Two sides to every story

21 Dec

Santa Marta, Colombia
[By Paula & Jeremy]

When you live in a house with wheels it can feel a bit counter-intuitive to stay still for long, but there are times when you just have to sit tight and get stuff done.

So the mileage count for the last few weeks hasn’t even reached triple figures, as we continue to potter about on the north coast of Colombia.

For ten days of the last three weeks we were in separate parts of the Caribbean – Jeremy was working in Jamaica as guest speaker and all-round troublemaker at their National Journalism Week, and I stayed in Colombia and filled my time with Spanish school and catching up on some jobs we never get around to.

So we’ve split the blog into two parts again. His ‘n hers.



The way our work schedules used to be when we lived in London, we both got pretty used to spending chunks of time alone. But after more than 16 months of being together 24/7 I felt like I had forgotten how to do it.

Taganga sunset

Still, Taganga wasn’t a bad little place stop a while.

So when Jeremy was heading off to work in Jamaica for 10 days, I admit I was feeling a bit nervy. I was adamant I wanted to stay at home in the van so we found a good hostel in Taganga, with a garden for camping and all the facilities I needed. I booked into Spanish school for a week and made a to-do list that could have kept me busy for a lifetime.

With spectacular – but not unsurprising – timing, two things went wrong the very night before Jeremy left. Firstly, we realised our second battery (which operates lights and other appliances like the fan) was failing to charge properly. This is bad enough when you are camped for a few days, and a prize pain in the backside when you are stopped for a long time. Secondly, and without warning, our pop-top roof came crashing down in the night. The hydraulic struts holding it up had picked this moment to start failing. I was worried enough about coping with the roof on my own, and this only added to my problems.

As Jeremy left the woman who helped run our hostel said: “La chica sola. You are leaving her alone. Bad husband!”. I couldn’t have agreed more.

But within a day I had found ways to live with both issues and felt pleased that I was staying relatively sane.

Fish with coconut sauce

[I notice, below, that Jeremy doesn’t mention missing my campervan cooking – ed]. Steamed fish in coconut sauce.

It was a long week and a half. But being alone reminded me of several things about one’s partner being away.

There is more space in the bed. Food doesn’t disappear so quickly. You can watch 3 episodes of Downton Abbey back-to-back, and no one says a thing.

But I remembered another thing too. When Jeremy is away, there is no Jeremy. And that is in no way fun.

He flew back to Cartagena on a Saturday night, and I decided to take a bus there to meet him and spend a couple of nights enjoying the city, before we both returned to Taganga and another week of Spanish school. He’d gone so crazy shopping for Jamaican seasonings, chutneys and sauces – not to mention rum – that he could barely carry his bags into the hostel. Our campervan cooking repertoire has had a very welcome injection of Caribbean spice!

Back in Taganga, we returned to a familiar routine of going to Spanish school in the morning, then spending the afternoons avoiding homework and bitching about verb conjugations and “ridiculous” tenses. The stifling temperatures gave us a further excuse to loaf around in a stupor. I know, life can be very tough on the road.

Sleeping dogs, Taganga

See. Not even the dogs could be bothered with homework in the Taganga heat.

But by the end of the week we had, of course, learned something and restored some of the Spanish we felt we’d let slip in recent months.

Being stopped enabled us to get around to a few things that can be tricky when you’re always on the move. Replacing our infuriatingly annoying ‘wardrobe’ shelves – the source of about 50% of the swearing heard coming from the van – had been on the to-do list for, um, 16 months. We also really wanted to paint the boring grey doors inside the van, but could never be bothered to work out what to use on their formica surface.

Luckily for us, there was a lovely handyman called Jorge working at our hostel. When we mentioned it to him, before we knew it we were all at the shops buying wood and paint, and 24 hours later, job done! We’re very excited about the new look. There are some pictures here.

During our stop we’d also ordered some of the specialist parts we needed from the US, and were pleased that for once we had an address to which we could have the things sent. That plan soon imploded when we learned that the US shipping companies wanted to charge us more than $850 to send parts to Colombia that were worth a tenth of that. Our response to that quote both started and ended with the letter ‘f’. Bizarrely, we are now sending these parts over the Atlantic to the UK, so a friend can bring them over here in January, for an eighth of the price of sending them within the same continent.

Jeremy in his office

Jeremy gets on with writing a feature on Jamaica, in our new-look van.

We don’t always blog about the humdrum stuff because, well, if we find it dull then why would we make you suffer it too? But it’s all part of life on the road – so as a Christmas treat here is a summary of the other issues we are currently dealing with…. solving the mystery of the second battery; finding out whether we also need a new engine battery; looking everywhere for power steering fluid for our vehicle and so far failing; hoping the new pop-top roof struts don’t get lost in the post; finding someone to fix our awning.

Lastly, we really need to find a way to refill our propane gas tank, after discovering that in Colombia and other parts of South America – unlike all the countries we’ve been in to date – the usual filling places do not have an adaptor for our vehicle. This is potentially disastrous as we cannot contemplate not being able to cook in the van, or being unable heat it in cold weather further south. So yesterday we spent the entire day driving round filling stations and industrial estates in Santa Marta, asking for advice. The answers ranged from ‘you can have an adaptor made for $600’ to ‘you’re screwed’ to ‘I think you can fill it up at a gas plant in the next city’. We’ll go there after Christmas and see what we can find.

We promised you an adventure, but we never said it would be round-the-clock glamour.



Take an injustice. Add a touch of militancy, a dash of inspiration, stir well, agitate… then bring to the boil.

Trouble? Me? Perish the thought!

Having spent a decade leading the 37,000-strong National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland, it’s in the blood. And so, after hearing me addressing Latin American union leaders in Costa Rica last year, the organisers of the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) extended an invitation to speak at a range of events during their National Journalism Week. It’s work… but not as we know it!

And that feeling was reinforced when my first meeting took place on the deck of a restaurant on a white sand beach at Montego Bay. Rather than schlepping home on the night bus to a rainy London suburb after my meeting, I had a quick dip in the Caribbean.

Waterfall near Minca

Once reunited we loved hiking around the cooler mountain town of Minca.

Jamaica can appear a paradise from outside – and Jamaicans are rightly proud of the beauty of their country and their sprinters – but scratch below the tourist surface and it is a country bedevilled by corruption and too many people who, away from the oh-so-chic tourist enclaves, live in poverty.

Jamaica’s journalists document the country’s highs and lows, its crime, its social issues, its sporting triumphs and its struggle to build for the next 50 years of independence. But many of them do so in conditions of poverty themselves, and as a result too many are susceptible to payola and other forms of corruption.

To help the PAJ draw attention to that battle to tackle corruption, and to the fight for improved pay and conditions for media workers, was the aim of my visit. Mission accomplished!

Over a few days we constantly hit the headlines, had media owners scrambling to respond and justify their shameful treatment and helped inspire lots of younger journalists to get active, get organised and act.

And all achieved while having some great meals and good times with new found friends. The true spirit of solidarity in action.

And crucially, I was earning some money writing a couple of features to top up the trip fund…

The view from our campspot, Minca

We couldn’t tear ourselves away from the view from our campspot in Minca.

Back on the road – after a week of school in Taganga – it was a steep, potholed and winding one to the stunning mountain town of Minca. Perched on the edge of the mountain and surrounded by dozens of varieties of colourful birds, our camping spot at a wonderful little hospedaje had incredible views out over the valley and across to the hazy heat of Santa Marta and the sea and islands beyond.
We revelled in the cooler fresh air after several baking hot and humid weeks on the coast.

We sat and stared at the view for hours… not just because it was so amazing but also because, having trekked for 8 hours to a nearby waterfall and pine-clad peak with even more incredible views, we were unable to walk. Owww. Four days later the legs are still aching. Note to selves – need more exercise.

Unable to put off our chores any longer we have now headed back down to the city. Time for some christmas shopping – petrol, power steering fluid and an adaptor. That just leaves one thing before we head to the beach for the festivities. I wonder where you can find brussels sprouts in Colombia?

'Feliz Navidad' on a wall in Minca

Happy Christmas everyone.

Days: 407
Miles: 12,803
Things we now know to be true: The world didn’t end. 21/12/12.


If you haven’t seen them already, we’ve been busy loading more photos from Panama and Colombia onto Flickr. There’s also a batch from our trip to the UK in Sept/Oct.

1. UK trip
2. From Panama to Colombia
3. Colombia part 1 – carnival time in Cartagena


6 Responses to “Two sides to every story”

  1. Derek Jolly at 6:54 am #

    FELIZ NAVIDAD to you two too!! 🙂

    Van’s looking good – maybe you should sent the handyman over here to do our house…

  2. James at 12:11 pm #

    Dig the new interior colors, keep up the good work.

    Jeremy, I did some overland travel in Jamaica (Toyota Hiace van for a month or so).

    Amazingly gorgeous country, friendly people, but yes, very impoverished. Some of the best food I have ever eaten came from little roadside kitchens in Jamaica. I want to go back.

  3. Rhonda at 11:51 pm #

    Merry christmas! In reading your post I remembered an entry that panamnotes did last year regarding the propane situation. Here is the link… hope it helps:

    • seventeenbysix at 9:54 am #

      Belated thanks Rhonda! We think we’ve solved the problem for now but these notes are very useful. Cheers.

  4. Lima Al-Azzeh at 6:08 pm #

    Hey Jeremy and Paula,
    Enjoying a final night in Bogota before heading back to Vancouver, Canada where I’m *delighted* to hear of the miserable weather 🙂 It was lovely to meet you both on the shores of Palamino and follow up by reading your blog. Have an amazing and safe journey and please do stay in touch: lima[dot]al-azzeh[at]

    Feliz Ano and safe travels!

    • seventeenbysix at 9:52 am #

      Cheers! Hope the cold isn’t making you too miserable. Perhaps you should avoid our latest post about how warm it is here… 😉 p & j

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