Colombia, day one: Bogota, Escobar, and Hostel Sexy Time

Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!


1Who knew Pablo Escobar was such a c**t?

That was the overriding takeaway from the Heroes of Colombia walking tour which started in the Bolivar Square and visited some of the key sites in the capital linked to Pablo Escobar and his reign on terror. Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

The tour highlighted some of the people instrumental in exposing his crimes and bringing him to justice – almost all of whom nobly died for their efforts. At his peak, he shipped 15 tons per day to the US, and made the cover of Forbes.

One corner on the main thoroughfare Calle 12 is the intersection of power. The church on one side, the bank opposite, and…here I beat the tour guide to his joke to point out the McDonalds on the third side, and as a result don’t know what the fourth one was.

Lunch at a French restaurant, discovering the taste sensation of fruit lightly coated in hot pimento spices, then a visit to the gold museum…where I learnt that gold was used for ceremonies by ancient indigenous tribes, but that’s about it…and that they made at least enough ornaments to fill 4 floors of a large museum.

A return trip up the funicular to the Montserrat peak, which is about 3000 metres ASL (Bogota is 2600), admiring the view of foreboding thunderstorm on one side of the mountain, and a hazey sunset view over Smogota on the other. Dinner at a delicious vegetarian restaurant that had a no WiFi policy (so avant-garde!), with succulent avocados, corn, and salsa…accompanied by a blackberry juice.

Crashed in bed watching a series (not Narcos, though that is next on my cultural appreciation guide), to drown out the couple in next bedroom having loud sex. Even though my room was “private”, the adjoining wall didn’t reach the ceiling, so it was about as private as a toilet cubicle in an airline toilet…

Colombia, days 3-5: On Dangerous Ground

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts?

Blog post 2 camping amazon
The guide and I were camping alone in the jungle last night, and he had a literal potboiler of a story.

When he was 10, his childhood friend was kidnapped, and eaten, by a local indigenous tribe.

“Why was he eaten?”

“Because he was white.”

We unwrapped the palm leaf parcel that had been roasting on the fire. It was a delicious local river fish known as arapaima, or by locals as “the other white meat”.

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts? The daily offer of activities around the camp gave a fair overview.

Piranha fishing
Piranhas are legendary for devouring whole carcasses of cows within minutes, much like the Polish tour group that arrived that night. In reality this only happens in exceptional circumstances. Tempting fate, we took a motorised wooden boat into a mangrove forest close by the lodge with a handful of bamboo fishing rods.

The guide cut up a large fillet of fish into bite-sized pieces, which we threaded onto hooks and cast into the water. To attract the piranhas you slap the bamboo rod repeatedly on top of the water. This is said to simulate a chicken – though what a chicken might be doing slapping around in the middle of a mangrove forest was not explained.

After 2 hours the guides had caught 2 piranhas and a small catfish. I had caught nothing, but had singlehandedly fed the fish at least half of the fillet. It was not a good return on investment for those in the group wanting to eat fish that night.

Night walk
In the land famed for its jaguars and anacondas, what beasts of the night were lurking in the shadows? “Look there!” said the guide, within seconds of starting up the moonlit trail.

“Where? What is it?” I followed his finger. Not to any large shadows in the trees or the forest, but to a frog half the size of my thumbnail sitting on the step outside my cabin. Tiny, but incredibly poisonous. I made a note to wear shoes for my nightly pee.

The tarantulas were all hiding that night. But I did see some rats, and a cool phosphorescent leaf litter that made the whole place feel like Upside Down world (for the Stranger Things fans among us).

Jungle camp-out
I decided to up the game. A night in the jungle, just the guide and me, what could go wrong? The weather, for starters. Due to torrential rain, what was planned to be a day-long hike to the deepest darkest forest was scaled back to a 15-minute hike to the rear campsite over the ridge behind.

The guide showed me the rubber tree, the popularity of which led colonialists to enslave thousands of young boys to work in rubber plantations. The type of shitty job you never bounce back from.

He showed me the telephone tree, which sends a booming echo audible across the valley when you strike it with a stick – and is for emergency use only.

And he showed me the traditional way of lighting a fire with damp wood – burning a plastic bag to kick-start the kindling.

That we slept in hammocks, slung between two trees under a tarpaulin and mosquito net. And I was lulled to sleep, not by the exotic sounds of the Amazon forest, but of a thousand mosquitos attacking my body like locusts on a wheat field. Malaria takes two weeks to kick in, so there’s every chance I will always remember this special night.

Day walk

Perhaps it would be easier to see beasts and critters in the day, lacking night vision as I do.

We set out towards a known Harpy eagle’s nest, one of the largest eagles in the world, which feeds on monkeys, opossums and sloths.

This reminded me, sloths were very close to top of my animal bucket list.

“There’s lots of sloths around here,” said the guide.

“Can we see one?”

“Sure. Just be at the campsite around siesta time. You’ll see Brazilian sloths, Germans sloths, Australian sloths…”

I’d very slowly walked into that one.

As we headed back to camp, a sudden rustle in the trees above and a hard nut the size of a grapefruit whizzed down in front of the guide’s nose.

If you thought sagging balls were something eventually to be scared of, the falling nuts of the Amazon can be a life-ending event.

It’s summertime (in Paris), and the swimming ain’t easy

Owing to several shared linguistic roots, it’s not uncommon for some French words to sound like their English equivalents.

For example: ‘Boeuf’ for ‘beef’, ‘week end’ for ‘weekend’, etc.

The French word for swimming pool is slightly different in that it smells like the English equivalent. ‘Piscine’, for, well you get it…

Anyone in Paris who’s sought to cool off on the rare stifling day, will know the desperate feeling of looking for a public watering hole with a higher level of hygiene than a Ganges tributary.

The upper reaches of the Canal St Martin comes the closest; even so almost no people swim there, and those that do, would never submerge their head.

So within the ever-tightening belt of Paris’s peripherique, you’re pretty much left with kicking your feet in the gutter they hose twice daily as a passive form of cleaning, or failing that, a public swimming pool.

And so, this July day, the swimming pool it was. By 1pm our spies at the better known pools let us know that the more appealing of the low-cost options were refusing more people until mid-afternoon: their usual human soup level of crowding having reached the level ‘minestrone’.

There was once the Molitor – where Tarzan once was a lifeguard – but since they re-added water to it (having been a derelict site for illicit raves for years), it had become quite expensive, aka 180 euros a session.

The closest option was now the best: and by best, we meant only.

The Piscine Pailleron in the 19th, near Buttes Chaumont park, is not only a pool, but also an ice rink and solarium, (and possibly not-so-secret testing ground for microbial warfare). And it can be hard to know whether you’re sitting in a very hot ice rink, or rather cool solarium.

We parked our bikes outside and headed towards the quaint red-brick façade.

The first sign of something amiss was the crowd, or lack thereof: that would be a reassuring sign on any day but a hot one like today.

The second sign was more obvious: a man with wet hair and flip-flops, swimming bag over his shoulder who rode past with the manic craze of escaping a zombie apocalypse and yelled to us: “That pool is really shit”. He disappeared into the bitumen haze, wobbling over the road as he went.

But it was hot, and we would not be deterred.

Up until a few years ago, when they famously blitzed the pool in the London Olympics, the French were not known for swimming. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the experience of going to the local pool: which is designed to be as complicated, embarrassing and unpleasant as possible.

It starts with the dress-code. Lycra underpants – known as a ‘moule-bite’ (stick to dick) – in the vernacular. Or worse, lycra swim shorts. And no exceptions.

Perhaps this is part of France’s famous commitment to solidarity, whereby if you can’t afford trendy swimming shorts in bright colours and a private beach where to wear them, then no-one need feel left-out. In any case, the pool’s chlorine levels would quickly bleach even the most garish attire to the colour of Australia’s Barrier Reef.

Secondly, swimming caps as well? France continues to live in awe of Bay Watch – Alerte Malibu – or how else would you explain this.

And if you don’t have one? Well, as long as you’ve got 4 euros you can buy one from the vending machine; next to the vending machine selling…freshly squeezed orange juice, because, why not? That machine was out of order, and probably best left so.

Now we had the attire, it was time to navigate the change rooms. The cattle muster arrangement of the reception area now gave way to the abattoir style layout of the changing rooms.

With every step through corridors of unisex cubicles, you remain no clearer where the pool is; yet your sense of doom grows with every unlocked door you push. I’m not saying the things I walked in on were comparable to an Indonesian Halal slaughterhouse, but some things cannot be unseen.

We make it to the pool. It’s only for kids. And adults who swim like kids. We head directly outside to the ‘solarium’. This turns out to be a patch of lawn in the shade, patrolled by a man wearing plastic bags over his shoes. At least someone was thinking of hygiene (or his shoes).

Even so we still last 1.5 hours. All told, it’s more pleasant than you expect sharing lawn in your speedos with 60 other randoms from all walks of life.

But eventually  hunger gets the better of us. The food onsite was predictably unappealing,but there was a local bar by the Canal St Martin not too far away, and if we were lucky, we might find a nice fresh steak, or perhaps even a minestrone.

Carry on, it’s Le Carillon as usual

Le Carillon was the favourite dive bar of every hipster in the 10th, for the very reason that you’d never heard of it. And until the November 13 terror attacks it was making zero effort to change that.

Keep calm carillonIf the November 13 terror attacks hadn’t put the Carillon on the map, I’m pretty sure nothing would.

It was the favourite dive bar of every hipster in the 10th, for the very reason that you’d never heard of it. And it was making zero effort to change that.

The décor was comforting, not comfortable: chairs for primary school students, plastic lawn chairs with bendy backs that encourage slouching, and sofas that would have given even junkies pause for thought.

The beer was shit, the wine bad, and the mojitos made with the type of love that would probably land you jail time in Sweden…or at least an extended stay in an Ecuadorean embassy.

Situated on a four-way crossroad and opposite a hospital that looks like it played host to a series of grim abuse cases, the location was not the selling point. One block back from the canal, there wasn’t even water frontage – though now they’ve drained the canal, no bar does.

If you made it to the Carillon it was only because you were there with someone who knew about it; probably someone who was local, worked in media, was a jaded expat, and possibly all of the above.

As we now know, all that was to change on November 13. The bar and the Petit Cambodge opposite were the first nightspots hit after the Stade de France bombers; 14 people dead in the space of seconds. Patrons dived for cover, the owner’s nephew locking himself in the toilet (I’ve done this before in less sober circumstances, and requiring rescue).

The bar closed. A sign on the window thanked patrons for their support but gave no indication it would reopen any time soon, if at all. In addition to the candle and flower tributes, local residents rigged a canopy of coloured rag flags above the streets.

Pedestrians now walked past in slow-motion: the premises had assumed that morbid serenity you find in hospitals, funeral homes and the job-seekers queue.

They were participating in collective mourning; for the victims of course, but also the culture of the 10th. And inevitably for Instagram feeds too: “I went to the Carillon and (unlike ISIS) all I shot was this lousy photo”.

In early January the decorators arrived. The first signs of life since those 14 ended. “Opening around mid-January,” one of the bar staff I recognised told me.

It was good news: Paris had returned mostly to normal within a month of the attacks, but as a local, navigating around the floral tributes and seeing favourite bars shuttered was impeding the process of “getting back to the new normal”.

I missed the opening night, but made it there a few nights later, curious to see what might have changed. Did the renovations end with a new lick of paint, or would there be more structural, fundamental changes?

Would there be bouncers in bullet proof vests and ID checks? Would the windows now be made of bullet-proof glass?

I was heartened to notice nothing of the sort on arrival. Sitting down to a pint, more good news: the beer was just as shit as ever. Before too long I felt that memorable chemical taste you get with mass-produced European beers, the ones that give you hangovers like someone’s hoovered out your soul overnight.

I had a hunch the furniture might not have changed: and my hunch was not only correct, but indeed caused by the self-same chairs and their poorly designed back supports.

The neighbourhood cat was also still there; jumping from bar to table to heater and back, causing everyone to lurch for their drinks with un-cat-like reflexes.

So what had changed aside the paint and the necessary changing of bullet-riddled windows?

Perhaps I was wrong, but three things now stood out.

One was the prominent fire extinguisher mounted on the wall. The second, a laminated chart giving instructions what to do in a terror attack

And the third? Hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room was now a rather prominent perspex sign…and on it, clear directions to the toilet.

The rabid hipster coffee mouth froth comp

What do latte-loving hipsters and rabid dogs have in common?

They both love a good froth at the mouth…which is what was celebrated Monday night at the annual Paris Frog Fight.

Today’s Paris baristas have so developed their skills, they can not only pour coffee, but draw a crowd doing so.

And those assembled here were – literally – the crème de la crème…

The premise was simple: two barristas face off per round, each having to free pour milk into a pretty design on the top of the coffee.

At one point, a barrista so energetically slammed the grinder that the tournament trophy fell onto the bench, shattering into several morsels. And it wasn’t the only thing going to pieces: the intensity of the competition quickly proving that while you can’t cry over spilt milk, crying over poured milk is entirely different.

Each round one out of two hipster barristas was eliminated. And while there could only be one winner there were plenty of draws – mainly of tulips, smiley faces and hearts/testicles (depending on which way you looked at the cup).

The losers meanwhile were confined to the crowd: Paris’ new renta-hipsters who frequent every new café/hotel/skateboard film-related event, and offer their support, mainly because support is always free to offer.

Parisian hipsters, having missed hipsterism’s first-wave of ironically fun clothing, content themselves to variations of the art school drop-out look, with black drop-crotch pants, and sack-like t-shirts, paired with winter’s ubiquitous saggy beanie.

Yet despite the public rarely being well turned out, the events themselves often turn out well, this one especially for the venue at newly opened Steel Cycle Wear and Coffee Shop.

Steel is but the latest cool cafe in the 11th, an arrondissement which, thanks to its unique blend of being up a hill, poorly served by public transport, and frequented by just enough dodgy people, remains just enough off track to be the place to be.

And while this event was frothy by Paris hipster standard, the competition was not all hot air. To decide the finalists, each had to sit on a bike and pedal while pouring the coffee into a pretty shape.

Fashion may come in cycles, but coffee in Paris is definitely the new short black.

Crazy neighbour crashes neighbourhood wine-tasting

Wine-tasting at the Cave in the 11th, a tiny locale sandwhiched between the Chateaubriand and the Dauphine, known for selling obscure international wines.

With wines from Sardinia, to Bulgaria, South Australia and everywhere in between, the Cave is the place to discover whether Josef Fritzl really does have Austria’s best-known cellar.

We were 8 in total, most of us locals to the area, who’d signed up for a casual wine-tasting with food pairing from the restaurant next door.

It was 8.30 in mid-October. It had been getting cold outside, and not many of the Parisian participants were warming to the challenge of small talk.

My friend William from Montreuil running late, I saw an opportunity to get conversations started.

Parisians tend to ridicule anything beyond the city limits, Montreuil obviously included. So I launched with an apologetic: “I only gave him two days’ notice, but you know Montreuil – he’s probably just getting bashed en route.”

This was said with added dryness given that poor William had indeed recently been bashed in Montreuil on the metro.

When he did arrive, 25 minutes later, it was to a small round of applause. He rubbed his nose where the scar is almost gone, and smiled. Ice broken.

A tasty Prosecco from the hills of Northern Italy got the night going after that, followed by a Bulgarian number for acquired tastes, while a tasty squid salad proved the just accompaniment for the Sardinian white.

Then was a Domaine Lucci label called Blush, from Adelaide, South Australia. A tasty mix of red and white wines; after Snowtown it’s hardly the worst thing the city has kept in barrels.

Speaking of barrels, it was around two of them that we found ourselves hunched, the wine store too small for anything resembling a normal table. However, by now we were clicking as group, helped no doubt by the rapidly growing number of empty bottles around us.

It was about now that I looked outside and by pure coincidence saw my slightly odd neighbour walking past. In his late 20s and perhaps a sandwich short of a packed lunch, he’s nothing if not friendly, even if in kind of a “just keep smiling and don’t break eye contact” type of way.

He saw me too, and drew up short by the door, which without a second thought he opened and came in.

“Hello!” he said.
“Hi!” I replied.
“Did you get my message?” I wasn’t sure which one he was referring to, as I often receive several a day, each a screed in its own right. Nor was I certain he’d seen the other 7 people doing the wine-tasting. I thought “Yes” was the safest option.

He was looking at me, but perhaps talking to everyone – it was hard to tell.

He lingered, and it was becoming clear he wasn’t just here to say “Hi”, so I introduced him to my new friends around the barrels. “Everybody, this is my neighbour,” I said.
“Hi everyone,” he said politely.

Gauging the surrounds, aka a wine store, he then said: “I have three bottles of white from the Jura at home. My grandfather gave them to me. Are you interested in buying them?”

Everyone was certainly a bit confused, not least the wine store owner giving the class, who was more used to selling wine to customers, than buying it from them.

I stammered a “Not sure, let me think about it, I’ll call you.” It was probably not the response he was looking for; he thought his wine to be a bargain, and was not understanding why a group of such connoisseurs that we now were, would not be interested.

He made his excuses and left, leaving us to ponder that even for a wine store specialising in the exotics, there are just some bottles with origins just a little too obscure.

The seafood dining language fail (sexual favours were not on the menu)

Place de Clichy – population: every seedy male in France, and your teenage daughter.

We were a group of 7 at Le Wepler brasserie, a Parisian institution in the heart of the red light district.

Australia had just buried England in the rugby – always cause for celebration – and Wepler was the only place in the area that didn’t charge customers in 30-minute increments.

It’s a restaurant typical of a certain type of French hospitality experience: an expansive dining area with polished brass rails, old-school waiting staff in starched whites with black aprons, an out-of-order toilet and a resident mouse.

Here’s a review from TripAdvisor: “Typical Parisian brasserie with efficient waiters who are professional, fast and attentive. The dishes are good, well-served, at an acceptable price. 4-stars.” Despite TripAdvisor’s credibility issues, it was actually close to the mark.

Seafood is the specialty, the platters stacked with 3 types of oysters, crabs cleaved in half, and sea snails, which you entice out of the shells with a long narrow fork and then hide in mayonnaise to disguise the taste.

We’d polished off two platters between us, a bottle of champagne and a pouilly-fume, which was not bad considering it was midnight and all we’d been looking for was a light snack.

The professional, fast and attentive waiter, seeing us flagging in our efforts to shell and eat the last-remaining food – tiny shrimps not worth the pay-off – siddled up. Clearing the plates, scraps, broken shells and crumbs, he asked, rather optimistically, “Would we like dessert? Café?”

Feeling in a jocular mood, and wishing to maintain the spirit of sharing that had seen us polish off 300 euros worth of food and drink in 20 minutes, I decided to make a joke with the waiter.

There’s a scene in the cult 1990s French film ‘Le peril jeune’ (perils of youth) where five mischievous students in a café are asked by the waiter if they would like to order anything else (ie. If not, leave!).

“Un café avec cinq pailles,” one of them jokes, “one coffee with five straws”.

I thought the waiter would appreciate my knowledge of French cult film, so I boldly said:

“Yes, one café with 7 straws.”

While the idea was sound, the execution was less so. In effect, in my haste to get the joke out, I confused the word for straws – “pailles” – with blow jobs – “pipes”.

Now everyone was confused, not least the waiter, who nonetheless brought the café but mercifully not the sexual favour, which, as with the coffee, would have likely been better down the road.