Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



Another country and another newsletter written. I can write to you having visited Colombia, proves I am not dead, so it can't be that bad can it. I am actually still in Colombia but as the account of my time was getting a bit too long, I decided to break it in two to make it more bearable, hopefully. Here's the story Vol. 1.

The journey to Cartagena was not particularly arduous although long enough. It involved a seven hour bus ride to Maracaibo where I waited for a couple of hours for the bus that was to take me to the Venezuelan / Colombian border and onto the city of Cartagena. The planning and checking of my route was all dutifully accomplished in advance by my good friend and personal assistant, Sofia. Leaving Merida after so much time and so many friends etc. there was a little sad but an inevitable part of the travellers fare.

The bus I got on at 4.30 am in Maracaibo had only a handful of passengers and I was looking forward to sleeping well. The Venezuelan police however had other ideas. The comparatively short distance to the border is interspersed with customs, police, immigration and other half-baked officials. At the first of these check points the Policeman tried to get a bribe from me, but I just played the dumb tourist who couldn't understand what was going on. He kept asking me to buy him a drink (an odd form of trying to extract payment), I replied repeatedly that was very kind of him to offer but I wasn't thirsty. After getting quite annoyed with me and with the bus driver hovering trying to get the process speeded up with either me paying or him letting me go, he passed me on to his fatter superior who seemed to appreciate he wasn't going to get anything from me and let us get on our way. My travelling companions, all Venezuelans all rallied round me at this point, apologised for the state of affairs and said that t was only in Venezuela I had this problem the Colombians being much better. At the following check points etc. they tried to keep an eye on me a bit and be helpful if possible. This served me well up to the border itself where the Venezuelan immigration let me pass with little hindrance.

Now I was to deal with the Colombian guy who was angling so much it was a surprise he didn't break his wrist. He tried to show me rules and regulations I was in contravention of and that would mean me going back to Maracaibo if I did not smooth the way. I said that it was probably best then that I go back to Maracaibo as I had nothing with me to smooth the way, being completely without Bolivars (true) having only two thousand pesos (true, about sixty-five US cents) and no Dollars, Sterling, Euros or other currency (not so true). I showed him my wallet, or at least the bits I wanted him to see and this bore out my story. He tried to sell me some dodgy ten pound notes (what he was doing with snide English money in Colombia I had no idea - he told me a friend had given it to him), which I was unable to purchase as all I had was two thousand pesos (less than fifty pence). He asked me how I planned to survive on this meagre sum. I managed to convince him that actually I was meeting a friend in Cartagena and only needed this money to make the phone call to meet her. He finally capitulated gave me a sixty day visa and I walked across the road to change fifty dollars into pesos. When I got to the bus everyone including staff stopped a heated discussion to ask me what it had cost me to get in. When I told them they smiled and asked me "but really, what did you pay?" repeatedly, only finally admitting with a grin that maybe not all these gringos are so stupid. It appeared they had been running an unofficial book on what it would cost me to get in and since nobody had put anything on zero, all bets were off.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, although we passed through some attractive scenery and several towns, there was nothing that particularly sticks in the memory, except that the landscape for some reason reminded me of Africa, oh well.

Shortly after I arrived in Cartagena I met a group of travellers of different nationalities, staying at my hotel and the one round the corner and got invited to the dinner they had just made. It gave me a good chance to get a bit of information about the country as well as the benefits of meeting new people. The only problem was that most of the people seemed to be in Colombia for a combination of proving they could do it (unfortunately too many people travel for that reason) and to stick as much of the local product up their noses as possible. I don't want to give the impression that this was everyone, but was the majority of the first group I met. Those I encountered later on in Cartagena and in my time in Colombia were quite different however.

The old town of Cartagena is supposed to be the best preserved Spanish colonial architecture in the Americas. In my experience I haven't seen better and it really is quite charming with a very intact authentic feel, at least it would be if it wasn't for the number of people peddling to the tourists and driving one mad. Cartagena is the most touristic place in Colombia and as well as attracting swarms of domestic tourists, is a stopping point for the Cruise ships and a popular destination for people from neighbouring countries. The quantity of tourists is quite surprising and as a result the character of the town is changed.

This may also explain why the nightlife was really not particularly impressive. Over the weekend I went to a number of different venues and although expensive and often full, there was generally no atmosphere at all and the people seemed very cold, not what I had been led to believe about Colombians.

Whilst in Cartagena I also visited the Castle San Felipe one of the two large castles guarding the entrance to the city from the sea. The castle is extremely solidly built and instead of having large rooms, as was common in European castles as they were also residences of the wealthy, prisons, stores, etc. It consists only of battlements and inside there are a number of damp, humid, narrow passageways with some small door-less rooms for soldiers to stay in, store equipment or food and not much more. At the bottom of a couple of steep slippery passageways in the castle is a fresh water reservoir. Clearly the design was all about defence and nothing to do with comfort. It was fun to explore the place but by the end of searching all the passageways it felt as though I had been walking about in a sauna and the fresh breeze at the top of the battlements was very welcome.

I also visited the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum), which although not particularly large had some interesting artefacts. What was more interesting in many regards though was the conversation I had with the security guard there who told me a bit about his life and what he earned (equivalent to about 140 Dollars / 90 Pounds a month).

The final thing I wanted to do in Cartagena (or the area) was to visit one of the mud volcanoes. The first time I tried to go, I was too late at the bus station so could not find a bus to take me. The following day I decided to take a tour as it worked out only marginally more expensive than going independently and was easier and meant visiting more places. So the following day I got up early only to find out it had been cancelled. This was Saturday and I had already spent more time in Cartagena than I really wanted to, planned to, or needed to. That evening whilst on my way out for a couple of drinks I coincidentally bumped into Drew and Karen, an English couple I had previously met in Merida some weeks earlier. They were staying at the same hotel as me and were also booked on the tour to the mud volcano the following morning. We celebrated our meeting that night and in the morning the tour actually departed.

After collecting all the other people (from the more expensive part of town) we set off to the Volcan de Lodo and when we arrived were slightly surprised by its size. It resembled a particularly large molehill (or a very small volcano) standing about fifteen or twenty metres high, with a staircase up the side. We changed into our bathing suits and ascended the stairwell. I was the first one up and saw there were three men already in the pool in the crater, whom I presumed to be other tourists. As I descended the ladder into the very liquid mud I found not only was it a very odd bathing experience, with odd buoyancy, but also that these men were apparently the masseurs. They gave us all a bit of a rub about whilst we just floated easily in the mud. The two girls amongst us seemed unsurprisingly to be given much more attention than the guys. The masseurs took it as a perk of the job I suppose, to be able to rub bikini clad women with mud for a while. Conversely rubbing the hairy blokes is was they get paid for. After spending about an hour in the mud we climbed out cautiously and dried a bit (to allow the mud to do its supposedly healing work), before going down to the lake to be bathed by the women there and cleaned off. This was the bit I thought that was more suited to the macho society we were supposedly in. As we made our way mud-covered to the lake side I was looking forward to this bit, that was until I saw the bathers who albeit adequate at there job, did nothing to excite anyone but the most depraved. The volcano itself erupts every so often but apparently always does so first up the hill and then in the bit where we had bathed, giving plenty of warning, or at least so we were told. The mud pool is apparently five-hundred metres deep which is quite a long way down, but as one is so positively buoyant in the muddy water there is no danger at all of drowning, although you wouldn’t want to drop anything.

After we had dried off, gotten dressed and tipped the various people we had to, we boarded the bus and went to a beach for a while where we had the opportunity to swim, but didn’t and then had lunch, before returning to Cartagena and our hotel.

The following day I got up ridiculously early in order to get the bus from Cartagena to Medellín, the capital of Antioquia department some thirteen and a half hours away. Most of the way I slept or read, but when I did pay attention to the countryside it was generally attractive and verdant. I arrived a little before eight in the evening and Pilar, a friend whose acquaintance I had made in Trinidad came to meet me and take me to her home where I was to stay for the duration of my time in the city.

As Pilar had some classes and studying to do, my first full day in Medellín, Gloria, Pilar’s mother acted as guide and took me to see several neighbourhoods, generally the poorer parts of the city. This included Sabaneta, where every Tuesday (which it was), the church there has a number of pilgrims praying for assistance and the like because apparently an incarnation of the Virgin appeared there on a Tuesday.

The following day, Gloria acted as guide again and this time we visited the more cultural sites including the Vera Cruz church, the oldest building in Medellín and the Museo de Antioquia, home of an impressive collection of artworks featuring Fernando Botero. An internationally famous Paisa (Antioqueсo) artist, particularly known for his rotund figures. Just about everything Botero painted or sculpted is rotund. Even the still-life paintings seem somehow voluminous. His most famous figures though are of large, bulbous men and women. We also visited the various plazas, churches, cathedrals, galleries and interesting buildings in the city centre, before riding the Metro back home. The Paisas are understandably proud of there Metro as it is the only one in Colombia. Built in 1995 it has apparently reduced the traffic by forty percent and is clean, efficient and safe, as well as affording a good elevated view of the city, as it is all above ground.

The nest day Pilar herself showed me around the universities and in one there is an impressive museum with galleries downstairs and natural history and archaeological exhibits upstairs. Some of the archaeological indigenous artefacts on display, mostly pottery, were very attractive and surprisingly intact.

That evening I went with Pilar, Juan Andres (her boyfriend) and Juan David (a friend) to watch the semi-final of the South American football cup between Nacional, the local team and Ciencias, from Cuzco, Peru. The atmosphere on entering the stadium was high spirited and the fans were dancing and singing loudly accompanied by drummers. It was nice to see such a varied crowd, with small children in attendance as well as adults, although the majority were probably between sixteen and twenty-five. From the kick-off the display was less than impressive with disorganised, clumsy, lazy play on both sides. Just fifteen minutes in to the first half a Peruvian player managed to get in to the penalty area almost unopposed before falling over the ball. Then realising, whilst he was sitting on the turf, that the ball was behind him, he got up and made light work of shooting the ball past the goalkeeper. The twenty-thousand or so Nacional fans sat down and there was silence. One could not hear more than a murmur despite the attempts of the five or ten Peruvian fans waving their flag, trying to make some noise. The first half was generally disappointing and did not display any of the famous Latin football flair.

The second half started and it was immediately apparent that the coaches had not used their time in the changing rooms in vain. The tempo had picked up a lot and Nacional began to appear like a team worth watching, they had after all beaten the legendary Boca Juniors from Buenos Aires in their previous match. Twenty minutes or so into the half a Nacional player outside the penalty area shot a cannon of a goal into the top corner of the net and the home crowd was understandably elated (and relieved) to have equalised. The singing reached new heights, although the rhythm unfortunately didn’t change for the ninety minutes, although the word did. Just another ten or fifteen minutes later the Peruvians retook the lead when one of the players took advantage of general clumsiness in front of the goal to lob a very nice goal over the goalkeeper into the top right hand corner. The home crowd once again were silent and deflated for a while and then got back to singing to the same rhythm once again. The end result was far from satisfactory for the Nacional fans as the return leg in Cuzco is going to prove more difficult for the visitors due to the extreme altitude there. Despite the result though everyone left in an orderly manner, many still singing (yes, to the same tune) and there was no violence or even much rowdiness. The football was not as impressive as I had hoped although I enjoyed the atmosphere and the company. Juan David an ardent fan and season ticket holder was a little downtrodden although after a couple of drinks his spirits seemed to lift at least a little.

Pilar took be the next day to see more of the town, including a sculpture of Botero’s called “The Bird of Peace”, a typically rotund bronze, that guerrillas blew up to make a political statement. So Botero just made another one, which was installed alongside the damaged original to make an even more appropriate statement. We then went to Pueblito Paisa, a reproduction of a typically Paisa village, where all the most interesting bits were closed, but there were nice views of Medellнn from there. In the evening once again joined by Juan Andres, we went to the San Pedro cemetery, the final resting place of presidents, poets, businessmen, drug barons and their henchman, as well as normal folk. The reason we went was to see a concert, although we didn’t know what the concert was to be. However before the concert we were given a tour of the cemetery which was lit by flaming torches, providing an appropriate ambience. The guide described some of the architecture, design and artwork of the most impressive mausoleums, as well as giving an often amusing account of the residents lives and deaths. Some of the mausoleums are of an extravagance hard to fathom, and grander than anything I have seen in modern cemeteries anywhere else (even more ornate than those in Buenos Aires’s Recoleta Cemetery). From the Mausoleums of the rich, famous and powerful, we went to the part where the normal folk are buried. These tombs are actually several storeys high in a wall where in parts there are perhaps ten or more tombs high and hundreds across. Although not as large as the mausoleums in the centre of the cemetery they were still very interesting, often with more popular designs incorporated, such as cartoon characters or the picture of the bus that the entombed used to drive. Most of the marble epitaphs (each about two feet / sixty centimetres wide and high) are covered in flowers, stickers and photos. Something I noticed whilst we were going around is that almost none of them predated 1998, i.e. five years ago and only when I returned to the cemetery several days later did I found out why, but more about that below. There are also a number of tombs with the word “sacrificed” inscribed on the epitaph and photos of the young male residents who were soldiers for the infamous Medellín cartel and who died in the line of duty to the cartel.

When we re-entered the chapel where we had commenced the tour the concert was in full swing. It was a choral concert with some of the greatest hits of the fifteenth century performed for our delectation. It was pleasant to listen to but unfortunately one of the choralists, wearing a bright lime green shirt and whilst singing was mincing in a way that would have made Liberace look positively butch. Juan Andres and I managed to contain ourselves for a little while but then the flood gates opened and we were both suffering from bouts of hysterical laughter, watching the citrus fruit pouting and prancing. Thankfully for us and all around us the concert didn’t last much longer. From there we went to have a nice dinner and then met a number of Pilar and Juan Andres’s classmates from university at a Salsa bar where several of the ladies voluntarily suffered my attempts at Latin rhythm.

Another trip we took together was to the countryside near Medellín, simply known as El Orriente. The countryside in that area is attractive and mountainous with picturesque villages. We also visited Tutucan which is a theme village, where a typical, traditional Antioqueno village has been built, with a traditional barber shop, town hall, etc. Tutucan is populated by a number of interesting characters. These wander around accosting and amusing the visitors. We met Don Zuzo, the shoeshine man and village idiot with a speech impediment, the old women of the town who accost and grope any man they get near, a couple of idiot sisters who try to play music but just end up flirting and the village policeman who walks around with a flower in the barrel of his rifle. These people definitely make the place a bit more amusing and although the humour is very simple and very Latin it was enjoyable. There is also a farm where the farmer (who happened to be a genuine nutcase), would show how docile the young cattle are by crawling under them and grabbing them by their privates.

That weekend, in Colombia, was a long one as it was the celebration of the Liberation of Cartagena. We took advantage of this to go to Juan Andres’s family in Venecia, some two hours or so from Medellín. The scenery en route was very attractive and there was a beautiful sunset as we approached the village. In the village we met Juan Andres’s uncle and then went to his late grandparents house which is a traditional building in the centre of the village and currently completely empty. The uncle then took us on a tour of the village and made a special effort to explain everything to me. The most amusing bit for me were the horses which were al over the place. There were the Colombian equivalent of cowboys riding them around, drinking in bars whilst still in the saddle, drinking outside the bars with their horses alongside them and appearing to try to drink as well. Many of the people were wearing traditional dress, particularly the Finceros (farm owners). They would wear a white cowboy hat, poncho and boots. It gave the place a very authentic fun feel and although their were a number of people from Medellín there for the weekend, I was the only foreigner, it not being a touristic place, which was part of the charm.

In the evening we were joined by a number of Juan Andres’s friends and spent the night dancing and chatting and generally having a good time, along with everyone else in the place. Several of the horses seemed to have an unusual walking style, I enquired why, thinking it might be some kind of dressage or similar and was told that it was because they were drunk. I am still not sure whether or not that was the truth, but several people did tell me the same thing and that horses really love to drink beer. I have still reserved judgement.

After a long lie in the next day we walked up to Javier’s (a friend) grandmothers home, outside the village with lovely views. Then we took a walk through the countryside encountering several traditionally outfitted locals and numerous beautiful wild and cultivated flowers none of which I could identify although several of which I recognised. There was also fruit growing on the trees which we could and did help ourselves too as we walked.

We had a late lunch and then headed back to Medellín by a different route, this afforded different nice views and we could also see a rock face that was a part of local indigenous legend as it has the profile of a woman, with grasses and plants growing appropriately to appear like hair. A little further down the road the same rock face is no longer a profile of the woman but is a more complete portrait. This route also gave us the chance to see, the mountain whose name escapes me, from the far side where it appears almost perfectly triangular with a sharp point at the top.

In Medellín again I took the opportunity to go round town on my own, in order to get a bit of a feel for the place. I went back to the cemetery to see it in daylight and got to see why most of the tombs in the wall were so recent. I noticed what appeared to be a family group and a couple of labourers make their way to one of the tombs, whereupon the labourers started hacking away at it with hatchets. I asked a nearby security guard what was going on and he told me that they were going to take out the coffin (which they did as he was speaking) and then take all the remains from it and give them to the family either for burial elsewhere or cremation. The reason apparently being that most people can only afford to rent the space for four or five years, which is plenty of time for the flesh etc. to have decomposed completely. He then encouraged me to go and watch them at work, which apparently is not regarded as rude or disrespectful (I checked). As they opened the coffin there was a bit of a pungent odour. The workmen then set about putting all the remains into what looked like any common or garden black dustbin bag. The skull came away from the rest of the skeleton quite simply and was the first thing to go in the bag, followed by the long hair and other remains. The somewhat rotten clothing was shaken empty and left in the coffin but the contents were scooped into the bag with everything else. Then finally the family was given the sack of remains and went off either to re-inter them somewhere else or cremate them.

One evening during the week I went with Gloria and friends to see the Medellín symphony orchestra perform Rodrigo’s Aranjuez, probably my favourite piece of classical music although I had never previously seen it live. As well as Aranjuez they also performed several other pieces or varying appeal, but it was an enjoyable evening.

I also took a day trip to Santa Fé de Antioquia, an attractive village some way from Medellín. On the way there the amusing collectivo (shared taxi) driver crossed himself quite frequently as we were going along, which did not inspire confidence. We arrived safely two and a half hours later and I took the opportunity to walk around and look at the well preserved former capital of Antioquia department (and for the brief period when Antioquia declared itself a nation it was the capital of a country). The drive back was a little more spirited. This driver I noticed did not bother to cross himself even once but maintained a maniacal grin on his face as we hurtled round bends missing oncoming traffic by millimetres at most, then apparently flying out of control down a precipitous side road to arrive back at the terminal in an hour and a half.

The next couple of days in Medellín were spent being sociable, going out meeting people and generally having fun. On the Sunday morning I got up early, after a late night to get a bus to the capital Bogotá.

To be continued . . . . .



Well hello again and new years greetings to one and all. I have just left Colombia so it is time I wrote the second instalment of my Colombian story.

From Medellin I went to Bogotá, the capital and quite an attractive city. At over 2,300 metres it is also quite a cool place with temperatures and weather that reminded me more of England than the tropics. Bogotá is somewhere (like much of Colombia) with a name that is internationally synonymous with trouble. My glimpse of the reality however was quite different. The Platypus, which is the hostel where I stayed is very sociable, run by a smart, charming and extremely helpful guy. Bogotá also has a great nightlife from Wednesday to Saturday which was worth going for alone. In addition there are also a number of cultural treasures to be found, but I am getting ahead of myself.

On my first day in Bogotá I was having a stroll around the old town, when I came to the Plaza Bolivar, flanked on different sides by the Government building, the town hall and mayors offices, the high court and the cathedral. In the centre is the large paved plaza where the military were putting on a display for the new mayor of Bogotá. I stayed and watched that for a while and then when the speeches had put almost everyone to sleep carried on with my wanderings. Central Bogotá is somewhere that could be almost anywhere in the developed world. It is a modern bustling thriving city and actually a nice place to stroll about.

As previously mentioned Bogotá has some cultural treasures, foremost amongst which is the Museo D'Oro (Gold Museum). In this museum is a fabulous display of Pre-Colombian gold and treasures. The quality of workmanship is impressive and some of the filigree jewellery so intricate it would be beyond the abilities of many modern artisans. Whilst there with Shane (an Australian also staying at the Platypus) a group of school kids from a town a couple of hours away were there on an excursion and they decided to come and talk to us to see where we were from. The conversation was not particularly stimulating but they were really nice kids. When we finally thought we had parted company, they came running back to give us each a bracelet in the Colombian colours which was quite charming as they had gone down the road to buy it for us and then returned. We then went on to peruse the exhibits which are exceptional and extremely well presented with good information in both English and Spanish.

There are a number of museums in Bogotá and we also visited the National museum which had a varied display of artefacts. Some parts were deathly boring but others were very special, particularly a laurel wreath made of gold for Simon Bolivar the Liberator. The Botero museum is more interesting for the donations that the artist made of his collection of other peoples work, than for his stuff, which I had already seen enough off in Medellin. Amongst the other pieces on show were pieces by Ernst, Dali, Miro and many others. The Mint museum is in the same complex and is really only interesting for numismatists, however in another annexe is an impressive gallery of primarily Colombian artists with some particularly notable pieces by Oscar Munoz.

One of the mountains surrounding Bogotá is called Monserrat and at its peak, reached either by foot, cable car or funicular, (we went in the funicular as we was not inclined to walk it, as it is apparently not safe, not forgetting it is all up hill. The cable car was out of order.) there is a pleasant church and some excellent views over the high plateau where Bogotá is situated. We picked a good day to go up and as a result we had a clear view across to all sides of the plateau where it is ringed with mountains.

A group from the Platypus and I decided to go for a day trip to Zipaquira salt mines where the miners have carved a cathedral into the salt chambers nicely done and a little eerie. We ad a good laugh there but our guide was not impressed. It in no way however competes with the salt Cathedral in Wielizska, Poland, which is really spectacular.

From Bogotá I got the bus to Cali, a hot place in various regards and thought of as the worlds Salsa capital. I Thought I was going for just a couple of days but it seems I was mistaken. When I got to Cali it emerged that Nir (a decent Israeli bloke) and Dan (English - Bishops Stortford, actually), whom I had met and gone out with several times in Bogotá had arrived at the hotel the day. Dan was supposed to have flown to Pasto and then gone onto Ecuador and Peru but there had been a cock-up with the airline so he had come to Cali instead. Over the next few days we all decided we would spend a couple more days than planned in Cali because it seemed so agreeable (we were still wrong). Nir and Dan had met a bunch of Calena physiotherapy students a couple of weeks earlier when they were in Cartagena and we all met up with them and went out several times to different spots. One of the places we would go to is Juanchito famous for its Salsa clubs and referred to in a number of Salsa songs as a result. They would also take us around the city and show us the best views.

A bar that was recommended to us was Martin's. So we went along there and met the landlord an expat Brit called Martyn. Martyn is definitely a character, to welcome us to his place he gave us a shot of tequila on the house, then followed that with another shot of tequila on the house, and another and another etc. etc. until between the four of us we had got through more than a whole bottle of Jose Cuervo. Nir was not used to this sort of thing (Israelis are not famed for their drinking) so left and a few moments later so did the contents of his stomach. Dan and I however were in fine form and stayed on until closing time.

The following evening we decided to go to another bar recommended to us called Blues Brothers, run by a guy called Peter, an expat from Belfast. We were sipping on our first beers when Peter introduced himself and asked us what we would like to drink on the house whiskey, tequila or Aguardiente. I took the initiative and pointed out that in an Irishman's pub surely we should drink whiskey. So along came the shots again, they did slow after not too long though until Martyn turned up and told Peter to give us all more drinks. It transpires that Martyn and Peter are partners in the pub. Martyn as a fifty-three year old, twenty-two year resident of Cali and almost alcoholic apparently had appreciated our drinking the previous evening. I overheard him talking to a Colombian friend in Spanish and explaining that we were good guys as we had gone shot for shot with him all night. To which the Colombiana expressed her surprise and consternation. Blue Brothers became our local and over the rest of our time in Cali we were there almost every night and as Peter runs a very social pub we made a number of friends and acquaintances there. Peter himself is a charming guy and he would always give us a number of shots to drink whether we wanted them or not, even if we tried to decline them in no uncertain terms.

Cali is not a place famous for its culture, one day though we decided to do the cultural tour and saw the Archaeological museum, which was pleasant for half an hour, the cathedral which took ten minutes to see and a general walk about which was pleasant enough.

Apart from Martins and the Blues Brothers we had another favourite venue, Lenos y Carbon. Lenos y Carbon means logs and coal and is an excellent steak place where one can have a fantastic steak for about five dollars (less than three quid). Our local friends found it amusing how we settled into such regular eating and drinking spots so quickly.

As we were generally occupied at night but often had little or nothing to do during the days we decided to go to a country club, called "Club Shalom". Originally it was only for Jews but now it is open to anyone with the membership fee. One of the funny things though is that they have a policy that all Israeli travellers can go for free. Also being a member of the faith, Nir and I were confident that we would get in although we were not sure about Dan (Dan is a blonde former chorister who couldn't look less Jewish if he was in dog collar and cassock). We thought that the best thing to do would be to give him a story about how he had only recently found out of his Jewish lineage and to clinch it we tried to teach him the Hatikvah - the Israeli national anthem. That in itself was a great comic effort. Anyway the next day we went off to try our luck. After a long taxi ride out to Ciudad Jardin in the south of the city we got there to find it was closed. Although normally only closed on Mondays, this was a Tuesday, it was closed as there had been a holiday on the Monday so they were taking the day off then. Oh well, more time for Dan to pick up some more Yiddish expressions and get the Hatikvah right. The following morning we got in no problem and had the place almost to our selves there were three other people there and about forty staff. So we had the run of the nice big swimming pool, the golf course, tennis courts, squash courts, football pitch, volleyball court, etc. etc. and throughout Nir and I had never got the chance to hear Dan try to convince the people there that he was Jewish by doing the Hatikvah in his choristers voice. We went back a couple of times and got to see there was even more of the grounds than we had previously thought, including a river and the empty buildings of what was the clubs private zoo. We also got to meet a couple of local girls whose grandfather was one of the founding members of the club. They live round the corner in a big fancy house and so we had lunch with them and then as it was a Friday night decided to go to Synagogue with them. This again was a new experience for Dan and he just followed Nir and my lead throughout. The congregation was very welcoming and the rabbi made a special mention of greeting to us when he started his sermon. The funny bit was however when Nir and I were fanning the air with our prayer books. Dan obediently followed suit thinking it was some strange part of the ceremony with no real idea what had happened until we told him later, which was that someone had farted.

In the build up to Christmas, Cali got more and more attractive with lights and decorations going up all over town. In some districts the people decorated there houses with so many lights it is a wonder they could sleep with them flashing constantly outside the windows. The city also put up a lot of decorations down the main thoroughfares and all along the river, making the town look very special.

We went to a football match together which was a game that Deportivo Cali, one of the two local teams had to win to get to the league final. They did so with a 2-1 victory over Pasto. Before the final the following week Dan had to leave (after three weeks as opposed to three days that he had intended) and went back home to England for Christmas with his family so the three musketeers were down to two. Nir, Peter (of the Blues Brothers), Gary (another expat Brit here) and I met to go to the league final together. The queuing to get into the ground was ridiculous and I did not have a hat with me so suffered the scorching sun quite severely, by the end of the day doing a very convincing beetroot impression. As we were queuing for the final bit a guy started pushing past everyone, I told him to calm down as would all get in finally. Whereupon some other bloke suddenly started shouting at me in French. This was particularly odd as he was obviously Colombian but even stranger was what he was saying, which was that we as foreigners were not welcome at the game and we should go back to our own country etc. I thanked him for his hospitality and ignored him. I am sure that the reason he said it in French and not Spanish is that the Colombians are very proud hospitable people and that if his compatriots had understood him they probably would have lynched him for what he was saying. As it was, French was probably the only foreign language he knew, so he decided to be rude in that one. It was the only time during my time in Colombia I had anyone behave that way, on the contrary almost everyone we would talk to would tell us how pleased they were to have us in their country and would generally ask us curiously where we were from, the girls would give us bracelets and the guys usually thrust drinks into our hands. That is what made the whole thing so odd. When I mentioned this to some other people, both expats and locals they were all surprised and had never heard of anything of the kind before.

We finally got in and split into two pairs as the stands were already packed (there are no assigned seats). Nir and I managed to find some good seats almost over the half way line and with pleasant people next to and in front of us, arseholes behind though. The first half of the game was excellent with Cali in fine form and playing football at an international level. Tolima were having rings run around them and despite the fact that as this was the second leg Tolima were 2-0 up from the previous meeting Cali looked set to win. At 2-0 up Cali looked unstoppable, needing one more and then to hold on to the lead to win the league. Each time they scored the stands erupted and the guys next to us would embrace us and jump around in celebration. Then they scored an own goal and the crowd was less than cheerful. Cali came back however to go into halftime with a 3-1 lead and about eighty percent of the possession. As with South American football in general though the second half was a very different affair and was a much slower game and without any more goals and not a lot of interesting football the league was to be decided on penalties. The Cali goalkeeper seemed to dominate here getting his hands on four of the five penalties although saving just one. The Tolima goalkeeper had managed a lucky save on the third penalty taken. Then as the Cali player went to shoot the fifth penalty, he made a terrible shot and made it an easy save for Tolima who won the league for the first time in their history. The Cali supporters left in an orderly manner without any problems and the Tolima fans stayed on until the players had received the cup and paraded around with it. All in all though a very good game and well worth going to see.

Amongst some of Colombia's most prolific crops are coffee and coca. What should also be noted is the crops of beautiful Colombian women. With this in mind a group of us from the hotel went to watch the Calibuenanota beauty contest. This was the final of a number of rounds of beauty contests to find the most beautiful women from Cali. I managed to get a seat just by the catwalk with my press card, so I could inspect the girls at close range as well as getting the free aguardiente. There were twelve girls, each representing a different month and they were a mixed bag to say the least. Some of them had so much plastic in them it was a wonder they could survive in the heat. In Colombia plastic surgery is very affordable and popular with no real social stigma attached. The prizes reflected this the third prize was two million pesos of clothing vouchers, the second five million pesos worth of plastic surgery and first prize a trip to Miami, English lessons and a modelling contract. The winners were actually the three natural good lookers without any apparent work having been done to them, which only made it more worrying that the girl in second place would go out and get five million pesos worth of plastic surgery. Several of the women in the audience were actually far better looking than those in the contest, unfortunately they all seemed to be paired off with guys that looked a lot like drug barons, probably because they were drug barons. To see what the girls look like check out http://www.calibuenanota.com/chicabuenanota/# and click on the various girls for each month, starting with Chica Enero on the right hand side. Many of them look better in these photos than they did in the flesh. The pictures of the actual contest can be seen at http://www.calibuenanota.com/portada/notas/Diciembre192003/final.html# click on the Desfile links.

Christmas here is a more family orientated affair that takes place on the 24th. However Nir and I were invited to spend it with a group of expats here and we had a traditional English Christmas lunch on Christmas day which was very nice (and Nir's first). We also went to see the Cabalgata, a parade of thousands of horses and riders through the city who get pelted with flower and water by the crowds lining the route. The better looking women get particularly soaked so that towards the end it almost resembles a horseback wet t-shirt contest. Many of the riders were actually pulled off their horses by the authorities if they were too drunk or just unconscious. That said many of the riders we saw looked close enough to death after several hours of drinking aguardiente on horseback in the midday sun. Some however were still able to perform the Paso Fina, with their horses walking sideways and prancing and so forth in an elegant manner. Pictures can be found at http://www.calibuenanota.com/caliderumba/feria.html# click on the three different Cabalgata links at the bottom of the page.

This was the first event in the Feria de Cali, an annual festival in Cali with concerts and other attractions. That evening we went to the Inauguration concert where several good Salsa groups performed, several of them of international repute. The favourite was Son de Cali, a local group with a lot of stage charisma, good music and well known internationally. With the official press accreditation that we had blagged some days earlier we got into the VIP part right in front of the stage and were even allowed to go back stage or onstage to take photos. We were also interviewed for Colombian television which went out the following evening. Nir was called Israeli tourist and my name was written Rafael Kezar on TV, which was quite funny and it was odd to see ourselves talking Spanish on TV.

A couple of nights later was the Superconcierto in the stadium. Once again there were several good Salsa groups and Gilberto Santarosa (a salsa legend) came from Puerto Rico to perform. The headliner though was Ruben Blades from Panama. Ruben Blades is a big act internationally and has also appeared as an actor in several Hollywood films. This however was his last ever concert as he is giving up his artistic career as he is pursuing the presidency of Panama, a position most expect him to achieve. As a result everyone was waiting for something spectacular and they got it. He finally took to the stage at 1.45 am after several mediocre acts and some torrential rain and performed fantastically. He had the charisma, talent and presence to perform excellently for a stadium. He didn't just do Salsa but also performed some rock, pop and more original pieces one of which involved an Irish bagpipe (Eunenion). The whole thing was excellent and despite the stage managers efforts to get him to end his show several times he carried on playing until 4.30 in the morning and everyone could have quite happily stayed for more. Pictures at http://www.calibuenanota.com/caliderumba/feria.html# click on "Super Concierto Feria de Cali"

The following day we went to watch the Desfile de Carnaval (Carnival procession) where we got to see various groups performing and parading, some making political or social statements but everyone having a good time. It was also when the international beauty queens in town for the Desfile de la Reina de la caña de Azucar (Sugar Cane queen beauty contest) were making their first public appearance en masse. They were on floats on the back of trucks, whilst taking photos of some of them Miss Brazil posed for me just as the truck stopped and almost fell off the thing and would have if her co-competitors hadn't caught her. Pictures can be found at http://www.calibuenanota.com/caliderumba/feria.html# click on "Carnaval Feria de Cali"

During the Desfile we met a couple of local girls, sisters actually, with whom we joined the last part of the parade and as they were good looking girls the crowd was wolf-whistling us the whole way. At least I presume it was the girls that were getting the whistles and not Nir and I. At the end of the parade we headed off to the Tascas a park where there are a number of stands selling food and drink and several rides for kids and adults, as well as music and the occasional concert. (some pictures can be found at http://www.calibuenanota.com/caliderumba/tascas.html# ). That evening we all went out for a couple of drinks with the girls and their brother and then after they went home Nir and I decided to go for last orders at Blues Brothers as we had not been for a few days.

As we were walking down the road, a road we have walked down numerous times at all times of day and night, for some reason we were a few metres apart when a guy suddenly appeared in front of me waving a six to eight inch knife in my face and demanding my money, then another appeared over my left shoulder. I instinctively stepped backwards which actually put me in a doorway so effectively trapped and with two hostile people in front of me. There was nothing Nir could do so I shouted to him to run and get help. I also tried to convince the thieves that there were police behind so that they would turn and I could thump the one with the knife. It didn't work though. The guy with the knife just came at me hacking, trying to stab me. The first three times I managed to hit the knife away and sustained some minor cuts to my hand as a result. On the fourth stab I caught the blade of the knife in my hand and held on to it as hard as I could, something the attacker was not expecting. By this time the first two had been joined by a third so the two without knives were trying to hit me and get in to my pockets and tear my trousers off me. This they were unable to do I made myself as small a target as possible and put the guy with the knife close in front of me so in their way. At the point where I was realising that there was not a lot I could do for long to keep these guys off me for much longer (I could neither hear nor see Nir, so had no idea if help would come or if he was having his own problems) and was therefore going to tell them which pocket my wallet was in and let them take it, when Nir managed to stop a taxi, the driver then made enough noise to scare the muggers who took flight. The one with the knife didn't want to leave me with it so made a last attempt to free it from my grasp which he managed and in the process gave me a cut across my palm. The whole thing had taken less than two minutes probably about one minute. In retrospect I was probably foolish to have not just given them the wallet in the first place as if the guy with the knife had connected with any of his stabs I might well have been killed or at least severely injured. As it was I was lucky and my foolhardiness, sense of self preservation and strength saved me and as a result I just got my trousers dirtied a bit. I am pleased the bastards got nothing from me, it does not mean I would do the same thing again though.

We now had more incentive to get a last drink with Peter, en route one of the whores that frequent the area made some hostile jibe at me so I turned round, help up my blood covered hands and asked her ¿Quires Sida? (do you want Aids?). She saw that I was not in a good mood and just ran away so Nir and I had a laugh about that at least. At the Blues I went and washed my hands and found that all the cuts were very superficial so had nothing to worry about. They were in the process of closing up but when we told Peter what had happened he agreed that we needed a drink and got us a beer each and then got the Tequila for the traditional shot. He told us that the time of the Feria is when most of this sort of thing happens, all the thieves are out for Feria. It is when he had got stabbed some years previously, so had Russell another expat. Nir and I had a couple of guys try it on a couple of days earlier in the same place but we intimidated them away, but then they gave Wes a Scottish traveller staying at the same place as us a good hiding about half an hour later, but he was drunk as usual and on his own at four in the morning which was bloody silly. Anyway we decided that better safe so in future got taxis everywhere at night, which was a shame as we had always enjoyed the walk both to and from as it is only ten minutes and down a nice road.

We had time off from Feria activities the next day and then the following day went to the Desfile de silleteros, a parade of flowers, presented in impressive arrangements, on what they call sillas (chairs), carried along by the sillateros (chairmen). There are other bits that are also worth watching with carnival type floats several of which with dancing girls. As Nir and I were once again in the bit reserved for press this time a footbridge closed to all but a handful of us reporters, under which the parade passed, a number of the people going past would pose specially for us and the girls would often blow us kisses etc. It was nice to get the attention although no chances to get phone numbers. Oscar a reporter from a Spanish television station decided to interview us for Spanish TV and we chatted with him and had a good laugh. When we parted company we promised to meet him again later that evening at the Reinado Internacional de la Caña de Azúcar (The International Sugar Cane Queen Beauty Contest). Pictures of the parade can be found at
http://www.calibuenanota.com/caliderumba/feria.html# click on "Desfile de Silleteros".

Nir and I got to the Municipal Theatre early that evening for the Reinado Internacional de la Caña de Azúcar and were given a private box as representatives of the International Press. Oscar came over a bit later to say hello but had been assigned a box some way away from us. In the box next to us was RCN, the national radio station. They were doing a live broadcast of the contest with four DJs giving their opinions and discussing the girls and the show in an off the cuff amusing manner. I got talking to one of them and we discussed the girls as they did their various walk abouts. We generally agreed on who we liked and why. He then decided to bring us in on the show, so we were constantly having a microphone stuck under our noses to give our opinion, live on the air. It was actually quite good fun as we would joke about and they seemed to enjoy our critiques. Part way through the show they had a performance by Julio Nava a Colombian pop singer and his band who mimed badly to one of their pitiful hits. When I mentioned on the quiet to one of the DJs that they looked like a bunch of clowns, he insisted that I say so on air, I told him I would prefer not but he grabbed the microphone from his colleague and then asked me live what I thought of this Julio Nava. I said "to me they look like a bunch of clowns who can't sing. In England we have better music than this and so do you in Colombia. Why are they here?" obviously in Spanish, he replied that he thought I was right and I got nods of approval from the whole box. He then asked Nir the same question who had not heard my response and so had gave a more diplomatic answer about them being young and they may well improve. That got a slightly quizzical look from all the radio folk. During the intermission we were interviewed by another Radio station, thankfully not live this time and chatted with Oscar who introduced us to a number of people. In conclusion Miss Dominican Republic won (definitely a worthy winner) and Nir and I went to meet the girls and have photos taken with them, most of whom were very charming, only Colombia was a bit snobby. A couple of them were unsurprisingly vacant. To see pictures of the show look at http://www.calibuenanota.com/calidemoda/ click on almost anything you like.

From the theatre we went to a country club where there was an after party with the beauty queens. They were not being precious at all and were generally sociable. Cathy Daza, Miss Colombia (not the Sugar Cane variety, but the Miss World candidate) and Miss Feria de Cali (in my opinion the best looking girl there) were also in attendance. Only Cathy Daza was being antisocial. I decided for a laugh I would see if I could get the Sugar Cane Queen the recently elected Ghaidy Marquez of the Dominican Republic to send a letter to the Queen of England, one Queen to another. More to see how smart or not she was. She was actually pretty incredulous but a Spanish journalist I had met a couple of times insisted I was an official representative of the British Press and would send her regards to the Queen. So she gave a short but well put message, which I transcribed and she signed. She passed the test, she actually seemed quite a nice smart girl.

Then I thought I would ask Miss Colombia, the international beauty Queen for the same She is a vacuous girl called Cathy Daza when I asked her, there was not a hint of scepticism. I gave her a couple of bits of paper and a pen she wrote some notes and then the final draft when I have showed anyone they all laugh at it, her Spanish is worse than mine it is only a short message all confused and with one bit she has written es pecial (special), that is the same as writing be fore, as two separate words. A more vacant space would be difficult to find than the one between her ears. Somehow I have to get these sent to Buckingham Palace though, or maybe not.

In between I was dancing with some of the beauty queens, including Srta. Feria de Cali, my favourite looking girl of the night, who turned out to be quite charming and not stupid at all and extremely friendly and welcoming. I also danced with Costa Rica, who it transpired is actually from Valencia, Venezuela. Bloody cheats. Nir had a good dance with Queen Ghaidy Marquez as the only one tall enough to do so without looking silly, he is 1.90m (6'3") she is 1.87 (6'2") in her stocking feet and she was wearing heels, so they actually looked similar in height. Nir confirmed my suspicions that she was very pleasant as they had a good chat whilst dancing and he said she was quite charming. El Salvador, Brazil, Honduras and Nicaragua all seemed to be very nice too although not the sharpest tools in the box.

A funny bit was when Cathy and I had our photo taken together. She insisted I put my hands behind my back and not touch her. She was the only one of the girls there who was being standoffish and antisocial. All she could do though was smile as after all I was carrying her message to the queen.

On New Years Day Nir, Peter, Etai (another nice Israeli) and I went off to see the bullfights. All of us were of a similar opinion as to the whole thing. Peter being the only one who had seen in live before (I had previously seen it on TV in Spain). None of us wished to take the moral high ground although we all thought it unpleasant in parts, particularly the unnecessary killing of the bull at the end. As a side note, in Portugal the bull is not killed. The New Years Eve fights are the high point of the year and there was a good crowd to see the spectacle. For us the crowd was part of the spectacle as many people go there to be seen, so one sees some lovely looking women dressed to impress. The guys behind us were great fun giving a running commentary and making Peter and I drink their rum. There were six bouts of varying quality, some of the Matadors were excellent, three Colombians, two Spanish and a Frenchman. The highpoint for us though was when the third bull jumped over the wall into the outer ring and charged round forcing those who thought they were in the safe zone to actually jump into the ring itself, until the bull was got back in there, when they all then jumped back into the outer ring again. The first bull was also good fun as he did a couple of somersaults. His horns having been too low a couple of times when he charged they got stuck in the ground and due to his momentum he flipped himself right over. Each time though he landed on his feet and it almost looked elegant. The third Matador impaled the sword at such a bad angle that it was actually sticking diagonally out through the bulls chest. The bull carried on charging but with blood streaming through the wound and down the protruding blade. It was finally withdrawn and on the third attempt the Matador finally did what he was supposed to and killed the bull. The crowd was not impressed and at times like this our group would really cringe and all the arguments against the bullfights seemed valid. However a good time was had by all, although there were some terrible kills, only the final kill was a clean one.

That evening, New Years Eve we saw the New Year in and had a bit of a party although nothing spectacular. The best bit was when we saw a girl running round the block with her suitcase trundling behind her at five past midnight. We thought it was someone late for a family party (New Years Eve and Christmas Eve are both very much family things here). It transpired however that it is actually a tradition to send all the things of the previous year away people walk around the block with a suitcase. There were some nice fireworks, but it would not rank as one of my great new years eves.

New years day, is a non-event in Colombia everything but shopping centres are closed, much like Christmas day in many other countries so we had an easy day. Then the following day, which is today, after sorting out a few errands I boarded a plane to Quito. The capital of Ecuador where I currently am and where I leave you.

Tomorrow I am looking forward to meeting my parents who are coming out here and starting on their own South American travels.



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