First Among Equals

Day one

A YEAR ago today, wandered off a plane and stepped foot on South American soil for the first time.

Hanging gingerly from my shoulder was a bag which had chosen heading through security at Heathrow as the perfect moment for the seam alongside the zip to tear.

The chances of it lasting as far as our starting point in Quito (particularly given the taxi ride to get there), let alone reaching the return of the Ecuadorian capital seven months later, seemed remote.

It did make it as far as the centre of Quito, it made it as far as our rendezvous with the truck and, courtesy of taking up residence in the bottom of my locker, outlasted its initial replacement (ditched in a hostel dorm in Manaus).

Holed up in Brazil

But it never made it back to Quito. None of us did.

It has, however, completed a year in South America.

While those of us left were forced home from Cartagena as coronavirus made onward travel in Colombia impossible – five weeks short of that complete continental circuit – the truck we had waved farewell to after it failed to fit onto a replacement ferry from Suriname to Guyana had made it as far as Brazil on its long trek to rejoin us somewhere en route.

And six months on, there it – and driver Will – remains holed up.

The now well-ventilated bag, its dwindling contents and what was deemed surplus to requirements for what we thought was just a few weeks apart – walking boots, dirty laundry, sleeping bag, alpaca rug, boxes of contact lenses, assorted cables, my growing collection of discarded sleep mats, a squirt gun and the essential moose/reindeer hybrid onesie among other things – has been boxed up ready to send home.

That is not supposed to be an opening

Once they can get it to a delivery company office that is open.

A litre bottle of rum (and, probably, the pile of bags of nuts which came with it at duty free) and several bottles of very nice Argentinian red have been donated to the helping Will make it through six months in one place fund.

There is nothing there which is urgently needed – although that wine, those boots and a decent rain jacket would be nice – but it is symbolic of the feeling about the end of the trip.

A feeling of unfinished business.

Things have been a bit odd everywhere since we beat that hasty retreat six months ago – you may have noticed, there has been a lot on the news about it.

Who needs a truck?

A feeling of disconnect, of everything being a bit out of focus while my working from home world has been condensed to one room for much of the day – the move from desk to adjoining sofa differentiating day and evening with the 10-minute walk along the canal bank to Sainsbury’s providing the outer limit of my world.

The newly reopened gym is positively exotic

All a far cry from when the world encompassed whatever South America could provide to keep the cameras clicking and memories layering up.

With face masks replacing passports, my world has shrunk as borders, opportunities to travel and even the office door slammed shut.

Amid all that, been trying to come up with a coherent enough judgement on six months in South America to write this reflective piece – started more than once, but…

That feeling of unfinished business made it hard. Without a natural finale, it was hard to draw a line under it all.

Sun sets on our trip in Cartagena

Speaking with people about the trip, while socially distanced, of course, three questions have repeatedly popped up – coronavirus cutting short the trip, my favourite bits (we will get to that in another post very soon, promise) and how South America compared with Africa on my last big adventure.

The simple answer to the last one is that it doesn’t.

There are obvious similarities – clocking up the miles on a big yellow truck which became home for months on end, living with a group of disparate people from around the globe (some of whom are easier to deal with than others), bush camping, cooking in the wild and cramming in one amazing experience after another.

But there are more differences.

While large chunks of Africa involved travelling for days between destinations – when there may not be much to see or do bar explore the unfamiliar – in South America you are joining the dots between attractions, excursions and things to do.

Leaving the truck behind for the first time

Usually on better roads.

In Africa, food was dependent on what we could find – often not very much on the road – while in South America food was plentiful and often an attraction. And drink. Plenty of it (not that we were abstinent in Africa).

Camping, mainly with no facilities, was the norm in Africa but we saw far more beds in South America and creature comforts were far more common when we did camp.

And while we rarely left Nala – barring three nights in Zanzibar, even when we did move into alternative accommodation, we had access to our stuff on the truck – packing an overnight bag for a period away from Spongebob became a regular feature.

Never did get that right.

City break

Large cities were few and far between in Africa when we largely, Bamako, Cape Town and Addis Ababa apart, were away from the centre while the likes of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, riot-torn Santiago, that unexpected finishing destination in Cartagena and so many more were South American highlights in their own right.

Lima not so much.

Trans Africa: The Best and The Worst

Those highlights, amazing in both, are many and varied but while extraordinary animals dominate much of the Africa list – particularly in the south and east of the continent – natural wonders feature heavily in any list of the greatest hits of South America (coming soon, honest).

Not to be left out

With apologies to Victoria Falls, Table Mountain, empanada-chasing monkeys and toucans, to name just a few.

To cut a very long answer short (and far too simple), you experience Africa, you experience things in South America.

Lessons learned from those 10 months in Africa helped a fresh approach to dealing with the length of the trip, spending hours on the truck and days with the same people – and the inevitable irritations.

Put it simple, don’t sweat the small stuff (although the small stuff can be more than worth spending your time on) – and try not to compare everything to life in Africa.

Hard to compare

And a personal promise to do more stuff out of my comfort zone provided many entries on that greatest hits list – not exactly a spoiler to mention that walking the Inca Trail will feature highly – helped by doing more than writing get fit on the to-do list and actually doing it, however much my knee is still complaining about it.

But which was better, somebody will inevitably ask regardless of the explanation.

Impossible to answer, both were extraordinary and looking back over my daily notes from both – only taken five years to turn a shorthand diary into a lasting chronicle of Africa – has produced a string of wonderful memories, forgotten moments (the hidden highlights which only those who were there can fully appreciate) and smiles.

Have one very good reason to be slightly biased towards South America but probably need to do them both again to come up with a definitive answer (if anyone fancies funding it).

Worth the effort

And so what of future travels?

It is hard, nay impossible, to plan anything in the current situation – who knows when it will even become an option with travel all but wiped out?

Among a long, unwritten list, those remaining few weeks in Colombia and back to the starting point of Quito are pencilled in by some of us, albeit with no hint of a potential date.

Then there is the remaining 10 US states to tick off, Route 66 to drive down and the Silk Road trip which was the initial plan before South America took over.

Not to mention the idea of a repeat overland jaunt around Africa, floated somewhere in a bar and one which is seriously on the cards somewhere down the line.

And then there is Australia.

But that is a whole other tale.

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I Wanna Die to I.D.

The journey is over. It has taken an age, not helped by taking a six-month or so break along the way for another trek, but we have made it.

We have completed the lengthy trawl through songs beginning with the single letter I on my iPod.

And we have even gone a little beyond, throwing in a few extra where the I is followed by a bit of punctuation – all before another long run of tracks following the I with an apostrophe.

But pretty much a year to the day since setting out with Cheatahs – the start of the live post of the A-Z during the blog a day through May challenge we have reached the finale, via that rather length detour (almost) around South America and through lockdown.

The final I track, I Won’t Lie To You by Let’s Wrestle, takes me back even further and probably deserves the full telling of a tale touched upon a few times – especially given what is running through my headphones while writing, but we will get to that.

Once upon a time, back when my knees, shoulder, back and liver held up long enough to play rugby on a Saturday afternoon, my winter weekends were pretty much spoken for – Friday night in my soon-to-be local again Dr Foster’s, the next day mixing trying to avoid both injury and drinking too much.

With limited success.

Once the final whistle went on the season, it heralded a summer of freedom.

A fair few weekends were spent largely split between bed, the sofa, the golf course and Dr Foster’s (about 100 yards or so from the flat which becomes home in a few days, bringing with it the first actual bed since before lockdown kicked in).

But a decent number brought a Friday evening journey to London and what, in hindsight, was good practise for sleeping on a sofa in the front room of my mate’s flat. About 10 minutes walk from Seven Sisters tube station.

He became the godfather of Travel Marmot, setting up this site after a late-night discussion while waiting for me to surface from his spare room – bit of an upgrade from the one-bedroom flat.

Travel Marmot still resides on his company’s server, so best not do anything to annoy him.

Back then, he was the first of our group at school to marry, the first to fledge the nest and head to that there London, providing the perfect bolthole for a weekend away for a gig (Carter somewhere in Brixton and Billy Bragg at a benefit on Hackney Town Hall steps spring to mind), a trip up West or, almost inevitably, a Sunday morning wander around Camden Market before heading off to catch my National Express home.

My rent for imposing on the newly-weds’ spare time was a C90 compilation tape each time, building a collection which became known as The Bollock Tapes after some seemingly hilarious pun to do with the Sex Pistols.

Sadly, the trips became increasingly infrequent as work commitments – which would, combined with injury, put an end to the rugby as well, although not the post-match drinking as my expanding waistline would prove – and their growing family made it impossible to continue in the same pattern.

Although still brings a welcome wave of recognition on boarding a National Express coach.

And the reason for this trip down memory lane?

That closing entry on the run of I tracks came from Let’s Wrestle, who featured on bass Mike Lightning – eldest son of my friend and his wife (with the stepson of Loft and Weather Prophets’ front man Peter Astor on vocals and guitar).

Not sure those compilation tapes can take much (or, let’s be honest, any) credit but musical creativity clearly runs in the family – my money’s on it coming from their mother – as this afternoon’s listening would attest.

My weekend place in my London family would be taken full-time by two boys and a daughter, Poppy, who first met when she was just a few days old.

She has grown a bit since then and is now the singer, guitarist and songwriter of rising band Girl Ray, whose second album Girl was featured today on one of the joys of the coronavirus lockdown – Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties.

The idea, from Charlatans front man Tim Burgess, is simple – press play on an album at an agreed time and follow along or chip in with band members and people involved in making the record on Twitter (#timstwitterlisteningparty).

You can even join in if you missed one – check out the website for what is coming up (very excited for Every Vally with Public Service Broadcasting in a few weeks) and also to replay the tweets in real time as they came in while you listen to the album.

It has provided a welcome, illuminating, communal break from lockdown for music fans and hopefully there is a place for them when some form of normality resumes as they have provided some wonderful escapes into albums old and new, reminding us of the power of music to transport us to better places and times.

Somehow, listening to it together adds something extra.

Pick of the bunch for me have been Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs – forgotten just how good that record is – and Burgess’ own pick as the highlight, Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout.

Long argued it contains one of the most perfect first sides of any album and, aided by the contributions of singer Wendy Smith and bass player Martin McAloon, heard new things even 30-plus years after my first listen.

Pretty sure tracks from it would have featured on those Bollock Tapes.

Not sure too many, if any, other tracks from this latest section of the A-Z would have followed suit.

It was a section of pretty much getting through the final stretch from newcomers Disq to the unfathomably popular Kasabian which mainly taught us how many songs The Beatles had beginning with I (and it’s apostrophe-ridden relatives, believe me).

Certainly not a chunk of songs that will be revisited and replayed on Twitter any time soon.

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I Need Direction to I Wanna Destroy You

SO what have you got up to in the 56 days since Boris Johnson flapped his paws around above a big desk and introduced unprecedented restrictions on our life?

By law, in an unprecedented move, the word unprecedented has to be repeated an unprecedented number of times in the opening few paragraphs.

Risked breaching restrictions by not using the word coronavirus before this point – managed it for an entire article for the first time the other day which was a pleasant change, but was fretting over being picked up for not using the correct number of unprecedenteds.

Hope you have been getting further down that list of long-planned jobs than me.

Have you learned a language? Upped your sourdough production level to that of a cottage industry? Watched every programme that someone has recommended on Netflix, Amazon Prime and iPlayer? Or made a scale model of Chris Whitty fashioned out of the clippings from the family’s lockdown haircuts?

Good luck if you have. Or if you have managed to get anything extra done.

Even one word of Spanish, half an artisan crumpet or the opening credits to Tiger King would be one up on me.

As would a haircut, although lucked out by having one in Cartagena days before being forced to flee Colombia (well, find an earlier flight home, but flee adds an element of drama sadly lacking in the rest of my lockdown existence) and have the advantage of there not being that much hair there to start with.

Have bucked the trend a bit by staying largely clean shaven (well, once a week) for the first time in at least six years, but good intentions don’t survive here.

Been too busy.

When Boris Johnson – and please, it is full name, the Prime Minister, Johnson or… well, sure you can come up with something, never just Boris – announced the restrictions on March 23, had been home for five days and was heading for a third night spent on my sister’s sofa (still there) having given up my flat to head to South America.

And a day away from my first Government-sanctioned bit of exercise – what has become the daily walk round the local roads, via one of a couple of shops, which are starting to be a bit repetitive – and sending out a raft of job applications.

Jobs anywhere are pretty thin on the ground, certainly in journalism with former colleagues furloughed or taking pay cuts, and most of the applications came back pretty quickly with a message saying the vacancy and recruitment had been put on hold.

Was steeling myself by the weekend to going back to my teenage years and getting a job stacking shelves, collecting trolleys or whatever the essential supermarkets needed doing.

Anything to earn a few quid until something else turned up and allow me to find somewhere to live and bid farewell to the sofa and my new roommate. More of him later.

And then, on the Sunday evening, came a message from one of those job applications. A quick exchange and a morning phone call later and before you could explain the R number to somebody, was sat at the dining room table writing a story about the impact of the coronavirus (see, impossible not to mention it) on school fees.

What started as one story, became a couple a day, then more and before any of us really knew what had happened, was working full-time as a freelance, writing about business.

Try not to tell anyone (think have got away with it up to this point) but it is not my specialist subject and have leaned heavily on some advice gleaned early in my career – there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Not all advice stands up to scrutiny, as someone who tried to talk me through some economic figures will gladly attest.

But it is amazing what you can learn in a short time when the rest of the world is on Duolingo, nursing a sourdough starter or binge-watching The Stranger (did actually watch that, but had seen half of it with subtitles on the iPad in a hammock next to me on a Brazilian ferry, while its owner kept kicking me).

So my day has fallen into a routine far tighter than the one discarded in August in favour of living out of a bag on the road.

My commute is somehow even shorter than the couple of hundred yards it was, this one taking in the metres from sofa to dining room table (via the kitchen) for 8am and a morning tapping away at the laptop before the lunchtime newsletter goes out.

A quick break for lunch – and clearing storage on a crammed laptop which was painfully low until a couple of weekends of back-ups and reboots – and it is more of the same, if without a looming deadline, logging my hours for the invoice and off on my daily bit of exercise cum escape from the confines of the office/living space which has made up most of my world for the last nine weeks.

And with a nightly call to Australia (see recent posts if you are wondering about that one) before bed, that leaves just a few hours for food, language learning, bread making and box set addiction.

In my case, replace those with sorting through, stealing and ordering thousands of pictures from South America and turning my trip notes into a lasting chronicle of the previous six monhs.

Or, to be more accurate, getting distracted by something on my laptop and finding a myriad of ways to avoid doing whatever had been allocated for that night’s lockdown task.

All this to a soundtrack of a few fresh musical arrivals, a new fondness for podcasts, those 15 albums on Facebook which shaped my musical tastes, Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties – one of the great plusses of this whole crisis and something worth covering in a future post – and the latest trawl through the A-Z of my iPod.

That, usually listened to on the daily walk, took us from Teenage Fanclub to The Soft Boys (a sort of tribute to a musical Facebook group) via an occasionally diverting, if hardly headline-grabbing, collection of tracks as the lengthy trawl through I songs continues.

The Stone Roses wanna be adored so much they told us three times, perhaps why The Ramones wanna be sedated with The Smiths probably summing it up best with I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish.

REM popped up with I Remember California and I Took Your Name (twice) and there was also repeat appearances from Sufjan Stevens (I Saw Three Ships and I Walked) with notable outings from Stornoway (I Saw You Blink), I Am Kloot (I Still Do) and a decent discovery from The Orielles with I Only Bought It For The Bottle.

Could have said that a few times in recent months.

One last thing.

My lockdown bed – just need to remind my roomie of that

Mentioned my roommate earlier on, usually to be found on the sofa across the other side of the room, occasionally in his bed in front of the television and, far too often, trying to get up on my sofa or just being disruptive in the middle of the night.

Harry is a, very nearly, eight-year-old chunky black Labrador and the fact he is here to keep me awake through the night is something of a miracle.

Certainly various vets thought otherwise when he suddenly lost the use of his back legs at the start of last year.

But he is very much still with us, scooting around propelled with his immensely powerful front legs and, when the mood takes him, with his wobbly back ones playing an increasing part.

When they can keep up with his front ones.

Last night he slept through until 8am, the night before we got as far as 2am. And then 4.30am, before finally gave up any hope of a lie-in sometime around 6.30am.

Hoping the snoring coming from the other side of the room is a sign he is settling in for another long night asleep – after a final whizz/drag round the block, depending on how helpful he is feeling.

Maybe my lockdown existence is not quite so predictable after all.

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I Found Love to I Must Have Been Blind

MY diary for much of 2020 has not exactly been full. It has been – and remains – pretty much empty. My routine was sorted on the road, did not need a diary.

But the morning of April 21 has long had an entry inked in – Oasis Trans South America trip ends, Hotel Majestic, Quito.

It is still there on the Google Doc which acts as my calendar, diary, life organiser, time-wasting tool and handy record of where my travels have taken me.

What actually happened on the morning of April 21 involved being woken by a whining Labrador, rolling off the sofa, throwing some clothes on parts of me that can be seen in a Zoom chat, grabbing some toast and plugging myself into my laptop for another day working from the dining room table.

Not exactly what was planned, but that goes for pretty much all of us at the moment.

So instead of getting up in Quito, probably grabbing some breakfast at the bakery on the corner and checking out for somewhere slightly less ironically named for a couple of night’s before the final, sad farewells and a flight home, reality finds me back home and falling into some form of new routine.

Well, sort of back.

And some sort of reality.

Rather than bringing you up to date on the events of the final stretch through Colombia and retreading some familiar ground back to Quito in the South America blog – we will get there with a few mop up posts and some advice for anyone, eventually, following in our footsteps – we have the rather sooner than planned return of the A-Z iPod blog.

For any new readers who have stumbled across this site expecting tales of travel – or even marmots – the A-Z is an alphabetical journey through my iPod, listened to in order and chronicled in these posts amid a torrent of tangents and whatever is running through my mind when tapping away at the keyboard

Me from the past can explain how it works here:

A to Z – How To Get There

There are a few big differences between the return of the A-Z and when it went on its holidays in September ahead of my South American adventure.

For starters, until just before the off was single, ensconced in my flat, working on a paper and was free to wander, headphones in and working my way through the rising number of tracks on the journey – 14,739 tracks and rising.

Now am not single, know an awful lot more about Australian time zones, am locked down at my sister’s during the coronavirus pandemic and doing some freelance reporting with the avowed aim of writing an article that does not involve the words coronavirus pandemic.

And listening to the A-Z is mainly being done during my daily, government-sanctioned exercise – a walk around a variety of routes along the pavements (and middle of the road to maintain social distancing) close to home, invariably via a bit of shopping for some essentials. Wine, crisps, beer…

It has also been exclusively on the new iPod Touch bought not long before the off due to fears that my battered, well-travelled iPodClassic was not going to make it all the way round.

Those fears were grounded as, pressed into action for the first time when its new cousin had been borrowed by the person sitting next to me on the truck, it coughed, spluttered and gave up the ghost, the screen showing nothing but some bizarre pattern which was pretty easy to interpret – this is an ex-iPod.

So my daily wanderings and still fairly new, if much-used, companion have been continuing the lengthy meander through songs beginning with I.

I Am The Resurrection to I Found A Way

There are a lot of them. An awful lot.

It’s been an eclectic section from Palma Violets to Brendan Parry with a fair few familiar faces, plus a few you might not expect.

We had a fair few people declaring their hatred for things – Nerys Hughes (Half Man Half Biscuit) and This Town (John Grant) while The Jesus and Mary Chain vowed both love and hate of Rock ‘n’ Roll in different entries.

Other declarations of love came for NYC (Andrew WK, who with I Get Wet twice raised questions about why there was, briefly, so much excitement about him) and You (Billie Eilish – one for the kids there and perfectly good, bar the insistence on refusing to use capitals letters).

Half Man Half Biscuit were also back in this stretch with I Love You Because (You Look Like Jim Reeves) and Sun Kil Moon with I Love My Dad, all six minutes and 16 seconds of it in contrast to just one minute forty seven seconds of the rather more wordy I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night of My Life.

Maybe that is what The Smiths were referring to in I Know It’s Over but I Might Be Wrong, which brought us two outings for Radiohead. The live version is better.

And there were notable outings from The Boo Radleys (I Hang Suspended from the wonderful Giant Steps album), the almost inevitable Billy Bragg (I Keep Faith), The Sundays (I Kicked A Boy) and Paul SImon (I Know What I Know).

Blink-182 popped up with I Miss You, a reminder that they had the ability to turn out a good tune, if not pronounce head properly. Which still grates.

But last word in this entry goes to John Prine.

When I Have Met My Love Today popped up fairly early in this section, it was just another in the long list of songs sending me towards further exploration of a veteran artist who had passed me by for many years.

His death from COVID-19 adds poignancy and has sent me down the rabbit hole of his substantial back catalogue to discover quite why so many artists name him as a major influence.

And provides a sobering moment of quite why we are going through this strange form of existence.

  • As well as John Prine, it would be remiss not to mention two other musicians lost to the coronavirus – Andy Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, who certainly crops up on this journey, and former Soft Boys (among others) bassist Matthew Seligman. Not sure if he plays on anything on my iPod, but we were fellow members of a Facebook community which has provided me with plenty of fun and musical tips over the last few years. A member of David Bowie’s band at Live Aid, he is spoken of in nothing but glowing terms by fellow members of the group.
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The Unravelling

Cartagena’s old town at night

EVERYONE who expressed an opinion – or knew where it was – assured us Cartagena would be a trip highlight, a jewel in the Colombian crown they were confident would shine brightly among South America’s other treasures.

And they may be right, what we saw was fun, striking, memorable… it’s just that Cartagena will always come with an asterisk. A what if. An if only.

Memories of Cartagena will always be clouded by the fact it is where our trip came to an abrupt, premature end as the real world reached out and dragged us back in from our six-month suspension of normal life.

Not that what we returned to can be classed as normal.

No idea this was going to be one of the final days exploring

Hopefully, as time draws by, the memories of iguanas and sloths in a city park, colourful adornments to narrow streets lined with art, old city walls and a bustling nightlife we met head on will take prominence.

But two weeks since being forced to return from Colombia by the looming spectre of coronavirus, the abiding memories of our time in the historic city remains a trip cut short, hurried goodbyes and a homecoming to a life which is not as familiar and comfortable as it should be.

Only two weeks, but it seems somehow longer, lengthened by forced confinement which contrasts so markedly with the sense of freedom and steady flow of memories and experiences which have characterised the last six months.

The sense of disconnect – both from the life we left behind in South America and the one we expected to be returning to – is palpable.

Umbrella street

Wrote before about “having landed back in a familiar world which all seems a bit out of focus” and that remains true.

Recognise what is around me, it is all just a bit fuzzy round the edges. Like trying to function when ill, everything just seems a bit muted, slightly distant, a touch out of sync.

All a far contrast from the vibrant colour and life of Cartagena which deserves better than being remembered merely as the place it all came to an end. It is too good for that.

What is not to like about a city where you can spot sloths in the park near our hotel, wander down lanes under canopies of multi-coloured umbrellas, flags or plants, watch the sun set over the Caribbean Sea while raising an overpriced cocktail on the city walls or watch a man in ridiculously tight yellow trousers salsa on the street while you eat a pizza?

It does not, apparently, have an escape room, unlike its namesake in Spain. Just in case you are browsing the web and booking things to do in either city.

Not that we had any thoughts of escaping when we flew in from Leticia via a quick layover at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport – a place where most of would spend too much time just a few days later.

Having made it to the hotel via an adrenaline-fuelled taxi ride, my first meaningful act was to climb in another taxi. And out again when it became apparent he was going nowhere in a hurry, opting for one that was – especially when the driver took the blue lights behind him as the signal to start racing the emergency vehicle.

Our destination was a bit of pampering, once we had found an alternative for the closed initial barbers, for what was always intended to be my last haircut and full shave of the trip.

Got that one right.

Freshly trimmed, headed out for a first outing into the lanes of the Getsemani and an alfresco pizza while entertained – or otherwise – by our colourfully dressed salsa dancer and assorted musicians.

The hat looks better on Lisa. Just wish we had got some more use out of it

All a pleasant, quiet enough prelude for a long, busy, fun day and night that has taken on extra significance with what happened in the following 24 hours – told you it was impossible to distance Cartagena with what it came to represent.

First stop on our day of exploring was the nearby Parque del Centenario spotting the iguanas which call it home. Not that difficult, they are huge.

Next up was the old town where the task was simple, wander the narrow streets, squares and city walls while trying to retain some sense of where we were – a handy trick when we headed back in the late afternoon for cocktails watching the sun go down.

The first signs of what was to follow kept us from our planned destination, new local rules limiting capacity in bars forcing us to find a less congested, slightly cheaper (only slightly and still overpriced) option further along the wall.

After that it is a bit hazy. There was street food, happy hour drinks which lasted rather longer than an hour and a club which involved dancing, trying to track down the drinks we were due with our entrance fee and painting on the wall.

A fitting final blowout if we had any idea that was what it would become.

But by the time the sun rose on Sunday in Cartagena, it was to news of border closures in neighbouring Ecuador (our final destination) and cancelled onward trips, but with our trip to the beach the following day booked, it was another morning exploring the considerable charms of the old town and Getsamani.

First on foot, via a return to the park and more iguanas (this time up trees), monkeys and the sloths we had not fully believed were actually there, then by bike – my first time on two wheels for several years.

Thankfully, it is just like riding a bike and the guided tour provided a fun, informative look at the areas we had been wandering around.

We were all smiles when we returned to our hotel – at least those who made it back.

It cost enough, taking a picture of it

A couple only got as far as the nearby hostel bar which became the breaking news centre throughout the evening as the rest of us dropped in as we passed to discover the latest restrictions, courtesy of Danny and his chats with the hostel owner.

As we headed out for food, restrictions were being tightened and our Playa Blanca trip was off. By the time we headed back, those restrictions were being ramped up, travel was about to become much tougher and the hostel owner was warning of closure.

There was just one option – get home as soon as possible. The frustration many of us felt trying to secure one of the diminishing, increasingly expensive flights proved how right we were not to leave it any longer.

Which means our last view of Cartagena was another taxi ride, this time to the airport and as hurried as the packing and goodbyes which proceeded it.

And from there… not Santa Marta, Taronga, San Gil, Medellin and beyond, but a third visit to Bogota and first time out of the airport. At least as far as a hotel for 24 hours or so before one final goodbye, a last, longer than planned, visit to the airport, an unscheduled night in Paris and home.

To make some sort of sense of what has happened, both in the hasty retreat and the previous six months.

We will work our way through what sense does appear in a few more posts, but that’s it. Journey’s end.

Until next time…

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