Category Archives: Travel

The hitchhiker with a gun

Carretera Austral, Chile

With a wave of his hand a policeman in khakis at the side of the road indicates we should stop.

One minute we’re happily rolling along in our shiny Mitsubishi pick-up, relaxing into the pleasure of driving Chile’s Carretera Austral, which is beautiful, narrow and not always paved but at least it’s empty. With that wave of the hand our mood changes and we both nervously shift in our seats as though we’re guilty of transporting a huge stash of mari-ju-ana.

“Where have you come from?” The policeman asks in thick Chilean Spanish. We can just about manage to translate his words, but with a two second delay to unscramble them.

“Quelat,” we both answer sheepishly, wondering why we’ve been stopped.

“Where are you going?”

“Chile Chico.” Another duet of sheepishness.

“Hmm, on holiday?”

“Oh yes, we’re tourists.” None of that backpacking or savvy traveller nonsense. We want him to know we’re temporary guests just here to enjoy his lovely country.

He says something we can’t translate and points to a man standing to one side wearing mirror shades and a leather jacket.

“Lo siento, no entiendo… sorry, I don’t understand.” Maybe because of the nerves.

He repeats himself and the penny drops.

Mirror sunglasses man is an off duty policeman who needs a lift to the next town.

“Sure,” we’re not keen on the idea of sharing a car with a policeman on a road where we’ve not been sure whether we’ve been sticking to the speed limit or not. But it probably isn’t a good idea to refuse. We point to our luggage and supplies which fill the back seat of the pick-up. “But he’ll have to sit in the rear of the truck.”

The policeman shouts to his amigo who looks at the pick-up’s open-to-the-elements rear bed for a couple of seconds. He shakes his head. He fancies more comfortable transport.

We’ve dodged the bullet.

A lift-seeking policemen. That’s a first for us.

Seeing Big Bird in Patagonia

I was drugged. A potent pill caused by a combo of jet-lag and pre-dawn rising in order to see condors with 3m wingspans rising on the early morning air currents on an estancia (ranch) just outside of Coyhaique.

I was drugged and probably dribbling… till a huge bird languidly strolled across the tundra in front of us. When I say huge I mean ostrich-sized proportions.

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“What is that?”

It looked like a throwback to prehistoric times. With the wild Patagonian backdrop adding to the drama I could actually have been in a real Jurassic Park.

“Ñandú… Darwin’s Rhea,” answered Alejandro.

I knew we were hoping to see big condors in this part of Chile, but I’d no idea there were ancient looking birds like this.

Jet-lag and a lack of sleep were suddenly not a problem.

The Kardashians in Santiago

Sunday morning downtown Santiago, a couple of hours before we have to catch a flight south to rural Chile. The city’s streets are closed due to a mini marathon. I start to worry how the taxi will get to us.

To pass the time we wander streets which are empty apart from a few runners and groups of boys and girls who break into impromptu dance routines every so often. I feel like I’ve wondered into a musical.

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There’s some sort of colourful sporting event taking place in a park near our hotel. I’ve no idea what’s going on. All I know is one of the teams call themselves The Kardashians.

It’s diverting, but not enough to stop me worrying about how that taxi is going to get through.

Why do you write?

“Why do you write?”

I ask the question aloud. I just don’t understand.

“What is your motivation?”

The text is cut and pasted from elsewhere, the photographs belong to somebody else. None of it is theirs, so where is the satisfaction?

I understand why copywriters ‘borrow’ information/experiences from others. They’re earning from doing so, for themselves and the companies they write for. And I have the utmost respect for copywriters who are able to sit at a desk, research places and create something which comes across as insightful, original and real.

There aren’t many of those about though.

But bloggers? People writing for themselves and their ‘followers’, that I don’t understand. How can they feel good about palming off something that isn’t theirs?

There is another group of writers I don’t quite understand. Those who use their own words but don’t make any attempt to say anything new. I’m not suggesting I come up with something original every time I put pen to paper. I wish. But I strive to have a different voice, to say something that belongs to me and me alone, to observe from a slightly different angle. It is never, ever good enough.

So when I start to read a travel blog about a location which could have been cut and pasted straight from Wikipedia, I want to ask the author ‘what was your purpose in writing this? You must know it could equally well have been written by a copywriter sitting in a room a thousand miles away.’

They are writing as an obligation. Possibly to maintain a sham of a façade they have created in order to… well, travel in the cases I’m specifically thinking about.

But there is no joy, curiosity, emotion of any kind in what they write. It is not a calling, not an addiction where if you’re prevented for any length of time from banging away at the keyboard trying to create something, you get twitchy.

Their work has me staring, bemused, at a screen of bland nothingness wondering time and time again.

Why do you write?

The Polluters

“It’s fackin’ Saint George’s day, innit”

My heart drops. There are four lads at the end of the bar, all pissed and loud. After 5 days of walking in the wilderness meeting only smiley, gentle country folk, encountering the four drunken Brits is like walking into a wall – it’s a harsh, hard reality check.

Our football-watching bar isn’t usually like this. It’s a bar aimed at Brits, but normally ones who know how to behave when in another country. We don’t get pissed up Brit lads, it’s a traditional town; there’s nothing for them here… except big measures at low prices.

We grab a couple of stools at the bar, leaving one space between us and the closest inebriate.

I’d been looking forward to the FA cup semi-final. It’s the end of the northern European season and there are usually only a handful of people in the bar. Something is different this year.

There are two skinny lads in their early 20s, both suffering from sunburn; an older chubby bloke who laughs uproariously at everything he says, even though none of it is remotely funny; and closest to me is a sly-eyed, stocky man in his mid 30s, swaying unsteadily every time he stands up.

16.45 and they’re all as drunk as skunks. Initially I tell myself not to be judgemental, they’re on their holidays and just letting loose.

But there’s an unpleasantness in the air, it’s coming from the nearest Brit.

I soon pick up that the chubby bloke is from Stoke, the two matchstick lads are Irish and the fourth is from Fulham, or ‘fackin Fulham’ as he’s unable to go more than three words without throwing in a ‘fackin’.

Southerners are shite at swearing. Whereas the Scots, Irish and northern English can make swearing funny and even descriptively poetic, it grates when some Londoners swear, the words breaking up their sentences rather than enhancing them. Can’t think of anything to say? Just throw in a ‘fackin’. To me it just sounds whiny and angry.

It’s quite evident the drunken Londoner is the potential problem.

When he staggers outside for a cigarettes, the other lads quieten down. They’re drunk but they’re okay with it. The Irish lads are typically funny. The Stokey seems alright, just a bit of a div who thinks making loud noises is amusing. When he can’t think of anything to say he starts singing football chants about some footballer I’ve never heard of, probably from Stoke.

The atmosphere feels lighter whenever the Londoner pops out for a fag. When he returns it changes again as he insists everybody has another drink. He’s not with the other three, he’s an interloper and although they laugh at his unfunny jokes, I sense they’re uneasy with him.

The Londoner is on G&Ts with not a lot of emphasis on the Ts even though the measures are ridiculously generous.

Concentrating on the football, I still pick up snippets of conversation. It’s their first day, they’re staying all inclusive and there are 240 steps to their hotel. Another patron staying at the same hotel tells them this, adding he walks down to the centre of town but catches a taxi back up to the hotel as there’s no way he’d make it. He must be in his early 40s. When did Brits become so lazy and unfit? He also tells the Stoke lad his mate has got back to his hotel okay, information courtesy of a text from his wife. Apparently there was another, even more sloshed, Brit who’d fallen at the first hurdle.

The Londoner orders another round which includes some odd concoction for one of the Irish lads. The bill comes to €14. I don’t think it’s much for what is basically a triple gin, a couple of pints and the strange concoction. The Londoner, on the other hand, does.

The Londoner tells J, the barman, he’ll give him €10. He’s trying to barter for his drinks, what a prick. Where does he think he is, a street market in Mumbai?
J stands firm. The Londoner gets a bit leery and, thinking he’s being smart, asks for a receipt in shitty, pigeon Spanish. J happens to be Portuguese.

J and the other barmen are as honest as they come. The Londoner is being a complete twat.

He winks and whispers something to his new friends about not trusting the Spanish and knowing how to deal with them. They try to tell him J is sound. They look awkward. He knows better.

He thinks he is being a savvy traveller who knows how to deal with Johnny Foreigner, everyone else knows he’s being an embarrassment.

J happily prints of a receipt for €14. Through his gin-soaked mist the Londoner realises he’s made an arse of himself.

“We amigos, si?” he slurs to J. “Have a drink, come on have a drink.”

“No thanks mate,” J smiles, but not with his eyes, showing his English is on a far higher level than the Londoner’s Spanish… maybe even his English as well.

He treated J like he was a stereotype. The irony being the Londoner himself is the biggest stereotype in the bar.

The leery Londoner skulks outside leaving us alone to enjoy the end of the match.

Man Utd score in injury time. It’s a relief. Both in that we don’t want extra time and the lottery of penalties, and that we can escape the drunken Brits.

As we drive home we’re overtaken by a police car with blue lights on full flashing mode. It screeches onto the pavement just ahead and two officers jump out with batons drawn. They approach a bald man and shout instructions in Spanish at him. He looks confused. He stands and sways unsteadily.

I know exactly who he is.

We just don’t get people like this in the north of the island… not usually. They corrupt the atmosphere, their behaviour is at the other end of the spectrum from that of the local population.

I feel ashamed to be connected by nationality.

At this moment it seems a pity the dragon didn’t incinerate George.