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!

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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, day 7: Free Tour Guides in Cartagena

“Who’s the most famous person called Susan to have visited Cartagena?” asked the guide, outside a fancy hotel where the celebrity had stayed.

“Susan Boyle?” replied the Brit.

Blog post 2 Cartagena
“Who’s the most famous person called Susan to have visited Cartagena?” asked the guide, outside a fancy hotel where the celebrity had stayed.

“Susan Boyle?” replied the Brit.

“No. Susan Sarandon. Next question: which film did Antonio Banderas make here with Selma Hayek?”

“Shrek 2?” I suggested.

“No. Love in the Time of Cholera.

“What was Michael Douglas doing in Cartagena?”

“Catherine Zeta Jones?”

Given Cartagena had famously withstood 6 attacks in its last few centuries, it should be no surprise our guide could withstand (if not entirely understand) our barrage of sarcasm.

And yet, we gave it our best shot.

“What does the yellow in the Colombian flag stand for?”

“Yellow Fever?”

“No. It’s for gold.”

Free city walking tours have sprung up throughout major cities in Colombia, often run by rival companies distinguished by their colours. I did the Yellow Tour this morning, but there is also a Red tour company. Or you can discover the historic city on Segways, just like the Aztecs did.

The guide started the tour, speaking through an amplifier attached to his belt, by asking everyone to give their name and where they came from. As with everything “free” these days, we were paying by giving up our personal information. He probably would have asked for our emails and social security numbers had the group not been so large.

For each person he would shoot back a fact about that particular place.

“I’m Lynn from Nova Scotia,” said one.

“Let me guess. From the city that starts with an H and ends with an X? Can anyone say what city Lynn is from?”

Though only two hours, it was going to be a long tour.

Eventually it was my turn. “Where are you from?”

“I’m not from Canada.”

“From Canada? Let me guess the province.”

“You can guess all you want, but I said I’m NOT from Canada.”

The guide was certainly knowledgeable – so knowledgeable in fact he kept on asking himself questions which he would immediately answer.

A typical 20 seconds of him talking went as follows:

“Why would the clock tower have four different times showing? Because they didn’t have a mechanic to fix it. Hey you know what people in Cartagena call someone who isn’t truthful? They say he has as many faces as the clock tower. You know what this has in common with Ireland? They have a similar expression there. Amiright, lady from Dublin in the crowd?”

“I’m from Cork, but ok.”

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Listening to him was less like hearing a tour, than a two-hour educational slam poetry contest.

Given it was free, we could hardly complain though, and the colonial city was a jewel to walk through, whether listening to a babbling guide or not.

It was steeped in history, but also up to date. In Plaza Santo Domingo, he pointed out the Botero sculpture, of a voluptuous nude woman.

“You see that sculpture? For one week now, police have been on the lookout for a tourist who stripped off and mounted the sculpture.”

If caught, the young man faces being banned from Colombia for 10 years, but will no doubt live on as part of the Yellow Free Tour script.

After two years, the tour wound up with the guide asking a quiz, though it was getting less and less city-specific.

“Ladies, pick a number between 1 and 12.”

“7.”

“Yes! You win, here, have a free keyring.”

He ended with a last footnote relating to Pablo Escobar. As with the previous tour in Bogota, he was disparaging of his legacy, as was the drug lord’s son:

“His son eventually moved to Argentina, where he changed his name to escape his past, and then wrote this book.

He held up a photo of the book, entitled: “My father Pablo Escobar”.

“Then why did he bother changing his name?” I wanted to ask.

In short, while there was plenty to see on the tour, irony was not one of the guide’s frequent observations.

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

Cambodia-s-first-abattoir-readying-the-starter-s-gun_strict_xxl
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.

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.

The weekend in Wales (aka gentrify or die)

Wales: a place once so drab you’d think its local fashion designers could only used fabrics to which furntiture upholsterers had already said “No thanks”.

But the times are a changing. Penarth is a village on the outskirts of Cardiff – capital city of Wales, European capital for old people in motorised scooters, and perhaps the first place in the world where the local supermarket saw fit to formally ban people from shopping in their pyjamas.

And, adhering to the maxim of many a British village – “gentrify or die” – Penarth has chosen the former.

Boisterous live music venues, the type of place Irish bars the world over seek to emulate are being turned into chi-chi wine bars.

There’s also now an annual food fair – albeit where a tent offering degustation menus for 140£  (with wine match!) sits next to a stand selling Scotch eggs for 1£40.

There are regular flights from Paris, too, which judging by my latest experience, must now rival Barry Island fun park as the nation’s premier amusement ride.

Flybe is an under-rated low-cost carrier. On what other airlines today outside the world of private jets is it possible to have a seat that’s both an aisle AND a window seat?

Naturally there was no smoking on board; which was just as well given the fuselage was the size of a cigar case.

The plane was delayed an hour – the original pilot had been replaced, causing his replacement to drive up the M1 at the last minute “in horrible traffic”, as he joyfully told us, hoping he’d find it easier to deal with air traffic control.

Unfortunately not everyone shared my enthusiasm. Behind me to the left, a middle-aged man was peeved and taking out his anger on the staff.

He was speaking in one those voices purposely loud enough to make everyone round him cringe, but also want to look.

“If I ran my business like you guys ran yours, it’d be in a lot of trouble,” he said.

The man was wearing mamma jeans, a polo shirt and Lewis Hamilton F1 cap, and taking the last plane home to Cardiff. You could argue his business already was.

Why I don’t smoke weed (spoiler: it’s not just because I don’t know how)

There comes a point in the life of every boy growing up in suburban Australia when they decide whether or not to throw it all away and become a bong-head.

Some made this decision earlier than others: those that bragged of “smoking billies” in Year 7, by Year 11 were marked by faces that every month drooped lower than their grades.

Not one who ever really saw the point of weed, I none-the-less found myself in a position to try it one Saturday night at a school party towards the end of high school.

Stumbling up the front stairs to the driveway I found several friends preparing cones on the bonnet of a car.

Feeling a sense of bravado, I declared it was time to discover a potential new life-depleting passion, and pushed to the front of the line.

The first cone was dutifully prepared for me and handed over, at which point, clumsy as I was, it fell out of my fingers and onto the car bonnet. The grass went everywhere.

Not to worry, these were my friends, so they scraped it up, and re-packaged the lot.

“Here you go,” they said, handing it to me anew.

Yet again, to my dismay, however, I dropped the cone from my fingers, again spraying the precious vegetal matter – or what remained – over the car bonnet. Some disappeared into the engine vent.

“Third time lucky”, my friends said – and these were my friends – and they handed me the cone.

This time, success. I put the pipe to my lips, lit the cone and sucked in hard. Really hard. And I continued to suck until I could suck no more.

“Hold it, hold it in!” my friends yelled, and I did, closing my eyes, pointing my fingers in the Victory sign towards the sky, and loudly exhaling.

The crowd erupted! Cheers, pats on the back. Soaking up the moment, I opened my eyes to look at the friends gathered and said the immortal words: “You guys just don’t know how to smoke.”

Well, neither did I apparently, as unbeknownst to me, they had repacked the third cone with precisely nothing.

At which point the crowd of my “friends” started up the humiliating chant that lives with me today: “No cone! No cone! No cone!”

And that is not just why I don’t smoke weed, but also live with the nickname “No cone”.