Tag Archives: propane

Warm front from the south

9 Jan

Tolú, Colombia
[by Paula]

There’s only one word that can describe the last few weeks. Warm.

Christmas dinner 2012

Caribbean christmas feast. Cheers!

Yes, as it happens we have discovered whole new levels of sweltering as Colombia’s dry season roasts everything in its path, but – much as we love to obsess about the weather – we’re talking about a different kind of warmth. We’d heard about it from many a traveller, but the collective hug of the Colombian people is really starting to reveal itself to us. In recent weeks we have received more good wishes and invitations to the homes of strangers than we have in a lifetime of travelling.

It started with christmas. We were returning to our old favourite, the beach, to see out the festivities in as low key a way as possible. We don’t do xmas in a big way, but there are certain traditions that are just non-negotiable, such as eating and drinking to excess.

We stocked up accordingly a few days before at a supermarket and on the way out popped into the pharmacy to see about an infection on my leg. The pharmacist gave me some ‘very strong’ antibiotics. Alarm bells rang. I examined the package and ask whether I could drink alcohol with them. “No!” she said, “it’s only five days though..”.

“Ah, that’s a shame”, I replied, tucking the pills away til Boxing Day.

We drove to Palomino, a beach on the Caribbean coast we had visited before, and parked up on the sand. Although technically a campsite, we were effectively camped right on the public beach, close to the access path from the village. This being peak season for domestic tourism there was a steady stream of Colombians, mainly from the chillier southern cities, coming on and off the beach and passing by our door.

The van usually attracts quite a bit of interest, but suddenly we felt like the number one attraction. Over the next few days we were inundated with visitors asking about the van and wanting a look around. It’s not the world’s longest tour, but we are always happy to oblige. One woman even offered to buy it. We conducted umpteen tours and at one stage were videoed cooking and being interviewed by a huge family who were holidaying together.

Sunset near San Bernardo del Viento

We appear to be spending a lot of time at the beach.

We explained, as always, that there was a bed in the pop-top, but that it was a bit small for us and was better for children. “But we don’t have children,” I said, pre-empting the inevitable question that seems to fascinate every Latin American (what, no children?!).

“Here, you can have this one!”, laughed the mother, selecting a random child from the bunch. We politely declined.

But what was most astonishing to us was the number of strangers who came by and asked whether we would be visiting their part of the country, then invited us to visit them when we arrived.

It seemed only right to give a Caribbean twist to christmas, and on the day itself we feasted on barbequed jerk chicken, fried plantains, carrots sauteed in Jamaican ginger honey, and potatoes. We even pushed the boat out with one of my (not very Caribbean) banoffee pies.

The festivities over, we faced the inevitable and, after a stop in Santa Marta, set off for the industrial city of Barranquilla to try to sort out a major lingering van-related issue – filling the propane tank, which we’d heard might be impossible in Colombia because of the particular fitting that foreign campers like ours have. We weren’t prepared to give up without a fight, and headed for the main propane plant in the city, our only hope.

Strike protest in Mompox

We came across this strike protest in Mompox – these health workers had been out for 14 months.

We knocked on the gate and the guy came out. We explained our predicament, while he shook his head a lot, saying they didn’t have the right adaptor. We pleaded a little for any solution he could suggest. The next moment he disappeared and came back holding an adaptor. He screwed it onto our tank. Perfect fit, hurray! “Thank god, it fits”, he said, “but we still can’t fill your tank here” (they usually fill lorries, and the position of our tank was impossibly low). He told us to drive to the other side of the highway, pointing to a collection of dusty rudimentary buildings, and wait for him to meet us in his lunch hour. He would borrow the adaptor and see if his brother, who worked at a propane gas bottle shop, could help us.

It all sounded a bit dodgy but we were desperate enough to give it a go. He turned up as promised, and he and several other guys set about trying to fill our tank from a bottle. We spent a hour lurching between hope and dejection, as they struggled to get it to work. The adaptor appeared to fit but was missing a vital element. As with so many occasions on this trip, we were bowled over by their refusal to just give in and send us packing. Eventually a piece of metal was sawn off something else, wedged (rather unsafely, we observed) into the adaptor and shoved in. Gas appeared to be trickling in, and after 20 minutes or so the tank was declared full. To be honest, none of us were totally sure if it had worked as the gauge doesn’t work, but we took their word for it and drove off in a celebratory mood.

By the time we’d sorted out the problem it was late and we decided to just drive out of the city and get as far as possible before dark. We were heading south towards the Unesco world heritage site city of Mompóx for new year, about a 10 hour journey.

As dusk fell, we scanned the roadside for a farm or something that might be happy to allow camping, and pulled in at one to ask. The guy suggested that we instead follow him down the road to a motel that he thought would have space for the van. As we arrived he had already asked the woman working there, and she enthusiastically invited us to pull in. It was a grim looking place, but by this stage we were keen to just stop and were too polite to make our excuses and run.

I asked about toilets and she showed me to one of their rooms. She patted the damp, heavily-stained bed as we walked in, then proceeded to rub two raw cables together to try to get the light bulb to work. There was a toilet for our use, but no running water, and cockroaches were scuttling about in a panic, as if shocked that someone had actually turned up. Hopefully my face did not reveal my thoughts.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox is tricky to get to but worth the pain.

“Rancid hellspawn” is one of Jeremy’s favourite phrases for describing the worst places we come across on our travels, but it’s a phrase he uses very sparingly. The words did pass his lips that night.
In contrast, the woman working there could not have been nicer. She twice fed us food she had brought from home including the most delicious, anise-infused, arepas we have tasted to date, and quizzed us enthusiastically about our trip.

However we were pleased to pull out early the next morning, and set off through cattle country in bright sunshine.

Mompóx is a gorgeous well-preserved colonial town which can only be reached by river ferry. We pulled in at the ‘dock’ – just a disturbingly steep dusty slope that plunged towards the river – which was packed with trucks and cars, this being the Saturday before new year. After a stiflingly hot 2 hour delay, tempers were starting to fray, especially when those who had been waiting for hours realised there may not be space on the ferry for everyone and some last-minute arrivals had been pushing into the queue.

As we approached they put us to one side so we would be one of the last to board. This provided the biggest audience possible for Jeremy, who had to reverse/slip down onto the ferry and into an impossibly small space between the barrier and another car. At one point two officials were shouting completely contrasting directions at him and several other passengers were chipping in. I nearly throttled the obligatory drunk guy who was leaning in the window and telling us to remain calm. Our tyre screeched off the barrier as we wedged ourselves in, but we were still hanging over the hinge for the pull-up door.

Ferry to Mompox

A fellow passenger helpfully demonstrates he can barely get two fingers between our two cars on the ferry.

“What will happen to the front of the van when the door is closed?”, I asked a fellow passenger. “Oh they don’t close it, they’ll put 7 or 8 motorbikes on there before we leave!” he replied. Silly of me to worry.

After arriving in the dark we free-camped in a riverside park in the centre of Mompóx that night, which was already in pretty festive mood, complete with banging speakers on every corner. We awoke at sunrise the next day to the sounds of the adjacent football pitch being set up for the big Sunday game! As we were parked directly behind the goal, it seemed like a good time to move on, and for a couple of nights we retreated to an edge-of-town camping spot.

It was good to be somewhere with a bit of culture again. Mompóx, formerly a trading post dripping with wealth, now has that isolated old-world feel. We wandered the baking streets by daytime but could only take the temperature for short bursts. Mercifully, there was a pool where we were camping but even this was warm. “Is nothing cold?” asked Jeremy.

It seemed not – there was even a town-wide ice shortage on new year’s eve. Ice is just as commonly sold from people’s houses as from shops here, and I was sent from door to door to door, searching for the cold stuff. ‘None left here! Try the red house on the corner….’ and so it went on til we found the last bolsa in town.

Asado stall, Mompox, Colombia

Waiting for our new year’s eve dinner to come off the grill, Mompox.

Preliminary cold beers dealt with, we headed into town to wander some more and take in the atmosphere. Most families held their house parties out in the street, with their pavement speakers competing in both the size and volume stakes. The town’s many churches were packed, and families spilled out into squares filled with fairy lights. We ate a delicious plate of mixed meats from a street stall and even managed to find a cocktail for midnight.

With the temperatures sizzling, our little 12-volt fan chose this time to stop working. To be honest we were amazed this $12 supermarket fan had lasted 15 months. But would we be able to find a new 12v car fan in Colombia? This episode highlighted one of the big beefs we have with most of the Western world – that when things break we can rarely get them repaired, even if we want to. Here, it is the opposite. Men sit at roadside stalls repairing mobile phones. There are shops for fixing cameras, cookers, food processors, you name it. We took the fan to a little shop and had it repaired in 3 minutes. I told the guy this would be difficult at home. “I heard about that! You just throw things away and buy a new one!” he said, shaking his head.

Chopping a 'bagre de mar' for dinner

Chopping a ‘bagre de mar’ for dinner on the beach.

After a calmer return ferry journey we headed north-west to a coastal area south of Cartagena, mostly visited by Colombians. We’re not sure why the gringos haven’t found this lovely stretch of coast. During two stops near Coveñas and San Bernardo del Viento, we were again on the receiving end of numerous good wishes for the trip and left with our notebook bursting with more addresses, including from one family who have a coffee roasting place near Medellín. Yum!

At the latter spot we wild-camped on a beach that was blissfully quiet following the music fests of Mompóx and Tolú. We flopped on the beach, buying fruit and fish from passing locals, including our first ‘bagre de mar’ (a type of catfish), a new favourite.

We are waiting for our friend Caroline to fly into Cartagena soon and join us for a holiday, after which we will turn south towards Bogotá. It’s about time we hit some mountains and cities, else we are in serious danger of becoming full-time beach bums.

Jeremy cooks up the bagre on the barbie.

Jeremy cooks up the bagre on the barbie.

As the altitude increases we’ll get some fresher weather too, but we feel sure of the warm welcome awaiting us further south.

Days: 426
Miles: 13,544
Things we now know to be wish were true: A quote from Jeremy this week: ‘Why hasn’t someone invented sand that doesn’t stick’?

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