The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Going Solo

The last two weeks have been a shock. For 5 months Hol hasn't been away from my side for longer than 3 hours and we have gone through absolutely everything together. But the passing away of her granddad meant she was booked on the first flight back from Grenada to a frozen England. So it was I found myself alone in having to find a route to Trinidad and beyond. It has been 2 weeks of ups and downs, but I have been lucky enough to feel the incredible kindness of strangers who help without question when they see someone adrift in a foreign country.

After being unceremoniously told to get lost by 3 captains at the industrial port, I was walking the pontoons the next day when I spotted the Eastpack cargo boat we had contacted in St. Lucia. The next day I was sharing my dinner with the 1st mate at sunset. He was explaining that it was going to be a little rough and the boat is 'a bit rolly', It was only when i got down below deck that i really began to understand what he meant, but the Captain took pity seeing me trying to sleep in a sweaty mess gripping onto the saloon table for dear life and soon I was laid out in his bunk. He didn't sleep for the night. So it was I made it through a rough night on board and arrived with the sun coming up over Port of Spain.

Here I was to be hosted by the mythical Ken Leafe; a friend of my mum's who had offered us the dream of free comfy beds, a fridge of beer and a pool to relax in. Contact was made and before i knew it, I was whisked from the bowels of the Eastpack to a giant reclining chair in front of an enormous TV watching DVDs. Amazing. Ken was a very generous host patiently driving me around the sights he had seen many times before and we talked long into the evenings of Trindiadian colonial history, politics and trying to put the world to rights. With the Caribbean being so expensive and also finding myself on my own the free board and company was hugely appreciated. And so it was with a heavy heart, clean clothes and a 5 word Spanish vocabulary that I prepared to finally leave the Caribbean islands.

It was then that things suddenly seemed to spin out of control. But instead of my nicely laid out plan of smoothly linking buses that would whisk me to Cartagena. I found myself with Luiz, Jesus and his pregnant wife Judith. Jesus and Judith spoke no English and so Luiz, a blend of a Brazilian Gordon Brown and a Gary Larson cartoon. became my saviour. The offer of a lift was there and I figured that I probably wouldn't be mugged by someone who's pregnant wife modeled a fine set of red dungarees and so hopped in. This turned into a 14 hour sightseeing trip through Venezuela stopping in small local beaches, local restaurants and tiny seafood stalls, all with the translated commentary from Luiz. I was alternately stunned by the beautiful scenery and sat in gobsmacked silence for several minutes when told it cost $2US to fill Jesus' pick up with petrol; water is 10 times more expensive! But we bimbled along with Luiz practicing his English with me in the back. His pronunciation was uncannily Borat-esque and all comments followed by a small chuckle. He would look me and say things like, 'you are veery friendly man... Ha ha ha', and other things like 'you are youngest in car... i am oldest... ha ha ha'. At 3 in the morning I finally said goodnight to my new friend Luiz in Jesus' mother's house where we stayed for 2 nights. I didn't quite know what twist of fate had got me there, but I was amazed at how unquestioningly I had been taken under their wing and welcomed. The next few days we vistied beaches, hot spas, local eateries and the like all with the Jesus tirelessly leading the way; it was great.

Humbled by their generosity, Luiz and I said goodbye on Friday afternoon to the family. I had been showered with gifts of Brazilian soap for me and Hol from Luiz and a small wooden turtle from Jesus and his family. On leaving his mother told us we were blessings from God and I stood there helpless with a sense of nothing to offer, being unable to explain proper thanks in Spanish and just standing like a goon with a terrible haircut and scruffy clothes. I felt the language barrier acutely and just tried to make them understand, but it was a powerful feeling of debt and gratitude.

The bus I needed left from Caracas at 7pm. It was 2 hours from where we were in Maracay. I had no ticket as it was fully booked due to of Carnival and all I had was a slim chance that someone called Rafael might get me on if someone dropped out. But I had one crucial ally. Luiz. The bus from Maracay to Caracas sat stationary in traffic as I nervously checked my watch. We arrived in the maelstrom of the station with no sign of Rafael. Luiz at my side was asking left, right and centre and suddenly a Rafael pops up and says he has a ticket. My one chance of getting to Cartagena in time to see Hol was coming through. Incredible. But he explains there is no time to get to cash machine as the bus is leaving in 2 minutes. Luiz without hesitation offers to pay the $60 fare and trusts I will send the money. I almost got choked up and didn't know what to say. I instinctively pressed all my remaining Bolivars into his hand and boarded the bus. I had been thinking of almost nothing but meeting Hol in Cartagena and Luiz alone had made it happen with one act of trust. Waving Luiz off from outside the coach my stomach then curled in on itself as I suddenly realised i was heading to the border where I would need money for an exit stamp with no money at all.

Straight away the driver comes down the aisle and it's clear he is asking for more money and i try and explain with the vocabulary of si, no, cerveza, por favor and gracias that I had none. It didn't go well and he stomps off after 5 minutes of heated exchange. I tell myself I will get some where the bus stops on the way. The first stop at 1am and there is no cash machine. This also means I have no food and water. I get back on the bus praying the next stop will have a cash machine. I wake starving at around 7am to find us pulling up at the border. We hadn't stopped again. There is a long line full of people with money in hand. No stamp means no way into Colombia, the bus will go and I will be stranded vulnerable with all my belongings on my back, with no money and no way of getting some. Crap. I felt stupid and panicky as I tried to explain in terrible Spanish to people around me. I don't know if other people can mime, 'Can I borrow money until we get into Colombia where I will pay you back in pesos from a nearby cash dispensing machine', but there were blank faces all round and then suddenly I was at the front. Shaking heads and passport unstamped and handed back with more unintelligible instructions. Suddenly the first English speaking Venezuelan person I had seen comes up and asks if I am ok.

I explain the situation and he simply presses the money I need into my hand saying, 'no problem bro, have a good trip'. I could have hugged him and thanked him profusely before returning to the bus. I had nothing to offer him, would never see him again and he didn't gain anything from the selfless generosity. Here was a rich westerner who had stuffed up by bad planning and he didn't even hesitate to help me out with no questions asked. I was stunned. Then all it took was another 3 hours queuing hungry and thirsty at the Colombian border bracing myself as I was unsure of whether I needed more money for a tourist permit and would be turned back again. But my passport got stamped. I was in...

8 hours late, I pulled into a deserted Cartagena station at 11pm; desperate for food and drink despite the old lady next to me insisting I accepted half an apple and some plantain chips from her. I walked to the cash machine. Broken. Another one. Broken. I begged a room at a nearby hostel and and collapsed into bed. I was exhausted, but realised all was ok and I would be able to meet Hol at the airport.

It seems strange looking back as there is nothing in itself that couldn't be resolved with time and patience. However, it was the combination of not speaking the language at all, the exhaustion of no sleep, food or water, and also not being able to contact Hol before she would arrive at Cartagena airport. The thought of her arriving and me inexplicably not being there was grim. Being without any money made me realise the feeling of vulnerability it brings. Finding yourself alone and at the mercy of those around you in countries where everyone says not to be out after dark or carry your things around is not one I want to repeat anytime soon. I am glad to say that Hol is now snoozing next to me in a small hostel in Cartagena after a day of wandering this incredibly beautiful city. We have a boat booked for next week up to Panama, we are looking into learning Spanish for a week and a feast of local fare costs £1.50. The world is back to being a wonderful place but I never want to forget those people who helped me out. Luiz, Judit, Jesus, random tubby guy at the border and old lady with plantain chips I salute you as everything that is good in humans. May more people, including myself, be more like you.

PHOTOS - All the Caribbean photos are on here as a reward for those who made it this far

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