I should never have brought the guidebook or worse still looked inside of it. Guidebook guilt bites deep. How could i not be going to all these recommended places? How could i hope that my random roamings would ever take me near any of these sites and sounds? I drop into a neighbourhood cafe to escape the heat and get to know the low life or at least the medium life that escaped the reach of Lonely Planet. A welcome english-speaking voice two stools down the bar leaned across to say ‘It is a hot one today – it is all the refections.’I reply ‘yes life is all reflective surfaces, avoid them though we might try.
”Ah you are a philosopher’ says he and then I listened for the ensuing three and a half hours to his fast forward chatter. I wanted to know about this city, really know about it, and he had been here thirty years. Most of the time it is worth listening to someone who has been anywhere for thirty years. So I learned of the city and beyond that i learned of his long walk across the Sahara; of his driving right up the Andes at the age of seventeen; of his time in the SAS and much else besides. Later he explained that he had not slept for four days. He and his Jamaican mate had been on a cocaine binge while conducting a protracted car boot sale for a rich old lady who had decided to sell up. Said mate arrived to hand over $4000 in local currency not from the car boot sale but from another deal. I was invited back to his farm to escape the city if not that evening then the following day. I await the call thinking he might need to sleep off the drugs and the stories. But for some reason i am ready for some more of this ..
My new best getting on for ex-best cocaine- ready friend has shown me new extremes of what over stimulation can do. He appeared at my hotel room door with the remains of an american backpacker whom he said had been robbed three days ago of all but hi passport and had been living on the street of this mean city. Cue the placing of said young american under the shower while NBF asked me ‘you are a good judge of character i am not? do you think Tony is all he says he is?’ I said ‘it is hard to know while he is in the shower. ‘Next up for a shower was NBF who had not been home to the farm for now six days. I really begin to wonder if there is a farm or whether he had bet it all away.
Tony the YA was all he said he was under the now removed layer to dirt. He used my phone to get some money wired. His dad was shouting at him. His dad is an Ex US military F 1-11 pilot. Those that did not die mid air did tend to do a lot of shouting later in life.
At that stage i think Tony was reconsidering his decision to abandon the streets.NBF appears clutching some body lotion snatched from my bathroom tray of rarely used goodies. He suggested that Tony used the lotion on his feet, battered as they were from street living. Before i can deliver the verdict on Tony NBF is back in the bathroom locking the door. i can only guess that it not only talcum powder that he craves. Meanwhile Tony in the act of applying lotion to my sheets promptly passes out on my bed.
At this point i am coming over all unreconstructed UKIP about the need to excise my wonderfully British colonial outpost of a room of all alien infestation. i waken up Tony to go get his wired money and tell NBF that there is cheap marijuana going in the adjacent side street. We exit together but do not get much further than the next bar where NBF needs to celebrate his new found cleanliness with a few rounds of tequila slammers. Tony by this point is passing out. We take him to the money lender next to the fortune-teller then NBF invites me to the casino where he tells me he always wins. I mind his blackjack hand while he goes to wash his hands and fill his nose once more. He returns even more supercharged. I did not know it was even possible to speak both Spanish and English at F 1-11 warp speed. fellow gamblers either covered their ears or left while the croupier was reaching under the table for something menacing.
My care-taking of my NBF’s hand was not that good and i beat a hasty retreat to an even darker bar that seeped disappointment. Then in a transcendental moment a three piece band bursts onto the scene in full hispanic regalia to sing and play vibrant song at full expressive volume – except there is nothing romantic in the whole place going on beside this band. It was feeling more and more like being within a Tom Waits song
Sympathy for the DevilI knew it was a mistake to let my two charges out of my sight on Friday night, restorative though their absence was. I had just stepped outside of my hotel into the morning sunlight when an apparition that might have been Tony the Young American lurched towards me.
My first uncharitable thought was that i was glad i had made it past the front door before he trapped himself inside my room one more. His appearance revealed a paradox; who knew that it was safer on the streets than it was having money for a hotel and some food? YA was sporting what he described – as far as he was in a state to describe anything – as a ‘hole in his head.’ it was vast and bloodied around the edge of the crater. Copious consumption of ganja and the local white spirit Coquique persuaded him that it was a really good idea to make more that a pass towards the wife of the local ganglord who bears a more than passing resemblance to Ray Winstone on a bad day.
Now broke once more and bloodied he was back on the streets, which i helpfully explained to him could be the safer option. I also thought it best to admire the vulture that he said was standing on my shoulder rather than brush it off as drug-fuelled delusion. Inevitably he wanted me to take him for a beer. And the vulture.leaving NBF was a mistake only in that I could not verify his tales of `his full-on assault on Friday night, though i was told on the phone i should have been there. Several times. His self report included tales of massive gambling success in every casino, the final casino yielding a moment when the most beautiful girl in town was told she could not leave her luggage behind the desk.
Ever `gallant, NBF’s report runs that he offered to store her bags in his hotel room, an offer without strings attached which she gratefully accepted. On arrival at this room the girl asked if she could shower, since it had been sometime since she left her boyfriend back at home and she was a bit stinky. I am told that while she was taking off her clothes, NBF said ‘well i may as well take mine off to.’ He agreed that she could stay but explained that no transaction would be made, for as i am sure you have guessed by now, NBF ‘never pays for it.’None of this can be verified of course so surrender in the face of this indominable torrent of words is the only sensible course.
The compensation is that the bar is humming on a Saturday, and while gentle rain falls outside we accompany an epic Tequila tasting session with renditions of the complete works of the Rolling Stones circa 1964 – 69. The owner who has parked his Triumph motorbike in the middle of the bar says the Stones are his favorite band. Cue fist bumps and extravagant hands shakes all around, In fact fist bumping has become my major form of exercise.I stupidly answer my phone to an un- recognised number. Inevitably it is NBF, his third number in three days.
If only there were some enthralling Breaking Bad scenario to explain this constant need for burner phones but the prosaic truth is that he just keeps losing them. As he talks ever onward my eyes drift towards the TV showing a Fast and Furious movie on mute, which seems to unfold in slow mo compared to the effluent of exaggeration pouring into my ear. As Sympathy for the Devil comes around for the second time, I run out of mine. NBF says he is on his way to the bar ‘to tell me all about it’ but I say i must go. ‘Where?’ he demands. ‘To karaoke’ i whisper, then ring off, while barring this latest number.
Karaoke was Connie’s idea. It came to her on the twelfth tequila. The Viper karaoke bar she explained was the best in the world and she was not wrong. The only thing which was wrong and which I had not legislated for was that her invite was freighted with virtual possession of me for the entire evening and beyond. When i cast my eye around the room, surveying the scene she hissed ‘You are looking at that other girl.’ Given that there were many ‘other girls’ mostly with husbands then I knew that this would not be a stress- free evening. My new friends and there were suddenly many who wanted to adopt the only gringo in the place were asking solicitously after my sulky, smouldering ‘girl friend.’ I shouted as loudly as i could above ” I Will Always Love yYou’ (Connie’s choice) that ‘she was NOT MY GF!’
Her screaming of the final chorus while grabbing me by the collar would seem to suggest otherwise to the watching crowd. The only way through this was to go join three guys of intermediate age who were thrilled to have me in their group for a boys night out, though i was never sure why. Cue more fist bumps, some of them bruising. In fact all me and the three amigos did was sing and bump and drink the concessionary beer. My knowledge of Spanish grew exponentially though all of this. And i can confidently report that ‘corazon’ is the most frequently used word in the Spanish language.
i put Connie who was now beyond tequila-max in a taxi three times and she reappeared three times, refreshed for more possession. The amigos were amused by this recurrent sideshow and in fact kept buying her drinks. When she refused the fourth taxi then i got in myself. As I in headed towards the hotel in grateful solitude the phone rang out with a number unknown to me.