And you say he’s just a friend

About a month ago, my dream scenario became a reality: I had no job, no rent to pay and some money in the bank. I realised this would never happen to me again, so I booked a month-long trip to Canada. Of course.

I decided, having done the solo backpacking thing last year (and written a book about it, which is currently gathering dust in my macbook docs folder), that I wanted something more organised and more social. As well as something active. After trudging through several yoga retreat websites, hiking holidays and travelling meetup groups, I decided to go with Trek America. The itinerary was perfect: two weeks of hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming and most importantly, toasting marshmallows over a campfire.

I booked the trip two weeks before it was due to start, and almost puked with excitement. This was my dream trip. Canada, the Rockies, campfires, marshmallows. I’d also planned a week after the trip to drive down the coast from Seattle to San Francisco, cos I knew I wouldn’t want to go home straight away.

I’m a very impatient person, so thankfully there wasn’t long to wait before I was hurtling towards Seattle at 35,000ft.

I changed planes in San Francisco, and had to go through the dreaded customs routine. I was ready for anything they could throw at me, passport clamped in sweaty palms. I stepped up to the customs guy:

“What are you coming to the USA for?”

“Holiday. Just a holiday.”

“Ok and how long will you be staying?”

“Three weeks. Three and a half weeks. Well, 24 days.”

“And where will you be staying?”

“I’m staying with a friend in Seattle.”

“What’s your friend’s name?”

Gulp. “Matt. Matt Aldman.”

“And ya’ll are just friends, he’s not a boyfriend? Or maybe he will be?”

“Nope, just friends.”

Sings: “You say he’s just a friend, and you say he’s just a friend…” (Hands me my passport and says “you can go through”)

Continues singing even louder, “Oh baby you! You got what I nee-eed! And you say he’s just a friend…”

I walk off to catch my next flight, chuckling to myself. A good start!

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?

Football matches, English classes and partying hard in Brazil

I thought the border crossing from Colombia to Peru was a joke (it happened in a bar), but the one from Argentina to Brazil was ridiculous – it didn’t even require standing up. We simply got in a cab, gave our passports to the cab driver, who showed them to passport control through the car window and drove on into Brazil.

I chatted to the Argentinean cab driver in [attempted] Spanish just to hold on to the joy of being able to converse with people for one last moment, before he chucked us out at the airport and I had to go through the arduous task of buying a plane ticket in Portuguese, a language that may as well have been whatever the hell it is they speak in Star Trek.

We were on our way to Ilha de Mel, where all the streets are made of sand and there are no motor vehicles. We met a group of American, French and German travellers on the bus to the port, so we got the three-hour boat to the island with them – but not before buying three bottles of cachaça, six limes and a bag of sugar. One of the girls had a wooden cup and pestle to smash the limes and sugar together, and after a few goes we got pretty good at making caipiriñas, then after a few caipiriñas we became bad at it again… The stuff isn’t known as crazy juice in traveller circles for nothing.

The caipiriñas did fuel an awesome night though. Starting off with a barbeque at the hostel (after my failed attempt at fishing standing in the sea fully dressed in the dark using a hook and line tied to a Coke can), we ate steaks (undercooked by myself) and chicken hearts on crackers. It was delightful. Then the hostel manager chucked us out for being too loud, so we tucked the iPod speakers under our arm and made our way to the beach. As luck would have it in an only-when-you’re-drunk situation, we came across an empty bar (there were no other tourists on the entire island) with an extension cord trailing all the way out to the water’s edge. We plugged in our tunes and danced into the night…

Everyone woke up the next morning feeling a little worse for wear (except me, I was up and at ’em at 8am – I seem to have out-drunk hangovers). Some of us spent the day lying in hammocks talking about the state of the Brazilian currency while the rest of us went out and had fun. We went on a little hike around the perimeter of the island and ended up in reggae town. We stopped for dinner and some beers then bribed a boat owner to take us back. By that point it had started raining, and we were flipping freezing in the open-air boat. We took it in turns to sing a line of any song we could think of with the word ‘sunshine’ in it to keep warm, and somehow it worked.

We left the island the next day, knowing we’d had as much fun as we could possibly have, and made the 14-hour journey to Rio, by boat, bus, plane and taxi. We arrived in the district of Lapa at midnight on a Saturday night. It was heaving. They close the streets off to traffic and it just turns into one big street party. You buy caipiriñas on the street, food on the street (including hotdogs with peas, sweetcorn, sauce, crispy bits and of course a hard boiled egg) and everyone just dances the night away. Well, we did anyway. We became the life of the party and everyone wanted to know us. We were being beckoned by the locals in every direction, Phil because he was wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt and me because they discovered I knew the words to Nirvana and Pink Floyd. And cos we rocked.

We eventually hit the wall and went to bed in the hostel above the Irish bar, where the mattresses and pillows are all plastic-covered. The next day we moved on to Paraty, a small sea-side town. We stayed at Che Lagarto hostel, again the only place with actual people. Spent the next few days eating street truffles (men stand around selling sugar-based treats from trailers) and going on a boat trip to some small islands. It was bastard freezing out on the boat but at least we got to feed small orange monkeys bits of banana from our hands. Had to jump in the water to get to the monkeys first though – took me a long time of standing on the edge of the boat and just dipping my toe in to actually brave the water. We also met two American guys in Paraty. We found them wandering the streets holding their Lonely Planet upside down trying to find their hostel. They were the funniest people I’ve met – two gay guys, friends not partners, who said everything with a flourish and made our time in Paraty one big belly-laugh.

We also did a spot of teaching in Paraty. We were accosted by a local in the street who said he’d seen us earlier speaking English and asked us if we wanted to take over an English class at the school where he was a teacher. Offering to take us to the natural waterslide/giant slopey rock the next day to say thanks, we couldn’t say no, especially as the American guys had paid about £25 each to do it as a tour.

And so began our first morning of getting up and getting ready for school. I tried to fake tonsillitis, but there was no getting out of it now. It was when we discovered the kids were not six but 16 that we started pooping our pants a little.

We walked into the classroom, legs wobbling, and I immediately regretted wearing my llama-shaped bag. Quickly tucking it away on the teacher’s desk, I scanned my classroom: lots of kids, all wearing their own clothes and all looking straight at us, sniggering and murmuring in Portuguese, which I don’t understand a word of.

They quickly warmed to us though, and I happily embarrassed the girls by pointing to a boy one of them was talking to through the window and asking ‘is he your boyfriend?’ Then the unthinkable happened: Phil got the shits. A girl escorted him to the toilets and he didn’t come back until after I’d finished my second class of the day…

We spent the rest of the day buying a ridiculous amount of Havaianas before the teacher picked us up for our trip to the waterfall (Phil’s bum squirts had finished by now). The idea of this waterfall is that it crashes down onto a huge, smooth rock and flows into a freezing cold pool. Kids spend their weekends sliding down it, running round to the top and doing it all over again. I have a video of one local doing it standing up…

I chickened out after seeing Phil’s face when he landed in the water. It was a flipping freezing day as it was (in London it would be sunbathing weather, in Brazil it’s stay indoors weather). The teacher then saw a banana tree on the trail by the waterfall, looked up at the bananas and said “I’m going to get those bananas down.” He stood there looking at them for a while as we wondered how he was going to do it – shimmy up the tree, use a stick to knock them down. Then he pulled a machete out of his bag and in one hit, chopped the entire tree down. That’s one way to get something you can’t reach out of a tree I suppose. He didn’t give us any of the bananas though.

After all the excitement of wielding a machete, embarrassing kids and sliding down rocks, it was back to Rio. We decided to stay in Ipanema, where the hostel had a black and white cat and lots of awesome people, plus a British guy who happened to be on my three-leg flight home a week later. The weather was a bit crap, so we just kind of wandered around for a couple of days, being initiated into the city’s rival football team’s gang, eating our bodyweight at an all-you-can-eat restaurant and going to see Christ the Redeemer on the one clear, sunny day.

Getting bored of Ipanema and Copacobana we all moved to Lapa, as it was the weekend and we wanted to get our party on one last time before we went home. But first we had a football match to go to…

It rained like hell at the football and only about 12 people turned up to watch, including an old man who thought he was the team’s manager and was shouting and gesturing in a way that, well, in a way that you’d have to be there to appreciate… Anyway, we ate some hotdogs and drank some alcohol-free beer that we were scammed into buying but that was kindly paid for by the head of Sony Music Brazil, who we met on the train half an hour earlier. It transpired later that he has a private box to watch the game from, but wanted to sit in the stands with us lot, just cos we’re so very awesome.

We went out later that night in Lapa for some actual beers (and caipiriñas of course), and the whole place was times 50 on the crazyness scale from last time we were there. The streets were heaving and we had to promise the guys that the good-time, laid-back reggae vibe would be back the next night. The next night it rained. Hard. The good-time reggae vibe up and left in a puff of smoke – literally.

It was an appropriate way to spend our last night in Rio – and my last night of travelling, preparing me for what to expect when I got home. And true to itself, Britain was grim when my plane finally touched down at Heathrow.

Iguacu Falls

Saying goodbye to Buenos Aires, even after spending only six days there, was a sad day. Not least because as a parting gift it had given me a solid day of rain. But it didn’t matter, because I was about to experience my first ever flat-bed bus ride. The journey was 22 hours from BA to Iguaçu Falls (and cost a hefty $110…), and after boarding the bus (after boarding the wrong bus), eating a steak dinner with a bottle of red wine followed by a glass of champagne and Black Swan on my personal TV screen, I swooped the big sofa-like bus seat back to full flat, pulled the curtain across and sank into a blissful 12-hour sleep. I only woke up when the bus was pulling into some small town to let everyone else off and the conductor came up to me and said ‘te duermes mucho’ – you sleep a lot. You’re damn right I do, I’ve been partying my ass off for a week, now leave me alone so I can have a nap. And nap I did, all the way to the falls.

Travelling in the low season can be awesome – you get money off your accommodation, there’s always a spare bed and streets aren’t crammed with travellers people with rat-tailed hair wearing stripy trousers and speaking bad Spanish (yes that’s totally me, and I’m ashamed, but the rat tail was not my fault – I lost my hairbrush). But when you get to a small town, such as Puerto Iguaçu, it can be the worst. You turn up alone and have to drag all your worldly possessions from hostel to hostel with the main criteria no longer being clean beds or hot water, but ‘are there any other people staying at this hostel?’

After doing the old trick of pretending to want to stay in a random hostel just so I can leave my bags there while I look at other places, it transpired that the entire town was completely dead. I then bumped into an American couple who told me that they were staying in the liveliest hostel in town, where there were two annoying Israeli guys and dirty rooms – the best option, they said. It turned out to be the craphole I’d left my luggage in. It was time to turn to the Lonely Planet. It listed one hostel that was 5km out of town and said to have a vibe that was ‘too cool’ for some travellers. Whatever that meant. I got my bags, jumped in a taxi and crossed my fingers that there were other people there. When the taxi pulled up it turned out that the reason there was no one in town was because they were all here, playing pool and drinking beer, like a party that has a secret invitation if only you’re cool enough to work out the code to it [apparently here that means simply reading the LP]. I quickly got into the swing of things by ordering a beer (in a big plastic cup like a proper student) and streaming It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia on my laptop while I waited for my boyfriend to turn up from the airport (I’d sent him on a flyer-finding mission in town to get us a discount at the hostel – a bit mean considering he’d just landed…).

He didn’t find the flyer, but that night we ate the most beautiful steak my tastebuds have ever encountered. It put all other food to shame. If I could live off this hunk of juicy red meat I would, no question. Add to that the waiter telling me in front of my boyfriend who I haven’t seen for four months and who last saw me attempting to pronounce baño ‘barnyo’ that my Spanish was very good, it was a pretty good evening.

And the falls were quite nice too. The town centre is a 30-minute bus ride from the entrance to the falls, and when you get there it’s like entering a theme park – there are ticket turnstiles, big maps, small trains, paths going in all different directions. I guess I expected it all to be a bit more natural, like you’re walking along the street and – bam! – there are the falls right in front of you.

Nevertheless it was fun to watch the hordes of Japanese people getting soaked when the wind changed direction and blew the spray all over them. They couldn’t pull their yellow plastic covers out of their handbags fast enough, and the amount of Sony digital cameras being completely ruined for the sake of needing to photograph every single moment of it was hilarious.

After being told you need three days to really appreciate the falls I was expecting a lot more. We covered every waterfall from every angle in six hours and even included a spot of playing in the river. Plus, the hostel we were staying in was extortionately priced, so we decided to move on the next day. That night we met up with Tamara (my Chilean friend I met in Argentina), plus Sebastian No. 3, who she had managed to blag free accommodation from at his hostel by using her womanly ways (Sebastian then followed her all the way to Rio, Brazil – she should write a book). We went for our second steak in as many nights (fourth for me…). After trying both bife de chorizo and bife de lomo I have officially decided lomo is for me (filet mignon). Very rare, of course. It just melts in your mouth and has no fat on it. I know everyone says it about Argentina, and god knows I’ve gone on about it enough, but seriously, the steak here is better than finding an all-chocolate Kit Kat in your lunch box.