Part 2c                                                                                                                                                                Posted 25th August 2013

Scotland - Argentina, 1978 continued

Bogotá began as a robbers' encampment. It believes in tradition. `To get through Colombia without losing anything, you must become paranoid about your money and your luggage,' we had been told in Costa Rica by a serious Norwegian girl with a Belfast accent. Yet for us Bogotá turned out to be one of the friendliest places we had visited. It is true that the friendliness had something heavy-lidded about it, a sort of take-a-drink-or­I'll-break-your-arm quality, which reminded Gerry of Glasgow.

We met it on the plane. Across the aisle from three of us there was a Bogotano family — mother, son and daughter. They adopted us for the flight. The son told me his house was my house. The daughter asked if I was married. The mother shared with us a bottle of Napoleon brandy. She didn't drink, the son told us — only when she was flying, because she was terrified. We finished the brandy, the mother was drunk enough to open a door and go for a walk, they were all insisting that the three of us visit them. The worrying clauses were that we had to go before checking in to a hotel, so that we would have all our luggage, and that the three other members of the party couldn't come. Was the guest-limit arrived at in relation to the number of places at the table or the number of sons waiting in ambush? Reluctantly, we went to a hotel.

Subsequent evidence suggested it was perhaps not a bad decision. In the hotel we met a young, powerful Australian of 6 ft. 2 in. who told us that on the street he had noticed a small man who walked past him and then kept looking back. Suddenly, the man turned and ran full tilt, hitting the big man in the chest. While the Australian fought him off, hanging grimly on to his travelling bag, another small man came up behind and took his wallet. Then both ran off. We met a 68-year-old New York florist who had prevented his wife's bag being snatched by beating off the thief with a 7-Up bottle. 'I justhappened to have it with me. I didn't come outta the Bronx to find out how to get mugged here.'

Our only crisis came dressed as camaraderie. On our first night in Bogotá, Charlie, Gerry and I found a kind of nightclub. We saw people knocking at a door and being admitted. We thought we might as well do the same. A huge, uniformed commissionaire let us in and locked the door behind us, We came down a long staircase into a wide bar. In an adjoining room, through an archway, there was a disco.

As we sat at a table drinking beer, which was all we could afford, we achieved the conspicuousness of the strange. We were fair-skinned and sunburnt and dressed in our own peculiar motley, which included tartan scarves for Charlie and Gerry and a tartan bunnet for me. We must have seemed like a gipsy encampment in the corner of the room. Men and women came out of the disco to stare at us and talk among themselves. A small, powerful man seemed to appoint himself spokesman for the natives. He came across and sat beside me.

`American?' he said. When I put him right, he became almost rapturous. He sighed, he shook his head, he spread his arms wide. `Scotteesh,' he said. He savoured the joyousness of the word. 'We lov the Scotteesh.' I assumed he meant the people, not the dance. `Geerls?' he said. 'You want geerls?' He raised his hand and snapped his fingers. The fat man who seemed to be the proprietor conferred with him briefly and three women appeared, two of them sitting beside Gerry and Charlie and the third sitting on the other side of me from the small man. He became Benjameen and I became Weelyam. He gave me his card. `Weelyam,' he said. 'Tomorrow you come to my office. I show you emeralds.'

He held up a clenched fist to demonstrate the size of the emeralds he would show me. I began to wonder about Benjameen. He was talking to three people who looked as if they had fallen off the back of a dustbin-lorry and he appeared to be trying to clinch a deal in emeralds. Things became worse.

'Aguardiente,' he said. 'You have tasted Aguardiente?' My vestigial Spanish suggested to me 'water' and 'ardent' and I conflated them to 'fire­water'. I shook my head. Benjameen was already snapping his fingers again. He and the fat proprietor spoke and a large bottle and small glasses arrived at our table. Benjameen broke the seal on the bottle but didn't take the cork off. He placed the bottle in the middle of the table. Gerry reached towards the bottle.

'Gerry,' I said with a certain muted urgency. 'Don't take the cork off the bottle.'


'Because if you do, it's your bottle and we can't pay for it.'

Gerry nodded. A chilly silence descended on our table. The women were sitting very still. Benjameen read each of our faces carefully.

'Problem, Weelyam?' he said.

I asked him how much the bottle cost. It cost more than we had among us. I explained that we couldn't pay for it.

'I ask you to pay?'

'No, but . .'

'You like to insult me?'

Oh, no, Benjameen. You're a lovely wee man, right enough. But this is all going funny. I'm not sure of the macho faces staring at us round the room, often mustachioed, and wearing ambiguous smiles that suggest the milk of human kindness could go sour any moment now. Especially, I don't like the long staircase and the locked door and the big man in front of it. And I don't like Charlie's hissed suggestion: 'Wullie, do ye want tae make a run for it?' Let's talk.

I talked to Benjameen. I told him of the unbreachable Scottish tradition, which I was myself interested to hear about, that it was shameful to take a drink from a man if you couldn't buy him one back. I told him that we had just arrived in Bogotá and had been too late to cash any travellers' cheques, which we had left at the hotel. I said that we would cash some cheques next day and come back here and we would all swim in Aguardiente. I spoke for several minutes.

When I stopped, Benjameen was staring at me. His stare went on for a while. Suddenly, he leaned across and embraced me.
'I like you, Weelyam,' he said. 'Tomorrow we come here. Enjoy. Then I take you to my office. Emeralds.'

I was glad Benjameen liked me. We contrived to leave soon, amid elaborate promises about the morrow. On the street, Gerry seemed to be taking them seriously. Charlie and I felt we should only keep our promises if we could get the SAS to accompany us.

The rest of our time in Bogotá gave us no hassle. But the city took a delayed-action revenge. Just inside Ecuador, Gerry found that the second last traveller's cheque in his wad was missing. It was worth $100 dollars. His reaction was linguistically baroque. Freely translated into the language of the television screen of the Giants' Stadium in New Jersey, Gerry said, 'Ouch. Good grief. This is a no-no.'

His anger was understandable. He, Charlie Gibbons and Alister Steele worked from last October to gather the money for Argentina. Having amassed £800 each, they translated it into exactly $1,480.42 before leaving London. All have given up their Jobs, although Charlie and Gerry have promises of re-employment. Alister accepts that he will have to find something else when he goes back.

Alister has emerged as the Gulbenkian of the group, with more than $700 left. He has the capacity to travel vast distances as if through a tunnel, uninfluenced by anything but his determination to arrive. Charlie and Gerry are more seduceable. Their sense of purpose is so lightly built, it could trip over a daisy. It is a source of wonder even to themselves that they still have $650 left. In their worst moments they have imagined watching the World Cup on television in La Paz. In their best moments, which are at least 23 hours of every day, they have always known they will get there.

Both feelings had their turn in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. It is a beautiful city where the buildings grow up the sides of mountains. Gerry's cheque was refunded and he and Charlie, after winning modestly the first night at the casino, lost heavily the second. That second night was like a barometer for the rest of the journey.

We fled the scene by bus, travelling 13 hours to Huaquillas. Standing a hundred yards from the Peruvian border, we found that Charlie's hand-luggage had been stolen, containing wallet, passport, medical certificates and air-ticket from Argentina back to London.

He, Gerry and I returned to the British Embassy. The misery of having to do the same boring overnight journey three times was mitigated by the speed with which the Embassy in Quito dealt with Charlie's problem and by the marvellous hospitality of George Rae, Assistant to the Defence Minister, and his wife Margaret. We were given the meal of our dreams. Fish-and­chips starvation had set in as early as San Salvador, where we had talked for a long time about places in Scotland to get a good fish-supper. This had been the first injection of the real thing since we set out.

We came back to Huaquillas without rancour. Anyone who has seen Huaquillas would find it hard to blame someone for stealing there. It is poverty made into a town, a penal settlement without barbed wire. Ramshackle houses float on a sea of dust where dead dogs lie at the side of the road and pigs snuffle, eating anything that doesn't move. In the café we went to, they take your order, then go out and buy it and cook it on the premises.

We crossed the border into Peru, went to Tumbes and caught a bus for Lima. It was supposed to be an 18-hour journey. It was dark when we left and the night was the pleasant part.

Daylight showed us the coastal desert with the cousins of Huaquillas along the way. In one of them, Huarmey, the bus was stopped. The road was blocked by a barricade of rubble. Many people stood around, staring at us. The driver tried to take a detour and the bus was stoned. We turned back from Huarmey and drove some distance along the road to Tumbes.

The people were protesting against a 60 per cent rise in fares brought about by the increased price of petrol. We were on their side. After a long delay, during which we managed to beat a team of Peruvians 3-1 (may it prove an omen), a truckload of soldiers with tear-gas guns arrived and we followed them back to Huarmey.

It wasn't a pleasant experience. All the men were taken out of the buses to clear the road while the people of the town lined up silently on either side to watch. Unnecessarily, it seemed to us, a soldier fired a tear-gas canister into a section of the crowd. I never want to be on the safe side of one of those things again.

The road was cleared. After a brief, half-hearted ambush by some children, we drove on to Lima. There, I think, the haunting sense of how irrelevant we were to the places we passed through finally expressed itself, like rejection symptoms. We went into a downer.

Mine took a physical form. Lima being in a state of crisis, I followed suit. I spent our two days there in extreme and inexplicable pain. I have experienced migraine for most of my life. This was just as sore and it was continuous. The pain was somewhere inside and, I thought, towards my back. Gerry, presumably using the bus-driver's handbook of medical studies, diagnosed a pulled muscle as a result of our heroic victory against the Peruvian team. I lay face down on my bed and he gave my back a pummelling, of which I thought I might very soon die. Gerry called it `massage'. If Gerry is a masseur, Jack the Ripper was a surgeon. He became so involved in what he was doing that I could only bring my agony to an end by saying that, if he didn't stop, I would have to kill him.

I summoned professional help. A suave doctor visited me in my hotel room, gave me a cursory examination and suggested strained muscles. I wondered if he drove buses between patients. He gave me two pain-killers, one which he administered and one which a nurse would give later, and a bill for $40.

I put the nurse's visit off twice, hoping to keep the second injection until the pain became unbearable. When I finally sent for her, her professional pride was deeply hurt at being kept waiting. She was roughly the size of two Valkyries. When I asked her where the injection would take place, she slammed her buttocks angrily. I prepared. The needle went in like a bayonet and then she proceeded to knead the wounded part like a recalcitrant doughball for what felt like three days. Finished, she asked briskly when I wanted the next injection. I said I was going away, very far away.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Gerry had been arrested. Having gone to a basement nightclub and bought drinks for several ladies who had graced their table, they discovered that the woman who ran the place was loading the table with empty bottles from mysterious sources. Since the bill was arrived at by the simple device of a bottle-count, they knew they were being conned. They calculated how much they owed and offered to pay. The owner claimed the bill was three times their offer. Some unseemly scuffling ensued. With the aid of an empty beer bottle in either hand, Gerry and Charlie won their way to the stairs up to the street, only to be met by the police coming down.

The arresting officer was a jovial man. During that night in Jail, he suggested to Charlie that in Lima castration was the punishment for non­payment of bills. Everybody joined in the joke. What wasn't so funny was the way the jailers treated a homosexual who had been arrested. Apparently, they made him sweep the floor and tidy up, encouraging him with slaps and kicks. It was typical of Charlie and Gerry that they should emerge from a bad experience not dismayed but excited, having become overnight students of the Peruvian penal system. Late in the morning, the owner of the nightclub appeared and settled for the amount the prisoners had originally suggested.

But the delay had cost us the bus to Arequipa. It didn't look as if there would be another. A general strike was looming in Peru. In the travel agency in the basement of the Lima Sheraton, a very efficient lady told us, `Arequipa's burning!' She warned us that if we wanted out, we had tonight and possibly tomorrow morning. After carefully checking the possibilities of internal flights and charter planes, she advised us to take a Lufthansa flight that evening to La Paz, the Bolivian capital. We did.

In La Paz another doctor told me I had tonsillitis and gave me further medication. But the condition showed little sign of improving until an English doctor and his wife checked into our hotel. Professor A. Guz of Charing Cross Hospital — may he live forever — put his hands on my ribs, asked me to breathe deeply and said, `Hm. Pneumonia. Right lung.' He gave me a week's supply of antibiotics and painkillers and said I was okay to travel on. National Health Service, 'tis of thee I sing.

La Paz was our last stop before Argentina. It is the highest capital in the world and it looks like it. Every other street has ambitions to be a mountain. The hardness of the life is indicated by the fact that even breathing doesn't come easy. With my pulmonary problem, I spent much of the time chasing individual breaths like butterflies.

The Victorian train taking us towards Córdoba travelled for 48 hours through beautiful country, across the Bolivian Altiplano. We did a lot of retrospective thinking. If we have passed this test of Scottish fanhood, it's because we reached Argentina with our passion for football tempered by what we have seen. We will perhaps be better supporters because the distance we have come has put the game into proper perspective. Maybe every fan should make this kind of journey.

I've often thought of football supporting as a form of working-class tourism. In our own case, some of us aren't sure whether the journey was to see the football or the football was just a pretext for the journey.

We have so many negatives of experience still to be developed. Uncertainty is mainly what we feel, even about how much football matters. At the moment only one thing is sure.

We came to Córdoba.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


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