The One That Got Away – Thank Goodness!

30 03 2008

 

 

 

 

Suriname jungle

Taxi, please!

 

I will be the first to admit that I’m not the world’s best swimmer. I can quite nicely lie on my back, I just find it difficult to move. I can even lie on my stomach and make reasonably credible swimming motions by flailing my arms and legs, but I do have trouble with coordination and can’t seem to master the art of breathing, which can be a problem.

Being fairly considerate, I do hate to inconvenience others when I am drowning, especially when on holiday. Instead, I stifle my gurgling screams, struggle to remain calm and try to get myself into the more secure position of floating like a log. It has worked well so far and I’ve only had to be resuscitated once or twice. 

This aquatic inability really hasn’t hampered my travels much, however. In South America, when faced with the decision between a 5-hour hike through the dense Amazonian jungle from which I’d just emerged, or a quick swim across a rather wide yet inviting river overhung with trees and glistening in the tropical sun, there really was no choice. Until our guide mentioned that the river was home to “little” piranhas, “small” caimans - and candirú.

For those who haven’t read that 19th century classic “Scary Wee Beasts of Jungley Rivers”, the legendary candirú strikes more terror in a man’s heart than any other creature on earth. Forget great white sharks, Bengal tigers and anacondas, the candirú is a tiny fish that swims ‘upstream’ into the male urethra. Once settled, it buries its spines into its surroundings and sits there. Forever. This results in extreme pain, rather a lot of inconvenience and eventual death.

But I digress.

Really not fancying the juggle trek, and against my better judgment, I struggled my way across the river using a combination of lumber-impersonation, and kicking and flailing on my stomach while holding my breath. After a few minutes of exertion, the river seemed as wide as the Pacific, the current as strong as a tsunami, and the chances of ever reaching the far bank seemed distinctly remote. Quick death by piranha was suddenly quite appealing and I contemplated wiggling my toes like bait - although I still resolutely declined to even consider the candirú option.

I did eventually reach the sandy bank and stumbled ashore, utterly exhausted but somewhat triumphant.  I had not only swum the greatest distance of my life, but I’d also dodged a variety of very nasty creatures that likely found me quite appetizing.

Seeing how much I had struggled, our local guide came over to me as I slowly recovered on the warm sand.  He knelt down and pointed to an object tied to a tree on the far bank. 

“Did I forget to mention the dug-out canoe?” he asked, innocently.

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?

28 03 2008

Spot the local

Always blend in with the locals

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t think anyone ever really wants to look like a tourist, unless the government is rounding up locals to serve in the military or is randomly stopping them for extra taxes. Although being a visitor often attracts genuine warmth and friendliness it can occasionally bring about the less attractive attention of the pick-pocketing or souvenir-selling variety.

   

Blending in with the locals isn’t always possible even if you visit the hotel gift shop and buy the fez, clogs and kilt, carry a local newspaper and memorize the phrase book. Even countries that have rich multicultural diversity seem to be adept at spotting visitors…and not just by the mammoth backpack that’s bending them double or the map that’s sticking out of their pocket. No, there seems to be a little flashing neon light above most travellers’ heads that says: “Hello, I’m on holiday”.

   

Many places charge residents considerably less at museums and occasionally even hotels. This discrepancy is sometimes posted as separate tariffs for residents and visitors or as a tourism tax or surcharge. Either way, the temptation to try and pass as a local can be quite strong. Assuming you speak the language, aren’t wearing loud polyester, following in a group behind someone holding an umbrella, or waving your passport, you may get away with it.

 

 

 

 

 

A friend of mine from St Petersburg was showing me around that city’s great sights not long after the end of communism.  After seeing me paying double or triple entry-fees for most places, she decided to smuggle me in as a local. I was dressed nondescriptly, or so I thought, devoid of all flags and souvenir McLenin t-shirts. She instructed me to stand a few feet away, handed me a Russian magazine to feign reading and then she stepped forward to buy the ducats.

 

 

 

 

 

She approached the kiosk, requested two resident tickets and handed over a small wad of rubles. The woman looked up from behind her half-spectacles, took a cursory glance at me through the scratched glass, and said a cheerful and smiling “Hello”.

 

 

 

“Hello.” I promptly replied to the attendant.

 

She turned to my friend and dourly exclaimed a loud “Nyet”, before demanding the extra fee for a visitor’s ticket!

 

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





Lessons Learned the Hard Way: #3

27 03 2008

Kindly ensure that you always check current rates of exchange before visiting ATM machines or cashing traveller’s cheques in developing countries. Thinking I would save myself further bother later, I once exchanged $50 in an Arusha bank and found myself staring at a 5-inch high stack of Tanzanian shillings. Even after sticking wads of them in each pocket, down my belt and into the tops of my boots, I still had a bunch left over and a very long and very nervous walk back to my campsite!

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





The following contains content of a graphic meaty and carnivorous nature. Vegetarian and bovine discretion is advised.

26 03 2008

Florence 2

You ate what?

 

 

As a child, I was not a particularly intrepid eater. My list of dislikes included everything outside the categories of bland, safe or chocolate. On the rare occasions when I managed to hit all five food groups in a single sitting it was usually more due to luck and ketchup-flavoured potato chips than any concerted effort. Fortunately, my palate broadened before I began to travel and it’s been years since I felt compelled to pack my own supply of baked beans. 

Dining is one of the great pleasures of adventure travel. Sampling the local delicacies and never washing dishes are always among the highlights of my trips. I tend to be pretty adventurous as long as the dish is not twitching, writhing or squirming. For the latter, I usually think twice before saying “I’ll have two…and bring me another beer.” I have tried grubs and worms, crocodile and piranha, larvae and congealed blood and I can honestly say that none were as bad as I thought they’d be…except for the crocodile which was considerably worse.

If I find myself somewhere that has a particularly famous dish, I will generally give it a whirl even if I may later regret it. It was for this reason that I ordered the legendary bistecca a la fiorentina, or Steak Florentine.

Florence is generally not considered an adventure destination unless you choose to rappel from the top of the duomo, bungee from the campanile or drink the Arno, but partaking of the infamous steak is definitely the stuff of a true adventurer…or packs of hyenas.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what Steak Florentine was before I ordered it.  I knew it was steak and it was native to Tuscany and when in Rome, or Florence, well…

When the steak arrived I initially thought it was a wooden carving block. It was only when it was placed before me that I realised it was my steak. Approximately two inches thick and the size of a bedside table. it would have required its own seat on most airlines. It was devoid of all accompaniment except for the side-order of roast potatoes I had naively requested thinking that the meat itself would be insufficient.

Every head in the restaurant turned to stare at me. The Italians looked at me with a knowing respect. My fellow tourists looked aghast. Vegetarians glared with contempt. Someone at the next table turned his chair towards me and said he was going to stay until I finished the whole thing.

I picked up a steak knife worthy of Crocodile Dundee and plunged my fork into the mass. It quivered and rolled like a bowl of jelly before relenting. The knife sliced in to reveal an interior that was not so much rare as raw, not so much blue as pale plaid. I cut as small a piece as its girth would permit and put it in my mouth. Although barely seared let alone cooked, it just dissolved on my tongue. It was a rich flavour of olive oil, lemon juice and perfect Chianina beef. I would have been in heaven if I wasn’t facing another 23lbs or so.

 

After what felt like several hours, I waddled from the restaurant wondering if I would actually make it through Florence’s narrow cobbled streets without greasing my sides. I rolled once around the duomo to try and burn off some of my half-a-cow and by the following morning had managed to climb the stairs to my room…just in time to head back down for breakfast and a gigantic cornetto and frothing cappuccino

 

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008 





The Comfy Chair

25 03 2008

Common etiquette dictates that white should not be worn after Labour Day. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t suggest what should be worn in order to procure an upgrade to Business or First Class.  I can state that wearing long white stockings to the knee, large brass buckles on your shoes and an enormous triangular black hat most definitely does the trick, however.

Sadly, I have rarely been fortunate with upgrades. I have tried enquiring politely, batting my eye-lashes flirtatiously, wearing sun glasses and imitating Bono, and even feigning injury. All without success. Resorting to a new tact, I decided to try dressing as though I belonged in the more auspicious cabin – until I discovered that most of those occupying the comfy seats are actually wearing jeans and t-shirts. My new dress code didn’t work either. I was tempted to try folding-up a $50 note and tucking it into my passport, but thought better of it.

The reality is there are a lot of people already in the queue for the socks, eye-masks and Evian spritzers before the fickle finger of fate plucks someone from the cheap-seats and lands them in the lap of luxury.  Firstly, there are those who actually bought the big seats. Yes, some people really do pay for them! Then there are those with billions of air miles who spend as much time flying as Amy Winehouse at a rave, and consequently get upgrades whenever space permits. There are airline staff and their families, and the occasional misplaced celebrity. And then, if there’s space in comfy class and they’re overbooked at the back, they might just pull a normal person and indulge them with that most impressive of airborne status symbols: genuine cutlery.

I once followed a pirate in the check-in line. He was a very tall buccaneer and sported a great red jacket with impressive long tails, the requisite hat, footwear and white puffy shirt.  I snickered as he politely handed over his economy ticket and passport and proudly told the airline agent that he was headed to the world Town Crier competition in England. He had the last laugh however, as the agent promptly upgraded him to Executive Class while my suit jacket and I were once again relegated to the back of the bus!

Oh yea, Oh yea, Oh yea.

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





Horse d’oeuvres, anyone?

23 03 2008

Zimbabwe horse 

A four-legged buffet cart

Everyone knows that dogs and small children can smell fear, but I believe that horses can tell when you used too many glue sticks in kindergarten. How else can you explain why every time I have ever mounted a horse, I have very nearly lost my life?

I am a gentle person. I carry spiders out of the house on pieces of paper, and I avoid stepping on lines of ants. Dogs generally like me, cats ignore me in a loving way and a penguin once fell asleep on my camera bag. But for some reason, horses are not amongst my admirers.

My first equestrian endeavour came at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It sounded like an excellent plan at the time. After signing a very long disclaimer that I swear included the words ‘dismemberment’ and ‘decapitation’, I mounted my docile old steed and patted him affectionately on the neck. I was instructed with the basic rudiments of stop, go, left and right. What more could I possibly need?

We soon turned down a narrow track into the bush. It was not long after sunrise and the light was a golden yellow that filtered lazily through the tree tops. The air was fresh and quiet save for the morning song of birds. A small antelope darted from the tall grass, stopped to stare at us and continued on. Life was great and I loved every moment…until we spotted the lion tracks.

Our guide halted our single-file procession and looked around nervously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zim track

Photo blurred due to fear

“Lion tracks,” she stammered, pointing at an imprint in the soft sand. “Very fresh too. Stay close together in single file, and if you see a lion, wave your arms around and shout loudly.”  Lions consider horse meat to be quite the delicacy and a rare treat. As I was perched on one, I felt like a glazed cherry on a cup cake at a children’s birthday party. The guide cantered back and sternly told me to ensure that I followed her instructions properly in future. I began to object, but she was already gone. My horse turned its head and taunted me with one large, knowing eye.

As our procession moved faster, I realised I was last in line and therefore almost certainly first eaten. To make matters worse, my horse suddenly veered into the tall lion-hiding grass. I pulled on the reigns, but my efforts were ignored. I tried gentle encouragement. Forfeiting all masculine pride, I begged and pleaded, but still we went further towards being a main course. Our guide noticed and shouted angrily for me to return to the path, as if I had chosen to join the à la carte menu. Eventually, after a few mouth-fulls of grass we regained the trail and emerged into a clearing. I heaved a mammoth sigh of relief.

 

The Zambezi raced past us, a wide rolling expanse of water fringed on either side by pristine bush. In a calm pool in the centre we could see a pod of hippos, their eyes and piggy-ears poking into the air. A crocodile lazed on the far bank, barely distinguishable amongst fallen trees. The river tumbled over Victoria Falls a mile downstream and although we couldn’t see it, we could hear its thunderous roar. We sat and watched a circling African fish eagle. Not contented with its salad, my horse now decided it wanted a drink of water. 

Fresh, Zambezi water.

I tolerated its first sips from the bank, but as it waded deeper and deeper, from ankle-depth, to knee and upwards, I began to once again heave on the reigns. The river was racing faster the further we went. It was like a conveyor belt at a sushi restaurant with the crocodiles as the customers, and us as the sashimi. I tugged on the reigns with all my strength, only to have that taunting eye stare at me again…and then move deeper into the river, my toes dipped into the flow. I began to realise I was going to be the first person that day to go over Vic Falls without a barrel. Our guide galloped into midstream, angrily grabbed the reigns from my hands and swiftly led us to the shore. My horse, of course, meekly followed like an obedient lemming: a vision of innocence.

For the rest of the ride I was instructed to follow immediately behind the guide, which I did, and inevitably my horse did precisely as told. You could almost see its halo hovering above its mane.  Back at the stable, I dismounted and walked bow-legged into the shade. My horse looked at me, snorted…and winked, before gently ambling away.

Post and photos by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





The Cone of Silence

21 03 2008

I don’t really consider myself to be anti-social, but when cornered I fight back with withering silence.

I can be gregarious and quite chatty, but only when I have an escape route. It’s not that I find my company so much more appealing than anyone else’s, simply that I am terrified by the thought of being trapped with someone for hours on end and hearing all about their life as an archivist at the Nail Clipper’s Hall of Fame. In other words, I am that person you’ve sat beside on your flight who has not so much as acknowledged your existence during the entire trip.

Over the years, I have perfected this solitude. Firstly, I choose a window seat and leave my bladder with the checked-baggage. I have a book - even if I don’t actually wish to read it. I take my seat, and carefully scan the aisle for the arrival of my neighbour. As soon as someone reaches for the overhead bin, I bury my nose in my book and never, ever make eye-contact with them even if they burst into flames or start to play the bagpipes. Should they not take the hint and actually try to start a conversation, their efforts will be met with a painfully fake smile, and a grunt - all without actually turning my head towards them. If their question is more complicated, they may also get a nod. As soon as we are airborne, the headphones are applied and the cone of silence is complete.

The longer the flight, the more diligently I follow my well-rehearsed routine. This anti-social behaviour also extends to the departure lounge. Granted I may only be sitting there for a few minutes and can escape to the sanctuary of the duty free shop if need be, but what if I find myself sitting next to my new best friend on the plane once we’ve boarded?   Best to avoid any interaction at all, I believe.

So, the next time you’re on a flight and the person beside you has their nose buried in a book and is extremely anti-social, introduce yourself to them: it may be me. Of course, you’ll never actually know because I won’t answer you!

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008