Baseball, Pagans and the Ghetto! – A Quick Update of My Time in St. Louis

A heavy thunder storm has recently passed, and I have come to sit out on the wooden porch, my favourite part of the house, to enjoy this fleeting moment in time where the rain has just ceased to fall and the sun has proudly re-emerged. The earth and its buildings and trees are now momentarily lit in exaggerated colours against the black clouds, and the branches, still dripping, stretch out and hang above the porch on which I am currently sitting, upon a wicker rocking chair, listening to the birds which have just re-appeared.

I thought I would take this opportunity to write, as it has been almost three weeks since I last posted, to give you a quick update of some of the things I have recently been up to.

I went to my first baseball game. Actually, it was the first sporting event I’ve ever attended, not just baseball. I didn’t go out of a love for the sport. Not even a lukewarm affection. In actual fact, I knew nothing (and still don’t) about baseball – I just went for the cultural experience. Everyone in St. Louis supports the Cardinals baseball team, so going to watch a game was something I had to do while I’m here. After sitting through the game, I came to the conclusion that I haven’t been missing much by having never gone to a sporting event before. I felt like I spent the entire three hours just waiting for the game to begin, when suddenly everyone got up and left and apparently the game was over. I can’t say I completely didn’t enjoy myself though. It was fun to see how involved the crowd got with the game, even though I couldn’t tell what was going on, or even if anything was being played. The jolly organ music which played sporadically was like something I think I’ve heard in movies (probably My Best Friend’s Wedding), and the singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ during the 7th inning (is that the correct terminology? – I don’t really know what I’m talking about) was fun (though I didn’t join in. 1 – I don’t know the words, and 2 – I don’t sing. Ever.)

I’ve visited many restaurants and have been introduced to some new cuisines including Vietnamese and Ethiopian. (Both extremely delicious and I will be looking for similar places in London when I return home)

My first taste of Vietnamese food. So good!

I found myself walking through a Pagan festival, and quickly came to the conclusion that the title ‘Pagan festival’ was just a cover-up for what was in reality nothing more than a weird people’s convention. Stalls sold things like magic wands (sticks obviously picked up from the park floor a few meters away), chainmail bikinis, paranormal investigation services, and lots of tie-dye. The festival attendees were some of the strangest people I had ever seen, and to see so many peculiar characters in one place was truly a memorable experience. People came dressed like wizards or extras from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (but they were serious) or half naked in swim suits (if not in chainmail or tie-dye). I was dying to take photos of this – the most surreal situation I have found myself in to date. But I didn’t feel comfortable pointing my huge SLR in these bizarre people’s faces, being uncertain of the reactions this might have provoked from them. My friend, however, was slyly taking photos of everyone using her phone whilst she pretended to text. When I get hold of the photos she took I will upload them onto this post for your viewing pleasure, but for now I will leave them to your imagination.

I took a driving tour over to East St. Louis – a separate city to St Louis (though they’re often assumed to be one and the same) located on the other side of the Mississippi, which is the dividing line between Missouri and Illinois. The area is known for being the most deprived ghetto in the United States, and I was interested to see the striking contrast between living conditions from literally one side of the river to the other. East St Louis has the highest crime rate in the USA, including a murder rate of 101.9 per population of 100,000, in comparison to the US national average of just 5.6 per 100,000. We drove through the city, a crumbling ghost town that resembled the set of some post-apocalyptic movie, without stopping; except for when Zach, the designated diver for the day, drove over one of the innumerable potholes too fast, causing the engine to shut down and the rear-view mirror to fall off. The car ground to a halt under a decaying railway track, and I thought the whole ordeal was quite hilarious. Zach, however, did not; and upon finally getting the engine to successfully restart, drove back over the river as quickly as he could. A curious fact which I find quite sad, is that the city’s racial makeup is 98% black, in a nation where black people make up just 12% of the population. Visiting the city made me wonder why nothing is being done to revitalize the area, which seems to have been abandoned and discarded – sitting squalid and depressed just a two minutes’ drive across the bridge from a city of million dollar homes and thriving businesses.

(I didn’t take these last two photos – I found them online. I thought that was a smarter idea than taking my camera with me over to the east side.)

On a brighter note, I went to Food Truck Friday (again). A growing trend in American cities is food truck dining. No, not those greasy kebab vans that we’re all too used to in England; the food is good, restaurant quality, gourmet stuff. The trucks are generally extensions of already established and well-loved independent restaurants, which drive to a different location of the city each day, informing their followers of their whereabouts via social networking sites. Though generally it is the successful and independent restaurants which launch their own trucks as extensions of their businesses, it is not uncommon for food trucks to begin as just that – self depending food trucks; sometimes even launching a restaurant in a fixed location as a follow up of the truck’s success. Driving through the city you will often see a food truck parked on a street corner with its patrons crowding around it. Erin, the daughter of Mike and Linda, works for a prominent food magazine here in St Louis, and on the second Friday of every summer month the magazine hosts ‘Food Truck Friday’, where some of the city’s best trucks (around 20 of them) come together at a park for the afternoon through early evening, and around two to four thousand people show up to buy good quality food and have a picnic, accompanied by live music! It is a fun event; the trucks do all kinds of food – Indian, Middle Eastern, American, German, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean… Mexican and Korean fusion! The list goes on. There are also trucks that specialise in desserts, and there I tasted the best cupcake of my life (sorry mum) it was salted caramel… mmm.

One of the trucks (you can’t see well on this photo but it even has a roof garden!)

The cupcake truck’s menu board

These are just a few of the things I’ve been doing during my stay here. I’m enjoying myself, making new friends, and getting to know and love St Louis more and more each day! Next week I will be flying to San Antonio, Texas to spend a week with friends there, before returning back to St Louis for a final week. I am looking forward to this, and will let you know what I get up to in my next few posts.

Channelling my Inner Masculinity at the Shooting Range!

Being out here in the Midwest over the last two weeks, I have been forced to channel my inner masculinity. Two posts ago you read about my camping experience where we carried trees above our heads, ate steaks using sticks for cutlery and slept in the middle of nature without even showering afterwards. Also, during my time in St. Louis I have found myself doing other manly things such as hacking away the roots of a removed tree from the lawn using a pick axe and smoking a pipe (though not at the same time). So it was only natural that today I go down to the range to shoot some guns.

hacking the lawn with a pickaxe – the most exercise I’ve done in my life

This morning I accompanied Mike to the gun store – an intimidating place where all kinds of dead animals’ heads stare dauntingly down at you from the walls and thousands of rifles, pistols, machetes, knifes, and other weaponry are displayed in glass cabinets. We were here to buy some bullets to shoot with, and during our visit Mike questioned the cashier about a new gun he was interested in. I was impressed by his apparently infinite knowledge on the subject – especially with him being the church pastor – but this seems to be a common hobby around here! (I later found out that he wanted to know about the gun so as to buy it for his wife, which I found even funnier – the image of the pastor and his wife down at the shooting range)

After buying the bullets and stopping for some donuts (and also taking a wrong turn which resulted in an unplanned, hour long tour of the countryside) we arrived at Top Gun. I had only had one previous experience in shooting, where last summer I went with my family to shoot clay pigeons at a country hotel in England for part of my granddad’s 70th birthday celebrations.  I was somewhat disappointed that the pigeons were not pigeons at all, but round discs. I still am yet to discover why they call them pigeons, but anyway – I didn’t hit a single one. I was beat by my three sisters and even my own grandmother managed to shoot at least three. For this reason I was anticipating a humiliating experience at the shooting range today. However, though I was still awful, it wasn’t as embarrassing as I had expected.

This is the same gun James Bond uses, so of course being British i had to pose with it

I had predicted that the place would be full of big, manly men who rode motorbikes and had intimidating moustaches and tattoos of snakes or naked women, so I found it amusing to find an old lady with purple rinse in the stall next to me, her extended arms shaking with age as she held the pistol out in front of her ready to shoot. In the stall next to her (sorry if I’m about to offend anyone) was your typical American stereotype on legs – a particularly plump gentlemen (he didn’t walk – he waddled) wearing shorts with trainers (sneakers for you Americans) and white socks pulled midway up his podgy calves.

He was similar to this couple I saw at the zoo who lived up to the American stereotype. (Am I a bad person?)

We had purchased our own targets which we clipped to an electric pulley system and chose our distance (about 15 feet) to shoot from. The target was on an A4 piece of paper so it was harder than it sounds. We chose to go for a traditional round target as opposed to one from the range of ‘bleeding zombie’ targets available – a selection of different zombies which apparently splatter blood when shot, including a rather threatening looking undead moose.

As well as managing to shoot the actual clip that held the target in place, causing both the clip and the target to fly away, I was the only one to hit a bullseye! However, this was nothing but a fluke as the majority of my other bullets flew past the target without even hitting the paper, while the grandma next to me was repeatedly hitting her human silhouette target in the heart from 30 feet away.

a perfect (accidental) hit

The Cathedral Basilica

This week I have left the home of Mike and Linda Peters – the couple whom I am staying with during my time in St. Louis – as they are out of town, and have moved in with a young family from their congregation:  Jason, Kathryn, and their two little boys. Here I am living in the city, as opposed to the county – the city’s leafy suburbs. Therefore I am closer to all the attractions the city has to offer.

My new view

As well as going to the zoo (which, by the way, is free despite being one of the best zoos in the country), I was able to visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Until now, I had never been awe-struck by entering a church building. The tall walls and high ceilings are completely covered in mosaics which form amazingly intricate patterns, and the light which pours through the stained glass softly illuminates the room just enough so that the tiles sparkle and shimmer as you walk about.

The mosaics cover 83,000 square feet, making it the largest mosaic installation in the world, containing 41.5 million glass tesserae pieces in more than 7000 colours. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

I was shocked to discover that construction of the cathedral only began in 1908. Being from Europe, I am used to these kinds of buildings being ancient – such as St. Paul’s Cathedral which was founded in 604 AD.  The St. Louis Basilica Is brand new in comparison, which was hard for me to believe when I first learned this, as it looks so distinguished and long established.  Installation of the mosaics began in 1912 and wasn’t finished until 1988.

I was so impressed by the cathedral that I visited twice in the same day. My camera ran out of battery on the first trip, so I made sure to revisit after I had re-charged it. The photos don’t do the place justice – it was hard to take them in the dim light, and you can’t appreciate the scale of the building and both the amount and intricacy of the mosaics until you are there in person.

My First Camping Experience

On Thursday night I went camping. That is a sentence I would never have envisioned myself writing, and so what I am about to say shocks me even more: I actually enjoyed myself.

On Thursday night we made the two hour journey from St Louis through endless miles of open countryside – old white-wooden houses and bright red barns were scattered across rolling green hills covered in forests of cedar and oak, like architectural flowers dotting the landscape with an occasional burst of colour. Having just arrived from Bogotá, I was impressed by the quality of the roads – twisting ribbons of smooth tarmac lay streamed across mile upon endless mile of open country, allowing the driver to travel smoothly at an unbroken speed for hours; something I should be accustomed to, being from England. But I had unintentionally adapted to the streets of Bogotá, where holes and cracks riddle every road, forcing drivers to swerve, slow down, speed up – ultimately just to drive erratically. To come straight from Colombia to St Louis proved to provide a great contrast in road conditions, and now I have an appreciation for something I had previously taken very much for granted.

[On an unrelated note, I noticed on the plane from Bogotá to Miami the headline on the back of another passenger’s newspaper. It said ‘Los huecos de Bogotá ya tienen perfil en Facebook’ – meaning ‘the holes of Bogotá now have a Facebook profile’. Here you can see a video on the BBC’s Latin American page. You may not understand what is being said but you will understand my new found appreciation of American roads just by watching]

Eventually, after a pit stop/cultural experience at Wal-Mart, we arrived at Marble Creek campsite: an area in which the woodland had been prepared for campers. Clearings had been made among the trees and fire pits installed into the ground, complete with swerving grills – but that is as far as the civilization went.

Marble Creek – Alongside which is situated the camp site

The camping was for David’s stag-do (bachelor party for the Americans). Ten of us travelled down there in three cars for the night, and upon arrival all the guys started trudging through the woods in search of firewood. This being my first camping experience, I naively assumed that finding firewood consisted of looking for dead sticks on the forest floor. Apparently I was wrong. Whilst calmly wondering through the woods, collecting a pile of sticks in my arms as I went, I came across one of the guys hacking down a huge tree with an axe.  I quickly threw my bundle of twigs behind me in embarrassment, hoping to be rid of them before he saw me. But it was too late – David had noticed. He offered for me to accompany him and see how it was done. We waded through the woods until we came across the creek which gave the place its name. There we found a dead tree that was still standing in the ground.

“This will be perfect for the fire” said David.

“Shall we go back and get the axe?” I asked, but before I could finish the question he had his arms wrapped around the trunk, heaving it out of the ground with his bare hands. I asked if we should chop it up there in order to carry it back to camp more easily, whereupon he patiently explained that we needed to carry it whole through the woods in order to achieve a manly appearance of heroism and grandeur as we emerged from the trees.

Pictured: Manly appearance of heroism and grandeur

After lugging the tree through the woods I sat down and watched as the others hacked away at the collection of logs and full trees with axes and machetes. While I watched, others emerged from the forest with the same expressions of triumph on their faces as they carried even bigger trees than mine and David’s over their heads like trophies.

They would lift the larger trees over their heads and throw them against other bigger, more stable trees in order to cut them in half without the effort of hacking with an axe. This turned into a feat of strength in order to impress everyone else and see who was the strongest. I just watched.

After the lumber had been chopped and the fire started, hotdogs, burgers and steaks were cooked – naturally using a machete to flip them. It made me laugh to see one of the guys eating a steak using a split log for a plate, with a penknife and sharpened stick for cutlery; but they were serious.

Manly improvised cutlery and crockery

Turning hot dogs with the trusty machete

The stars emerged one by one as the earth turned away from the sun, and grew brighter as the evening went on. We ate hotdogs as the smell of smoke filled the night air, and fireflies lit up the darkness in flashes as they floated amongst the trees. We smoked pipes and cigars and had deep philosophical conversations about their benefits. It was generally concluded that a pipe lent a man an air of intellectual wisdom and was useful for pointing at people whilst talking and emphasizing your point during a discussion – no one can disagree with a man who is smoking a pipe – whereas a cigar has the ability to make a man look wealthy and sophisticated.

A Firefly

After hours of eating, joking, smoking and conversing around the fire, we all retired to our sleeping bags: we didn’t have tents, just mats on the forest floor. As the fire died down into glowing embers and the twinkling fireflies became the only remaining source of light, the stars appeared in all their splendour. We lay in our sleeping bags under a thick blanket of them; it was the starriest night sky I have ever seen; and as I looked up into the layers and layers of glistening lights the occasional shooting star would dart across the sky. I inevitably woke a few times in the night, but seeing the stars made the sleeplessness bearable. However, hearing the howls of coyotes and other unknown animals didn’t help me to relax, and I forced myself quickly back to sleep trying not to think about what was making that noise, and how close it may be.

The next morning, I was woken by the sound of a woodpecker drilling against some nearby tree. I emerged squinting from my sleeping bag to find that everyone else had woken up and packed away their stuff ready to leave, while I was still lying on the floor in the middle of everything like an idiot. I quickly got up and ready to leave, and within thirty minutes we were off.

As most of you will know, camping is not something I would have ever chosen to do, so I am glad that I had no choice in the matter and was eventually able to find out that it can actually be fun. Being around good people, having good conversation, eating good food and seeing good stars made it all a very enjoyable experience. I think that sitting around a camp fire and being surrounded by nature inspires a good time. However, I don’t think I will be making a habit of this. As soon as I arrived home I couldn’t get in the shower quick enough.

Toasted Ravioli and SUV’s: First Impressions of St. Louis

Finally, after 19 hours of travel, three airports, and less than two hours sleep over the course of two days, I have arrived in the land of the free and the home of the brave: the USA!

My flight out of Bogotá was to be at 7am. So naturally, being a good and punctual Englishman, I woke at 3 (I didn’t even get to sleep until 1) in order to get ready and arrive at the airport for 4, leaving three hours until my flight. As you can imagine (being in Colombia) the flight was delayed until 8.30. My stopover in Miami was to be 8 hours long, so the postponement caused by ‘technical problems’ affected a welcome delay – on my part at least.

Thankfully Miami airport has vastly improved since the first time I used it as a stopover in 2008. That year my flight had arrived late, leaving me with just an hour to go through immigration (coming from Colombia into the USA, this takes somewhat longer than usual and involves a lot of heated interrogation) collect my luggage, check it in again, go through security for the second time, and catch a flight. Of course this was impossible and the flight was missed – owing greatly to MIA’s impractical layout and streams of never-ending, motionless queues. However, none of that applied this time. Yesterday, upon arrival at MIA, I went through immigration as though through a walk in the park. Travelling alone after spending four months in Colombia (and looking even more sickly-pale than usual after just a two hour sleep) I was prepared for an intense grilling. This was not the case. The officer simply flipped over my passport, indifferently took my fingerprints, and sent me on my way.

“Is that it?” I asked, shocked.

He answered positively though somewhat annoyed by the question, so I quickly made my way to baggage reclaim before he changed his mind.

As soon as I sat down on the next plane I was fast asleep. I have a blurred memory of being woken half way through the flight by a stewardess asking if I wanted a drink. Unfortunately for her I was not fully awake and so after perplexedly looking about, eyes squinted, trying to work out whether or not we were in the air, I grunted incoherently before dropping my head again and falling immediately back to sleep; not waking up again until the stewards were preparing for landing.

As you may have gathered, I am not good at being tired. So when I met Mike and his assistant David at baggage reclaim 19 hours after leaving the apartment in Bogotá, and with only two hours of sleep in 48 hours (sleeping on the plane doesn’t count), I must have appeared as a zombie – traipsing through the airport with vacant eyes, dragging hand luggage behind me expressionlessly – a dead man walking. Or at least a sleeping man walking.

I was driven from the airport in the north of the city to Webster Groves, a southern St. Louis suburb which is to be my home for the next two months. Upon arrival I instantly fell asleep, not waking up until morning.

Today, as light poured through the window (and as the alarm blared in my ear) I awoke refreshed and energized, able to see my new surroundings clearly for the first time. I looked out of the window onto the quintessential leafy street that everyone would imagine when asked to picture a suburban American neighbourhood. Handsome white wooden-panelled and redbrick houses sit far apart from each other, surrounded by wide lawns featuring long driveways adorned with huge SUV’S, at the end of which are mail boxes perched on wooden posts. American flags flutter by each front door and huge trees line the street – the only thing missing from the neighbourhood are white picket fences.

I was picked up and taken around the city by David, who explained to me some of its history (I’ll save that for another post). He also told me that St. Louis is the biggest small town in the world, which I soon found to be true. It looks like a city: there are tall buildings, large roads, big parks, impressive monuments, etc. but there were barely any people, and the atmosphere was that of a small town where everyone knows everyone else – even though over three million people live here.

Looking cautious before trying the ravioli!

For lunch I was taken to a sports bar, where I sampled a delicacy unique to St. Louis – deep fried ravioli. I know, it sounds awful, I thought so too – but surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot. I would even go as far as to say that it’s better than regular, un-fried ravioli! Here I met a few young people from the church who were very friendly and outgoing, and we were also joined by Mike, who too has been very hospitable and kind.

From what I have seen so far during my first day here, I can tell I am going to enjoy my stay. Before I arrived I had no expectations. I decided not to expect to like it here, and not to expect to dislike it either – just to wait and see what there is to see, as I had no idea what St. Louis would be like. But already I have seen that it is a handsome city, filled with friendly, welcoming people, and I know I am going to appreciate every minute spent here.

My Last Day in Colombia

I have yet to pack my suitcase: a task I am not at all looking forward to. At home in January, I calmly began packing with well-ordered, meticulous care just hours before having to leave for the airport. Upon completion of the task and finding that despite my greatest efforts of tidiness the case still stubbornly refused to close, I enlisted the help of my mother, who (like all mothers) has unexplained though definitely appreciated skills in making everything fit – even allowing for some extra room. This time, however, I am alone – without someone to expertly rearrange my belongings like a puzzle until the case can properly shut – and I am dreading this unavoidable, toilsome labour.

Today is my last day in Colombia. Tomorrow morning at seven o’clock I will fly from Bogota’s El Dorado airport and say goodbye to the land that has been my home for the past four months. It is hard for me to believe that it has been four months; to me it feels as though my time here has been much briefer, and though I am excited to be moving and seeing more of the world, there are certainly things about life in Colombia that I am going to miss.

First off, I am going to miss the people I have met during my stay. Though I have only been here for four months, I have made friendships which I know will last a lifetime. I will also miss eating fried chicken with honey (something that in England would raise more than a few eyebrows, whereas here the honey is given to you in sachets along with your meal). I will miss drinking vanicanelas (vanilla and cinnamon lattes) in Juan Valdez, mixed with a good spoonful (or three) of panela. I will miss hearing the sounds of Salsa, Merengue, Cumbia and Vallenato in rickety old buses and hurtling taxis, and smiling at the reminder that I am far from home. I will miss the outgoing affability of Colombia’s people, and I will miss their carefree, laidback culture. I will also miss these things.

I didn’t even like coffee before I came here

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to what the next two months have in store for me. There have been some unforeseen changes to my itinerary, and after staying in Bogotá for a week longer than originally planned, I will be skipping my stops in Bolivia and Los Angeles, and heading straight to St Louis, Missouri, where I will spend two months as the intern of Doctor Mike Peters – a close friend of my pastor. If I am honest, I haven’t a clue what to expect from these coming months, but I am going with an open mind and without expectations, and I am excited to discover what St Louis has to offer, as well as what I might learn there.

Last night I took Lala, the daughter of the family I have been staying with, and her boyfriend Diego out for dinner to say thank you and goodbye (the parents were also invited, but unfortunately couldn’t make it). I am going to miss them all, and I have really appreciated the way they have taken me into their home and treated me like family from day one. Last night was a great opportunity to say thank you and a good way to spend our last times together. The food was pretty good too.

Lala and Diego

Caught off guard struggling with the chopsticks

Today, as well as attempting to cram all of my possessions into the case, I will be rushing around doing last minute errands before I leave; such as taking advantage of Colombia’s low priced haircuts (I go to the best hairdresser in the city and spend less than £10 – less than half of what I pay for a cut in England – whereas a similar place in London would charge £80 or more for a men’s cut) and stocking up on foods I know I am going to miss.

But anyway, I better make a start with this suitcase. Wish me luck, and I will update you upon my arrival in the USA.

Three Days in Girardot

So I wasn’t able to visit Cartagena as I had hoped, but this week I did the next best thing! On Monday me and Lala (the youngest daughter of the family I‘m living with, who has come to be like yet another sister of mine) decided we should go on a short holiday to Girardot*. Situated in a tropical climate while being just a 2 hour drive from the relatively cold weather and almost daily rainfall of Bogotá, Girardot is extremely popular with the Rolos (people from Bogotá) as a weekend retreat – an easy escape from the demands of the big city.

Gloomy Bogotá

And so, the next morning we woke up sickeningly early in order to arrive at the station for 6am, and from there to take a bus to our destination. The bus left at 7.30, and just getting out of Bogotá seemed to be the longest part of the journey. As I have mentioned before – traffic in this city is a big problem, especially at rush hour.

Bogotá is the world’s fourth highest capital, and to leave the city our bus had to ascend even higher up one of the surrounding mountains in order to then begin its descent toward the tropical valleys. The temperature decreased as we rose, and the bus was sprayed with rain as we drove through clouds so thick that you could barely see 10 meters ahead. This didn’t do anything to knock the driver’s confidence, as he continued to drive with irrational speed along the snaking mountain roads. The knowledge that the road was edged by a sheer drop was something that I tried to ignore, especially when the driver decided to overtake immense oil tankers on blind bends. At this point I closed my eyes, deciding it would be better to die in my sleep rather than with the realisation that I was plummeting to my death down a rocky precipice, but somehow I couldn’t manage to doze off. Soon enough we had reached our highest point, and from now on the journey would be downhill.

I watched through the window at the shifting landscapes and was amazed at how the scenery transformed so rapidly – just a 40 minute decent from the city and already it looked as though we were in another country altogether. The regal Pines and Oaks of Bogotá were quickly replaced with stooping eucalyptuses and flowering acacias reminiscent of the Australian countryside. Eventually these were also replaced with tall leaning palms, banana plants and ferns. Along one side of the twisting road was a sheer wall of rugged rock dripping with vines; on the other side, the ground, rich with tropical vegetation, sloped sharply downward to a muddy river which, churning, followed the path of the road. Beyond the river the earth lurched abruptly upward again, forming a narrow gorge which the water cut through, and enormous boulders lay scattered across the landscape. The scenery looked positively prehistoric – I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur had come into view as we turned the bend, and for the first time I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of the magical lands described in the novels of Garcia Marquez.

After a few hours we arrived at a rather uninspiring town, and though it was tiny, we still managed to become stuck in gridlocked, motionless traffic. We were welcomed by the sounds of Colombian folk music drifting from open doorways; the calls of young girls leaning out of upstairs windows to talk to their friends on the hot streets below; the blare of car, moped and truck horns all sounded by impatient drivers; and the persistent cries of the street venders who stuck their heads and baskets of goods into the bus’s windows, trying to sell us ice creams, soft drinks, fruits and pastries. Soon enough we were on our way again, and within twenty minutes we called the bus to a halt as we had reached our hotel.

A collection of whitewashed, terracotta-roofed buildings formed the complex, which was surrounded by mango trees and coconut palms. Wrought-iron, colonial style street lamps lined walkways which formed paths between the hotel’s seven different swimming pools, and tropical birds of electric yellow or emerald green darted between the huge trees entangled with drooping vines in the centre of the complex.

Mango Tree

We entered the lobby – a sweeping white room with wicker furniture and high ceilings exposed to the warm breeze without doors, just wide open archways. Here we checked in and then unpacked in our room before proceeding to spend the next three days lounging by the pool, swimming, eating good food in the hotel’s many restaurants, and just enjoying the sun.

The hotel had a bowling alley, a massage service, numerous bars, restaurants, an ice cream parlour, tennis courts and swimming pools. The rooms were spacious and comfortable. But what I enjoyed the most was just relaxing in the hot weather, 30 degrees c, and reminding myself of how cold it was back in England made me appreciate it even more. I was told it was only 6 degrees in London while I was in Girardot!

We arrived on Tuesday morning, and on Thursday afternoon it was already time to check out of the hotel. At this point it began to rain lightly, so we waited in the lobby until it cleared before making our way to the street to hail a bus back to Bogotá. While we waited, I watched as a hummingbird drank nectar from a bush of pink hibiscus under the mango trees. I remembered my childhood summers spent in Menorca, and how I used to love wildlife – I would spend the summer holidays catching lizards and frogs around the house on the island! I even had books about the animals of the Amazon, and was always fascinated by hummingbirds. So one summer, when I was around seven years old, I was amazed when I saw what I thought to be a hummingbird drinking from the bougainvillea outside the kitchen window. I ran excitedly to tell my mum, and rushed to bring her back so she could see, but I was disappointed to find out that it was only moth known as the Hummingbird Hawk-moth. This didn’t stop me from taking delight in waiting for sunset when they would come out and drink from the flowers around the house, and I would catch them in my hands before watching them fly off again after setting them free.

Sitting in that lobby, watching as the bird darted between each flower took me straight back to my childhood, and the excitement I felt that summer in Menorca from seeing a real life “hummingbird” for the first time! I couldn’t help but feel a tiny part of that childhood excitement return as I watched, this time knowing that it was the real thing! Of course I played it cool, and just watched silently from my wicker sofa, smiling at the memory.

* [For those of you reading at home (I’m mainly thinking of my dad – remembering the embarrassing times when he tries to order a beer in Menorca), let me try to give you a quick lesson in Spanish pronunciation, as I know how it feels to read something with a recurring word without knowing how to say it: in this case, the ‘G’ is pronounced like an English ‘H’. an ‘I’ in Spanish is similar to an English ‘Ee’. The Spanish ‘R’ is nothing like in English. There are two ways to say it, but for the R’s in ‘Girardot’, it is similar to a mix between the ‘Dd’ in ‘ladder’ and an ‘L’. The ‘A’ is short, such as the ‘A’ in ‘cat’, as opposed to the long ‘A’ in ‘can’t’. The Spanish ‘D’ is much softer, and similar to an English ‘Th’. I’m trying to help, but I think I’ve just made it even more confusing for every one – including myself. Anyway, perhaps the simplest way to pronounce it with an English spelling would be: Heerarrdot]