An Atheist Abroad

Adventures and Mishaps in Foreign Lands

Chapter 1. The Black Cat


I opened the creaky door and stepped into the dimly lit room which served as a reception area to the hostel. I could see the bright, leafy courtyard peeking around the corner, to the back of the adjacent room. Scared and excited, I approached the desk.

Only a few months ago I’d plotted, planned, schemed and dreamed with three friends, or more accurately, one friend and two acquaintances, about our upcoming adventure to the other side of the world. Only a few days ago, earlier plans having fallen apart, I’d boarded the plane full of all the giddiness and naivety of the younger person I’d once been, and hoped to be again, if only for a few short weeks. Trying desperately to find adventure and meaning in an increasingly mundane existence, I’d foregone several of my less practical outfits and much bathroom paraphernalia and managed to squeeze and cull (often with brute force) all of my essential belongings down to a tidy, 12kg package which would represent my worldly possessions for the next four weeks. Leaving a worrying albeit, begrudgingly supportive husband behind, I’d given a teary goodbye and practically raced to the departure lounge bar to enjoy a first holiday champagne with my travelling companion, Karen. The world, or at least, the vast expanse of South America, was to be our proverbial oyster.

Somewhere in the days that followed, it had all gone to pieces. I found myself now alone in a foreign country, with no more than a smattering of badly-pronounced words in the local language and only a vague idea of what I would do next. About to embark on an unplanned solo backpacking trek throughout this strange and (possibly) dangerous place, I had never felt more alone…or more alive.

The Black Cat Hostel was Trip Adviser’s number one rated accommodation in the colonial town of Asuncion, Paraguay. It was also one of the few which, according to the booking website, had an available private room for the next three nights. The amount of time, I figured, that I needed in order to relax, regroup, and figure out what the HELL I was going to do for the next 3 and a half weeks and how the HECK I was going to do it alone.

Of all my (limited) travelling adventures, this was sure to be the most noteworthy. For all of the right reasons, I hoped.

“Hi!” I chirped, nervously, English to Spanish dictionary in-hand “aaahhh….¿Hay habitaciones libres?”

“Yes, we have rooms available. Would you like private or dorm?” The receptionist replied, in English. (Thank GOODNESS)

My Spanish, I had recently learned, was not only severely limited and outrageously inept, but was an almost unrecognizable slaughtering of pronunciation. When I’d tried to order a packet of cheese and onion flavoured chips at the bus depot in Buenos Aires (“cebolla and aaaah queso?”), the stall attendant had been so kind to point out to me,

“your Spanish….very bad”.

I felt like crying. I didn’t. I simply grinned sheepishly, paid for my chips and left. Deflated.

My companion, Karen, had a thick New Zealand accent which the Argentinians we’d encountered found extremely difficult to decipher (as did I, at times). Not only this, but she absolutely refused to learn or utter a single word of Spanish, not so much as a “por favour” or “gracias”. Not a word. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. I’d found this extremely irritating and frankly, one of the typical displays of behaviour which makes tourists thoroughly unlikeable to the local population just about anywhere in the world. I should have known, from the moment I introduced the idea of learning a little bit of Spanish via an app I’d downloaded on my phone. I was visiting Karen for some dinner, and to hash out some more of our ‘wish list’ for the trip. The wish list was in lieu of actual plans, as we’d decided that we needed the freedom of being able to take our time, enjoy ourselves and experience each place for as long as we deemed necessary. When I showed the new app to Karen, she shooed me away with a laugh and passed me another glass of wine. Ce la vie! You only live once, right?

That afternoon at the Black Cat, having paid for my (enormous) private room (shared bathroom, but hey, you have to slum it sometimes!) and unpacked a few things, I’d taken my book and gone to sit down by the tiny plunge pool in the aforementioned courtyard. It’s true what they say about hostels, that you cannot find a better way to meet people. Staying in a hotel, you will rarely encounter any meaningful conversation beyond obligatory niceties and greetings. I had barely opened to my bookmarked page and glanced down to start reading when I heard the ubiquitous “hey, where are you from?” in some nondescript European accent. Oh good, I thought, I’m clearly giving off the don’t-try-speaking-Spanish-to-me-as-you-will-be-sorely-disappointed look. I can’t say I was surprised, or upset about this. Looking up, I was presented with a large, slightly-sunburnt man sporting a shock of blond hair and an altogether too-large silver chain around his neck, peeking out behind his Bintang singlet. I would have been wary, frightened even, if he hadn’t had the round, pink face of an overgrown toddler and an ever-so-slightly dopey grin.

“I’m from Australia!” I chirped, grinning back and squinting a little in the sunshine.

“AH! AUSTRALIA! KYLIE MINOGUE, eh?!” *this may not be a completely accurate recollection on my part, however every time that I mentioned I was Australian it would rouse a response of this kind or similar.

“We are going down to the beach” he continued “in a few minutes. You want to come with us? Me and my buddies?”

A lone female tourist should perhaps be wary of these kinds of invitations, or at least have an idea who these ‘mates’ are before she agrees to such an invitation. But I was a bold, audacious, intrepid backpacker now! Up for some adventure, some new experiences, some sunbaking with strangers and frankly, some companionship; now that I was alone and indeed a little bit lonely in my new surroundings.

“Sure!” I chimed “Let me go and get my swimmers!”

Never mind that Paraguay is a land-locked country, and is as likely to have a ‘beach’ as Rwanda or Uganda. Tiny details, I thought! Tiny details! And so, I was off to the beach, in my swimmers, with a group of 5 lads whom I’d never met, and a sense of adventure that I’d rarely felt before now. Emocionante!

black cat pool


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