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Big Mac & Pizza (Episode Four)

 article about Big Mac & Pizza (Episode Four)
2005-06-03 08:21:04
Colombia stirs up an image of coffee, both black and white! The black stuff being the legitimate export in numerous strengths and flavours grown in abundance in this dense tropical region of South America. Yet it's the white version, your cocaine's, heroine's and the likes that many people think of when it comes to this country. Disturbing images of hundreds of David Seaman look-a-like's with long pony tails, slightly more refined moustaches, loud Hawaiian style shirts unbuttoned to the waste, showing off their manly hairy chests with full gold plated medallion, whilst having an AK47 tucked in their back pocket - yes its your the stereotypical image of a "Drug Baron".

Colombia is renowned for it's drug trafficking and thus a place I was apprehensive about visiting, yet looking back it was an incredible time spent there even if it did nearly end in disaster.

I was scheduled to stay in South America for a whole month, spending three weeks in Colombia detouring half way through to go to Peru. The Colombian job involved a full-scale computer installation and training. Nothing new except this was my first job where no one spoke English and my Spanish vocabulary consisted little more than "si" or "ceverza."

Thankfully the computer came to the rescue as I converted the display into Spanish. The locals could read what was on the screen; the buttons and sequence of events wouldn't change so even if I couldn't read it I could still operate it. What followed was a mere twenty-one days of charades, which believe it or not ended with another satisfied customer.

I was staying in Bogota the Colombian capital, a few thousand feet above sea level; a place I was warned could catch me out with being so high up and thus thinner air.

It felt no different when I arrived, setting my watch to the local time. I was met inside customs by a guy called Ramirez, no not the Sean Connery character from Highlander; he looked more like Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

I was surprised to see him inside customs but then realised he was there to speed up my entry into the country and avoid those unnecessary and non existent taxes that the non corrupt officials would sting you with upon entering the place - know what I mean?

Likewise he was there to usher me into a taxi and avoid the mass of beggars and dodgy looking people wanting to transport me to my hotel. I'd be clinging onto my suitcase while some strange looking Al Pacino "Scarface" local would be trying to grab it off me and to his taxi.

Is this normal? I thought, or do I look like I'm rich or something and therefore I'd be generous with my tipping - me generous?

Ramirez got me to a taxi - which turned out to be driven by his brother in law, all convenient but secure and safe. We headed off to the hotel, the impressive Bogota Hilton where I found myself sleeping on the thirty sixth floor high above the chaos below, away from the drugs, the gun battles, the break down of society as I saw it.

The hotel turned out to be a blessing. For all I felt uncomfortable in this country the hotel felt secure, safe, and an escape from what I considered utter mayhem. Thankfully the television had some US channels, CNN for news, ESPN for sport and HBO, the American version of Sky movies. That would keep me entertained each evening when I retired and locked myself away from harm.



I had more like a mini apartment than a hotel room, with my own lounge, separate bedroom and the usual private bathroom. I was on allowances but the customer in this case took care of hotel expenses. That meant I could freely raid the mini bar at my discretion. I felt like royalty and thought this country may not turn out to be too bad after all.

I got up the first morning to go to the factory, jumped in the shower and had a nice hot wash. After rinsing the shampoo off my hair I panicked, I opened my eyes and couldn't see a bloody thing; it was pitch black. That time of year meant dark mornings and on this particular morning a power cut hit the city. I hadn't washed my body yet and I froze, standing there stark naked in the shower, in the dark, biting my nails imagining all sorts of horrors. I quickly got out of the shower and opened the curtain in the lounge. At least with the sun starting to rise I could start to see properly. I thought this power cut was probably a one off but I'd soon learn that it was common practice! Apparently Colombia was selling large quantities of electricity to neighbouring Venezuela. The side affect was the power cuts. That explained the matches and candles in my room. Every other day I'd end up in complete darkness or get three quarters of the way through a good film for the power cut to hit. I'd end up scrambling around trying to find a candle to light so I could see what I was doing.

Can you see the potential fire hazard in this bizarre scenario? I dared not think of the possible disaster should someone knock a candle on the floor or against some curtains. Why couldn't they have the power cuts during the day?

Ramirez picked me up on time as promised the next morning. However it became apparent that I'd have to make my own way to the factory from that point onwards, so Ramirez arranged a taxi to pick me up at five and take me back to the hotel. The taxi driver was a bit weird, kept yapping away asking me something, yet I had no idea what he was saying or what he wanted to know. I simply nodded occasionally and politely smiled before looking out of the side window - as you do!

"Miguel, Miguel", he kept saying. So that's what his name is, or who he thinks I am? The journey cost me 3,000 "potatoes", which was a relatively small amount of money when converting it into the Sterling equivalent.

The next day after breakfast I headed out of the hotel to catch a taxi to take me to the factory. Ramirez had given me a note with obvious instructions and an address so the taxi driver knew where to take me. Low and behold the same bloke from the night before was outside the hotel. It was as if he was waiting for me! He greeted me with open arms as if I was a member of his family. "Miguel, Miguel", he kept saying. 3,000 potatoes later I'm working away doing charades so that those I'm training would understand how to use the computer equipment I've installed. I asked Ramirez to sort a taxi for me when it was "home" time but there was no need, the same taxi driver was there waiting to take me back to the hotel. Convenient? Another 3,000 potatoes in his pocket much to his satisfaction. I had visions of the bloke being some weirdo stalker either that or 3,000 potatoes was more than he earned in a week and while he had the opportunity to rake in 6,000 per day he wasn't going to let me out of his sight.

At the end of the first week, I had to go to Peru. I returned to Colombia with one bastard of a chest cold. I had a terrible sore throat and chesty cough; something you could say is my Achilles heel. Ever since I got a dose of glandular fever when I was in my late teens, my chest has always been my weak spot. Something in the water or some shit I'd eaten in Peru had given me an irritation I didn't want.



I struggled on completing my training and within a few days felt marginally better. On Thursday morning I venture out of the hotel again (I had booked myself back into the Hilton, same room too), to grab a taxi, when would you believe it there was Miguel! Now hang on a minute, this was getting very strange. I was very uncomfortable at seeing "Mr. Taxi Stalker" again, but he greeted me with open arms again and for the remainder of my stay in Colombia I'd be feeding him 6,000 potatoes each day. No matter how hard I tried to lose him he'd be there waiting for me. I assumed he camped out all night once he'd dropped me off each evening, but he seemed harmless, so in the end I sort of felt comfortable with him ushering me around rather than someone who may turn out to be weirder!

I had started to pick up one or two Spanish words and so managed to get across to Miguel that I'd not be working on weekends, he could also tell that I was under the clouds so to speak and I sussed out he was offering to take me to see a doctor. No way. I declined very quickly. I wasn't well but did not want some dodgy taxi driver taking me to see some dodgy doctor who would want to stick God knows what into me and probably rip me off for a small fortune.

I was relieved when it was the weekend so I could retreat into my room for two days and try to sort out my aching chest. However Ramirez had invited me out on the Sunday for lunch, so being polite I agreed. He'd pick me up around noon. That still left Saturday for me to sort myself out then.

As I got dropped off at the hotel on the Friday night, I was met with quite a scene. There was hundreds of screaming kids hanging around the hotel. People were walking around carrying automatic weapons in plain view, and well I had no idea what was going on.

As Miguel pulled up to the entrance a swarm of these kids, mostly teenage girls came flooding over surrounding the taxi. I couldn't get out. There was too many of them. I sat there for a while staring at the faces pressed against the window. Eventually I managed to squeeze out to a mass of even louder screams. They were touching me, grabbing my hair. I clung onto my brief case, which I carried around with me - just some paper work and my installation and training tools - nothing special really. Clinging onto it the way I was probably made me look like Michael Douglas's paranoid character from the film Falling Down. Then some spotty faced teenager with thick rimmed stuck a piece of paper and a pen in my face. She wanted my autograph! This was starting to get really weird. I don't know why I did it, but I signed it for some reason. Of course this led to more bits of paper being thrust at me. But it was getting too much, and out of control. Someone pulled a chunk of hair out of my head. That hurt. I was now being mobbed. Who the fuck do they think I am?

I slowly forced my way to the entrance where a few hotel security guards ushered me inside. I looked back at the swarm of screaming teenagers in amazement. I got my room key from reception and asked them what was going on. They told me it was because Ricky Martin was staying in the hotel. Ricky who? Now remember we are talking early nineties here and Ricky Martin was unheard of in Europe. The "living la vida loca" star was a kid himself back then, but massive in the Spanish speaking countries of South America. It meant very little to me at the time, but now that he is an international superstar, I can proudly say that I had a moment in my life whereby I was mistaken for being Ricky Martin, pity I look nothing like him mind you. Then again some kid who by now is probably an adult has an autograph they think is from Ricky Martin. I hate to break their heart, but I actually signed nothing more than a scribble resembling something like Ivor Biggin or was it Richard Head?

Later that evening my chest started to ache again and I was feeling worse, in fact I would have paid a million potatoes that night for a couple of paracetamol. I decided to drink a bottle of whisky out of the mini bar. It did the trick and helped me sleep. I have a saying that if you rub an empty whisky bottle on your chest you'll feel a lot better - reason being you've drunk the contents first! It was just one of those small bottles, a little shot to warm my chest. However I had to pay for mini bar consumption this time around. I must have over indulged myself prior to visiting Peru so the customer had declined to pay any future mini bar bills.

I didn't fancy paying the extortionate price for that so I did something rather disgusting. Yes I own up to being a dirty bastard as I pissed into the empty bottle and re-sealed it so it looked like it had never been opened nor drank. My yellow wee inside the bottle looked like whiskey! Yes, yes, all right, it was a stupid thing to do, maybe my fever caused the rash act but I did it nevertheless. At least now I've owned up to it after all these years.

I settled down and flicked through the TV channels, stopping at ESPN to watch some Baseball. I'd never watched the American pastime before, and after about half an hour fell asleep. I had discovered the answer to insomnia - watching baseball. What a boring sport. They've got the nerve to think football is boring?

To be continued...





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