Monday 24 February 2014

The Allure of La Playa

The last two weeks have passed by in a hot shimmering haze of sea, sun, rum and limited clothing as I've slowly sauntered down the sand-strewn path to beach bum town. In simple terms: I went to the beach. And got stuck there. Firstly a birthday week in Montanita, Ecuador followed by another sandy semana in Mancora, Ecuador.

This blog, I'm sure you'll be glad to hear, will be a short one because what happens on the beach stays on the beach. Or, to let you in on a little secret, nothing actually happens on the beach. It's a sunny black hole that sucks you in and has a long chew before even thinking about spitting you out again. A dangerously idyllic alternative universe devoid of the rules and restraints that govern life in the real world. There'll be no enthralling tales of outlandish treks to sites of ancient wonder here, no illuminating odes to buzzing cities or quaint colonial towns. These things don't exist nor do they have any worth within the beach bubble. What counts and what occurs is the following, the allure of la playa:

'Welcome! Remove your footwear. Are those clothes you're wearing? How funny. You won't be needing them any more. Nor your intricately worked-out travel plans for the following month. Have a drink. You deserve it. And get comfortable. You'll be here a while.'

So marks the travellers arrival at a beach 'party' town, and so begins an alarmingly-quick recalibration of lifestyle and outlook. Time moves slowly, yet days slip by unnoticed. Priorities shift, worries dissipate. Late nights, lost mornings. Sand. Gets. Everywhere.

Everything revolves around la playa. A leisurely stroll after a shirtless afternoon breakfast to reach the shore and spend a few hours of horizontal socialising and sunbathing with your fellow coastal refugees - those who have also recently entered this fantasy world and learnt the new truth. This shared awakening and shift in perspective has made new best friends out of all of you. Some are here to surf which adds an extra focus towards the sea. Swimmers and bobbing bathers join the ranks.

Most importantly there's the obligatory open-mouthed contemplation of sunset. A communal evening gathering with all eyes tracking the great glowing orb's final descent beneath the watery horizon. A universal sense of awe the reasoning for which it can be hard to verbalise but likely rooted in the constant semi-conscious knowledge that we are all individually minuscule in an unfathomably giant universe. Prolonged consideration of an astral, life-giving object 100 million miles away opening doors in the mind that are often sealed shut by priorities far less deserving of attention. Worshipped as a deity by early civilisations, the importance of the sun as the creator and maintainer of all life on earth has been understood almost as long as human beings have been around, lending a further evolutionary explanation to our innate sense of awe when regarding it. A feeling amplified on the beach as the fiery ball is slowly extinguished beneath the distant waves. An unspoken group meditation; each gazing across the never-ending sea, silently contemplating the rest of this far-reaching world and their place within it. Also sunsets are pretty cool and a good excuse for a beer.

The central role of the beach continues after dark. Coastline bars and clubs spill revellers onto the sandy shores, liberated by hip-notic Latin beats and barefoot dancing. Later still, numerous fires are built and another primal human desire draws people in - a deep-seated need for warmth, food, shelter and company. Except in this scenario the fire stokes drunken sleepy conversation, sharing of low-quality marijuana, group-guitar playing and non-native English speakers singing badly-pronounced Beatles songs. Those who can't drag themselves away from the shore to sleep, pop up a tent for the night and remain beachbound for the duration. Morning comes, the beach beats it's alluring drum once again and the cycle continues. Occasionally the exact playa changes as a quest for perfection encourages movement; a sandy spot more untouched, more beautiful and less-frequented by others. This slight shift in location being the only real change in environment.

Almost as important as sand beneath the toes is booze in the face. Alcohol and the beach go hand-in-hand and this close relationship creates these 'party town' reputations. The disconnect from the real world further fuels the fiesta: Everyone is living a fantasy - any niggling worries or second thoughts about consuming two bottles of rum a night don't apply here. How can something so deliciously fun in such paradisical surroundings be a bad idea? $5 for a bottle? You'd be stupid not to. Lime, cola, ice... oblivion. It's impossible to find anyone without a permanent smile spread across their chops though, so maybe they're onto something.

This lifestyle isn't such a problem if you're only passing through for a crazy weekend, but we've already covered the difficulties in leaving and if you're around for any longer than a week the excess can get, well, excessive. It's always somebody's first or last night, or another vague excuse for a celebration, and anyone not sipping on ron y cola after sundown is regarded with suspicion and confusion. All vices are by definition difficult to resist, but at the 'no-worries, be-happy' beach party town this effect is greatly heightened. Peligroso.

The heady atmosphere, free-flowing booze, drugs, sex and good vibes have a noticeable influence on romantic matters too. A three year relationship is often condensed into three days, spurred on by an intoxicating sense of freedom; sun-soaked, sand-covered steaminess and the constant knowledge that the 'rules' no longer apply. Couples declaring love within hours of meeting, changing travel plans, delaying departure dates, planning a new life on the beach together. Short, intense pain as things get 'too serious', the relationship deteriorates within the week and a handsome newcomer catches the eye. A process repeated with someone else the next evening.

Reluctance to leave such an environment is pretty much universal and the anchors have set firm within a couple of days. Yet, a vague encroaching recollection of external responsibilities, a pre-booked flight, or the nagging knowledge that you really should visit Machu Picchu while you're in the area means that most people manage to drag themselves away after a week or two. But then there's the Hardcore. The real Beach Bums. Those that really obviously should have left a long, long time ago. The first stage of such indoctrination is a hostel or bar 'job'. Really just an excuse to cut expenses on sleeping and drinking (the only two necessities at the beach). Stage one usually lasts a month or two, after which it's still not too late to safely stumble back to reality.

However, not all take this exit, some continue down the path to full Beach Bum. These folk are easy to spot thanks to their half-baked dreadlocks and poorly-made bracelets for sale. Not a lot of hygienic processes are followed, many sleep on the street as the accommodation budget has long since been expended. Funds are meagrely replenished by selling tat or through awful busking that forces people to pay if only to stop the aural abuse so they can eat their dinner in peace. Any money made is spent on maintaining a constant state of semi-drunkenness. These people are basically tramps but with handicrafts for sale. Artisan tramps. A nice tan but the down-side of impending cirrhosis of the liver. I'm not sure if there's a way back from here, or what the next stage might be. The time to leave was long ago.

Having said that, maybe they're doing it right. Possibly my critical outlook stems from the fear that prevents me fully committing to this lifestyle (ideally with slightly less alcohol abuse). Instead of constantly looking for answers, maybe we all need to stop asking questions and just live on the beach. Give in fully to the allure of la playa. Perhaps that is the answer.

I don't think I can do it though. Intense irritation and internal rage are automatically triggered whenever I see anyone banging on a stupid, portable drum. A personal reassurance that I've never gone too deep and a suggestion that maybe I'll never be able to. Regardless, it was still a very painful and drawn out process to walk away from the feel of sand underfoot, the sight of moonlight shimmering across the water and the sound of gently lapping waves. A flight to Patagonia for a new tour job was the immovable reason for my obligatory departure. Despite the deep reluctance and heartfelt yearning to stay, in the back of my mind I knew it was probably for the best. Before two weeks became two months and the return path from full Beach Bum became increasingly difficult to navigate.

The bump into reality was sudden and unforgiving. Beginning immediately on boarding the bus back to civilisation. "You need to put a shirt on, senor". Begrudgingly accepted. "And some form of footwear". Now this is getting ridiculous! Do you not even know the new rules!? Having not worn anything on my feet or torso for two weeks, this felt like quite a strict request. As these and other real-world regulations and responsibilities gradually flickered back into existence, it felt somewhat like emerging from a dream. Reluctant and foggy-headed, shaking sand from belongings, rum from the mind and slowly relearning how life away from the beach works. No one wants to take this step back to reality, all the while understanding on some level that it's probably necessary. In a few days and weeks, behaviours and beliefs are realigned and the beach-world seems like a distant imagined land. Did that even happen? A trace of memory remains. Sufficient to know that yes, it did, and I'll return soon. I have to. Just for a couple of days, mind.

Contemplating the sea


A group sunset meditation

Man make fire

Birthday celebrations

Birthday celebrations

Searching for beach perfection

My 'spotted in Heat' beach pose

Secluded Los Frailles Beach, Ecuador

Searching for beach perfection

Mis hermanitas de la playa. Que hora es, chicas!?

Searching for beach perfection

Contemplating the sunset

Contemplating the sunset

Preparing to leave - adios chicos!

Friday 7 February 2014

A Journey

Taking a bus can be an experience in Latin America. The main mode of transport for viajeros in this part of the world, if you're going from A to B you're likely to be doing it onboard a bus. The core of travelling, the lifeblood of momentum down the arterial highways of this vast continent.

So, I thought I'd take the time to relay one particular journey. A blow-by-blow breakdown of a typical bus trip over here. Such experiences can be a real rollercoaster - physically, mentally and emotionally (and most definitely without the stringent safety controls present on actual rollercoasters). Travelling solo, it's hard not to spend at least some of the time during these prolonged pauses between locations in deep thought and reflection. Music has a big part to play as headphones are usually in and eyes gazing out over the otherworldly scenery. Aural stimuli from the iPod, visual stimuli through the window and emotional stimuli from the ol' brainbox. All combine and interconnect for a multi-layered sensory assault. Bus journeys can be some of the most affecting and memorable occasions during a long trip.

Por eso, I've decided to write about one. In an ever so slightly indulgent manner: Broken down by hour and with introductory descriptions of external stimuli present and internal effect produced. Here's 'A Journey': Banos to Cuenca, January 2014.

The Beginning

Banos to Cuenca is advertised as a journey of 7 hours including a change of bus in Ambato. This is a lie. All advertised bus journey durations in Latin America are lies. This is a fact.

Often there is more than one type of bus. The (in context) luxurious 'directo' service that goes straight to the final destination with the minimum of fuss or the more local non-direct service that seems to stop every 5 mins for drop-offs/pick-ups, rarely has enough seats for all the passengers and is generally a waking nightmare. It's important to make sure you buy a ticket for the direct bus.

"Este bus es directo, si?" "Si, senor." Always Si. They lie.

Some buses are also just comfier, newer and shinier than others. Something you can try to ascertain from the outrageous photo covering the wall behind the ticket counter. The photo of a brand new luxury bus, impossibly and inexplicably but somehow apparently parked at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

"El bus para Cuenca es el bus en el foto, si?" "Si, senor." Always Si. They lie.

Cuenca Flower Market
Every bus journey so far in Ecuador I've managed to lose the bus lottery. Sat behind a snoring fat man with his chair set to horizontal, knees resting beside my earlobes, an over-crowded rustbucket about to embark on a needlessly prolonged voyage while the luxury direct bus - the bus I elected not to buy a ticket for - pulls out of the adjacent space. This is how my journey from Banos to Cuenca began, and continued a little something like this....

Hours: 1-2
Music: Elbow -
Surroundings: Busy city
Emotion: Slightly overwhelmed

During the initial stage, settling down into my seat, thoughts naturally turned to the upcoming new job. Triggering the realisation, with a sudden pang of panic, that this was now only one week away. It suddenly seemed very real, something I was actually going to have to do, very soon, rather than a far distant future hypothesis. A momentary crisis of confidence here, as is to be expected with any new great responsibility.

Adding to this sense of anxiety was the observation that the bus didn't have a toilet. The Grand Canyon bus photo definitely displayed this feature! Still experiencing the tail-end of my estomago problems and having visited el bano four times already that morning, this was a slight cause for concern. Fears allayed by the driver's reassuring promise that we would stop every 2 hours for a refreshment break. This was a lie.

Hours: 2-3
Music: Darkside -
Surroundings: Climbing mountains, clouds rolling in
Emotion: Reflective, melancholic

As the landscape and music became more moody, thoughts internalised and I began to reflect on my current position in the world and how I came to be here. Post-university, there have been three long trips always sandwiched either side of two years working in Londres. These periods of overseas exploration have served as important life bookmarks, signalling the ending of one chapter and eventually a new beginning. I don't think I'd be able to function without these clear and definite line breaks. The perfect opportunity to take a deep breath, take stock and consider what really matters. Without such a pause for thought life can blur into a series of indistinguishable days and moments, fading into months and years, with little time for considering where you're actually going and more to the point why.
Ingapirca Ruins

Looking back on the previous two years of London living, there've been new jobs, new experiences and most importantly new friends. I realised that almost all those present to say adios at my leaving drinks had only become part of my life in those last two years. Very special people who now mean the world to me, feel like companions decades old rather than acquaintances of a few months. Surely it must have been longer than that... Thoughts of home, the friends that make it so, mistakes made and apologies never expressed left me feeling a little choked up. A lump in the throat and a rare sense of all-encompassing loneliness on this solo journey across the other side of the globe.

The lady sitting next to me began to speak needlessly loudly on her phone. A familiar, universal irritation helped to calm and rebalance the emotions. Small world, really.

Hours: 3-5
Music: My Morning Jacket -
Surroundings: Don't know
Emotion: Content

Drifting in and out of sleep with semi-waking dreams of people back home no doubt triggered by earlier thoughts, this was a comfortable period of the journey. Safe. Content. Only vaguely lucid.

Hours: 5-6
Music: London Grammar -
Surroundings: Rolling green hills
Emotion: Positive, teetering towards euphoric

Refreshed after a nap, watching the vibrant verdant mountains of the Ecuadorian highlands roll past the window, the wonderful sounds of London Grammar providing an uplifting soundtrack, it was hard not to feel lucky to be in this exact time and place. What more could I want? A new job in which I'm surely going to excel and which will provide the funds for more travelling. A moment of clarity: Everything in the last 26 years has led directly here, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

Hours: 6-7
Music: Nick Cave -
Surroundings: Thick mist, steep drops to valley bottom
Emotion: Darker, slightly morbid

Cuenca Cathedral
A heady fog enveloped the bus as we reached the highest point in the journey, intermittently separating for just enough time to allow a peak of the snaking, potholed road sheering away 200ft to the valley below. The driver seemed to think these racing conditions. Pondering the certain death drop, I didn't really feel scared, if anything a little intrigued as to what would actually happen if we went off the edge.... Anyway, it couldn't happen to me. These are things that you read about having happened to other people, right? Easy to imagine it happening to someone else, just not you. But what separates you from them? Solely the location of your own consciousness. To quite literally everyone else in the world, you're not you, you're one of them. And those people you read about would have felt exactly the same way just before their bus plummeted into the abyss. The cliff seemed scarier.

A man sitting across the aisle began whistling out of time and out of tune to the already offensive Reggaeton music. I don't enjoy listening to whistling of a highly accomplished standard. The cliff didn't look so bad again.

Hours: 7-8
Music: Midlake -
Surroundings: Persistent mist
Emotion: Neutral
During this hour I was deeply absorbed in my book and half-listening to a Midlake album I don't really like. Nothing else to report.

Hours: 8-9
Music: Bruce Springsteen -
Surroundings: More buildings, darkness falling
Emotion: Tired, slightly anxious

As our expedition expectedly ticked over the scheduled time, dusk approached along with the familiar anxiety of arriving after dark in an unknown city with all belongings strapped to my back. Mistaking an earlier town for Cuenca and strolling down the aisle to disembark, I managed to lose my valuable seat. "Don't worry", said the driver. "We're only 20 minutes away". This was a lie.

Ingapirca Ruins
I stood for an hour before another seat became available. My new neighbour exuded a strange vibe. Leaning sideways with his forehead against the window, resting his chin at the base of his right-hand thumb and with index finger pointing straight out touching the glass. At random intervals he released a short, sharp burst of air from between pursed lips. Strange, I thought. It took a few minutes to realise that the noises coincided perfectly with pedestrians walking outside. He was pretending to shoot them. We're not talking about a playful child here, but a balding middle-aged man who's been stuck on a bus for 9 hours. Staring straight ahead, I ignored his frequent attempts to catch my eye with a slow menacing turn of his head. Never before had the back of the seat in front been so interesting. I didn't question his actions lest I should become the latest victim on his imaginary killing spree.

Climbing another hill, the gear shift that had been threatening to give out all day finally did, a few miles still outside Cuenca. Bus well and truly farked, we all disembarked and stood disorientated at the side of the road. I was tired.

Hours: 9-10
Music: None
Surroundings: Hostel interior
Emotion: Elation

I checked the nearby buildings for street names, rang my pre-booked hostel and got them to send a taxi to pick me up. Not something I would likely have thought of as a travel virgin, but the result of years of shit-buses and problem-solving in far-flung countries. See, all this wandering around is a worthwhile, educational, character-building pursuit.

Finally arrived at the intended destination, bottle of cervaza in hand, recovering from the emotional, physical and mental adventure that is a Latin American bus journey, I couldn't be happier. Even the knowledge that the next convoluted trip was only 36 hours away couldn't dampen the mood. It may explain why I've aged so badly, but I wouldn't change a thing.

Happy travels x

Ingapirca Ruins

Banos cathedral at night

Banos from above

Banos cathedral at night

Cuenca Flower Market

Montanita Beach Sunset

Tungurahua Volcano Erupting

Montanita Beach Sunset

Devil's Nose Railway

Montanita Beach Sunset

Devil's Nose Railway

Montanita Beach Sunset

Devil's Nose Railway

Montanita Beach Sunset