“So you’re going to lean right back, fall into the water and I’ll join you there in a moment.”
My heart turned to stone.
I was on a tinny in Taganga near Santa Marta, accompanied by my PADI scuba instructor Darwin, about to jump right on in and breathe under water for the very first time.
Darwin – one of many Colombians comically named using English surnames – looked at me quizzically as I freaked out. He, possibly technically a fish at 99% H2O, had grown up defying the laws of nature by breathing underwater. I, on the other hand, was much more of a land creature and not entirely sure that we humans were welcome there below the surface.
10 days after arriving in Huanchaco, I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever leave.
This sleepy little north Peruvian beach hamlet had given me a moment of rest after running about like a headless chook, and was conveniently populated by just enough people and tourists to have me form a little community within only a few days, consisting of…
…the friendly, happily chubby man whose breakfast stall was my favourite and who could deftly slice a Halloween-pumpkin-sized papaya in 3 minutes flat.
…the lisping Spaniards whose accents so made me miss my time in Spain.
…my surf instructor whose philosophical insights on life seemed to bob like the waves he taught on.
…the other students in my surf classes whose falls and successes mirrored my own.
…even the gaggle of Shetland pony sized pelicans who called the shore home.
In twelve months traveling through South America, only one of the dodgy situations I imagined in my brain (or my mum in her arguably more terrified one for that matter) actually happened. Happily, I was not made into a human barbeque in Colombia. No one robbed me. I did not careen off a Bolivan mountainside on a bus held together by barely more than sticky tape. I did not become entranced by a golden-brown Brazilian on a golden-brown beach, only to find out that I was to be sold as a sex slave. I did not lose my luggage. I was not refused entry into any countries. And my scuba breathing aparatus worked uncommonly well.
(While I was bitten by a dog and I did meet Gonzalo; a vomit-inducing human being who believed that he was Jesus, and that the Lord was calling him to “heal” (read: molest) young women; I’ve decided that as I didn’t expect these things would happen in the first place, they don’t count.)
But yes, something came true. One night, I managed not to find accommodation. I think I was beginning to believe my own hype, always waltzing into hostels without bookings and finding excellent last-minute Couchsurfing hosts. So I admit to being surprised that night in Tucumán when, planning to leave for Chile the next day, I was perturbed to find that I was fresh out of Argentinian pesos. After a lot of city trekking I discovered close to 7pm that no places took card, nor had change for US dollars. And so I decided to sleep at the bus station; a thankfully all-night bonanza of fluro lights and other curled up transients. So there I was, taking a fitful kip on the stripy floor below an Argentinian flag, on the top level of this open-air bus station as the icy July draughts came in.
I used my sarong as a mattress (a piece of cotton which the cold traveled straight through) and, apart from a visit from a feather-jewellery-selling-17-year-old drifter who made me a wire treble clef, my night was uneventful. I can’t say I slept well. But I slept, caught my onward bus early the next morning. And discovered a new-found respect for bus seats.
I’ve already admitted that I’m a complete dweeb when it comes to borders between states and countries. I love ‘em. Mostly because I’ve never tried smuggling anything illegal across one, and so happily, my interaction with them is limited to handing over my passport, arranging my face into the unfortunate frown I sport in my photo and being stamped right on in. Which is certainly preferable to spending the night in a cell resting my tush after receiving an intrusive gloved examination.
There are definitely friends we all should have. A doctor. Lawyer. Travel agent. Builder. Sparky. Plumber. Tradesman in general. Hairdresser. Wedding cake maker. Photographer. The benefits are obvious – health and legal advice, plane tickets, construction work and wedding help at mate’s rates? Hell, yeah. But I’d like to add another must-have friend: the wine distributor.
In Mendoza I became a more stoked version of my usually upbeat self after meeting Eze, a lifelong friend of a friend whose current passion is wine. He invited us along to a tasting at his beautiful shop, where we mingled with industry professionals quaffing and rating away, and then took the leftovers back to a barbeque at his place. And some leftovers they were. Dozens of bottles of red wine showcasting some of the region’s work; 18 different takes on Mendoza’s famous Malbec grape over three price ranges.
It was like Christmas morning. So much to sample, so much flavour and colour. So much promise. And yes, it was beautiful – until the dreaded red wine headache came looking for me. A point at which after a two night marathon sampling, this more stoked version of my usually upbeat self was forced to accept defeat, say adiosamigos…and go pass out and sleep very deeply indeed.
I habitually go a teensy-weensy bit too long between haircuts, a trait which becomes scarily exaggerated while traveling, a time when my ‘do looks shaggier than an English Sheepdogs’s.
When this happens, a trip to a foreign hairdresser is called for – an experience that (if you’re me) is likely to end in tears.
I’ve badly communicated my needs to hairdressers in Italy, Poland and Germany by means of energetic gesturing and sound emitting. And recently in Chile, where despite speaking the language I was still unable to suggest that I would not like to look like a pile of grass clippings at the end.