Around the World With a Vagabond

Welcome to Colombia December 21, 2009

Filed under: Welcome to Colombia — christynichols @ 5:15 am
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We arrived in a torrent of rain and thunder and crashing lightning. Our baggage was soaked, and the airport terminal was flooded to our ankles in rain water.  Bienvenedo gringos.

The three-legged flight from Los Angeles was not too bad. Other than a midnight departure time and sharing half of my middle seat with an obese, but sympathetic, woman, the flights were fairly smooth.  My stomach only dropped once as we took off from Ft. Lauderdale, and though the ocean view through the plastic windows flashed momentary terror, it was only momentary.  I was calm throughout the flights. The beers helped too.

I really should be able to say more about Bogota, but the truth is the hostel is lovely, and I mostly caged myself inside the vividly painted courtyards of an 18th Century Colonial house-turned-hostel for days. I’ve submitted myself to every hammock at least once.  It was a very peaceful, and lazy week.

It didn’t quite start off that way though.  Flashback to our soggy jeans and crowds of Spanish speakers all vying for the next taxi, Chris and I were finally were able to cut past customs, and out the door.

After a too-long conversation in bad Spanish with a taxi driver, we were able to sort out a ride to our hostel, Musicology in La Candelaria.   We’d heard mixed reviews about this area of Bogota. We’d heard it was decent, and tucked away in a university area.  We also had heard it was a dodgy part of town, infested with angry, raging criminals with a thirst for gringoes.  Only one way to find out.

The taxi ride was harrowing. We hadn’t slept in about 24 hours, and hadn’t eaten much, and the taxi drove as if in a high speed chase, except he seemed to be doing the chasing.  Lane lines meant nothing to him, nor did honking buses or speedy motorcycles.  The rain still fell on our windshield, potholes the size of Volkswaggens swallowed our wheels every few blocks, and armed militia men stood on dark corners of broken-brick streets. Our manic driver kept shouting that our destination address was “peligrosso! peligrosso!” and kept reaching into the back seat to stab Chris in the chest with a pretend knife he made out of his first two fingers.   Scared the crap out of us.

The neighborhood we drove through did little to ease my worries.  The streets were dark, narrow, and crumbling. Not in the charming and quaint way that so many of Europe’s streets are narrow and crumbling. These streets screamed of menace. Unkempt, criminal, malevolent dark streets graffitied over and guarded by homeless, putrid drunks slumping in corners.  Many of these corners were guarded with what looked like militia – sometimes 6 or 7 in counting, all with huge guns at the ready.  I was terrified.

After about a 30 min distressing drive, we arrived at Musicology – it was a haven after the other neighborhoods we had driven through.   Painted blue on the outside, with a music note hanging over the gated entrance, we were welcomed into a lush green Spanish courtyard.  The walls were brightly painted, and several hammocks hung between the beams.  We were lead to the “Reggae” room, and made to feel at home.

Finally comforted, we headed straight to the bar upstairs.  The barman was an English guy, probably early 40’s, who was from Hastings.  He looked like a criminal. Tats on his neck, arms, and legs, and face piercings.  He spent the next 45 minutes telling us every mugging story he knew. Local, of course. When Chris and I finally made our way to our hostel bed, I was a rack of nerves. Neither of us slept very well that first night.

Barman Jason turned out to be a decent bloke.  He had been working at the hostel for 2 months, and was set to move on, when he took in a poor stray black labrador. He tried to convince the hostel owner to take her in, and the owner only would as long as the barman stayed for one more month and trained the dog. So that is exactly what this “criminal” is doing.  In a week, he had the lab fixed, got her teeth done, and had started training her to behave herself.  Not a bad guy.

Our first day in Bogota was pretty awful.  After a restless night, I woke  in the morning  struck with the worst cramps I have had in years.  I took loads of Ibuprofin, but it didn’t help. Chris was starving, so after a lovely chat with the hostel owner, an Israeli named Inball, we wandered out into the cobble-stoned streets and up the hill towards a small kitchen serving hot soup.

The buildings along the street were so colorful! Pinks and reds and blues, high balconies with plants and laundry overhanging from lines out of windows.  But despite the colors and the quaintness of the streets, it was still very run-down.  The buildings didn’t seem to have much upkeep, cracked and pitted with holes as they were. Turning any one corner meant entering a bad part of town, with homeless sleeping in the streets, and military men on guard.

Chris and I headed up the hill to this small restaurant with just a couple picnic tables inside. For $2, you could get a whole plate of chicken, beans, rice, plantains, a bowl of soup, salad, and fresh squeezed fruit juice!

Chris woofed his down, but I was still feeling awful.  I really wanted to eat the food, but I had the shakes so bad.  I felt sick and couldn’t eat.  I sat facing the door, watching as burros laden with heavy satchels walked by.  I just couldn’t appreciate anything.   I asked for the baño, and the small Colombian woman walked me to the shop next door.

The shop next door had very little room, perhaps only for a customer or two.  The woman rolled away an ice-cream cooler that revealed a small door.  She gestured towards the door, so I walked through and into the tiniest bathroom I have ever been in.  It was about as wide as the average bedroom closet, but only about half as long.  Even so, it still contained a toilet, a small sink, and a urinal, almost all on top of each other. The door did not reach all the way from ceiling to floor, so I partly felt I was still in the shop with the men working there, but whatever. My stomach hurt so bad, I didn’t care.  There was also no toilet paper, but nothing to do about that.

Anyway, got back to the restaurant, and just couldn’t hack it, so Chris lead me back to the hostel. I didn’t quite make it.  As he was trying to buzz us in, I started throwing up in the street. I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours, so there wasn’t too much of a mess, but I couldn’t hold it back. I threw up all over the pretty blue paint on the wall of our hostel. We were buzzed in, and I threw up in the entryway, luckily into a trash bucket.  Chris walked me down the hall, and into our room, where I threw up again in the toilet.  It was awful.  I was shaking, had been sick, had diarrhea, and cramps – it was the worst I could remember feeling in a long time, and was exhausted. Chris tucked me into bed, and I tried to sleep away the pain.

Wasn’t too sure what hit me.  I hadn’t eaten anything for it to be food poisoning.  I had had a weekend in Vegas, a very long flight, lots of booze in between, and had just started the pill, so I accounted it all to hormones and physical dehydration and exhaustion.

Found out later it was altitude poisoning.   I guess it hits travelers frequently. Bogota sits pretty high at 2640 meters, and is the third highest major city in the world.

Whatever the cause, I felt so sick.  So between fearing we’d be victimized and feeling ill, it’d been a rough start to our travels.

Welcome to Colombia.


Another Bathroom Blog

Filed under: Another Bathroom Blog — christynichols @ 5:13 am
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Using the bathroom on a moving bus is always a challenge – hygienically, and sometimes acrobatically.  The unsuspected swerve, the unidentifiable puddles, the small, cramped space.  This Colombian bus was no different.  Actually, it was different. It was the most difficult time I’ve ever had trying to pee while moving.

It started off decent enough, I guess.  The bus rocked me off my feet a few times while I headed towards the toilet at the rear of the bus. There was a couple making out in the back row seats that I tried not to observe too closely. I yanked on the toilet door to open it, and closeted myself inside.

Suddenly I was slammed into the opposite side of the toilet as the bus took an unanticipated high speed turn. Inside the toilet, there was the sensation of being in a wind tunnel.  The bus was flying . . high speed ahead, rolling, tumbling, vrooming right and left around hairpin turns the bus was too big to really be able to handle. A small window high in the cubicle had been kept open and the sound the air made as it was sucked out of the bathroom was so noisy! Like hanging your head out of the window of a fast-moving train, or shouting goodbyes under the whirly-blades of a helicopter, or perhaps standing under the engine of a plane about to depart. It was loud. The engine, the whipping wind, all was roaring loud, and between the constant motion of the bus and the white noise of the window wine, I couldn’t deal.

I tried to reach up and shut the noise out.  I don’t know why this was a necessary step, but I did it, lurching forward against the back of the toilet as another rapid swerve knocked me off balance. Then stepping back, falling back, trying not to actually fall down.  It was like gravity or any sense of balance failed to exist.  I could not stand up straight, and I kept lurching for support from walls and handles I was, at the same time, trying not to touch.

And the trapdoor bathroom had that smell. Sour. Rank. Closed in. And the fact that the one light was dull and dim was somewhat of a comfort, as it failed to illuminate the filth that was undoubtedly lingering on everything I was falling into.

Anyway, I’d managed to close out the roaring wind from the window, so tried to get on with business.  I swung to the left, swung to the right, the noise at the window was still loud, and I just couldn’t keep my balance. The bus must have then started to take a very large curve, as, pants around my ankles, the bus lurched towards the right.  I tried to shift my weight left to counter balance, and braced my feet on the floor.  My right hand grabbed at the railing on my right, my left hand clutched the door handle  -trying to both push against it so I wouldn’t fall, and pull the handle forward to keep it from opening and flinging me into the couple making out in the back row seats. I remained in this lurching, bare-assed position for what seemed like 20 minutes, the crazed skills of the driver forcing everything to swing unbalanced to the right. Then the left. Then back-then-suddenly-forward-and-then-right as the bus continued to hurtle us all down the mountain through the dark night – completely unsympathetic to my situation.

I’ve forgotten to mention we had snuck a bottle of red wine on the bus as we were leaving, and I had finished a few sneaky paper cups full. So, during this entire toilet challenge, I couldn’t stop laughing.  I think I was writing this story in my head as it was happening.  There I was, drunk, fighting a losing battle against the velocity of the bus, and trying not to pee on my shoes.  Or step in other people’s puddles of pee.

It was really funny, and pretty gross, and I was my only audience.


Worst Thanksgiving Ever

Filed under: Traveling South America,Worst Thanksgiving Ever — christynichols @ 5:12 am
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The overnight bus ride from Medellin to Cartagena was the longest, and by far the most dreadful bus ride of my entire time in South America. Imagine 14 hours of being trapped in what felt like a theme park simulator.  A simulator that is malfunctioning. The others, including Lindsay and 5th Wheel Phil (more on him later), somehow managed to get comfortable in the bus seats. Morgan and Meg were wrapped in sweaters, beanies, and blankets, and quickly fell asleep and dreamed away the journey.

For Chris and I, it was the most uncomfortable night ever. It was very cold, and he had no jacket, I had only a thin sweater, and neither of us had blankets.  We tried to cuddle, but the hard plastic armrest stabbed either his face or mine.  There was a movie playing at the front, but it was in Spanish.  It was night outside and even though the curtains were drawn, we could still see flashes of white light from the corners and along the tops of the curtains. Occasionally the warning flashes of red lights, blue lights and orange lights replaced the white. This was alarming.  Red and blue and orange rarely mean “Hey! Everything is just fine! Have a pleasant journey!”, no matter what country you are traveling through.  So yes, more fear.

And it was terrifying.  This bus seemed to be barreling down the mountain at the speed of light. The bus was swinging back and forth down the mountain sides, over crater-sized potholes, and around sharp bends. Not being able to see out the windows only heightened my sense of panic and overran my imagination. I pictured 30 degree turns along dropping cliffs, and scanned the backs of the heads of the other passengers trying to determine who I would be trapped under when the bus rolled over and down the mountain.

The inside of the bus reminded me of the inside of a plane. All I could see was this tunnel of seats and flashing lights and all I could feel was the turbulent rumble of the bus.  The front of the vehicle was sloping downwards, which only increased the sensation that we were hurtling chaotically towards our deaths.

We didn’t have wine on the bus this time, so Chris and I found very little to be funny for very long. Curling up fetus-like for one minute, it wasn’t long before my neck cricked, my feet lost feeling, or my arms got cold.  We twisted back and forth, this way and that, curling up, stretching out, cuddling for warmth, then hurting from the armrest. It was absolutely freezing cold. The entire time Chris and I were also trying to keep our valuable cameras and bags wrapped securely around our waists, shoulders, and in between our feet.  It was so uncomfortable, we were either going to laugh or cry.

We laughed, then tried to sleep. Then I wanted to cry.   I think Chris slept more than I, but I don’t know. He might have just had his eyes closed, trying to shut out the terror. I remember looking with envy and irritated resentment at my other friends, sleeping cherub-like in the bus seats. Chris and I were sharing (hogging) my sweater for warmth.

It totally sucked, and it sucked all night right through 7am.

It was the worst Thanksgiving ever.


Is it Wrong to Steal Your Own Book Back?

This is a question for which I don’t have an answer.

While lazily enjoying the hammocks draping from balconies in the Spanish courtyard of the Musicology hostel, I was thoroughly engaged in reading the final chapters of The Confessions of Max Tivoli. An English guy who covered the reception area had seen me with the book in my hand, and asked if he could borrow it when I finished.  I said sure, but was wondering if I really meant that.

Would I get it back? Probably not.  Would he trade me for another book? Maybe, but what if I don’t like his books?

Whatever. I spent hours finishing up my book. For the record, it’s a very good book. Anyway, the English guy harrassed me everytime I passed him, requesting the book when I finished.

Lying in the hammock, I read the final pages of the story – and I hated it. It was such an unexpected ending! Horrible in every way! (I enjoyed the book – don’t get me wrong.  It did what good books do, and completely aroused my emotions. But these were emotions of disgust and frustration and annoyance).

Anyway, I finished the book, and huffed out of the hammock and past the reception. The English guy was sitting at the desk, and I tossed the book rather harshly onto the desk at him and carried on out the door.

I regret doing this.  First of all, I lent the book to him the day before we had planned to leave the hostel, so there’s no way he could finish it and return it to me in time. Secondly, I didn’t get to exchange my book for one of his. Not even a crappy one.

This bothered me off and on for the next couple weeks. Why did I give this guy my book? I didn’t even really like him. I had enjoyed the book after all, despite the crushing way it ended, and I wanted it back. We didn’t even trade!

Two weeks later, we happened to be back in the same hostel. It was only a quick stop. We arrived after 11pm, and needed to be gone by 6:30 the next morning.  The English guy was upstairs tending bar.  I could easily have crept into his hostel room, and taken my book from the bookshelf I knew he used in there.  He would never know what happened to it, or that it was me who stole it.  Stole it back.

In the end, I was too exhausted to do it.  Too tired to put action to my criminal thoughts.  But I wish I had now.  It’s MY book and I want it back. Still.

Is that bad?


Bad Cases of the Runs, a UTI, and Too Much Vomit

We can’t always have a clean bill of health when traveling.  It’s hoped for, but illnesses and accidents happen, and, when traveling, what usually might not be a big deal becomes a very big deal indeed. The lack of available meds, or lack of language skills needed to acquire these meds, and sometimes no refuge for comfort, makes simple ailments much worse and harder to recover from.

I’ve already relayed my first bout of altitude sickness, so I won’t reiterate it here. While I only had the occasional upset stomach, Chris had more than his fair share, and share he did. Our other traveling companion, Meg, suffered the most. In fact, it seemed she’d won the blue ribbon when it came to who had the most toilet emergencies.  We ate lots of fish, and she was particularly fond of ceviche. She also indulged in spicy picante sauce, insisting on dousing every bite of her food with the stuff. It was never too long after a meal when Meg would do her disappearing act.  This act was harder to achieve during our epic nighttime bus journeys, or our 3 day hiking adventures into the Colombian jungle.  She never complained though, or gained weight. Poor girl.

By the time we hit Medellin though, things seemed to be better.  I had acclimatized, Chris had a healthy appetite, and Meg was in good spirits.  We wandered through streets and settled in a small park chatting and drinking cheap beer out of big plastic buckets.

It was about this time that we noticed Morgan had gone silent, and was not making too much progress on his bucket of beer.   He’d been slipping off to the side, and spitting up in to the potted plants.  He began to feel really sick. The vomiting began, and pretty much didn’t stop for about 2 days.  All night, every 15 minutes, he was hurling. Even after his stomach had completely emptied out, he was still dry heaving over the hostel room toilet, waking each of us up with his groans, and moans, and chokes.  It was horrible, and we felt really bad for him.

I was next afflicted with a UTI, just to keep things interesting. For those not in the know, a UTI is when it burns when you pee. And it keeps burning long after the peeing is done. I dealt with the discomfort for a few days, but it was the busride that undid me.  A 2 hour trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta slyly became 4 hours of bumps and jolts and jerks, and my bladder hurt so much. By the time we were dropped off and I had excused my way into the nearest cafe restroom, I was in a lot of pain.

It is embarrassing, so I confided in Meg who told me I needed antibiotics straight away.  Scanning the “Useful Spanish Phrases” in our Lonely Planet guide proved futile.  It could only aid me in communicating to the locals that I needed some kind of imprecise help (Lo sorrento!), or to alert them of a fire (Necessito bomberos!).

Finally, our only Spanish speaker in the group came to my rescue. I thought I could get by with saying “No me gusto bano para yo tengo mucho pain”, but Morgan thought otherwise. Meg knew what I needed, Morgan knew how to say it, and Chris tagged along for moral support. In this way, curing my UTI became a group effort.

As promised, here’s a few more vomit stories:

Not to be left out, Meg and Chris both had their turns at upchucking. Meg was sick on the plane from Barranquilla to Popayan. While us three happily stuffed ourselves with airport chicken sandwiches, she was in the airport toilet getting rid of her airport chicken.

The next morning, she was just fine!  Unfortunately for Chris, it was his turn to take over.  Maybe it was the airport chicken he had devoured. He missed the entire day sightseeing in Popayan, cooped up in the hostel, and not straying too far from the nearest bathroom.  Maybe he’d see the city on the next trip.

And finally, upon arriving in Quito, I again was afflicted with altitude sickness.  Quito is the second highest capital city in the world. I acknowledged this by projectile vomiting in a very nice restaurant – through my nose. It hurt, and I couldn’t breathe until it was over.  Not only was this an unpleasant experience, but it occurred near the end of a very good Saturday night, filled with live bands and dancing. Chris and I loved salsa-ing, and even though I knew I was feeling bad, I let Chris coax me into getting twirled on the dance floor.

One twirl. Two twirls. Three – and I’m green. I think I ran over an Ecuadorian family as I frantically headed to the toilet.  Not fun. Not fun at all.

During the month that the four of us traveled together, there was always at least one of us sick with vomiting or diarrhea.  I began the trend, Morgan improved it.  We were never quite sure of the source. We all pretty much ate the same dishes, but not one of us was affected by it in quite the same way. I was the only one suffering so badly from altitude sickness. Morgan we believed had food poisoning, and Meg and Chris had what was probably a bug.  Don’t know for sure. I guess we never will.


Mud Bath

Filed under: Mud Bath,Traveling South America — christynichols @ 5:03 am
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After staying out late the night before, our group of 4 woke up about 8, absolutely dripping in sweat, but ready to go.  Today was mudhill day!  We piled into a van, and headed towards a volcano of mud called Totumo!

The bumpy 45 minute journey outside of Cartagena terminated near the edge of a lagoon. Facing us was a steep 20 meter high mound of earth.  The volcano was a deep pit of mud. A rickety wooden staircase led to the top.  We stripped down to bathing suits – I was in shorts and a tanktop – didn’t want to ruin my bikini – and climbed up.  As we climbed we could see the mound of earth was built up from dried and cracked mud.  An attendant stood at the top and collected our cameras for us, and several other attendants were already in the mud pool awaiting our descent.

The top of the volcano was shaped kind of like a square with rounded corners.  There were some wooden planks erected along the sides, but these were encrusted with dried mud.  There was room for about 20 people inside.  You had to be careful climbing down the ladder, as it was really slippery.  But once in the mud, it was like you were floating.   The mud was warm, and thick, and heavy.  I couldn’t touch the bottom, but I had no trouble staying afloat.  You didn’t need to swim or tread the water, the squishy mud just carried you.

Once in the mud pit, the attendants slid you across the top of the mud to another attendant who proceeded to massage and cover every inch of our bodies with the thick goopy mud.  And I do mean every inch.  Face, ears, neck, bellies.  Everything was entirely coated in the stuff, and it felt great!!! One by one, all of us and the other passengers were helped into the mud pit, slid across the top, and coated down.  After a few minutes, every single person, male, female, young, old, black, white – all looked the same.  Greyish brownish lumps laughing and squishing through the mud.  It was awesome.

We remained in there for quite some time, until the tour leader shouted at us from the top of the volcano that it was time to get out. Reluctantly we followed orders. Mud bathing is so cool.

As we climbed out of the mud volcano, attendants helped scrape the mud off our dripping legs, but I could have used with a little more hosing off. As I reached the top of the ladder, a big glob of mud dripped from my forehead onto my eye.  I froze – hanging on to the top rungs of the muddy ladder. I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t open my eyes, so I couldn’t keep taking the potentially treacherous steps out of the volcano. I couldn’t wipe my eyes, because my hands were muddy.  Standing near was another attendant, but he hadn’t noticed my dilemna. All I could do was shout with one eye squinting, and the other eye coated in mud “Por favor! Por favor!” and point at my mudpacked left eye. Luckily the attendant understood my plight, and wiped my eyes for me.  I do know the words for, “Excuse me, I have mud in my eye, can you please help me” Descupe, tengo barro en me ojo, puedes sorrento, por favor? But in time of desperate need, all my foreign language skills abandon me, and I am left to shout “please” and point at whatever it is I need or need escape from.

Anyway, covered in mud, we managed to climb down the side of the volcano and wander towards the lagoon. Awaiting us were village women, ready with their plastic bowls to douse and scrub away all the mud from our bodies.  They insisted we take off our clothes so they could scrub those too. So here we were, about 20 strangers squatting naked in lake water in broad daylight while the village women washed us down like children.  It was pretty awesome.

After that escapade, we loaded back into the van, and headed towards a small restaurant on the coast. Ronda’s maybe, or Donna’s.  We were seated at outdoor tables right where the ocean waves crashed down and were served fish (still with the heads and skin and eyes), crabs from a bucket, plantains, and rice. The whole day, including transportation, tips, and lunch was less than $20. Very cool.



Filed under: Fútbol,Traveling South America — christynichols @ 5:01 am
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Sunday has always meant two things: church and football!  In this way, the two American continents are the same.  Ron, our hostel receptionist, had arranged to get us tickets (to a game, not church), so the four of us and 5th Wheel Phil crammed into a cab and headed to the Stadium.

It was Cartagena vs. Medellin. Cartagena’s colors are yellow, so we bedecked ourselves in yellow streamers tied around our heads, arms, and waists. Meg also bought yellow face paint. Chris covered his entire face with yellow.  I had football markings, as did the others.  I think the Cartagena crowd loved the gringos in yellow.

The streets were insane.  Crowds of people shouting were crisscrossing through traffic, and standing in frenzied groups on street corners. What was almost a mob was lunging towards the entrance.  Chris and I were starving, so we split from the others and headed to the hamburger cart.  No sooner had we ordered when Morgan found us.  Apparently the flood gates had opened, and there were no assigned seats.  The burgers would be a few minutes, so Morgan went with the others to save a few good spots, and Chris and I would be just behind.

Moments later Chris and I were being bumped along trying to get ourselves and our burgers into the stadium.  Chris was bumped rather hard at one point.  He felt for his pocket only to realize his wallet was gone.  It was taken from the front pocket of his board shorts, which was velcroed shut.

By the time I turned around to speak to him, he was a few feet over among the crowd, and the swat-team security had seized the guy Chris thought had stolen from him.  The cop pushed the accused against a fence and roughly patted him down, while the thief shouted hysterically that he didn’t do it.  It totally sucked.

Chris’s stolen wallet had been a decoy, a fake one he uses just in case such a thing happens. He only carries minimal cash.  Had his ID in it though. And it still sucked. It actually wasn’t even an actual wallet.  The boys had picked up little zipper purses in Montserate.  It served as their murse.  So yes, Chris got his murse stolen.

Chris was a star though. As shitty as it was, he didn’t let it ruin his mood. He’d started the day off in a mud volcano, and now was sitting at a very rambunctious football game with a yellow face and beer in his hand.  He stayed happy.

The game was friggin awesome. So much support for Cartagena –  and so much security! The stadium seats were actually raised blocks of concrete.  The field was separated from the spectators by a high barbed wire fence, and cops stood guard along the edge of the field.  The cops were wearing black uniforms, and geared out like Robocop -facemasks and riot gear.  At half time each Robocop went to the center of the field and surrounded the referees protectively, and escorted them off the field.  After the first goal, I could see why. Throughout the game there was shouting and chanting, but as soon as someone scored, the spectators, mostly male, leapt off their seats and flew at the fence. Half of them climbed up it, and several smaller boys made it to the top and stuck their heads through the barb – all shouting and screaming at the players, and shaking the fence!! It was insane.  And intimidating.  I would hate to have been wearing the wrong colors.