Many years ago I was working in a back packers’ lodge in a place called PK’s Jungle Village. This lodge is located in Cape Tribulation (“Cape Trib”) , in the far north of Australia. Cape Trib is a good two hours’ drive north of Cairns, located in a beautiful bay where the jungle mangroves meet the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Apart from the many tourists that travelled out there to spend a few days at the lodge, there was also a handful of entrepeneurs that lived and worked in the area. Walking tours, horse rides, fishing tours and diving were some of the activities catered for and apart from one other expensive lodge not too far away we were pretty isolated.
For the majority of the four months I was there I was working in the bar. I worked for Duncan, the Australian bar manager. Duncan hooked up with Liz - an English nutty lass and I am still friends with the both of them, 16 years later (and they are still together). Overall people from all nationalities worked there, as the resort’s majority of workers were backpackers.
Most people that were working and living in the area would come to the party bar where I worked, so we got to know pretty much everyone that was around. This also included the diving crew that worked for the diving companies, one of them being Paul; a very nice guy from London who was one of the dive masters that frequented our bar.
About a year later when I was already back in Holland I received an email from Steve; a Kiwi guy that had worked in PK’s kitchen during the time I’d been there. Steve was travelling through Europe and asked if he could stay for a few nights. I was staying with my mum so after guilting her into saying “yes” (how would you feel if HIS mother would not let ME stay if I was travelling on the other side of the world all by myself!) Stevo was allowed to stay. He told me that Liz and Dunc had just arrived in the UK, and how great would it be to catch up with them! I couldn’t agree more so we all arranged to meet up in a bar in Covent Garden; probably one of the most touristy places in London.
So here we are, Kiwi Steve, Ozzie Dunc, Dutchie Ninka and Pommy Liz - in one of touristy Covent Garden’s hundreds of bars, drinking pints and talking shit. After an hour or so, what do you know, in walks Paul, the “Jungle Diver” that used to drink at our bar! We all thought from each other that someone must have contacted him, but judging by the way that his jaw had dropped on the floor while he was trying to utter some coherent words - we gathered that this was actually not the case at all!
It turned out he was just on his way to a birthday party on his motorbike, and had stopped to buy some cigarettes on his way there! So imagine what he must have been thinking; all these people from various places in the world that he had met over a year ago, in the middle of nowhere and on the other side of the planet - are sharing a table, drinking pints in the first pub he walks into to quickly buy some cigarettes! Out of hundreds of pubs he chose to pop into that one.
Last week a similar encounter occurred, when I was in Lima to visit a friend. My friend used to live in the USA for a few years until he moved back to Peru seven years ago. We were on our way back from a bar, in a suburb that he is not even from, when someone called out his name. It turned out to be a friend that he had met when living and working in the USA all those years ago.
His friend was also from Peru but he had never met him in Peru, and hadn’t seen him or heard from him since he had left the USA seven years ago! His friend still lives in the USA and was only over for a short break, leaving the next day… Again,what are the chances? If we had left a few minutes earlier or later, or would have picked another suburb or even just another bar, they would have missed each other completely!
Another story that impressed me for these reasons comes from Bill, who I met when I was in Mexico. Bill had been friends with Perry when he was in high school. Then, more than 45 years ago, Perry left California to travel around in Bolivia of all places, and he was never seen or heard from again. Every one of his old friends presumed him dead as the years passed, and Bill had moved to Mexico with his wife Bobbie.
One day Bill was extremely thirsty in the hot sun so he walked into a bar in a small town called Bucerias, a bar where he normally never went. As he was having a quick beer. he saw this guy standing at the bar making a phone call because he was having car trouble. He thought it was his old mate Perry’s dad at first, but then counted the years and realised that would be impossible. After the guy at the bar finished his call he paid the bar maid and turned to leave, upon which the bar maid called out: “thanks, Perry”!
Of course Bill could not resist to go over and asked him whether he was that same Perry that he had been friends with so many years ago. It turned out it was the very same person, and he is now living in Mexico (I actually met him that time I was there). So they both met and were friends in California, lost touch for nearly half a century, then randomly met again 46 years later in another country, in a small town in a bar where neither of them normally would have gone if it weren’t for that day’s circumstances!
Finally, when my uncle Lew was a major in the US army he was sent on a mission to help select the next scout helicopter to be used for the army. Because there are so many competing companies wanting to sell their goods, Lew and his team were sequestered (placed in a secret location) somewhere in St Louis.
Meanwhile Lew’s son Mike had disappeared overnight while mountain- biking in the woods. Lew was notified while on his assignment and it was arranged for him to immediately fly to San Jose (where Mike was living with his mother at the time). As Lew got to the St Louis airport he lined up at check-in and it turned out he was standing right behind his very close friend Ron, and Ron had been looking for him! Lew and Ron had met in Indianapolis while on a journalism course a year before, and Ron knew that Lew was somewhere in St Louis that day.
Ron was also with the US army and was in St Louis only for a few hours, on route to the Philippines for his next assignment. He had been to the headquarters that Lew had been assigned to, in a fruitless attempt to figure out where he could find him. (fruitless because Lew was in a secret location). They also had to board the same plane and arranged to sit next to each other. As the plane was taxiing for take-off, the pilot requested for Lew to come forward, and informed him that they had just received a call that Mike had been found. It turned out his mother had thought Mike had left the night before to go biking and still hadn’t come back the next morning but he had actually only left early that morning, about a couple of hours before! Lew was taken back to the boarding gate to leave the plane and go back to his mission, but all these events had led to these friends connecting once again.
These are just a handful of great stories, and I have many more of my own - the number of times where I have run into people again in a country, period or environment totally different to where we initially met- and without knowing from one another you were going to be there.
Not to mention the “six degrees of separation” encounters: the ever accumulating number of times where you meet someone that knows someone that you know - you know?
If this is within your tiny wee village then that may not be so fascinating - (being in awe when you find out that your one neighbour knows your other neighbour).
But when the Argentinian guy who is showing you around in his home town turns out to know the South African guy that surfed your couch in New Zealand two years earlier, it is kind of mindblowing. And I have had so many of these encounters and epiphanies I could fill a whole book.
Of course with social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Couchsurfing it is a lot easier to track - as soon as you become friends with someone who has a mutual friend (or even if your friend has a friend who has a mutual friend) it shows up on your home page. This makes it so much easier and more obvious than it was back in the day where you would only find out by actually talking to each other about the people and what distinguished them in order to make the link.
Every person has got at least one similar story of their own. What each person chooses to take from these encounters -sometimes born from so may coinciding factors, others just a simple “huh?”- is totally up to them. Overall they are incredible stories and personally I like to see it as a little token that you’re on the right track. Whatever the universe has laid out for you, these are little pointers to show you that you’re heading in the direction you’re meant to go. That idea, along with the frequency things like this have happened to me, gives me a lot of confidence. It makes me not worry about the future, because every little thing… is gonna be alright - eh Bob :)
Q: (my auntie) When you come to stay with us in your break (mid-June) are you possibly interested in flying to Las Vegas with your uncle Lew in a 4 seater private plane while you are here, just for an overnight? His sister and brother-in-law who live in Hawaii will be there for a week during that same time. If so, you can sit up front with him and take a turn at flying it. There are controls on both sides, so not to worry!
A: Oh jeez, I am really scared of small planes but should just get over it, that would be such an awesome experience! YES, HELL YES!!!
Auntie: He has a lifetime of experience and it is a really beautiful plane. I would probably come along also. It is a short flight - only approx. one and a half hours each way. No need to be scared at all.
Conclusion: guess Las Vegas is suddenly added to the top of the bucket list! And flying a small plane with my uncle! Life’s a drag… :P
D1: I might buy a new phone.
D2: No, you don’t want to buy a new phone. You are gonna get a free new phone anyway with your contract as soon as you get back to Australia in a few weeks.
D1: Yeah, maybe I should wait, I don’t know, I want a phone now though.
D2: Just wait, and then we can save that money for our boob jobs.
One of the many highlights of this tour is a visit to Bolivia’s never-ending salt flats: the biggest in the world. A huge patch of white, thick, scorching hot salt crust located high up in the Andes, at 3,656 meters above sea level is quite an unexpected, extraordinary sight.
There is nothing else there, apart from an ugly small town called Uyuni; a sole inhabited stamp in the middle of nothingness. The only reason this town exists seems to be for the crowds of tourists that its neighbouring saltflats attract.
Our tours usually stay in Uyuni for two nights, giving people an opportunity to explore the salt flats for a full day, taking silly pictures (see earlier blog), and learning about the locals’ way of salt mining which seems to be the only other source of income there (the ground is so barren that no agriculture exists in the area).
The day after the salt flats tour we were all having breakfast, slowly getting ready for a leisurely 9 AM departure with only a four hour driving day ahead of us to get us to Potosi. Sussy, the owner of our hotel, came running towards me to say that we had to leave immediately; blockades were being put up around the town to avoid anyone getting in or out. This is a common way to protest against whatever it is citizens don’t agree with in South America, especially so in Bolivia.
I got my group up and ready to go within a heartbeat (bless them) and as we were to head out of the town it was already too late. Within twenty minutes of the announcement the main roads out of the town were fully blocked off. There was only one way left out, the road down South to Tupiza. This is a very bad rocky dirt road and if there is one thing that would be worse than being stuck in Uyuni, it would be to break down in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road and be stuck there (not to mention the 16 hour detour to get to where we were meant to go). I booked my group into the hotel for an extra night in the hope that the blockades would get lifted later that day or overnight, so that we could still get to Potosi a day later.
That night we watched the local news, where the mayor announced that he was appalled by this way of protest, this was primitive and no way to negociate. Therefore, as a response, he was going on hungerstrike and urged everyone else who didn’t agree with the blockades to do the same (…). A very modern, not at all primitive response. That will definitely resolve things! As a response, of course even more blockades were put up to make it harder for people to get in or out.
The next morning I went out in search of a solution, and managed to find only one bus company that guaranteed a night bus out of there by 7 PM, going directly to La Paz that night. They knew the back roads and knew a way out that would not be blocked.
Taking our own truck that way was not really an option; first of all we didn’t know the way, second, back roads are usually pretty bad. The risk of breaking down with a heavy truck in the cold empty nothingness for who knows how long just didn’t seem that appealing so public transport overnight it was.
The crappy thing about Uyuni is that there literally is nothing to do at all (unless you are fascinated by the Bolivian military or the Uyuni military museum). Once you have seen the salt flats, that’s it. Everyone was bored to pieces by now and our 7 PM departure meant we all had to check out of our rooms and hang around in the lobby all day. As the day dragged on 7 PM finally came and while we were literally wearing our back packs on our way out of the hotel, the girl that I had bought the tickets from entered. The bus had been cancelled, there was no longer any way out! She said to me they would go later at night, at 2 or 3 AM, because the road blocks would be unmanned by then. Therefore, we should be ready to go then, though she would call me first to confirm. So I booked my group back into their rooms and advised them to be ready to jump up and go immediately in case of a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
I set out that same night to see what was going on at the bus companies’ offices and found out that the majority of “our” bus’s other passengers had received a cash refund because the bus would not be going at all! The so-maniest time I had been lied to! To top things up my bus company’s office had closed shop so I had no way of getting my 15 tickets refunded, the phone number on their door didn’t work, there was no means of contacting them.
I called Ricardo, the owner of the hotel in La Paz, to advise that we would not be coming in early the next morning (I had arranged a transfer via him for the following day) and went to an Internet cafe to advise my boss of the latest developments.
As I was typing away furiously this Bolivian woman on the computer next to me looked at me, at my screen, and at me again and said: “are you Ninka from Tucan Travel”? It turned out that Ricardo had just been on the phone with her to say she had to find me and help me get out of there.
Just to help you get a grasp of this coincidence: at over 10,000 inhabitants Uyuni is not a small village. There’s about 12 Internet cafe’s in Uyuni, all with capacity of 15 to 20 people. And of all places I ended up sitting right next to her, and she knew I was me because she saw my name on my computer screen.
So, Sandra (the woman next to me) told me that she deals with Ricardo on a regular basis (she was also a tour operator) and promised me a bus out early the next morning. I spoke to Ricardo again who promised me I can trust her. Sandra took over my receipt for the other tickets and said she knew that agency and would get them to refund her the cash, so that I wouldn’t have to pay her anything for this other bus through her agency. She told me to show up at 5:30 AM at their office to see from where and at what time exactly the bus would go, and then bring the rest of my passengers there after.
I advised my group of this when I got back later that night, and made it to the bus station early the next morning. After waiting in the freezing cold for over an hour, by 6:45 finally someone showed up. She said that there would be a bus coming in from La Paz, that would wait on the other side of the blockade, and take us back to La Paz. This meant we had to get to the edge of the town and walk across the barrier to get there. I rushed back, frantically flagged down the few rare taxis available and put my passengers in them. A couple of guys that I had helped out in getting tickets for this bus hogged one of my taxi’s that I had obtained with such great difficulty, much to my infuriation - but there was not even time to argue this, we had to rush over because word had it that the protestors would resume positions again at 7 AM which by now it nearly was!
Once we got to the blockade, our bus for some reason had made its way within the town limits, on the wrong side of the barrier, and just as we were boarding the bus, the protestors put the blockade back up and would not let the bus back through.
Now, common sense would have been to have a bus ready to leave at 5 AM, well before the barriers were occupied and while there was still a free way out of the city.
Common sense would have made the driver of the current bus park well away from that barrier, and on the other side, away from the town. To make matters worse, they put a road block behind us as well, so the bus was wedged in between two barriers and all the streets within the town were blocked off again with parked up cars so we really couldn’t move forward or back.
The worst of it all was that this “barrier” or blockade was just a few twigs on fire, a few burning tyres and some rocks placed within the road. The protestors were fat old ladies and a few old men.
I talked to the driver as they were putting the blockade back in place to try and urge him to go now, we could still go past now! The driver was afraid they would throw rocks at the bus if he did that, so didn’t want to move.
I told him there were far more of us and we were stronger, we can hold them off while he drives through. No luck there either. I tried to talk to the protestors but you might as well have a conversation with a monkey and it would be more intelligible. The answers they spat out at me, they didn’t care, and had no concept of the impact this has on some people (there were people that were going to miss their flight back to Europe, I made up a wedding that someone has to be the best man at, someone’s mother had had a heart attack and was in hospital, but all to no avail). Nothing worked, smiling, joking, lying, getting angry, arguing, nothing had an effect so all we were left to do was wait.
Every time I tried to get the driver to take some action I was told that it would only be another 20 minutes etc. etc, the usual lies. I suspect he either lives in Uyuni and knows the people and is afraid of repercussions, or he was on their side.
Eventually, after two long and empty extra days in Uyuni and seven hours of waiting around in the bus the mayor signed a document and the so called blockades were lifted, so we could finally get out of there at 3 PM, getting us into La Paz at 1 AM. It could always have been worse.
What it was all about? On what side of the town the new bus terminal of Uyuni should be built, and whether it should be a tourist bus terminal or a local bus terminal. Monkey countries, is what my sister and brother in law call these countries. And sometimes I really can’t help but agree with them.
I have two young Philipine/ Australian little princesses on the tour. They are lovely, don’t get me wrong, but my GOD they can just be the DITZIEST things I have ever met. The things they say and ask sometimes are just jaw-dropping .
They have been brought up very protected (under a rock, maybe?) and I suspect mum and dad are paying for their trip judging by their exuberant travel style that includes a cruise from Rio to Miami after the world cup. It’s also a very silly travel style: a one-way flight from Bogota (Colombia) - to Sao Paulo (neighbouring Brazil) @ U$1900 - you can get a flight around the world for that, or a return flight to the other side of the planet and back! With stopovers!
After we had established that this is actually a participation tour (where every passenger has to shop, cook and clean on a roster basis) and that camping is involved for much of the trip (they didn’t bring any sleeping bags or mats, and had never camped before), they also overcame the final hurdle; THERE IS NO WIFI ON THE TRUCK! Oh my god, like, seriously? Like, what do people, like, do all day! I suggested reading, watching movies on a laptop, writing a (b)log, listening to music, napping and staring out the window. They cope alright and do everything with lots of enthusiasm, though I can’t help giving a selection of stupidities that have come out of their mouths so far.
- I heard like, that if you get AIDS, you like, die within two hours of getting it. Is this true? (and this girl is a nurse)
- Oh my god, that cat! Look at that cat, that cat is in a tree! Cats never, like climb trees normally, right? I mean, like, aren’t they scared of hights?
- Ditzy 1: I wanna like, do a bungee jump.
Me: They do them in Cuzco, and they also do a reversed bungee jump in Cuzco where they kind of catapult you up into the sky and then you bounce down within seconds.
Ditzy 1: No, I don’t think I wanna do that, I mean like, wouldn’t that, like, really hurt your ankles? And wouldn’t you hit the floor hard when you come back down?? **thinking people actually get tied to a piece of rubber band by the ankles and shot up into the sky with a giant catapult**
- Passenger: After this trip I am flying to Africa because I am going to be a tour leader there.
Ditzy: Wow, like, how did you get that job? Do you, like, speak African or something?
Passenger: **5 second silence** Africa is not a country. You know that, right? …
- These border crossings that we have to do, they are just so weird. We never have to do anything like that in Australia.
And this is only one week into the trip since they joined, six more weeks to go! Ooooo yeah, this is gonna be LOTSA fun…
Yesterday I went for a cruise on the Beagle Channel; a 5 hour cruise to see the plethora of widlife (sealions, seals, albatrosses, several types of penguins and a large variety of other birdlife).
It was quite cold so I prepared and brought a small bottle of whisky - you know, to keep warm and that…
Meanwhile, as I was making sure to keep warm, we docked in front of an island full of penguins. Not just full, it was overflowing. Some of the penguins flew in and out of the island. As I vacuously observed these penguins I eventually had the onderlying epiphany: Huh? Flying penguins? I didn’t know there was a species of penguins that can fly… is there? After I squinted for a while longer I realised that of course, they weren’t penguins. They were just birds disguised as penguins.The scary part is it took me a while to register that there was something not quite right with my registration of what I was looking at! DUH. Don’t get too warm, it interferes with your overall coherence.
Please note: these are NOT penguins flying past in the picture above..
Anyone who has travelled the roads of Argentina will have noticed the red shrines dotted along the roads everywhere. You find them right in the middle of nowhere - and on the well trodden track. On frequently frequented junctions, in city centres and alongside remote dead country roads. Massive devotion areas that take up more room than a small church can be found on the curb or along busy highways as well as tiny little red boxes with a wee little saint in it somewhere obscurely burrowed under a tree, not much larger than the size of a shoebox. This is Gauchito Gill, a legacy of the legend of Argentina’s sanctified cowboy.
There are several legends behind the history of Gaucho Gill. The one I like best is the one that follows below.
In the mid - 1800’s Antonio “gauchito” Gill was a Robin Hood type thug, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Before he had turned to this sympathetic path of crime he had been serving in the army but when he was lined up to fight in a civil war in which he did not believe - “brothers should not be fighthing brothers” or something along these lines is what he is believed to have said - he deserted the army and therewith became a fugitive.
Once in the bad books with the strong arm of the law, naughty Gauchito (literally: little cowboy) thought he might as well stay a rebel and turned to robbing the rich so that he could donate his takings to the poor. He became notorious for his noblility until he was caught and hanged from a tree. Before he was hanged, he told his executioner that he would have to ensure to give him a proper burial; if he would fail to do so, the executioner would come home to find his son on his deathbed.
The executioner did not take a word to heart, cut Gauchito’s throat and threw him in a cheap grave. When he came home he found his son gravely ill, and close to dying. The executioner went back, gave Gauchito a proper burial after all and prayed to him. When he came home next his son was on the mend to health.
Whether there is any truth to the story anywhere, or whether any details have any roots of truth (did the actual character even exist?) I have no means of knowing. But to date Gauchito Gil is revered to as a saint, shrines are put up along the roads everywhere in his honour, flaunting red flags, ribbons, pictures and statues of the Magnum mustached Mr Gil, poems, prayers and thank you notes are left and offerings are made in the form of cigarettes, opened beer cans and burning candles. There have even been several attempts to the Vatican nominate him as a saint (but to date to no avail).
It is nice to see Gauchito’s shrines alongside the roads everywhere you travel in this massive country. Gauchito Gill is protecting you, Gauchito Gill will keep you safe.
When I first met India I was determined not to want to get attached to her at all. Gabi and I had just been to Europe and I had decided to stay an extra month to have some time alone with my family and friends. Gabi didn’t speak any English or Dutch so during my time back in Holland (after three years of not having been there) I had only been interpreting while he was around, and not really catching up with everyone properly so we decided he would go back to Argentina and find a place where we could both work and live, and I would join him there a month later.
Gabi chose San Luis, pretty much a crappy town but he thought there would be work. While I was away he was quite lonely there so he thought it would be nice to get a puppy to keep him company. When I heard about this I was furious, we had plans to travel! What are we going to do with a puppy! Nobody accepts dogs when needing a place to stay, not to mention the complications when crossing borders! Of course as soon as I met India a month later my heart melted and I could not care less anymore about how hard it would be in the future. India was gold. She was cute, sweet, clever, smart, cuddly, streetwise, I loved her to bits immediately.
At night when we were asleep she would nuzzle up to my cheek if she needed to go for a wee or a crap - not wanting to wake anyone up (except for me) so I could let her outside. She followed me around everywhere (well, like a puppy) and refused to leave the house if I wouldn’t come (or refused to stay in the house if I would leave). We went hitchhiking from Argentina to Vina del Mar in Chile, and she was the perfect accomplish. She would hide between our backpacks until the very last minute, and when we would give the signal she’d sneak up and we would quickly put her on the floor somewhere where she would stay dead still until we got out a few hours later.
Some of the drivers were flabbergasted to see we got out and got followed by a happy (usually busting) chubby little puppy. She was so good. I was there when she went to a beach/the ocean the first time, she absolutely loved it and I loved watching her be such a happy pup.
first time at the beaeaaach!
She understood traffic lights and when to wait or walk, didn’t need a leash but just followed you everywhere, she was the best dog ever. She ate strawberries just because she saw us eating them (though she kept looking at us while trying to gnaw at one, thinking: are you for real? You eat this shit??)
About two months later Gabi and I broke up and I was quite upset, but the worst for me was farewelling the dog. She was Gabi’s dog, and anyway, I wanted to continue travelling - what am I going to do with a dog that is going to be a HUGE dog judging by its paws? It was the best thing to do at the time.
Gabi and I stayed in touch and I still love him to bits but we agreed we are just too different in too many ways for it to make it work. I hadn’t seen India since October 2012 when we split up, but always had hope that one day I will see her again. That day seemed to be a possibility when Gabi told me he is moving to Lima (Peru) for a while to live, and he is taking India with him. I will be in Lima in May this year, so how great would that be! And how will India react? Will she remember me? And if she does, will she be really happy, or really indignant, or really upset? I kept wondering about this but was really happy to think I might see her again.
Until I woke up this morning. I saw a heartwrenching message from Gabi on Facebook. Two days ago he wrote a message to say that India and her pet Gabi made it to La Paz, Bolivia. this morning it said that India had passed away at a vet’s practice in La Paz, after shutting down completely due to lack of oxygen. I chatted to him this morning and he told me that he made it to a vet’s on time but they had no oxygen, and they refused to take them anywhere else where they might have been able to help India. Because she was just a dog after all. Out of desperation he resorted to mouth to mouth but of course this was a lost cause. To India. To Gabi.
I cannot begin to express my feelings of sadness, frustration, empathy and sympathy, as well as anger about this. Why become a vet if you don’t give a toss about animals, if you only see them as “only a …” A vet should be there to give it their everything to save a life, right? Especially if they get paid to do it! And it was so unnecessary, all India needed was a boost of oxygen, then be shipped a kilometer lower and she would have been allright again. But no. She had to die because of a careless vet that doesn’t like dogs.
This did not only impact poor Gabi who has to go on by himself now, who had to leave India’s corpse at a cold vet’s practice in cold La Paz, cold Bolivia. He is no doubt riddled with feelings of guilt (and who would have thought altitude could have this kind of an impact on a dog?? I would have done the same thing!) it also has had a huge impact on me, on my family and friends who never even MET India, on Gabi’s family and friends.
In my opinion all animals have a soul. You see it when you look into their eyes. They all have a character, a drive, a personality. India had a HUGE personality. That is why I and so many people loved her so much. And that is why it is so sad that she is no longer here, still a pup. I was lucky to be with her for two months and I am heartbroken. Imagine how Gabi must feel after 1.5 years. Here’s to you, beautiful India, I will never forget you and will always think of you heart filled with lots of love and with lots of sadness.