Thursday, 21 May 2015


You may have noticed that Intrepid Den has taken over my's the next instalment from Columbia!

I left the lovely Casa Familiar after a weird trip into town. My reading glasses had gone awry and needed fixing. I thought it was just a case of tightening a screw but no. It was more serious. The man on the street directed me to a proper glasses shop. Miraculously, I found it. He looked at my glasses, moved the arm alarmingly and spoke to me in Spanish. The dictionary came out – it wouldn't take long and it would cost 10,000 pesos (£2.50). I handed him my very expensive glasses and took a seat. Shortly after wards, I saw him holding the broken arm, unattached to the glasses and feared the worst. Minutes later, he returned them to me completely repaired! Bravo! I then went to an ATM to withdraw cash. In these private booths, you get mere moments to complete your transactions, obviously to default fraud but as a foreigner, it just isn't enough time. I thought I'd requested £150 but instead, only £75 came out. I thought of going into the bank to question the amount but what would I say - “I speak no Spanish but...”. I decided to leave it to providence and went to another bank which just spat the money out, no problem. I then went to the supermarket to stock up – Taganga, my next stop has nothing in the way of anything as far as I could make out on my recce a few days ago. I bought coffee, lactose free milk and a big bottle of rum to go with the 3 bottles of wine I already had – well I was going to be there for maybe two weeks!

I packed my bag, stashing the booze, a kilo of brown sugar (?), nearly a kilo of coffee (I drink a lot), fruit and salad – even I questioned my sanity and when it came time to check out, even the maids were alarmed at the apparent weight of my bag and offered to help me down the stairs with it. I thought that if it was dropped, it would look like a blood bath from the wine and smell like a drunk from all the rum...

Fabio rang a taxi for me, we took photos and he mimed crying. I mimed it too – for nearly a week, we've been miming everything and it has been such a laugh and a treat. He has been such a memorable host. The taxi arrived and it took two of us to carry the bag to the car. It took up the whole of the back seat – I had to sit in the front, and when we finally pulled away, waving as we went, the car could barely move under the weight. The taxi driver assured me he knew where Villa Mandela was but even so, at the first corner, he called to Fabio's son for directions. I said, in a language he didn't understand, that I knew the way – I'd already been there and as a Despatch Rider in London for four years, if I can't remember the way, then no one can.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Intrepid Den: Santa Marta!

Had a manic month thanks to arrival of new baby and also moving house, hence no posting for a while, but Intrepid Den is back now with a diary entry set in Santa Marta.

The road north east to Santa Marta kisses the shore of the Caribbean for 200 miles. Mostly to the east, it is dry scrub land where nothing much grows, interrupted by miles of shanty towns. It could be Africa. The dwellings are built of breeze blocks or wood, with corrugated iron roofs and open lattice work metal doors. To the people here, it is home. In our Mercedes mini-bus, we thundered through, whipping up the dust, and all of us on board, were glad, I am sure, that this is not where we were getting off. We idled through the traffic choked town of Barranquilla which, apparently, has a carnival to rival Rio, although you just can't believe it. And once, through, we were on a toll road and picking up speed. This is the land where if a vehicle will start, you can use it. Cars, buses and vans in varying degrees of decay roll alongside super trucks and coaches – the vehicles, just like the people, reflect a massive discrepancy in wealth. And you know what, I just don't think they care. This is Colombia!

Finally, the land to the east rises into brown hills and we began our descent, past a little favela, rising up into the hill, dotted with little brightly painted cubes of houses, into the oldest town and port of Colombia – Santa Marta. In the north, along the beach, there are high rise apartment and hotel buildings, built for the tourists from Bogota , whilst on the other side of the road, there is the usual chaos of buildings in varying degrees of construction. I wondered if this is what Spain looked like 50 years ago when the first package holidays flew people to the Costas and Majorca?

I'd reserved a room in the Hostel Miramar and I thought I knew exactly what to expect. I was dropped off outside and entered an airy courtyard. Pedro, the very helpful, tall, Argentinian receptionist showed me to my room. I know it only cost £6 a night but even I was shocked. The window was the size of an A4 piece of paper high up in the wall ( to quote Wilde: “that little tent of blue, which prisoners call the sky”) and the door looked out onto the brick wall of the kitchen. It wouldn't do. It wouldn't do at all. He knew I was a writer and I think he thought it might be bad for the reputation of the hostel, so he quickly showed me another room upstairs that opened onto a terrace. It was better. It was much better. He even carried my huge bag up the stairs for me, gave me a toilet roll, a sheet, a towel and a tiny bar of soap and said that it even had it's own bathroom! Notwithstanding that the shower and toilet are IN the room at the end of the bed... Never mind, it is mine and I just thank god that I am not sharing. I turned on the ceiling fan that only has one speed – helicopter speed and unpacked. There is no where to hang or put anything. All my clothes are lassoed on a length of ribbon, so I just hauled them out of my bag, hooked the ribbon over the shower pipe – that's all it is, no shower head, just a pipe, draped it over the wall and voila, I was unpacked.. With the ceiling fan whirring frantically around, everything in the room is momentarily lifted in one long perpetual Mexican wave.

I went out to explore – about 100 yards away is the black stained beach. I'm not sure what the black is, but suspect it might be coal dust rather than volcanic sand – there are no volcanoes. But there is a lot of coal.. Kids were swimming happily enough but it is not the crystal waters which apparently, lap ashore nearby. Santa Marta looks a bit like Cartagena except it's shabby and a bit dilapidated. I've never seen buckets and spades in this country, but if they had them, this is where they would be. The old “historic” part of town is where the travellers stay; in hostels and slightly upmarket hotels whilst the rich stay in the new development uptown and I presume, there is no interaction. I'm happy to be in this part of town – it's chaotic, it's frenzied and there are people everywhere – just what I've grown to expect. On carrera 5, the main street, there is the cacophony of street sellers, the smell of food frying on multitudinous stalls, the stink and rumble of traffic, shops selling everything from sweets, to medicine, to shoes (lots of shoes...), crazy brightly coloured clothes, bags, mobile phone covers (they all have one, far more sophisticated than the old banger I've got with me) and hundreds of Colombians doing what they do best – partying.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Intrepid Den: Colombia's finest city – Cartagena

Here's the next dairy entry from Intrepid Den...Columbia's Cartagena.

Old Sir Frances Drake plundered this city so often to pillage the gold already pillaged by the Spanish, that they had to build huge fortifications that took a couple of centuries, but which still remain and which make this city, apparently, so beautiful.

I arrived early afternoon, having flown over mountains from Bogota to what then emptied into a flat plane with brown rivers rich with silt flowing towards the sea. Mexico's terrain was barren, inhospitable and inaccessible, but Columbia is green and florid. At the airport to meet me were my new airbnb hosts Alexander and his dad Isaac – a tour guide for the city. They wheeled my bag to the main road, flagged down a cab and took me to their “Big house in Cartegena” which is on the outskirts of town in a newish hand built neighbourhood and they showed me my room. This is probably the master bedroom vacated for my stay. It was boiling hot even with a ceiling fan so they brought another free standing one in. It's basic, but it has a huge double bed, an open lattice brickwork window, (which looks out onto a wall 30cm away), a big mirror, a rack to hang my clothes and within minutes, a little table and chair for me and my laptop. They showed me, proudly, around the house – no it's not like my house, but this is Colombia and NOTHING is the same. It has a kitchen with a massive rumbling fridge and a little bathroom – what more could I want?. Isaac took me out onto the verandah, sat me in a rocking chair and showed me several “tours” that he could organise for me but all I really wanted to do was relax. They offered lunch which for some reason I declined and instead Alexander nipped me round the corner on his motorbike to, yes, a chicken joint. I finally bought myself a Spanish English dictionary and feeling invincible and no longer having to mime being a chicken – arms flapping and clucking, I somehow ended up with a plate of rice and chips! Oh well, so much for that.

I'm a long way from town, but, apparently, I can raise one finger and flag down a “collectivo” taxi, cram myself in and get in to town for 50p. Even so, I'm staying in the equivalent of Hounslow or some such backwater. Never mind; a nap and coffee (my little stove top is just SO useful), I asked where I could buy a beer. Alexander seemed alarmed that I would walk there on my own – this is a street away, and off I went. There are people everywhere, sitting on their porches and verandas, music playing, men with donkey carts wandering by and boys on bicycles selling that weird rice milk drink of Oaxaca. One man, black as jet, pushing a wheelbarrow saw me coming and I must have looked as weird to him as he did to me and he just said “Wow!” We smiled and I walked on, to the shop. The only thing I know in Spanish, apart form “I love you very much”, (it might come in handy...) is dos cervezas por favor and for the first time since I've been here, I got the chance to say it! Obviously, mistaking me for someone who could actually speak Spanish, he said something back to me and as if my magic (there's that old Marquez seeping into everything), Alexander was by my side, saying that what I wanted, was Colombian beer – of course I did! And all for 75p for two! Things were looking up. So he whisked me back on his motorbike, hair blowing in the wind with no helmets but not before he took me past his grand parents house and then his uncle's, tooting his horn and everyone waving. I, apparently, am like some exotic creature flown south for the winter (which is, of course, exactly what I am) never seen before in this locale...

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

This month's top TEFL blogs

March is almost over, shame, shame. So let's finish it off with some decent TEFL blogs.

Photo by Wajahat Mahmood
Teaching in Saudi
Fancy some big bucks while teaching English, or it is a myth? Have a look at this blog on The Teacher Port Blog with a decent insight into TEFL in Saudi Arabia.

Movies in class 
I watched the Truman show in class a month back, great film for getting your students thinking about life. Wish I'd had these activities as a follow up though, check out this Present perfect with Truman lesson.

TEFL myths
TEFL salaries are notoriously pants, unless you work a load of overtime it's not easy to get by and save cash. Check out this blog by Sharon on TEFL tips about TEFL salary myths.

Listening with Oxford University
Fancy practising some authentic listening in class? Then check out this lesson plan based on a tour of Oxford University on ELT Experiences.

How to keep your money safe while on a GAP year
Wish I'd read this before my travels, but not sure all of it would have counted 10 years ago, god that makes me sound like an old fart. Anyway, check out some decent tips about keeping money safe on GAP Year Escape.


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Intrepid Den: Bogota rocks but with an EARTHQUAKE, not music!

Here's the next entry by Intrepid Den where she is now in Bogota. Gotta have balls to go there alone!

Three in 30 years, and I get to feel it – welcome to Bogota! I arrived at night on a totally civilised flight from Mexico City. On arrival, all I wanted to do was have a cigarette but as soon as I walked towards the door, a big moustachioed man took me by the arm, took my huge bag by the handle and started leading me off. I've been told, I've read – never get in anything other than an official taxi. We were half way to his car, him flashing his “tourist” badge at me when I just said NO! I'm not sure if it was because I was desperate to smoke and wasn't interested in going ANYWHERE right that minute, but he took my massive declaration of non-participation seriously and just turned around, with massive bag, and walked me back and put me in a taxi. “I want to smoke first”, I almost screamed (OK, I'm addicted, but this was getting on for 8 hours!), the taxi driver just said, “it's OK to smoke in the taxi.”! Welcome to Columbia. It didn't even matter that he had no idea where he was going, and obviously, neither did I, I was happy. The address seemed to be missing a number, but when we pulled up outside the address which looked exactly like the photo on Airbnb, there was Marcela to greet me!

She helped me in with my bag to a wonderful big airy, tiled floor lounge, scattered with cushions rugs and hammocks, she helped me up the varnished wooden stairs onto the varnished wooden landing and she helped me into my room which is lovely but has bars on the windows – but that doesn't mean it's dangerous (does it?). She made me some coffee and took me out into the garden so that I could smoke (again) and I was aware that all around the roof was barbed wire – but that doesn't mean it's dangerous either (does it?).
Marcela, my host for 3 days, is a university lecturer, she's lived in Germany and speaks English and she is really sweet. She just wants her guests to enjoy themselves. I thought I was the only one staying here, but there is a German girl and a Dutch man – I got talking to him and his ENGLISH friend, who is a journalist and who just up and left to live in another country and report on crime, health and music(!). The Dutch man, Bram, said he'd walk me into town in the morning. And so after talking with Marcela and turning down her offer to go to the market at 6am, I retired to my room, put a super huge furry blanket on my bed – it's COLD and then I broke open the duty free brandy...

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

A Novel Spain: All you need is love, try being an expat, and Spanish dog poo

Here's the latest on what's going down on my other blog, A Novel Spain.

Miss Bangkok, but not as much as I used to...
Photo by Mike Behnken
Book Excerpt: Meet the Sister
If you hadn't noticed by now I have written a travel literature book based on a TEFL adventure around the world. For a peek at an excerpt when I arrived in Thailand then have a look at the latest book excerpt: Meet the Sister.

Why you should try being an expat
I reckon that everyone should at least try living abroad, feeling the pressure of the unknown, and learning how to order beer in a foreign language. If you're thinking of becoming an expat and need some persuading then have a look at this blog titled: Why you should try being an expat.

Dog crap in Sevilla
If you've lived in Spain, or even just visited, then it's more than likely than you've trod in Spanish dog turds. Why though? What is the problem with this country and people leaving their dog waste for other people to take home with them, or leave traces of it on their doormats? To find out more about what I think have a look at who, who, who, who, who, won't clean their dog crap?

All you need is love...and a dictionary
I guess I'm an old romantic at heart really. For a run down on why I became an expat for love, then have a look at this post titled: All you need is love, and a dictionary.

That's all for this month.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Intrepid Den: Mexico City!

Here's the latest guest post by Intrepid Den in Mexico City.

The Massiosare El Hostel, for all it's shabbiness and four flights of stairs, serves breakfast! And I was there, at 9am for really good coffee, pastries, which I shouldn't eat (all those food allergies), and fruit. I got talking to an American man who used to work in “finance” but who has since probably opted out. He told me just how great he thought Mexico was and I agree. Yes, it has it's poverty, but the streets are clean, it feels safe albeit, there are policemen and security guards everywhere – even in the 7/11 stores, the fridge doors holding the beer are kept locked(!) and there are no beggars.

So I started walking and I walked and I walked and I walked, heading into town to the Zocola which is the biggest city square apart from Tianamen in China and Red Square in Moscow. The streets are old ones, lined with colonial buildings, some in need of repair and some not. There are tiny shops selling all sorts and street stalls selling everything from nuts and sweets to watches and shirts for that very special occasion. And there are huge great trucks delivering Coca Cola as if it is the greatest thing on earth and here in Mexico, you would think it was. Everyone drinks it.