Sunday, 30 October 2011

Flash goes to Guatemala Part 4 – New friends like bookends

We sat down for our meal. I was sat on the angle of the long L-shaped table between Karen, one of the trip organisers, and Mara, who thankfully had managed to tear herself away from her wheelbarrow which was fast becoming an extension of her arm.

The menu was written in Spanish and therefore I hadn’t a clue what was on there. Luckily Karen is fluent in Spanish and offered to help me read the menu. Lovely as her offer was, it was soon evident I would not require her help as I noticed upon the menu a dish that breaks all language barriers...steak. I love steak and the steak in Guatemala was fit, in fact, because of this I ate so much steak that I was convinced by the end of the week that if I farted it would have made a moo sound.

Unfortunately my enjoyment of the steak was hampered somewhat by the impending activity of introducing somebody to the whole group. I’m really nervous with stuff like this so as one by one each person stood up and introduced somebody, I just kept my head down and hoped I would dodge the bullet by not being noticed. The problem is that it is hard to not be noticed when you are a 6 foot plus, 15 stone bloke, with a beard, a blond streak in your hair and called Flash. So soon enough it was my turn.

I stood up and everyone was looking my way, I panicked and realised there was no one I knew I left to introduce. Just as I opened my mouth the coffee machine started making a large noise, I quickly mouthed as though I was introducing someone in the style of Norman Collier

The coffee machine stopped and I realised despite laughs this wouldn’t pass so I decided to introduce the only person I could think of, Eric the bus driver. He was a good looking chap whose dad was called Eric. Armed only with these two facts and a room of prying eyes, I said my piece and sat down. Luckily people laughed. As I sat down, I turned to Mara and said “I think I got away with that” she replied “you are such a good bullshitter”. The complement made me feel proud. Granted it isn’t something I’d be putting on my CV anytime soon but I did feel better.

Even though I found it hard to introduce somebody else at the table, it didn’t mean that I hadn’t already at this point met some proper class people after just one day.

Two people in particular were Lisa and Mara. Lisa is a mum from Maine and has an amazing knack of appearing in photos with a face that looks like she is daring the wind to change direction. I think what really made me and Lisa connect is our mutual admiration for the finer things in life such as beer and food. Mara was like a sister from another mother, we had the same stupid sense of humour and for every tale I would tell her of the royal family, she would return the favour with an insight into the MLB.

The second day of the build was very productive, it started with me and Mara making cement from scratch and with shovels as there was no cement mixer in sight; this was hard work, especially as by this point it was proper tipping it down and the persistent bending over to shovel over the cement mix meant my recently consumed breakfast was busy reacquainting itself with the back of my throat.

The cement would then be poured into the breezeblock to sure up the walls before the rebar was laid in. Rebar, I think that is how you spell it, is a metal kind of brace that was made by lying two long metal rods 6” apart and then tying on c shaped pieces of metal around both together, to make a kind of tram line, this would be laid inside the breezeblock wall for reinforcement. I came up with a joke: what do you call one piece of rebar? Arribas! Which I thought was a clever piece of Spanish word one laughed.

It might have been the anticipation of such appalling jokes that made the mason’s assistant decided to stay in bed for another day, rather than come to the site and help out. With the assistant’s continuing absence, we were soon at a point where we could not do anymore work for that day as we had overtaken where the mason was up to.

We packed up and headed back to the hotel a couple of hours early. We stopped in a little village that nearly every shop in sold cowboy boots. There were some cool boots but I couldn’t justify spending the money on a pair of boots I would probably never wear again. Plus it’s hard enough to get a pair of rubber wellies that fit both my feet and my calves, therefore a pair of leather cowboy boots were never going to work for me.

My legs are an engineering disaster. I don’t know if you have heard of the term c-ankles for when the leg is so stumpy the calf just goes straight into foot seamlessly bypassing the ankle area? Well I have w-ankles where the whole leg is so so so stumpy that it bypasses the knee as well as the ankle, to head straight for the foot. I sometimes worry that if I stand still for too long an ornithologist might try to nail a birdhouse to my leg. And as for my feet, there was a period in my childhood when I swear my feet were a wide as long. It probably would have comfier if my first pair of school shoes were a couple of Kellogg’s variety pack boxes.

We were soon back at the hotel and everyone was ready to immerse themselves in the local culture and head to the town’s markets, Lisa and I decided to experience a more hands on approach to local culture and sat in the bar with a Gallo, the local beer, in one hand and nachos in the other.

We just chilled and chatted for a couple of hours and it was a really nice experience getting to know someone from so far away from home. What I liked so much about meeting all the new friends that I made is that when you are you are younger, you have loads of friends and the older you get your number of friends starts whittling down and you end up with a small close knit group of friends. The reason that these are your close group of friends is that you all share very similar interests and outlook on life, therefore having this opportunity to meet new people and become friends with people who don’t necessarily have the same perspectives on life as my own is refreshing.

Plus as I said Lisa is from Maine and Alex, my girlfriend, has always wanted to go to Maine so we now have somewhere to stay when we visit Maine on our American adventure, in fact if you were foolish enough to invite me to come visit, intoxicated or not, Alex and I will be knocking on your door sometime next year and yes that does mean you Mara and Nakissa!

Coming soon Flash Goes to Guatemala Part 5 – Beef Beef and Alters 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Flash Goes to Guatemala Part 3 - I've been working on the railroad.

After an hour drive in a bus, past lots of run down building interspersed delicately with numerous, McDonalds and Shell garages we arrived at our hotel in the town of Antigua.

It was a stunning hotel with court yards, fountains and rustic wooden carts spending their retirement as a home for bedding plants. On arrival we were greeted by Karen; one of the trips co-ordinators. She introduced herself but my ears were still all over the show from the flight and also the altitude of the town we were in, so I found it hard to hear her. Without realising what I was doing and still face to face with Karen, I pinched my nose blew out my cheeks and made my ears pop. I finished with an overly comfortable “ah that’s better” all this while still only a handshakes distance apart.

There is not much you can say to that and needless to say neither of us did. I just smiled nodded and walked off, in a kind of, accepting, I know I’ve just made a tit of myself , you know I’ve just made a tit of myself let’s never talk of this again, kind of walk off.

Now when I get nervous I tend to eat a lot, when I’ve not eaten anything but aeroplane food for 48 hours I tend to eat a lot and if I’m being totally honest, I just tend to eat a lot. So it was no surprise with these three food earners present I demolished a fair few sandwiches that were prepared as appetisers. But with our arrival being later than planned we went straight into dinner. So much for me losing weight while I was away, in fact if I kept this up, the amount of relief work I would do on the trip would be dwarfed by that of Greenpeace who would have to spend a considerable amount of time throwing buckets of water over me while trying to get me back out to sea.

After dinner we had a few more drinks then headed back to our rooms. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I was sharing a room with a Japanese bloke who spoke very limited English, but from the communications we did have I found him to be a really cool guy, who was involved in anti bullying work back in Japan. I saw him as an inspiration because I thought it was very brave of him to comw so far on his own and not being able to speak a lot of English.

When he was awake he was an inspiration when he was asleep he was a fog horn. He snored like nothing I have ever heard before. There would be no ships crashing onto the rocks of Guatemala that night. Imagine sleeping in a room with someone who had swallowed a kazoo.

The beds on the other hand were unreal, they were so soft and snug with countless pillows and duvets, it was like curling up between a couple of rolls of fat on the Michelin Man's belly.

The next morning we went for breakfast, it was at this point I started noticing that Guatemala not only has its own currency, but its own time and like with Guatemala currency where you times by 8 you do exactly the same for time, 1 Guatemalan minute equals 8 normal minutes. If Mara (an ace girl I’ll introduce properly later) had have known this, I think she would have got to breakfast earlier than 6 o’clock in the morning so that she didn’t have to rush it down her neck when it finally arrived,  so as not to miss the 7:45 bus.

The large group of us were split into three smaller groups and were sent to different sites. I was in team Agua, named after a nearby volcano. Our site was in Antigua and we were to continue with a build that was still in its infancy, a house for a husband and wife and their three daughters. When we arrived the husband and wife were on site and started our day of building off with a prayer.

It was of course in Spanish so I didn’t have a clue what they were on about, but Eric, a representative from Habitat for Humanity translated most of it, the line that will always stay with me was “even though it is raining it is a beautiful day because you are here” I nearly cried.

Soon though we were into the build, we had extra work to do because the mason’s assistant didn’t turn up. On each build there was a mason and his assistant who would help with all the complicated, professional work that needed doing. Unfortunately the mason’s assistant didn’t share the same sentiments as were conveyed in the prayer and thought by no means was this a beautiful day in the slightest and decided to stay at home.

We broke down into small groups and set about shovelling huge mounds of soil out of the rooms where the first layers of foundations had been laid. We shovelled and shovelled and shovelled some more. We stopped for some lunch, under a tarpaulin to keep us dry. I decided that a great place to sit would be an ant hill and spent most of the time slapping my legs trying to get rid of the ants. I looked like I was doing a German drinking dance.

Afternoon came and with it came more shovelling. We were getting a decent system going, I would shovel into the wheelbarrow and Mara would wheel it away, empty it and bring it back for me to start again. By the end of the day, I had acquired the nickname Flash McShovell and Mara became Mara McBarrow, (McShovell & McBarrow available for all children’s parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs!)

The end of the build for day one came very quickly mainly because I was really enjoying myself, shovelling away while enlightening my American chums on all I knew about the royal family.

We packed up and headed back to the Hotel in time for a shower and tea. Tea was going to be particularly interesting as everyone had to introduce someone else they had met that day, this isn’t my cup of tea and I was really nervous about what to say...

Coming soon Flash goes to Guatemala Part 4 – New friends like bookends 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Flash Goes to Ross and Briony's Wedding

It was a surprisingly sunny October Saturday in Manchester and Alex and I were having a domestic about the lack of hairbrushes in my house. It turns out that a hairbrush would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to packing her weekend bag and for this it was my fault that I hadn’t provided one myself in anticipation.

After spending a considerable amount of time waiting for Alex to finish doing her hair with a nit-comb I had found in the back of the medicine cabinet, we were late setting off for the wedding.
We had to pick Faz (Daniel Farrell) up then head over to meet Jess and Reedy at Reddy’s house, where we would be met by Pete, Rhiannon and Rosie. Now a plan where so many people need to be in one place at one particular time is always ambitious especially when 3 people are relying on Pete to get them there on time.

Pete has many qualities but punctuality is not one of them. It’s a long running joke, I say joke, it’s a fact that Pete is shocking at time keeping. Also he looks like the puppet from Team America.

This occasion was no different, because of car space and the impending wedding taking place in Wales, we had to leave Faz behind to wait for Pete to pick him up and take him, Rosie and Rhiannon to the Wedding.
They were late for the Wedding.

Now this in a contentious issue because to Pete’s credit he made considerable time up on the journey and was in Wales for a decent time, unfortunately Alex had told them that the wedding started at 3:30 instead of 3:00 by mistake. Therefore at 3 O’clock as the service began, with Briony entering the church looking beautiful, Pete, Rhiannon, Rosie and Faz were round the corner blissfully unaware, killing time having a drink.

The service was a lovely and I have to admit I filled up a little on a couple of occasions, luckily Alex was on hand to bring me back from the brink with such comments as “is this to the tune of get your tits out for the lads” during the singing of Bread of Heaven and later on during the vows when she enquired about the Swansea City football result. She has got far too into Fantasy Football.

After the service we all gathered outside the church for some photographs. Briony and Ross looked amazing as photo after photo was taken with them with family, them with friends, them with family and friends. The group of us that went together all know the happy couple because we all volunteer on the same christian youth camp, the very youth camp where Ross and Briony actually met. With this in mind Briony’s dad thought it would be nice if there was a photo of us all together and without prior construction of his next load announcement in his head, he shouted “now a photo with all the camp people here today!” needless to say this announcement was met with a vast array of “ooo errs” and “Oh Matron”.

It was at this point Reedy noticed an old woman randomly entering photo left. He said “she’s not camp” to which I replied “oh she is, she was just telling me all about her small pussy”. Now this seems like a harmless enough throwaway line except I managed to say this in ear shot of the said old woman’s daughter, who not only had teeth so big she could chew an apple through a letter box she had a most displeased expression on her face.

After the photos, we headed to our hotel to check in, have some tea and get ready for the evening do. The hotel was cute and quaint with a nice log fire in the bar, although when they right up their next set of brochures I don’t think they should use the phrase “fantastic views" as a selling point.

Eventually after a few drinks and a round of Corky’s we headed back to the wedding, just in time for the speeches. Ross did the loveliest speech ever and once again I filled up. Next up was the best mans speech; I stood in nervous anticipation for the Rohypnol joke he told me he was going to slip in (no pun intended) luckily for all concerned he decided against using it.

After the speeches came the D.I.S.C.O and boy did we bust a move. We pulled out all the shapes, the lawnmower came out, the invisible skipping rope made an outing and at one point I found myself salsa dancing to Kings of Leon, as you do.

Next after some aggressive persuasion and a head full of sense diminishing alcohol, Faz went and chatted up a girl he had had his eye on for a while, what happened after this remains a mystery but they were gone for a considerable amount of time. After telling the bridesmaid about this amazing event she seemed surprised, what with the girl who is a friend of hers already having a boyfriend! Dun dun durrrrrn!!!!

By this point we were now very drunk, so much so we performed a sit down protest when a song we liked was turned off prematurely and the lads in the group, minus Faz who was still missing in action, had ties round our heads; the tell tale sign of a drunken moron.

Eventually the bar closed and the music stopped, this however was not going to stop us having fun. As I mentioned earlier Briony’s dad had introduced us all as Ross and Briony’s Christian friends. Therefore I think people were taken a back as we started chanting “Sexy time for Ross and Briony” as they left.

Rhiannon and I made one more impassioned plea for music but were told the night was over. But aided with the confidence inducing drink known as alcohol still rushing through my veins I took to the stage and... “I close my eyes, draw back the curtain”. It was at this point I noticed nobody was feeling my performance. I decided to step back from the limelight with dignity “well if no one is gonna listen i’m not gonna bother”... I walked off.

We eventually gathered our group back together and got in our taxi, passing a vomiting usher on the way, to head back to our hotel.

I have to say it was a pretty special day, and I raise a glass of water and an aspirin to the happy couple. To Mr & Mrs Hill!x 

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Flash Goes To Guatemala, Part 2 - this sort of thing only happens to Steve Martin

I had just left my dad behind and headed through security and was now waiting for the first plane of my journey to board. I started to walk around the duty free, eyeing up what I would buy on my way back. As departure time neared I decided to send one final tweet.

“My first flight lands in Chicago, I hope I don’t end up sitting next to Del Griffith!”

48 hours later I would start to realise the irony of such a tweet for the journey I endured could well be the screen play for Planes Trains and Automobiles 2.

The flight was OK and I arrived in Chicago on time, I was fast tracked through immigration and collected my luggage, then checked the said luggage onto the next flight and waited in Chicago O’Hare Airport for my connecting flight to Houston.

With my belly still full of nervous excitement I was in complete awe of a real Deep South American bloke who was at the same gate as me, I mean had only ever seen these before on TV. He looked so deep south it hurt. He had hob nail boots on, a pair of sand blasted jeans with belt resting just below the tip of his sizeable arse crack, a XXL orange demolition derby t-shirt  hanging like a drape over his grand belly and then perched on the top of his hairy bearded head with eyes like piss holes in snow, was a black baseball cap with flames on.
Now I'm not one to prejudge people but I'm pretty sure at some point in this blokes life he has hit a rat with a shovel!

Still unaware that anything was wrong I set off on my next leg to Houston Texas. Unfortunately my luggage didn’t seem that excited to go to Houston (and after the quality of service I received from the receptionist at the Country Inn I don’t blame him) so decided to stay in Chicago. Unfortunately my luggage didn’t feel the need to tell me he was staying behind so I stood there like a lemon looking at the carousel as one by one everybody else's bags were collected!

Now when I spoke to people about my trip to Guatemala and the fact I would have to stop off in Houston I was repeatedly reminded that there is a severe lack of humour on show in American airports and therefore I should refrain from cracking any jokes, with this in mind imagine my surprise as the first thing I sighted upon my arrival at Houston airport was a 10 foot cow dressed as astronaut.

After speaking to the lost luggage representative I headed to the hotel where I had a reservation. I arrived at the Country Inn 15555b JFK Blvd (I have put the full name and address down just in case you were thinking of staying there, so that you can instead book a stay in the local gutter for a more pleasurable experience!)

Despite the room already being paid for, the extremely unhelpful woman was insistent on charging me again for my room. By this point my blood was starting to boil, luckily a phone call from the co-ordinator of my trip was timed to perfection and the room situation was sorted just before I was about to recreate a scene very similar to this one.

My luggage finally turned up, broken, about half an hour before I had to leave for my next flight to Guatemala City. At this point I was starting to feel like the lead role in Rhod Gilbert's missing luggage routine.

I sat down on my the plane ready for the final leg of my flight calm in the realisation that not much more could possibly go wrong and soon I would be in my 4* hotel in Antigua, Guatemala. I made small talk with a random Japanese lad sat next to me who spoke no English. It was a struggle but the flight was only a couple of hours so the awkwardness of conversation would be a distant memory soon enough. Minute after minute passed and we were still sat on board the plane waiting to take off, after half a hour the announcement came, we all had to get off the plane as there was a mechanical fault. 

It was at this point a number of us realised we were all on the same Gap Community Corps trip to Antigua and started introducing ourselves to one another. The final person to introduce himself was the Japanese lad who it turned out would be my roommate for the next week! Bring on the small talk.

We waited for about another hour for the next plane to arrive, we boarded, sat down, only to be informed there was a small electrical fault with this plane that had to be corrected before we could take off.

We were soon in the air watching captain America as the in-flight film. It was an interesting choice of film as it is filmed in Manchester where I am from and where my journey had begun but also because the film climaxes in a massive plane crash.

Just as Captain America was heading at speed for the ice and snow in his plane, an announcement came over the speakers. “I am sorry but due to adverse weather conditions we are unable to land in Guatemala and due to lack of fuel we will have to land in Honduras.”

After a stop in Honduras for an hour or so and a re-fuel we were back in the air and ready to land in Guatemala, the relief was evident as we landed in Guatemala with people bursting into spontaneous applause! We left the airport and got on the bus provided ready for our Guatemalan adventure to begin...

...Coming soon Part 3, Ive been working on the railroad

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Flash Goes To Guatemala, Part 1 - a crazy few days

It was stupid o’clock in the morning on a drizzly Tuesday at Manchester airport. I was about to leave my dad behind in Costa Coffee to set off on a trip around the world to Guatemala and I was expecting to hear some words of encouragement, something along the lines of how proud he was of me but instead his last words were saying how he liked my girlfriend.
Its no lie to say my parents have a soft spot softer than the Pillsbury Dough Man's Belly for Alex whereas I often feel like my role in the family is more that of a happy inconvenience.

It had been an interesting week, I had passed my driving test in a ride described by the examiner as “a shambolic drive”. I had proved that I hardly ever use my mirrors by not noticing my left mirror was actually facing the ground during the test and also driving most of the test in first and second gear, to make sure you are being careful, is also a no no. Saying that a pass is a pass, so in your face 93 bus, I wont be getting you again in a hurry.

The bible speaks of Jesus return : “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.”

Which basically sums up the 93 bus service, in fact if Jesus really wants to keep the Nostradamus’s of the world on their toes he should plan to make his second coming on the 93 bus!

After passing my driving test I headed to London town to see my best mate Jez. Jez is a legend he can make you feel calm when you are stressed, happy when you are sad and his speciality is he can make you very drunk very quick!

It was just a fleeting visit to say hi before I went to Guatemala. We decided to go to the pub on the corner near his new house that he hadn’t tried yet called the Toulouse Le Trec, somewhat seduced by the sign on the door informing us that tonight's entertainment would be a foursome who came 4th in France’s Pop Idol 2008, we headed upstairs.

The band hadn’t arrived yet and instead we were serenaded by the musical styling's of one bloke with a gravelly New York-Esq singing voice, struggling his way through Mr Bojangles! It was only after his third attempt at requests we noticed he couldn’t actually play anything other than Mr Bojangles. He would instead play the first three notes of song stop playing, sing the first couple of lines of the song then start talking about something irrelevant.

It was like watching Rowlf from the Muppet's having a breakdown in front of our very eyes. Things were deteriorating for the bloke rapidly and when the bar explained that the French Pop Idol band had pulled out at last minute and the only bloke they could get at such short notice was this guy, who apparently hadn’t slept for 42 hours and who was now throwing birthday cake into his piano, telling people to f**k off and had a glazed expression of someone who got kicks out of human sacrifices, we decided to retire to the flat for a session of Mario kart!

There must be something in the old water supply round that neck of the woods because the next night we were introduced to Jez’s new neighbour. I could go into great depths explaining what happened in the next half an hour of my life but the best way to some up what it was like meeting the new neighbour is to just watch this video:

As I said it was a fleeting visit to see Jez, but much needed as I was getting pretty stressed and worked up about my impending trip to Guatemala.

I headed from London to Sheffield to see Alex before my trip and before I knew it I was sat in Manchester Airport with my dad having a Costa Coffee before leaving him and everyone behind to head to the unknown land of Guatemala.

Coming soon Part 2 - this sort of thing only happens to Steve Martin.