Society: Gentlemen prefer bonds

Last week, I noticed some sexist advertising on the London Underground. ‘Gentleman prefer bonds’, according to the online ‘retail stockbroker’ the Share Centre.

While I have no interest in stockbroking, or any idea what ‘sharedealing’ is, there are millions of women who do. Many invest, some even work in finance. There are women travelling on the tube every day who might actually want to use this site.

So what a way to alienate a proportion of your market – by implying that only ‘gentleman’ are interested in bonds.

Referencing ‘Gentleman Prefer Blondes’ is crappy in more than one way. It’s pretty racist for one thing. It also implies that gentlemen prefer their women stupid (‘blonde’). It’s one of the stalest sexist stereotypes in circulation.

In the context of finance, blondes are ‘bonds’ – commodities to be shared and played with by men. The ad says “Investing in the stock market isn’t gold-digging, it’s common sense.”

So, I shamed them on Twitter.

The Share Centre 4

(Sorry about the shaky pic, I was on an escalator.)

I asked people to contact them and ask why they thought the ad was OK:

The Share Centre 3

The Share Centre’s response was, “it’s an iconic film title – can you come up with anything better?”

(It’s not very hard. It took me 5 minutes to come up with something that wasn’t sexist – a western theme of ‘Make few dollars more’ and ‘Once upon a time to invest’. You can have that one for a nominal fee, the Share Centre.)

The Share Centre

Someone at the Share Centre offered to give me a call, to discuss what I thought was so wrong with the ad.

I spoke to Ian in marketing, a very nice man, who explained to me again that it was an iconic film title (which I explained I did get) and asked what I thought was wrong with the title?

I said that it alienated female customers as it suggested that investment banking and finance is a man’s world.

He told me, “Only about 20% of our customers are women. Our customer base is mostly men, that’s just the way finance is.”

That’s just the way it is.

He also explained the theme alluded to an iconic film title (yes, I did understand that, Ian), that they were running other ads in a similar vein, including “The man with the Golden Bond”.

“Ian, that’s another title referring only to men!”

Ian, investment banking is a sector dominated by men not because ‘that’s the way it is’, but because of numerous obstacles, including inflexible working hours for mothers (women who take time off to have children are “worth less” to finance than men, according to Nigel Farage) and not enough women to coach female graduates. Plus, the simple fact that people hire people like themselves. Men beget men.

I asked Ian if he realised that many potential female customers may already feel barred from a career in finance because of the barriers they face and that this advert could alienate them further.

Women already think they shouldn’t be interested in finance and this ad is perpetuating the ‘Old Boy’s Club’ mentality of the financial world, bold as brass on the London Underground. I explained that ‘the way it is’ has to change to be inclusive of women.

Ian said only about 20% of The Share Centre’s customers were women. That’s odd, because women make up 60% of the global workforce across the financial services industry.

But women hold only 14% of board seats and 2% of CEO positions. That’s why the Share Centre doesn’t care about that 60%.

As a consumer you command respect from the brands you seek out. The Share Centre has made it clear that a fifth of their customer base is unworthy of any respect at all.

Ian assured me that extensive market research had been carried out on these ads (about 1000 people, mostly online I think), and that the response had been unanimously positive.

“I’d like to know what the demographic of that group was”, I asked.

“Yes, it was largely men, though there was a female contingency.” (I’m not sure what a ‘female contingency’ makes up, but i’m guessing not a lot.)

Ian assured me that my opinions would be “taken on board”. “With all due respect, Ian, i’m only one person who happened to raise the issue on Twitter. What difference is my voice going to make?”

Oh it will, Ian said. He’d been discussing the comment with his team for most of the day.

I hope it will make a difference and the fact that they called me suggested that they either respected my opinion, or got a scare from me shouting my mouth off online. Twitter can have that affect on brands.

I’ve got about 1,200 followers – not loads, but enough to make an impact. I’m sure Ian understands how quickly fat can catch in an online fire, especially when it comes to the ‘discussion of the moment’, feminism.

Perhaps they’ll choose a 50-50 male/female split the next time they run market research. I hope so.

If a brand disrespects you, because of gender, race or sexuality, I urge you to make a noise about it on social media. I think it makes a difference, and as a consumer, it’s the best weapon in your arsenal.

Featured image from

The Roses of Heliogabalus is an 1888 painting by the Anglo-Dutch academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888)

Art: A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House

I was thrilled to be invited to Leighton House Museum for a private tour of a new collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings recently. I’m obsessed with the interiors of people’s houses; psychological most certainly to do with feeling disinherited as a member of Generation Rent.

The Arab Room, Leighton House Museum

The Arab Room, Leighton House Museum. Image: Flickr

Frederic Leighton’s house in Holland Park, speaks of an artist who was sociable enough to sustain his career, but not for a love of people; the rooms are opulent but there are no guest bedrooms.

It’s a solitary house, built to and for his own requirements (unlike Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose rooms flow into one another like it was built for a party and whose table was always set for friends).

Outside of the collection, the focal point of the house is the Arab Room, which is filled with Islamic tiles from Damascus. Curious, then, that he was no Orientalist. He created it simply, he said, ‘for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while’.

In an austere gallery environment, I can find portrait art a bit dull, but Leighton House is warm and enchanting in itself. Each room holds just enough paintings to let you take them in together with the room.

The Enchanted Sea by Henry Arthur Payne (c.1890)

The Enchanted Sea by Henry Arthur Payne (c.1890)

In the drawing room, I was drawn to The Enchanted Sea by Henry Arthur Payne. The baked, earthy colours make sense when you find out Payne worked with stained glass; the umbers and oranges seem cut through with sunlight.

One picture of Leighton’s muse Dorothy Dene really seduced me. In Crenaia (the Nymph of the Dargle), the muse is enveloped in the folds of her drapery, which flow into the waterfall behind.

Crenaia (the Nymph of the Dargle) by Leighton (1880)

Crenaia (the Nymph of the Dargle) by Leighton (1880)

The centre of the collection is the Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tameda.

It tells the story of the Roman emperor Heliogabalus smothering his guests to death with rose petals, which apparently made little sense to critics at the time, since the people in the painting don’t seem to mind or have noticed.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tameda (1888)

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tameda (1888)

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum
14 November 2014 – 29 March 2015

Society: bigger feminist fish to fry

Yesterday I posted Alecia Lynn Eberhardt’s blog on Facebook about why as a woman, saying “I have a boyfriend” when you want a man to leave you alone is problematic. I agreed with it.

I’ve been accused of demonising all men by the actions of a few. In short, i’m “pitting women against men”, which is an “outdated mode of fighting inequality” and “us against them won’t get us anywhere”.

This stale adage which is starting to make my teeth hurt also cropped up:

“There are bigger fish to fry.”

There is ONE fish to fry. Inequality. I’m frying it on all sides.

I can talk about FGM in the same breath as the fact that Bear Grylls has made a TV show about surviving a desert island with men only (because “it’s about man’s modern struggle”), as both are important.

They’re both symptoms of an unequal society which sees women as commodities or not as capable as men. We should be talking about every element of women’s struggle to be equal. We have to fight everything together at once.

Rape (notionally worse than ‘lesser’ sexist behaviour) happens because our sexist society teaches us that women are beneath men and that assumption festers in every small, ‘insignificant’ inequality.

I will NOT pick my battles.

I will not let the little things go. When a man in the gym asks my male exercise partner if he’s done on the machine and ignores me (yesterday), I will speak up.

The Facebook criticism of Alecia’s blog was that it implies that “all men are predatory and assume a knowing dominance and that women need to defend themselves against men.”

Talking about the actions of predatory men is not the same as saying all men are rapists. Calling out the sexism and misogyny rife in society is not the same as saying all men are sexists.

So what about men who aren’t predatory? The ones who don’t rape?

What about them? Should I congratulate each and every one of them for respecting my rights as a human being?

Let’s apply a similar question to another subject, for fairness’ sake. Because, being one of those people who actually thinks women should have the same rights as men, i’m terribly biased.

“What about dog owners who don’t beat their dogs?”

If a blog about dog cruelty is posted on the internet, I don’t imagine i’d hear the sound of dog owners around the world indignantly typing, “excuse me! I’m a dog owner that respects dogs!” But there’s no such thing as the dog owner’s ego, as far as I know.

If you don’t like hearing that men hurt women, tough shit, it happens, get used to it. I’m not going to shut up about it.

If you don’t like me telling you that men rape, help me change the culture that normalises violence against women by speaking up like I do. If you think my battles are trivial, take up one you think is more meaningful.

Patriarchy hurts men as well as women. It doubly hurts women when they are more focused on protecting the male ego than calling out inequality.

Music: Brody Dalle at the Electric Ballroom

Last night I saw Brody Dalle play the Electric Ballroom and can now finally die happy.

Brody Dalle performs at the Electric Ballroom, Camden 24 April 2014

I’d given up hope of ever seeing the Distillers live. The band imploded in 2004 shortly after the release of Coral Fang at the height of my fandom, which sucked but also probably boosted my obsession.

Then Brody seemed to go off into the musical wilderness (in real life having a couple of kids with husband Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age). Her next project with Distillers guitarist Tony Bevilacqua, Spineerette, was short lived; they released an EP in 2008 but have been quiet since.

I wondered if she’d ever tour again and whether she’d ever perform the Distillers. I figured maturity would mean she wouldn’t want to play songs written by her 22 year old self battling a meth addiction and an unhappy marriage to Tim Armstrong from Rancid.

But last night she played all the best off Sing Sing Death House (2002) and Coral Fang. There was less of the snarling and posturing that made me fall in love with her – she’s more grounded and calm, but she still blew me away.

She seemed shy – she hasn’t performed live much since 2010  – not once looking into the crowd, but she still owned the stage with an incredible vocal range that has changed little since the days of the Distillers. You wonder how she’s still able to sing with such ferocity when it sounds like her vocal chords have been steeped in ethanol.

One thing that was depressing, though. The crowd was shockingly tame. There was a limp mosh pit and the few true punks seemed to want to nurse a cold beer more than throw it over anyone. I felt like we were letting Brody down in the worst possible place, Camden, the home of punk.

Whatever has happened to music is a sign of an apathetic culture. It felt like no one in the venue had any punk spirit in them, no fight to give. Brody can explain:

I was so lucky to grow up in the ‘90s. It was the revolution, it really was. There’s such a fucking plethora of amazing music to pick from, from Hole to Bikini Kill to L7 to Babes in Toyland to Elastica. There was Kim Gordon. There were so many women. It was just such an awesome time. I really hope that happens again.

I think it’s been a good twenty years, so, usually things go in cycles. I’m hoping that maybe in the mainstream, female-driven rock ‘n roll or just rock ‘n roll in general kind of gets its place again.

You know? It’s been dominated by dance music and I agree with Shirley Manson actually, she says it’s because of 9/11. And that’s absolutely where things kind of changed. We all got very PC and didn’t want to rock the boat and just wanted to hear meaningless fluff, I guess. I don’t know. I would think that people would run in the other direction.

Where’s the counter culture gone? We’re living in dispossessed times, but that’s what punk was born out of. We need a return of the Riot Grrrls. With feminism becoming part of the mainstream, the timing would be perfect.

Brodie quote from an interview in Bust Magazine.

Woman in traditional African dress shopping for fruit in Brixton Market

Blog: I walked through Brixton today

Woman in traditional African dress shopping for fruit in Brixton MarketI walked through Brixton market today.

I do this most days, but today was different. I paused and took in every sound, every smell.

I haven’t walked down Electric Avenue in the sunshine for months.

Most days on my way home i’ll stop off at Nour, the cash and carry that i’ve been loyal to for years, to buy supplies for that night’s dinner. I’ll walk fast, with my head down, between tall trollies, cardboard boxes and detritus from the day’s trade. It’s always dark, 6pm, and there’s always wind i’m running from. The slow shoppers are all gone and the market is filled with working people, trying to get things done quickly so they can get home and warm.

But today it’s 3.30pm on a Friday. Nour is filled with old women studying plantain and taking their time. Today I have all the patience in the world to wait for these women to pass in the narrow corridor. I nod and smile as I wait for one and she calls me blessed.

As I leave Nour with vegetables, picked with care, since I have the time today, I browse the other stalls I usually ignore. I’m looking for hass avocados, since they’re sweeter, and Nour doesn’t stock them today. I find 4 for £1 and silently bless Brixton as I hand over the coin.

I walk slowly back down Electric Avenue and I feel sure in the sense that I love this place i’ve made my home. It’s hard to love Brixton sometimes, when the journey from the tube is just too long in the wind and rain and the bus is too full.

I open my ears to every sound. Wet fish slapped on ice. Tuts. Clicks. Teeth kisses. Hoots. A “hey gov’na!”. I recognise familiar faces. I see new ones. It feels like I haven’t looked at it in this light for so long.

On the journey home the bus is too full of school kids. I lift up my shopping bags to let a small child pass and a woman shouts “get ya bag off meh leg, cha!” A dark cloud threatens to blacken my mood but I let it pass. This is Brixton. Thorny.

[Image from]

Young men binge drinking

Society: Demonised and Degraded – My Home Town in the Media

I have recently been watching Bouncers, only because it followed the brilliant and sweet Educating Yorkshire, but i’ve laughed along at the coverage of a boozy Britain and the sensationalised portrayal of our culture of high street drunk and disorderliness.

Then I watched the most recent two episodes, filmed in Essex, around Colchester High Street and Clacton-on-Sea’s seafront bars. Suddenly 45 minutes of escapism became far too personal.

Young men binge drinking

After being born and starting school in North London, I moved to Colchester to be closer to my mum’s family, and that’s where I grew up. My mum and her family are from nearby Clacton, a small seaside town famed as a fading weekend holiday destination. It peaked as a resort town in the 1950s and the decline of tourism has seen the town hit with poverty and social problems. Cocaine is rife, which I find strange given that most people in town have no money to fund a habit. 41% of Clacton residents have no qualifications and Jaywick, an area of the town, is officially the most deprived area in the UK. It’s an easy media target, dubbed a “dumping ground for the poor“.

Here’s what Sam Wollaston said about Colchester, as portrayed in the Bouncers, in the Guardian:

“Colchester town centre on a Saturday night is a terrifying place. Fuelled by sambuca shots and Jagerbombs, predatory herds – of men, women, everything in between – prowl, searching for sex. Or failing that, a fight. Or both, in either order. As the evening goes on, the tension – and the volume – rises. Saggy-panted boys stagger out of doorways, then moon and shout at passing cars. Bottles, hands, voices, cocks, are waved in the air triumphantly. Arses are grabbed, and punches are thrown. The gutters run with piss and vomit and blood, and probably even worse.”

Google couldn’t tell me where Wollaston’s from. I’m guessing not Colchester, which he’s made clear he wouldn’t touch with a pooey stick.

Then, later in the week, Channel Four’s horrible through-the-fourth-wall viewer review show Gogglebox showed families watching footage, with one man exclaiming “I’d rather have a firework shoved up my arse than go to Colchester! What a shithole!” Even the family from Clacton laugh at the portrayal of their hometown, seemingly because they accept it as accurate.

It’s hard to defend it when that’s what’s being shown, and people are seen on TV to be enthusiastically defaming it. But it’s like when you complain about your family pissing you off and then someone else joins in. It gripes.

I recognise that I have been laughing along with Bouncers until it zoomed in on the ugly face of my hometown, and I realise the irony of only being angry now. But it’s not the first time Colchester has been held up as an example of Britain’s apparent degenerate culture. This is moral panic parallel to the media and the Tory’s portrayal of the London Riots, and i’m sick of my town being demonised and shown as an example to the rest of the country of how not to behave. I am sick of feeling like I can’t defend where I am from when people say “But isn’t it a bit of a dump?” What can I say when that’s all they see?

It is programmes like this that make me feel conflicted about talking about where i’m from. After watching how it’s portrayed on TV, I catch myself thinking “should I be proud that I made it out and i’m doing well?” And then I feel angry at myself for thinking like that when my parents moved to Essex to give me a better life, away from the area of North London we were living which is now another handy example of deprivation.

I guess the difference between showing the worst of what goes on in Colchester – which has been the target of many programmes on Booze Britain over the last few years, for example Booze Britain: Binge Nation – is that when we see it in Manchester, Newcastle or Cardiff, we are reminded of what these cities have provided in the arenas of culture, art, or sport. Colchester is shown as having nothing else of merit, other than the fact that it was once the Roman capital of Britain (but who gives a shit about that anymore?). It has been made a scapegoat for the UK’s problems, because it’s easy to show the activity of one section of society, so visible as it is on the high street. So to the viewer, it’s seemingly just a hellhole full of ASBOS.

My sister informs me that the one lad and his mates followed on a ‘typical’ night out in Colchester (containing one messy punch up, which I find hard to believe he has the stamina for every single weekend), was given £50 by the show’s producers and told to “get as drunk as you can.” Nice, Channel 4. I can imagine the producer gleefully rubbing their hands together at the sight of girls falling into the gutter with their skirts up around their waists, saying “GREAT STUFF, capture that!”

Call me defensive, but i’d like it to be known that Colchester is firstly a student town. Students are notorious for being awful, rowdy drunks. I know, I was one of them. And they come from all over the UK to study in the town. Secondly, it’s a military town. Squaddies reside here from every corner of the UK. And they love to fight. I know, I used to work Saturday night shifts in A&E. So think of a Saturday night in Colchester as cross-cultural, in that respect – an accurate snapshot of the UK’s boozy culture.

Colchester has a high street and it has bars, so people will get drunk and act like bellends, because that’s what they do. It has its problems like any other town in the UK. But as a country, it’s our alcohol problem we need to address. When planning a night out, young people on the show talk about deliberately aiming to get “paralytic”. They are drinking to paralyse their problems, whether they be family life or unemployment. They don’t want to think about them anymore. Let’s talk about that.

When I talked to my family from Clacton about the programme, they said it was an accurate description of the town; “It’s hell on earth!” In Clacton, the poor are vilified for acting as they do, when they are made to feel like they have nothing to feel proud of, with no prospects. So the rest of the country can watch it on telly, laugh and feel better about themselves.

If I was given the power to commission one programme for Channel 4 this year, i’d make one that saw business leaders go to Clacton and fund a start-up for a group of disadvantaged young people. The people of the town need to see their potential and something positive they can work towards in their own town, without thinking that escaping is the only way they can be successful. People drink and do drugs out of boredom and the fact that they think there is nothing else for them to do.

But look at the trends. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, binge drinking among 16-24 year olds is actually down. So, Channel 4, maybe it’s time for a change to the scheduling?

Image: The Observer (On a feminist note, search Binge Drinking in Google and 90% of images are of women…)

Society: This is Why I Shout

I just walked into the disabled loo in my office – yes I know this is frowned upon, but it has a full-length mirror – and overheard a conversation between two men outside the door. The first comment I heard as I walked in, and chose to ignore. The second man’s response I heard while I was in the cubicle. It took me a few seconds to register it, then a few seconds more to go over it two or three times in my head to ensure I heard it correctly.

First man (aimed at me): “You’re not disabled!”

Second man (aimed at first man): “She will be by the time i’m finished with her.”

Now I usually don’t blog about sexist remarks, cat-calling, that sort of thing. There are fantastic projects doing this on our behalves, plus, I don’t think it would make for particularly enlightening or insightful blogging.

However, this, I feel I need to put out there. Partly because of the shock I feel at hearing these remarks from men in my place of work, but also as a reminder to other women that they MUST speak up against these comments.

I cannot be sure of the intent of his remark, whether it was intended to imply that he would rape me so violently I would be left disabled, or that he would beat me so badly I would be left disabled.

I suspect it is the first. For two reasons: violence against women in the guise of beating is not generally considered to be appropriate to joke about between two men who are probably on acquaintance level. Most men, I think, would balk at another man saying he thinks it’s OK to punch a woman, for example.

Rape jokes are more acceptable. Because rape is normalised. Maybe the man making the joke didn’t even realise he was implicitly talking about rape. Maybe the other man was as shocked at me at hearing a guy utter such a disgusting thing. I hope so. I know most of my male friends would be.

I am disappointed and sad for a number of reasons, aside from the fact that the men made a comment about me when I work on the same floor of their office and have probably smiled at them when they have been in the queue for the tea machine, or even sent them an email.

I am also sad at the thoughts that ran through my head as I stood in the toilets:

1) “Be REALLY sure that’s what you heard. Could you have misheard it? You have to be sure…”

2) “No-one would believe you if you reported them. It wouldn’t be considered serious as it was said ‘as a joke’. There are two of them, they will defend one another and they will call you hysterical.”

In stopping to make sure I was totally convinced at what I heard, they walked off. I can never report them. I feel powerless.

I share this story partly for my own catharsis. I met up with my boyfriend at lunch to get a hug and remind myself of an amazing man in my life who supports my fight for equality and against a culture of rape. He was equally angry, but told me I need to forget this and move on. He is right. There’s nothing I can do now directly.

I can only urge women to speak out, try not to hesitate, report these things when and where you can. If no-one listens, at least other women will see you speaking out and think “I will do the same next time”.

Today, like on so many other occasions, I didn’t shout. I wanted to and I didn’t. And I hate that when something like this happens, I end up feeling disappointed in myself. I feel mute.

That is why I am sharing this story. Because I need to gather the strength to keep on fighting, to shout SOMEWHERE if I can’t do in the real world. I need to remind myself to put that anger into making a change.

Image from Ms Magazine.

Arts & Culture: The Lightning Child

The Lightning ChildI was stunned to read The Metro’s review of the Lightning Child, the new musical drama by Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill inspired by Euripides’ The Bacchae, described as “extravagantly awful”, “camp, trippy and a total mess.”

It’s trippy, camp to the eyeballs and yes, awfully extravagant, but it’s more filthy than messy. And that’s what’s so fun. Who wouldn’t be thrilled and delighted to hear drag queen and gay rights activist Bette Bourne (as the blind seer Tireseus) shouting “you daft cunt” across the heads of the crowd at the Globe Theatre?

We begin with the 1969 moon landing. Neil Armstrong descends from his spaceship to face Ladyboy Herald, a Jamaican queen with blue dreadlocks, sparkly flip-flops and a face-full of glitter. He’s the eternal disciple of the god of wine and ecstasy Dionysus. “Know your limits”, he tells Neil.

And so we meet the Lightning Child, Dionysus. In Euripides’ play, the young demi-god is angry that his mortal family have turned their back on him. His mother Semele, Zeus’ mistress, was killed by jealous Hera and disowned by her sisters. Dionysus has spent his adult life travelling the world and gathering a cult of female worshippers, the Bacchantes.

With Andre 3000’s looks, Hendrix’s swagger and a voice like chocolate fondue, the Lightning Child whips his Bacchantes into a frenzy in gold lamé, which is all rather good fun until its interrupted by oddly jarring and completely unrelated scenes of junkies on the brink of self-destruction, Billie Holiday making up with Lester Young in her dressing room, and a rather pointless and unrealistic rivalry between two posh flatmates. Caster Semenya, the South African runner makes an appearance, too, beautifully played by Moyo Akandé, who puts her 6ft stature to great advantage, towering above the ignorant doctor trying to force her to be gender tested. “I just want to run”, she says. Gender is irrelevant here.

So the play’s been panned across the board it would seem. “Like some demented gang-show in hell, it goes on and on.” I’m starting to feel like maybe I saw a different play. What’s been missed by so many lazy reviewers is the strength of Clifford Samuel’s performance as Pentheus, the repressed king of Thebes who bans the worship of Dionysus.

Samuel plays him as a man that we recognise. A young, misogynistic, religious zealot, who blames women for his barely-repressed urges. He plays him funny. We mock him for his narrow-mindedness and pure hatred. He’s a fool.

Women, to Pentheus (which means ‘hate’, by the way), are filthy – sluts whose only aim is to destroy men by dastardly acts like cooking. “I see through their lies!”, he says. He recounts how he took revenge on one lover for almost snaring him with a delicious home-cooked meal by holding her down and vomiting it back up on her face.

The Lightning Child, Dionysus, will have his revenge on the king that exiled him. Pentheus is in a sexual rage, torn between punishing his mother for joining the orgy, and becoming a voyeur to it, with a view to raping. It’s driving him insane. In the end, Pentheus ends up trussed in a tight sequinned dress, heels and glitter along with the rest of them, powerless to his own gender-bending curiosity.

Ultimately its over-the-top in a camp, pantoey sort of way, and less shocking than it thinks it is. In the end, even Ladyboy Herald walks away and you’re left wondering what the point was after all? “Work it out on the train home. It’s the only way”, he says. But it packs enough surprises up its sleeve for it all to be worth it. And damn, it was fun to get carried away with all the mayhem.

Travel: Iquitos and the Amazon [Part Two]

This blog is part two of two. See part one here, with a visit to Iquitos’ Shaman’s market and floating village.

At the rainforest lodge, three hours out of Iquitos by motorboat, my nostrils are in a rapturous state of detox. The rich, damp, earthy smells of the rainforest replace the clug and choke of the city. Hundreds of unique noises from insects, birds and mammals create a singular buzz of sound that becomes an enchanting white noise.

We spend the first afternoon spotting pink river dolphins, who aren´t shy, always appearing in pairs. That night we ease into jungle life, sleeping at the lodge under heavy-duty mosquito nets. Those buggers are the size of flying rice grains here, and they hurt.



The next morning, with guides Falcon and Eduardo, aka ‘El Catalan’ (kingfisher), and French backpacker Morgaine, we take off in our canoe in search of a camping spot. In a clearing by the water, Falcon pulls down ten metre-long vines, which he strips and cuts into lengths, tying between two trees to use as the frame on which to hang our mosquito nets.

With a hammock inside the net, suspended between two trees, it´s feels surprisingly secure. Add a couple of sticks to hang your rubber boots over, plus plastic sheeting on four branches to keep off the rain and you´ve got a pretty decent night´s sleep.

Beds made, Falcon leads us further into the jungle to explore by moonlight. Walking in the pitch dark, you become a blockade for the monstrous flying things that travel at night, like moths the size of hands, which hit your face with disconcerting regularity.

Once we get used to the traffic, we spot caiman; the Quetzal; Guatemala’s national bird that had eluded us in Central America; a gigantic bloated frog the size of my head; countless fiendish insects. My boyfriend even caught sight of an ocelot just two metres from us.


Then, hammock time. In the trees above us, night monkeys have frenetic conversations until dawn. Occasionally, an unidentified and probably enormous and man-eating creature sinks below the water metres from my net.

‘El Catalan’ is up before all of us to cook omelettes and heat coffee on the log fire. Inconceivably, I have escaped the mosquitos, at least for the first night in the wild, thanks to actually-illegal-in-Peru-strength deet. After breakfast, Falcon leads us further into the forest to explore in the daylight. The insects seem less bolshy this morning, but maybe that’s because I can see them coming.

We drink from the vine of a tree that is said to cure cancer (apols, I forget the name), hunt hallucinogenic mushrooms and learn about the flora of the rainforest. Frogs have lain spawn in our footprints from last night. A thick, two-metre long snake that looks to me like a boa skids off through the bush to get away from us. Falcon tells us it is highly dangerous (poisonous) and if we had seen it during the night, it would have gone for us.

piranhaA spot of piranha fishing in the afternoon is pleasingly fruitful. I catch five. A nervy experience, given that I am terrified of fish, teeth or otherwise (not dead fish, yum yum). Even so, I am tenacious in my effort to ‘win’ the fishing. Feeling a bite, I whip in my line, hitting my boyfriend in the face with a live piranha, which then vaults, and starts swimming up and down the inch of water at the bottom of the boat, to the concern of neither guide. We eat what we catch for lunch. Piranha meat is surprisingly bland.

As evening sets in, we all take to the canoe to explore coppices deeper in the rainforest and rich with plant life and animals. We come close to three-toed sloths, tamarin and squirrel monkeys, tree rats, and marmosets. Toucans, macaws, and kingfishers fly endlessly overhead. A giant stick insects joins our boat, plus an enormous spider which Falcon flips into the water, saying “Aah! Muy peligroso.” As the sun sets, fisherman bats with three-foot wingspans appear, skimming the water next to our boat.


On our final morning in the rainforest, the fat, wallowey rain that we’ve had for a short time every day holds off, so that as planned we can swim with the pink river dolphins, where the water from the coffee-coloured Amazon meets the cola-black water from the Rio Negro. Again, terrifying: fish; opaque water; angry dolphins?

The local indigenous community is scared of the river dolphins, and kill them if they swim close to their houses. They call them ‘bufeos’; ‘bu’ being the noise they make and ‘feo’ being Spanish for ‘ugly’.


There are many legends in the Peruvian Amazon about bufeos eating children, or hunting menstruating women and raping them, creating hideous halfling people with ugly white skin. I was told that sometimes on birth certificates single mothers write ‘bufeo’ under ‘Father’.

Nonetheless, we survived sharing their water, and a couple of bufeos even got quite close. I am so glad I swallowed my fears and jumped in.


Back in Iquitos, we return to our hostel and start planning our route out of the Amazon. It’s a two day wait for a boat to Yurimaguas, the first town with a road outside the Amazon. Two days later, and we’re on El Bruno, a cargo ship that takes three days up river. We spend the days swinging in our hammocks, reading and awaiting the dinner bell.


Occasionally the ship stops to deliver supplies to villages on the river banks and kids board selling ice-creams, tamales and fried fish. We spend our evenings watching brilliant sunsets that burn the entire horizon red and orange, and later, gazing at the stars on top of the ship. The Milky Way looks close enough to run my fingers through.

Photos: Alan Chant // // @bonchant

Travel: The Rasta House, Salento, Colombia


Banging on the window to get the attention of the driver, we drag our backpacks off the bus onto a bridge four miles downhill from Salento, a small cowboy town in the Colombian department of Quindio. We’re at ‘Camping Monteroca’, a campground offering ‘exotic lodgings’ in a nature reserve on the Río Quindío in La Zona Cafeteria; the coffee region.

“Do you have any tents available?” we ask in basic Spanish of a curt Colombian gent who greets us at the entrance. “Hrrmph” he grunts with effort. Then finally, “Si”. While he goes off to find the owner, my boyfriend and I exchange a look. We thought this place seemed a bit more groovy from the website. After half a year backpacking in Central and South America, staying in hostels where guests are herded in and out like cattle, we were looking for a truly unique experience.

“Hey guys, welcome to my place! You’re gonna love it.” Ah. This is more like it. Al Pacino in camos bounds up to shake our hands and slap us on the back. This is the owner Jorge. And Camping Monteroca is his baby.

One of Jorge’s staff shows us to our lodgings and leaves us to settle in. We’re in ‘American Camping’, a roomy Cherokee Indian-themed tent with built-in toilet, double waterbed, kitchen and a fridge painted with a mural of the plains of North America. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling and the walls are adorned with animal skins, warrior masks and Native American paintings. Not a detail has been spared.


“Hey guys, you like my place?” Jorge is suddenly at the door of our tent. “What you wanna do? You wanna smoke a little?” This is more hospitality than we’ve come to expect from a proprietor. Jorge lights a pre-rolled joint from his top pocket, stands tall on his heels and claps his hands, animated suddenly. “I’m gonna show you around.”

For the next half hour we stomp across Jorge’s acre or so, passing lodgings under wax palms and lime trees, up steep ravines and over a waterfall. Jorge stops now and again to admire a flower, tease his giant Mastiff puppy Fiona, or rub a fistful of fire ants on my boyfriend’s hand (“good for the vitiligo”). There is room for 200 campers here; perhaps optimistic, but with real promise to be the next new discovery in a newly-safe country now realising its potential as a backpacker haven.

There are 12 themed lodges, from ‘Safari’, to the 70’s psychedelic vibes of the ‘Hippie Hilton’. A couple of the tents give the feeling they’ve been built with your better drug-taking experience in mind. “You take some LSD in here and things go CRAZY”, he tells us as he turns on the blacklight in the brain-themed Synapsis tent.

Pulling back vines on the side of a hill, he leads us through to a jewel in his crown; ‘Polar Expedition’. Hidden from view by wild plants is a treehouse adorned with stag heads and thick anchor chains, dressed up like an Arctic explorer’s lodge. On one wall is an enormous polar bear skin, killed in Alaska in 1950. The hunter’s son donated it to Jorge, not knowing what else to do with it.


Creating an authentic experience for his guests is everything to Jorge. He’s spent the last 15 years building and growing, adding piece by piece the small details that create the magic. “Oops, missed one”, he says, yanking off the only claw left on the bear. “Don’t want people hurting themselves.” He’s not hung up on the relics in his lodgings getting nicked. He just wants people to love them as much as he does.

The next morning Jorge is back at our tent. “Come on guys, I gotta show you something GREAT!” Today he’s less Al Pacino, more Willy Wonka, the military cap and hippie shades replaced with a wide-brimmed straw sun hat and loose shirt, yesterday’s peppy zing replaced by a cool repose. We follow him into his den, find a perch on a couple of antique chairs and he opens a giant jar of jelly sweets, dropping handfuls into our laps. A DVD of ‘Vangelis’ ‘Music for the NASA Mission: 2001 Mars Odyssey’ is on at full volume and he’s enraptured. The music fades out and he inhales deeply and shakes himself out of his trance. “WOOO! Can you believe that? WOW.”

And then quite suddenly, there’s one more thing we have to see. His magnum opus, just finished. Overlooking the rest of his lodges up the steepest hill is ‘The Rasta House’. A cabin decorated from floor to ceiling with Bob Marley memorabilia, Marley family tree, hanging double bed and an enormous mahogany marijuana leaf mounted above it. And the fridge mural? Bob Marley smoking in the moonlight of course.

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Photos: Alan Chant // // @bonchant