Sunday, 30 October 2011

Day 265: Schindler's Lift (20/10/2011)

The National Vow is the largest basilica cathedral in South America.

And the most difficult to get into.

A modest $2 buys a ticket ambiguously entitled 'Entry to the Cathedral'. I strode to the front door, proudly extending the light blue docket to the the low browed munchkin on the front steps and after a second was shooed away. Ever diffident, I respected her 'atowatay' and slunk away to regroup in front of the twin bell towers.

I thought perhaps entrance hours were restricted or maybe cameras were not permitted.

I went back to the ticket office where the man at the counter took pains to explain that I merely needed to show the ticket and I would be admitted. I tried to explain my predicament.

He shooed me away.

Feeling more confident now, I strode once more to the door and fixing her eye, handed her the ticket with a no nonsense expression on my face and waited to be admitted. I did well - and held my ground for a few seconds before I wilted under the heat of the look emanating from beneath those furrowed brows. My eyes followed the direction of her extended arm even if my ears did not fully grasp the precise meaning of the stream of words that emerged from her mouth.

There was something - 'pig-dog' perhaps and maybe 'malodourous gringo' but I can't be sure as by now she was swatting me with her rolled up copy of the of the South American edition of the Catholic Herald.

I beat a hasty retreat to the ticket office.

The man rolled his eyes and told me to go to the side door.

Which I did, and was promptly sent away by another newspaper weilding maniac after I questioned the need to pay another $2 to get in.

I needed some time to think so I retreated to the park outside and took some pictures. Distraction was the only answer. It worked in the movies so surely it should work here - only I didn't have a small explosion in my pocket to let off at the far end of the Basilica order to divert attention away from my efforts to by pass the paper wavers.

I resorted to Plan B.

Watching her movements carefully, I noted that the guard at the front door - for that was what she was - routinely walked  the full length of the portico before returning to her station. That gave me at least twenty seconds to cross the giant plaza, pass the columns, skirt the portico itself and walk into the lift to take me to the top of the bell towers.

Timing it to perfection, I started at a quick trot across the plaza as soon as she turned to walk away from the entrance. I stopped for a moment behind the first of the columns and craned my neck into the portico to check she wasn't diverting from her routine, before darting across the marble floor and pressing the lift button.

Horror - the lift was still 115m up on the fifth floor. She would be back to find me, caught in the open with nowhere to hide. I pressed myself flat to the wall and jabbed the button again and again. Although I was still obscured from her by the line of columns, I could hear her jack-booted heels getting closer.

The lift took an age and thoughts of escape routes raced through my mind.

What would she do to me if she caught me?

Would the Embassy help?

Was the Spanish Inquisition really over here?

Finally the lift door slid open and I threw myself into the welcoming interior, pressed the only button on the wall unit and turned to wait for the doors to ease closed.

Then I saw her beetling out from between the columns, a full five seconds ahead of her schedule. She turned her head and saw me, changed direction and made a bee-line for the rat-trap that the lift had now become.

There was no way out - my only means of escape had become my certain means of capture.

Closer and closer she came. The arm was raised and the fist was clenched. In it the paper was tightly rolled. Twenty metres and I jabbed wildly at the button. Ten metres and the door began its agonising advance. Five metres and I could see the spinach in her teeth.

The doors closed and I was safe.

But her paper jabbed through the gap and as I retreated in horror to the back of the lift car, I could hear her fingers scrabbling at the doors, trying to pry them apart.

I offer my thanks to Schindler's Lifts for their well sprung door closing mechanisms.

The view of Quito from the top of the Basilica was beautiful.

On the way out, I used the stairs

Day 264: Vice Cops (19/10/2011)

I was looking for a police man.

Someone pointed me to the Ministry of the Interior - there were lots of policemen there.

I walked to the front door but the officer on duty was busy talking to his wife on his mobile phone. I had a peice of paper with the instructions for obtaining a police report written on it in Spanish. It was the only thing that the officers at the bus stop had given me.

I took it out of my wallet and tried to show it to him but he was deep in conversation. He waved me through, clearly on the basis of a misunderstanding, and I walked up the imposing steps and into the cool atrium of the Ministry.

Just as a large entourage was walking out.

Burly security officers were about to move me to one side when an old man in the middle of the crowd called out and instead of being manhandled to the fringes, I was absorbed into the melee.

Before I appreciated what was happening, old man grasped my hand, embraced me and uttered something unintelligible in machine-gun Spanish.

Then he was off and I was left standing in the wake of the receding ruck of people.

I never did get to talk to a police man.

That, however, is how you get to meet the Vice-President of Ecuador.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Day 263: Police Report (18/10/2011)

Twenty-four hours is all you have.

After a robbery, you have to get to the police station and obtain a report within this time or it will be refused.

I got off the bus at Quito and marched to the terminal police station.

My Spanish is worse than poor. Their English was no better. After half an hour of meaningless hand gestures, we hit on the idea of using Google Translator. It worked.

A bit.

I managed to convey to them that I had lost my bag but Google didn´t know what to make of 'dirty, thieving toe-rag'. It suggested 'wash your hankerchief' and the officers scratched their heads.

So did I.

Eventually, it became obvious that the language gap was too much. Fair play to them, they spent the best part of an hour trying to understand my attempts at charades. The problem was that there just wasn´t a book, play or film that could properly convey the tragedy and drama of the last few hours.

They sent me on my way with the suggestion that the city police would fare much better trying to interpret by goose-stepping, arm-waving expression of the wronged citizen.

We caught the bus into town but I was acutely aware that time was slipping away. By the time we were booked into the hostel, it was 4pm. Nearly half my time was up.

I looked at Lonley Planet and headed for the main police station carefully marked on the map by the number 18.

It was a museum.

I stopped a Policia Transito in a bright yellow vest but he denied all knowledge of a police station. I asked him were he worked and he was a little shifty.

I tried a Policia Touristico with more hope.

His dog bit me.

Eventually, a private security guard pointed me to the Mother Ship. He tried to hail me a cab to the far side of town to a place only referred to as Y Roca. I couldn´t find it on the map and the taxis wouldn´t stop for him anyway.

They fear gangs that hijack the taxis for robbery purposes, ironically.

A private car driven by Popeye stopped eventually and for half the usual fare he raced me off into the rush hour traffic. It was nose to tail as we got out of the old town and when we reached the barbeque smoke floating off Parque Arborito, things had come to a complete stop.

It was 5.30pm. They were bound to be closing soon.

We communicated by non-verbal means and had a surprisingly illuminating conversation about the Ecuadorian Nuclear Industry.

Or, it might have been football but there were lots of explosive hand gestures.

Eventually we arrived at a large blue and white building that he swore was what I needed. I went inside, past lots of promisingly dressed men in shiny riding boots and smart epaulets. After three floors of blank faces I ended up in a room with a sign that said 'Organised Crime'. I assumed it wasn't actually the hub of Quito's Cosa Nostra but they were helpful and told me this was the wrong place.

The right place was down the street.

I went to the Police Archives, the Evidence building, the Justice Forum and the Crimes against Donkeys unit on the basis of various recommendations before stumbling on the Tourist Police office behind some bins.

Inside the officer was the image of helpfulness and ten minutes later I emerged with a crisp police report on white paper, counter signed by someone very important with an improbably complex signature.

The taxi home was nice.

The driver wore great aftershave and gave me a 30 minute Spanish lesson.

It cost three times as much but it was worth it.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Day 262: Oh Bollocks! (17/10/2011)

They told me.

I was warned.

It happened to Brian just the same way.

And still it happened to me - just don't let it happen to you.

We got on the bus from Banos to Quito. A man, who looked like the driver asked us to put our day packs in the over head locker so as not to block the gangway. We obligingly complied, not being ones to challenge authority in a strange country.

We talked.

The guy in the seat behind calmly took the bag containing the computer and a few other things before unobtrusively stepping off the bus with it tucked under his coat, just as we were leaving.

The doors closed behind him and the bus pulled away as I gave chase. The real driver didn't speak English and the opportunity to retrieve three months of the best photos and video of South America I will ever take, was gone.

I watched the thief disappear into the crowded bus station, impotent to do anything.

I swore alot.

At Clare, at Berni, at the bus driver, at the thief, at the world.

Then I didn´t say much for a while.

I feel alot better now as lots of friends have offered their photos from the same trip but it really made me sad for a while.

Until I heard that another friend lost everything in a fire.

Then I felt stupid and ridiculous.

I owe several people an apology for the way I behaved. They know who they are.

I am very sorry.

Maybe the guy who stole the stuff will get a couple of hundred dollars. He probably needs it more than me but if you are stealing stuff off buses for a living, its not going to end well for you in the long run.

Good luck mate - you'll need it.

Day 261: Everything's a Dollar (16/10/2011)

Outside Banos sits the Devil´s Cauldron.

We hired bikes and cycled through the square and onto the road out of town. Closer inspection would have been wise as the buckled wheels wobbled and the brakes squeaked but did little to slow us down on the hill that Banos sits on.

We passed roadside barbeques roasting the local favourite - Guinea Pig - and sped through clouds of smoke that the fatty skin produces.

Dogs barked at us as we entered their territory and a few tried to bite the tires as we raced away from them. A heel to the head soon saw them off and they retired to bark some more as we disappeared around the next bend.

The road was not pretty and the highway out of Banos winds through a series of ribbon developments made up of a few swanky villas set back from the road but mostly breeze-block single storey construction with bars on windows and reinforced steel rods protruding from the roof - to fend of the taxman who can only collect on completed buildings.

The purpose of the ride was not to see the local man made architecture but rather the nature's work.

Banos sits at the top of a hill and a ravine snakes away from it, collecting the tributaries that flow down from the surrounding mountains. The small river that flowed passed La Casa Verde, the beautiful Kiwi run hostel that we stayed in, had grown to a raging torrent a few short miles down the incline.

We stopped at the first waterfall after thirty minutes of cruising down the hills, with intermittent foot dragging to scrub off the excess speed that we were accumulating.

A brightly painted block built shed sat on the cliff edge and from it emanated a deep roar from an old, unloved deisel engine. From the shed strung wire cables that stretched across the valley to the waterfall that was a thousand metres away. A small yellow cable car inched across the ravine in the distance and the cries of excited tourists echoed across the valley.

We watched as they disappeared into the distance and again as they returned to the shed, smiles beaming from their faces as they approached.

The waterfall continued impassively in the distance, spilling its water 70m down the distant rock face, pooling at the bottom and continuing on its way, now part of the larger river.

A few minutes further down the track, zip-liners launched from a raised platform and screamed down the valley until their voices were lost in the sound of the surging water below us.

Further still we passed through road tunnels and flattened ourselves to the wall as the happy-pick up trucks took whooping day trippers down the ravine, accompanied by hooting horns, pumping reggae and flashing lights. In the tunnel the sensation was over whelming as the sound and light refelected in every direction but away from us.

Finally we reached the Cauldron, so called because the Devil´s face is visible in the rock from several angles.

We parked the bikes at the cliff top cafe and locked them to the post conveniently marked 'Bike Lock'. What the sign unhelpfully failed to mention was the 'Live Wire' that was also attached to the post.

Mains current surged through me as I fed the chain around the back wheels and after I instinctively pulled my tingling hand away, my jellied legs gave way and I sat in a heap of adrenalin and jangling nerves.

Remonstrating at the till with the cafe owner produced the typical South American shrug and rather than bang my head against a brick wall we got on with the business of the Cauldron.

A truck had been cemented to the top of the cliff, minus the wheels, cab and wagon. The engine and chassis sat, attached by a large winding wheel, to the cannibalised vehicle's drive shaft which lifted and lowered a ricketty cable car to the valley floor,  750m away.

We paid a dollar each and climbed into the ramshackle contraption before a twelve year old fired up the truck engine, slipped the engine into first gear and pumped the throttle as he lifted the clutch, all the while sitting in the seat that used to have a cab around it. We held our breath as the car surged away from the concrete docking station while the owner's Alsation craned its neck around the parapit to watch us recede into the distance.

A two thousand stomach churning feet later, the car -  made of periodic peices of tubular steel welded into the shape of an elongated shopping cart - crashed into the restraining ropes at the far end, and after releasing ourselves from our impromptu restraints, we hopped over the gate that was stuck, paid another dollar to cross the rope bridge over the river and edged closer to the Cauldron.

Indiana Jones would have been satisfied with the wild oscillations of the bridge as we crossed and, mightily relieved we stepped onto solid ground at the other side to pay a further dollar to enter the grounds into which the waterfall crashes to river level.

Ignoring the kitsch efforts of the owners to spoil the natural wonder of the scene, we by passed the plastic signs, avoided the rough stone built pond fed by white drain pipes, nipped through the superfluous arch and hiked 80m to the falls.

Above us, perhaps 100m, the river is split before the drop by a giant rock protrusion. As a result, two falls crash to earth in an explosion of water vapour that alone would justify the image of a boiling cauldron. At 30m distant we were wet and grinning. At 10m the rocks were fiendishly slippery and it was all we could do to stay upright.

Between the falls was literally a breath taking experience.

The water crashed down with the force of falling rocks. The plunge pool seethed and boiled as a hundred fire hydrants were discharged into it at the same time. The spume roared into my face and the wind generated by the falling water made me lean to keep my balance.

The noise was incredible.

I was grinning so much that I swallowed mouthfuls of sweet tasting water and it was only later that it occurred to me that a dead sheep a few miles upstream could see me laid up for a week.

Suddenly the prevailling wind relented and the direction of the falls moved two metres to the right. Instead of crashing into the plunge pool, the water hammered into a large flat stone just to my left. It dawned on me in an instant that from a safe distance, the waterfall looked exciting, but fundamentally benign.

The water now sounded like an angry Fury hurling boulders down the ravine and the prospect of wading into the plunge pool under the falling water seemed absurd.

I retreated in a hurry, slipping and sliding on the algae covered rocks, and at a safe distance, turned to marvel at the only waterfall I have seen that I could get beneath and still be frightened by.

We crossed the bridge again but it no longer thrilled us.

We rode the cable car to the top but it seemed a pedestrian experience.

We we picked up by a lorry that was passing and ferried 20km back to Banos, for another dollar.

Every night since, I have fallen asleep to the memory of those moments in the Devil's Cauldron.

Day 260: Rocket Man (15/10/2011)


The ´n´should have a hat on and it should be pronounced Banyos but the keyboard doesn´t have anything fancy like that.

Most of the time it means toilet but sometimes it means bath, especially if your town has a thermal spring. It can lead to embarassing misunderstandings, like the time I was asked to leave the restaurant for taking a wash in the toilet bowl or when I used the swimming pool for...well never mind, you know what I mean.

Banos is very lovely, regardless of whether you are thrown bodily down the steps of the thermal baths by a burly women with a recently adjusted opinion of the British.

Volcanic ash settles on this spa town more often than is entirely necessary. The necklace of active volcanoes that ring the town, erupt to one degree or another, every five minutes, shelling the hillsides with rockets made of red hot boulders the size of cars.

The closest is a mere 5km away and were it ever to do more than burp, Banos and most of the surrounding countryside would be a thing of the past.

In the meantime they get as much super heated water as they want, completely free, albeit that it is brown and smells of urine. There is only one problem.
It´s the hydrogen cyanide and arsenic that would worry me if I swam there more than once in a life time. To be fair to them, it is an informed choice as the large sign on the wall above the main pool spells it out in letters three feet tall.

But, it probably explains the odd behaviour that the Banyans display from time to time - like lynching people, burning bodies and throwing people off bridges. I think the constant strain of never knowing whether you are going to be obliterated by a wall of lava travelling at 600mph may also have a part to play. It probably also explains whey some of them have such a lacsidasical approach to life.

Why bother.

Manyana is a word most people associate with sombrero toting Mexicans who have found a comfortable place to sleep off the Tequila, but it applies here too. Not the Tequila, you understand - they do make it and drink it but call it Punta.

It´s just that sometimes, things don´t happen when they are supposed to - and sometimes things do when they are not.

Builders don´t turn up all over the world but here they are very fastidious about phoning you up to tell you they are on their way before not turning up. If a Banyan doesn´t know the way, they will give you comprehensive directions anyway and shrug off the complaint if you ever see them again.

And they spend far too long on festivals - one hundred and nintey days off a year for them, at the last count, each one with at least three competing thirty-two peice marching bands and a life-size icon of the saint in question trundled around the streets in a glass display case with armfuls of flowers and palm leaves.

There must be a large warehouse on the outskirts of town to store it all.

The drum section in every festival band plays at an entirely different rythm to the brass which wanders in and out of tune at will. I blame the altitude - but noone really minds as there is always something more interesting to do.

Like watching the man in the main square letting off rockets from his half finished beer bottle - which he is still holding and from which he nonchalantly sips between launches.

If the choice was between flaming boulders and fire-crackers?

I know which I would choose.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Day 259: Throw Him a Fish (14/10/2011)

Trip Advisor is God.

In every town, in every country, people run hostels and hotels and Trip Advisor can make or break them.

One bad review can be the difference between a bustling bookings sheet and tumble weed in the corridors.

It wasn´t going to take long before the wierdos cottoned onto this and started posting false reviews to screw the competition or just out of sheer spite. A malicious poster was recently ordered to pay $300,000.00 in damages. This is a serious business.

Its probably best that the identity of those involved in this story are not revealed or I may end up in a South American court for perverting the course of justice, but the story is still worth telling.

False reviews started appearing on Trip Advisor for a place we stayed and very much enjoyed. Marmeduke and Philomena (not their real names, you understand) were very concerned. After a bit of detective work, they were pretty confident that they had identified the culprit. Warnings failed to have any effect and legal advice was sought.

It may all be over now.

The allegation was that a disgruntled expat was responsible. You can call him Florence. No one seemed to know what his reasons were but he appeared to have taken a dislike to Marmeduke, possibly because Philomena had declined his offer to kill a troublesome tradesman who had failed to complete a repair on time.

Florence was proud to tell everyone that he was a retired Navy Seal and had killed something in excess of two hundred people. I can´t be more precise because neither could he. I don´t know whether it is normal to lose count of the number of people you have killed. I think I would keep a careful record just in case anyone wanted to know at a later date, but then again, I like spreadsheets so maybe I am not like everyone else.

Also, to be fair to Florence, it wasn´t clear whether he killed all these people during the course of his professional life or whether he was including the people that he had killed whilst in semi retirement. Older people are not good with computers and perhaps he missed the evening class on spreadsheets. Then again, older people do like lists.

I just don´t know what to believe.

To complicate matters, during the course of her enquiries, Philomena came across another chap called Francois who also claimed to be a retired Navy Seal. The two Seals had fallen out after meeting at convention for retired Navy Seals. There were competing claims about who had more scalps. Words had been exchanged and there was some bad feeling. Some people may have been killed.

The plot thickens we we learn that the police and the courts in this country are, shall we say, partial to brown envelopes. The outcome of a hypotheical case brought by Philomena against Florence might be dictated by factors other than the evidence.

The tendency for brown envelopes to influence the turning of the wheels of justice has also led to the exercise of people power in this hamlet. Wrong doers, unpunished by the police, may or may not have been hauled out of jail and beaten to death by a hundred strong brigade of pitchfork brandishing locals, before their bodies were set on fire and thrown off the local bridge.

Which brings me back to Florence.

If he has killed two hundred people of more, then perhaps a hundred strong brigade of pitchfork brandishing locals might be best advised to think twice before taking him on. The odds aren´t that good for them.

But, then again, I don´t really think he was a Seal after all.

Seals like beachballs, not killing people. There is of course, only one way to tell.

Throw him a fish.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Day 257: The Patron Saint of Cake (12/10/2011)

Clare said Gustavo was actually George Clooney.

I couldn´t see it myself but then again I have been seeing celebrities all over the world for the last year even though no one else believes me.

It can´t have been George anyway. 

He doesn´t have a beard… and he´s not called Gustavo.

What Gustavo does have are lovely horses. He picked us up from hostel Rio Del Pasado in his smart pick up and drove us into the rolling hills outside Cuenca. The Hacienda De Santa Martha De Tortellinas sits on the top of a large grassy knoll with white picket fences stretching to the edge of the valley in all directions.

I thought Santa Martha was the patron saint of some kind of delicious cake and that her hacienda would be the epicentre of Cuenca´s baked confectionary tradition but disappointingly Tortellinas are reeds, not tasty morsels.

I had to accept that today was about riding the horses but Gustavo did give us some nice crisps, so that kind of made up for the disappointment.

Some way back in their lineage, the four horses were part Palomino and part Spanish stock introduced by the Conquistadors. They looked, to all the world, like Mustang but regardless, they were handsome. Juvio (Rain), Guilla (Moon), Inty (Sun) and Volcano (Volcano) got dressed for the ride and kindly chose western saddles with a large handle...sorry, pommel... for us to cling to when things got hairy. 

Judging by the terrain, it was going to be pretty soon.

The walk from the yard was up an incline normally reserved for base jumping.

Soon it got a whole lot steeper.

Nothing improves your seat like falling off. Normally five feet is enough to drive the point home. Fifty feet seemed a little excessive.

We wound up slopes that left the ponies huffing and puffing and back down strange sand dunes that seemed to freak Inty out. Then again, he shied and reared at a selection of things such as a sleeping pig and some pebbles whilst wandering nonchalantly past a pack of baying dogs and a fruit truck pumping out rap music at a volume that started landslides in Peru.

Gustavo said there were bears along the trail but that they only ate Ecuadorians. The ponies didn´t seem to know this and were spooked by something during lunch. They tore free from their rope and only Gustavo´s quick thinking stopped them careering to the precipice.

It was a relief to leave the thick hilltop bush that the path wound through and return to the rolling grass land in the valley.

The views were beautiful but I couldn´t help feeling that it wouldn´t be long before an enterprising Ecuadorian opened a golf course here as most of the work had already been done by nature.

As we turned for home, the ponies had recovered from the morning hill climb and were ready to stretch their legs. We kicked them on and they sprung from a walk to a canter.

Before long the canter was lengthening. We were travelling faster than ever before on horseback. Clare whooped and I turned a shade of colour reserved for food poisoning. She turned to me with a big grin as we slowed for a moment.

“Shall we go again” was all she said.

We were off again and, having secured my seat, I embraced the fear and galloped after her as she streaked into the distance.

We arrived at the gates to the hacienda, panting as much as our horses and bubbling with a mixture of excitement and adrenalin.

Maybe Martha heard my prayer.

Cakes were waiting for us.

Day 256: Cornered (11/10/2011)

Count yourself as unlucky if you get run over by a taxi while sitting in a restaurant in Cuenca.

L´ Esquina means ´the corner´ and the eatery of the same name was at the junction of Brother Michael and Largo.

There was a large window at the apex of the corner that caught the sun for most of the day.

Perhaps it was there because too many cars had collided with the restaurant as they came around the corner. Perhaps it gave restaurant a nice window to seat their guests. 

Either way, we sat in the alcove, leaning against the giant window pane and watching the Cuenca world go by while consuming anything that seemed appropriate for the time of day.

We spent quite some time there.

It did occur to me that the traffic coming down Largo might want to turn left onto Miguel but I was confident that however reckless Ecuadorian drivers may be, they would at least have the courtesy to stick to the road while they did it.

Perhaps it was the slippery cobbles.

Perhaps he was just going too fast.

I´ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Day 256: Pinball Wizard (11/10/2011)

They teach you about sensory deprivation in the first week of spy school.

When the goons catch you, they stick you in a box, deprive you of external stimuli and leave you there for hours on end.

And so, I was introduced to the South American bus driver´s fixation with the Baby Jesus. They slap their trucks thick with stickers and depictions of the little fella. Except today they took the whole business a step further.

The light to the windows from rows one to six were blacked out  by a fifteen foot plastic lamination of the Child King, complete with oversized crown and more rouge than a trendy cafĂ© in London. There was nothing to see for 300km. From the outside, the bus was a mobile place of worship. From the inside, it was a torture chamber.

I did the only thing I could and deployed the tactics spy school had drilled into me. Find an object to focus on and pass the hours in solitary by concentrating on the detail.

The driver´s collection of ties hanging in the curtained window behind his seat seemed like a sensible place to start so I analyzed the weave, memorized the washing instructions and absorbed the dubious pattern of soup stains.

Before I knew it, five hours had passed and we were disgorged onto the tarmac at Ambato for the final leg to Cuenca.

Sadly, Spy school never mentioned what was to follow so I had to freestyle.

The gaggle of women producing 900 words a minute at 130 decibels in the row in front - they died where they sat.

The twenty-nine stone child who persisted in pushing his seat back and cutting off the circulation to my legs - he hit the tarmac at 80kpmh.

The frankly dire film about a dog and a ghost who defeat a wizard using only the power of something or other – played out at ear bleeding volume, in Spanish, through speakers more crackly than an out of control Vander Graff Generator - quite good actually.

And then the blind kid playing guitar who spent the majority of the journey massacring a series of three Ecuadorian classics, over and over again.

Sadly, I didn´t realize he was blind until I had snapped his guitar and bitten off his ears.

It was about then that I realized that he was staring... fumbling... panicking  - all blindly.

I apologetically pieced his matchwood instrument back together, straightened his tie, brushed the dust off his coat and put a coin in his jar.

On reflection, I´m sure I did him a favour.

Now he´s blind and deaf.

If he ever has the good fortune to be struck dumb he could sure play a mean pinball.

Day 255: Paradise to Milton Keynes (10/10/2011)

We left Puerto Lopez to meet Bernie in Guayaquil.

It was rather like leaving paradise to go to Milton Keynes.

Bernie had flown halfway around the known universe to spend ten days with us and all she got when she arrived was a tired Clare and a grumpy Tim.

Although to be fair to Guayaquil, the first thing we saw after we had checked into the care of the delightful Andrea at the equally delightful Casa Romero (7th floor of an anonymous tower block in the city centre at Velez 501 Y Boyaca, 593 Guayaquil) was fearsome beasties.

Placa Seminario, a couple of blocks north on Velez is better known as Placa Iguana. The clue is in the name. Somehow, scores of Iguanas have taken up residence there and lounge in the sun or patiently tolerate the tourists who pull their tails and poke them with whatever comes to hand.

And then there is the pigeons.

They harass the iguanas relentlessly, walking past them with the insouciance of a French waiter, standing on their heads, loitering near the youngsters in the hope of initiating a chase and generally making the poor creatures lives a misery.

And crapping on them for good measure.

The Cathedral looks on with determined impartiality as neither of these creatures is any part of God´s creation. The pigeon is a rat with wings and the iguana looks more like the devil than Old Nick himself.

When the excitement of the square was over, we took a long walk down the water front Malecon.

Guayaquil was a late 19th century boom town courtesy of several rivers that run conveniently to the nearby sea. The town is built at the confluence and the view from the Santa Anna hill is more a lesson in topography than a pleasant vista. 

The museum on the hill cleverly erected a giant photograph of the 1880 panorama which chimes beautifully with the modern day perspective.

Some of the plantation houses remain but Guayaquil has blossomed into the financial heart of Ecuador, full of skyscrapers and sharp suited executive-types.

On reflection, it isn´t Milton Keynes.

It´s more like Reading.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Day 252: Turtle Whacks (07/10/2011)

The turtles circled the boat.

Nine of them bumped into each other as they foraged for the watermelon that the guide had surreptitiously dropped into the water when no one was looking.

One by one, we donned the masks and slipped silently into the water, hoping not to scare then off.

In ten metres of water they performed a slow dance, occasionally flapping their flippers and powering away in an effortless demonstration of evolutionary perfection.

We swam hard and occasionally caught up with them.  Invariably they turned toward us with the faces of old men. Snapping beaks and short sighted eyes make for finger nipping misunderstandings. Keeping our hands clear of their inquisitive mouths, we held our nerve as they bumped off us and scrapped past us on each revolution.

Small fish picked at the accumulations on their ancient shells.

Larger fish skirted their path or darted away as they performed slow turns in the turquoise water.

Swimming above them and below them, we had to surface for air as they seemed to surge forward without the slightest of effort.

We would have stayed in the water with them all day.

That is, but for the colony of Hammer Head Sharks that cruised the bottom, just a few metres below us.

Day 252: Watching Boobies (09/10/2011)

How many of you can honestly say that you haven´t stared at a beautiful pair of boobies while your wife´s attention was momentarily distracted?

Thankfully, there are still places in this world where a man can gaze at all the boobies he wants without the love of his life batting an eyelid.

Isla De La Plata is one.

We raced across the Pacific Ocean from Puerto Lopez, for a stomach churning hour as the skiff leapt over the waves and ploughed into the troughs that populated the ocean surface during the 28km journey. 

When we arrived, it was to a deserted beach where the birds and the crabs fought for dominance on a shore line once walked by Sir Francis Drake - of bowling balls, fags and spuds fame.

The birds squabbled and the crabs – well they crabbed. I put the video camera on the sand and once I had retired to a safe distance, they came to investigate. What resulted, only needs a slapstick sound track and is destined to be the next You Tube sensation - providing no one films a cat stuck in a washing machine on spin cycle, in the meantime.

The island is home to clouds of ever-circling Frigate birds that puff their red neck pouches out during the mating season. Tropical birds swoop and soar about the cliff faces. Blue Footed Boobies sit on eggs in nests that they have constructed rather foolishly on the ground. 

I say constructed, when of course, I mean that they crapped extensively on a flat piece of earth, flicked it about a bit and then sat on it.

To add to their stupidity, they often accidentally, seem to occupy a concealed position but blow the reproductive advantage by hooting and clicking at anything that comes within 50m. This is even when it is heading in the opposite direction and is clearly unaware of their presence, let alone the tasty morsel upon which they are so fastidiously perched.

As you approach, it then dawns on them that silence is the better option and they go all coy on you. You can stare at a Booby all day long without a hint of objection from the female, or the male for that matter - that stands nearby like a spare prick at a wedding, contributing precisely nothing to the equation apart from more fresh guano to add to the nest.

As we left the island after two hours of watching the inquisitive inhabitants, who have yet to learn to fear us, a lone Pelican performed an elaborate dance.

Perched on a rock above the beach, he took to the air at precise intervals, circled for a while and then folded his wings before diving into the surf.

Each time he surfaced with a pouch full of water and fish. The water spilled in a cascade from his beak as he took to the air, circled again and landed in the same spot he had taken off from. Settled back on his perch, he tipped his head back and downed the hapless fry before spending a minute or two digesting them.

Then he did it all over again.

Watching birds or watching Boobies – it’s all the same.

Day 252: Fifty Tons of Fun (07/10/2011)

There is not much that talk of seeing whales can´t trump.

Even though it was the end of the season and the whales were departing for the Antarctic, we were excited to go to Puerto Lopez just in case we could bump into one or two of them on their way there.

The bay on which the small town nestles is home to a few out of season tourists and a flotilla of fishing boats. They bob in the swell in their dozens, seeming to do nothing more than provide a roost for the pelicans and frigate birds that wait for the nets to be emptied.

The whale watching tour departed from the beach – there is no jetty.

We waded out to the rather arrogantly named  “Amazing – I”, suggesting that “Amazing II” lurked somewhere close by, just waiting for its moment in the sun. The waves broke on the bow as the skipper reversed the boat into the shallows with all the delicacy that two 150 horsepower engines can muster.

Needless to say that we got wet but that didn´t seem to matter as the warm wind blew off shore and the prospect of communing with the planet´s largest mammals beckoned.

We were roaring past the shore surf in no time and perhaps starting to pine for the calm inland waters as the Pacific swell started to rise. When it reached two metres, the land disappeared intermittently between the waves. When the throttle opened the boat leapt forward at a surprising pace and we were permanently out of sight of land in minutes. 

The boat planed in the flat water and surged over the swells that rolled toward us every few seconds.

Life in a washing machine must have been more comfortable as the first timers turned an oily shade of green and the rest of us grabbed onto something solid to brace ourselves with.

Suddenly the engine cut out. There was a ripple of concern and then the mother and calf surfaced a few metres away from the boat.

What felt like a small, fragile craft, adrift in a massive ocean, felt so much smaller. The barnacle crusted behemoths rose from the water, showed their backs and then slid beneath the surface again, as a taster of what was to come.

Humpback whales can remain submerged for half an hour and sometimes only surface for a few seconds to breath. So close to the boat, the blow holes roared as they expelled air and the plumes of spray from mother and calf fell upon us in a refreshing substitute for actually touching them as they passed.

We were lucky as they surfaced and dived repeatedly around the boat. When they appeared further away, the skipper was quick to get us there and when the first pair eventually departed, another soon appeared.

These giant marine mammals evoke something deep in us.

They bear no resemblance to us and live in a different world but somehow their warm blooded existence in the cold depths strikes a chord. Their live young seem so vulnerable despite their enormous size. The tenderness of their mothering seems so familiar that it seems entirely appropriate to jump in with their 50 ton bulk and stroke their giant forms, regardless of the danger.

When they were gone we were left excited, fulfilled but slightly sad.

All I wanted was to see them again.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Day 251: Goodbye Cindy (06/10/2011)

Sorry -  its not the hardest word to say.

Its goodbye - goodbye to people who you have lived with, peed with, eaten with, slept with and grown to care for - just a little bit, over seven short weeks.

First, Cameron and then Cindy was our home for a trip across thousands of kilometres and countless cities. The people who we travelled with shared danger and excitement, boredom and most importantly - chocolate biscuits.

We said goodbye and climbed into a taxi to the airport for a flight from Lima  to Guayaquil in Ecuador, leaving the security blanket of the truck and all our friends, in exchange for the cold reality of independent travel. Ecuador is not Chechnya, but then again, its not Switzerland either.

The excitement began almost immediately. The taxi left the main road and the warning bells started to ring.

"Rogue taxi drivers will rob you" warned the signs at every corner.

We entered deeper into the favella and the locals looked hostile. Twenty minutes into our independent adventure and we were going to be stripped naked, relieved of all our possessions and, if we were lucky, dumped on the side of the road.

If not, we would be booking an appointment at the dialysis clinic very soon indeed.

Language failed to convey the concern mounting in the back seat. Hand signals did the job just fine and the driver, sensing the imminent release of two tightly coiled springs behind him,  mustered just enough English to explain that the highway was blocked and that this was a shortcut.

He was right.

Under the main road we passed and nose to tail traffic inched overhead as we sped to the airport.

Sitting comfortably with a coffee, the right side of check-in, we laughed off the fear that had envelopped us just a few short minutes ago.

On the plane, the pre-flight safety briefing was silent as to what to do in the event of an unscheduled fat person in the seat next door.

The coiled spring, attached to the sharpened elbow, helped a little.

Day 251: McCoffee (06/10/2011)

We arrived at Lima airport in good time with a fistful of shrapnel.

Budgeting for the airport is difficult.

Too little local currency and you have to survive check-in without enough money for a cup of coffee. Too much and you are destined to take home yet another deposit for the useless foreign currency jar that sits on everyone´s shelf. And a brooding sense of injustice.

We wandered to Starbucks, more out of force of habit that anything else.

"Two Lattes and a Chocolate Brownie" I asked the sullen girl at the counter.

She tapped the computer till.

"Twenty-nine Soles" she replied, without looking up.

It was a bit steep for coffee and cake, but after all this was the airport and prices here bear no relation to the real world. I fished around in my wallet and handed over the cash.

"No. twenty-nine dollars" she fired back at me with just a little more bile than I usually like with my coffee.

I don´t usually like to sacrifice my principles but today I was was willing to make an exception.

"Two dollars and forty-five cents" said the girl at McDonalds.

With the nicest smile I can recall.

Day 250: Meat Mountain (05/10/2011)

Today was mainly about food.

Breakfast was steak served by a Peruvian cockney.

Lunch was churroz pastries from a roadside lady not a day younger than Jesus.

To burn off the calories, I spent the afternoon chasing pigeons around the catacombs to get the perfect picture and then tried  to explain why I was doing it, to a curious old man who stood and watched the whole display. How did I account for my eratic behaviour?

Pigeon-English, of course!

Dinner was at Norky´s - it may sound like a Frat House film but it was truly splendid. Europe doesn´t have an equivalent but this is Peru´s solution to the South American Meat Mountain.

You can see the foothills in Lima´s old town pedestrian precinct. The climb is hard but the view from the top is spectacular.Take a gentle hike past the kidneys and leap over the the liver, climb the chicken, scale the beef, rope yourself up for the lamb ascent and push onto the pork summit.

When it was over, they brought a stretcher and carried Clare and I back to the hotel - complete with a doggy bag for the three kilos of french fires that never even got a look in.

You may die in the process but people will talk in hushed and reverant tones about the achievement.

Before bed we confronted Lima´s unspoken curiosity.

All the female manequins have infeasibaly large breasts. I tried to find out why but sometimes gestures are not the right way to ask delicate questions.

Answers on a post-card.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Day 249: When Nature Calls (04/10/2011)

By the time we had sponged off the guano, it was lunch time.

We sat at a long table in the sunshine, entertained by a series of buskers who worked their way up the string of water-front eateries. The star amongst them was a 14 year old with the voice of a man three times his age. His grandfather played guitar and he walked about the restaurant, serenading the ladies like a seasoned veteran.

An extended family of large American ladies took the slightly unsavoury jail-bait and whooped enthusiastically as he came to their table. As the cat-calls and wolf-whistles reached a crescendo, it sounded less like a family restaurant and more like Ladies' Night at the Blue Oyster Bar.

A band of pan-pipers were drafted in to damp down the lunch-time passion that had been unleashed by the pubescent crooner. It was all too much for the fat ladies and they descended on the toilets in a single unit, twenty-five strong.

There is not a plumbing system in the world that could have coped with what they had in mind.

In a gesture of solidarity with its porcelain comrades, the corridor to the toilets buckled under the weight of numbers as their fleshy forms blocked it completely. Ye Gods! - if they ever made it to the throne-room, what hope was there for the substandard Peruvian pipework?

This is just a more extreme example of a situation that plays out all over the world.

Women don’t go to the toilet alone and architects routinely under-estimate the facilities needed to service the female contingent. As a result, the inevitable happens – the Damas sneak into the Caballeros.

I queued patiently while a stream of women used the men's toilet, ahead of me.

Next time there's a queue for the Men's Room - use the Ladies. 

I'm sure they'll understand.

Day 249: When the Shit Hits the Fan (04/10/2011)

Two hours ago, I narrowly avoided being left in the desert.

Now we had reached the coast again and were climbing aboard a motor boat for the 27km journey to the Ballestas Islands. Perhaps unfairly, they are labelled as the poor man’s Galapagos but they are home to massive numbers of birds and marine mammals.

The boat roared across the ocean as the twin props churned the water behind us into a fountain of spray. The clouds closed in and those without coats shivered for the thirty minutes it took to cover the distance.

When we got there, the trip was worth every nickel - not least because the Boobies dived bombed us with salvoes of rapid-fire guano. Within five minutes we looked like casualties from a black and white paint ball skirmish.

Every five years, the island is still farmed for all the guano that isn't launched at the visiting day trippers and giant gantries serve both as roosts for the birds and the means of loading the barges that sit in the bay.

The skipper expertly manoeuvred the boat amongst the rocks that protrude for the water’s surface. The waves rushed in and the swell carried us closer and closer, if not to certain death, then certainly to a hole beneath the water-line.

With a deft dab of the throttle and a half spin of the wheel, he kept us at arm’s length from disaster – and the drowsy groups of seals and sea lions that rested on the rock ledges.

We were so close that if you were brave, you could have reached out and tweaked their whiskers but their fishy breath, let alone their teeth, was enough to dissuade even the stupidest.

For a couple of hours, we eased past roosting flocks of pelicans and beneath giant formations of frigate birds that flew overhead. Surveying the world beneath them, they swooped and wheeled for their periodic aerial bombardments of the boat.

The seals flopped into the water around us and bobbed in the swell. We motored under huge arches in the rock and past giant caves eroded by the perpetual action of the waves.

But, soon we were turning for home.

Pelicans skimmed the surface beside us for most of the way, scooping up mouthfuls of fish as they went and swelling their characteristic pouches to bursting point. Boobies continued to dive bomb us with ruthless precision and a hundred types of gull patrolled overhead just to ensure that we were leaving their domain.

I'm sure that Col will forgive me for saying that he was a big bird enthusiast - that way I can tell you about how the shit really hit the fan.

Sorry - that was very poor!

Day 249: Scheduled Departures (04/10/2011)

The desert fog hung in the air, dimming the morning sun and absorbing all sound.

In the night, TJ had crept off to sleep in the dunes and wasn’t woken by the horn that blasted repeatedly to round up the stragglers. Perhaps he stayed up too late, being at one with the desert ghosts or perhaps he communed a little too heavily with another type of desert spirit.

It took a search party to find him.

Either way, he was quiet until after his eggs.

I climbed a remote dune to get the money-shot of the oasis. Every time I turned my back, a few more people snuck on board the truck until it was full, except for me. Imagine my surprise when Cindy pulled away in the distance and the buddy system that had worked so seamlessly up until now, came crashing to the ground.

I was perfectly prepared to be lost in the desert – out in the desert.

But left on the sweltering sands with the truck in plain sight was not what I had bargained for. I half ran, half rolled down the dune, caught up with it, flung open the door and dived into the foot well with socks full of sand.

The truck never stopped.

I never liked Cindy anyway.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Day 248: Bed and Board (03/10/2011)

The sand dunes at Huacachina in Peru are over 300 feet high.

They are the tallest in the world.

The small town of 200 residents is built around an oasis. Palm trees lean lazily at the water’s edge and children splash in the spring water that wells up from the desert.

TJ parked Cindy under a cover and we climbed down from the truck, drank a beer and then climbed into a five point harness attached to roll bars and a 4.5 litre engine.

For the next thirty minutes the appropriately named ‘Jesus’ drove the eight-seat dune buggy as if he was being chased by something recently escaped from Hell. The engine roared like a piece of heavy machinery missing a critical part. The buggy lurched from one extreme angle to the next, throwing us against our restraints and making us grateful for the chest squeezing pressure that each change of direction heralded.

We screamed all the way as Jesus hurtled the buggy down gradients so steep that our stomachs struggled to catch up.

We roared up the face of dunes that laughed at the 600 horse power engine.

We rattled our skulls and pile-drove our spines until the world became a blur of sand and sky.

Finally it was over but the true terror was only just beginning.

Sand-boarding evokes the impression of a gentle descent down the face of a dune, with a soft landing guaranteed for anyone unfortunate enough to spill on the way down. And that would be true enough for any ordinary dune, but at 300 feet, death is a real option even if you were sliding down a mountain of marshmallows.

TJ was the first to take the plunge, clinging to some makeshift handles attached to a specially designed piece of dining-room table. The incline was stomach-churning, even for the bystanders.

He slipped over the edge.

The sonic boom reached us marginally before his screams as he gathered speed quicker than a police drugs locker. They told him to keep his legs apart. It could have been to give him increased stability but it had the incidental benefit of ensuring that his thongs didn’t catch alight in the flames that trailed behind his board.

As he came to rest somewhere in southern Argentina, it became apparent that he had survived – which is more than can be said for Nic, who parted company with his board at terminal velocity, flip-flopped like a rag-doll down the slope and then broke up, sending limbs cartwheeling in five different directions.

We pieced him together in time for the barbeque and ate in a circle round the blazing camp fire.

The desert stretches for hundreds of kilometres. Wander into the darkness and all light and sound is absorbed by the surrounding dunes. It would be easy to get lost here - lost in the ‘no rescue’ sense.

So, one by one, a few hardy souls ventured into the darkness to experience the sense of total isolation that our crowded living environments cannot hope to provide. I sat on the top of a dune, listening to the hiss of the night wind moving a hundred billion particles of sand within 20m of me.

After twenty minutes the isolation was too much and I carefully retraced my steps to the camp.

The fire gradually died and we climbed into our sleeping bags, shuffled ourselves into a small depression in the sand and drifted off sleep under the stars.

When I woke at 2am, the stars were gone and in their place a fog had descended on the desert. My hair was wet and the sand around me was dark with moisture.

Fog, as I learned later, is extremely rare in this part of the desert. It hasn’t rained here for as long as most can remember. Nothing grows beyond the fringes of the oasis.

By 9am the sun had burnt it off and the arid conditions had returned.

All evidence of our time in this place was soon gone as the hot wind blew over our tracks.

Day 248: Crime Scene (03/10/2011)

“We’ve found about thirteen victims so far but we haven’t been able to identify any of them” said the official, as his badge flapped insistently in the stiffening breeze.

Body parts lay strewn across the sand.

“The people who…” he hesitated as if searching for the right words.

“There’s evidence that they were consuming narcotics when they died. Probably Cactus spirits and coca leaves.  I have spoken to a few people - they say the dead are mostly local” he continued, holding his coat in front of him with his folded arms.

Not just bones – hair and skin.

“They left most of them out in the open but some of the bodies are in pits.” He gestured to the openings, each of which was now covered with a bamboo awning. “We haven’t got the manpower to deal with this type of thing. The government promised us some help but it hasn’t come yet” he added apologetically.

Tattered material was bleaching in the harsh desert sunlight. The end of a partially clothed femur protruded from the ground nearby.

“There’s been no rain to speak of since it happened. We haven’t disturbed the site but we’ve had some problems with animals. Would you like to see?”

We followed in single file down the narrow path that was lined with white-washed stones.

He showed us some of the remains.

“Some of the victims were important. People are asking questions.” He sounded exasperated.

We nodded solemnly.

“I need some answers. Soon!” Now his coat was flapping. He ran his hand over his greying hair.

“These are my people” he said. “I need to know what happened to them.”

One by one, we stooped to inspect the first body.

It was man, perhaps in his forties, sitting in a foetal position, head protruding from a knot of ropes that enveloped his body. His hair was black and long and parted in the middle. There was a small hole in his forehead. His skin was dry and leathery and his teeth were missing.

We looked on with a curious sense of detachment. We had all seen this before.

“Cause of death?” I asked.

“They’re all the same. A hole to front of the head; the experts say it was probably fatal”. He paused and looked to the sky. “There’s a storm coming. We’d better take cover”.

“It looks like a ritual killing” said Sharif as the man turned on his heel and walked off in the direction of the truck.

“What is the estimated time of death?” I called after him.

I thought the question was lost in the wind but after a moment he turned to face me and paused for a long time.


Day 247: Risky Whiskey (02/10/2011)

A rally delayed our departure from Puerto Inca to Nazca by five hours.

We only realised that it wasn’t one of the political variety when we rounded a bend and passed a crumpled racing car on its roof in the ravine beside the road.

The road to Nazca was short and we pulled up at the gates of the incongruously named Swiss Hotel in good time for lunch.

The cook crew created yet another permutation on the humble sandwich – which is pretty clever, as we have eaten them for forty days straight so far. As we munched, a mild mannered man moved amongst us, picking up potential bookings for a trip to fly over the Nazca Lines.

The Bolivian Death Road trumpeted its deadly credentials as a calling card. It boasted a hit rate of twenty-six tourists in just over ten years. Estimating sixty riders per day, we calculated a death rate of one in ten thousand – pretty good when you consider that a higher proportion of people die in bed – or hospital – or the car.

The Nazca day trip was a little less vocal about its safety record. A plane crashes once every five years on average and the last one did flaming cartwheels off the runway nearly three years ago. Assuming eight died in each crash and that five flights per day go up, the death rate reaches a suspiciously similar level to the Death Road.

About one in ten thousand.

Strangely, the almost identical chances of dying in a plane crash sent a ripple of anxiety through the truck that the Death Road did not.

It could be the element of control that is absent from being a passenger in a plane.

Perhaps it was the dollar-cost to death ratio that upset people.

Maybe it is the inevitability of death that comforts people. After all - fall off your bike on the Death Road and you don’t stop tumbling for over 1,000m.

The plane never reaches an altitude of over 200m and the chances of a straight plummet are pretty slim unless a wing falls off. That leaves the grisly prospect of seeing the crash unfold - from the first slightly concerned radio transmission to the bent metal and flaming aviation fuel – all from a disconcertingly close ring-side seat.

We contemplated these considerations as we dropped pebbles down the inconceivably deep well next to the car park at the hotel. The pebble took six seconds to hit the water, somewhere deep in the earth’s crust, suggesting a depth of over 400m. The electro-pop that echoed back up the well shaft merely reminded us of the distance we had to fall if the wings decided to take an unscheduled break from the fuselage.

Alive to the negative preconceptions - that TJ and Izzy did little to dispel by making clear that they could not facilitate the booking due to the danger – the polite man from the airline unloaded a barrage of statistics with which to reassure us.

“Yes, planes do crash from time to time but we now check the aircraft periodically for missing wings” he opened apologetically.

“Yes, we now pay our pilots enough so they no longer have to moonlight as whiskey-tasters” he added later.

“Yes, we only buy genuine replacement parts now - and no, we no longer use marshmallows as fuel filters” he emphasised more confidently.

In the end, he only lost one waverer, apparently unsatisfied with his attempts to explain whether policies were in place to protect against alien abduction whilst over the Lines themselves.

Wiping the mayonnaise from our chins, we climbed into his truck and travelled the 40m to the airport where we parted with the cash and, one by one, climbed on the weighing-scales to determine seat position in the single engine Cessna that would be home for the next thirty minutes.

As we waited to climb on board, our unease grew.

I’m not saying that I actually saw marshmallows in the toolbox and maybe the gaffer tape round the tail-fin was purely precautionary.

But there was definitely an empty bottle of Jim Beam in the cockpit.