MISS-ADVENTURES

Copyright © Amy Baker, 2017

Cover illustrations © VectorShow, Pedro Vilas Boas, Jellicle, panki, RedKoala, Dolka / Shutterstock

All rights reserved.

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Amy Baker has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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CONTENTS


SOME UNWANTED ADVICE

ARGENTINA
Risking My Life in Pursuit of Pesos
Getting My Eye In

BOLIVIA
Accepting Defeat in the Amazon Rainforest
An Encounter with the World's Most Handsome Man
The Worst Three Days of My Life

PERU
The Reason I Had to Flee Peru

ECUADOR
Two Utter Weirdos

COLOMBIA
The Night of The Supersonic Weed Brownies
An Unfortunate Run-in with Colombian Drug Barons
How Not to Behave Around Men
Life Above the Clouds

EPILOGUE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

PHOTOS





LIFE IS A SUCCESSION OF
LESSONS WHICH MUST BE
LIVED TO BE UNDERSTOOD.

Helen Keller




'To Mum, Dad, and the Beauts'


SOME UNWANTED ADVICE


'So Amy, I hear you're off travelling again?' my mum's friend Sally asked, pulling up a bar stool to join my table, her forehead creased with worry. 'Hello Sally,' I said. 'Yep – you heard right. I'm off to South America on Thursday. I can't wait!'
  I was back in Sussex getting in some quality time with my parents before I jetted off. They were currently at the bar of their trusty local pub getting in another bottle of red. Up until Sally made her approach, I'd been sitting in front of the open fire, feet up, pleasantly engrossed in googling where to meet Argentina's most eligible bachelors.
  'And do you suppose you'll meet many people of your own age over there?'
  'I expect so. Thirty isn't old. Loads of people travel in their thirties.'
  As a lifelong friend of my parents who's watched me grow up, it was no surprise to me that Sally was eager to chat through my plans. 'Do they really? I would have thought a job and a family would be taking priority.'
  Not this again. I channelled a frustrated sigh through flared nostrils.
  'Maybe for some.'
  Sally took a sip of her wine, and looked me in the eye. After a moment, she started nodding slowly. 'I see. I see. Just getting it out of your system, is that it? Before you can settle down?'
  I don't know whether it was the heat from the open fire, or the fact that this was around the fifteenth time I'd been asked this question, but I could feel my face getting redder. I bit my lip.
  'Hmm… not really, I'm not entirely sure I'll ever manage that, Sally.' I finished off the remains of my glass in one big gulp.
  'But being forced to go alone—'
  Here we go…
  'I'm not being forced to do anything Sally, I want to go alone! It's half the point.'
  'Huh! Is that so?' Sally looked genuinely perplexed.
  'Yeah – I get to completely please myself. It's going to be great. Plus, I'm good at making friends, and a couple of my mates from home will be there when I first arrive, so please don't worry, I'm not worried in the slightest.'
  'Well, even so, please remember, Amy, there are a lot of dangerous people in this world. Be careful, won't you.' She reached forwards to squeeze my hand.
  'Of course I will.'
  Sally smiled sadly, picked up her glass of red wine, and stood up to leave. 'Oh, and just one last thing, dear, do try not to get raped.'

Sally's bombshell wasn't the first piece of blatantly obvious, completely unnecessary advice I received in the run-up to my departure. From the minute I handed in my notice and started to tell people about my plans to travel solo round South America for as long as my money lasted, the 'guidance' came in thick and fast, from all angles:

'Did you get my email? No? Well, I sent you one of those YouTube videos of a daylight shooting in São Paulo… I don't want to scare you, darling, I just want you to be prepared for all eventualities.'
Concerned relative

'Amy, could you please put together some thoughts on that article and circulate for me. Oh and while I've got you, did you hear that women get kidnapped in Colombia almost every month? Rumour has it they cut their tits off! By Monday, please!'
Alarmed colleague

'You mustn't let your guard down for even a moment. I've heard that the most dangerous people target women's toilets over there. I can't say I'm surprised. It's when you're at your most vulnerable, isn't it?'
Overly familiar barista

Almost everyone I knew, and everyone I met, seemed to believe I was unlikely to return. In their eyes, I was embarking on a voyage to certain death on a continent populated solely by machine-gunwielding, coked-up drug barons, sex traffickers, hungry deadly animals and plain-clothed cannibals. Everyone, it seemed, bar me, was terrified.
  Some of the advice I noted down, for amusement in moments of boredom. The rest I dismissed with little more than a smirk and an 'Okay Mary, sure, I promise I'll always go for the testes.' I'd travelled before. I knew the deal. I didn't need a guidebook or advice on how to survive. I had this.
  My aim was simple – enjoy some time out, go with the flow, visit cool places, meet great people, and hopefully figure some 'stuff' out somewhere between Argentina and Colombia. I didn't see much point in pondering what that 'stuff' might be at this stage; I just knew to expect it.
  To my surprise, I found myself mulling over the madcap advice I'd been bombarded with as I was preparing to down tools and shimmy my way to Heathrow Airport. Advice I had at first dismissed as pure nonsense, issued by those who'd never travelled further than Calais, began popping back into my head – perhaps I'd been foolish to smile and nod blankly instead of listening? Maybe I should be questioning my own judgement if these people were so convinced I needed their advice? Would I gain more from my time away (and avoid mistakes) if I listened rather than shrugging off their suggestions and hoping for the best? And if it would pay to listen to Penny down the chemist and Mikey in the post room, might it also be wise to seek life advice from those who've actually achieved significant success? You know, legendary writers, respected feminists, people who refused to die despite climbing all the world's mountains, and other such overachievers?
  Nah. I decided to wing it.

The fact was that I was sick and tired of advice… I'm a woman, which means I've spent 30-odd years trying to filter the advice zooming at my head from every mouth within a five-metre radius. Before I became this person who no longer cared for listening, I'd reached the end of a very frayed tether and was delighted to tumble into an abyss of finally not caring what other people thought. I'd had it with other people's musings, thoughts, fears and ambitions being recited to me over and over, making me believe that they should also be my musings, thoughts, fears and ambitions. My sound-cancelling copper helmet was firmly in place and I was ready to army-crawl away from anyone who even attempted to lob an opinion in my direction…
  I'm being unfair. There was of course a short period at primary school when I didn't feel bombarded. When I knew what it was to feel happy, content and like I knew it all. But that was back when I couldn't fully understand words or walk for more than half an hour without needing a glass of squash and a nap. Back then I dressed as Spiderman, longed to be a lollipop lady, and believed that being able to lip-sync the Grease mega-mix perfectly would make me a superstar. Everything was so simple back when I didn't give a monkey's about anyone's opinion aside from that of Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
  Then of course I hit secondary school, I grew up a bit and started being told about all the things I needed to do, and have, in order to be happy. And then, inevitably, I started to want the things, because people in my class had them, and I didn't want to be the uncool loser that had to go without. Yeah, I wanted the latest trainers, a colourful new fascia for my phone every week and a boyfriend with Mark Owen's face and haircut, but even then, I was torn between wanting all of it, and suspecting getting it might not be the big deal everyone was making it out to be.
  Throughout school and college, I was repeatedly told not to bother with sport, drama and art because I was 'fortunate' to be one of the 'academic ones', to choose a 'sensible career' and, to do that, I'd best 'forget about those wishy-washy subjects once and for all'. It was a shame, because I quite fancied the look of Film Studies, but if it clashed with Modern History, and if this fully-grown adult with a sensible cardigan and a name plaque on his door was telling me I should pursue academia, then I guessed that's what I should do. I chose to study Law and Criminology at university because I thought it would lead to everything I 'needed' – power, money and status. All I actually got was a degree that I don't remember a single word of, student debt and a lot of excess stomach fat.
  I don't remember at exactly what age I first started being told that finding a boyfriend was vital to my happiness. It's just always been the case. I'm pretty sure the concept was introduced to me via, oh, I don't know, every fairy tale ever, but that certainly wasn't the only medium telling me to aim for a relationship above everything else. For as long as I can remember I've been told that everything would be okay once I found the right man, that 'what you need is a rich husband', that 'you'll calm down eventually – once you find The One', and that 'what you need is a good man to keep you in line'. So I looked, which was fine, because a lot of them looked great. Sadly, what I found were the possessive, the offensively boring, the ones with girlfriends, and a whole bunch of handsome dickheads who didn't want to act like they knew me. Rather than dwelling on these failures, I always brushed them off pretty sharpish. I didn't want to award any man sole responsibility for putting a smile on my face. I wanted to learn to be happy on my own. Don't get me wrong, I did think it would be nice to find a smiley, kind, honest man eventually who'd make it his business to memorise all my favourite cheeses, to know when I needed wine or how to cheer me up in any given scenario, but I wasn't going to waste time on men that weren't right, just so I could feel I was putting in due diligence to 'the hunt'. I'm not denying marriage looks great – the idea of a pricey frock and a five-tiered cake I could cut with a sword does appeal – but it's certainly never felt like the be-all and end-all.
  As my mates and I settled into working life post university, I started to feel pressure to be 'successful' and became acutely aware that I 'needed' all the things. Everything you read, watch and hear is telling you that in order to be truly, truly happy, you need a glamorous, high-powered career, a gorgeous husband, suitcases full of cash and a property decorated with tasteful modern art, freshly cut flowers and off-white furniture. And even though I believed it was possible to be happy without them, or with different things entirely, when the world you're still figuring out is telling you it repeatedly, that's what you decide to go in search of…
  I was told I'd be happy once I settled into a career. One problem – I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. I decided to try Event Management as my first job out of university based on the fact that the pretty girl from school with the long eyelashes told me, 'it's basically the coolest job you can get', plus it sounded like it might involve free stuff. But that didn't hold my interest so my mid-twenties saw me making a lot of coffee, working in a sweet shop, suffering through a stint as a showbiz journalist, letting someone take photos of my legs in a basement for £50… you know, the usual. I eventually set my heart on writing, and after three years of shitty internships and badly paid work, I found a job on an editorial team. This was it! I'd made it – I was working hard, and taking home a regular salary. I could afford new socks, soup, and the cost of public transport. Good for me! I was writing and editing a publication… and yet, I felt absolutely no sense of satisfaction. When I expressed my irritation, I was told, 'it doesn't matter if you hate every minute of it as long as you're earning money', 'you're not supposed to like it', and, 'get used to it, it's just the way it is'.
  But I didn't get used to it. It bothered me that I didn't feel excited or passionate about what I was doing. Were any of the people around me excited and passionate, or was that not actually how things worked? I really wanted it to be the way things worked, man. I wanted to have a job that I was eager to get to every day. Where I left each evening with a sense of satisfaction that I'd been tested, I'd learnt things and I'd produced work that I was proud of. Maybe to find that I just needed to progress that little bit further to win the promotion to Deputy Editor I'd been working towards – maybe then the clouds would part, I'd start caring about my job, and I'd finally stroll through the elaborate gilded gates of Content Town. I would have arrived. There would be a fireworks display and everything!
  That didn't happen though, because despite working as acting Deputy Editor for six months, doing it well, getting results and jumping through each and every hoop my employers had outlined for me, I was told 'I wasn't ready', that 'I had a long way to go yet', and that 'I would just have to be patient'. Rather than giving me the promotion I'd done the work – and actually begged – for, they asked me to sign a new contract that featured zero perks other than a three-month notice period, which they said 'demonstrated their commitment to me as an employee'. It was right about then that I thought 'Fuck this.'
  The fact was, I wasn't happy doing what I was doing in London. I didn't feel like the life that I was living was enough, and I knew that a relationship or a job weren't going to suddenly make me feel different. I'd been trying my best to follow people's advice, and it hadn't got me anywhere in terms of finding happiness. The contradiction between what I was constantly being told I should have and want (a home, a husband, an HR Manager) and what I actually wanted (to just feel satisfied) left me feeling confused, alienated and completely inadequate. I needed to do something. I needed to shake things up, so I made a decision – to travel on my own around South America. While I was fortunate enough to have the freedom, and the opportunity to do it, I was going to go somewhere I'd always fancied to see if I could gain a bit of insight into and understanding of myself, without outward influence. If I could firmly establish my own attitudes towards life, and make sense of things, perhaps I'd get the sense of direction I'd spent so long scrabbling about for. I didn't know what I wanted, but I knew that I wasn't going to find it in an office block in Hammersmith, in front of a computer that I wanted to smash into smithereens with a sledgehammer. That evening I wrote my resignation letter (and then danced around my lounge for a bit).
  Of course, I was told I'd be better off staying… Just a couple of hours after handing my manager the letter I was summoned to a meeting room. I sat there clutching my sweaty hands in my lap, consciously avoiding the eyes of those in the accounts department I could see through the glass door shooting me curious glances. The meeting room was so tiny you could barely move for the chairs around the table, and the radiator was aggressively pumping out hot air, steaming up the windows. The resulting claustrophobia was doing a real number on my nerves.
  I was dreading this impending discussion with the company founder, John. He's an intimidating man, in both stature and demeanour, even when you're in his good books. The kind of boss who always knows exactly what you're doing, even when you haven't spoken in days. I liked and respected John, but I also feared him a bit – he was very adept at bringing you around to his way of thinking while making you believe it had been your decision. I couldn't let that happen this time – my mind was made up. I had to stay strong.
  After ten or so hot and bothered minutes, the door burst open and John's 6 ft 5 frame filled the door.
  'Morning, Amy.'
  'Oh hi, John!' I squawked.
  He pulled out the chair opposite me, took a seat and silently surveyed my flushed face for a couple of seconds. I grimaced back at him, raised my eyebrows and pulled on my earlobes just for something to do with my hands.
  He let out a big sigh, put on his half-moon glasses and slowly opened his black leather folder. From it he pulled my resignation letter and the contract he'd wanted me to sign, placing them side-by-side on the table before shooting me a stern look, clearly conveying his irritation that I was wasting his time like this.
  'John, I just want to sa—'
  He held up his hand to stop me, lifted the resignation letter and started to read it under his breath.
  'Now let me get this straight,' he finally said, after what felt like six months of silence, 'you're going to leave this job to go to South America to try to be a travel writer?'
  'To travel and write, yes.'
  Another full-body sigh. John removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
  'Amy, you do realise that trying to be a writer is like trying to be a rock star?'
  'Well, I don't think that's strictly true,' I protested.
  'This is utterly absurd! You have to know this is not a sensible move for you!'
  I shuffled around in my seat, finally opting to sit on my hands in a bid to cease fidgeting. Come on, Amy, don't let him get in your head.
  'Maybe not, John, but it's what I want to do, and I think it's right for me right now.'
  'You do know there's no money in travel writing?'
  I shook my head. 'It's not the money that matters to me.'
  'Even still, I saw Simon Calder, the Travel Editor from The Independent, buying his coffee in Pret the other day – PRET! Hardly the glamourous life you're imagining, is it? You need to be realistic.'
  'I like Pret coffee,' I shrugged, 'I'd gladly buy all my coffee in there if it meant I could travel to all the places Simon Calder has.'
  'Even still, this is a foolish, hasty decision. Chances are you won't be able to find a job when you come back, have you even thought about that?'
  I hadn't.
  'I've worked in this business a long time, Amy, and I know that you'll come to regret this, mark my words.'
  I knew in that moment that I couldn't carry on listening to these kinds of reasons for not doing what I wanted. If I did, I'd never do anything. I finally looked up and met his eye.
  'I'm going to do it anyway.'
  And I did.


ARGENTINA
WHERE I LEARNT…



  • That repeatedly answering 'sí' to every question your taxi driver asks is not how you reach your intended destination.

  • That it is possible to eat three steaks in one day.

  • That spider bites are a real and inconvenient outcome of being barefoot in tropical locations.

  • That interrupting an Argentinian man during a football match is akin to spitting on his firstborn.

  • That Argentinians still like Jamiroquai… a lot.



RISKING MY LIFE IN PURSUIT OF PESOS


FRIENDLY ADVICE:
'Over here you know who looks dangerous. Over there, you're going to have to relearn who's safe and who might slit your throat… and quickly!'
Martin, IT department

EXPERT ADVICE:
'The best decisions aren't made with your mind, but with your instincts.'
Lionel Messi
(He's Argentinian. He knows how things work out there.)

I touched down in Buenos Aires on a sunny afternoon, excited and ready for adventure, but badly in need of cash. I'd done enough reading to know that tourists are advised to arrive in Argentina with US dollars, so that's what I'd done. However, as currency strategy isn't nearly as exciting as reading up on where to find the city's best red wine, that was as far as my research into currency exchange went. I figured I'd work out the rest when the time was right.
  That moment came just a short while later while enjoying my inaugural beer in South America. I was with Leggers, a dear friend hailing from Virginia, USA that I'd been friends with for five glorious years. Leggers now lived in London and had generously given up ten of her precious holiday days to chaperone me through this initial period where she'd guessed (somewhat accurately) I might do brainless things like walk into the path of oncoming traffic, smile at men who carry flick knives and try to hug street puppies. There are only a handful of people in life whose word I unquestioningly (and unstroppily) take as gospel, and Leggers is one of those people. We were just clinking our bottles together and taking in the view of the sun-kissed rooftops of Buenos Aires from our hostel roof terrace when some posh British twit named Charlie plopped himself down next to us, completely uninvited, and dropped the unsettling bombshell about how backpackers go about getting their hands on pesos in Argentina.
  'So, you ladies came armed with dollars, right?' Charlie flicked his sandy hair out of his eyes, and took a noisy slug on his beer.
  'We did.'
  'And you know how things work? Or were you hoping you'd meet someone like me who'd be able to bring you up to speed?'
  I shrugged. 'We just figured we'd ask at reception.'
  'No need, no need. I've got you ladies. Here's how it goes down in BA, Argentina…'
  Sigh.
  Leggers and I sat and listened as Charlie explained that the days of turning to a cash machine, or the humble bureau de change, are long gone. They are of course both still viable options, as are the usual currency desks found at airports, but if you want to get the most amount of pesos for your US dollars, you need to slap on your game face, and steel yourself for a visit to The Blue Market – Argentina's illegal currency marketplace.
  The system sprang up a few years ago, when in a bid to reduce inflation and instil confidence in the national currency (the peso) the Argentinian government decided to impose strict restrictions banning Argentinians (and anyone else) from buying US dollars. However Argentinians rely heavily on dollars, and are therefore prepared to do whatever it takes to get their hands on them, so the restrictions actually ended up creating The Blue Market instead.
  What this means in practice is that if you're brave enough to carry lots of US dollars, and to engage with a number of choice characters, you can acquire a far higher number of pesos for your dollars than you would at your bog-standard cash machine. See it as an initiation to prove you have the balls to be in town.
  At first I thought Charlie must have been having a laugh. That he was playing a game with the two women perched awkwardly on stools before him who had so obviously just arrived. We didn't yet resemble the slightly grubby backpackers that surrounded us on the balcony: our fingernails were clean, our hair was brushed and we both wore unstained clothing – we stood out like a pair of goths at a One Direction concert. I didn't believe (or like) him. How could it be that taking huge wads of US dollars and visiting a dangerous part of town was the way things actually operated? This was a developed country, for Christ's sake. If it weren't for all the people speaking Spanish, I could very well be in Paris!
  'I see what you're saying, Charlie… but is it really worth the hassle? Surely some people choose to just get their money by more traditional means.' I spoke in a tone that implied I didn't care one bit. Annoyingly, the panic rash creeping its way up my neck made it glaringly obvious that my cool demeanour was nothing more than above-average amateur dramatics.
  'Well yeah… sure you can,' guffawed this 'seasoned' traveller, who appeared to have given up shoes (and knowing that guffawing makes people hate you), 'but you'll get half the amount you would if you went to Florida Street. Plus, it's an experience dudes… a story… and it's all about the stories.'
  Leggers and I looked at each other in horror, both at being called 'dude' by this teenager, and by the fact it appeared we were required to actively go in search of potentially intimidating people to conduct financial deals with. It wouldn't be much of a story to recall if we were DEAD!
  'Righty-ho then,' I said, for perhaps the first time in my life. 'Looks like we'll be taking a trip to Florida Street.'
  Our fake nonchalance was fooling no one, but there was zero chance we were going to let this floppy-haired twerp from Windsor intimidate us. I knew there'd be times I'd be tested on this trip, I just hadn't expected the first challenge to come so soon… before I'd even had the chance to get naively sunburnt.
  We could have held our hands up, admitted weakling status and gone to the cash point, but I needed to be realistic. Because of how hastily I'd decided to leave London, I hadn't had much chance to save for the trip. This meant I had a wholly unsatisfactory amount of cash, which I needed to make last as long as possible. Now that I'd discovered a way to stretch that measly stockpile a little further, it was just too good an opportunity to miss. Yes, the way we would have to go about it filled me with dread, but putting our lives in jeopardy seemed as good a way as any to get the ol' adventures rolling. After all, I'd come away to challenge myself, and to gain life experience – if this was the way people acquired cash in Argentina, it was the way that I should probably acquire cash in Argentina. I couldn't shun my first challenge – that would be no way to commence proceedings. Plus, I had Leggers by my side, someone taller than me whose hand I could hold. She was a tough cookie – she'd once lived in New York City! I knew I'd be able to rely on her to remain focused when the pressure of doing sums under the gaze of strangers with blatant disregard for the law became too intense.

The next morning, armed with close to $1,000 in cash and completely insufficient upper body strength, Leggers and I headed down to reception at the hostel to seek some final advice from someone less condescending as to how we should proceed.
  I'd compiled quite the selection of questions overnight:

Would we be able to tell who was trading money?

How would we know who was trying to take us for a ride and who wasn't?

Should we pretend to be Argentinian?

What would happen if we got busted pretending to be Argentinian?

Was there anywhere en route where we could acquire a deadly weapon?

Which deadly weapon would I even be comfortable operating? Taser… definitely taser.

The hostel receptionist barely had to look at us to see that we were nervy about something. Maybe because we stood fidgeting in front of him, scaring that morning's influx of new arrivals with our deathly pale faces and our uncharacteristically high-pitched voices when we enquired as to whether he might have a sec. He instructed us to sit, gave us a solemn look to imply listening was imperative and then began counting off the following points on his cigarette-stained fingers.
  'Okay, first things first ladies, don't accept less than twelve pesos to the dollar. Just don't accept it. Walk away. Find someone else. Next, take big denomination notes and make sure that the traders know that you have them. Everyone here wants the big notes, the fifties, the hundreds, and they'll give you a better rate if you have them. Got it?'
  We nodded.
  This was far from splendid news considering my handbag was stuffed full of the 10s and 20s of a true pauper.
  'This bit is important,' he continued. 'No matter how much they insist, never go anywhere with them. NEVER. Don't believe them if they tell you that they have a shop or an office around the corner. They might be telling the truth; chances are they are not. Do NOT follow them anywhere.'
  Another pause and more meaningful stares at me and Leggers.
  'Lastly, check every. Single. Note. These guys like to try to slip in the odd fake. Take your time. Check them all. Don't let them rush you. Okay?'
  After a few long seconds of us staring at him willing him to offer more information, his silence made it apparent we'd received all the golden nuggets of wisdom we were going to get that morning.
  'Coooooooool,' I said, standing up, clapping my hands a couple of times, rolling my neck and shaking my limbs to show I was 'pumped' about what we were about to do. Inside I felt as though I'd recently swallowed a whole bag of marbles, such was the lump in my throat, and the weight in my stomach.
  'You'll be fine,' he smiled, all sweetness and light now the warnings on how to avoid being lured to certain death were over. He hurriedly ushered us towards the front door of the hostel, clearly keen to remove the two startled lady-babies from the reception area.
  'It's that way,' he pointed out the door, gave us an encouraging shove into the morning sunshine and closed the door firmly on us.
  It was a scorcher of a morning on the streets of Buenos Aires, already 30 degrees despite only being 10 a.m. As we'd arrived relatively late the day before, our wander to Florida Street was our first real exploration of the city. At first glance it didn't appear too dissimilar to most big European cities – there were lots of five- or six-storey off-white concrete buildings with attractive wrought iron balconies at every window, busy roads with three or four lanes of traffic, walls plastered with graffiti or gig and club night posters, steam from coffee machines billowing from the open windows of cafes – its familiarity relaxed me, and despite the task at hand, I was delighted to be here. This time three days ago I'd been fighting a losing battle against torrential downpours and sadistic bus drivers intent on soaking all pedestrians foolish enough to be on foot. Now, I was grinning from ear to ear, holding my arms and face aloft as I walked along like a possessed scarecrow in a bid to best absorb the sun I'd been so excited to see.
  It was only a ten-minute walk from our hostel on Avenida 9 de Julio to Florida Street, and as there were no big sights along the way, I instead took it upon myself to keep our spirits lifted.
  'Florida Street. Flo-ri-da Street,' I sang. 'What a lovely sounding place Leggers, don't you think? A place called Florida Street can't be scary, that would be unfairly misleading.'
  Leggers looked at me, bemused.
  'Sounds almost as friendly as Sesame Street if you ask me!' I chirped, clutching at straws.
  'Yeah, sure mate, and I expect Big Bird's already there, handing out hundred dollar bills and Haribo,' retorted Leggers, justifiably trying to bring me back down to earth.
  Having always been adept at deluding my own brain with idiotic reassurances, I decided to stop bothering Leggers with inane chit-chat about puppets (not for the first time) and instead set to summoning up an image of a Florida Street I could get on board with. In this case, a sunny street where smiling elderly gentlemen in white boater hats beckon you over to reveal treasure chests full of pesos (and rubies). I imagined laughing people do-si-do-ing around, eating blue candyfloss, offering each other encouraging thumbs ups while happily scattering handfuls of cash up into the air. Based entirely on this unfaltering ability to fool myself into thinking everything will be okay, I perked up considerably. What were we even worrying about again? It was sunny, we were in an incredible city – all would be fine. It was time to toughen up, unclench my bum cheeks and finally hug the adorable street puppy that'd been following us for the last couple of blocks. The fear was quick to resurface the minute we turned left into Florida Street and established there were no boater hats in sight. Not one. The street was narrow, pedestrianised and lined with 'shops' called things like 'Jizz' which appeared to sell only plastic handbags, imaginatively displayed undergarments and lighters with tits on them. The glaring sunshine that refused to cut you a break elsewhere in the city was nowhere to be seen. It was shady in every sense of the word. The natty rose-tinted spectacles I'd been sporting mere moments before were gone, and in their place I wore a bright red pair… freshly spilled blood colour, you could say. It seemed in every direction we turned people were lurking ominously in alleyway entrances… or scoping out people to rob newly acquired plastic handbags from.
  Let's get this over with.
  Leggers and I took a team deep breath and set out along that 150-m stretch of terror, taking in the scene before us with wide eyes. Although there was the odd deserted money exchange shop front, it seemed that most of the people there with the intent of trading US dollars for pesos with tourists had no affiliation to anywhere that looked 'legit'. There were fedora-wearing, toothpick-chewing porteños (Buenos Aires locals) faux-nonchalantly leaning loafered feet up against grubby walls, whispering 'cambio, cambio' ('change, change') at passing tourists. There were skinny teenagers sporting high-waisted jeans, slicked back hair, suspicious amounts of gold jewellery and so few teeth they were forced to hiss rather than talk, and suited and booted older gentlemen trying to get your attention through unsettling amounts of winking and waving.
  'Look for ones with kind eyes,' I whispered to Leggers.
  A good idea in theory – far less helpful when you're reluctant to establish eye contact.
  'I think we should go for a woman,' Leggers sensibly proposed.
  With 'Plan A' agreed upon, we proceeded as would any selfrespecting tourist… by stopping dead in our tracks in the middle of the busy pedestrian street, while spinning unpredictably this way and that trying to identify suitable candidates.
  Things did not look good. The only women in sight were the ones lurking closest to the darkest alleyways, with the snarliest faces and broadest shoulders. One was sporting a bum bag so unnecessarily large that the only logical explanation to me at that moment was that it concealed a weapon. (In hindsight, clearly cash.)
  'Scratch that. These women look terrifying. Let's just start asking for rates,' I said, amping up the fake bravado.
  I whirled around and immediately came face to chest with an enormous dude in a red tracksuit and eighties-style headsweatband. I couldn't help myself – I instinctively looked him up and down, and nodded my approval at his old-school fashion statement.
  'Cambio?' I stammered, remembering I was here to get cash, not to dish out compliments.
  He nodded.
  'Twelve… I… I mean… doce?'
  His booming laughter hit me like a shock wave. He shook his colossal head just once and turned away, still laughing.
  'Para grande dollars?' I urged feebly to his back. He ignored me. And to think I'd been compelled to high five his fashion choices. This dude didn't deserve my fashion praise let alone my US dollars!
  We shuffled onwards, sticking close, clutching our handbags like a pair of nervous grannies. Occasionally we'd break away from the hushed reassurances we were offering each other to speak to scary characters but making a decision was proving tough. We seemed to have a problem with just about everyone.

AMY: 'Not him. I don't like the way he's eating that banana.'
LEGGERS: 'She looks all right. Wait… nope… she's got a neck tattoo. Keep walking.'
AMY: 'No way, not her. I can see the tops of her nipples, I won't be able to concentrate.'
LEGGERS: 'Did he just signal something to that parked car? Yep, I'm sure he did. Retreat!'
AMY: 'Do you think he's trying to look like a really mean vampire?'
LEGGERS: 'Oh god, they've all got rat tails! That's it. I'm done! I think we should just go to the cash point.'
AMY: 'A hundred per cent agreed. Let's get two gigantic beers and never speak of this.'

Just as we were about to give up and retire shakily to the nearest place serving alcohol, I spotted something…
  'Wait… that guy, that guy! He's wearing a gilet. Leggers, no one dangerous would dream of wearing a gilet!'
  We ventured closer, emboldened by the fact that he was tending to a flower-stall-cum-news-stand. This had to be our man – not only was he dressed for a family camping trip, he also cared for current affairs, and nature! His affection for carnations was a clear indicator, in our eyes, of someone who couldn't possibly want to rob us of our teeth at knifepoint. Winner.
  We knew it was important not to let our guard down based purely on this chap's unthreatening fashion statement. We'd come this far after all. Just because he was a chilly person didn't mean that he wouldn't occasionally give in to severe bloodlust. It was essential we remembered that.
  The minute he turned around, all those sensible intentions flew out the window.
  Standing before us was an exact Argentine replica of Paul Baker: my dad, beloved by both Leggers and I in equal measure. We whirled round to look at each other, grinning from ear to ear about locating my dad in South America! He even had the exact same twinkle in his eye that my dad gets when he's managed to pocket a handful of biscuits in the short time it takes Mum to pop to the garage.
  'Cambio señoritas?' he asked, flashing us a familiar grin.
  'Sí, sí!' we nodded, grinning like a pair of idiots.
  He beckoned us over and we followed him into his tiny news stand with zero protest. I couldn't wait to get inside. I half expected Argentinian Momma Baker to be in there brandishing a half-empty packet of Hobnobs in mock-outrage. Instead we found a man with slicked-back hair and multiple chunky gold necklaces sitting behind a table piled high with cash.
  'Buenos días, chicas!' He smiled, revealing an impressive set of gold teeth. Yeah, he seemed friendly enough – anyone who liked gold and cash that much had to be trustworthy, right?
  When Argentine Dad chuckled good-naturedly at our proposed rate, shook his head and instead offered us ten pesos to the dollar, we caved in without protest. The fear had knackered us out. We were alive, the rate offered was still better than what you'd get at a cash machine AND we got to meet my dad's doppelganger… definitely an experience worth paying slightly over the odds for if you ask me.
  I leaned over to Leggers as her money was being counted into a big pile in front of her. 'Remember to check every note.'
  'Ha. Don't worry, I will – we have to follow at least one of that receptionist's tips.'
  Leggers and I stood in that little news shed, slowly and carefully examining each and every note. He may have had a lovely smile, but we wanted to make sure Argentine Paul Baker and his gold-loving mate weren't trying to pull a fast one. Plus, I've never held that much cash in my hands before so I was relishing the opportunity to fan myself with it. Once we were satisfied that every note was real, we stuffed our handbags with our newly acquired booty and fled that shady street as fast as our flip-flopped feet could carry us.
  To our relief we didn't have to venture far before we found a cafe with tables in the sunshine, perfect for refreshing our dry mouths with an icy cold celebratory Quilmes. The cafe was located on Plaza de Mayo, one of the city's most famous tourist attractions, and home to Casa Rosada – the flamingo-coloured presidential mansion, where Madonna once did an al fresco concert telling the Argentinian population to stop getting so emotional… funny really seeing as we could have done with that exact same pep talk half an hour ago.



WINNER = THE EXPERT
'The best decisions aren't made with your mind, but with your instincts.'
Lionel Messi

Lionel has an unfair advantage here. As an Argentinian himself, I wouldn't be surprised if he honed those impressive dribbling skills dodging the choice characters up and down Florida Street. Perhaps it was even the spot where he learnt to trust his instincts for the first time. I like to think that's the case, and that he too would have cannily turned down the opportunity to trade currency with a man eating his banana like a corn on the cob.



LESSONS LEARNT
I'll hold my hands up and admit I was a tad overdramatic that day on Florida Street. One of the reasons I wanted to travel was to have experiences like this – those that put me a billion miles from my comfort zone, but that I knew deep down I could handle as long as I obtained the facts, took a few deep breaths and didn't mind embarrassing myself a little. It was glaringly obvious from day one that it wouldn't be possible to ignore all advice while travelling. I had to remove the copper helmet I'd been wearing prior to departure, or at least position it so my ears were no longer covered. There was going to be so much information I didn't know – I needed to learn to seek it, hear it, and then do the best I could with it, given the circumstances. Things don't operate the same in every country. That's what compelled me to buy a ticket in the first place – I wanted to see and experience those exact things. Yeah, Leggers and I could have shirked how things operated in favour of doing what we'd always done, but then we would have missed out on an interesting experience, the chance to meet some of Buenos Aires' most curious characters and the all-important extra cash – and then who'd have been the mug?
  I may have convinced myself that everyone was out to hurt us that day. It's safe to say they weren't – they were just doing their job. While we were quivering, sweating and trying our best to count in Spanish, they weren't plotting the 101 ways they'd like to maim us; they were probably just thinking, 'Come on, love, hurry it along. I need a piss, and I want a fag before Mateo comes back with my mid-morning sausage roll'… or, you know, something similar.
  We proceeded as we should have done. We listened to our options for obtaining cash, made a choice to take a particular route, and then went and sought the facts from someone in the know about how to go about it. We used our eyes and ears to find someone we felt the most comfortable with. It was a reminder to apply the same vigilance I would in my hometown to my new setting. In London I wouldn't close my eyes, unplug my brain and get in a taxi with someone sporting gold-plated knuckledusters, a tool belt full of drill bits and a T-shirt saying, 'Do you like pain?' so why would I just because I was on a new continent? I was on a holiday from the 9–5, not from rational thinking, and as long as I could remember that as I travelled, I was sure I'd be fine.


GETTING MY EYE IN


FRIENDLY ADVICE:
'Remember, if you don't like it, you can always come home.'
Paul Baker, my dad (the real one)

EXPERT ADVICE:
'The key is to learn from failures and then to keep going.'
Ranulph Fiennes
(Explorer of unknown lands)

Buenos Aires. Day three. My favourite lady at my side, a wedge of newly acquired bargain cash burning a hole in my shorts and no real game plan aside from Boss It. Having handled the first task that presented itself with slightly too much whinging, panicking and over-exaggeration, I indulged myself for a moment over my hostel breakfast by wondering what the next challenge to present itself might be. Would it be struggling to communicate something essential due to my shoddy grasp of Spanish? Would it be eating something I shouldn't? Perhaps it might be starting a passionate romance with a handsome gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) with a gait suggesting that wild horses weren't the only thing he was capable of riding into the ground? Who knew? But I was ready to find out.