Mistaken Identity

I am on my way from Guatemala City to London Heathrow after spending three months in Central America. I have a stopover of a few hours in Miami International airport and I am in good spirits as I land in the good old US of A.

I’m happy because I like layovers in America, largely because I vaguely feel like I’m in a movie when I’m surrounded by American people. Also, I feel like my English accent sounds quite exotic to Americans.

I trundle off the plane with my fellow flyers, ready to make the transition from aircraft to airport. I notice a young lady with a baby and hope I’m not seated anywhere near the precious little tyke when we board the next flight.

I am shuffling along in the queue for the airport security. It’s quite a long, time-consuming process but I don’t mind. In fact, I’m pleased the passport control people are doing a thorough job. The last thing I want to see is them waving everyone through, taking nothing but the slightest of glances at passports.

The familiar signs that a traveller is home

I can see the yellow line, which means it’s nearly my turn and I’m looking forward to getting the other side now. Perhaps I’ll have a cup of iced tea and a large sausage roll. I haven’t side a cup of iced tea and a large sausage roll for ages!

I walk up to the counter and hand over my documentation.

“Hi”, I say and get no response but that’s okay because this man is important and he’s at work. He’s a working man in an important job and it is not in the best interests of security for me to distract him.

The security man looks at my passport photo then looks at me. Then he looks back at my passport photo then looks back at me for a longer time. I realise his look has become a stare.

Why is he staring at me? Do I warrant staring at? Should I stare back? I don’t think I should stare back. Instead I begin a mild form of interrogation.

“Is everything alright?”

“Hey!” and I flinch as he is now shouting over to his fellow security man and beckoning him over. “That ain’t him”, he announces to his colleague.

I smile because I know that it is me. There is definitely a photograph of me in my passport. There has been since I was 16 years old and I am now 24 years old.

“Ummmm….. hmmmm….. yeah… I dunno. He definitely looks different.”

This is an outrage. This security man is agreeing with the first security man. I look behind me and become instantly aware that lots of people now think I’m dangerous. Or a drugs mule. I can’t believe they think I’m a drugs mule. How am I going to convince everyone I’m not a drugs mule.

If I were a drugs mule I would most certainly not forge a passport. I wouldn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention. Great, so now they think I must be a bad drugs mule. A stupid, incapable drugs mule. Everybody knows once you’ve been tarred with that brush, there’s no turning back.

I question any authority figures who use Segways as a mode of transport

What if they don’t let me through? What if they want to carry out an inspection? The sort of inspection that involves nothing but a rubber glove and a spoon?!

I offer an explanation as to why they are having trouble identifying me from my passport photo.

“It IS quite an old photo, but it’s definitely me”, I say as two pairs of eyes stare at me.

“HEY!”, security man number one wants a third opinion, is calling over yet another colleague and my disbelief deepens.

“Yeeeeaaahh. Yeah, his ears are the same”, says security man number three.

Finally. Some sense. But hang on a minute, what does he mean? My ears are the same? Has everything else about me changed so dramatically over the last eight years?

Is every other facial feature now so unrecognisable that only my ears remain untouched by the ageing process and are the sole facet of my cranium to which I can be distinguished?

I decide that rather than verbalise any of these questions, it is better for me to accept their decision and continue quietly into the airport.

I look around for a cafe and buy a cup of iced tea. They don’t sell sausage rolls and I realise Miami International airport is a massive let down.

Advertisements

Border Crossing

I am in a taxi which is taking me to the border crossing between El Salvador and Guatemala. I am excited about entering a brand new country but at the same time feel a little sad about leaving El Salvador – a country that has given me so much. Specifically, Pupusas and an encounter with a prospective mugger.

Now though, it is time to move on. Because that’s what backpackers do. We love ’em and leave ’em.

I get out of the taxi, pay the driver and bid my Salvadoran, taxi driving counterpart farewell. I smile at him with a lump in my throat. Expressionless, he looks back at me and I get the feeling this moment means more to me than it does him.

As I prepare to pass through a small, white building, I detect all the hallmarks of a Central American border checkpoint. There’s a man asleep on a plastic chair and there’s three chaps who want to buy and sell currency at, what I’m afraid to say, are very uncompetitive rates of exchange.

But there’s something missing. This familiar scene is bereft of one particular element. Ah, there they are. I look over to my right because over to my right are half a dozen mean, bulky looking men carrying over the top weaponry.

I was keen to avoid a situation similar to the one depicted here

Now, I’m no armoury expert. In fact, I have very little military training indeed, particularly in the art of appropriate gun selection for Central American border crossings. But these guns seem like they’d be better suited to a scene from Saving Private Ryan.

I chuckle as I pass the mean, bulky looking men carrying over the top weaponry because I’ve seen this before at neighbouring border crossings and I don’t want them to think their big guns intimidate me. I think this would give them satisfaction and, believe me, the last thing I want to do is satisfy a large man with a big gun.

I walk past them and get to the office where I will be stamped out of one country and into another. I wonder if I’ll be thanked for coming, I hope they ask if I enjoyed my time in their lovely country.

“Tres dólares” says the woman behind the desk. Oh, three dollars. Why is she saying the words “three dollars”. I know there is no fee to leave El Salvador and I think the woman knows this too. She does know this, of course she knows this. If she knows this, then why is she asking for three dollars.

I don’t want to pay it and I shouldn’t be forced to pay it. This is a free country and I know my rights and I know the law of the land. It’s about time somebody made a stand against such illegal practises. I decide that time has come and that person is me.

I will be remembered alongside Rosa Parks for my heroism, Winston Churchill for my courage and for standing up for what I believe is right. Just imagine the greeting I’ll get when I walk through the arrivals of Heathrow‘s Terminal 4. The rapturous applause from the adoring crowds, the press, the paparazzi! I’ll probably have to get an agent!

I begin the speech that will put me in the martyrdom hall of fame.

“Yes, but…”

I stop a mere two words in as I notice one of the ridiculously armed men making his way over.

I quickly take my wallet out of my pocket and, trying to minimise the shaking that has curiously taken hold of my right hand, I slide five dollars across the desk to the lady.

She says she has no change. I don’t complain.

I bet it’s rubbish having an agent anyway.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

My emotional attachment to flip flops

I love flip flops. Actually, that’s not true. I love my flip flops.

And I love them because they are mine. I wear them exclusively when I am travelling and as such they are a link to everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve seen.

There’s an emotional attachment there that can only exist between, and be understood by, a man and his flip flops.

Look at them, all indented at the back where my heel has pressed against them a million times. Look at the front where each toe has left its own dark little signature.

And look at my feet. Are they heavily tanned? Or just filthy dirty? It’s another facet which adds to their majesty and it doesn’t matter because they are my badge of honour. Oh, the things they’ve seen, the places they’ve been…

I look up from the floor –  as is the convention when walking – and snap out of the inner monologue of infatuation going on between me and my footwear.

Worn: I miss them.

I watch as the turban-wearing, electric guitar playing, roller-skating man cleverly weaves in and out of the people of Los Angeles’s Venice beach and I wonder if there is a better demonstration of multi-tasking anywhere in the world.

Then, I am back to marvelling at my flip flops and I wonder if they remember our first adventure together in Mexico, before reminding myself that most inanimate objects are incapable of such a thing.

But I could hardly have expected we’d spend so many wonderful moments together, experience so much, and yet here we are, over a year and 12 countries later and – OW! What was that?

I feel something sharp against my heel. I angle my leg up so I can see what the culprit is. A small stone falls from the sole of my foot to reveal… skin. I can see skin even though my flip flip is still dangling from my foot.

It is then that I notice the rest of my flip flops are suffering from the same ailment that has befallen the heel of ‘righty’. I guess it’s true what they say, love really is blind. How could I not have seen this coming, how can I have failed to notice such… such thinning.

Quickly, I revert to a state of denial. It’ll be fiiiiiiiiiiine, I think. They’ve got some mileage left in them yet. I can’t discard them just because I can feel the concrete underfoot along with every little lump and bump, can I?

Don’t pack moisturiser too close to your flip flops. Oh, how we laughed.

I owe them more than that. They were there when I taught my first English lesson; when I rode my first elephant; when I drank my first Singapore Sling in Raffles; and when I made my first bet in Las Vegas. We’ve done too much together to give up now.

I take a seat on the beach to examine the damage more closely. The evidence is damning and I realise I have to face facts. Our time together is set to come to an end.

I reluctantly amble into a nearby beach front store and look at the array of flip flops on offer. Row upon row of soulless, lifeless, flip flops. I feel a connection to none of them; there’s no electricity, no chemistry between us. How can I make this relationship work, when there’s no chemistry?!

With zero enthusiasm, I decide upon a pair, take them to the checkout and the young girl begins to put them in a bag for me.

“Actually, don’t worry about the bag. I’ll wear them.”

I make the exchange between old and new. I instantly feel uneasy. Oh, the betrayal.

“Would you like me to take the others for you?”

I look at the young girl, then at my weathered, worn, dying flip flops, and then back at the girl.

“Sure”, I say.

I place them slowly, carefully and deliberately on the counter. With a heavy heart, I take one step forward, look back and then walk away.

A new adventure is about to begin.

Does this resonate with anyone else? I don’t mind if it doesn’t but I would be very interested to know if I’m the only one… Do let me know in the comments section. 

Solo backpacking and Valentine’s Day: A tale of woe.

 

Oh God. Is it the 14th? Today? Is it? I know it’s February. It’s definitely February. I know this. But is it really the 14th?

I continue into the restaurant trying my best to convey an air of nonchalance. I put on a face that says, “Yes, I am by myself in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. Yes, I am here. Yes, I do intend to eat. That I am alone perturbs me not one iota.”

Then I realise that’s quite a lot of information to put one one face but, I’m sure much like yourself, I don’t like to bail once I’ve committed to facial expression.

The truth is, it does perturb me and if I’m honest it perturbs me probably several iotas. More iotas than I care to count in fact. But I’m here now so I go in, take a seat at an empty table in the corner – a corner decimated with big red heart-shaped balloons, clinging as they are to the wall above my head. It was these decorations that tipped me off about this romance-saturated day.

There are couples scattered around at other tables, cooing into each other’s eyes in rapturous soul-matery. It’s at this moment, I consider leaving. I feel like I’m gate-crashing a party to which I’m not only not invited, but that I am expressly not wanted at.

Jesus also cuts an isolated figure in San Juan del Sur. Just saying.

But I have no other means of feeding myself. I am solo backpacking in Nicaragua, it’s late and food outlets are scarce so even if I leave now, I may struggle to find another source of sustenance. But really, it’s more than that.

I don’t want to admit that I care. I feel like possibly the loneliest human being our fair planet has ever had the misfortune of hosting at this moment but it’s of paramount importance to me that NOBODY know this.

Come on. Pull yourself together. Just because it feels like every couple in the room is simultaneously watching you, staring, judging and pitying you, it does not mean they are.

Look, over there. There’s another man by himself. Perhaps he’s made the same mistake as me. Perhaps I will go over and we will knowingly give each other a nod that acknowledges our shared predicament. I’ll pull out a chair, we’ll order some food, have a beer and laugh about all the… I end my thought there as his girlfriend/wife/life partner comes back from the bathroom and rejoins him at the table.

Never mind. I am able to shake this off as the middle-aged lady working there finally comes over and shows me a list of what they have on the menu tonight. I order quickly and ensure I ask for a beer as well – a tactical master stroke.

A generic heart.

My beer is brought to me almost immediately and now I have something to focus on. The beer bottle is the most fascinating item I’ve ever encountered. I read the label, sip it slowly and make sure at no point I raise my eyes to meet the gaze of the rest of the room.

I begin to wonder why this situation makes me feel so uncomfortable. I am a solo backpacker, it’s how I travel, that’s the type of traveller I’ve opted to be. I’ve eaten alone dozens and dozens of times without feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable. Bloody Valentine’s Day. Perhaps I’m not as suited to this style of travelling as I like to think.

Sure, I meet people all time at hostels and bars and we laugh and have fun and go out dining together. Maybe I’m bothered because it’s never in a romantic sense? After all, that’s the only thing that makes tonight different.

Maybe I should cut my trip short, pack my bag, go home, phone the Samaritans, undergo intense psychological therapy in order to bring myself out the deepest of depressions that will surely follow this gargantuan episode of isolation.

I force myself to look up. What are they doing? Are they mocking me? They’re waving at me. Aren’t they? They’re beckoning me over! They want me to join them! Oh, the relief! The elation! I am wanted! I won’t have to leave early, listen to Morrissey songs and spend the next few years contemplating my very existence after all.

I stand up and walk over to their table where the two girls and the guy remain seated and present me nothing but welcoming smiles.

“We were waving at you for ages to come over. Are you alone?”

“Yes”, I say. “And thank you.”

 

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A cigarette factory in Indonesia. It’s better than you think.

I’ve only been to Indonesia once. I didn’t go to Jakarta, I didn’t visit Bali and I failed to lay eyes on any Orang-utans. You see, I was playing the role of ‘tag-along’ as my Father was going there on business and rather than stay at his house in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, I thought why the hell not pop along too.

I mean, you just would, wouldn’t you?

So anyway, my experience of Indonesia is probably quite different to that of most people who go there as I doubt many bother with the industrial hub that is the city of Surabaya.

We arrived at Surabaya airport, were picked up by a driver and taken to the Marriott hotel. So straight away I’m out of my comfort zone but hey this is how the other half live… It was nice!

As we got closer and closer to Surabaya, the contrast to KL was instantly obvious. I’m not sure if I was expecting to see as much poverty as I did, but whether or not that was the case, I was certainly taken aback by it.

I mean, I’ve seen poverty on the road before but it had been a while this time. Each time I see it, for me, it’s like seeing it for the very first time and this was definitely the first time I’d seen it from the confines of an air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven car.

There’s nothing like the sight of a family of four on a solitary scooter, hurtling and slaloming their way through impossibly dense traffic (and wondering where they could be going) or a watching a huddle of malnourished men, probably in their 30s, all smoking and attempting to sell grey fruit from creaky tables under dark, fumy bridges.

The Marriott hotel was ridiculous. I’ve never been in one before and probably won’t again for a long time. It’s odd how my pristine, comfortable surroundings made me feel, well, uncomfortable. It’s a hard one to explain but I suppose I just didn’t feel like I belonged.

One of the few ways I found to spend my leisure time in Surabaya was to go to the cigarette factory – House of Sampoerna. Within the grounds of the factory was the museum and when I got there a girl, who was to prove herself very knowledgeable indeed, happily showed me around and enthusiastically talked to me about everything from the Sampoerna family, who founded the tobacco products, to the machines they use to make it.

I found it very interesting and they certainly know there stuff. Not only that, there is clearly a pride in everything that goes on there. I’m talking about the factory itself.

As I went up the staircase, I was greeted by a small room in which sat about half a dozen women each with their faces down and their fingers moving a mile a minute putting cigarettes through machines and smoothing them down amongst other things.

It was a well-oiled production line I can’t imagine sitting there for eight hours at a time  doing that – despite the nature of the work I’m betting repetitive strain syndrome is a complaint that doesn’t dare crop up too often.

As I advanced beyond this little room to the railings I was eager to see what was below me in the vacuous warehouse. It was row upon row upon row of what I had just seen with the only visible difference being that at the end of each row was a man (every other job was taken by a woman) who was doing the packaging of the finished product.

“Do they get free cigarettes?” I light-heartedly asked the girl showing me around. She responded with a “no” and a chuckle that indicated it was a ludicrous suggestion. I tried again, “what about samples?” but back came the “no” with a slightly more forced laugh. I left it there.

 

What makes a good hostel?

They have the potential to make or break a trip and they can heavily influence how you feel about the city/town you’re staying. Hostels can form the bedrock of your stay wherever you are so what are the key ingredients of a good hostel?

1) Showers

Particularly important when staying in hot, sweat-inducing climates. Water pressure must be good, trickles are unacceptable as is the visibility of any electrical wiring. The ability to choose water temperature is a big plus. Proximity to room also important.

The Prince of Wales in Singapore

2) Dorm sizes

Depending on the experience you’re looking for, six to 12 bed dorms are wholly acceptable. Anything over that tends to lead to unpredictable nocturnal activities. Bunk beds are fine as long as joints are well-oiled to minimise squeakage. If there is space for a communal card game, this is a bonus.

3) Kitchen

Should be proportionate in size to the number of guests at the hostel. Adequate numbers of hobs, microwaves and sinks should be provided as well as surfaces for for food preparation. A sufficient amount of cutlery and crockery should be available including tin openers lest guests are forced to stab tins open with a big knife. Free tea and coffee is a bonus and if the area is well ventilated this is considered a plus.

4) Location

Dorm room in 1770, Australia

Should be in a safe area and within walking distance of nightlife, so as to facilitate not getting lost on the way back after a night out, and public transport so guests may easily find/get to attractions, etc.

6) Communal area

A pool table and/or table football and a book exchange are all good features of a communal area thus providing ample opportunity for increased guest interaction. Also important are comfortable sofas and a TV and DVD player. NB the book exchange must be book for book, not book plus money for book and must contain more seven books to qualify.

What’s crucial in a hostel for you?

Cash splashing on a budget

I’ve always done my travelling on a tight budget but every now and again I splash out on something a bit special.

For all it’s good qualities, travel can be exhausting, difficult and incredibly frustrating, and it’s at times like these when I like to treat myself.

Here are some of the things I find it’s totally worth extending my wallet to:

 

1) A hotel rather than a hostel (air-con optional)

When I was in Honduras, in some of the smaller towns which attracted little to no tourists, I had to stay in rooms that pretty much resembled prison cells. A creaky bed, an even creakier bed side table, no window and a light bulb of about

Bunk in a 48 bed dorm

ten watts. That’s it. Seriously, people on death row probably have better accommodation.

But hey, this is what you get for $2.50 per night and it’s all part of the backpacking experience, blah blah blah…

After several nights in these cells, when I crossed into El Salvador I found myself walking past a “proper hotel” in Perquin on my way to somewhere a bit more to my standard. I looked up at it longingly and then thought, ‘why the hell not? I think I’ve earned it’.

So for three nights at something like $15 per night (including breakfast) it was like living in a palace. As I entered my room, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Or rather, the complete absence of one. In fact, the entire room was spotless. The double bed was wonderfully mute, my ensuite (oh, yes) bathroom had hot AND cold water – I was actually in charge of what temperature I washed myself at. This was amazing.

Fresh towels provided, two bottles of water, soap, and the ceiling fan was not only quieter than a jet plane for once, but it did it’s job with aplomb.

Occasional luxury like this always gives me the perfect battery recharge.

 

2) A proper restaurant meal rather than street food

Don’t get me wrong, I love street food and I eat it wherever I go. It’s great because you know there will always be an opportunity to eat wherever you and whatever you doing. Whether it’s pineapple for breakfast on the bus or whatever meat on a stick for sale that you happen to walk past next.

Amazing food. Mmmm...

However, a nice sit down meal once in a while in a proper restaurant where you have a proper waiter/waitress, perhaps a pre-chilled glass for your beer, a starter, and maybe even a dessert, are so much more special and appreciated when you’ve been on the road for a while and necking pad thai or menu del dia every day.

 

3) First class rather than economy (excluding aeroplanes – I’m not mental)

You’ve slummed it with locals, you’ve sat shoulder to shoulder with chicken buses full of kids, you’ve stood arse to face with somebody’s grandmother on the back of pick-up truck so now it’s time for your reward.

If it’s a really long bus/train journey (or even if it’s not) and you can’t bear the thought of playing share the seat with another sweaty, dribbling drunk then

Chicken buses

making that step up to first class is well worth your consideration.

Give yourself a bit more leg room, entertain even the possibility of sleep, and the notion that you could actually make it through this journey in conditions that are neither arctic nor tropical.

Advice: take it or leave it?

There’s a saying that goes around: what is it everybody gives but nobody takes? The answer is advice. And while I’m not sure that’s strictly true it seems even less true when you’re on the road.

Guide books. They are FULL of advice. That’s what they’re there for – to guide. Hundreds of pages filled with advice on where to stay, where to eat, what do to, where to go, what to avoid, you name it, there’s an opinion on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like guide books and for the most part I have used them to good effect and found them to be very informative. But I’ve always thought there are some things that are so subjective I don’t know how it’s even possible to tell someone else whether or not they will like it.

Backpackers, travellers, call them what you will, are full of advice. Whether they are giving it in person, tweeting it, blogging it or posting it on a wall, if you’re looking for it, it’s there.

When you meet someone on the road who has been somewhere you’re going, be it a city or a country, you ask them, what did you do? Where did you go? What should I look out for? What should I be careful of?

And often responses will be hearty, full and leave no stone unturned. Whether someone’s telling you why Delhi is the dirtiest place in the world and why you should never go there, or what makes a Thailand full moon party so special and why it should be top of everyone’s bucket list.

When I was in Guatemala last year, I met a whole bunch of people in a hostel on the Rio Dulce who were travelling south through central America – the exact route I had just done (except in reverse, obviously).

Semuc Champey

Somehow I found myself giving something that vaguely resembled a presentation on my trip to date. People were even taking notes. It was ridiculous.

While I was more than happy to help out my new friends, and talk about my adventures (who doesn’t?) I did find the situation a little uneasy. It was like I didn’t want to be held responsible for any disappointments.

For example, I had been told by many people about a beautiful place in Guatemala called Semuc Champey – a series of natural limestone pools. Sure, it was pretty and a nice place to hang out but I actually found it quite ‘meh’ (as the kids say).

Maybe I was expecting the eighth wonder of the world or something, I don’t know. But my point is I should have taken the advice with a pinch of salt.

One of the things I love about travel is that it IS so subjective. A hundred people can go to the same place and each can have a different opinion on it. There are so many contributing factors that influence how you feel about somwhere: who you go with, what the weather was like, if it was busy, if you were bitten by mosquitoes, if you were robbed… you see where I’m going with this.

So, MY advice would be to listen to your fellow travellers, ask them whatever you want but remember you are going wherever you are going for a reason. That is, to have the experience for yourself.