Marina Hyde bingo cards

For at least the last 8 years, my favourite regular columnist has been Marina Hyde in the Guardian. For a long time she was neck-and-neck with Hadley Freeman but eventually pulled ahead due to the comedic heft of her body. And if you can suggest any more bodily metaphors for that last sentence, I’m all ears.

Straight from the school of Clive James, her thrice-weekly columns are written with equal parts acerbic wit and intelligence, calling to account powerful and corrupt businessmen (inevitably not women) and politicians, or shining a light on that particularly British breed of daft celebrities, whose need for a spotlight belies their dimness.

In any case, as an avid reader I’m come to be quite familiar with her stylistic quirks, and favourite topics she hits on. These include repeated references to “you can be my wingman any day” from Top Gun, (which incidentally caused another columnist to accuse her of plagiarising it from him despite it fairly being a commonplace joke), to references to Boris Johnson’s trickiness in writing a pro- and anti-Brexit column “in order to clarify his thinking” in the days before the all-important vote, and her contempt for hate-peddlers such as Katie Hopkins.

As such, I’ve created a first round of Marina Hyde Bingo cards. Playing is simple: read her columns each week and tick off each reference when you see it. Once you have a full line, you have BINGO!

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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, day 2: Dying to visit the Amazon

Hundreds of explorers never made it out alive from the Amazon. I wasn’t even going to make it in.

Blog day 2 Avianca

The Avianca airline steward at check-in was a trainee but she knew all the right questions to ask.

“And, could you please write down the number of someone to contact in case of emergency?”

I gave her my mum’s mobile. After all, mum’s first question when I told her I was headed to Colombia was “Do you have a will?”, and her second was, “No, seriously?”

It therefore made sense she be the first to hear if my plane had gone down. I imagined the airlines comms team making the phone call with one of those “Good news/bad news” opening lines:

“Hello Mrs Davies, its Avianca Airlines, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is we’ve lost your son somewhere between Bogota and the Amazon. The bad news is, you’ve just inherited all his debt.”

My angst worsened when, on the plane, the lady next to me looked out the window and made the sign of the cross. At this we were still only taxiing.

Hundreds of explorers never made it out alive from the Amazon. I wasn’t even going to make it in.

Landing at Leticia airport, in the south-eastern tip of Colombia, the lady next to me repeated the sign of the cross, and I started to suspect she might be do this gesture fairly regularly. The plane had been without incident, my concerns mislaid. At least for now.

The airport was a tin shed, most of which was given over to a rickety luggage conveyor belt, straining to keep up. Every minute or so the belt would grind to a halt, and the operator would kick start it by running on it with his foot. It was better than the gym, and soon most of the passengers joined in too, realising this common exercise was the key to getting their bags asap.

One of the more interesting items on the belt was two blocks of gravelled concrete. I’m still not sure whether this was somebody’s luggage or part of the airport that just that moment had collapsed. Third hypothesis: you’ve heard of rocks of cocaine? This was a full concrete slab of it.

“Are you British? You don’t look British.”

“I’m Australian.” I told the tour operator who met me at the gate.

“I knew you weren’t British,” she continued.

In years of backpacking, I’ve decided the only thing separating Brits and Australians is that we are more sunburnt, and less drunk. Controversial, I know.

Three hours later, I had swapped the plane for a low-slung motorised wooden canoe, Colombia for Brazil, and we were motoring in darkness and a thunderstorm up the tributaries of the Amazon, a full moon rising as we headed to the camp.

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.

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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.

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.

Colombia days 12-16: Go Get Lost at the Ciudad Perdida

The campsites each night came with all the creatures, if not always the comforts. Our toilets were shared with frogs, spiders and the risk of snakes, and our mattresses with bed bugs. 

Blog post 3 lost city
The Lost City trek in Northern Colombia usually takes four days to complete. Usually, because in 2003 a group of trekkers took 101 days after being kidnapped by the Marxist ELN guerrillas. Either that, or they got really FARC-ing lost.

Their experience was nothing compared to the Tayrona civilisation that lived there however; they spent 2,400 years there, until the Spanish arrived and expediently helped them ‘find’ God.

The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1972 by tomb raiders looking for gold. And while never truly ‘lost’ to the local communities, nowadays it’s been well and truly found.

Up to 150 trekkers embark on the route each day, and the gold flows the other way: 30% of the tour price is distributed among local communities to promote sustainable living (read: not farming coca).

With a military encampment now situated directly above the ruins, the risk of kidnapping is close to none. But that’s not to say the trek is without other dangers.

Running of the Bulls
Those who thought only drunk Australians in Pamplona could run with bulls, have yet to experience the Colombian version.

The first leg of the trek is an ascent up a dirt road, a steep embankment on one side and a ravine on the other, shared with local cowboys taking herds of cattle to the mountain pastures.

Sometimes the animals break free, and just like the tour operators, they charge like wounded bulls. A few years ago, 6 tourists were hurt by one animal alone.

Mules
Time was in Colombia that mule still actually meant an infertile donkey-horse hybrid. These plod along the Lost City track each day tied nose to tail like a donkey centipede, carrying up to 100 kilos of gear – and that’s just on the outside. While usually placid, wander too close behind and they are liable to kick out a hind leg.

Watering holes
The track follows mountain streams with many swimming holes and waterfalls. The most picturesque is at the camp on first night, a natural rock pool with a three-metre ledge you can safely jump off.

It also has also a six-metre ledge you can easily slip off. One girl caught her leg upon leaping off and cartwheeled down the cliff face. While she fortunately avoided head injury and certain death, she unfortunately did not capture it on Go-Pro.

Other tourists had not been so lucky: a Frenchman had broken his neck diving off here a previous time, while another had broken his back jumping in at a different spot.

Accommodation
The campsites each night came with all the creatures, if not always the comforts. Our toilets were shared with frogs, spiders and the risk of snakes, and our mattresses with bed bugs.

The first night’s camp beds smelt like Battersea Dogs Home in the jungle. A young Dutch couple opted to sleep in hammocks, which was more hygienic once they’d removed the used tampon found within.

Colombia marching powder
As mentioned, part of the trekking fee is returned to locals to incentivise them not to harvest coca, the source material used in cocaine. Despite government efforts, Colombia’s coca production is at its highest point since 1994.

Around the Lost City local communities mix the leaves with ground sea shells to use in initiation ceremonies for adolescent boys, and for sustenance to walk long distances without food: it is literally a marching powder.

When I took some one evening as part of our ‘cultural awareness’ aspect of the trip (no, seriously), my lips went numb and I lay restless for two hours in bed listening to the rain.

Us being jerks
We were searching for a lost civilisation, but at some point civility too got lost along the way.
On day 2 we met our first group returning from the City, as the track is one route in and out.

“Just 10 minutes!” said one trekker as we passed, struggling up an interminable muddy slope. It was 50 minutes before we made the top of the hill, and then another hour to the camp.

When it was us on the return, we knew what to do. .

“Just 10 minutes!” we said, giggling, to a sweaty older German man, who had at least 1.5 days to go of the trek, and looking at him, less of life. The ante was soon upped.

“It’s shit, turn back!” we said to the next.

Changing tack, we started to speak aloud snippets of false conversations as we passed each new walker. These soon took a dark turn:

“They say she was attacked by a machete.”

“The snake was in the toilet. He couldn’t escape from it.”

“Taken by a jaguar. Who’d have thought…”

The worst though was asking the solo Dutch girl whether she’d liked the Lost City.

“What do you mean? I haven’t reached it yet.”

“You should have, it was back there…” A look of horror on her face, she hurried off to reach her group and tell them there’d been a big mistake.

It’s a well-worn trope of backpackers to say that “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” that matters.

Well, in the Lost City, it’s definitely the destination. Unless you’ve been kidnapped, at which point the return is also important.

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.