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Getting my chocolate and churros on in Madrid

Chocolate and churros. Yum.

Last week I was summoned to jury service. Over the two weeks I had a gun case and a drugs case. Pretty standard stuff. Nothing to blog home about. But the last case finished on the Thursday and we were told to go home and not worry about coming back, as they don’t hand out new cases on Fridays. Yippee!

But now I had a decision to make. Did I tell my boss I’d been let go a day early and go back to work, or did I buy a flight to somewhere exciting and make the most of my unexpected three-day weekend?

Twelve hours later, I was boarding a plane to Madrid with a backpack of essentials and a mischievous grin.

I have no idea why I chose Madrid. It was the first place I thought of. It’s funny, when I have to choose between five brands of toilet roll, each of which have five more varieties, I can stand in the aisle of Sainsbury’s for half an hour before walking away because I just can’t decide. But when it comes to big stuff, I don’t even think about my options. God help me when I come to buying a house or getting married.

So off I went to Madrid. The first thing I noticed was that it wasn’t as hot as I’d hoped. In fact in was downright bloody chilly. The second thing I noticed was that it’s a little bit grotty. I was staying in a hostal just off the main road, which was a haven in the midst of madness.

On my first night I went to bed at 8pm, got up at midnight and set out to Plaza del Sol – the place where all the parties happen. I’d heard about a salsa club called El Son near there, so I started walking in that direction. Then a British man bumped into me, said sorry, and I said it’s fine. His 19 mates all turned to look at me in wonder. They were all men. On a massive stag do. I was a girl on my own. It didn’t take me long to make new friends.

After getting some rip-off drinks in an empty, blue-lit bar, I told them I was going to the salsa club with or without them. They came, and I realised this was a lot of pressure on me – it could make or break the stag’s Big Night Out.

It was a hell of a lot of fun. The local men take turns to ask girls to dance, so I was never short of a dance partner, and the drinks – well, I can’t tell you how much they were as I never had to buy any myself.

We danced (and the stag took pictures of his privates) all night long until morning. Feet sore, I got a cab back to my hostel at about 7am while the people who don’t need sleep went to the Plaza Mayor to watch the sun rise. The amount of people on the street was incredible – it could have been 8pm on a Friday on a street in London in the middle of a hot summer. Madrileños certainly have a different body clock to the rest of the world.

I bumped into the stag group again the next day, and they said they’d been kept awake all morning by construction work going on. As usual, I thanked my decision to carry earplugs and an eye mask everywhere I go.

I spent all the rest of my time in the city eating and drinking lots of chocolate in the chocolate cafes. My favourite way to eat the thick, delicious gloopy stuff was to scoop it up with deep-fried churros. The choc places are open all hours, so you can get your churros on any time of day or night. I got my churros on every time of day and night. Heavenly. A good enough reason to go to Madrid, if you ask me.

Seeing red at the world’s biggest food fight: La Tomatina

Just as I’m fastening my goggles to my face, the crowd pushes inwards and my ribs are almost crushed. I can’t breathe, and thanks to the fogged-up goggles I can’t see either. My feet are being trampled and elbows are jabbing me from every direction. The first tomato hasn’t even been thrown yet.

A firework screeches above our heads, signalling the start of the world’s biggest annual food fight. The usually quiet town of Buñol, near Valencia in Spain, turns into a fiercely pumping heart with clogged arteries, as the crowd of 45,000 people spilling down every side street surges with even more urgency towards the main square. As the first tomatoes fly overhead we’re soaked by water from the hoses of gleeful locals atop their tarpaulin-covered apartment blocks.

I slowly push through the crowd towards the main square. Within seconds everything turns red and my feet are standing in five inches of tomato juices, water and most likely urine. My goggles snap and fall off my face just as a tomato whacks me full-pelt in the right eye. I turn around and another tomato hits me in the neck. Even though it hurts, I can’t help but laugh.

The tomato truck full of locals pelting us with rotten fruit starts lurching closer, constantly sounding its horn. The crowd, which is already filling the main square, splits down the middle to let the truck through, with people climbing walls – and each other – to avoid being run over.

The sour taste of rotten tomatoes and sewage fills my mouth, as I crunch down on something gritty. I have no time to think about what I’m ingesting as a brief gap in the crowd finally allows me to bend down and scoop up smashed tomatoes and street juices in my goggles and tip them over a stranger’s head. Someone behind me grabs my shirt and rips it to shreds, leaving me with just a long trail of material swinging around me, sodden with tomato juice. I bend over and pick up a T-shirt from the ground, swing it above my head and fling it over the crowd. It hits a girl on the head from behind, wrapping around her face. Her boyfriend just looks at her and laughs. Then someone tips a bucket of floor juice over my head, just as a wet T-shirt smacks me around the face.

Finally another firework goes off, signalling the end of the hour-long tomato fight. But as the locals brandish their brooms in the clean-up competition, the fight continues for the hard core. The rest of the revellers trudge off into the hot afternoon, caked in tomatoes and goodness knows what else, en masse to their awaiting coaches, via the odd roadside dance party and communal river bath. I slope off down a side street filled with clean onlookers. I bear hug as many as I can to soil their spotless clothes. Why come to La Tomatina if you’re not going to get messy?

All aboard the cargo ship along the Amazon

After years of dreaming of visiting the Amazon, I’m finally here! Sadly, the Amazon attracts the twattiest of travellers – a breed of people that is pretty annoying already. They’re all here solely to try Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drug that you do with a shaman in the middle of the jungle, which involves drinking a foul liquid, throwing up for a solid hour and having strange visions – sounds pretty much like a Friday night in Kingston to me. But I didn’t discover this until much later in my trip. To begin with I flew into Leticia, a buzzing (literally – the place thrives on the coke business) Amazon town on the border of Brazil and Peru 500 miles from the nearest highway. The plane journey took us over miles and miles of just forest and river, as far as you could see – incredible.

Once I got to Leticia I went to Mahatu Jungle Lodge, where I was greeted by Gustav the owner, who I rapidly grew to dislike. But the hostel was gorgeous, with two lakes a turtle the size of a large table, a pool and jungle surroundings. Plus eight newborn puppies.

The owner Gustav was a stoner, and would get wasted while working. He lied about which rooms were available so you’d have to take a more expensive room and one night while I was asleep he came into the room and stood one my bed to make up the bed above, then when he was done thumped my pillow to kindly let me know.

Other than that my time in Leticia was awesome – on my first day I met a Canadian couple, we popped over to Brazil for half an hour (you can just walk straight in – same with Peru), and got a motorbike taxi back to Colombia – bit scary for me after my last experience on a motorbike landed me in a Thai hospital. But we survived the ride of death and made it back to Parque Santander in time to see millions of green parrots flocking to the treetops to sleep for the night. The racket was so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you shouting.

That night, eardrums still ringing, the whole hostel headed up the dusty road to a big street barbecue – for $2 you get a chicken kebab, a pile of rice and a potato thing that I’m yet to remember the name of. Delish. Then we went back to our stinky, hot rooms for some attempted sleep.

The next day the Canadians went off to Puerto Narino while I went into town with an English couple to suss out the boats to Iquitos, Peru. I could either do a three-night slow boat (cargo ship where you hang a hammock on the upper deck and do absolutely nothing for two solid days and three nights) or the fast boat which takes 10 hours. As I was alone I decided to do the fast boat. I’d heard the slow boat has so little space you’re sharing butt space with complete strangers on both sides and so much as a fart will set the row of hammocks into a pendulum, plus the toilets are meant to be horrific and theft is guaranteed.

I got the slow boat. I met an English girl that afternoon with the same travel plan as me, and we decided it would be fun to slum it for three nights and be relieved of all our belongings. So we bonded over a $1 rice and pig’s blood sausage (I just googled it to find out the ingredients, sorry Catherine, now ex-vegetarian, it wasn‘t kidney beans as we thought!) – morcilla it was called – and another chicken barbeque (Catherine now a converted carnivore after 10 years of vegetarianism). The next day we went to Brazil to buy cheap Havianas flip flops (£2 to London’s £25) and eat more delicious chicken. We then ran to the boat (we were very late of course and had not bought tickets or got a visa or anything), but we managed to secure a good spot for our new purchases – beautiful new hammocks – and even booked a cabin so we could store our bags. The cabin actually had four beds but it was pretty manky, but only cost us $10 – the boat ticket was $40. We then ran to the passport stampy office, only to find the stamp guy on his way out for a night of drinking. We followed him to the bar, and two minutes later were proud owners of pretty stamps saying we were allowed into Peru.

We ran back onto the boat all excited, sat at the bar with an oversized beer, and waited for the delay to be announced. Then, at 8:19pm we started moving. Nineteen minutes late is so on time it almost made the local paper. We’d heard of delays to this boat of more than 24 hours. We squealed with delight and set about drinking as many oversized beers as we could afford (two). We also met a very drunk Italian, Hannes, who has been travelling with us since.

We then went off to our hammocks, which the men on either side of us had kindly tied up to the pipes for us. Then mine fell down. Yes, I was in it. Fortunately the guy who tied it was asleep so to this day has no idea he almost committed a horrible murder on board the Gran Diego. After my near-death experience we settled into the hammocks (take two) and made some bread and jam for dinner.

Woke up the next morning at 5:30am pulling into a Peruvian port for a break. Then day one of the boat trip commenced. I laid about, read books, learned new Spanish words and napped all day. Breakfast on board was rice in hot milk with a clove, lunch was rice and chicken, dinner much the same. It was a really hot afternoon so I sat out front and watched the jungle go past. Ate dinner while watching the sun set, then laid in the hammock and watched American Dad on my laptop.

An amazing sleep. Think I’m getting used to hammock life. I was woken at 7:30am by a guy with a tray full of rice-porridge, and promptly had a lovely nap straight after. Spent the day learning Spanish, napping, looking at the view and napping. At one point I got a Bon Bon Bum (lolly with bubble gum in the middle) and the baby next to me pointed at it. She wouldn’t stop pointing and there was no way I was going to enjoy my lolly with a bloody baby pointing at it . So I gave up the lolly. Then the baby’s sister gave me the pleading eyes. “Quiere?” – You want? I asked. A big nod. Dragged my butt out of the hammock, and got a handful more lollies so this terrible situation couldn’t repeat itself. I then pretended to be asleep whenever the kids looked at me.

Later on that evening we ran into a similarly awful situation – a bunch of kids who had just got on the boat noticed we had biscuits. Our new best friends followed us everywhere, clinging on to us and even telling us they wouldn’t eat dinner as they just wanted biscuits. We were soon relieved of all our delicious snacks and had to very carefully hide the Gol bars we had – especially tricky when one girl asked me to go through every item in my bag. We eventually lost the kids by hiding in a shadow (seriously).

The second day was much the same, except we saw pink dolphins jumping in the wake of the boat and stopped at a port where a group of us very nearly missed the boat – I hopped on as it was pulling out and three guys had to get a row boat and catch up to it! The day then resumed as normal – nap, read, look at the view, plus shower every hour as it was so flipping hot, then nap some more. It was beautiful though, sailing on the Amazon. We were really close to the banks the whole time, and the trees and flowers smelled like springtime.

One more night of sleeping on the boat and we arrived in Iquitos, Peru – our final destination – at 5:30am. Tune in to the next blog post for our jungle time in Iquitos!

Slumming it in Medellin

My last day in Medellin started off well – my visa got sorted in five minutes and then I went for a wandering Spanish lesson in which my teacher Jorge and I walked around town and ate a huge lunch. Then he had to go teach another class and I had a task to attend to – find a postcard and send it. Four hours later I’m in the post office being told it will cost US$45… To send a postcard. Finally sorted (elsewhere and not for $45), I jumped on the bus that had my suburb name on the front and promptly fell asleep. Woke up in the slums of Medellin. The driver then tells me there are hundreds of buses to my suburb and I’m definitely not on the right one. Very kindly he stops another bus going in the opposite direction and tells the driver where I’m going. I jump on and discover it’s just me, a guy in a hoodie and some weird guy behind the screen on the passenger seat doing some weird high-pitched manic laugh the whole time. Absolutely terrifying. Oh, add to this the cracking headache I have that’s rendered me entirely unable to think straight. The driver then stops, tells me the number of yet another bus I need to get, and chucks me out onto the now dark and rainy streets. He didn’t charge me though, which was nice.

So I’m on a busy street, no idea where and with no phone credit. I decide I’ve had enough of buses and flag down a cab. The first one points and says something that I took to mean flag one on the other side of the road. So I cross over and start flagging. One by one the cab drivers tell me no, they can’t take me there. Almost in tears I see a bus with the number I need. Run for it. Miss it. Then another bus turnss up, I squeezed myself in among the 3,275 people also on the bus and told the driver to tell me where to get off.

Finally get home to find Juan, the homestay coordinator, waiting for me. My head was in so much pain I almost cried at the thought of having to make conversation, especially in Spanish. I popped a pill, gave the family their gifts while I had the chance and have never been so relieved to go to bed.

In which I get really drunk in Medellin

I’m now four/five days into my homestay and Saturday night was a great turning point with my family – we got plastered together, Colombia style. But my story begins a few hours earlier, when I shunned Spanish lessons in favour of taking a day trip to Gautape, a cute town famous for amazing frescoes, and El Pinol, a big rock you can climb and see all the surrounding lakes. On the way up the rock I met a family with young girls who spoke a teeny bit of English, and they were all (especially the dad) very excited to try to talk to me.

Seven hundred and something steps later and some amusing English attempted by the dad, we reached the top of the rock to absolutely stunning views. I then had my photo taken on random people‘s cameras before we made our way back down.

After the rock, I got a little moto bus thing to Guatape, 2km away, and spent about an hour taking photos of all the colourful frescoes adorning the shops and houses, then sat down outside a bakery and ate half the contents of the shop (plus my first of many Redds of the day) and did some Spanish homework.

Feeling sick from all the sugar I went for a walk along the seafront where I came across one of those awful party boats blasting music with a man on a megaphone trying to entice people in. Next thing I know I’m 10mil pesos poorer and sitting on the top deck next to the speakers clutching my second Redds. There was a group of students next to me who saw I was alone and invited me to sit with them, only to regret it the instant they discovered I couldn’t speak Spanish. But, a few more Redds, plus several shots of rum and aguadiente from the table next to us and I was chatting in Spanish like it was my first language. After the boat trip it started raining so we legged it [read: walked really slowly, Colombia style] to the nearest bar and got, well it’s getting predictable now, more Redds. I then had a bus to catch at 6pm, managed to miss it, and after running round the square several times in the rain found another that left in half an hour. Half an hour to prepare myself mentally for a two-hour bus ride, blotto.

I actually slept [read: passed out] for most of the journey, waking periodically and trying not to puke. When I got back to the house dinner was waiting for me, but I just couldn’t wait to get to bed. Then, just as I was finishing dinner a lady came by the house – to pick me up for a night of drinking. Oh Dios mio. I was dragged to a small bar/shop where Jessica, Juan (her husband) and Marta were waiting for me with my shot glass ready. Urgh. Force fed aguadiente (tastes like a mix of sambuca and vodka and is drunk by the gallon here) and more Redds (I think…) I sat around chatting to all the people who stopped by. It was funny when a girl came by who also had someone staying at her house to learn Spanish – an Aussie guy – because the whole time she was ripping into him about how he pronounced things wrongly. They all proceeded to do impressions of him, then told me to repeat what they said to check my pronunciation – thankfully I have perfect Spanish and gave them nothing to work with. Of course. Anyway, they told me I couldn’t meet this Aussie because I’m not allowed to speak English while I’m here… Anyway, I managed to escape and get to bed at a reasonable hour with Jessica and Juan (who drove, drunk, the one block to the house), leaving Marta (my homestay mum) to sink the last of her 2.5 bottles of aguadiente.

Medellin

The next morning, I was told we were going for a walk – me, Arianna and Samuel. It turned out ‘going for a walk’ meant going to the next block and getting blotto with the entire family while watching a middle-aged man in a badly fitting suit sing outside a shop for its 10th anniversary. Six Redds later (do you know I love that beer?) and we moved on, back to the street bar we were at the previous night (which turned out to be someone’s house with a table outside, and when I went in to use the loo the toilet was literally in the kitchen. But when you gotta go…). Marta sank another couple of bottles, I played some fairground game and danced salsa with one of the cousins in someone’s garage much to the enjoyment of the crowd that gathered, then we headed to Jessica and Juan’s house (next to ours) for some more aguadiente (water for me – and I don’t mean that I drink so much it’s like water, let’s get that out of the way now…), then made the long journey next door for bed.

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This morning when I got up Arianna told me we were going for a walk after lunch. I told my liver to hold on tight and off we went. Turns out that today ‘going for a walk’ meant ‘taking all the neighbourhood kids to the library and sitting in the lobby for an hour waiting for the rain to stop’. One thing about Colombian women is that they really care about their appearance. Getting their hair wet in the rain is simply not an option. Eventually, we ran [again, read: walked really slowly] to the road to get a taxi, one of the mums with a black bin bag over her hair…

Tomorrow promises to be exactly 100% less exciting, when I need to go get my visa renewed. Don’t miss the thrilling next edition of the blog in which I tell the story of queuing for hours in a government building…