Friday, October 27, 2006

A slight delay...

Hi all. Yes, I have been at home for 2 weeks already, and no, I haven't got round to updating the final chapter of this epic tale. I have been very busy catching up with everybody and this week I nipped up to Bonny Scotland to see my brother, sister-in-law and achingly gorgeous niece who is now talking and will have her own chat show in no time. It's scary - she's not two until next week and she uses words like 'condensation' in the right context. She's adorable and I wouldn't climb into a softplay ball pit with 6 under-fives for anyone else. It's been a chaotic couple of weeks, but despite some major changes (sister's new fella, best friend's engagement and very tasty rock on 3rd finger, left hand) things seem to be pretty much as I left them. I've even managed to get my old job back at Deutsche so will be slipping right back into the old routine (dodging the rain, dodging the gym, dodging salads). I hope to get this thing wrapped up by next weekend so that I can focus my energies on my trip to New York in November. As my friend Lynne asked - "can you actually work for, say, 5 months without a break?!" The answer is yes, but not this close to Christmas! I feel magnetically drawn to the Big Apple as soon as they hoist that big tree at the Rockefeller Center. I have until December to apply for a balance transfer on 0% till 2008, so Bloomies here I come!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

On the home stretch..

Well that's all for today folks as my pictures of Iguazu Falls are not yet transferred to disk. I leave you in El Calafate for now, but there isn't much more to come as I have only one week left on this mammoth tour. Yes, in only 7 days I will be getting on a plane from Buenos Aires to London, back to the old life, but back to decent tea and Coronation Street and of course family and friends. I have just 6 days to trip the light fandango in Buenos Aires and to lead myself to near-bankruptcy through a final attempt to shop till my fingers are sliced off by the string handles of chic boutique carrier bags. I am currently in lovely Mendoza where I have been entertained by Canadian firemen and have meticulously planned my Buenos Aires shopping extravaganza by checking that all the shops I like have branches there. In the meantime I am off to collect my last lot of laundry of the trip and to spend a last hour in the garden of the lovely hostel I randomly picked. It's wonderful! Then I will be boarding the overnight bus to BA (First Class no less!) and will be hoping that unlike my last bus trip, they won't be playing Michael Bolton music videos from the mid-80s. Backpacker hell is finding out you've forgotten to charge your Nano and the driver has lined up Michael Bolton and Foreigner videos. Fingers crossed!

El Calafate and the Catamaran Cats














After early morning bussing it across the snow-covered border, Claire and I arrived in El Calafate in Argentina where we were due to meet my friends from home, Jackie and Jane. El Calafate was such a nice surprise - sun shining on a little alpine ski village! Well that's what it looked like - lots of log built chalet-style buildings and enough gift shops to keep me busy 'till Christmas. There were great restaurants and a lovely bar/bookshop that we adopted as our rendezvous spot as Jackie and Jane were staying at a posh hotel while Claire and I were at the hostel. It was so nice that I commented that it was like a mini Val d'Isere without the snow. As if by magic, the next morning we woke up to snow. Perfecto!! We spent the first day there catching up and having such a fab time just relaxing and yabbering that my throat hurt from laughing. Unfortunately the weather meant that the Perito Moreno Glacier was a no-go as, although you could apparently still hear the ice breaking off, there was no visibility. We opted instead for a catamaran tour of the Glacier National Park which was fantastic. We picked the only full day of sunshine and it was beautiful. The boat glides through the icebergs and takes you to the foot of the Upsala Glacier and several others. It was a lovely boat and when you didn't want to brave the cold and wind outside you could relax inside. Also, when everyone gathered at the front of the boat to look at an iceberg us girls could have the rear deck all to ourselves to practice Thriller-style moonwalking.

Torres del Paine and Olde English






We landed at Puerto Natales which was a huge improvement on Puerto Montt. We found a nice warm, cosy hostel which had all mod cons and, most importantly, cable TV so that we could watch 'When Harry Met Sally'. On our first night we all met up for dinner where Johan earned the nickname the Belgian Brute for (hopefully) unintended insults! (Photo is of Claire, Paul, Christian, Johan, Rouel, Liesbet and Anika). Being the oldest diner at the table I was in for many age jokes (those heartless 20-somethings!) Liesbet and Anika (apologies to her for getting the spelling wrong) were born in 1983 and told me so. I replied "That's nice. I'm very happy for you!"
It was all in good humour and we had a great evening listening to some very bad elevator music and eating very strange pizza. We loitered around the next day, in and out of internet cafes drinking hot chocolate and eating hot-from-the-oven muffins, as the weather was pretty horrendous. We didn't mind too much as that night we went back to the warmth of our hostel and a chicken and pasta carbonara cooked by me that apparently convinced Christian (the pouting Kraut) that British food isn't so bad after all (well, Italian-inspired British food). The boys and our Dutch and Belgian friends spent the day getting equipped for their 5-day treks through Torres del Paine National Park. How Claire and I laughed at them stocking up on dried goods and how, for their own safety and not 'cos we were very easily persuaded not to spend 5 days camping and trekking in the freezing cold, we repeated stories of recent trekker accidents that had been told to us by Cecelia, our hostel owner. People had been falling over on the ice and cutting themselves and I'm sure there had been broken bones too.. Anyway, the six of them set off the next morning and I know from Johan and Liesbet that they got snowed in on the second day and were forced to abandon the trek. The same day Claire and I did an excursion to the same park (http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/index.asp), but due to heavy rain, mist, exceptionally low clouds etc, we could only see the bottom bits of the reputedly spectacular Torres themselves. We got a very distant glimpse of the Grey glacier and got up quite close to the icebergs that break off it into the lake. However, the rain forced our retreat into the minibus where we lunched on Olde English mint toffees that were made in Chile and had a picture of a kilt-clad Scotsman on the front.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Patagonian Channels and Penguin Porn













It wasn't all bad in Chile. I have to say that the best thing I did in Chile was get on the Navimag ferry through the Patagonian Channels. In the winter the only way to get to Puerto Natales is to fly or take the ferry, as some of the roads are impassable. Although the weather didn't get any better it didn't matter as there were some great folk on the boat (Belgian, Dutch, Brit, German and French) and I was so grateful to have conversation that it could have been raining stray, rabid dogs and it wouldn't have mattered. I luckily had a 4 berth cabin all to myself as it was of course low season. It was warm and comfortable and you could either sit and watch the very informative documentaries about Patagonia, or sit and read a book, or sit and chat with fellow passengers. There was a lot of sitting but it was nice! The scenery was wonderful despite the rain, clouds, mist etc, but it made it even more spectacular when a ray of sunlight burst through. It's all very peaceful and isolated and you don't see any signs of life until Puerto Eden where we took on more passengers. At night and during the afternoon the staff would put on a movie, so we had some good Chilean movies that were very interesting, one in particular about the very violent political strife of the 1970's and how the gap between rich and poor grew wider, and then we had 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'. We also saw 'The Widowmaker' which involves Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford doing bad Russian accents and nasty things happening in a submarine. A highlight was 'March of the Penguins' which is really very lovely despite the penguin porn jokes during the mating scenes. There was also a showing of 'Flightplan' with Jodie Foster which I had warned the other passengers is a terrible, TERRIBLE movie. It is basically 90 minutes of Jodie running around a plane saying "whersh my dotter". Watch it at your peril as it is 90 minutes you'll never get back. Even that lame duck couldn't ruin what was a fun 3 days teaching 'Cheat' to the Dutch and Belgians (but not giving away all the tricks).

I had only one evening of seasickness despite taking the appropriate pills at the designated time (as there is a stretch of water that is notoriously rough). One minute I was watching a Chilean military movie and the next I was tasting spaghetti bolognese for the second time that night. That same night sleep was hard to come by as the sailing was so rough that you were constantly woken by crashing kitchen equipment being flung from side to side. I got up at least 4 times to shut the door to the deck as the wind kept blowing it open. One very andrenaline-inducing impromptu barefoot skid in pyjamas down the corridor on wet floor put paid to that as I had visions of freak 'sliding out the door and into the sea' accidents and then no one being able to hear my cries.

Anyway, it was a fun time on the high seas but a relief to hit dry land, but as it was Chile in winter it wasn't dry.

Puerto Montt - Cup-a-Soup and scabby dogs

There are no pictures of Peurto Montt. I couldn't bring myself to create a visual record of it. It is so deeply imprinted on my memory that I will never need a photo to recreate the 48 hour misery. I think it is safe to say that the two days I spent there were the worst of the trip. They may in fact rate in the top five worst times of my life (and there's a spinal injury and a panic attack on the Franz Josef Glacier in there, so that should give you an idea). Puerto Montt felt like a bad joke, like someone somewhere was going to jump out from behind a lamp post and tell me I was in some 'Truman Show' type experiment. I had bolted down there to try to sort out a booking problem with my ticket for the Navimag ferry through the Patagonian Channels. I got there on the Saturday afternoon to find the office closed. The weather was even crappier than Villarrica and because Puerto Montt is a dreary, scruffy town anyway, it looked even drearier and scruffier in the rain. When I got in the cab to my 'accommodation' the cab driver tried to get me to stay somewhere else as he said the flaking, rusting shack he was pointing to was "mejor" (better) than where I'd asked him to take me. Well I'm no fool and this is a common tactic by cab drivers to get a bit of commission so I told him 'no'. I was a fool.

When he dropped me off outside the guest house it looked ok, if a little run down. But then PM itself is very run down. I had stupidly paid the landlady before I saw the room and the general accommodation. Now, under normal circumstances I would have bolted and gone to another place, but as this turned out to be the woman's own house (two rooms of which she rents out) I felt obliged to stay for fear of offending her. I am too soft for my own good. The bathroom was unspeakable and I only showered once as I just couldn´t bear to tackle the torturous hot water supply and rivers of condensation running down the lino that was nailed to the walls. The walls of my room were leaning quite dramatically in varying directions and the drafts blew up between the wallpaper and the walls. To borrow a very old line from an 80's comedy, "it was so damp the walls were peeling off the wallpaper". As I dumped my stuff in the room so that I could escape by tramping the wet streets, the landlady came out and (cigarette with half an inch of ash dangling precariously from her mouth) offered to do me breakfasts for an extra $2. I politely declined.

I then wandered the streets of Puerto Montt being tempted into warm and cosy looking cafes, ordering 'homemade soup' only to be served with a hastily-mixed cup-a-soup which still had lumps of powder in it. I was so starved for activities that I waited for the one book shop to open as I had read in my guidebook that it had a "small selection" of English fiction. I bought the only two books worth reading as Mills and Boon seemed to be the order of the day. I read one of them in less than a day - Stella Rimington writes a cracking thriller (but my judgement may have been temporarily impaired). I walked and walked those damp, dirty streets looking for something interesting to do. I was astounded that there didn't even seem to be a cinema. Imagine my distress on Monday morning when I was at the ferry office sorting out my tickets and a Dutch couple told me how they'd been to the movies the night before. I nearly wept. Apparently the half-built, steel girder laden site I'd passed actually contained a working, bona fide movie theatre. I had again felt that I was the only gringa in town. It was a lonely couple of days and I was mere hours away from banging my head against the wall like an abandoned child in a Romanian orphanage.

Lonely that is apart from about 200 rabid dogs. Puerto Montt is also the stray dog capital of South America, and that's saying something. They ran around in packs like wolves and were literally tearing strips off each other. There's nothing like a canine gang rape to put you off your pizza. Some of them looked seriously mangey and it was quite surreal to watch them victimise each other. It was like watching a live action 'Animal Farm'. At night you can hear them fighting and growling and it's quite scary. Due to the rampant inbreeding you also get some really weird looking mutts. Think Rottweiler meets Chihuahua and you get the picture. Labrador body and dachsund legs, etc etc.
How delighted I was to get on the Navimag ferry and sail away from all the horror.

Rather chilly in Chile













I don't want to do Chile an injustice, but don't go there in the Chilean winter. It's wet, very wet. It's cold, very cold. It's empty, very empty, 'desierto' in fact. I'm sure it's stunningly beautiful in the summer and maybe one day I'll go back there in a different season, but I was quite relieved that I had only allowed less than two weeks there as the relentless rain meant that most of the sights couldn't be seen. The clouds lay so low over the mountains that you can't see past half way up, if you're lucky. Anyway, whingeing aside, I started in Santiago which is a nice city but apart from some nice old architecture dotted about and some fab bars and restaurants there really isn´t much to do. Although I did get to watch a student demo at the University de Santiago where they were throwing bottles at the military police and they were aiming water cannons in retaliation. There's nothing like a good student demo...I fondly remember the days in Middlesbrough when I carried my placard aloft and shouted with all my heart and lungs "Thatcher! Thatcher! Thatcher!....Out!Out!Out!" Those were the days...
So one of the few things I'd recommend is Palacio Cousiño which is a gorgeous old mansion house which has been preserved in the style of the incredibly wealthy turn of the century family that built it. It really was a bit of time travel to walk around its fabulously opulent rooms. I was a bit unlucky with travel from Santiago as the backpackers' hop-on/off bus going south was full. However the regular overnight bus was very comfortable - rugs, pillows, DVDs, refreshments (they could teach National Express a thing or two..)
I headed down to Villarica in the Lake District where I was not only the only person staying at the hostel (even the owners were away in Europe), but the only person at the Travellers' Cafe. I had a nice bowl of chilli con carne and a chat to the owner while sitting by the open fire pointing out Finsbury Park to him on the London Underground map on the wall. I was quite literally the only gringa in town and that gets a bit lonely, so after waiting for the clouds to pass so that I could see the Villarica volcano (they never did), I jumped on the next bus out of town the next morning and headed south to Puerto Montt, where my woes began..

Adios Peru!



Just a couple of pics from the last few days in Peru. I just love those alpacas - they are so cute, looking as they do like a llama that ran into a parked car. I thought the runway pictue was groovy, sunshine and mountains, what a view to leave from. I closed the Peruvian chapter of my travels with a very impulsive and quite reckless purchase of a big ring at H.Stern at Lima airport. The very cunning sales lady invited me to try on a few rings "just for fun". Just as I was trying on the more affordable but no less unplanned ring of the selection I was called to immigration over the tannoy and I started to panic saying "I've got to go, they are calling me!", at which point the slick sales siren said "so which one do you want to take?" and I said "this one!" Before I had time to take a breath it was rung up and my credit card was slipping out of my hand. Very foolish but I am sure that I deserve it as reward for not physically attacking the multitude of 'El Condor Pasa' playing pan pipers. I have also convinced myself that I earned it at Machu Picchu. There is no reasoning when it comes to jewellery....

Now where was I...?








After Lake Titicaca I caught a bus to Arequipa which is a gorgeous old city with tons of character. It had some great restaurants and a beautiful convent which I was strangely drawn to (probably at risk of being struck by lightening on entering..) From Arequipa you can do an overnight excursion to Colca Canyon which is where the condors fly. The Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon but you can't really see how deep as you'd have to be a condor to get that view. However, it's impressive in a totally different way to the GC. It was freezing in the morning and roasting in the afternoon. The condors were very well behaved and came out to play for the tourists (bus loads of us), and it was pretty cool actually. It's a bit strange to see people swaying around trying to follow them flying for a photo opportunity. Each of my condor pictures invariably has either a partial or whole condor at the very edge of the photo - them's the breaks with live action and pocket cameras. It was El Condor Pasa indeed up at Colca Canyon, which brings me to the subject of pan pipes again. If you go to Peru you will be serenaded at least 385 times by either a live pan piper or recorded one playing 'El Condor Pasa'. You know the tune.."I'd rather be a hammer than a nail, yes I would..." as popularised by Simon and Garfunkel. Well after a week in Peru you'll feel like a nail being hammered by 'El Condor Pasa'. I won't miss it, not one bit.
After the Colca Canyon excursion I had a day doing the sights of Arequipa which included the aforementioned Santa Catalina convent, which used to be a closed citidel for a few hundred nuns. There are only a few left and the rest of the convent is open as a museum which is very interesting and quite beautiful. Arequipa is nestled in the valley below 3 volcanoes which are all very imposing and dramatic, rising as they do from what is essentially desert. Due to my bad luck so far with volcanoes I didn't want to hang around too long.

Bang up to date..

Greetings blog enthusiasts. It's been a while, but technology has been letting me down lately with techno museum pieces instead of PCs with CD rom. Also I had another rendezvous with friends from home so I could hardly loiter in the internet cafes when there was chatting, drinking and general fun to be had. I am currently in Mendoza, Argentina, where some of the country's best wines are produced. It's a beautiful day and this internet cafe has CD rom!! Argentina is a fabulous country and I couldn't have picked a better nation in which to finish up the trip - they have exquisite wines, wonderful chocolate and gorgeous men (in order of importance).
I'm going to pick up where I left off, but in response to some constructive criticism from some of you (i.e. YOU Matthew!), I am going to recap on my itinerary as the delay in updates seems to be confusing people as to where I happen to have parked my tired ass at any one time:

April - China
May - Cambodia and Vietnam, Australia
June - Australia cont., Hawaii
July - LA, Calgary, Vancouver Island
August - Oregon/Washington State, Miami, Ecuador (inc Galapagos), Peru
September - Peru cont., Chile, Argentina
Oct ('till 12th) - Argentina
Fly home 12th Oct, arriving 13th

I hope that's clarified things a bit. Apologies for the erratic nature of the blog, but you wouldn't want me to keep it up at the expense of absorbing local cultures (beer), agricultural diversity (grub), and artisans wares (shopping). It wouldn't be much of a trip otherwise.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Lake Titicaca







After Machu Picchu I had one full day on Cusco to do the touristy thing which included seeing the Inca stone of 12 angles (see picture of me with strange headgear and Inca tourist trap on legs). It was a nice relaxing day and in the evening I caught an overnight bus to Puno in the south, from where you can get a boat to the islands on Lake Titicaca. I really didn´t know what to expect as I hadn´t had a chance to read up, but the floating islands were a surprise! They are made out of reeds bundled together and compacted over time and feel very strange to walk on. We also took a little boat ride in a reed boat and wandered around the ´villages´ and the craft stalls. Lake Titcaca is huge and we then took a proper boat to Amantani where we stayed with a local family overnight. I shared a room with a lovely British couple (Sonia and Gary) and it was great to have company as it was very difficult to communicate with the family and it wasn´t how I'd imagined a homestay. We basically had a little room to ourselves which was kitted out much better than the family´s own quarters. Once settled in the whole boat group met up for a sunset hike to the top of the hill where you could get a fantastic view of the lake. It was a difficult hike, a mini Machu Picchu if you like, but I made it up there despite having to pay off a local boy to stop playing pan pipes in my ear all the way up. It was getting soooo annoying and I gave him some money thinking he would move on. Alas he kept blasting in my ears and finally I had to say "NO MAS, por favor!" I felt very cruel but I an DONE with pan pipes!!
In the evening the family cooked for us and then the eldest daughter took us to the village hall where we danced to a pan pipe group (what fun!!) The dances were very repetitive and you could tell the villagers were just going through the motions for us. Likewise half the visitors didn´t bother to turn up so it all felt a bit half-hearted. It was also still high altitude so the dancing is exhausting (being as you are dressed up in the many layers of local dress that they'd togged us in - see picture and note that I refused to take off my own clothes as it was brass monkeys outside!) The next day we got back on the boat and went to Taquile island which was quite interesting but very dry and dusty. Both islands make you wonder how they grow anything at all as there is so little vegetation to speak of. There was a very long boat ride back to Puno on which everyone fell asleep, then I had one night in Puno watching little boys pick pocket through the window of the pizzeria I dined at. I was catching a bus to Arequipa the next day so it was an early night for me.

I am hoping to get on a boat through Patagonia from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales tomorrow so I may be out of touch for a few days. Watch this space for more thrilling updates!!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Hurrah!

I am now within about 10 days of being up to date with the blasted blog. It has been a marathon session and I think I now deserve that happy hour indulgence at the Travellers' Cafe. I am seeing barely anything of Chile due to lack of time and tornado-like sweep down this skinny country. I have to get to the far south within the week to meet up with Jackie and Jane who are going to hook up with me in Argentina. We're going to call out to each other across the glaciers and hope that we find each other. I'll attempt to get back to this tomorrow so that I complete the task. But first I've got to catch a 5 hour bus to Puerto Montt to see a man about a boat....

Machu Picchu - les pieces de resistance




Yes, I'm smiling, 'cos as you will no doubt guess it WAS all worth it - just! It was a beautiful scorching hot day up there once the clouds had lifted. The llama is looking at me to say "what do you think you are doing on MY steps?" as he stared at me and wouldn't pass until I shifted aside. It was very hard to believe that 3 days prior I was freezing, hiking through a blizzard and wishing I was in the back of the truck on an escape route. It's as amazing as it looks and I was quite content to sit and look at it in awe and wonder for hours on end while the crazy guys in my group all pushed themselves to another limit by climbing Waynapicchu - the peak in the background of the large photo. Bugger that! My legs were jelly by then and there was no more altitude-busting for me. Shortly after this picture was taken I caught the bus down and went for ice cream and internet exposure - don't you just love the wonders of the modern world!

Machu Picchu - el final, parte dos






I have more pictures of Machu Picchu than I have pairs of shoes waiting for me at home. That's a lot of pictures. It's so hard to select a few but I think I saved the best 'till last...

Machu Picchu - el final





We were rewarded for our hard work with a hot springs visit to Santa Theresa on our 3rd night of camping. It was bliss and the best thing we could have hoped for - all flaming torch-lit and very atmospheric out in the open against the mountainside with only stars to look at. We fought over who could see the Big Dipper and if it really was it, or was it Scorpio? We had a final group dinner at Aguas Calientes and then went to bed in a proper bed that night - very exciting. It was also my first exposure to the internet for 5 days so I was a bit like a kid on Sunny Delight. The anticipation of the crack of dawn visit to Machu Picchu was just too much..

Machu Picchu - encore une fois







Rocky river crossings, dangling in a metal cage river crossings, downing the local juice made from corn - all in a day's work.

Machu Picchu - revisited





For a blow by blow account of my 5 day alternative Inca Trail trek, please see update from 30 August. In reading it you will see why the horse in the picture is giving me 'eeeevils'! I would also like to add that although I was the first to call on the services of the emergency horse, I was certainly not the last. In the 3rd picture you can see the cloud/blizzard that was awaiting us as we made our way through the valley. Somewhere in the glacial moraine is my khaki 'Jack-in-a Pack' anorak. Middle photo above shows me smiling a mere 30 minutes before my head started to implode. Group photo shows the happy Peruvians, Slovakians, Argentinians, Australians, Belgian and me, token Brit, at the start of the trek with Peter our guide.