Location: Rurrenabarque, Bolivia
3 million mossies and the Israeli Army
Stories of rotten travel experiences go off after awhile and you need a fresh batch.
For five years the apple of my collection has been "Firecracker Food Poisoning Hell", perhaps familiar to some of you. I was alone in icy northern Germany ...., the ATM had eaten my cash card... I had no money...I had nowhere to stay.... the local kids were throwing fire crackers at me...... I spent my last Euro on a dodgy sausage.......I spent three days throwing up. A real cracker of a story.
But now I have a brand new tale of terror: "3 million mossies and the Israeli Army"
If you believe the marketing, jungle trips are cosy affairs. You will sit round a camp fire swatting the odd insect and chatting to a truely international bunch of travellers. You will hunt anacondas just like Indy and it will be an action packed wildlife adventure you will never forget. Where do I sign up?
I spent three days alone with 13 hebrew speaking, chain smoking, recent army graduates. So yes. I was nigel no mates in the jungle. The camp water tank was broken. There was a toilet and shower.....In another camp 10 mins walk through dark wet jungle There was singing..... Mostly israeli army songs. There were mossie nets...... With holes. There were bolivian guides..... They often spoke hebrew and I had to ask for spanish translation. We did hunt anacondas...... Three hours traipsing in thigh deep muddy water in a cloud of ferocious insects. There were no anacondas. There was a sunset bar...... There was no sunset. There were 35 more hebrew speakers. There was a spanish kid to talk to.......He told me my spanish was rubbish.
Location: Isla Del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Chasing sunsets is becoming a bit of travelling habit. Surely the prize catch would be an Isla Del Sol Sunset on the roof of the world, where the Incas believe that the sun was born.
With minutes to spare a group of us hurry up the stony hill. Local kids are mustering their flocks for the night. One 13 year old shepherd cajoles her sheep homewards skipping to the beat of her transistor radio (aka the the bolivian ipod) and scuffing her gold shoes.
Then I hear "Senorita, Senorita Help me ! Help me !" Another kid is pelting down the hill after three run-away pigs. I look at the summit and the fast fading light, hesitate, and then lunge for the trotter rope.
Chasing sunsets is for gringos.
Location: Colca Canyon, Peru
In the Night Canyon
Chivay: 3269m above sea level 4am: Up out of bed; Gasp for air; Under the moon; Breathe deeply; Down past the llama and the peeing man; Under the stars; Gulp for oxygen; I am crumbling in thin air like Sendak´s milky-way biscuit man. Down dusty streets; Past a snoring pig; The bus door looms. Stop for a breather and three pushy peruvians women. (shall I pull their plaits?)
The bus skids forward a village, breaks down, then slides under the dawn and into the Colca Canyon. Down on foot 1000 metres, down 1000 more. My breathing eases. Down past a man and his donkey. Under the swooping condors. Over the bridge and into the welcome kitchen for cookies and a glass of oxygen.
Location: Rio de Janerio, Brazil
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 quarts ice
1 cup cachaca (Brazilian brandy made from sugar cane)
Chop limes into glasses and muddle with 2 tablespoons of sugar into each glass.
Fill each glass with 1 1/2 cups of ice and 1/4 cup of cachaca.
Shake it and pour
Brazilian Banana Fish Moqueca
2lbs white fish steaks
2T lime juice
1 t salt
2 T olive oil
1 chopped onion
1 clove garlic
2 T tomato paste
1 c water, 1/2 c coconut milk
1 t hot pepper sauce
parsley to taste
1.Combine fish with lime juice and salt in a bowl. Leave to marinate.
2.Heat the olive oil in a large fry pan and add the onion and garlic.
3.Cook until softened.
4.Add the marinated fish, tomato paste, water and simmer for about 10 minutes over medium heat, or until the fish is cooked through.
5.Add in the coconut milk, sliced bananas pepper sauce, parsley and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
6.Serve over white rice and preferably on a beach.
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
I am trying to lasoo Buenos Aires under my control. One way streets, bus timetables, meaty menus, tango-two steps and dire hostels run rings round me for days. BA is petulant with new-comers. I consider leaving but remember the rough ride that London first gave me. I stay another week. Round and round the inner city corral. Cross Streets called Estados Unidos, Mexico, Peru. Why aren´t they arranged in geographical order at least?
Slowly I find the tango shoe emporiums (Supiacha), the vegetarian cafe (San Telmo), a space to breathe (Puerto Madero in the morning), the english book exchange (cnr of Estados Unidos and Peru) The buses fall into orderly lines, menus come into focus. I take a tango lesson. I give directions to another gringo. I am almost a BA cowgirl and now I don´t want to leave.
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sovereignty on my mind
"The Queen" is showing in cinemas across Buenos Aires. Every broadsheet leads with Argentina´s continuing efforts to regain the Malvinas Islands from England. Portenos march round the Obelisk and the English Tower is vandalised. I am sure the Falkands War rates barely a mention in the Guardian.
Sovereignty is on my mind. I´m supposed to be in London attending a ceremony to swear allegiance to the Her Majesty. The Home Office is being typically recalcitrant with my passport application. I don´t tell irate porteno taxi drivers about my problems with Her Majesty. "Soy de Nueva Zelanda, si, N-U-E-V-A Z-E-L-A-N-D-A.... An independent nation. Two islands in the Pacific Ocean."
Later in Brazil I meet a Colombian street jeweller with no passport. Being an island dweller I expect territory to be defined by bright clear coast lines. He is less concerned with arbitrary borders or paper proof. He has crossed five frontiers without any documentation and I am sitting under a palm tree stressing about obtaining passport number two.
Location: Estancia Barranca, Chile
4 Wheeling in Patagonia
Our instructions were to meet a man called Don Pepe in the High Street of El Castillo at Noon. So Gabriel and I parked next to the Horse Hitching post and burned round town a couple of times with the wheelchair looking for our man. We found him, of course, at Restaurant "El Pionero".
Don Pepe escorted us to his Estancia "just up the road". Patagonians think nothing of driving 2 to 3 hours on an unsealed road just to pick up a newspaper. So I followed his dust trail in our distinctly townie rental and Gabriel kept guard for wandering guanacos. Estancia Barranca is a traditional Chilean working farm in full view of the awe inspiring Torres mountains. It is across a river impassable by car (or wheelchair) so we left the poor rental in a stoney river bed and continued in the jeep.
We then spent two days watching the muster, enjoying the famous patagonian hospitality and attempting to discuss the finer points of sheep shearing in spanish.
Location: Torres del Paine, Chile
Under Southern Skies
Most people hike what is known as the "W" circuit in Torres del Paine National Park. I hiked something more like a "V".
In three days I camped at 1000 metres, listened to the glacier in Valley Frances breaking apart, traversed three lakes and saw the famous Torres. It is picture perfect postcard scenery and deservedly known as one of the most amazing places to hike in the world.
The scenery was breath taking but so was my pack. That dreaded morchilla that has been tailing my every move for 3 months decided to come tramping too. Somehow when you are far from home and in a travelling frame of mind, hiking with a fit german skier and carrying four days food and half a tent seems like a good idea.
So now I´m in Puerto Natales (300 km north of Punta Arenas) recovering beneath the Southern Cross and carbo loading for the next foray into the Park.
Location: Guamote, Ecuador
This little piggy went to market.......
The village of Guamote is a donkey skip from the pan American highway in the Ecuadorian highlands. Every Thursday is market day and the dusty streets fill with locals and traders from the whole region.
If I lived up in the hills my shopping list for market day would look something like this:
1 squealing pig (live)
1 metre rope (to tie said pig)
3 sacks of flour (includ special tortilla flour)
4 baby chickens (live, in cage)
1 bright pink wool wrap (donkey ate previous)
1 poncho (make it red with lots of tassles)
1 pig´s head (dead and gawping)
alarm clock (past spring onion section, then follow loud noise till you read Alarm Clock Table)
New Fedora Hat (Cousin´s wedding)
5 banana fritters (yum yum)
NB NO coca cola (available now in mud hut next door)
2 carrots (to pursuade donkey up hill and home with shopping)
Location: Guamote, Ecuador
El Niaz de Diablo (the Devil´s nose)
As quick as you could say "health and safety regulations", we are sitting on the roof of El Tren, about to descend El Niaz de Diablo.
El Tren chuffs through the agricultural heartland of Ecuador: one man, one cow, one plot. It passes tiny farmlets planted with spring onions and potatos, sheep hobbled together to stop them wandering onto neighbouring land or the train tracks, women swaddled in purple cloth bent double scything grass and hoardes of children sprinting alongside.
The Devil´s Nose appears to be so named because the tracks slice across the mountain in sharp hooks. Twice the train stops and reverses onto the downward track. This feat of engineering is part of trans Ecuador railway that was started but never finished by the spanish colonial government.
After a few hours El Tren descends beneath the clouds into The Middle of Nowhere. For once the ic-cream-peanut-kebab-anything-you-want sellers are nowhere to be seen. The roof riders joke about breaking down in this wild ravine and someone reads aloud from the LP: " Breakdowns are are all part of the fun".
And then, of course, El Tren comes to a shuddering holt. "Una hora a qui" the conductor annouces in a far too perfunctory voice. Speak of the Devil I suppose !
Location: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Once upon a time
I´ll tell you how it ended first. It was the last night and we were up on deck waiting for sunset and sipping caprinhas. A pod of whales surfaced to play in our bow sprit. The captain turned tiller and we bobbed around in sunlit rapture for 30 minutes. One of the pod swam under the hull of our catermaran and made eye contact. I couldn´t have scripted it better.
But let me rewind to the beginning. The Galapagos Islands are all about beginnings. The beginning of time no less because it was these enchanted islands that inspired Darwin´s thoughts about evolution and the Origin of Species.
I and 9 other wildlife paparazzi spent 7 days at sea following the celebrities of the Galapagos: sea lions, seals, blue footed boobies, turtles, sharks, tropical fish, frigate birds, land and sea iguanas, red crabs and pelicans. I didn´t even need a telephoto lense because I was in touching distance to all.
My favourite chapters included:
Snorklling at Devil´s Crown
The Devil´s Crown is a submerged volcanic crater that is teaming with sealife and circling seabirds. We sped there on our zodiac wearing flippers and masks. In choppy water we jacques cousteau-ed it off the back of the zodiac. It was strangly calm below. A sea turtle swam by serenely and a couple of sharks were curious. I followed the turtle for a few mintues then I had fun for awhile playing undersea choreographer to the stars as the schools of fish changed direction on my order. I played with lithe seals that were more in control of their flippers then I was of mine.
Sea Lion Visitation
At midnight we were woken by the unmistakable sound of sealion gawappping. Then a flipper appeared in our open cabin hatch. A very serious discussion followed about how one would exactly remove a slippery sealion from the bed and whether it was clever enough to remove its flipper if we shut the hatch. So I went up in deck wrapped in a sheet and discovered 5 more marauding sealions slopping about on deck. I chased two off the stern and then jumped out of my skin when I spied what I thought was a huge bull sitting on the trampoline at the bow. I snuck back to the cabin. But in the morning there was a duvet on the tramp I heard that the cook often sleeps on deck !
Blue Footed Boobies
We were there during Boobie mating season and watched several hilarious dance routines less than a metre away.
The Boobie equivalent of a bunch of red roses is 12 carefully selected twigs. The male waddles around the female and hopes to entice her with a twig or two. She of course does her best to look disinterested in both the sticks and his bright blue webbed feet. He whistles "come here honey", she honks back "you´ll need to do better than that pathetic pile of branches". He clearly doesn´t realise that he looks like he has stepped in smurf poo.
Location: Leon, Nicaragua
Melting Streets and Cool Courtyards
Leon is a city of secret courtyards, perhaps leftover from the days when Leon was the centre of Sardinista opposition in Nicaragua. I´m learning to live like the Nicaraguans: siesta by day and venture out at about 5pm when it is slightly cooler. The lava of nearby volcanos seems to flow under Leonese streets.
I´m hoping to climb Cerro Negro Volcano this week with an organisation that supports local homeless children. www.quetzaltrekkers.com
www.lazybonesleon.com Highly recommended hostel in Leon
www.craters-edge.com Laguna de Apoyo near Granada
www.goelencanto.com Amazing place to stay on Omatepe Island
Border Crossings: Running the Gauntlet
Kate and I parted company in Copan, Honduras and I set off for Nicaragua.
A tardis would come in handy at borders. I could vanish an reappear on the otherside ideally with my passport stamped and money changed by some intergalactic subcontractor.
But instead, I folded myself into a sticky minivan bound for Gausaule on the Honduran border. At the border I stepped out of the van and was instantly surrounded by a crowd of men pushing calculators and grubby notes in my face. Crossing the border here really means running the gauntlet on a bike for 2km in a no mans land of money changers and mangey dogs. I attached myself to a friendly Nicaraguan woman who clearly knew the ropes. We sped along towards customs and tried to ditch the men that clambered all over the bike. It quickly turned from authentic to annoying. We pushed them off the bike one by one and finally got through customs and over the bridge to friendly arms of Nicaragua.
Next time I will make sure I know the exchange rate and go armed with some less polite spanish vocabulary.
Location: Flores and Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Mayan Ruins and River Living
"Downtown" Tikal is a collection of almost completely preserved Mayan temples. The park covers over 500 sq km and is the domain of howler monkies, snakes and toucans. To make the most of Tikal, Kate and I spent the night in the camping ground in hammocks with only one very large tarantula for company. At dusk we entered the park as the tour groups were leaving and climbed up temple II to watch the sunset over distant jungle.
We spent a few days on the Rio Dulce, not far from the Carribean sea. Locals live in houses on poles over the water or the mangroves and travel around in small wooden canoes. We visited Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce one day. There is no road access and the town swelters in a heady mix of Carribean heat and Rio Dulce humidity.
www.amigoshostel.com Great hostel in Flores
Location: Lanquin, Las Verapas, Guatemala
El Retiro, Lanquin, Middle of Nowhere
El Retiro boldly claims to be a travellers´ paradise. Travellers are a simple bunch and hammocks beer and chess in a tranquil setting can keep us entertained for hours. Lanquin is most famous for the Semuc Champey pools which are a spectacular 40 minute pick-up ride away. The road winds up a very steep range past tiny communities of mud houses, lush banana trees, roaming dogs and tiny tiendas.
After 5 days of swimming and lazing we once again took a deep breath and folded ourselves into a mini van bound for Flores in Peten. The drive descends from the cool coffee growing Verapas mountains into the sultry sticky Peten region. Bizarrely we had to stop at a compulsory agricultural checkpoint at the regional border. Apparently it is forbidden to transport fruit because the govt is trying to stop the spread of the european mosquito. I tried not to laugh because the customs guys had very large guns, but I´m sure I spotted about 50 mossies making their own way over the border.
Location: Xela, Guatemala
yo hablo, tu hablas, el habla, nosotros hablamos....
Every day since 1 January I had meant to stop sifting and enrol in spanish school. It was always manyana manayana. On 7 January I finally chickenbusedit up into the Western Highlands to Xela (short for Quetzaltenago)
Xela is a serious working town. Hot by day and muy fria as soon as the sun goes down. Well suited to verb conjugation. Kate and I enrolled in Celas Maya for 5 hours of one on one tutition per day. After a character building start with my first host family I moved in with the lovely and very patient Martinez family. Our week revolved around verb tables, homework, sampling Dinora´s tortillas, empanadas and other delicious stuffed goodies and attempting to explain how UK devolution works in spanish.