste ten minutes of twilight as she tries to explain the location of an obscure jungle hostel to a flummoxed local who looks as if he wants to somehow evaporate into smoke to escape her pushy arse.

“It’s kilometre marker 46. You know the one,” she huffs. “It’s right there.”

After a beat she flits back to me. “He will take us but he can only take one at a time, so do you want to go first?”

I stare at her. “You can’t be fucking serious.”

“Or you can wait and I’ll go.”

“I’m not getting,” I spit, “on the back of a strangers fucking motorcycle.”

In my defense, walking into a house in a dangerous country and trusting that a stranger will take you 1km up the hill out of the sheer goodness of his heart is something that I consider to be ‘retarded. Deliverance retarded. Non-Academy Award winning you’ve-just-gone-full-retard, retarded.’ And if I was stupid enough to agree with her harebrained scheme, my two options were completely fucked: I could be the first on the bike and hope that I wasn’t going to wind up, at best, robbed in a field somewhere, or I could stand on the side of the road at night and hope that I wasn’t going to wind up, at best, robbed in a field somewhere. Furthermore, she has spent so much time trying to convince this Kogi fucktard to double us like Evel Knievel on the back of his motorbike, that it’s now nighttime. So, I snap. And I had every right to do so.

“You can catch the fucking bike if you like. Fuck this shit. Fuck you, fuck the franc, fuck Tag Heuer, and fuck the Red Cross, I’m fucking walking.”

Okay, I didn’t exactly phrase it like that. But my dummy was spat unceremoniously across the road as a Colombian man watched the exchange in shock.

Switzerland gathers herself, sighs, and follows me as I steam down the road.

“Take the fucking bike,” I call over my shoulder.

“Well obviously I’m not going to let you walk alone,” she huffed.

Santa Marta

She followed me to Santa Marta and we spent an awkward night making stilted conversation in the hostel bar. Prayer in C by Robin Schultz came on, and Switzerland let a small piece of empathy slip: “Oh, this song reminds me of my friend who died of malaria. I used to listen to it over and over when he…” she looked down at her wine.

Maybe she is human after after all, I found myself thinking. But, before I could pat her hand and say something forced and inappropriate, an insubstantial summer breeze flitted back across the table: “You know,” she said leaning forward, “the last thing I said to him was, ‘At least with malaria you’ll be nice and skinny’. He was dead a week later,” giggle. “Not a very good thing to say, was it?!”

The next day, she boarded a bus to Medellin and we made the thoroughly insincere promise to “catch up again!”

I don’t think I will. Having a body next to you when you trawl Colombia has it’s advantages, but having the wrong body is a CATastrophe of Pet Semetarian proportions. Sometimes travelling alone and relying on your instincts is safer than being with the wrong person. Besides, she would have dumped me as a companion when she found out I was poor, anyway.

Watch out where the huskies go…

20 Jan

A Colombian coke binge seemed like a good idea at the time.

Don’t judge that statement. I don’t actually do drugs in Australia, you know.

She adds defensively.

Don’t get me wrong: I have. On many occasions. The majority of my university years were spent in a purple haze. My memories of that time are so smoggy that I might have studied in Beijing…it’s possible, you know- I smoked a lot of pot and can’t be entirely sure where I was at that period of my life. I’ve enjoyed so many illegal narcotics that several of them don’t work on me anymore. My brain has mutated and apparently developed anti-bodies to most strains of MDMA. My time on drugs can be summed up by the word ‘Disneyland’, and I ceased with my sanity and without any stories that involved me robbing someone or sucking something to fulfill a suburban white girl Ecstasy habit.

In other words, I did the shit out of drugs and passed with flying colours.

But the first rule in the Drug Users Handbook is ‘When they stop being fun, it’s time to move on’, so I stopped taking them, choosing green tea, smugness and meditation instead.

Then I got to Colombia, a country that looks at an afternoon bump of cocaine much like a double espresso- it’s just a little pick-me-up to get you through that post lunch drag. It’s their cultural siesta. In fact, in Colombia, cocaine is cheaper than beer. I’m a traveller on a budget. A temporary coke habit was the fiscally responsible choice, really.

It’s my second night at The Royale and Atlanta and I have just left the party that is blazing through the bar. We clamber up fifty dirt-hewn steps by the light of our mobile phones to arrive at my room for the evening: a man-made hilltop cabin that overlooks the jungles of North East Colombia. The next morning, a woodpecker will rythmically slam it’s beak into the balcony railing, acting as a natural alarm clock, and my blurry eyes will peel open to a glorious view of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This night, though, Jim Jefferies is playing on my laptop, a half filled bottle of rum sits, uncapped, by a cheap lamp that is perpetually surrounded by Colombia’s largest jungle bugs, an open packet of tax-free Venezuelan cigarettes lays on the bed beside me, and the table is covered with AUD$1600 worth of Colombia’s finest disco shit.

Over here, five grams of cocaine is worth less than a packet of cigarettes in Australia, and our transatlantic bounty is spread haphazardly before us. We dip our noses into a pile of white snow like talkative, debauched huskies. We rack line after line and when I feel my heart start to beat faster than an ice addict masturbating after three days of no sleep, I take a break, chain smoking cigarettes and talking about myself as if someone gives a shit. As I natter, Atlanta blows a handful of coke in my face like a child with a dandelion. As an Aussie, this sort of behaviour is hard to get used to. Coke in Australia is more precious than the purity of your first born child. When I arrived in Colombia, I was still chewing the empty bag to get every molecule of Charlie into my system, by the time I got to Rancho Relaxo, it was so prevalent that I was giving myself cocaine milk moustaches for cheap laughs. I had cocaine smeared on, and snorted off, several parts of my anatomy. The whole thing was like a scene from Blow.

My mum must be so proud of me.

My mum must be so proud of me.

Atlanta and I rant at each other with the manic, misplaced sense of self assurance that copious amounts of narcotics brings. The hours slip away, and eventually the party downstairs disbands. Aside from our two person and a-man-on-a-laptop-screen party, all is silent.

Then a gun shot cuts through the night.

Upon hearing it, Atlanta immediately snaps to life like a KGB sleeper agent who has just heard the trigger phrase. He pauses Jim Jefferies, slams the lid shut on the laptop, pulls the plug on the lamp, and plunges us into darkness.

“Someone just got shot at the checkpoint.”

I struggle to sit up on the bed. “Where’s the check point?”

“Just out the front of the hostel.”

“Just out the…what the fuck?” I screech.

“Be quiet, I want to listen.”

Everything around us is silent. I have now leapt, in one fluid, drugged-out motion to stand at the balcony, clasping the rails with a labor-inducing fervor. I peer apprehensively over the blackness of the hostel into the jungle before me. The amount of cocaine in my blood has surpassed ‘excessive’- I’m currently at ‘Charlie Sheening’- and half a bottle of rum is slowly digesting in my stomach; but in that moment I am more sober than Robert Louis Stevenson at a Logie’s after party.

Yeah. I couldn’t think of anything funny so I went for nonsensical instead.

Anyway, nothing can kill a buzz quicker than South American jungle paramilitary. I stare at the night stretching malevolently before me and begin to wonder if I’m about to die with cocaine boogers caking my nostrils and an M16 jammed beneath my mandible. Full scale drug paranoia hits me. “Are we safe?” I squeak.

“Yeah, they probably just shot someone trying to smuggle something over the border.”

A drug shoot-out. In Colombia. In a guerilla and paramilitary soaked area of the jungle that I probably shouldn’t even be in. Where I am currently fifty shades of fucked up. ‘I’ll take ‘Stupid things that gringas do’ for $500 please, Alex.’

“Drugs?” I squeak.

Atlanta laughs. “God no,” he drawls. “The biggest thing being smuggled into Colombia from Venezuela right now is gasoline.”

I glance at the 10c per packet, tax free, Venezuelan cigarettes beside me. “And illegal tobacco?”

He nods, switches Jim Jefferies back on, and settles back in the chair to rack up more lines. “It was probably just a warning shot fired into the bonnet of the car as they tried to sprint across the border. It’s nothing.”

I’m in the middle of nowhere and a gun has been fired fifty feet away from me. To anyone who doesn’t live in a South American Golden Triangle, it’s fucking far from nothing. Atlanta is an ex army medic who grew up in Georgia. Gun shots probably accompanied the majority of his lullabies. Rifle fire is like elevator music to him. I’m from Sydney, the place where gun crime is as common as egalitarian bogans. In short, this is far from a normal occurance for me and I’m fucking terrified. Has someone just died? Are the military going to come into the hostel and look for witnesses to shoot? Or were the shots fired from the guerillas in the Colombian mist, and not the military at all? In other words, am I going to fucking die?!?

Atlanta sees the look on my face and immediately switches into Southern gentleman mode. “Anyone coming up that hill will need a flashlight and we’ll see them. We’re safe.”

This calms me mildly.

“Besides, it’s nothing like the time the military stormed this place and Boss Connecticut and I had to negotiate with them while we sent all the guests to hide up in the jungle with their passports.”

Any calm that has settled in my drug-addled brain leaves abruptly. “Um,” I begin. “What?”

“It was fine. They just came in with guns because they wanted money.”

“Wait..what?”

He offers me a rolled up fifty mil bill and explains. One sleepy evening, armed militia stormed the property with machine guns drawn. The hostel staff sent the guests up into the mountains to hide with their passports- you know, just in case negotiations with the armed men went sour and they had to flee the area and/ or country. The guests hid, presumably discharging bodily fluids from circular orifices while below them, agitated Spanish raged as the owners renegotiated with heavily fucking armed, mildly fucking sociopathic, post adolescent, testosterone fuelled military.

“That won’t happpen again. Not tonight, anyway.”

I glance at my bag which contains my passport and a laptop which can probably be sold for a plane ticket in a pinch. “Are you sure?”

Atlanta glances at me. “Calm down, Tweak.”

“I’mnotfuckingtweaking,” I snap.

He ruffles my hair. “It’s going to be fine.”

To be pompously continued in the next post…

The Panamanian Pirate Story: Guns, Guts and Bellies Full of Rum

10 Jan

It took Panama City 67 minutes to rob me.

Yes. Rob.

Again.

I know, I know.

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It’s kind of sucky being known as ‘The girl who got robbed’ in hostels. I’m getting good at being mugged, though. Not a tear was shed and I could even crack bad jokes to fellow travellers later that evening.

What I didn’t know when I arrived in Panama City was that I had booked a hostel in the ghetto. Unintentionally. I’d travelled there to catch a boat to Colombia through the San Blas Islands, and had simply booked the place that offered such a trip. After the robbery I would begin to notice how poor the area was. The razor wire that stretched endlessly over the fences of every house. The barred windows. The belligerent drunks. The cops that shook money from locals in front of you. The nighttime symphony of car alarms and gun shots.

Yes. Gun shots.

Crime

It’s 5pm. My plane skidded down the Panama City runway an hour ago and I have spent the last 30 minutes exploring the local area. It’s close to twilight, so I decide to head back to the hostel. I inevitably get lost and try the GPS on my phone. The GPS isn’t working. The phone goes in my pocket and I turn down a street that should be the one my hostel is on.

The police would later tell me that I have just walked into one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a place that even locals avoid. Simply being there carried the same level of danger that rolling through the favellas in Brazil in a diamond encrusted wheelchair whilst smugly fanning oneself with hundred dollar bills would. It doesn’t look malevolent, though. It looks like an ordinary residential neighbourhood in Central America. It reminds me, ironically, of Havana. Kids are skipping rope, ladies are parked on wooden crates outside their flats, and old men are lazily smoking on balconies, surveying the street before them.

It’s light out and the street is crammed with people, but as I walk my spider sense begins to tingle. Something feels dangerous. Wrong. Something in my gut says that I need to turn the fuck around. Immediately.

Of course, I ignored my intuition. Stop being a pussy, CC, I thought. It’s just because it looks like Cuba. You’re overreacting.

I pass a cross street. A guy follows me. I turn around, he grabs me, pins me to the bonnet of a car and, for the second time in as many months, I find myself grappling with a large Afro-Caribbean local. When you’re catnip for thieves, one robbery is much like the next and can be described in a bored, concise manner: We struggle, I gouge at his eyes- yes, I really did that- he pulls his head back, undoes the clasp on my bag- impressive considering it was an anti-thief backpack that usually took me ten minutes to undo- and snatches it from me. I manage to keep hold of one strap and pull back, he takes a swing at me, I duck-

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-kick at him, miss, lose my grip, and watch him sprint away. I hesitate, give chase, turn a corner and deduce that he has disappeared through a doorway that appears to lead to a residential courtyard. There is a lady standing at the door. She is staring at me. I don’t follow him. I hang my head and return to the street like a defeated pussy…cat chicken. Just like Cuba, my headscarf and sunglasses have flown off my head in the attack. In Cuba, they were delivered to me as the neighbourhood children crowded around to help. In Panama, my counterfeit Raybans are gone, and my headscarf lays forlornly on the ground. I pick it up and note that the locals are still resolutely refusing to catch my eye.

Yes, my attack had witnesses. At least eight. Did they do anything? No. One woman was sitting three feet away with her two sons. That hurt more than the robbery, actually. The fact that a mother would sit and watch a woman get attacked by a large man and not even squeak. But, I would quickly learn that they fucking hate tourists in Panama. Hate them. If anyone has had a different experience I’d be glad to hear it, but my time there was marked by abject hostility from nearly every local. Shop assistants would roll their eyes when I asked them to repeat rapid Spanish. Dutch backpackers told me stories of locals spitting at their feet and calling them a Gringo. The vibe of Panama City is, ‘you have and I don’t, so fuck you’.

Now, admittedly, there is a juxtaposition between locals and tourists. 3km away from the slums is a mall filled with Hermes, Cartier and Chanel. It even has a horse riding shop stuffed with leather saddles and jodphurs, and I haven’t seen too many fucking ponies in Panama City. So, in a way, I can understand their disdain for us, but in another I say, ‘No, fuck that, and fuck you, Panama.’ Every major city in the world has a schism between the rich and poor. Walk the Champs-Elysées and you will see rich tourists strolling past homeless beggars clutching cups of coins. It’s the same in Sydney, in New York, everywhere. It’s life.

Which brings me to my next point. Or rant. No, let’s say ‘point’. Rant sounds angry. The belief that people steal in Central America just because they’re desperate.

Piss off.

Seriously. Piss. Off. I’ve been thinking about this a lot today and I have managed to formulate an argument to make that statement shatter like windscreen glass. I’m in a quarrelsome mood, too. I’d be happy to engage anyone who disagrees with me in my crosshairs in a stirring, expletive filled debate.

Rant

The Gina Rinehart’s of the world aren’t being bag-snatched. Thieves target tourists- and locals- in their own areas, not the in rich, touristy ones. If it were solely about desperation, they would be going for the fattest targets.

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We aren’t in Sherwood Forest, and tourist theft isn’t an action that bridges a socioeconomic gap. It’s opportunism. Nothing else. The truly desperate aren’t usually the thieves, anyway. They are the broken-down beggars you see clutching Styrofoam cups on the streets.

Plus, if it were sheer desperation, the street vendors would routinely have food stolen from their carts by starving Oliver Twist types. They don’t. So that argument is bullshit. The men who have robbed me in a mildly violent manner, and those who have robbed other travellers in a majorly violent manner aren’t simply acting out of need. That’s like saying rape happens because men get horny. Sure, ‘need’ is a factor, but there’s a whole lot more bubbling away in the cauldron. Disenfranchisement only leads to crime if it breeds contempt, and that’s an individual response to a situation. I’ve been in poor countries- Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico- that don’t have hostile locals. Anyone who is happy to fuck over another human being just so they can have a little more, whether it’s a poverty line bag-snatcher or a wall-street banker that embezzles billions of dollars- because rich people steal, too- is a dick. A pure dick. A limp, warty, flaky one. There is no justification on this planet that will make me believe that inflicting fear or violence on another human being is acceptable. I don’t give a fuck what your bank balance is.

Take my Cuban experience: Cubans aren’t starving. They get a food ration from the government. Sure it’s not a lot, and the wages- roughly US$30 a month- are extremely low, but you can buy a cup of coffee in Cuba for AUD 4c. Four cents. It’s all relative. And the literacy rates and healthcare in Cuba are among the best in the world. Many Cubans are healthier and better educated than Americans. The dude who robbed me there was not an emaciated, poverty stricken fellow. He was sinewy, he was dressed in clean clothes, and he had shoes on his feet. He didn’t rob me because he was desperate, he did it because I looked like a tourist and he figured he could get something from me. It was greed not need.

Guts

A few days later, I go to the tourist mall to get another backpack. I succeed.

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Hooray for me. $30 lighter, I hail a cab on the street and ask to go Hostel Mamallena. The driver nods.

“How much?”

He holds up three fingers. “Three dollars.” His pinky nail is the length of your average cocaine aficionados bump digit. I want to ask him how he finds adequate amounts of keratin in the fried chicken and chips laden Panamanian diet. I don’t. I just nod and bundle into the cab. It pulls away from the kerb.

“It’s five,” he says, glancing back at me.

“What?”

“Five dollars.”

I lean forward. “So it was three dollars out there but once I’m in the cab it’s five?”

“Yes.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Okay, four.”

I had paid $3 to get from the hostel to the mall. It’s a scam, but it’s also just a dollar, I’ve also just been robbed, and the principle of the matter also just seems unimportant. I belligerently agree and sit back in the seat. As we drive, I notice that he is periodically turning around and staring at my legs. It’s fourty degrees outside, and I’m dressed in cut-off shorts and a singlet, my hair tucked into a hat. Uncomfortable at the attention, I pull my shopping bag over my lap. He continues to appraise me in the rearview mirror. Abruptly, he stops and picks up an old man.

What the fuck? This isn’t a fucking collectivo taxi.

They speak in Spanish and he drives the old man in the opposite direction, detouring, so I now have no idea where I am. Why did he pick up an old man when he already had a fare? That’s weird. I move my phone from my pocket to my underpants. I have nothing else of value on me, I tell myself. I have USD$9. That’s it. You’re fine, CC.

I don’t feel fine, though. My heart is hammering, adrenaline spiking. My gut instinct is saying- just as it did just before I was robbed- that something is wrong. He drops the old man off and continues to stare at me in the rearview mirror. I look out the window, trying to look completely blasé while engaging in frantic self-talk: I have nothing monetary on me, so robbery isn’t a threat, but what if that’s not what he’s after? I recall the way he was staring at my legs. I suddenly feel completely naked in my skimpy summer clothes. I tell myself that I’m being paranoid because of my experience thus far, but then I realise something: I might be. This could be completely innocent. I could just be a neurotic, narcissistic woman who believes that random men are desperate to rob and/ or rape her.

Or

It might not be. My gut- usually accurate- could be right and I have two options: I can get out of the cab now, on a crowded street, and be a safe potential neuroitc, or I could stay, convince myself that I’m just being silly, and open myself up to the possibility of something horrific happening.

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And, well…Fuck that.

The cab stops at traffic lights. I throw money at him and exit.

Trying to hail another cab is difficult. When drivers do stop, they completely refuse to take me. Eventually, one agrees. His son sits in the front seat. He drives the opposite way that the first cab was taking me. Two minutes later, I am at the hostel. I give him $5. He looks for change.

“Do you have a dollar?”

I take the coins out of my pocket. “No, sorry.”

He looks at my outstretched hand, takes two quarters, and gives me back my $5 note.

Which proves my point: a cab driver with a small child is arguably going to be more desperate than a twenty-something one- cocaine habit or not. The latter immediately scammed me, then drove in the opposite direction to where I was supposed to go, even when I gave him the exact address of the hostel. Thinking about that too much scares the shit out of me. The former took me straight to my destination and charged me the correct fare. There are cool people and fuckheads in this world, and the two exist beyond races, borders, and socioeconomic statuses.

Epilogue

It’s morning at the hostel. I am smoking and chatting to Illinios, a retiree, when a group of people storm through the gate. They clutch waterlogged backpacks, looking drained and fed up. I recognise one- the Canadian from my dorm that I had spoken to on the evening I was robbed. He was meant to be on a boat halfway to Colombia right now. I ask what happened.

The captain of the boat got pissed on rum, raised a sail in a direct wind, and capsized the boat.

Everyone went overboard.

All electronic devices and cameras suffered irreparable water damage.

If it was nighttime, people would have died.

If it had happened two miles later, people would have died.

Canada was pissed off, but philosophical, “We could be dead. Or injured. It sucks, but luckily we were near an island and my family and I are safe. It’s the fourth boat that has sank this week, you know.”

They don’t mention that on the website.

I told him that I had to cancel my boat trip for a flight to Colombia instead.

“You’re lucky. Don’t go on the boats, they suck and are dangerous.”

Canada’s dad walks out. He turns to me, “If you find my iPad, can you give it to the staff? I left it in our room accidentally before we left and it’s not there now.”

I take a drag of my cigarette. There’s an iPad that was placed on my backpack yesterday. It wasn’t mine, and I figured that a dorm mate was using my rucksack as a make shift table of sorts. “Is it in a black case?”

Daddy Canada looks hopeful. “Yes.”

“Wait here.”

His face lights up when I give it to him. He throws me into an over-enthusiastic hug, kissing me loudly on the top of the head. “Thank you! Thank you! I was so angry that I left it at the hostel, I thought I’d lost it. But lucky that I did because we now have a lifeline! Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

This surprised me. “Um, nothing.”

He throws me in a hug again.

I’m not adding that part to tie it into a

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‘see, I was robbed and I’m still honest, aren’t I a good person’ moral because I honestly don’t think I’m any better than anyone else for giving him back his iPad. I did it because I’m a Nomadic Nimrod who frequently finds herself in the sort of crisis he was in, I know how welcome help- no matter how small- can be. I’m not a saint, I’m just paying things forward.

Canada said that I was lucky for cancelling the boat. I had to, when I was robbed, I lost the money for the trip, which had to be paid to the captain in cash on departure. Unable to justify the frankly exorbitant cost of the boat after the theft, I booked a flight instead. I didn’t like doing this at the time, mind you. The exact thought that went through my head was, I’m not even getting the fucking boat now. What a fucking waste of money. I’ve travelled briefly to fucking Panama to donate several hundred fucking dollars to local fucking scumbags before fucking off again.

Now? Well, I don’t want to degenerate into a pompous ‘everything happens for a reason’ lecture, but maybe I am kind of lucky.

Or, maybe I’m just justifying being robbed like a Roaming Feline Numskull again.

But maybe if I hadn’t been bag-snatched I’d have gotten the boat. Maybe it would have been lovely for a night. Maybe we’d have then crashed. Maybe I’d have lost my phone, laptop and camera. Maybe I’d be deposited like a wet sack of garbage in Panama again, with the knowledge that I now had to find a flight to Colombia, a bed for the evening, and an argument strong enough to beat the hostels ‘No Refunds on Boat Trips for any Reason’ policy.

Maybe, things aren’t so bad at all.

Terror at 10,000 feet

12 Dec

I dropped my iPhone in the toilet.

Yep, John West decided to go fishing for some brown trout.

Seeing my brand new phone at the bottom of the loo didn’t bother me for two reasons- the first being that I’d dropped it on the way down, so it was only marinading in filthy Mexican toilet water instead of filthy Mexican toilet water mixed with beer-laced urine; and also I had spent the morning drinking with Manchester- an English expat I met in Puerto Escondido a few days earlier. I handled the drowning of John West with the misguided optimism that can only be brought on with high levels of alcohol coupled with an excessively handsome drinking companion- it was blithely downgraded from catastrophic to ‘Oh, toilet water can’t be that harmful for something as technologically advanced as the iPhone 5c, right?’

But John West died that day. His funeral was a simple affair: three shots of Mezcal poured into the cistern, a few heartfelt words, a mariachi band playing something upbeat yet melancholic, and a simple burial in the back pocket of my backpack. I, and my underpants, will certainly miss our old friend.

I’d met Manchester a week earlier through a mutual friend. It was a sunny and hedonistic Thursday in Mexico, and we’d spent the day drinking beers in front of a local supermarket. We were animatedly chatting away, the beer flowing as quickly as the funny stories, when he uttered two particularly intriguing phrases. The first: his ex-wife was once a lesbian who he had managed to lure back onto solids by oral fixation. The second: he had the uncanny ability to make any woman expel fluid from a particular part of the female anatomy. It was my belief that not all women were capable of such watery bedroom antics and I told him so, but Manchester assured me that we all are. It was his guarantee, uttered not in the pressured speech of a poser, but in the quietly confident voice of a man who knows he’s got the skills to back up his mouth. Or the mouth to back up his claims. Or the dexterity to-

I’ll stop there.

I could argue that shagging him was a science experiment. I was simply being a wild-eyed sexual explorer, drunkenly venturing my little canoe out into the crystalline waters of female bodily fluids with nothing but a misbuttoned yellow rain slicker and a brave smile for protection. I wasn’t doing it for me, but for every other vagina on Planet Earth. Plus, I was benevolently giving him a slightly larger population sample to base his claims on. That’s all it was. It had nothing to do with the fact that he’s an intelligent, funny, interesting, and charming guy. No. I’m just a vapid whore.

Five nights later, after a sixteen hour binge involving over-the-counter Lignocaine, horse tranquilisers, double choc Magnums and three Czech prostitutes; we had ditched the juggling roadside clown and were sitting, bleary eyed, on the back of a bus heading towards San José del Pacífico- a tiny mountain town of about 800 people that sits five hours north of Puerto. There’s not much there beyond natural beauty- no banks, no WiFi etc- and it’s 10,000 feet above sea level.

Just keep that in mind.

Manchester and I spent the journey there draped over each other like discarded marionettes. The road was too winding and bumpy for me to welcome anything that resembled sleep, so I stared vacantly out the window as the bus wound us up the mountain towards the sky. We reached San José, blearily found a hotel, checked in, and promptly collapsed onto the bed. Later that evening there was a textbook romance moment: watching a beautiful sun set over a breathtaking mountain range as an affectionate stray dog slobbers on your shoulder and paws at your lap. It was lovely.

The following day shit got messy.

Now, before I go on I want you to stop and put yourself in Manchester’s shoes. You’ve met a quirky, blue haired, Australian traveller. You’ve only known her a week but you have fun together and you like her. You invite her up to the mountains. You figure that your days will be spent drinking hot chocolate in front of an open fire and strolling the main street holding hands while goofily gazing at each other through dilated pupils. It’ll be like a Nescafe commercial.

Now, if after the first night, that quirky, perky blue-haired lass morphs into Crampy: the sweaty, violently ill, dank, aquamarine yak; what would you do? You can answer honestly, there’s nobody in your head but you and the tracking chip that the Government implants in us all at birth. Would you bail? Or would you look after her?

Because he looked after me.

For three days, I lay in the foetal position with knifing stomach cramps, fevers, sweats, chills, and shortness of breath in the high altitude. I was so weak that I couldn’t leave the bed. Which meant that anything above a bathroom break was a frivolity that simply had to be avoided. I didn’t shower. I couldn’t shower. I wanted to, but I was fairly certain that trying to do so would see me faint and slam into the porcelain tiles where I would lie twitching like a dying Marlin. You really should pity Manchester. Then canonise him. Knight him- he is English after all. I mean, he’s known me for one week. And believe me, I ain’t that flipping special, but that man valiantly took care of me as I groaned the Star Spangled Banner on sweat-stained sheets. After Day One of no showering, Crampy the Yak turned into Crampy the Yeti. I can’t even begin to describe the nightmare that was my body on Day Two. I haven’t been that sick in a long time and if I was in Sydney I probably would have taken myself to the hospital, but I was in a teeny, widdle Mexican town. With no doctors. The pharmacist had selfishly died a few months earlier. And there was no way I could have managed a winding five hour bus ride back to Puerto, so Manchester and I were locked in a chain of events that went from romantic to horrific at warp speed.

On day three, in desperation, he visited his friend, the village Shaman. He returned with a herbal tea, a remedy encased in a recycled red-and-white yoghurt container. I was to ingest a litre, wait until bedtime, brew another litre, ingest that, then join the Shaman for a Temazcal in the morning.

I was mildly skeptical, but highly desperate. I would have happily masticated distilled donkey snot on Ritz crackers at that point.

I managed to keep the first dose of tea down. I waited a few hours, drank the second dose, and passed out.

The next morning I felt marginally better. The stabbing pain was gone, and I could get out of bed without the room turning into a bad acid trip. We went for the Temazcal.

Which was a half hour walk from town.

In the freezing cold.

At a Sherpa’s altitude.

I mutely followed Manchester like an extra from The Walking Dead, silently accepting his encouragement and affectionate taps on the backside, glazed eyes determinedly fixed on the road ahead.

A Temazcal is an earthenware Mexican sauna. It’s outdoors, sort of like a mud hut. You strip down to your delicates, they seal you into complete blackness, and you get to make forced conversation with a bunch of strangers as herbal tea is poured over hot stones and the temperature climbs towards the Dante-esque. Then you crawl out, have an icy shower of fresh mountain water, and pour four cups of hot tea over yourself.

Now, I suspect that I may have some people with nursing training who read my blog, and I suspect that they are now calling me all manner of fucking idiot for doing this with a roasting fever that should have taken me towards copious amounts of IV antibiotics and little else.

But it worked. It wasn‘t fun. My god, it was fucking horrific, but damn if it didn’t get me onto a bus to Puerto the next morning. At sea level, everything looked better. I could breathe. I visited a Mexican doctor, described my symptoms in Spanglish, then got a lovely bag of drugs for my efforts. I do like drugs.

So that’s San José. Señor Navarro who runs the Four Elements Temazcal is a hero. Manchester almost deserves to be named on the blog for the accolades and years of free vagina he will no doubt receive. I think I’ll just put up posters around Puerto Escondido with his face and “Ladies, when I leave, please shag him often and well.” Actually, they both have Crowd Funding Pages for some eco-projects that they are separately engaging in, and when I get the link I’ll donate a kidney or two then put it up on the blog for any benevolent soul to do the same. You may or may not be the type to nurse a near stranger for three days, but surely you have a couple of bucks to spare for some good-hearted people.

And I am back in Puerto. Much healthier. More fragrant. And surely I’ll be perky again soon.

“Me talk pretty one day.”

20 Nov

In an oestrogen laden opening sentence I can sum up my Wednesday: I got my hair done. In Mexico, it’s about $50 for a full head of blonde foils and a cut. For the men that don’t speak ‘vanity’: that’s cheap. Really cheap.

I went to Spanish class afterward and tried to tell my teacher about it. I failed. Dismally.

This leads me to transcribe the actual conversations that I’ve had in Spanish with my language teacher. I can’t say that it all happened on one day, but, unfortunately, it did all happen. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, really.

“So, CC, what did you do this morning?”

“I have the white stripes this morning,” I motion to my hair.

“Ah, you do look different! Where?”

“Um, on the street. Here.”

On the street?”

“No, no. On the here street. There.” I point out the door.

Pause.

“Um, what’s the word for ‘down’ again? Hmm…okay, I walk down the street here for the white stripes.”

“Okay.”

“I run up the school for my reservation there today. Now I am a little tired but happy.”

Pause. “Escaleras is stairs. Escuela is school”

It’s nice that she speaks gringa. “Yes. I like it but I want it blue now.” I motion to my hair.

“Blue?”

“Well, when I arrive in Mexico my onion is blue. I like blue. Blue as well, now.”

“Your…wait, what?”

“I have blue…um…paint for onion with my bag and I want make onion blue. On Saturday, more or less. Maybe Sunday.”

“What are you saying?”

“My onion is blue on Saturday. Many months ago it was purple, but now with white stripes I can all blue.”

She realises what I am trying to say. “Oh! No, no. Cabello is hair. Cebolla is onion.”

“Ah.” The frown that the hairdresser gave me earlier suddenly makes sense: ‘Thank you, my onion is very good now.’

“Okay, what about last night? What did you do last night?”

“Last night I write and I go to my American friend and I drink beer with her. I drink beer because I am on vacation now and I am unemployed all day now and this morning I use the bathroom for cold shower. And I eat many chorizo tacos. I like chorizo tacos. It is very cheap with 25 pesos because I buy chorizo tacos for arrive eat.”

“You bought chorizo tacos take-away. Llevar is to take. Llegar is to arrive.”

I nod. “I need to eat more fruit and no more chocolate because I am a lazy rabbit here and I don’t gymnasium here for run. In Sydney, yes. I eat many Nutella in Sydney and run at gymnasium but here, no. I smoke a lot. More and less. I need do less smoke but more run. No. Yes?”

“Right. Let’s start the lesson now. I’m going to ask you questions and I want you to answer in Spanish, okay?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“What days do you study Spanish?”

“I study Spanish with the Oasis school from Monday to old man.”

“What? No, Friday is pronounced like this. Not viejo. A viejo is an old man.”

“Ah, yes, yes, yes.”

“Okay, so what time are your Spanish classes?”

“My class is three at the point.”

“No, en punto, is o’clock, not a la punta.”

“Right.”

“La Punta is a beach here.”

“Okay. Can we study on the beach?”

“Not really.”

I’m mildly crestfallen. “Okay,” but remain optimistic, “but the room is large and there is one fan so it’s not, um, fire here now but beach maybe fire there today.”

“Caliente is the word for hot.”

“Right.”

“Now you try asking me some questions. Let’s start with ‘where’. Ask me a ‘where’ question.”

“Where…is…your mother.”

There is a pause. “My mother is dead.”

Awkward. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Ask another one.”

“Where is…Batman?”

“…what?”

“Nevermind. Where is my kitchen?”

This continues on. For some reason, she thinks that my conversation skills need work. So, this happens.

“What do you do in Australia?”

“I am a sick in Australia.”

“You are a nurse in Australia.”

“Yes. And I work in a…nurse house. A big, loco nurse store.”

“A hospital.”

How could I fuck that up?! It’s the same damn word in English. “Yes, a hospital. For loco.”

“A psychiatric hospital.”

“Yes.”

“What do you do for leisure?”

“At cafe, I drink coffee with my Australian friends-”

“You can just say we drink coffee. What else do you like?”

“Or we go and drink all the wine glasses.”

“You drink wine?”

“I like the wine very much.”

“Red or white?”

“White when I go there, red when relax on my house.”

In my house.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Do you dance?”

“A little, but I am a rectum…no, wait. I am a retarded. I make bad dancing, no, wait- I am bad dancing. I want good dancing but I make bad dancing…so, um, no. No dance in Australia.”

“Do you do anything else?”

“Yes. With my Australian friends and I-”

“You know you can just say-”

“We can drink many beers. But before we have to lay down on the pizza at two in the morning.”

Silence.

“No, wait, after. After we lay on the pizza. Before beer, after pizza.”

More silence.

I realise my error. “No! Shit, piso is floor. We lay down on the floor.”

“You lay down on the floor?”

“Yes, yes, yes. Many beers. We sleep. And we drink many coffee and eat bacon because I am happy in the morning with my bacon. Bacon is friendly.”

“Just say delicioso.”

“I thought amable was nice?”

“Yes, but it’s personality nice, not taste nice.”

“Oh, correct. But I don’t like eggs for breakfast. Or lunch. Or-”

“Right. I get it. What else?”

“I do not like green eggs and ham!”

She doesn’t laugh. Maybe it was lost in translation…or maybe I said it incorrectly. “What else?”

“I write a lot. Also I write blog of good.”

“Write what?”

“Blog of happy. Ha-ha good, more or less.”

“Funny?”

“Yes, yes, yes.” Well, I do try to make good happy-funny for my friendly amigos.

“Are they real stories or do you make them up?”

“All real because I am bad with living and I make crazy story many days. When I travel, I do bad things.”

She didn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that I have made myself sound like a serial killer who hunts abroad. “What silly things?”

“I make lost. Other night. There. Not here. Many times.”

“You get lost?”

“Yes. Every day more or less. And I am a bad Spanish, as well.”

“CC, you have to drink more water and less beer because the climate is so hot here that you get dehydrated and it makes you tired and unable to think straight. You look a little tired today, yes?”

“A little. Tonight I eat chicken tacos at a store of take away food and tomorrow I must go to the beach and read but not when the sun is strong because I am all white and when I am many time in strong sun I’m going to, um…ouch.”

“Right, enjoy. I’ll give you more reflexive verbs for homework.”

Buenos Aires! Oh, shit. I mean, good day. Thank you. See you tomorrow, my lawyer.”

“Teacher, CC. I’m a teacher. Adios.”

Voy a Surfear

15 Nov

I need to be honest with myself. The charade has to stop. Something happened today, and I simply can’t lie to myself for one more moment. It doesn’t matter who started it, who called who a cry-baby, it ends now. It’s time to be an adult and admit one simple truth:

I suck at surfing.

Like really, really suck at it.

It’s okay. In the half hour walk from the beach I’ve made peace with it. My ego, which lay in tattered shreds, has been scotch-taped back together. I mean, it’s not like I’m a total spaz. Well, I kind-of am, but I have plenty of skills that more than make up for my lack of grace on the ol’ longboard. I can wiggle my ears, you know. It’s true. I have a some sort of bizarre muscle mutation in my cranium which allows me to move them without touching them. When I was a kid I used to pretend that I was Samantha from Bewitched, but a horrible accident meant that I could no longer wiggle my nose, so I had to resort to ear calisthenics to cast spells instead.

That’s not true.

Well, it is, but after typing it I realised how weird it sounds.

I’ve never been particularly athletic. In school, my best friends and I would enter P.E class, clutching our limbs and moaning like World War 1 soldiers on the front line. Diseases that had been cured would come out, “I can’t play volleyball, Miss. My polio is acting up again.” Once, during the headily petulant era of Year Nine, I wagged P.E. My friend and I walked to the shops and ate ice cream instead- a move that threw down a gauntlet of decadence that would scurry behind me like Thing Addams for decades. My teacher noticed that I was missing. Not my friend, just me. Apparently the absence of an argumentative, pubescent horror child that made her life difficult was notable. It certainly wasn’t my Lacrosse prowess that kept me in her memory, anyway.

I played softball after school for one season. I wagged that, too. When forced to play, I would stand in Right Field, disinterestedly watching the ball bounce by as my team mates shouted things like “fucking move”. My parents would watch from the sidelines, pretending that they had a child who was a source of pride. “Maybe don’t just stand with your arms folded, CC,” my mum helpfully said after one particularly heinous match. “Try and, you know, look interested.” I’m not sporty. Anything beyond lifting weights while scowling at the floor, or running on a treadmill like a hamster to Don’t Stop me Now by Queen is beyond my capabilities. So, my decision to take surf lessons was really an act of bravery. I’m still a soldier on the front line, I just have a better excuse than polio now. ‘Hungover’ usually works.

My first surfing lesson was fun. I was with five fresh-out-of-the-army Israeli’s, one of whom, bafflingly, couldn’t swim. I don’t know what drives a person to choose surfing lessons as a leisure activity when they look like a three-legged Collie flailing in the water, but Lame Dog Goldstein did serve as misdirection for my suckiness. You might think I’m mean for saying that. The way I see it is, he either has, or will, slaughter about seven hundred and eighty six Palestinian children in his lifetime. I have the moral highground. Which means I can compare him to a disabled canine. Don’t like it? Well, email me and we can engage in a long debate on Zionist Propaganda and anti-semitism. I’ve read The Gun and the Olive Branch. Well, half of it. But I’ll win, anyway.

Enough of that, though. I didn’t think that my crapness was any more than the average level of I’ve-never-done-this-before. Sure, I’m Australian and I should know how to surf, wrestle crocodiles, and match a cork-adorned Akubra to any outfit, but I watched Jaws at the tender age of ten and as a result I’ve managed to get through thirty one years with minimal time in the ocean. In my first surf lesson, I kind of stood up. Kind of. I did manage to get a good paddle going. Then I sat on the board, staring pensively at the ocean like some ludicrous Layne Beachley. It was fun.

This lesson something happened. I’m not entirely sure what.

Perhaps I should have been practising. I could have spent my nights lying on the kitchen floor and leaping up like a ninja instead of drinking beer and socialising. The whole thing is probably my fault- I’m not taking my non-existent career as an amateur surfer seriously.

In the fourty eight hours between lessons, the Israeli’s had all been transformed into Hasidic Kelly Slater’s. The one who couldn’t swim was gone, replaced with an impossibly attractive girl who carried herself with the arrogant grace of the genetically blessed. The bitch could surf, too. She even did a fist pump as she rode the wave. A fucking fist pump. It’s true- I saw it as I clutched my surfboard, choking on salt water. “Fucking Israeli’s,” I muttered as I tried to sit up. Karma- or God- tipped me off the board then. I looked like a Down Syndrome porpoise as I remounted.

The instructors are lovely, and incredibly patient with me. “CC, you look really tense. You need to relax,” one coached. “Don’t think that can’t do it, don’t think that anybody is judging you-”

“I’m judging me.”

“And don’t feel that you have to stand up, okay? Just have fun.”

“You’re right. I’m allowed to completely suck at surfing. It’s my right to be absolutely terrible and I’m going to milk it.”

When it became clear that my ‘kneel on the board and let out a high pitched shriek’ technique wasn’t working, I was taken aside and given special ‘stand up’ lessons. “Oh god,” I exclaimed to the instructor. “I’ve fallen behind the class and need extra tutoring. I’m in remedial surfing now.”

He laughed and offered me some advice. “Try not to, you know, be so awful.”

Whatever he said worked, I managed to stand up and balance on the board without a wave twice. Therefore I can do it, but I don’t think I can do it, so when I am on a wave, instead of casually rising and giving a little fist pump, I find myself thinking, Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, fuck, fuck, fuck, stand up! Stand up! Stand- gurgle, gurgle, choke.

At the end of the wave I’d surface rapidly, choke on the Pacific, and flap about. I must have looked like a dying seagull because the instructors would look at me in horror. “CC! Are you okay?” I was always fine, the only thing that took a real battering was my ego, which, after two hours, was almost worn down to a nub. I was called over and told to try another wave. I asked the instructor what time it was. I think he knew I was two seconds from fed-up because he said “If you like, catch this wave and then you can go back to the sand.”

“So I can sit on the shore and suck at surfing quietly from the sidelines?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you!”

I managed to stand up for a nanosecond on that wave, and the adrenaline was enough to make me want to go back out. I didn’t, though. I was battle-scarred. I grabbed my thongs, ripped off my rash vest and began a long trudge up the stairs back to the surf school.

In a bikini.

And nothing else.

Sometimes you just can’t get it right. Not only did I suck in the water, I sucked on land, too. For reasons that still remain unclear to me, I chose to leave my clothes and towel at the school. So I had to walk the main street of town in pool-underwear. In Puerto Escondido, you can’t walk anywhere without running into people you know, so my solitary trudge of defeat was witnessed by many acquaintances. “Hola,” I would say to people, trying to cover my midsection with a sea soaked rash vest. Do you like the travellers physique? I’d think. The soft lumpiness is thanks to Corona and chocolate. Look at this bulge, I’ve had to eat seventeen tacos to get that bulge. Have you ever seen a chickie with a rim of flesh there? No? That’s right, I’m hot shit. That’s why I’m almost naked in broad daylight. Thank me later.

Some days you are a triangle peg in a world of Layne Beachley’s, some days you are a general on the front lines, bravely fighting polio, but most days, self deprecation can soothe a shattered ego.

The Adventures of CC and John West

9 Nov

Day of the Dead

Sunday night, I found myself in the middle of a Day of the Dead parade, hurriedly looking over my left shoulder, with a pink iPhone shoved in my underpants.

Yes. In my undies. Down the front.

It’s a sentence that will stop anybody from borrowing my phone ever again. Unfortunately for me and my poor iPhone- which is now affectionately nicknamed John West- I had no other option. How did I wind up in the middle of a street parade with a mobile phone awkwardly prodding at my genitals? Let me explain.

It’s my last night in Oaxaca and I am almost dias de los meurtos‘d out. I’ve hung out in cemeteries with Kentuckians, photographed parades with impossibly chic French women, and tonight I just want to grab some dinner and enjoy the fact that I have my dorm to myself. I’m sitting in Zocalo, smoking and reading a book on my iPhone, when a guy sits uncomfortably close to me, furtively eyeing me as I put my phone back in my pocket. He starts to talk. His name is Gustavo. And, hey, even though we just met, why don’t I add him on Facebook? His eyes drift to my pocket. Right now.

Something about Gustavo gives me the willies. I can’t put my finger on it. It could be that he sat very close to me, it could be that he appears twitchy and nervous, it could be the fact that he was wearing headphones without listening to music (I mean, come on, that’s weird, right?) or it could be the fact that he fingered my ring when he shook my hand.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

I mean, he shook my hand and ran his finger along the Claddagh ring that I wear on my ‘fuck you’ finger, tugging it ever so slightly. In any event, after five minutes I want to leave my creepy companion and retire to my hostel. At 9pm. Like a thirty-something geriatric. I rise.

So does Gustavo.

I pause.

“Go,” he gives a strained smile.

I wait, frowning. “You first.”

He motions with his hand. “No, you.”

It’s an excessively polite Monty Python skit. I start walking. He trails me. I abruptly zig-zag across Zocalo. He zig-zags, too. I reach the edge and stop, turning around. He stops too, pretending to be fascinated by a jewellery stall.

If Gustavo is a crook, he’s a clumsy one. Nonetheless, the walk to my hostel is down a quiet street and I really don’t want to punch a Oaxacian- with or without nefarious motives- so I take the long way through the crowded parades, figuring that I can lose him.

When out at night, I no longer take a bag with me, choosing instead to wander the streets with my possessions in my pockets, like some heavily pear shaped bag-lady. The problem is, Gustavo knows where my iPhone is. I’m not sure if it’s paranoia or common sense that drives this, but I decide to move my stuff from my jeans pockets, just in case. My coin purse fits in my shirt pocket. As I do up the button, I ponder where to put my phone. My shoe? My bra? Oh, wait- I know!

And down the pants it goes. It’s ingenious, really. Look, if the evening were to escalate to a strange hand being in my knickers sans consent, a missing phone will be the least of my worries. And while it’s not comfortable, it is set to vibrate so if someone calls me, well, things will improve considerably.

Hierve el Agua

Twenty hours, a bus, a collectivo taxi and four chain smoking French men later, I am two hours from Oaxaca, at the ethereally beautiful Hierve el Agua.

It’s 5pm, and if I want to make my bus to Pochutla, which leaves Oaxaca at 9.30pm, I should probably leave. It’s still light and I make the 1km walk back up the hill, pausing to admire donkeys, cacti, and men herding goats. Near the top, I see a couple get into a collectivo taxi. Perfect timing. I’ll climb in and be back at the bus station in 45 minutes.

But I wouldn’t be writing this post if the collectivo waited. It didn’t. It skidded away as I was nearing the top.

Hmph.

No problem, though. Another will arrive. I perch on a rock to watch the sun set over the mountains, painting the sky with a kaleidoscope of pink and orange. I take several thousand photos of it.

sunset4sunset3

sunset5

snuset2Beautiful, isn’t it? However, as 5pm slides into 6pm, I begin to wonder where the hell the next collectivo is.

Six melts seamlessly into 6.15. I’m tapping my foot. Hierve has closed. Tour buses are trundling past. Nobody else is making their way up the hill, and the French dudes from before are absent. I begin to wonder: Do collectivos come this late? Am I supposed to wait here? There is nobody to ask. I decide to walk to the guard booth that we passed on the way in. Maybe people are still there. Maybe they can call a collectivo for me. There is one road leading to the booth, so I will pass anything coming this way, anyway.

So I begin to walk.

Alone.

In the middle of nowhere.

At night.

It’s getting cold, so I put my cardigan on, crossing my arms protectively over my chest. It occurs to me that I now look like a horror movie victim. Not the slutty one that dies first, maybe the bookworm who bites it spectacularly in the third act. I’m utterly isolated out here. Even my Mexican SIM card service has abandoned me. My only companion is Mother Nature, and the donkeys that randomly hee-haw my predicament. It felt like Wolf Creek 3. Or Mexican Creek, perhaps: ‘In Hierve el Agua, nobody can hear you scream…

It’s completely dark, did I mention that? Like, totally dark. I can’t see my booted feet on the road. If I don’t get devoured by a carnivorous goat, there is the distinct possibility that I will trip in a pothole and fracture my left ass bone, or step in a bear trap and have to gnaw a limb off like a rabid monkey. Therefore, to keep myself from spinning out, I begin to sing ‘Dry the Rain’ by The Beta Band.

This is the definition of my life, lying in bed in the sunlight…

So, at this point I have officially lost my mind.

A set of headlights approaches. Feeling more and more like Laurie ‘Boo’ Myers, I flag it down. It swerves past me, slams on the brakes, fishtails, and halts. It sits, idling maliciously. With a small amount of trepidation, I approach.

The Golf Cart

Hola,” I begin uncertainly. “Ah…” I pause to gather the correct words, then begin in a slow, overly-enuncative voice. “Neccissito una collectivo taxi para la Mitla autobus stacion?

His reply? Spanish. Of course.

I try again. “Autobus? Para Oaxaca?

Spanish.

Nothing is ever easy. In frustration, I throw random words at him: “Autobus. Mitla. Oaxaca. Saucepan. Toilet seat. Turtle procreation proclamation. Anything?”

This continues for an uncomfortably long period of time until I begin to understand a single word he is saying: “Voy.” i.e.- ‘Go.’ He gestures to the cart and I come to the hopeful conclusion that he’s saying, ‘Jump in, love. My chariot will rescue you on this cold evening.’

Five minutes later I am sitting in a golf cart as we drive back to the place where people wait for collectivos. We pass it.

Nothing is ever easy. Where the fuck is he taking me?

A group of people stand on the road, holding hands like some Hillbilly Mexican Manson family. The cart skids to a halt. The Manson’s approach. Two men, two women, two children. They begin to pile in. I skid over. The women are particularly portly and won’t fit. I skid over more. I now have one ass cheek perched precariously on the seat. They fit. Unfortunately, I don’t. A man sits beside the driver. There is still a man and two children to fit into an already full golf cart. In the spirit of charity, I move my bag from my lap. A moment later I have a small child randomly perched on it. Her sister stands beside her, staring at me in that openly curious way that kids do. A lady gets out, a man gets in, the lady sits on his lap.

We now have 8 people stuffed into a vehicle no bigger than a 1976 Mini Cooper.

Pause and picture that.

I am shoved up against the side of the cart, angled diagonally, holding onto the seats. I look like a proud father with his arms around the family at Christmas dinner, but there is terror in my eyes, so I probably look like Tony Soprano during the final season of The Sopranos. With, you know, hair and stuff. Wait, he’s dead now, isn’t he? Okay, so I look like a live, female, average weight version of-

You know what? Never mind.

Anyway, the side of the cart is made of flimsy, waterproof fabric. There’s no guarantee it will support my weight. The whole thing smells like an impending brain injury. The golf cart’s engine is spluttering and, in a mark of automotive protest, it won’t travel beyond the speed that the average egg-and-spoon race is run at. This gives me plenty of time to think about how much easier my life would be if I stuck to organised tours like a proper tourist, instead of stubbornly opting to do it all myself. I could be in an airconditioned tour bus right now, happily trancing out to the new Opeth record on my iPod. Instead, I am squished like a Skittle between a fat woman, a sheet of oil cloth, and a potential future in a motorised wheelchair.

Life on the Highway

After fifteen days, the family exit the cart. My ass can spread out again. There is relief for five minutes. Then, relief turns to horror as I am deposited on the freeway like a sex crime victim.
It’s every little girl’s dream to one day be left standing on a highway, at night, in the freezing cold, with a now almost desperate urge to urinate, isn’t it? The driver thought so. He pointed at the small group of people waiting, called out, “Collectivos!” and gaily puttered up the hill.

Apparently, this is where the collectivo’s pick you up to take you back into town. I wait awkwardly beside my car-less comrades. It’s just after 7pm. We are in the middle of what could arguably be the desert. Despite wearing jeans and a cardigan, my teeth are chattering.

Ha- I am now officially The Chattering Cat.

*Boom tish* Thanks folks. Hey, try the brisket- it’s fantastic.

For every set of approaching headlights, the four of us desperately throw our hands out. Cars speed past. Hitchhiking seems like an option. Or suicide. Or, frankly, squatting to pee in front of strangers.

I’m not sure how I get myself into these predicaments. Really. I don’t welcome chaos. I don’t ask for trouble. But when I travel, my sense of wonder often runs neck-and-neck with anxiety and dread. Let’s not forget that I have no fucking idea where I am. Well, I can pinpoint “Mexico” and in a pinch narrow it down to “two hours from Oaxaca”, but aside from that I’m screwed. I could be on Pluto. It’s certainly cold enough. I smoke cigarette after cigarette, trying to stave off cold, hunger and possible stress incontinence.

Life would be so much easier if I knew more Spanish. I could ask these people beside me, ‘What the fuck is going on (!?!) Is it normal to wait a fucking decade for a fucking collectivo on the fucking highway at mothershagging nighttime?! How do you people do this? Why do you do this? Yes, the night sky is radiantly pregnant with twinkling stars, but there is a little place called civilisation, and in it they have transportation options. Let’s talk about that over a Corona sometime.’ We would bond. They’d hug me, adopt me as a foul-mouthed surrogate child, and I’d feel infinitely better about the whole ‘I’m kind of almost lost’ mess.

The Dudes

A bus approaches. Without thinking, I stick my arm out. It slows. I get on with one other fellow. The doors creak shut behind us.

The bus contains men. All men. Workers, by the look of them. There is one seat available. I take it. I have no idea where the bus is going but it’s warm, there is Mambo music playing, and it smells like the Miami Heat locker room after a Celtics game: sweat, dejection, blood, and cum.

The bus stops. Half of the people get off. The driver turns and addresses me in Spanish.

I suppose that I have to get off the bus now.

Wait- I have to get off the bus?!

…No!

It’s warm and safe and although your taste in music sucks, I’m not standing on the fucking cold freeway again.

I can’t guarantee that I didn’t say that out loud. Really, I don’t remember. I think I disassociated.

He says “taxi”, points, then physically shooed me. Off the bus. Now. Come on you silly tourist. I don’t have all night.

I exit the bus. He doesn’t charge me. Small win.

AND I discover that he has dropped me outside the bus station that I initially caught a collectivo to Hierve from.

Awesome.

But it’s now shut.

Hmph.

Three guys from the bus approach me. They ask where I am going. Tired, desperate and thoroughly fed up, I pout, “Oaxaca. Taxi,” and cross my arms like a two-year old. They reply in Spanish. I don’t understand them. They motion up the road. “Taxi. Oaxaca. Aqui.”

I walk. They turn around every now and then, addressing me in Spanish. I repeat the one phrase that, ironically, I can now say flawlessly, “I’m sorry, but I only speak a little Spanish.” They laugh but continue to speak Spanish. Since I have no idea what they are saying, I begin to answer thusly, “Yes…no…bottom left…fourty seven…last Tuesday…”

One says, “Speak English.”

Yes. Not ‘hablas inglés‘ but ‘speak English’.

I stop, now more than a little indignant. “Can you guys speak fucking English?”

They laugh. “A little.”

Cunty. Very cunty.

They ask if I want to go and smoke some weed with them. Oh, sure, I think. I’d love to abandon my inhibitions with a group of strangers who have spent the last ten minutes poking fun at me. Sounds awesome. Let me get my coat. “No, thanks,” I begin with a smug grin, “I don’t smoke weed anymore. You see, I smoked a lifetime’s allowance between the ages of twenty and twenty two and I have to wait for the multiverse to catch up with me.” Sure they can’t understand me, but being clever in stressful situations makes me feel slightly better.

As we walk, my paranoia rises (see why I don’t smoke weed?!) I have no idea where I am going, I just know that three guys have indicated that if I follow them down a dark street, I can get a taxi. The walk begins to feel like a trail of lollies leading to the witches house in the forest. Following total strangers into darkness seems about as clever as amputating fingers with toenail clippers. So I try to find a taxi as I walk. But whenever I stop to flag an approaching set of headlights, the guys stop, too. They tell me that I have to keep going. I have to follow them because taxis don’t stop on the street.

Seriously- what the fuck kind of bullshit is that? ‘Taxis won’t stop on the street’? I just hailed a motherfucking bus from the highway. And it’s been my experience that you can’t walk down the road anywhere in Mexico without a taxi hopefully beeping it’s horn at you. Either you can hail them from the street, or I perpetually have a stream of toilet paper trailing from my pants and they are trying to tell me.

Now I’m convinced- following these boys any further will be about as safe as a marriage to Ike Turner. I stop in front of a store that appears to be open. The store owners are standing at the door. Good. Witnesses. I open my mouth to say, ‘My name is Casey Millikin and in the event of my disappearance please call the Australian Embassy on-‘ when one of the guys walks back to me, stopping just inside my personal space. “You have to follow us to get a taxi.”

“That’s okay,” I say, looking at approaching headlights. “I’ll hail one here.”

“Are you scared,” he asks suddenly.

This catches me off guard, which apparently makes me forget how to speak. “…Hu?”

He grins malevolently. “Are you scared?”

“No, I’m not scared,” I say, sounding fucking terrified. Of course I was scared. You’d be, too. Only a high level sociopath would feel no fear in that situation.

He lunges at me. “BOO!”

I still had to wee, you know. It’s a miracle that I didn’t widdle like a firehose in fright. In fact, if I had spent my life procreating like a normal person rather than existing in a state of arrested development, it’s entirely possible that a weakened pelvic floor would have made me wet my pants right there. He walks away laughing and I bravely mumble that he should really find an opportune time to fuck his mother.

The dudes leave. I remain stubbornly in front of the store. Another golf cart approaches. I flag it down.

Necessito taxi para Oaxaca?”

He drives me 200m up the road and charges me ten pesos. No- It’s not a rip-off. It’s the best ten pesos that I have ever spent. It’s a dollar that assuages my fear. It’s a coin that ensures I won’t make a YouTube cameo as a headless corpse in a snuff video.

Anyway, to wrap it all up, I get a cab to Oaxaca, pick up my luggage from the hostel, have the best wee ever, and make it to the bus station with three minutes to spare.

I said before that I don’t know how I get myself into these predicaments. I have an idea, it’s probably my robust taste for adventure- the same thing that will arguably be my downfall; but I’d be lying if I said that a small part of me didn’t enjoy these moments. Not at the time- at the time I’m a puddle of anxiety and fear- but in retrospect when I am safe, weeing, and warm, I giggle like a maniac. Perched on the hostel loo, enjoying a good-ol’ micturition, I had to clamp my hand over my mouth to stifle the laughter. The thing about periodically finding yourself in situations where you don’t know if you are going to make it out without the loss of your dignity is that you really appreciate the little lights beyond the tunnel: flushing toilets, safety, the first drag of a Marlboro Light washed down with a mouthful of lemonade while waiting for your bus to Pochutla to arrive. My god. They’re like sunshine in summer.

The point of this post was actually to point out that my, um, Cuban experience has infected me with moderate levels of paranoia. I’m not sure I like it. It’s making me paranoid, actually. I’m paranoid about becoming paranoid. I usually don’t look at the world through a filter of mistrust. I usually don’t keep a mobile phone in my underpants. Here, I have had two evenings in a row where my survival instincts have come online. While it’s nice to know that I have enough common sense and intuition to allow me to escape unharmed; it’s also a big crash to earth to discover that you can’t automatically trust people. Maybe I’m not paranoid, maybe I just have a sense of safety awakening in me, something animalistic that has stirred and raised it’s furry head from slumber. Maybe there’s a fine line between security conscious and paranoid; and I am, for the first time, learning to skirt it.

Whatever it is, please call me on +52 5551 366 354. Anytime. I may need help, or I may just have a mobile phone in an opportunistic location. Either way, you will quickly become my favourite person.

CC & JC

31 Oct

Despite the fact that I never enter them at home, I find myself hanging out in churches a lot when I travel. Not because I seek answers, or peace- I just think they are pretty. And God’s pad can be a good place to gather your thoughts, actually. If I could smoke and drink beer in them, I might become a permanent house guest. Couch surfing the globe with Ol’ J.C.

Uncertainty accompanies the moment I first enter them. My scuffed Doc Marten hovers over the threshold as I wonder if this is the day that the sheer will of The Divine will drive my heathen ass back through the doors and into the bright sunlight where I will combust like a Tibetan monk. It’s yet to happen, though. I remain happily beyond redemption- although a slightly curious thing did occur in Cuba. I was enjoying half an hour of quiet time- thinking my thoughts as one does- when I had a, um, revelation of sorts. Something I had been ruminating on suddenly clicked into place. My lightbulb moment happened at the exact time the maintenance man turned on a light beside me- ostensibly to test it. True story. It was comical. If only the organ cleaner had of played an F-sharp note on the keys, as well.

I have to admit that I indulge in some…compulsive behaviours in when I’m in church. This next part is written with some sheepishness, but- gulp– I usually cross myself upon exiting. I know, I know. I’m a fucking athiest for Christ’s sake (Ha! Geddit?) and I am sure that all of my scientifically-minded comrades are now tittering in disgust. I do feel slightly ashamed, it’s almost as if I am publically expressing a fondness for some sort of perverse sexual deviancy.

I’m certain there’s a priest joke to be made here. Hmmm.

I don’t know what it is about these buildings that gets the old Irish Catholic blood pumping, but it feels disrespectful somehow to leave without turning quickly and giving a little ‘spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch’. I tell myself that it’s just a courtesy, in much the same way I wouldn’t enter a Buddhist temple in hot-pants, I respect the beliefs of the Catholic community- no matter how ridiculous they may seem to me. Once upon a time I used to take great delight in baiting Christians. It was a hobby. However, age has taught me that someone who pokes fun at the beliefs of others is generally no better than the people who try and force said beliefs onto you. I can’t do it anymore. Last year in London, I entered a church and sat quietly at one of the pews. There was a middle aged couple on the kneeling board thingamajig adjacent to me, praying. They sat back down, and the woman abruptly burst into tears. Great, heaving ones that consumed her whole body. That’s why I don’t bait Catholics anymore in a neat, allegorical nutshell- a person’s faith is something that often gets them through their darkest moments. I have no idea what this woman was crying about- a death was my first thought- but this church provided her with something far bigger than my stubbornly logical, athiest brain could ever fathom. I can’t take a person’s faith away from them and look at myself in the mirror. I just can’t.

My newfound respect quickly morphed into curiosity from there and, well, I hang out in churches now.

Then I leave, smoke some weed, take the Lord’s name in vain, watch pornography on my phone, kill someone, and covet their wife.

The Cathedral of Oaxaca in Zocalo isn’t known for being the nicest church in the city. Many would argue that it’s sort of like an average-looking kid sister when compared to the others, but it’s still lovely in it’s own way. I was standing at the altar silently admiring the stained glass when a fellow came up to me and began speaking rapid Spanish. I must have looked lost because he paused and said, “Hablas español?”

Poco español,” I answered.

Unpertubed, he continued to speak, gesticulating at the altar. I caught enough random words to deduce that he was giving me some sort of in-person audio tour. He spoke with pride, passion. His eyes were alight with love. I wanted to convey my appreciation for what he was clearly so fond of, and while I don’t know the Spanish word for beautiful, I do know the one for pretty. I learnt bonita the same day I learnt novilo. From a cab driver. I had just woken up from my Cuban nightmare and was catching a cab from the airport to my hotel in Mexico City. The driver only spoke Spanish, and I was struggling to have a conversation with him. He asked if I had a novilo.

Novilo?”

Si, novilo,” he took his hands off the wheel to mime kissing someone. The cab swerved violently.

Ah. No. No novilo.”

Porqoui?”

When asked this question I usually respond with a joke. Depending on my mood it’s either an arrogant one: “I’m far too attractive to settle for just one member of the opposite sex! I’m greedy. I want them all,” or an adorably disarming one: “Boys are trouble!”

The first statement seemed beyond my capabilities, so I racked my sleep deprived brain for ‘trouble’ in Spanish. The closest I could come up with was muertos i.e. Boys are dead.

Not appropriate.

The cabbie was looking at me expectantly. Two things occurred to me: he should really be watching the road, but also I don’t have a personality in Spanish. I can be polite, thankful, friendly, and utterly vanilla; but I can’t be CC. Not yet, anyway. However, this all seemed unimportant so I just shrugged.

It must have seemed melancholic because he let go of the wheel- again- touched my arm, and told me that I was bonita. Muy bonita, in fact.

I was muy grateful, especially considering I had spent the night in a Cuban airport and was fairly certain that I looked like I had been dragged through the Himalayas from the undercarriage of a bus. It was a lovely welcome back to civilisation. Not only could I get a hamburger and a cold beer here, I was randomly complimented by a total stranger. Viva la Mexico. I tipped him, of course. If you ever want to make some extra cash you can probably just follow me around and tell me that I’m attractive. Do it enough and I’ll start regurgitating coins like a slot-machine.

Actually, I first thought bonita meant beautiful- yes, I am that vain. I’m not even sure where I got “beautiful” from. I know I stepped away from Google Translate long enough to be lied to be another medium- the all-knowing Yahoo Answers, probably. It’s interesting that I readily believed that ‘bonita = beautiful’ when I question everything else I read on there. Realistically, what the cabbie said could have been a Mexican idiom that was lost in translation (“You don’t have a boyfriend? Well, that’s because you are unfuckable. Very unfuckable. I’m sorry you had to hear it from a cab driver, but somebody had to send you spiralling back to reality.”)

Anyway, I later learnt that it means “pretty”.

Yes: later.

In other words, this happened:

Waiter: “How was your meal, senorita?”

CC: “Very pretty, thank you.”

Yikes.

So I wanted to tell my new friend that I thought his church was lovely. Problem was, I couldn’t remember ‘it is’ in Spanish. It was either ‘es’ or ‘estoy’. Hmm. Which one? I couldn’t recall, and I had a 50/50 chance of being correct, so I picked one.

“Estoy muy bonita.”

He paused, frowning at me in utter incomprehension. Finally, he shook his head, said, “Si,” and walked away.

For those that don’t speak Spanish. Allow me to translate what happened.

A man stands next to a blue haired girl in a church. He is talking: “The altar is blah, blah, blah with blah and Saint blah, blah, blah protects blah, blah in the blah with a blah-dy, blah, blah and this is original blah glass with 18th Century blah, blah, blah.

He looks at the girl. She is staring at the altar. “Wow,” she says softly. She turns and offers him a 50-watt smile. “I am very pretty.”

The day I grasp Spanish will almost be a sad one, I will have no material left for this blog.

Part 1: Havana Sure Can Suck

23 Oct

Friday Morning

I was on my way to the Hemingway Museum when I had a conversation with a Cuban woman who initially mistook me for an extraordinarily pale local. When she found out I was travelling alone, she asked: “Are you nuts?”

I laughed. “The possibility has been raised.”

She grinned, high fived me, and assured me that Havana was safe.

Eight hours later I was mugged.

I almost didnt start the post like that. I nearly started it with: “I was mugged in Cuba”- an extremely strong opening line. It throws down a gauntlet, sets a tone. Or, I could have began with, “I needed a CAT scan after I was mugged, so I am now part of an elite club that has experienced the quality of medical care in Cuba first hand” but that sounds overly melodramatic. Maudlin, even: ‘I went to Cuba and all I got was this lousy CAT scan.’ Plus, the CAT scan was just a formality because I hit my head, and it turned out normal, anyway. My brain is normal. Nobody who knows me would believe that.

But yes, I was mugged. It was fucked. I’ll rewind the tape and tell you about it.

I had gone to Hemingway’s house in the morning and planned on booking a bus to Santa Clara that afternoon. I navigated Cuba’s crappy bus system to the Hemingway Museum without a hitch, but managed to board the wrong one on the way back. As a result, I got to Havana later than expected, so rather than book my Santa Clara ticket I decided to grab a drink at El Floridita– the bar that Hemingway used to frequent- and write a blog post. Three hours and two mojitos later, it was about 7pm and I was hungry. It was still light, so I began the walk back to my hostel to eat my leftovers for dinner.

I was four blocks away when a man came up behind me and grabbed my bag, trying to reef it off me. I turned and grabbed it, struggling with him. He pushed me and I toppled off the kerb. I continued to wrestle with him until the strap on the bag broke and he ran off.

Wednesday Morning

Now, to thoroughly confuse you all and rewind the tape again to a few days earlier; I was having breakfast at a cafe when the owner warned me about leaving my bag on the table as I was eating: “People will snatch it and run off. They will be gone before you know it.”

In response, I made a joke about tourists not wanting to run at all; especially not after bag snatchers.

Friday Night with The Locals

Well, not this tourist. This tourist jumped up and sprinted off after her mugger without giving the matter a great deal of thought.

I’m not writing that to make myself sound brave. I’m not, and it wasn’t an act of courageousness, anyway. When adrenaline starts pumping, you don’t think. You just react. That was my reaction. Was it foolish? Yes. Besides, what was I going to do if I caught him? Ask politely for it back? Negotiate in bad Spanish? Punch him? My only thought was that I needed to get my bag back- it had my passport in it. I never carry my passport around, but I was booking bus tickets that day. My iPad was in it. My iPhone, which had lived in my pocket all day, had been transferred to the bag at El Floridita. Everything was in it. I needed it back. I turned the corner after him and saw a local lady standing there.

“Where did he go?” I panted.

She pointed up the street and I continued to run until it became clear that Usain-Bolt-The-Bag-Snatcher had disappeared into the streets of Havana. A group of kids sat on the curb. I asked where he went. They didn’t know.

“Please help me, he stole my bag.”

They laughed.

It was the laughter that did it. I burst into tears. The laughter abruptly died and a girl stood to approach me. I blubbered and pleaded and jawed about my passport being in the bag. I must have looked sufficiently pathetic because she indicated a phone and told me to call the police.

“I don’t know how,” I wailed. How do you call the fucking police in Cuba? Triple 0? 911? An interpretive dance?

She told her friend to call the police, then proceeded to try and calm me down. Reassure me. She asked me what happened. How many there were. Could I describe him?

I described him as best I could. “He was tall. Black. Sinewy. He had a shaved head.”

Yep. I basically said, ‘He was big and black.’ A black man stole my handbag. I must have sounded like every paranoid American I have ever encountered: ‘He was black- that’s all I saw.’

Wait- that’s politically incorrect, isn’t it?

‘The suspect was of Afro-Cuban heritage…’

A lady approached. “Senorita,” she said. “You dropped this.” In her hands were my sunglasses and head scarf, both of which had flown off when I gave chase. It was such a simple gesture but it touched me. That’s the thing about Cuba, the moment someone robs you of your faith in humanity, there are several others who will restore it just as quickly. It’s a strange place. The land of juxtaposition.

I thanked her. Profusely. With big bubbles of grateful snot escaping my nostrils.

Friday Night at The Cop-Shop

The police arrived. They didn’t speak English, and Michel Thomas hadn’t taught me the Spanish word for “robbed”. After getting the story from the kids, they indicated that they were going to drive around and told me to keep a look out for the mugger. It was dusk at this point, and long shadows had begun to crawl over the streets. It was hopeless, but I jumped in the back of the car.

We never found him. They drove me to the police station and I gave my statement to the one cop who spoke broken English. When that was done, they led me out into the waiting room. I sat down.

For four hours.

Yes. Four fucking hours. During that time, I became aware of various aches and pains. Both knees were skinned. There was a graze along my jawline. My head throbbed. Upon inspection, I discovered a walnut-sized lump. I had the beginnings of angry bruises on my knees and my hip. My back hurt. My muscles hurt. My bones hurt. Getting mugged in your thirties sucks. You aren’t malleable, anymore. You can bounce back from anything in your twenties but if you struggle with someone and get knocked to the ground at 31, well, shit will ache afterwards.

I asked the cops how much longer it would take. I knew that Cuba operated at a snails pace but this was ridiculous. Four fucking hours! The cops didn’t speak much English, but kept indicating that people were driving. I can only assume that cops were driving the streets? Looking for the mugger, maybe? They were taking it seriously and as I waited I figured out why. You see, Cuba is a safe place because the penalties for crime are so severe. Theft isn’t particularly serious, but assaults are. Since the mugger knocked me off my feet in his desperation to get my bag, the crime had probably segued from petty theft to assault. Assault. On a tourist: the countries proverbial bread-and-butter. If they find him, he’s fucked. Although, in my muggers defense- and I don’t know if I should write or give a shit about that, but- I don’t think he meant to knock me over. I think he saw me, picked me, and figured that he could snatch the bag and run. I don’t think he expected me to fight back and so it escalated. I’m lucky: he could have pulled a knife. I could have been knocked unconscious. Or he could have done something far, far worse to the young lady in shorts and a singlet walking the streets of Havana at dusk.

Friday Night: Hospital Part Uno

Eventually, the police came back. They didn’t find the mugger or my bag. They drove me to my hostel, and one cop waited in the car while the other took a second statement- a particularly tedious one because this cop didn’t speak a word of English. He indicated that I had to go to the hospital to get checked out.

“Tomorrow?” I asked hopefully in Spanish.

He shook his head. Not tomorrow. Now.

So, I was bundled into the back of a cop car for the third time that night- I spent more time in fucking cop cars than my goddamn attacker did- and went to the hospital. The doctor spoke English. I told him that I’d hit my head. He told me to lie on the floor.

“Pardon me?” On the floor? I was flummoxed.

He repeated it: Lie down on the floor. I glanced at the cop behind me. He nodded. I looked at the doctor, wondering if it was an error in translation.

“Lie on the floor?” I indicated the floor below me.

He nodded again. On the floor.

I glanced at the examination table beside me. “The floor? As in this tiled thing beneath my feet?”

On the floor.

So, to the ground I went, thinking to myself, I know Cuba is a third world country, but surely hes not going to examine me on the fucking floor. He told me to stand up, and I realised that it was some sort of crude neuro-obs test. The doc and the cop spoke in Spanish and I was bundled into the car again to get a CAT scan. Mind you, it was after 1am. I was mugged at about 7.30pm and I hadn’t eaten anything. I was exhausted, sore, teary, fragile, hungry, sweaty, dehydrated, and dizzy. Confused, as well. Remember- I speak basically no Spanish. I had no idea what was happening, I was just mutely following the cops wherever they led me.

Plus- and I’m ashamed to admit this- my reservoir of trust in humanity had been drained after the attack, and this was stimulating my overactive imagination. I began to wonder if I was safe in the hands of the police. Were they really taking me to another fucking hospital to get a CAT scan in the middle of the night? Didn’t that sound a little ludicrous? How did I know that they were taking me there? I was locked in the back of a police car with two big dudes driving me through deserted streets that I didn’t recognise. I was scared. Fucking scared.

I know, I sound spoilt and paranoid. Whatever. I call it ‘disarmingly honest’.

Friday Night: Hospital Part Dos

At the next hospital, the doctor asked me if I drank.

I nodded.

“How much did you drink tonight?”

“Two drinks.”

He wrote on the CAT scan referral “App: Alcoholism.”

Yep. I travelled the world to be diagnosed with “Alcoholic”. Thanks Cuba. I was not drunk. Even when I was attacked I was not drunk. You may be reading this and tsking, thinking that I took a gamble on my personal safety and paid for it. Could I have caught a cab back to my hostel after El Floridita? Sure. But it wasn’t dark and I was close to home. Besides, the girls who I met at the hostel- who have been living in Havana teaching English for over a month- frequently went out alone at night. I was dressed like a local- hell, I’d been mistaken for a local that morning. And aside from my watch, which is the size of the average death-row prisoner’s last meal, I was not drawing attention to myself. I had no reason to expect that this would happen. So if you are thinking that I brought it upon myself, well: you can fuck right off.

Sorry if that sounded abrasive. It’s been a long 96 hours.

Saturday Morning

I had to go to the police station again to pick up the police report. Cuba operates at its own pace and the four hours I waited at the station was apparently not long enough to type something. I was told to ask for the Officer who was with me at the hospital. Officer Tomayo. By using a Russian Lonely Planet map, bad directions from a local, my feminine wiles, and a bike taxi; I finally managed to locate the police station.

Officer Tomayo had gone home.

“That’s okay,” I explained to the woman. “I just need to pick up the report.”

Nope. I couldn’t just pick up the report. I had to wait for Tomayo. And he wouldn’t be back until Monday night.

It was Saturday morning.

Without the police report, I was told that I couldn’t get an emergency passport.

And my hostel, which I was due to depart that day, was now fully booked.

So I was stuck in Cuba. Potentially homeless. For three nights.

Every solo female travelers dream. For me, it came true. In a fluorescent, Caribbean, technicolour nightmare. The situation was a shrapnel bomb that kept detonating.

I had to get that report. I pleaded with her. She shook her head.

So I burst into tears. Am I proud of it? No. I don’t use tears to get my own way. Usually I argue or, as I prefer to see it: I speak passionately in loquacious English. That wouldn’t work in this situation.

Besides, it’s not like I forced the tears out. They were there already, I just stopped holding them in. An ocean of salt water lurked beneath the facade for the next four days. It would randomly gush when reading Facebook messages, dealing with apathetic Cubans, or when I was told I couldn’t eat a hamburger. Or borrow a pen. Or sit in a local’s diner.

Anyway, the tears worked. They took me to the Immigration Official’s office. Curiously, she didn’t speak a word of English. How is a country with an education system as advanced as Cuba unable to churn out officials that speak fucking English? This is a country that exports doctors, for Christ’s sake. Is basic English- the language of 90% of the tourists that they rely on- too fucking hard? How can a street hustler speak perfect English, but a station full of cops not understand a word of it? It’s linguistic laziness.

I managed to get my case across in broken Spanish. She made a few calls, took me out the back, and gave me the police report. Success. Finally.

Saturday Night with Rum and Black Nail Polish

I checked into a hotel near the Embassy. It had a television. And the internet. I logged into Facebook, intending to message my dad, sister, and best friend to tell them what happened. I didn’t want to anybody else to know. It was still too raw. There were messages from my dad on Facebook already, actually. Asking if I was okay. Apparently some sixth sense/ father-daughter bond had told him that something was up. The first sentence of the group message I composed was “Don’t freak out”, which is the quickest way to freak someone out.

Then I bought a three dollar bottle of rum, painted my fingernails, and worked on feeling sorry for myself. I was alone, in a third world, communist country without my passport. Internet is nearly non-existent here. I had $200 with no way to get extra cash. I had no credit cards. I’d just discovered that my worldwide travel insurance didn’t cover Cuba. The Embassy was closed until Monday. I didn’t know how much an emergency passport would cost. I didn’t know if I could get a flight back to civilisation once I got it. I had two nights booked at the hotel. What if my passport cost $200 and I had no money for a place to stay? Was sleeping on the streets of Havana with a ten kilogram backpack in my future? I couldn’t even make a reverse charge call to MasterCard for emergency funds because, according to the staff at the hotel, reverse charge calls are not possible in Cuba.

I want you to stop and imagine yourself in that position. The fear. The anxiety. The isolation that comes from not speaking the local language. Having nowhere to go. Having nobody who can help you. Having no foreseeable options. It’s terrifying. I bleat about ‘Authentic Travel Experiences’ on this blog a lot. Well, I just had one. Where I had no control. I was free-falling in Cuba and the sense of inertia was nausea inducing. I stopped eating due to stress. I just sat in my room, smoking, watching Spanish dubbed movies, and replaying the incident over and over. What if I never fought back? What if I acted like a proper female and screamed for help, instead? Would people have come to my aid? Would it have scared him off? Could it have never happened?

I checked Facebook and discovered that my call to arms had come through. My sister sent me wonderful, reasonable words that immediately calmed me down. She researched where I should go, what I should do, who I needed to speak to, and what she would do on her end to make my life easier. My best friend spoke to a mutual friend of ours and together they passed the hat around, pooling funds that he offered to send me through Western Union. My dad contacted relatives who all offered help, love and advice. When I needed them the most, they were all there for me ten times over, and the love that I felt through their messages made me burst into fresh tears. I don’t think that I can express what their gestures truly meant to me. It meant the world?

No.

It meant something much bigger than that.

Anyway, I could keep typing about my shitty life in Cuba but this post is long enough. I’ll close with this, to round it all off in a nice, circular way: Six hours before I was mugged, I had been at Hemingway’s house on the outskirts of Havana. You can’t enter it, but you can peer through the windows. When the guard’s back was turned, I surreptitiously reached into the bedroom window and touched his bed.

Yes. I’m lame.

But

I touched Hemingway’s bed (!)

I was so excited that I stopped and snapped a selfie on my phone. It’s a picture that is now lost, but in it, my eyes are alight and mischievous. My face, creased in a grin. I am happy.

Ridiculously happy.

I have no idea what lies in store for me that evening.

In that photo, I am just a giddy fan-girl at one of her favourite author’s houses. I look relaxed, excited, and free.

The image of me outside his bedroom window will now only exist in my memory, but it will stay there forever. Alongside my favourite Hemingway quote, which is a very pertinent thought for my current situation: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”