Six O’ Clock in Huanchaco, Peru

Six O’ Clock in Huanchaco, Peru

The old lady with the horn-rimmed glasses rests her head lightly on her chest, dozing in the late afternoon sun, a light snore escaping. She hears me approach, wet sandals squishing on the gravel as I pass and she eases awake, sleepy eyes narrowing into a wrinkled smile, she greets me, asking how I am.

We know nothing about each other beyond these daily exchanges, when I walk back from surf, tired and damp, flushed face and dripping hair, and she takes up her permanent position rocking leisurely on the porch watching people walk by.

There’s a sense of continuity as I pass at the same time each day, jogging her out of her slumber; it pains me to think that I’m leaving soon. I wonder how long it will take her to notice that the pleasant wet-headed foreign girl was no longer there at six a clock, indicating it was time to think about dinner.

The smells of fried fish and sounds of muffled salsa beats from the restaurants start to subside as the church bells call out for mass. Stray dogs bark in the distance and the fishermen return from the ocean with their catch, stacking their wicker boats against the seawall.

The sun begins to melt over the peer; I can see it squinting through the palm trees. All that I want is for time to stand still and let it be six o clock if only for a moment longer, so I can bask in the dying rays of the sun and the warmth of the old lady’s smile.

A Horse in the Road, Honduras

A Horse in the Road, Honduras

My eyes were glazing over from staring at the screen of my laptop too long. I lifted my gaze for a moment, just in time to see the horse that filled the windscreen; the wretched creature’s eyes widening with fear at the car hurtling towards him.

There was a sickening scrape of tires on the gravel and time played in slow motion as the petrified animal scrambled out of our path, the thick blanket of banana trees loomed ever closer and the vehicle zigzagged from side to side, like a rally car.

Amidst the chaos I could hear someone screaming and then realized a split-second later that it was me. Time was temporarily distorted; decelerated as if watching one still frame of a camera after another.

At last the driver jolted awake in time to slam his foot on the break and we skidded to a stop, my head lightly banging the seat in front, the dust clouds rising around us and the smell of burnt rubber and dirt filling the car.

The dense green foliage swayed in the breeze and there was a sudden anti-climatic silence, but for a few birds cawing in the distance and the humming of the radiator. Two campesinos bearing machetes, cutting down crops a few feet away, were staring agape with a mixture of concern and bemusement written on their faces, as they beheld the dented rental car enveloped in a cloud of dust, with a horse flinching in its wake.

This wasn’t the first time I had the feeling that I might die in this part of the world or that my vehicle had swerved off the road; at least this time there was a line of banana trees to break the fall.

In Guatemala, when our bus nearly lurched over the edge of a cliff with a blown tire, we tilted sharply to the right, the whole bus balancing on two wheels as the sheer drop below beckoned.

I saw my life flash before me to the sound of merengue music and a rosary dangling from the rear view mirror; along with several chickens, bags of tamales, rice, and brightly colored pinks, reds, oranges and yellows of the Mayan women’s clothing. It seems there will always be an animal present each time I brush with death to share a terrified glance with before we pass into the next life.

After assessing the miraculously limited damage and saying our prayers and a few hostias we continued back to Tegucigalpa. I don’t think I even blinked for the rest of the journey, eyes rigidly fixed on the road ahead, lost in thought about how I’d come to be here, working in a country like this where a simple journey could turn into several hours, on a constant look-out for bandidos, or gaping crevices in the road and stray animals that wondered into the path.

Working mostly 12 hour days, running around in three inch heels giving interviews, breakfast meetings at 7 am, night-time appointments in coffee foundations on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, imagination running wild as the gun shots in the distance felt uncomfortably close.

The daylight began to fade as we finally approached Comayaguela, the gateway to the city that also happened to be the most desperate part of town and not where you wanted to be after dark, lost in this rats nest of dead-end alleyways, closed streets, road blocks, one ways, crack addicts, thieves, ghosts of people with vacant stares, shoeless children with gammy eyes, houses without roofs, shops without doors and far too few police to maintain order.

Nerves on the edge of a knife, I’d been awake for almost three days and tomorrow we had an early meeting with the Minister of Communications, an ironic misnomer due to the fact that he was the hardest man in Honduras to get hold of.

How would I go in to that appointment as if nothing had happened today; as if I wasn’t exhausted and my clothes weren’t damp and dirty shoved into a rucksack, my suit jacket left hanging on its perch from Friday night, that felt like an eternity ago now.

Still… how else would I be spending Sunday if I were anywhere else but here? What’s the point in being alive if you aren’t reminded of your own mortality from time to time? Even if it is by a horse.

Milan in a Day in Pretty Shoes

Milan in a Day in Pretty Shoes

Just one foot on the street outside and I’m transported into the bustling world of Milan. The smile spreads across my face as I feel like an extra in a Puccini opera, the protagonists around me sing in their flowery tongue, hands waving emphatically in the air, their conversations sound like arias.

An overweight baker with a mustache that turns up at the corners rubs his hands down on his floury apron, shouting to his assistant at the back of the shop, who throws his hands in the air, as a signora in a fur coat awaits impatiently to be served, eyes hidden behind over-sized, dark designer sunglasses, despite the light grey drizzle outside.

A workman atop a ladder is fixing a cable and calls down to his colleague below – “bellissima” I hear as I pass by, as he brings his thumb and forefinger to his lips and kisses them. A group of children on their way home from school giggle and chatter at the scene; a tapestry of characters that mingle in the street outside my apartment.

Their clothing is impeccable. Even in the more ethnic neighborhood where I’m staying, where there are large Latin, Arab, and Asian communities, the people are markedly better dressed than in other cities of the world.

Even the Chinese – who’ve stamped their trademark curiosity shops stocked with everything from herbal remedies to Hello Kitty mugs – are stylish in Milan. Theirs may be a ripped-off version of Fendi, but the lady behind the cash desk in her faux-Versace scarf and mock Burberry boots has an air of class about her as she serves customers in her unique blend of Chinese and Italian.

Milan may not be up there with Rome with its crumbling monuments, ancient coliseum and iconic landmarks, but its grandiose streets and elegant buildings, glassed-ceilinged galleries, and immense central station with works of art dating back centuries on the walls give it another character all of its own.

The high-brow fashion houses that line the “via Napoleone” and the plethora of shoes, clothing and accessories stores wherever you turn make Milan arguably the style capital of the world. I have never seen so many designer shops one after the after, and I do my best not to gawp as I stroll by, humbled by the exquisite outfits that fill the windows, exuding taste and beauty. Prada, Luis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace, each one offering not just a better way to dress but access to another life.

Roberta, the lady I’m renting the apartment from here warned “Milano è molto buona per gli occhi, non va bene per il portafoglio” – Milan is good for the eyes, not for the wallet. I can certainly confirm this as during my short stay my credit card has been stretched to its limits, I can almost hear it groaning as I punch in the pin number with each new purchase.

In Milan’s spotless streets, with not even a cigarette end or sign of litter anywhere, a public transport that runs like clockwork and urban ticketing system that allows commuters to use the bus, metro, tram, and train, there is an overriding sense of order and modernity.

It’s a city that works, looks good and feels pleasant to walk around. Its compact centre is easily explored on foot and provides a constant delight for the eyes as narrow street after narrow street deviate from the large plazas filled with tourists to reveal old fashioned chocolate shops, a hidden pizzeria, antiques and leather goods, and shoe shop upon shoe shop, filled with all styles, shapes, and colors.

I stumble upon a children’s toy shop with one-of-a-kind pieces made in wood; an old rocking horse with a flowing mane; Pinocchio puppets and ladybug boxes and hand-painted signs for bedroom doors. The seller explains to me that everything I see is made by hand by his mother. I ask him if he designs the toys as well, to which he answers – “I can’t even draw a stickman” and smiles. My Italian may be a little clumsy as I fumble through the conversation, but I get my point across and more than that, delight in the words as they roll off my tongue – “bongiorrno”, “ciao”, “va bene” and “arrivederci” are just so much fun to say I giggle inside as I hear them.

Cars actually stop for pedestrians here, something I am no longer used to, as all across Latin America, with perhaps the exception of Chile, motorists have undisputed right of way and cars will mow you down in a heartbeat. My left foot still aches when I walk too much after being run over in Buenos Aires on a zebra crossing with my right of way.

I walk to Moscova to see a different side of Milan, undoubtedly the area in which the wealthy and powerful congregate. The streets are lined with swanky bars, upmarket cafés, and fancy restaurants, beautiful people sipping cocktails on the sidewalks next to heat lamps, the weather unseasonably chilly for May. I stop for an aperitif at café Redesky, and try “spritz” a local tipple; a “must-have” when in Milan.

The elegant women exude sophistication, head to toe in Armani, expensive jewellery and 4-inch stilettos, on which they stand for hours and then somehow negotiate the cobbled, puddled city streets with ease, over-sized purses on their arms. The men are also immaculately groomed with coiffed hair, manicured nails, ironed suits, man bags and scarves, stepping out of their Mercedes, and cooing “ciao” to their friends, knowing how to make an entrance.

The roar of an engine and a red Ferrari cruises by, purring beside the bar for a few moments just long enough for all heads to turn. In the hour or so I spend there, captivated by my surroundings, the streets fill with Porches, Alfa Romeos, BMWs and Bentleys. This is definitely Damian’s kind of place and I hold back the tears as I think of how much I miss him.

Vespas speed by every few seconds to distract me and almost every cliché I had about Italy comes true before my eyes, as a woman in a fitted suit and heels manages to hop on the back of a motorbike with effortless grace and without losing composure, Luis Vuitton bag over her shoulder and a little kickable dog on her lap in a Dolce and Gabbana jacket.

The places where the photo snappers gather, such as the Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s landmark cathedral, are rather less exclusive, and Senegalese umbrella sellers mix with loud American tourists, Pakistanis selling roses and Romany gypsies aggressively begging for money and cursing at those that don’t give.

It’s difficult to see the signs of crisis here, but then the centre of any major city still hums with commerce, despite the bitter laments of Europeans about times being hard. It’s true that distance yourself a little and you begin to see empty businesses for rent or for sale, shops boarded up and just a pinch of the extended effects of austerity.

The majority of Italians in this region don’t live in the immaculate centre with a population of just two million, but in the outskirts and surrounding villages from which they commute. These are the people with their salaries frozen and benefits cut who don’t share in the lives offered in the window displays or frequent the expensive restaurants.

Yet their inherent passion for all that is good in life – love, art, food, style –make Italy my kind of place, with its leaning buildings and sinking cities, shaky economy and scandalous politicians, they still manage to live the Dolce Vita, savoring every drop out of life from their caffe to their gelato. I leave Milan with heavier suitcases and a lighter heart, even when things get really tough, there’s always something to smile about and life feels better in a pretty pair of shoes.

Memories of The Nicoya Earthquake – September 5th 2012 Costa Rica

Memories of The Nicoya Earthquake – September 5th 2012 Costa Rica

The day of the quake dawned much like any other – a little early for my liking. I pulled back the curtains, heavy eyes squinting in the morning light. The sun was already shining on the swimming pool, shimmering on the clear blue water and the birds were chattering noisily in the trees above. A lazy iguana was stretched out below; reveling in the potent rays and the monkeys began to howl from deep within the jungle.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, almost feeling the air, lightly scented with Hibiscus, breathing life into me. It was a morning ritual I had gotten so used to and yet, somehow, could still barely believe was real. This time last year I stared bleakly ahead at the mildewed walls of my dingy, windowless, ground floor apartment, the perpetual drilling of the round-the-clock construction site grating at my fraying nerves.

No matter how tired I feel today, or the fact that I would rather be splashing around in the surf or lazing a little longer under the comforting covers of my king-sized bed, I smile at my moment of peace and the morning sun that dances on the water just for me.

If I had known that would be the last time I would look out of my balcony while the world was asleep at the glorious morning below, perhaps I would have dwelled there a moment longer, memorizing the intricate details of the life from this vantage point that I would never see again…

Dirty and Chaotic – Give Me a City Like Madrid Anytime

Dirty and Chaotic – Give Me a City Like Madrid Anytime

I make my way slowly along the cobbled streets snaking down to Oporto. It’s an explosion of colors and sounds. Bright fabrics hanging from market stalls, elaborately embroidered scarves and blankets, table cloths and intricately painted Spanish abanicos.

Día del San Isidro and the Madrileños are out in force. Crowds mingling, conversing cheerfully and soaking up the spring sunshine. Everywhere my gaze goes there’s something else more tantalizing to hold my interest. Children laughing and playing, gnawing on candy canes and florescent green and orange toffee-covered apples. Playing catch and jumping through skipping ropes.

There are women and men dressed in traditional costume. Poker dot dresses buttoned up to the neck and laced with frilly full petty coats, fanning out above their knees. They have flowers in their hair, which is pulled back austerely with jet black clips. The men wear berets, strategically placed over one eye and flowers in their breast pockets.

A swishing of materials; a clacking of castanets, every now and then they break into dance, stomping their heels on the pavement and circling their partners with smoldering eyes.

In parque San Isidro there is a make-shift fun fare. The sun is shining at last, heating up the icy air. The grass is strewn with people drinking sangria from plastic glasses and nibbling on patatas bravas, meat on skewers, sausage rolls, and sticky popcorn. All the talk of “crisis”seems far away in the face of such an abundant feast.

The Spanish really know how to enjoy themselves and today it’s the patron Saint of Madrid that is responsible for the throngs of people and general merriment. There’s something on offer today for every pallet.

To the left, refrigerated containers bursting full of muscles, crabs, octopus, and other interesting-looking sea creatures. To the right, little stands selling bollas of bread the size of tires, loaded with dried fruits and nuts. The largest paella dish I have ever seen, enough for a banquet of hundreds, is a blend of ingredients – chicken, rabbit, rice, peppers, vegetables and squid. Too big to place on a table, the paellara has a stand of its own.

This is a true slice of a traditional Spanish fiesta. Yet as we wind our way up the narrow streets to La Latina and rest our weary legs in a small plaza next to a softly trickling fountain, we were served tinto de verano (red wine with lemonade) by a smiley, gap-toothed Colombian waiter. That’s what I love about this city. For much as it preserves its glorious Spanish-ness; festivos, bull fighting, flamenco, football, and incessant smoking; there is diversity here.

You hear different languages in the street as you walk around. There are gatherings of international communities, Irish bars and Latin American hangouts. You can escape the constant hardness of the people with a mojito in a Cuban bar off a tucked-away side street. Escape is sometimes necessary here as the Spanish come off as rude; their patience thin for people who don’t know how to order a caña.

You have to shout what you want as loudly and abruptly as possible, with no effort to smile and never saying please. One moment of hesitation will invite a loud huff from the waiter. Before you can say vino tinto, he’ll be at the other side of the bar serving someone else who does understand the system.

This general unhelpfulness is endemic in Madrid and spreads beyond the tavernas. Shop assistants, in the main, are sullen and intolerant. They sling your purchase at you whilst chewing loudly on gum and looking in every direction other than yours, determined not to make eye contact.

Commuters have absolutely no etiquette on the metro, as they squeeze and force and, at times, stomp over you to get a seat on the train. And it is a rare thing for someone to offer help as you struggle up flights of never-ending staircases with an over-sized suitcase.

The argument of Spanish food being the best in the world, for me is wearing thin. I challenge anyone to stand up in defense of a plate of fatty oreja (pig’s ear), ensalada russa (potatoes and frozen vegetable salad, at times even complete with beads of sweat as it’s been in the sun too long) or greasy bowls of potatoes and ketchup accompanied with stale bread.

However, protest as I do, I have to confess that I secretly relish the complementary chunks of bread and salami and salted crisps with slivers of sardines on top in the numerous old man bars. Where everything is thrown on the floor and you feel the crack of peanut shells beneath your feet as you walk in.

I relish the exhaust fumes from traffic heaving through the streets, the grit of the metro and the tired faces that stare listlessly ahead. Street performers that burst into your carriage and opportunistic vendors that cluster outside the entrances selling umbrellas at the vaguest promise of rain, or fans, when the heat starts punishing. The noise, the din, the chaos and the overall human interaction that embodies pure… life.

Ahhh. Give me a city like Madrid any day.

A Slice of Paradise in Costa Rica

A Slice of Paradise in Costa Rica

What I love most about Costa Rica is that I find myself in the strangest of places. It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on a broken bench in a football pitch in town called Paradise (Paraiso to the locals).

I think I’ve been to Paradise before, not this version of it, but some equally misnomered neglected backwater town in the outback parts of Latin America.

This certainly isn’t my idea of Paradise – a stifling humidity that makes clothes stick to a sweating body like a second skin; the kind of mosquitoes that buzz loudly in your ear before taking a bite; a couple of pulperias (local stores), sodas (restaurants – sort of) and a bar called Las Vegas, where there will be a free baile (dance) this evening – certainly the highlight of the year.

I’m afraid to say that every Costa Rican village looks the same to me – largely uninspiring places with the obligatory football pitch, iglesia, one bar and a pulperia. They all share at least these four common ingredients, although sometimes you might hope to find a ferreteria (hardware store), or perhaps an extra bar (maybe even one with naked ladies).

The houses are modest and small – the majority with simple corrugated iron roofs and walls made out of basic plywood, all different colors, with an aging relative rocking slowly on an easy chair on the porch or fanning themselves with a magazine.

Driving though these villages makes one feel somewhat like a celebrity, for everyone stares with a mixture of unabashed curiosity and hope – for something that will momentarily relieve the boredom and monotony that must make up life in the scarcely populated and oppressively hot interior.

We stop for a coffee in a small store that’s barely opening its doors. It’s a little after 8 am in the morning but soon these plastic tables will be full of people breakfasting on gallo pinto, frijoles, huevos revueltos and tortillas. It’s a hearty breakfast of rice, eggs and beans that doesn’t appear on my radar in such tropical climes and least of all at 8 am. We settle for a tepid black coffee, slapping away the flies that land on the sticky tabletops and in the bowls of sugar.

Today there is a bicycle race to raise money for the children’s Christmas party and Luca is going to do the short circuit (which is 10 km instead of the adult 60 km) on his unicycle. As he peddles back and forth on the spot to keep his balance the people giggle and point.

The president of the town’s youth club asks if she can take a photo of him for their page on Facebook – surely this bizarre foreigner with the Polynesian tattoos and one wheeled bicycle will be spoken of for many a year to come.

We wait anxiously for the start of the race. It’s 9.04 and the kick off was supposed to be at 8.30am. Apparently we are waiting for a family to arrive from Santa Cruz – I really should be used to Latin American punctuality and informality by now but the heat is starting to intensify and I’m a little tired and ratty.

There’s a DJ cranking out tunes from the early 90’s, offering cold beer and sporting a pair of neon sunglasses. It takes an iron stomach to start the day this way and so far there are no takers.

At last they announce the start of the race and it’s a somewhat scrambled affair and not quite clear if the adult and children’s circuits start at the same time or not. As Luca peddles off behind the group I marvel at the speed with which he manages that one-tyred apparatus and how he sits on that horrifyingly uncomfortable-looking saddle.

I look around at the somewhat shabby collection of entrants and doubt that all of the candidates will manage the full 60 clicks. One man in particular has a gut spilling out over his Lycra cycling shorts, getting in the way of the saddle.

As they leave I find myself almost completely alone – the only person left in Paradise – on the edge of the football pitch, a few stray dogs scratching their fleas around my ankles and a little cloud of pesky insects above my head.

The bar opposite suddenly cranks into life, going into direct competition with the DJ on the stand, blasting out their music even louder, so I now have two cringe-worthy variations of Cumbia crackling out through blown speakers, fighting to be heard.

Apart from that the village is practically empty. A mother and child sit down near me and the driver of the Cruz Roja ambulance is eyeing me up salaciously from his van. I yawn as I slap an ant off my toe and a mosquito from my thigh. Costa Rica isn’t all about beach and surf and wildlife. Sometimes you need a little trip to Paradise to remind you how most people live here.

The Last Days of Summer, Buenos Aires

The Last Days of Summer, Buenos Aires

 

It’s early and there are few people on the street. An old man hobbles by with a dog that pulls insistently on its leash, looking more like it’s walking his owner than the other way round, and a jogger pants by, earphones firmly in place, determination in her eyes.

Working from home I forget how slowly the city wakes up and how long it takes for the shops to winch open their shutters and the day of commerce to begin. The supermarkets are closed and the small neighborhood businesses show no signs of life, lights turned off and cerrado signs against the glass.

A car pulls abruptly out of a garage, missing me by inches as I walk, the driver unconcerned as I cast him a filthy look – car trumps pedestrian every time.

The leaves are starting to turn as they do at this time of year and the chill in the breeze brings the beckon of winter. The long sunny days splashing about at the pool and lazing on the river will soon be behind us as another season draws to a close.

Season by season, chapter by chapter, line by line, my life in this city is an open book. Some pages are missing; ripped out, never to be read again, while others I revisit from time to time, remember the moment they were written, the characters within them, the color of the sky or the smell of the rain.

As I pass along a part of the street I haven’t for a while, where I used to walk with Bruno, my heart jumps as I see the old English-style book store, Las Mil y un Hojas still there and the real estate agent where I rented my first apartment.

So young, so unaware of the years I would spend here and the people that would cross my path; that my dog would end up living in the USA (the same traveling spirit as his owner), or that I would find myself back here, eight years on, looking into the window at the apartments on offer.

This morning I can’t help but feel nostalgia for the last days of summer and the inevitability of time. Everything ends sooner or later, for as hard as we try to keep it slipping from our grasp. Arturo’s pizza place where we all used to meet; my loft in Cañitas; the three days I didn’t eat before defending my thesis and the friends that carried me home afterwards all slid into the past without my control.

The parties in penthouses; basements and campos, recitales and recuperation; the doctor that asked me out for dinner during an appointment and the ambulance driver who gave me his phone number; the corner of Libertador where I was knocked down by a car, and the German restaurant that’s now a Carrefour.

Teaching English to bankers that wanted to date me; taxi drivers who robbed me or took me on scenic city tours; asados with amigos and drunken philosophical debates… all the facets of life that happened to me here and only here all gone now never to be repeated.

This is the only part of the world I’ve lived in long enough to create lasting memories, as an adult anyway, and these familiar places I walk past make me feel older.

You can never have it all because you have to let go to allow somebody new to come in – and know when it’s time to let others continue on their paths.

I’ve been left in Buenos Aires and I’ve left people behind, but something always draws me back. And when I’m away I take comfort in knowing that the leaves will change color in the autumn and the pavements will be wet in the morning, that the bookshop will still be here and the city sleeps in until late.