Wednesday, 28 April 2010

I survived the worst border ever - But this time no t-shirt!!

I have been comfortable with any of the travelling experiences we have had in the near 365 days we have been travelling, indeed I don recall having a horrendous travelling experience, but on the border of Peru an Ecuador I finally had my shock moment.

My plan was to travel pretty non stop from Cusco via Lima up over the Peru/Ecuador border and then on to Quito. If I could get the international bus in Lima then this would take me non stop to Quito, if not then I would DIY the crossing continue to the capital.

The first 48hours of the trip were fine, I got to Lima and then on to the border town of Tumbes in Peru. So far so good. It was a long trip but no problems or issues, then the border loomed!!!

The context is that this area of north Peru was previously disputed territory and was fought over in recent wars. It is still a rogue area full of contraband loads passing over the border. In particular the border is the focus of the drug run from Columbia. In addition to these problems the border is full of petty criminals and bizarrely dodgy people trying to offer 'help' to travellers crossing.

I am really kicking myself as I should have known things were suspect from the moment I got of the overnight bus and was besieged by taxi touts trying to assist me across the border. In the mêlée I opted for the wrong guys who told me he would get me to the direct bus on the Ecuador side. The other tell tale sing was that there were no other tourists anywhere to be seen in the town!

From the moment I got into his tuk tuk and someone else got in I knew things were not right. 10 minutes from the border we got stopped by the police, who wanted to check I was a smuggler! They looked official but I was not sure, and when they took my passport and disappeared into the police van I got a bit twitched. Things were worse when they started asking me what I was doing in Peru, if I had been working, if I had drugs etc etc. They checked all my bags for anything they could fix me for. Of course other than smelly t-shirts there was noting!! Finally they let us go and we carried on. I was sooo relieved to have my passport that I barely noticed the second police guy who stopped us 2 minutes later. This time he was doubtful I was the same person as in he passport. I had the stubble right but looked to be too thin!!! Finally I had found a bad point to losing weight!!

Again after much umming and questioning the second guy let us go.

When we go to the Peru side of the border I was told to get my exit stamp and then the tuk tuk was going to arrange a security escort (can you believe it!!) to take me to Ecuador. At this point he asked/demanded his fee. A cool $20!! The ride should have been $2, but by this time I wasn't in a position to argue and furthermore I got the distinct feeling that everyone was in cahoots to make things tough and therefore charge more and more. I gave in and gave him the 20 bucks and he gave me a security escort, who turned out to simply be a porter.

I have to say that the porter guy was actually of some use as by this time I had missed my bus connection to Quito and Guayaquil (the town where I could get a faster bus to Quito). He took me to a minibus rank where there were minivans that would speed me to Guayaquil. This seemed like the best idea, so after fighting with the porter over his fee (he wanted 20 too)!!! And also having 2 further police officers extort more dollars for tea I booked the transport.

The final twist was that I was told to go ahead of the minivan to the order post and get my Ecuador visa sorted. The van would meet me there. Not knowing where things were I was again lost. Finally seeing my plight a wonderful Ecuadorian lady offered to come with me to the border and we would catch the van together. If it was not for Roxana I am sure I would have paid more and more to sort things out.

Finally after 50+ hours I arrived Guayaquil airport (I had decoded to fly the last 10 hour bus ride!!!) I tell you I was literally smiling and laughing when I walked into the cool clean brand new airport and the LAN check in lady upgraded me on hearing my story!!! I sank into the comfy chair in the lounge and savoured my coffee!!!!

The journey is one for the memory banks and reminds me that things have been real smooth so far on this trip! Every so often a bump in the road helps to bring me down to earth!
I was also mighty glad that Urvi wasn't there. I struggled and at a few points I felt pretty uncomfortable, but I think that Urvi would have freaked out!!! It was a real lesson in trying to stay focused and keep your wits about you.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Cusco - What a Gem!!

Yes it's touristy, yes every other shop is either trying to sell you a Macchu Picchu tour or a tapestry, but man does this place ooze history. Cusco is like being in Rome, there is history and atmosphere everywhere. The tiny streets rumble around lovely plaza's that in turn house quaint churches and markets on all corners. The city is lined with numerous walled rows that date back to its Inca origins and are then supplemented by the Spanish colonial age of the city.

I didn't step out of the city limits during my 4 days here simply because trekking to Macchu Picchu was something I wanted to experience with Urvi, so I made this more of a city break, chilling out in the lovely restaurants (including an Indian buffet which served quality curry and lovely lassi's) and pottering around the historic streets. I continued my success of meeting up with some new old friends by catching up with Davide and Alessandra and also Hilde (from Antarctica). Meeting friends has been a real saviour for me. I have wanted to be by myself and I have achieved some of what I wanted to think about, but interestingly I have not really been alone!!! This wasn’t all that bad a thing!!

The hostel in Cusco was also really special. Not only was it great quality and super comfy (the blankets were thicker than mine at home!!!) but the people working and staying there were pretty special too. It's been a feature of our travels to date that people at the hostels have really impacted on how we have perceived a place. This was surely the case in Kyoto, Bangkok and now in Cusco.

The city is run for and run by tourism, so It does feel a little cheesy at the edges, but to be honest with you, this is part o the fun and appeal of a town like Cusco. Indeed I got really annoyed anytime I heard a tourist getting frustrated with another old lady asking if they wanted to buy a rug or t shirt, I mean come on, you are here for tourism, you are tourists, accept the locals are trying to make their living through you!

What was so nice about Cusco was the way it came alive in the evenings. I would chill out at the hostel during e heat of threat and then the moment the sun dipped behind one of the Incan walls I would head out to join the mass of pre college backpackers who was dazzled by every new experience they had, I would join the package tour set who would rush in for a day or so, rush over to Macchu Picchu and then leave again. Most of all I would join the locals who would come out win their families and enjoy e evening cool. Going into local eateries you see the same scenes that we had seen everywhere, families enjoying each others company, conducting the business of life. It was such a nice sight, and felt warming and complete.

Cusco was a stop over for me before I embarked on the massive trek up from the south of Peru right through to Quito. I was in a perfect, peaceful place where I met up with friends, recharged my batteries and looked ahead to the celebration of completing one year travelling with Urvi.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Getting over the fears of my youth

As I plummeted down the death road to Corioco on a mountain bike I was thinking just how bizarre this experience was!!  I recalled that I was the kid who only really learnt to cycle when I was 7! and in general would sherk away from anything active.

I recall the torture I put my brother and sister through as they tried and pleaded with me to get on a bike and then to take the stabilisers off! I am now seeking out interesting bike rides and racing down hills with 400m drops - how crazy...

This got me thinking just how much I feel both myself and Urvi have actaully overcome the fears of our youths...

My mum will recall just how much torture she went through in trying to teach me to swim. I would literally scream my head off (I was only 4 ok!!!!) in the swimming pool if I was taken anywhere near the water, I was crazy. Now I go crazy to dive in the most amazing locations in the world. Urvis the same, she hardly swam until the recent past, and now she is also flying through the water with he scuba gear on... Amazing!!!

I remember my brother trying to get me trekking, but only succeeding to get me a few flat kms! Now I have been seeking out treks and looking forward to scaling new heights, can you imagine!!!

Urvi was a proficient trekker in her past, but it's fair to say that she has not trekked for a while, so now we are literally rising to new limits and conquering passes at over 5700m!!

Overcoming fears and rising to new challenges has been a totally fundamental part of this trip and long may it continue. Remember I plan to end his trip by cage diving with Great White sharks!! Pretty amazing for a guy who as a kid wouldn't even walk into shallow end of a pool!!!

The magic of travel!!

Sent from my iPod

Out of breath in La Paz

Of course most people know that I love stats and figures, so I was stoked to be in the highest capital city in the world!! I didn't know much about La Paz other than it's altitude credentials but I must say it really surprised me!! This place was full of interesting things to do and see. More than that La Paz seemed to have a real character and attitude of it's own. Of course when you only spend a couple of days in a city you never get to really feel the true vibe but even in the short time we were there La Paz left a great impression. The outstanding feature of this city is the geography, not only the hieght but more the way it is seemingly wedged into an impossible valley wih mountainside all around. The city has seemingly grown around and up the moutains so you almost have the city in a total bowl. Of course this means that to get anywhere you have to ascend or descend alot, so it's tough going most of the time, but it's good for a workout!

The best view in the city we had was from a mirador (viewing point) in the centre, where you could see the city clambering up and over the top of all the surrounding hills it was an inspiring sight seeing people literally cling on and survive - we have life so easy. The best part of the view point was actually the playground that housed it and specifically the huge slide they had, trust me we had a lot of fun on that!!!!

One funny thing about La Paz was the food, try as I might I was not able to have any authentic Bolivian food, not because there were no options but more because by the time we got to La Paz we were so eager for spice and variety we freaked out on Japanese, Indian, Thai and a range of other varieties!  I could not have imagined that I would come to La Paz and have such a choice of food variety!

The final day in La Paz was super cool a we mountain biked the worlds most dangerous from just outside the capital to a town called Corioco. What is so dangerous about this road?? Well in the past it was the drivers who tackled the 4m wide moutainside road (that winds and hairpins constantly) as if it was a 6 lane highway. They would go at speeds that are just madness when there is a 400m drop awaiting you!! By the way did I mention it's all gravel!! The combination of the narrow road, the sheer drops and the horrible driving made for weekly fatal accidents. So it was statistically and truthfully the most dangerous road! 3 years ago they built a new road and therefore motor traffic is no more. That's great for people now who can mountain bike on the road. Oh ya I forgot to mention the road descends 3KMS, 3000m over it 64km length. That means you are constantly at risk of flying over the unguarded edge.

To be honest if you apply basic common sense and safety technique the road is not overly deathly. However it is clear that some people don't follow any logic. Our guide took some bizarre pleasure in telling us that there had been 9 deaths of cyclists and the last one was only 10 days ago. He also menioned hat there were weekly injuries and near misses!! He even stopped and encouraged us to take pics at the infamous site of the last death, you will be glad to know I gave it a miss...

All in all La Paz was fast but fun, we had great food and pottered about a city that has much to give if you allow it to. For me it was a productive visit, I came away with 2 achievement T-shirts!! One for eatin the hottest Indian curry in South America and one for the death road. Trust me the curry was a much bigger acheivement!!

Sent from my iPod

Saturday, 17 April 2010

I Feel So Much That My Mind Goes Blank

I feel so much that my mind goes blank.
I see so much that my eyes struggle to focus
I hear so much that I can't make out any noise

There are times when my senses are overloaded and everything becomes too much...

This happens often and is maybe a function of my inability to express and process what i see. However I see things and feel I must describe them, define them, analyse them, quantify them. Of course this is plainly stupid, not everything is to be catelogued in this way.

I guess the conclusion i come to in these random musings is just that this world is indescribably complex and yet so simply beautiful and sometimes it is better to just let it be, take it in and let the gift of time and memories allow you to digest what you have felt, seen or heard.

Someone once said that sometimes you just have let things be and they will develop at the pace they were meant to, experiences are often like that. I guess I must learn that, never push things...

Sent from my iPod

Friday, 16 April 2010

Back To Reality In Bolivia

So we have been travelling for close on 350 days and there have been many 'interesting' places and journies we have undertaken. Argentina spoilt us when it came to travel - we flew a bit (and bizarrely Aerolineas was on time!) and took lots of buses. Without fail the buses were all excellent quality and pretty much on time throughout. We took cama (business class style) and cama suite (first class kinda).

Welcome to Bolivia, the sign said. It should have said welcome back down to earth! Just as we needed to readjust after the super jumbo business class, we really needed to readjust after Argentina. Bolivia did exactly that. Our first journey was a classic. We had decided to go straight from Uyuni to Sucre, the night we had completed the salt flats tour, this was a good and a bad idea, the bad was that we would need to change bus in Potosi...

Our first bus was great (to my standards) it was clean and on time. However when we arrived to Potosi at 1am and basically were told to sit in the bus for an hour, in the cold, until the next bus arrived. It arrived... And was totally full. Despite being told we had resrved seats, a bunch of people got on and took the seats. 3 of our group, including me ended up standing for the subsequent 6 hours to Sucre.

This was not fun and didn't make for a relaxing night jouney, however I must say that it was he kind of thing one was to expect in Bolivia. For me it was a it of a lesson in adjustment. I recalled the bus journey to Kathmandu, which was far worse. I am sure Urvi would immediatly cite the journey from Luang Prabang to Thailand, where she was vomitted on. These things happen!!

I think that people living in ANY country would do well not to apply standards and norms they are used to in countries they travel in. This does beg the question how do you know what to expect? I am not sure that you do however this is the point, by going in with an open mind we can tolerate much more than we think.

I'm not at all stating that the overbooking and the standing were acceptable, but I am saying that these things happen and maybe we have to flex... Hilariuos coming from a guy who will pick a panga (indian word for arguement) for anything!!!!

Sent from my iPod

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Getting High On Salt

Ever since the conception of this trip I have been wanting to visit the famous salt flats of Bolivia - the Salar De Uyuni. I'm not sure if it was the photos I saw, the extreme nature of the place or simply the uniquenss of the place, but this was on my must be done list. It was therefore with a slightly heavy heart that I made my way alone to San Pedro and from there embarked on this important trip without Urvi.

The dissapointment of leaving Urvi in BA while I travelled here was somewhat lessened by the fact that I was travelling with a bunch of great friends. Of course there were Melissa and Claire, without whom I would have not enjoyed this portion of the trip, we have travelled on and off for a while together and I am really thankful for that - cheers guys!!  For putting up with me!! In addition Jamie and Liz were on the trip too, which was great. We then had Si and Jim, Lauren and Liz, Alessandra and Davide and Andrea; all of who we knew from somewhere on the South America trip. This made for a great travelling group and of course dampened any pangs of loneliness!!

The nuts and bolts of the trip are simple. You take a 4x4 jeep from the Bolivian border and drive it for 3 days, 600kms through to Uyuni. The trip maybe 3 days but technically one could compete it in 2 easy days. The altitude of the trip can be a challenge for some and staying at this hieght should never be taken lightly, however I must say after scaling the 5700m Droma La Pass in Tibet I felt fine with the 4000m+ levels we encountered here.

Along the way you are treated to a spectacular array of natural scenes that blow your mind. There are lagoons, barren mountians, deserts where nothing seems to be, volcanos, rock formations so grand that you wonder where and how they were conceived and of course the biggest draw of all, the salt flats.

Imagine a land so flat and White that it looks like a desert of snow, your feet crunch over the 7m of natural salt that spreads out so far that you drive for an hour and your still not at the end. At times all there is in your eyeline is salt and sky. White and blue so clear and clean that it is more of a picture that reality. The jeep heads out in a direction that could be any direction, the vista is the same. This is a place where no photo can express what the eye captures and the soul processes. It is simple and in many way monotonous but the scale just blew me away. I looked out at the barren aching flats and just pondered life and all that I have witnessed to date...

Although I would say the trip is a bit stretched out, it gave us the chance to spend 2 nights under what is the most spectacular night sky you could imagine. The dark deep sky was literatly set alight with stars. Stars so bright that they glowed and burned and together gave the sky a lighter hue. After the observatory tour in San Pedro i was able to make out various constellations and spot the shades of nebula, it was very special

The Salar De Uyuni was place for which I held great expectations, it didn't disappoint! Once again mother earth has thrown up another amazing display of natural awe and variety. Without Urvi it was different and I am sure we will be back this time together!

Sent from my iPod

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Feeling Insignificant in San Pedro

I am just one of 6 billions people on this earth,

Our earth is just one of 9 planets in this Solar system

Our Solar System is just one of tens of billions in this Galaxy

Our Galaxy is just one of tens of billions in thie universe

Looking out at the stars that set the dark Atacama sky on fire you gaze out in wonder and awe. I can´t comprehend the size of the universe we live in but gazing out at something so huge makes me focus on things that I can comprehend and are tangible to me...

We are each pretty darn small and insignificant, even less significant than one grain of sand on a huge beach, even less significant than a drop of water in the oceans, yet despite this insignifance we are also important to each other. There are people in each of our lives that mean more than the whole universe, these times when you feel so small you realise wahts so big.

The drama of the night sky in Atacama was amazing, and the power of looking out into the universe like that was immense

Monday, 5 April 2010

Route Update

From Mendoza I travelled to Salta, a nice place to relax if the weather is nice but for me i think that there were better locations we could have been if given the time and route.

I met up with Claire and Melissa (both from the Antarctica trip) and Jamie and Liz and we finally left Chile and headed to San Pedro De Atacama.

As the name suggests, this town is right on the edge of the Atacama Desert, it is the driest place on erath, with 330 days of nonestop sun a year!! this makes for great activities and really dramatic landscapes.

We did sand boarding (which I loved) and also took bikes out in to the desert - that was madness!! it must have been 30+ in the shade!! we also did a star gazing tour which was really great fun, i will post something more about that in a bit!

The basic reason to go into Chile again was to be in the Desert but more importantly it is the southern launch pad for the Salar De Uyuni trips. these trips take you into the most mind blowing salt falts in the world. more about that later too!!!!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Mendoza - not your typical copa de vino!!

Well from the tranquility of El Bolson I left to travel to Mendoza. Known to the world for being in the centre of South America winelands and grape growing region, Mendoza is truly blessed with amazing weather, scenes and mountiains.

With all this in mind I arrived fully expecting the jaw dropping beauty that we witnessed travelling through the New Zealand wine making regions, however I can honestly say it wasn´t to be!!

The town is perfectly pleasent, with large spacious parks and plaza´s, but the wine region is more about manufacturing and factory production. A winelands bike tour would take you out on dusty roads sharing the path with large trucks full of grapes - not something i was up for therefore i spent more time in the wonderful resturants that cover this town.

Also its at times like this you are thankful for meeting up with friends. Jana, Phil and Dom (Friends from Antarctic trip) where already there, i also met Jamie and Liz and James from El Bolson, great times!!

We had a fun lunch and then went on to the Vines of Mendoza tasting rooms - a sepcial afternoon!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

A concert ticket for Milk...

This is the best form of charity I have seen a long time...

I was walking around the historic centre of Mendoza looking for intersting stuff to do, and came across a poster for the annual Mendoza Wine and Music festival, knonwing nothing about it, but being interested in getting a bit of muscial culute in, i headied inside searching for the ticket office.

My Spanish is pretty rubbish to be honest but I managed to find the security guard and ask him (somehow!!!!) where the ticket office was. He was a little confused but seemedd to know what I was on about. however his reply threw me right off, he told me to follow him, and kept talking about LEche Leche. Now from my basic Spanish - mainly from the coffee con leche, i knew this was milk...

Milk???? what was he on about??? Finally after much climbing we arrived at the office of the director of culture for Mendoza, umm worrying, was i gonna get a telling off, what!!!??

It transpired that the concert series was sponsored by the Rotary club of Mendoza and if people donated 800gms of milk powder, you could have 2 free tickets to withever performance caught your eye. Inspired!!!!

After much searching for a supermarket that did not honour the standard half day siesta, i finally got the 2 boxes of full fat milk powder, handedthem in and got my tickets, from the director no less!!

The performance chosen was wonderful, it was in a converted wine factory, where the owners have done half of the warehouse and production plant up, so the space was really dramatic and moody the group were a famous (not to me!!) Argentine male singing quartet, who sung in both Spanish and English. they did a mix of classical songs thatthe whole audience apart from me understood and enjoyed hugely, and also a range of gospel greats in English, that whole audience apart from me were lost too!!!!

All in all the concert was really fun, and the singing high quality. more than that however i was glad to have been able to contribute to a good cause. that made the gospel singing even sweeter!!!!

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