Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On the buses, with Tio

I'm not the most patient of people. One of my aims when travelling was to try and improve this. After all, what's the big rush? I even wanted to learn to meditate. Have I become a more patient person? Close but no cigar? No, not close. I'm a long, long way from even a dynamite cigar.
Semi-cama means little in the UK but in South America it can mean many things. From almost horizontal seats with complimentary biscuits to, well, read on. On the bus journey from Potosi to Tupeza, semi cama meant:
1. Knees by ears
2. Screaming children, screaming parents and screaming Ollie
3. Ear bleedingly loud Bolivian rock music composed by Kim Jong Il's most effective and sadistic of torturers. They play only the first 45 seconds of each monumentally awful song, so that it's impossible to become accustomed. (Despite the agony, you can't help but have respect for it's genious.)
4. Baking heat
5. Windows that don't open (oh they could, they just don't)
6. All manner of salesman, preachers and lunatics allowed (encouraged?) to board and spout an hour of spwaffle before getting to the 'and for only 10 Bolivianos you too can own these disgusting biscuits/this ineffective dehumidifier/this latest deity'. It is the opposite of entertainment and if untertainment is not a word, it should be.
On this bus journey, I had a feud with the 10 year old boy sitting in front of (and therefore on top of) me. In this teeny tiny bus, he reclined his chair back fully. I responded by sticking my knee in his back, in a vein attempt to get him to move forward. The war of wills and knees continued for the whole journey, but I was in way over my head, outmatched. I wasn't his first victim and I've no doubt I won't be his last. His smug little 10 year old grin will mock me forever, Tio incarnated.

So, far from developing patience, what I'm actually learning is a growing intolerance of buses, people, children, buses, boredom, children, heat, buses, children, altitude, children and BUSES.

The devil's in the detail

Potosi, Bolivia, claims to be the world's highest city. Reknown for it's silver mines, it has become increasingly famous for tours that take gringos deep into the still working mine.
The Lonely Planet gives some warnings about the safety of the mine, but danger being my middle name, and there not being much else going on, I opted in.
Me and 2 others were dressed up in some impractical but wholly embarassing 'protective' clothing and taken to the town market. In the market, from a wholly unremarkable stall, we each bought 2 sticks of dynamite, detonators and bags of amonium nitrate. No questions asked. We also had to buy the same 96% liquor that pachamama had seemed so keen on in the jungle. This was a gift for the miners, who have deemed working in a mine, in Bolivia, with dynamite not dangerous enough and so to spice it up, spend most of their working life, very, very drunk.
Then off to the mine. As is par for the course in Bolivia, any sort of health and safety briefing is vigourously avoided . This seems to be for two reasons. One is that there is no health, and the other no safety. In place of the briefing, we are all made to take a swig of the 96% liquor. As the liquor is so strong and dissolves your taste buds on the way down, you don't feel the full impact until it mixes with your stomach juices in such a way as to render images of the movie Alien and you wouldn't be suprised, in fact might be relieved, had an ugly little space monster burst forth from your stomach.
There are an estimated 90km of tunnels, on 16 levels, all co-operatively owned. Into this warren we went, and were struck by the stench of toxic chemicals. We were initally made to handle the naturally occuring orange arsenic which the miners believe hold the mines together (experts have told them the mine could collapse very soon, but the heady mix of liquor, chemicals and machoism have allowed the miners to continue in blissfull, willfull, ignorance). The guide (an ex miner) told us that water wouldn't wash the arsenic off, but our own urine would (I'm game, but not that game and went for the diplomatic inbetween of 'soap' instead).  He later told us that if the toxic chemicals became dangerously strong, the workers would urinate on their clothing and then breathe through that. It seemed there was no ill that couldn't be cured by this magical liquid. I wondered what other uses they put it to, and concluded that this seeming over reliance on urine was probably just an amusing way to dispose of it in this toiletless world.
We went deeper into the passages, to where a statue of the demon, Tio was sitting. This is the demon that they believe rules the mine and decides on the fate and fortunes of the miners in it. The guide gave Tio a cigarette, then poured the 96% liquor on my thumb and lit it. He then used my thumb to light the cigarette, the point of which (other than to cause me uneccessary suffering) I was oblivious to. After this things got really weird, and the guide threw the dynamite at the two petrified Dutch girls I was with. Shortly after we found out that this was to prove that dynamite is not dangerous on it's own, but I'm pre-tty sure we would all have just taken his word for it. In case we still didn't believe him, he then lit the end of the dynamite and began smoking it, pretending it was a cigar, which I promptly blew out. At this stage I was begnning to wonder what sort of protection the wellies and overalls would provide in the face of this madman who seemed intent on detonating dynamite in my face. He then then set up the dynamite, inserted the detonator, the fuse and the ammonium nitrate. He lit the fuses (which sparked away as in old westerns) and, of course, handed them to the two Dutch girls and told them to put them round their necks. We all then nipped round the corner, left the dynamite, returned to a maximum of about 5 metres away, turned all our torches off and waited in the complete darkness. Tick tock, tick tock then BOOOOOOOOOM. The sound was loud but you felt the explosion far more than you heard it, and the floor shook, but thankfully the roof remained where I wanted it.
We were then taken further into the mine and met another, much larger statue of Tio, with a large phallus which we, for some inexplicable reason, had to pour beer over. We then met some of the miners, the most voiciferous of which was a chap about 65 years old. In an odd setting, we then had an odd conversation which went along these lines. He said one of the Dutch girls was my girlfriend. I said no. He said she would be after many beers. I said I had a girlfriend. This conversation then repeated itself for the next five minutes until I decided that he may well have fathered 9 children, worked in the mine for 38 years and be the head of the co-operative, but was still an idiot. Thankfully that episode ended and we left. A good experience and although it didn't feel very cultural, the bawdy drunken nature of our guide and the miners we met was probably a pretty good reflection of the culture of the mine. And in such appalling working conditions, I suppose, it's whatever works.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Captain Armitage Shanks

The practical paragliding lessons in Cochabamba were for a few hours in the mornings and the theoretical lessons in the evening. So during the afternoons we discovered the culinary delights of Cochabamba and only suffered food poisoning from about half the meals we ate, a good record for Bolivia.
Their diet may be the reason that they make many of their toilet seats so ridiculously comfy. They are cushioned and make a soothing and comforting sssshh sound as you descend onto them, like a toilet air bag for those that make too rapid a descent from the standing to sitting position. In the whole of South America you're forbidden from putting toilet paper in the toilet, something that took many blocked toilets to fully understand the consequences of.
After Fay's airborne hiccup, we both took a few more lessons learning the art of take off and landing, before I moved on to my solo flights. We had some unexpected assistance on our final day from the park guard. I was on film duty as he approached, and as staggered his way towards us, I wasn't sure if he was going to arrest us or join Fay's vomiting society (terra firma section). Instead he alternated between shouting abuse and encouragement at Fay and told me, without much conviction, that 'this is Bolivia', but I wasn't certain if he was trying to inform me, or convince himself.

So with the learned aeronautical wisdom of the the 'drunk ranger' bestowed upon me, I took to the air on my first solo flight on 5th December. Jumping off a mountain rather than climbing up it took some adjusting, and to say I wasn't nervous would be a lie. So i chose what i consider by far the best strategy in these situations, and tried as hard as humanly possible to forget that I was standing on the edge of a mountain about to leap to my airy doom. And it all went surprisingly well. I landed, both alive and in the landing zone. With the minor exception of me not being able to get seated and dangling painfully like a rag doll being given an indefinite wedgie for the entire flight, i had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

A couple of days of 'rain stops play' to recover, and then on 8th, I was back for more. 3 solo flights that day and during each I managed to progressively edge my derriere further back into the seat and look a little less like a dangler, and a little more like a paragliding pilot. Again and again I landed, still alive, in the landing zone.
On my final day of flying, my confidence had grown to such an extent that I wondered why on earth this flying lark had alluded man throughout the ages. What had we been doing? When Icarus was busy plucking the feathers from some poor, embarrassed, now naked duck and messing about with a tub of glue, why didn't someone tell him to get his nan to sew 10 pairs of pyjama bottoms together, add some string and attach it to his underwear? Anyway, I donned my harness, brought the wing above me, turned and gracefully leaped to play with the birds. Unlike my previous flights, I had 2 unexpected guests with me on this one. The first was a very gusty wind that collapsed 40% of my wing. The second was an unexpected thermal that threw me off course. Again I landed alive, but a different landing zone, in the shape of a prickly bush and very hard piece of ground, had to make do. It wasn't a soft landing, and my dreams that night were of cushioned toilet seats.
I had one more flight that day, and Christian caught the approach and landing on video:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nada rada

The 3rd December saw Fay's birthday come and go and her enter her 31st year. To celebrate, we opted to watch the local production of 'Glee', touted as a musical spectacular and accompanied with glitzy fliers and billboard posters. We went to the box office and were at first dissapointed as they seemed to be saying they had sold out, but were in fact saying we had to return on the day of the show. The theatre was full of character, grandeur and had a capacity of about 10,000. The 3rd came round and we made sure we were at the box office as soon as it opened so as not to miss our chance for a ticket. We were in luck, two box tickets were ours. That night we turned up early for the show and waited with anticipation. The start time came and went and the words 'get on with it' formed in my mind with ever increasing urgency and my patience meter began to run very low. Casting a by now irritable eye around the theatre, I should have read the warning signs - there were a maximum of 50 people and they looked very much like the mothers, fathers and grandparents of the cast that they indeed turned out to be. The 'spectacular' was in fact a b rate school production. 10 mins into the show and my ears began to bleed. Two and a half hours later, and the cast's own grandparents were thrwoing their granny undies at the stage to try and scare away their offspring and save the audience from any more torture. This was almost certainly the one situation where my joining in with the singing improved the quality. I remember a time at a wedding in Sweden where I tried to reinact that scene from dirty dancing where 'Baby' is caught by Patrick Swazyze and held aloft in the air. I tried to reinact it with the grooms mother and I was so drunk that although I somehow managed to persuade her it was a good idea, I completely lacked the co-ordinatrion to pull off such a feat. As she glided towards me in the air, everybody on the dancefloor knew it would end in tears. It did, but in comparisome to 'Glee', I was Patrick Swayze re-incarnated.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Solid hero to nerdy zero.

If ever there was a day of two halves, today was it. This morning, i completed 3 solo paragliding flights from a mountain 600m above Cochabamba, 3400m from sea level. Gliding around, catching thermals, taking in the views of the mountains and the city, avoiding power cables and generally feeling pretty pleased with myself.

This afternoon, I'm going to the cinema. To watch Tron. Out of choice. Alone. When it's 2 for 1 on all tickets.

Still, you can't be all awesome, all of the time.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vomitos in extremis

If a bird defecating on you from above is considered good luck, then those who were walking the streets of Cochabamba below Fay today should, without a moments hesitation, head to the nearest casino, race track or lottery stall.
We've been in Cochabamba for about a week now and have spent most of our time learning to fly with Christian, a paragliding instructor who assures us that his missing digit was from an incident with a wet hand and a plug socket and nothing to do with his chosen sport.
Christian is a little short in stature, but makes up for any lack of presence with a healthy dose of aftershave. There is no doubting that he has a real passion for the sport, but a passion that is a considerable distance behind his obvious love of chasing ladies. His aftershave is accompanied by a perfectly groomed goatie, latin good looks and flawless complexion. We have been having our theoretical lessons at his house and I wasn't surprised to find that his teaching room was fitted with red velvet sofas and a bar. I had already clocked that I would need to up my game and be even more charming (?) to Fay than usual, but when he told us he used to compete in national tango and ballet lessons, I didn't really have much to come back with. Singing in the school choir on Blue Peter when 14 years old about a dead dodo didn't seem to cut it. When he offered us free tango lessons I fortunately remembered my old shrapnel wound from Nam, and that's taken the sting out of that idea for the time being.
He is a very good teacher and has quality equipment and for the last 3 days we learned to take off in a small field with an unfortunately situated tree at the end, which Fay became pretty familiar with. 

We have 10 days in total and the plan is to learn take offs and landings, then go for a tandem flight with Christian and then progress to flying alone, with radio instruction. Today was the tandem flight day and Christian picked us up from our hotel and told us that a Swiss guy was also coming along but that he knew how to fly and was just renting equipment. The guy was an idiot, and added to the tension that we were both feeling. We drove to a mountain, 650m above Cochabamba and prepared the wing. It was a steep gradient and a world away from the field we had been practising in. Fay was understandably nervous and I think because of this, Christian had decided to take her first. Without too much in the way of hesitation, the two of them ran off and were soon lifted out and into the sky. I took some video and then waited and watched as they caught some thermals and practiced manoeuvres and flew for about quarter of an hour before landing in a field. What I wasn't aware of from my perspective, was that as soon as they had taken flight, Fay had thrown up over Christian, then proceeded to do the same over the residents of Cochabamba, and then over the drivers car on the way back to the top. The lucky lucky devils.

Friday, November 26, 2010

In the jungle...

The food in Peru and Bolivia is generally rubbish and for a pescatarian man and gluten free woman is very limited indeed. The daily dinner pattern goes something like this. Omelette, fried trout, omelette, fried trout, omelette, fried trout. On arriving in the metropolis of La Paz, Bolivia's capital, I was more hopeful and ordered a vegetarian pizza. I questioned the waiter as to why one of the ingredients was ham and he gave me a disdainful look and answered me slowly, as if I were a child, 'but it has vegetables too'.

In Bolivia it seems that their President, Evo Moralez, enjoys popular support. One of the bizarre things about this country is that one of the ways its citizens show that support is by writing pro government graffiti around the cities and even the small villages. It doesn't seem right, it's hard to picture Banksy spraying complementary pictures of Nick Clegg accompanied by 'we support the coalition', except I suppose in a satirical way, but I'm pret-ty sure that's not what's going on here.

We spent some days in La Paz, and at just short of 4000m it's not easy going. We made some interesting discoveries, such as pollo means not only chicken but also cocaine and must make for some interesting explanations at customs. We initially stayed in a beautiful hostel with a balcony overlooking San Francisco church. On the third day we were unceremoniously kicked out following some confusion over dates and spent the next night in my least favourite hostel so far, the Maya. The springs in the bed had been unsprung many Mayan moons ago and it didn't so much dip in the middle as sink all the way to the floor. The sheets smelt like Michael Moore after a night on Buckfast and I had to whittle away the never-ending night time hours playing Suduko, trying to read and watching Easy Rider. Sunrise took a lifetime to come but when it did I shook Fay awake and was out of there faster than a llama chasing a banana.

The 'Mayan experience', as well as not being able to breathe hastened our departure and we arranged for a bus then boat to take us downriver into the jungle. After much hot and dusty desert in Peru and the dirty busy city of La Paz, we were grateful as the bus started it's descent into the rainforest. We were looking forward to seeing some weird and wonderful wildlife. The first animal we saw was a seagull, in the middle of landlocked Bolivia. The bus drive there used to be along 'death road' so named because of its remarkable safety record. Thankfully 'new road' had been built and we were even more pleased when our minibus driver started off at a surprisingly sedentary pace. At some later point he must have remembered he was Bolivian and tried his very hardest to make up his earlier safety conscious behaviour.

We stopped for one night in Coroico and it is the most relaxed and beautiful of jungle towns. The views from the hostel across the jungle were wonderful and there was a carpet of mountainous green as far as you could see. The wildlife here alone was fascinating and there was a spot along an otherwise uninteresting path with more butterflies than I'd ever seen and some as big as a face (not my face obviously).

The following day we boarded our river boat and met up with our guide Ivan and his crew. One of the crew looked the spitting image of Gaddafi, and had a sinister looking Prosthetic limb (I later managed to tactfully (?) find out this was from a dynamite fishing accident as kid). He was the Classic bond villain, complete with aviator shades, open buttoned shirt and an evil laugh.

After three days camping in the jungle and some dubious explanations and animal identifications from Ivan, we arrived in Rurrenbaque. It wasn't that we were expecting a red carpet, but we hadn't expected to see two locals beating the life out of each other on the landing beach. The fight was broken up by another local, but it made me wonder what would happen if no one broke fights up? Presumably as the anger wained and the ferocity of the punches diminished, it would all end up a bit awkward?

The jungle we were visiting is called Madidi National Park and has been designated a protected zone by the government since 1995. We had previously travelled through some of the non protected parts and they were being heavily mined for gold and there was a serious amount of logging. One of the most depressing sights was a village we visited which had a huge rubbish tip on the bank of the river, washed directly away downstream. In Madidi itself all such activities have been outlawed with good success and it's one place where tourism genuinely seems to have helped. There were plans to build a dam to flood the area to sell electricity to Brazil but those have been lain dormant. There are now plans to exploit the area for it's oil, and the plans are supported by Evo Morales, so it seems there will always be a battle. Most worrying is that the German government help the park financially and that funding runs out in two years. Without further assistance it may be the end of the park which is said to host an abundance of animal and plant species, many of which ares still undiscovered.

We moved onto the community owned Agua Pollo lodge, three hours upriver and in the heart of the jungle. We met our new guide for the next four days, also called Ivan.  This guy really knew his stuff, and was able to make the strangest of sounds to call the animals. His English was very good apart from failing to pronounce the 't' in 'peanuts' when we asked him what was in our soup. The Lodge was a great place and as we were out of season we had the privilege of being the only two there. We had our own entourage, excellent chef, guide, driver, assistant driver, the 'Cap-I-Tan' and one other known enigmatically as 'the oldest man' who looked like he had been relying far too heavily on the local 95% brew for the last half century.

Normally when someone shouts 'TARANTULA' or 'DEADLY CORAL SNAKE' the first thing that comes to mind is 'RUN'. However on this trip we had to get our heads round running towards these animals. Although there were old hunting trails that spread out like a web from the lodge, mostly the animals came to the lodge whilst we were taking a siesta and so when Ivan whisper-shouted 'GIANT ANTEATER' or the names of many other wild visitors, I usually had to run to see them in my pants and flip flops whilst rubbing the sleep from my eyes, probably scaring the poor chef, Ella Louise, half to death.

One of the many birds we saw were wild turkeys. An impressive looking bird which was not easy to see. We saw them though with both Ivan's and when we pressed each of them for more information, expecting a response along the lines of whether they live in primary, secondary forest etc, both guides simply licked their lips, rubbed their tummies and said 'delicious'. We also saw egrets, herons, macaws, toucans, parakeets, various types of monkey that we would chase through the forest as they jumped from tree to tree, a large cat called a taira, (that later turned out to be a bush dog) packs of wide lipped peccary (similar to wild boar), cayman, capibara (world's biggest rodent) and a tarantula. (fuller list at the end for those that care).

Probably the best experience was at the 'salty mud place' which was essentially a big muddy bath. Some animals, often peccaries, go there to 'wash' and eat clay. There is a naturally occurring elevated platform above it which we crept to, as quietly as we could. We sat there silently, hidden by the bushes for a very sweaty half hour. We settled in for the wait. We had to be absolutely still. The signs were good, no animals been yet that day. I asked Ivan if you could hear the peccaries from far away and he replied that they were very quiet and appeared suddenly, as if from no where. Then, right on cue, they entirely failed to appear. The next day however we returned and almost immediately a pack of about 100 of the ill tempered hogs waded into the muddy bath and 'washed' and ate, all within about 4m of where we silently sat.

On our last night we went to Santa rosa lake where the community keep a dug out canoe. No visitors had ever stayed the night there so we agreed to be their guinea pigs (a favourite food of some of the more dangerous jungle animals). In the lake were piranha and cayman. Fay was concerned about these maneaters and asked Ivan if the cayman might come into our camp in the night. She wasn't overly reassured when his response was 'don't know'. And when she questioned whether they might attack us in the night, he gave the even less reassuring response 'maybe, I have a stick' and later, 'you can try and run away'. None the less the lake was a very very beautiful place, and we set off in our canoe at sunset with a backdrop of the mountains in the distance, and caught some piranha for dinner.

It was a welcome relief to be on the lake, the heat and humidity on land is oppressive and everything is trying to bite or sting you. I self diagnosed myself as suffering from a mixture of heat exhaustion, sunstroke and malaria many times per day. You don't take your clothes off there, you peal them off. But an amazing place.

Another first was that we were to head out into the lake at night and search for cayman. We paid tributes to Pachamama beforehand in order to ensure our safety, although I would probibly have forfeited the tribute for a life jacket and health and safety briefing. The tribute itself is fantastic, a canny forefather many moons ago had decreed that Pachamam was a big fan of the 95% local liquor, pall mall cigarettes and chewing cocaine leaf. We both took part and I smoked my first cigarette in 8 years. They believe that if the ash on the cigarette burns upwards it's good luck, and if down, it's bad. I'm sure I remember something similar at school. Anyway we set off in the canoe moving in virtual silence. The only sounds were of bats, insects or the bailing of water from our 'slightly sinky' canoe, that was 'made from wrong wood'. After a short time we started to see some red eyes reflected from our torches which would slip silently under the water as we approached. There was considerable tension in the boat. One of the few reassuring thoughts was that having tourists eaten by crocs would be very bad for business, although on retrospect the crocs were very unlikely to take this into account. Fay asked Ivan how big the canoe was, '7m', 'how big are the cayman?', 'Spectacled cayman only 2m and not dangerous to humans', 'that sounds ok, any other cayman?', 'yes black cayman, up to 6m', 'But not in this lake?', 'Oh yes in this lake, it's very big.' We saw more eyes and glided near, far too near and were then virtually on top of one in very shallow water. It remained completely still and we were withing touching distance, the water so shallow that we could clearly make out the whole beast, a mere 2m or so but plenty big enough. We were a little suprised when Ivan gave it a prod with the oar, but thankfully it didn't take the 'bait', or 'us' as we had begun to think of ourselves. There's nothing like a good dose of fear to start believing, and I kept the tribute of coca leaves in my mouth the entire outing, hoping that Pachamama would be kind.

As is fairly obvious from me writing this blog, we made it back safe and sound and the next morning our nerves had recovered. Our guide and his staff were fantastic people and were always laughing with each other and seemed genuinely happy most of the time. Towards the beginning of the trip I tried a few jokes here and there that were met with distant expressions, but as time went on I began to understand their sense of humour more and more. Essentially all I had to do was compare one of them to an animal. Something along the lines of 'How big is a spectacled bear?', 'About the size of cap-I-tan', 'So cap-I-tan is a spectacled bear?'. Cue raucous laughter, holding tummies and my nomination for Rurrenbaque comedian of the year.

If a seagull is an oddity in landlocked Bolivia, a naval base in the tiny frontier jungle town of Rurrenbaque must be a joke. In fact, Bolivia used to need a navy. They had a small coast, but in 1883 they tried to flex some muscle and deport the Chileans living there. Their larger neighbour Chile wasn't impressed and won a the Pacific War against Bolivia and Peru and annexed themselves some more beach in the process, leaving Chile landlocked. Hence the Bolivian Navy's motto 'Grrrrrr that Chile' accompanied by a picture of a sailor shaking his fist. Now however the naval base wins the award for the world's most ineffectual. Each morning they have a procession and bugle call, but it's a despondent display, understandable given the circumstances.

We've moved on now for a few days rest in Cochabamba, and then to start a ten day paragliding course which is almost unbelievably, dangerously cheap. But it's ok, I have my 95% liquor, 20 pack of Pall Mall and Coca leaf and hope that Pachamama looks after the skies too.

Some of the animals we saw:

Tamarin monkey
Night monkey
Black spider monkey
Brown capuchin monkey
White throated toucan
Ivory toucan
Red and green macaw
Chesnut fronted macaw
Green and yellow macaw
Orinoco goose
Spectacled cayman
Giant Anteater
Bush dog

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pizzacones and flippin-mingoes

It must be a universal truth that on every journey, be it by boat, coach or train, there is an Australian or American who either
1 has no CONTROL over HOW LOUD they SPEAK,
2 is well meaning but doesn't realise how loud they are speaking or
3 is an obnoxious (insert expletive) who wants everyone to hear the inane dribble falling from their mouths and is actually the devil incarnate and who's every satanic word is slowly but undeniably eating away at all the other passengers' souls.
I've come across type 3 on most journeys so far. In fact it hadn't occurred to me just how much er.. travelling would be involved in er... travelling for a year. Yesterday for example was 3 and half hours on a boat from Amantani island on lake Titticaca to Puno and then a few hours waiting at the bus terminal followed by a coach journey for 8 hours to La Paz in Bolivia (with the biggest type 3 so far) and a goodbye to Peru.
Amantani island is in the middle of Titticaca and was originally populated by those fleeing the marauding Incans many years ago. You can pick up a boat from the local port but they all stop on the floating reed islands of Uros en route to Amantani. Those islands are unique, literally whole islands, including boats and houses made of reeds. Unfortunately whilst the locals of olde were able to avoid the Incans, a far more insidious invader has devastated these islands, the tourist. The only word the locals now appear to know is 'compra' (you buy). Amantani is less effected but well on the way, and it's a real shame. Thankfully there were four Frenchmen we were sharing the 'homestay' with who were very entertaining and made for an enjoyable birthday. The 'homestay' was basic and we weren't afforded quite the same comfort as our French friends who had been allocated the guest bedrooms. We had to make do with a teenagers room with a suspiciously musty smell, wallpaper made of a mixture of old homework and magazine cut outs and blankets that you could have cracked with a hammer.

Puno is the gateway to lake Titticaca and we stayed there a few days extra as Fay had eaten something wholly unagreeable in Arequipa and was bedridden for 48 hours. To get to Puno we took the spectacular coach journey across the altiplano, through some amazing scenery and beside lakes full of flippin-mingoes (flamingos). Fay didn't appreciate the journey quite so much, it being pretty difficult to take in the views through the bottom of a sick bag. In fact, I don't know why she didn't give up the window seat.
Prior to Puno we spent some happy days in Arequipa, ate at the excellent Zig Zag restaurant a couple of nights and took a trip into the Colca Canyon, via an unforgettably cramped bus journey and a confusing and vaguely informative evening at an astronomical observatory in Chivray. The canyon itself is said to be over 3000m deep, but they measure it from the top of the mountain as opposed the canyon itself, so whilst nowhere near 3000m, it's still very very big. The only route into it is down a steep dirt track that takes a few hours and is hot and dusty and with cactuses all around, feels very much like the wild west. It ends at the bottom of the canyon at a place called Sangalle. Sangalle is an actual oasis, complete with palm trees, naturally filled swimming pool and bamboo huts. We arrived the day after a national holiday, and a couple of the builders who worked there had decided to turn a 24 hour binge into a 48 hour one and had started on the Pisco at 8am that morning. Their mumbled rants were difficult to ignore and having to listen to them throw up the following morning sullied what was otherwise a real life paradise. Further into the canyon are the towns of Mallata and San Juan and in both towns we met the friendliest and most hospitable we encountered in the whole of Peru. On the last day we left San Juan at 5am to avoid the sun and walked up the path ascending 1400m and reaching Cobanaconda by 9 for breakfast.

We arrived in La Paz, Bolivias 4000m capital yesterday. We checked into a nasty hostel but it was late and we were tired and almost fell asleep brushing our teeth. Today we've found a great place to stay and I've made some plans for the mountains near to the city. Tonight we've experienced that quintessentially Bolivian outing - going to the mega center cinema, watching a American film and eating a Burger King meal with Hershey Bar cake for dessert. And can you believe, they have 'Pizzacones' here. Pizza in an ice cream cone. And who says Bolivia is a backward country?

Arequipa photos

Colca Canyon photos

Lake Titticaca photos

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bring the hat back

Cusco was horribly touristy and there's a limit to how many times you can politely say 'no gracias' to offers of 'massages sir massages?' or embarrassing bobble hats made from genuine llama (and definitely NOT cat) hair.

Arequipa however, seems a great place. A bit like Brighton or Bristol, lots of good places to eat, lively bars, markets and no offers whatsoever of genu-eeeen 'Ray bin' sunglasses. Yesterday we headed to Moleno Sabandia, a local ranch. We hired a couple of horses and for two hours I felt a bit like Clint Eastwood and cantered around the dusty paths and whistled western tunes in my head. Although I felt like Clint Eastwood, I looked very much like a gringo in flip flops, board shorts and a sombrero which despite being the largest they had, still sat on top of my head like a skull cap. Nonetheless my outward appearance won't affect the (completely false) memory of being a nearly genuine cowboy for an enjoyable, if chaffing, afternoon.

Before we came to Arequipa, we went out into the mountains around Ausangate ( link). It's a giant mountain at 6372metres and pretty remote. We hired a muleteer named Chino (so called due to his, well, chinos) and a mule named Pablo (he didn't have a name, but Chino pandered to his new gringo friends and their instant emotional attachment to his beast of burden). The trek itself is about 80km and is a circuit around Ausangate and takes about 4-6 days. The whole circuit is very high, all above 4000m and the Palomani pass at 5165m is the highest point, a couple of hundred meters higher than Mont Blanc. On the second day and as an aside to the trek, I climbed Qampa, at 5500m. The scenery is truly amazing in its variety and vastness and you felt like you were somewhere that people shouldn't really be. Chino was a great muleteer, and despite our initial reservations due to him looking about 14 years old, he proved competent. He was actually 18 and strong willed and a polite struggle over who would prepare dinner and more importantly what to cook, became more pronounced each passing day. He usually came out on top and refused me the four eggs I wanted for dinner on the third night, telling me that 2 was enough. The conversations usually went something like; Me - 'Si si si', him - 'no no no' repeated enough times until I got the huff and went off to pretend to do something more important. He is in training to be a mountain guide and at the end of the trip I gave him my binoculars and have rarely seen anyone so happy. Fay however didn't quite have the time of her life. The altitude effected her badly and although she had moments of appreciating how spectacular the whole adventure was, they were almost certainly outweighed by sheer, undiluted anger at me for persuading her to come along. Freezing temperatures, steep paths, a severe lack of oxygen, a couple of angry Alpaca shepherdesses at 5am one morning and 'green bean ready brek' (imagine) are all difficult to handle when you have a stinking cold and an annoying boyfriend who can't let 'Egg-gate' go. Often throughout the trip we were hassled by local dogs that would bark at us menacingly. They were all bark though, and would get confused, stop barking and look a little embarrassed when we didn't run away (which we probably would have if it weren't for Chino and Pablo). Then with two days to go the shaggiest, dirtiest of dogs approached as if we had just saved him from a burning house. We named him the borderline racist name 'rasta' as his hair was in what looked like dreadlocks and he was, well, black. He then followed us for two days, sleeping in the snow outside our tent, encouraging us up mountains, chasing his tail in happiness every time we stroked his pungent fur, until we got back to the tiny town of Tinqui. We had to say an emotional farewell from a taxi as we left him sitting in the middle of the street, silhouetted against the afternoon sky, feeling very much like we had just punched a puppy in the face, which wasn't that far from the truth.

That same night we got the overnight bus from Cusco to Arequipa and arrived here on the morning of 27th and checked into a comfortable hostel to make up for the nights in my damp, cold tent. Today I've felt naked. The taste of a sombrero has left me wanting more, and I've been irate today that people everywhere only wear stupid American baseball caps. It's time to bring back the hat. Anyone know where the BFG sombrero hat shop in Peru is?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ausangate Oct 2010

Ausangate circuit and Qampa mountain (5500m), near Cusco, Peru. Click on the photo to see the album, or click here

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Yesterday I managed to persuade a couple of locals to take me climbing. There is a nearby spot with some good bouldering and we managed to avoid the banditos en route. The place consists of a group of small caves and a local drunk has made one of them his 'home'. If Heenan ever makes it out here then he should start there.

A little lost as to what to do today, as Fay is now doing the Inca Trail, I asked the caretaker (Louis, who has a mouth full of gold teeth making him look like a well off, although very short, Jaws. Actually not much at all like Jaws then) and he suggested going to watch Cusco v Huancayo at the Estadio. I arrived an hour early and wasn't sure whether the huge armed police presence with riot shields was a good or a bad thing. I was basking in being the only gringo there. Shortly after kickoff however, my place as honorary gringo was soiled by the arrival of a group of braided, dreadlocked, stinking travellers who were almost certainly from the UK and all had just bought the Cusco FC shirts. My unfounded anger only subsided when Cusco went down 3-0 in the first 15 minutes which soon put a stop to their girating, toolish behaviour. Turns out the police shields were used to create a tunnel for the Huancayo players to leave the field without being clobbered by the missiles thrown by the Cusco fans.

From Skye to Sao Paulo.

> (In voice of that doctor from simspons) 'hello everybody!'
> Today has been cafe day. Mate de coca is the local brew, and my addictive personality has taken to it like a llama to banana. It is made from the coca leaf, of which it takes a kilo to make 1 gram of cocaine. It is supposed to help with the altitude and I undoubtedly start feeling very rough if I don't have a cup for a couple of hours.
> Yesterday we took a local bus up to pisac to take a look at the ruins. The weather was ominous but the locals assured us the lightning and thunder would pass around us rather than above us, they were wrong, we were I'll prepared. We got wet. Great ruins though and spread out along a mountain ridge which made for an atmospheric visit. The market in the town was terrible, full of the same landfill at tourist markets worldwide and Fay saw the exact same scarf she'd bought for a friend in Malaysia a week earlier.
> Cusco itself is an ok city, approximate 350000 people and lies at a height of about 3300m. Very touristy, but the ruins around the town are fascinating and the local markets worth a visit.
> En route here we had a day in Sao Paulo and it's a shame it was only a day. Massive dirty city but the people were open and friendly and I felt less like such an obvious gringo there than here where the locals are shoulder height. I should head over to my homeland in India where I wouldn't get a second look.
> We're heading up to do some trekking around Azunguate in about a week and looks amazing. Far more rural and we've been told that having a basic grasp of some Quechua will help. So far I've been taught:
> Hello everybody!
> I don't eat meet.
> Thank you everybody.
> Goodbye everybody.
> Which is going to make for some deep and meaningful conversations with the locals.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blair witch vs miike snow

No doubt everyone has been waiting with baited breath for this next exciting instalment of 'where's ollie?', well I'm in mallaig, just over the water on the mainland near the isle of Skye.
I returned this morning from a couple of days out in the wild. Skye is a genuinely dramatic setting. I hitched to elgol then followed the coast round to camasunary. The cuillins appeared in the background and were appropriately shrouded in mist and looked every bit the tolkeinesk mountains everyone says they are. I wanted to head on and see coruisk but the river was too full to cross so the seals at coruisk bay would have to wait another day. I spent the whole evening sitting in the bay window of the camasunary bothy, reading the entries in the bothy journal of those that had stayed there in the past, nearly all of which were positive except one entry from two English lads who got on the wrong side of an uncompromising scotsman who ended up defecating next to them on the beach. The bothy seemed reasonably friendly during the day but when the night set it I realised it had a not uncanny resemblance to that room from the last scene of the blair witch project when the lad is standing on his own facing the corner of the room. Not really the place you want to spend alone for the night but the options were limited. Still I survived a restless night with the aid of some good earplugs (cheers Spink) to mask most of the more sinister creaks and groans the house had to offer.
I set off at sun rise the next day and promised myself that if there weren't any seals at the bay then I was going to kill them all. I had the wind at my back and made good time. There's a memorial hut at the bay but I was a bit disappointed to find it both empty and locked. The bay is a beautiful spot, and when I turned the next corner I found it full of seals, all but one still asleep on some small islands. They're really playful things and just as interested in you as you are in them. The one that was awake kept popping up and checking me out then sliding back under the water and repeating indefinitely. It was good to have some interaction, even if it was with a blubbery fishy mammal. Towards the end of the day and without further interaction, the mind does start to entertain itself and I was a little worried when I caught myself wondering 'who am I most like, frodo, samwise or gollum?' maybe fay can give me some help when we meet up on Saturday. Anyway ipod it was after that and I doubt if miike snow and plan b have much of a following in the cuillins (apart from the Blair witch of course who is a MASSIVE fan) but they got me back on track and up to sligachan where my new tent got it's first outing and thankfully passed it's test in some horrible conditions. Click here to see pics -

Friday, October 1, 2010

So here I am on the isle of skye, about as far from Brighton as you can get in the uk. It's wet and pretty miserable and I got a headache earlier and had to go for a sleep. An inauspicious start, so as the song goes, things can only get wetter. I'm sure it's a beautiful island, but visibility is about 10 foot so type 'isle of Skye summer' into google for pictures as I doubt if I'll be uploading any soon.
I'm heading into the hills tomorrow, probably camping in coruisk or staying in the bothy at camasunary.
Forecast- rain, wind and tears.