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North/South America 2004 part one

  • Submitted by: Jacob Harris, United Kingdom
  • Submission Date: 19th Jul 2007

“Never hit a camel” was our taxi driver’s advice, “they will always remember your face, and will never treat you the same again”
We were hurtling at what would have registered as illegal speeds had the speedometer still had the ability to register speed. The advice he had decided to bestow on us would perhaps have been welcome had he been driving us to a camel trek across the Sahara desert. We were, in fact, on our way to Los Angles International airport. I was pretty sure the amount of camels at LAX wouldn’t rival that of the Sahara.

Glad to have left the city of angels behind us I was trying hard not to imagine the angels of death that would greet us if this chap carried on careering through the traffic with apparently little concern for looking in the right direction.
“Its called Camel Revenge” he continued.
“Camel Revenge?” I repeated, wondering if a group of camels had got together to patent this phenomenon.
“Camel Revenge.” he confirmed.

My girlfriend sat grinning beside me, evidently enjoying the taxi drivers somewhat incongruous pearls of wisdom. The whiteness of the knuckles on her tightly gripped fists and the single bead of sweat running down her forehead revealed a different story. Her eyes never moved from the road ahead even if the driver’s had decided a while ago that there wasn’t much interesting going on out there.

To back up his claim he went on to tell us a story about his brother/cousin/uncle who had trouble with a particular camel back in Iran. He had been the owner of a very handsome camel when one day he made the mistake of giving the camel a slap around the face. I thought about whether or not you can in fact slap a camel. Is it really a slap when the ‘slapping’ sound is muffled by fur? Or is it simply the outstretched palm that defines a slap? I considered asking the taxi driver his opinion but decided not to interrupt. Apparently the camel took considerable offence to this breach of camel/human relations and dished out a heavy dose of Camel Revenge by refusing to cooperate with his owner and generally misbehaving for many years to come.
“Many years! They really do have a long memory,” I said.
The taxi man nodded gravely.

It was October 2004 and we were on our way to catch a plane to Lima. My girlfriend and I had graduated university in the summer and had decided to spend a few months in South America. We didn’t have anything better to do. We had both managed a 2:1 in Communication Studies. It was a relevantly interesting degree, we soon found out, however, that it was largely irrelevant in the ‘real’ world. If you are wondering what Communication Studies is (and no, it’s not talking, or learning to use the telephone, or BA Hons in Smoke Signals as so many people are quick witted enough to suggest), then it is a kind of hybrid degree incorporating aspects of Psychology, marketing/P.R, Sociology and the media. As I said before, all fairly interesting but about as useful - when applying for serious jobs - as a big spade. Unless you want to dig for a living.

Following our graduation we both left Manchester, where we had been studying, and went our separate ways back to our respective homes. I went to my mother in Birmingham and Beth to her family in Chester. Going back to live with your mother after 3 years of university is a bit like finding a favourite pair of old jeans that still fit at the back of the cupboard. At first the realisation that they still fit makes you happy, nostalgic even for memories past. Until slowly you realise that they don’t fit so well at all and in fact there’s a hole at the knee, and maybe they’re a little tight around the waist; and perhaps…

To earn some money for our jaunt we both took some mundane jobs. Beth had gone back to a job she used to have at a French restaurant in Chester. I had got a job working for the Forensic Science Service logging DNA samples from crime scenes onto a national database. It sounds quite exciting, but in reality was about as interesting as sketching the same piece of cheese, over and over again for 8 hours a day. It was the kind of job that barely existed. One of my colleagues could have achieved what I achieved in a day simply by coming in 10 minutes early. xxxxx

After a couple of months of work we booked our trip. We chose South America for no other reason than it sounded pretty exciting, and a little different. I had also heard the Peruvians enjoyed dining on Guinea Pigs and I was keen to add that to my ‘list of unusual animals I have eaten’. As we were heading in the general direction of the US we decided to spend a couple weeks there along the way. First stop would be New York, then on to California. From there we would fly to Peru and four months later fly home from Rio. We were hardly setting the world alight but it was an adventure we were looking forward to. It was with a slight apprehension that we made our plans, not for fear of where we were going, or for how long; but our relationship was still in its infancy and this was quite a big step to say the least. Four months spent together with anyone is a test but with a new love it is potentially fatal.

Our trip began in a hotel at Heathrow. We had been living apart for a few months, seeing each other only at sporadic weekends, so it was nice to have some time together. And besides, we still get excited about staying in hotel, even a mid-range Hotel Generic at Heathrow airport. What’s the bathroom like? How many T.V channels have we got? How big is the bed? What biscuits are provided with the tea and coffee? It’s all very exciting for us. We are creatures of simple pleasures.

The following morning we caught a flight to New York. We were flying American Airlines worthy of note only for the spectacularly average service they provide. Average food, average leg-room, average air hostesses. The only thing that tipped the scale of averageness was the film – Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal. Which was shit.

Nothing quite prepares you for New York. As you approach it by taxi from JFK your first glimpse of the city provokes a genuine sense of awe and the tremendous skyline grows more commanding and more impressive the closer you get. Before you know it you’re in amongst the buildings, lost amongst the blocks of skyscrapers. New York is the ultimate American city, a truly exciting, absorbing place to be. Your first trip to New York is also a fairly strange experience. The buildings, the taxis, the delis, the street signs, the tourist sites are all so familiar, so recognisable that you have this nagging feeling that you’ve been here before. It is of course the innumerable films, TV shows and adverts that use New York as their backdrop, logged in your sub-conscious, that are the source of this phenomenon. Whilst a trip to New York still feels suitably foreign, especially if it is your first taste of America, it is accompanied by a familiarity that is at first disconcerting but ultimately comforting.

We had booked three nights at the Bellclaire Hotel on West 77th street. It was a slightly-below-mid-range hotel with very few redeeming features. The staff spoke no English and took little interest in us as soon as our credit card was safely behind the front desk. Our room opened onto scaffolding, which succeeded in blocking out any natural light and a dead bird had been placed thoughtfully on the windowsill to greet us. Despite this the room was fine and the location was good. I took a photograph of the room thinking that I would take a picture of all of our rooms on our trip. I quickly realised this was a very dull idea indeed and thankfully didn’t go through with it.

We left our hotel and headed south with the vague aim of ending up in Little Italy. We ended up in Times Square, which again was so familiar but so new it felt like we were intruding on a film set. The dominate exuberance of this hub of consumerism becomes a little overwhelming after ten minutes spent staring goggle-eyed at the various flashing messages telling you to Eat This. Drink That. Go Here. Rub This on This. So we headed for the nearest bar. We ordered two extortionately priced beers and toasted to the start of our trip and the inevitable demise of our relationship. Feeling jet lagged we headed back to the hotel. On the way back I picked up a wonderful meat calzone which tasted better than it should have and weighed as much as a small boy.

The next morning we found a nice little café and had a coffee and a pastry because that’s the kind of thing you do when you’re in New York. Following that we made our way over to Central Park. Our first point of call upon entering the park was Strawberry Fields, the monument to John Lennon. We were greeted there by what can only be described as a Complete Lunatic. Things started out pleasant enough, he was busy carefully laying flowers on the memorial to Lennon, doing it ever so neatly so that they matched perfectly the pattern of the tiled design on the ground. He told us, with plenty of emotion, that it was very near the anniversary of Lennon’s death, and for a spilt second it was a touching scene. The lifelong fan paying his sincere respect to his hero amongst the autumnal colours of Central Park.

He then proceeded to tell us that he had been doing this everyday for the last 20 years and immediately my inbuilt ‘mentalist detector’ went berserk. From then on things took a turn for the worst he descended into a torrent of bullshit about the state of the modern world and the state of New York in particular, which culminated in how the vision of New York depicted in the Michael Douglas film Escape from New York was going to come true. And it wasn’t going to happen hundreds of years in the future but VERY SOON. By this point he had a small amount of spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth that collected, stretched and broke apart with each rapid movement of his lips. It was strangely hypnotic. He had begun his rant at a small group of us but had since decided that we were the most deserving of his prophetic warnings and had focused his rage on us. The rest of the people around us had made a cowardly retreat and were no doubt laughing at our predicament from behind some nearby bushes.

We managed to break free from Larry or Chuck or Crag or Mustard or whatever his name was and set off to explore the park. Central Park provides a sense of isolation greater than that of most other city parks. At once you can easily forget where you are and it truly feels like you could be anywhere. We stumbled across one area called The Ramble which reminded me of a forest I used to explore as a child in the countryside of the West Midlands. To be reminded of the West Midlands is wholly unnecessary when you are exploring far-off climes. But considering we were in the middle of one of the largest cities in the western world the nostalgia evoked was remarkable and all the more pleasant for it.

The following two days we did the obligatory New York things, or at least as many as is possible to do in two days. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art which was excellent but far too big to tackle in one afternoon. By the time we had reached the 3rd floor (?) we were feeling a bit museumed out so we picked up the pace and tried to find the roof terrace, which apparently had great views of the city. In doing this I managed to march straight past the whole of the Met’s Impressionist (?) collection. Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and the rest all shot by in a big messy blur. Beth managed to drag me back to give them a quick once over. Which was nice. The terrace really did have a tremendous view of Manhattan and we had a good look. Lovely. Xxxxxx