Colombia, days 3-5: On Dangerous Ground

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

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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.

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.

Don’t drink and surf – a cautionary tale from San Sebastian (but it’s not why you think)

Don’t drink and surf they say, but it’s not for the reason you may think.

San Sebastian, mid-August, the biggest weekend of summer. It’s Festival of the Virgin: ostensibly a Catholic celebration, but no-one’s told the hoards of young stoners and surfers who are swamping around, perhaps erroneously then, in the bars of this mini-Barcelona looking for a love story (or, if you’re over 25, then you’ll probably just have to settle for a story).

Everyone’s got one, a tale of debauchery from San Sebastian. An editor friend arrived planning to sleep on the beach. It sounded romantic: and then someone stole all his clothes when he was skinny-dipping. But he did meet a French girl there who he later married.

Visiting the dreamy surf town is a young Australian’s rite of passage, like growing up in the bush, working two years in a London pub, or wasting 8 years of your life in Paris waiting for life to happen.

It’s where Australian surfer boys go to play – or Australian boys go to play up the fact they saw a surfboard once, whatever.

“I’m a surfboard shaper,” said one glassy-eyed lad with shoulder length blonde hair from the Northern beaches. He was going to have no trouble pulling, and in fact was having a harder time shaking off the girl he’d met the night prior.

His mate, however, who looked like a lankier knock-off of his better-looking friend, was having a harder time with his “I’m just bumming around, but I’m interested in odd jobs” angle.

The namesake Saint Sebastian, you’ll recall, survived being shot by arrows, only later to be clubbed to death. In actually fact, the nightclubbing life is healthy.

The Sirimiri bar, opposite the cathedral, attracts young international types like a piper to the cave outside Hamlin. We went in on Friday and only emerged, bleary-eyed in the wee hours of Monday.

This bar served brilliant old fashioneds, so good they were drunk in half the time we were. Barmen spent so much time preparing them, that after 11pm, with lines two deep around the bar, it was considerably un-fashioned to order them.

And it was while waiting in this line that I realised why not to drink and surf (finally the point of the story awaits).

For we had spent the best part of the afternoon in the heady swells off Zurriola surf beach. Stef, confident on his rented surfboard, and me on a body board – don’t call it a ‘boogie board’ okay, thanks – at the end of which I’d been dumped numerous times and washed up on shore, water pouring out of every orifice.

And by later that night, the water was still pouring out, though sporadically and with no warning.

Well, I’m not sure who’s margarita it was on the bar waiting to be collected, but they probably regret not having removed it earlier given what now happened.

For as I stood there, arms on bar waiting for the barman’s attention, a healthy serving of saline fluid emergency-exited from my nose and straight into the drink.

It would have been impossible to detect on the palate, what with salt being an essential element of the drink. The only witnesses to my crime were two bystanders who rubbed their eyes, unsure they’d seen what their eyes told them so clearly they had.

I had no option but to pretend it hadn’t happened, though now stood two steps to the right to avoid it happening again.

When people swarm in such close proximity to food and drinks as they do in San Sebastian, perhaps the odd “unsanitary incident” is only to be expected.

For while the tapas – Pintxos – bars are delicious, they would also be a health inspector’s nightmare.

A healthy variety of savoury bites, from octopus to chorizo, blood pudding and baked cheesecake, and an unhealthy range of teaming, steaming, sweating tourists leaning over the food, pointing, gasping and spluttering about what they’ll have next.

As for me, I’ll have la cuenta, por favor…

Calling people? That’s so 2014.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

A. was talking, a graphic designer friend, who whenever she opens her mouth, whatever follows is reliably acerbic, drole, and never dull.

“Should I be sitting down?” I said, bending my knees to look her at eye level rather than down her chest.

“You call people.” “You know, on the phone…?”

That was it? “Is that weird?”

“Well, I guess not, but in France yes.”

It had been A. who, weeks earlier had goaded me for leaving her a voice mail. “Mec, it’s 2015. No-one leaves voice messages any more. If I get one I delete it without listening to to it. They’re usually harbingers of bad news.”

Text messages were today, alors, the preferred means of communicating it seemed.

“If you ring me, I think ‘Shit, it’s urgent, is he okay?’” She added.

So phoning someone for a simple chat these days is the 2015 equivalent of crying wolf?

“When I lived in Australia I’d often just ring mates for 5-10 minutes for a chat. And I do it with my Australian friends here too,” I justified.

“Maybe it’s an Australian thing then…”

R., another Australian friend, younger than me, now chimed in with:

“It’s true though. Now when I ring people it’s via Skype, and you just know it’s gonna take like 1-2 hours of your Saturday.”

R. shuddered; Saturdays in France are basically the only day to run errands if you have a 9-5 job – until Sunday trading happens, which, will be in generation’s time given the glacial pace at which French culture evolves. (Check this infographic with everything that’s changed in France over 10 years.)

But, she added, it was definitely a good thing to call a girl if you were planning a date. “That shows courage,” the two girls agreed.

…Perhaps it was with this in mind when, two weeks later, I had hit a dead-end with a girl. Despite a few dates, the trail had started to grow cold, with texts unanswered. Nothing for it, I reasoned, I’ll call to demonstrate my bravery.

Needless to say, the ensuing conversation was awkward and counter-productive. It was also after midnight on a Wednesday, so perhaps I’d stepped over that line between brave and stupid.