Have you ever received a strange birthday gift? Someone's named a star after you, donated in your name to charity, or, even worse, you've been forced to shop in Topman? This year I was left feeling fairly incredulous at my thoughtful if slightly perplexing gift of a rabies injection. Granted in a life or death situation, that situation being an attack by a rabid animal, this gift would potentially save my life, I say 'potentially' because in said event the injection doesn't actually prevent the infection or onset of rabies it just means you don't die immediately, it's a purely preventative measure - it's like wearing two condoms when shagging someone from Fife. Still at least I will always remember this year's birthday as the year my parents - mum - got me a rabies injection. For Christmas I'm getting an epipen.
My parents - mum - gave me the money for the injection on account of a trip to South America I made over the summer. In order to appease my parents - mum - I also got myself immunised for Hepatitis A and B, Yellow Fever and Polio, with an old fashioned tetanus boost and a shit load of malaria tablets to boot. I was so well immunised when I eventually landed in South America I was determined to get bitten by as many animals and share as many dirty needles as possible just to get my money's worth. And I hate injections; my friends are always teasing me for choosing to smoke my heroin.
Purchasing injections, Spanish lessons, travel insurance, and my base tan from 'Tanz' on Granton Road Edinburgh, left me in a fairly precarious financial state before I had even left the country, even my Lonely Planet guide 'South America on a Shoestring' cost me £22 - a little paradoxical I'm sure you'll agree. Still it was important to my parents - mum - that I was prepared for every eventuality. I did find it a little strange I was traveling to an inherently dangerous part of the world with some of the highest rates of violent crime and terrorism on the planet and my parents - mum's - greatest concern was that I carried enough plasters and savalon.
This was the first time I had ever undertaken anything like this before. I had travelled previously, two summers working and travelling in America and one summer inter-railing through Europe with an ex-girlfriend. Those trips taught me a valuable life lesson; travel may broaden your horizons but it does nothing for your bowels or liver. When I leave the safe haven of home and head out into the great beyond an even slight departure from my normal routine tends to turn me into a boarder-line alcoholic with bipolar bowels that switch from chronic constipation to devastating diohera. It pretty much limits your trip itinerary to drinking and shitting - and usually in that order. When I was in Ecuador I couldn't go on an excursion with some very attractive Dutch girls...
I had even greater reservations over my mental health. I suffered not so much foreboding or a fear of loneliness, my greatest concern was other people. That's why I hate hostels. The last time I stayed in a hostel I was welcomed by a perfect pile of hair on top of the plain white sheets that comprised my bedding, it looked like a pubic hair clitoris. Hygiene is a concern anytime I stay away from home but even pubey sheets aren't as worrying as the people who stay in hostels. When I stay in them I tend to get into arguments, sometimes altercations, usually over the issue of acceptable social etiquette. Maybe I'm 'square' but I don't think it is appropriate to shag your big fat German missus at four in the morning with the light on, use the toilet of a room you're not staying in at silly o'clock in the morning - I said 'if you're going to use someone else's toilet at least flush after yourself', he said 'there's a water shortage in California', I said 'go fuck yourself' - or cheat at beer pong.
Despite the concerns over my physical and mental wellbeing when I arrived at my first destination - Lima, capital city of Peru - I felt chipper, optimistic even. I was untouchable, and anything that did touch me I was immunised against. It didn't matter I was travelling alone. I was mature, street wise, and my Spanish was tip-top - this I based on my ability to follow the inflight movie, an old black and white film about a female matador avenging the death or her father, I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, that was until I arrived in Colombia where all the girls look like female matador's avenging the death of their father, ie breathtakingly beautiful but also look like they could kick your c**t in. This sense of optimism barely made it out of the terminal door before I was reminded I wasn't streetwise or savvy at all. My first conversation in South America, perhaps unsurprisingly, was with a coke dealer, a coke dealer I tried to buy chewing gum off. He wasn't an obvious drug dealer - well, actually, he probably was - because he carried with him a tray of chewing gum and lollipops as a rouse to any watching policia.
I did find it a little strange they sold chewing gum by the gram in South America, he was f*cking delighted when I offered to buy fifteen grams.
My rendezvous with the minty-fresh drug dealer or even the taxi driver who charged me the equivalent of a Peruvian mortgage payment wasn't a concern, my biggest worry of course was the hostel, my first South American hostel, which fulfilled all my pre-conceived anxieties. It was a hedonistic cesspool swarming with hippies who never got out of their pyjamas no matter what time of day it was. Within two minutes of arriving some Canadian girls asked if I wanted to hula-hoop and watch the sunset. Being a competent hula-hooper and avid fan of sunsets I agreed. So it was I watched my first sunset in South America while hula-hooping for the first time in fifteen years, I even taught some local primary school children how to hula-hoop - failing to notice the wee shite bags were simultaneously stealing my booze.
After the sunset we went to a flat party. Sitting nursing a beer I pondered how little time it had taken me to become engrossed with this eclectic group of Canadians, Americans and Israelis. As I sat contemplating all I had gone through to make it to this point, how far I had come, and the incredible journey that lay ahead of me, I began to panic, not through a sense of unease or nervousness but because it was at that moment I realised I had made the classically Scottish move of trapcing dog-shit all through the flat. Aware of the ticking social time bomb on the bottom of my shoe I made a clandestine move to the toilet and discarded it like a shitty Cinderella. I was devastated to find a lack of toilet paper, towels, or anything that could dislodge the ungodly amount of dog-shit from my shoe. The only available shit-flicking instrument was the toilet brush, which, after the sheer volume of excrement it had to displace, was left un-useable even after a thorough rinse under the flush of the toilet. Not wanting to finger bits of dog-shit down the plug hole or compromise the health of the guests in attendance by rinsing the toilet brush in the sink basin, I opted for the only option left available to me and lobbed it out the window..
They lived on the fourth floor.
Hula-hooping hippies and dog-shit you may think constitutes a pretty unsuccessful start to the trip, importanatly however it was on that first night I met an Aussie bloke with whom I would travel for the next twelve weeks. For the remainder of the trip we were like a Celtic-Antipodean Che Guevara and Alberto Granado - if Guevara and Granado went everywhere with a surfboard and frivolous use of the 'c-word'. Over the next twelve weeks we would explore five countries, visit cities dwarfed by smouldering volcanoes, trek through dense jungles, deserts, and endless salt flats, raft down Andean rivers, marvel at thousands of Flamingos', snorkel with sea-turtles, sea-lions and sharks, race one hundred year old tortoises, join in noisy football celebrations, salsa lessons, and never ending fiestas using ropey Spanish chat-up lines and travelling on even ropier buses, we would drink copious amounts of rum, visit ancient Inca and Mayan ruins, and live with Indigenous peoples, all the time picking up some of the best travelling companions you could hope to meet and getting higher than either of us had ever been in our lives - over 5000m in Bolivia.
When the time came to part ways my Australian soul-mate and I decided to 'mark' the occasion by taking the classically stupid move of getting matching tattoos - I still hadn't made use of my hepatitis injections. I'm not sure how Guevara and Granado decided to mark the end of their trip, but just imagine for a second how much more powerful the socialist revolutionary movement would have been if it was headed up by a man sporting a giant pink Flamingo tattoo. We opted for Flamingos because they are quintessentially South American animals: proud, colourful, flamboyant, social, just a little aggressive, and in no way camp - although I have to say when I was brandishing my Flamingo tattoo around Rio's gay district at silly o'clock in the morning while wearing a floral shirt and white cowboy hat it was difficult to reaffirm my heterosexuality.
South America took my breath away - and not just because so much of it is at altitude - it boasts unforgettable scenery, history and culture. Never before has somewhere struck such a cord with me, never have I felt such an affinity to somewhere that wasn't home. Since I've returned I feel more open-minded, altruistic and cultured - and my pals just can't get enough of it..
I've talked a lot about South America without really describing any of the things that I did when I was there. Despite this and the fact I've chosen to talk mainly about dog-shit and injections I can assure you I was actually there, it's just really hard to try and condense the trip of a lifetime into a single blog entry. I could write 1500 words alone just describing the view from machu picchu mountain. I can however sum-up the whole trip in one word with relative ease. Amazing. Quite simply it's the best thing I have ever done.
I left my heart in South America and one day soon I hope to go back and fetch it. In the mean time I'll practice my hip rotations - for hula hooping, obviously - flick through my photographs, and allow my bowels to recover in a country where you're allowed to flush toilet paper down the pan - it still just feels so decadent.