Saturday, 24 December 2011

C is for Cordoba (continuing on with the alphabet challenge)

I´m currently sat writing this blog in a cafe in a plaza, in the middle of a 40 degree heatwave, watching a lovely old man hand out sweets to every child that passes. (He´s also given me some - not sure whether he thinks this is because I fit into the ´child´ category.) Of all the places I´ve been to so far on this trip, Cordoba is the place which most reminds me of Brighton, the city I called home for the last three years.

With seven universities, Cordoba is student central and at the moment its full of graduates covering their friends in paint and flour as they celebrate finishing their courses. It is also an extremely arty city, with more than 20 museums and cultural centres. Dance, theatre and film are all big here and with Christmas just around the corner there always seems to be some event happening. The highlight of my time here so far was the weekend art market, when a band turned the road they were playing on into an impromptu dance floor as people took to the street to show off their moves.

But as much as I love it here, ´C´is also for Christmas and it´s been a difficult week in terms of missing my family and friends. Those of you who know me will be well aware that Christmas is my favourite time of year - I have been accused of going OTT with my enthusiasm for it in previous years - so being away from home for the festive season for the first time has definitely been hard.

Although there are decorations in the shops and I can see people doing last minute shopping (particularly men I must say, it seems its the same the world over), it´s not the same in the baking heat when you break into a sweat just walking down the street. Give me snowflakes any day.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Being misunderstood in Argentina

After an 18-hour journey from Bolivia (which should have only taken ten) it was not only clear that I`d arrived in a different country but it felt as though I`d ended up on a different continent. Here the Europeans really did leave their mark. Not only with the impressive colonial buildings which surround the main squares and are tucked away down side streets, but also in the day to day life of the country´s inhabitants.

Gone are the traditionally dressed women of Peru and Bolivia, who carry their babies on their backs in bright woven blankets. Here the people dress stylishly (putting my travelling ´wardrobe´to shame) and children are wheeled around in pushchairs - the first I`ve seen in South America. There are designer shops and malls everywhere and the prices are expensive. It has definitely been a shock to the system arriving here from Bolivia, where hostels are three times the price and my first bus journey cost 50 pounds - ten times what I`d paid in Bolivia. The money situation is also crazy. There is a severe shortage of coins in the country, which everyone needs to get around on the buses, so paying for things with notes is a nightmare. In the queue at the supermarket the other day I heard the checkout girl ask every single person in front of me whether they had change. Needless to say most didn`t, so it`s normal to get slightly more or less change than you were expecting as the cashiers round up or down.

Things seem quieter here, more ordered and less chaotic. Cars aren`t constantly beeping their horns. There are traffic lights and, what`s more surprising, drivers actually observe them.

Also noticeably absent here are the child workers, who are a common sight in Bolivia, where eight-year-olds are left in charge of internet cafes and six-year-olds will tug at your sleeve to buy something while dragging their even younger sibling behind them.

The thing I can`t get used to to at the moment though is the Argentinian accent - which replaces the ´ll´sound [pronounced`y`in most Spanish speaking countries] with a `ch`- and the speed at which people speak. My Spanish, which I had been getting by with in Peru and Bolivia is now completely useless, as even when I can make myself understood I find people´s replies incomprehensible.

On my first day in Salta I went to the market, looking for a cheap lunch. Thinking I`d ordered one empañada I was then surprised to see a plate of 12 arrive at my table. Either the girl who served me enjoyed the joke or I have eaten so much in South America that I now look like someone who can polish off 12 empañadas in one sitting...

#4 30b430 - Be wowed by Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat

That`s #4 ticked off.
When you travel a lot there are certain sights you get used to: beautiful beaches, ancient ruins and unspoilt countryside become the norm and, I admit it, it´s terrible but you get a bit spoilt and perhaps harder to impress. But every once in a while you see something so different to anything you´ve ever seen before that it takes your breath away. On our three-day tour of the salar in Bolivia, there were so many of those moments that I actually stopped counting.

On the first day of our trip we were picked up in the jeep we would be spending much of our time in by Lorenzo, who took multi-tasking to the extreme by taking on the roles of driver/cook/tour guide. Also on the tour with my friend Anna and I, was Anders, an Italian who controlled our sound system and quickly became known as Señor Fiesta [Mr Party], Sophie and Marion from France and Chris from Germany. We´d all heard a lot about the salt flats and were hoping they would live up to our expectations.

On arriving we realise we had nothing to worry about, as they really are spectacular. It`s hard to describe what they look like, aside from white, obviously. But white as far as the eye can see. So bright that it actually hurts your eyes to look at it without sunglasses and the complete lack of other objects in the area means that your perceptions are distorted, so someone standing far away looks like they are next to a person in the foreground. Having never seen anything like it in my life, my brain kept trying to compute it with something similar and I`d have moments when I felt like I was walking on snow, as the salt crushed beneath my feet and turned a sludgy grey where the jeeps had driven over it.

Enjoying the view.

We had lots of fun taking silly photos, before driving to an island in the middle of the salt flats which was covered in cacti. It was so strange to be standing on an island of green surrounded by a sea of white. It´s also hard to get your head around how something - anything - can grow in those conditions.

As it started to get darker we began to drive towards our accommodation for the night. When we`d booked the trip at the agents we`d been assured that the reason they charged a little more compared to other companies was because we would stay in nicer accommodation and eat better food. We`d already noticed that all the groups seemed to be eating the same (either the guides/cooks are freakishly psychic when it comes to preparing food or they all decide on the same menus in advance) and it quickly became apparent that accommodation was allocated on a first come, first served basis. And this was our problem. Due to the fact that Lorenzo was extremely laid back and, unlike some of the other guides, didn`t rush us, we were one of the last groups to arrive. This meant in the first village we went to all of the accommodation was full and the same in the second place we tried. The third time it happened we all started to laugh nervously and joke about having to sleep in the jeep and by the forth time that seemed like a distinct possibility.

Although Lorenzo, who has been doing the job for ten years, assured us it was normal, even he seemed a little stressed out and, as though to distract us from the fact that we may not have a bed for the night, he started manically pointing out anything he could see so we had a running commentary of "queñua", "llamas", "motorbike".

Eventually we stopped at the fifth place and although the owner`s daughter looked as though she wanted to do anything but put a roof over our heads, she agreed. Whether this was because Lorenzo sweet-talked her or whether it was because she saw the six of us with our noses pressed against the jeep´s windows, like something out of Oliver Twist, we´ll never know. We stepped out of the car and a dog dropped a severed goat`s leg at our feet in welcome.

The guest house, including all of its furniture, was entirely made out of blocks of salt. While definitely a novel way to spend the night, I did realise that the drawbacks were a) salt is very hard if you walk into it as I discovered after crashing into my bed and b) salt is very heavy, which meant that the chairs around the dinner table were impossible to move, so for a short person like me you are miles away from your food.

Sleeping on a bed of salt.
The next day was all about the lagoons, which were white, red, green or blue, depending on the minerals in the water. As well as being incredibly beautiful to look at, they are also home to thousands of flamingos and it was amazing to see the band of pink they added to the scene.

Some of the beautiful lagoons.
But the showpiece of the tour was saved for the final day when Lorenzo informed us we would need to be up at 4am. Moaning like schoolchildren, we clambered into the jeep wrapped up in every layer we owner, as it was freezing. But two hours later Lorenzo`s insistence paid off as we arrived at a spot where geysers, caused by a nearby volcano, were ejecting steam into the air. We watched the sunrise surrounded by pools that bubbled and burst around us, feeling as though we were on another planet. Truly amazing and the best start to the day I`ve had on my trip so far.

A perfect way to start the day.
We were then whisked straight off to a natural hot spring where we braced the freezing cold air and were rewarded by the equivalent of a hot bath. The rest of the day was spent visiting more lagoons before beginning the long journey back. Then it was our job to keep poor Lorenzo, who had been driving since 4am, awake. We did this by plying him with food and coca leaves and introducing him to the wonders of Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. (Not sure how much our singing helped.)

All in all, another amazing trip and it would have been a fantastic way to end my visit to Bolivia. Instead I decided to go to Tupiza, where I was thrown off a crazy horse, but that`s another story...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Taking On The Cholitas

The ticket says it all...
There are many ways to while away a Sunday afternoon in La Paz, Bolivia. You could visit one of its many museums, hang out in the markets or, alternatively, you could go to watch Cholitas [women who wear the traditional Bolivian dress] wrestle.
The Bolivian version of WWF has to be seen to be believed. A 50/50 mixture of Bolivianos and tourists fill a sports hall where "Eye Of The Tiger" blares out over a sound system and posters advertise the Cholita wrestlers who go by the names of Alicia Flores and Jennifer 2 Caras.

After a few warms up rounds where the men take their place in the ring, wearing badly-fitting costumes ranging from a skeleton outfit to a crow mask, it is the turn of the Cholitas. They bound into the ring in their big skirts and shawls, pausing only to take off their distinctive round hats. And then the fight begins. While the wrestling is clearly staged, there is definitely the potential for competitors to get hurt as they throw one another to the  ground.
In each round the ´story line´ is usually the same. The referee gives the Cholita a tough time, before shaking hands and being pally with her opponent (normally a man). I love that the plot never varies. Often the Cholita ends up taking on them both - with surprising agility - much to the delight of the crowd, which cheers and boos, throwing popcorn and peanuts into the ring.
I`ve always thought it wouldn´t be wise to mess with a Cholita and this definitely confirms my views.

You wouldn`t want to mess with these ladies.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

B is for Bolivia (continuing on with the alphabet challenge)

Having spent almost six weeks in Peru, arriving in Bolivia felt kind of like visiting an eccentric old aunt. You love her, but you have absolutely no idea why she does half the things she does.

The country, one of the poorest in South America, is still a step behind its neighbours in catering for tourists; you`re lucky if you find toilet paper in your hostel and if you get a hot shower you´ve hit the jackpot. The people too seem less concerned about getting your dollar. In Peru if you walk into a shop you can expect the hard sell, with owners even following you down the street lowering the price if you walk away. But here they barely raise their eyes from the telenovela they are inevitably watching and market stalls are often unattended, which means you actually have to hunt down someone to sell you something.

But its these quirks and eccentricities that make Bolivia such an interesting country. I`ve met so many travellers over the last week or so who have declared Bolivia to be their favourite country in South America, a bit statement when you consider the competition.

In the week that I´ve been here I´ve been to see Cholitas (women who wear the traditional Bolivian outfits of long pleated skirts and small bowler hats) wrestling, I`ve seen a faux Eiffel Tower (no one seems to be clear as to why it`s here) and I´ve been transported to see dinosaur footprints (real ones) in a Dino Truck which looked like it had been borrowed from the Jurassic Park props cupboard.

I`ve still to see Bolivia´s trophy piece - Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat - but so far I like what I`ve seen. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

#3 30b430 - Take part in the trek of a lifetime on Peru´s Inca Trail

(nb. Due to slooooow internet connection in Bolivia, the photos will have to follow...)
It was shortly after discovering the Inca Trail was 26 miles that I began to panic. Following my last disastrous attempt to cover that distance (for those of you who don't know I collapsed running a marathon at mile 25 - yes, that's MILE 25, I still can't bear to think about it) I wasn't feeling overly confident about my abilities to walk a route which at best has been described as "challenging". As if walking 26 miles at altitudes of up to 4,200m wasn't enough. I'd also decided from the comfort of my home when booking the trip in the UK that despite only being 5ft tall I'd be absolutely fine to carry all of my own things (including sleeping bag and mat) rather than hire a porter.
It was only during my first few weeks here that I realised it may not have been the best idea as everyone I met who had already done the trek advised me to change my booking and take the extra help. However it turned out I'd left it too late and all of the passes for the days I was due to take part in the trek had been allocated. (Only 500 passes are allocated each day, 200 of which are for tourists.)

Doing the Inca Trail is something I've wanted to do since the first time I visited South America seven years ago. But with the idea about to become a reality, I totally panicked. I spent the day before packing and repacking my bag, torn between not wanting to carry too much and not wanting to freeze on the way. The nights get very cold and we also had the added risk of taking part in the trek during the rainy season, so rainwear, including an attractive floor-length poncho (I was assured in the shop that 'one size fits all'), also had to be squeezed into my bag. I even hired a new sleeping bad, as the one the agency tried to give me was ridiculously heavy. All in all, when we were picked up at 6am the next morning I think my bag weighed about six or seven kilos.

There were 16 people in my group and day one of the trek lulled us into a false sense of security. The walk was relatively easy and we had lots of breaks along the way. We also quickly realised how spoilt we were going to be by the porters who accompanied us on our trip, who raced ahead to set up camp and whip up amazing meals. If I ever felt like complaining about the weight of my bag I only had to look at the 20kg they were carrying as the ran ahead of us. After an enjoyable first day I was feeling a lot more confident about day two and although some members of the group opted to hire porters for what is known to be the most difficult day. I decided I would be able to manage to carry my own stuff (proud, moi?)

I think it would definitely be fair to describe day two as "tough". It saw us reach our highest point of the trek, 4,200m, at a place called Dead Woman's Pass (so called because it looks like a woman lying down, rather than the fact you feel like you're going to die by the time you've managed to drag yourself up there...) Getting up to that altitude involved a lot of stone steps and a combination of the heat, less oxygen in the air and, of course, the dreaded backpack, made it a very difficult climb. But finally reaching the top was an amazing feeling and as the other groups cheered us in I felt a real sense of achievement.

Since beginning our walk at 7am our guides had been reassuring us that we only had to walk until lunchtime, as we were going to spend the night at the same site. They had also been telling us that after Dead Woman's Pass it was all downhill. What they failed to tell us however, is that downhill is hard. Although breathing becomes easier, there is constant pressure on your knees as they crash down the steps and try to stop your legs running away down the slopes. After two hours my shoulders were absolutely killing me and I couldn't even think about having to put my backpack on again for day three, the longest day.

Luckily lunch, an afternoon siesta, a "tea" of popcorn and biscuits at 6pm, followed swiftly by dinner at 7pm, helped to revitalise the group. The early morning wake-up was also made more bearable firstly, by the cups of tea which were brought to our tents by the porters (see what I mean about spoilt?) and secondly, by the amazing view of the mountains which surrounded us.

Day three was a long day, but was broken up by stops an Inca ruins along the way. After the head-down plod of the day before, it was also a chance to really appreciate the stunning scenery we were walking through. We had been warned before we started the trek that we were now in the rainy season and there was a good chance of rain. I'd had images of myself trudging along in torrential downpours, while trying not to fall off the edge of a mountain. But we were actually incredibly lucky, it only rained once during the night, which meant that every day we had fantastic views. (It also means you all miss out on a photo of me in the lovely poncho.)

When we arrived at our final campsite Winay Wayna, there was a general air of giggly excitement among the many groups which were camping there. Knowing the hard part was out of the way and that we were so close to our final destination, meant we were like kids on Christmas Eve. Even the 3.30am wake-up didn't dampen our spirits. Although the control point for the final two hour walk to Machu Picchu doesn't open until 5am, groups start queuing an hour before. This is presumably so that the super-enthusiastic can run ahead once the control opens in order to have approximately one second to view Machu Picchu with no one else there, before the other 200 tourists pile in behind them. Obviously the members of our group must have taken a while to get going (I may, or may not, have been one of the culprits...) as we were second to last in the queue. Not that it mattered as there was no way I was running for two hours, especially as the trail included some of the narrowest/biggest drop combos we'd seen so far.

Eventually was came to a flight of stairs which were so steep we had to climb up it like a ladder. Exhausted, we got to the top and suddenly realised we'd made it! Walking though the Sun Gate and seeing Machu Picchu for the first time was amazing. The sky was clear and we had a perfect view of the site, overlooked by the mountain of Wayna Picchu. Even though I've seen the pictures a million times, it still took my breath away.
It was at that moment that my body decided it had probably done enough work for four days and I suddenly felt exhausted. However it wasn't quite yet time to have a rest way to make something harder then I'll usually take it and thanks to some encouragement from my Canadian friends Mark and Chris, who had already done the trek, I'd also bought a ticket to climb Wayna Picchu. So after a tour of the Machu Picchu ruins, my climbing partner Nazir and I (the only members of our group who decided to tackle the extra mountain) set off.
The way up was incredibly steep and narrow, meaning sometimes it felt safer to go up on all fours. There were also ropes to haul ourselves up with and a small tunnel to crawl through. But after an hour's climb we were rewarded with the most amazing view of the entire trip. Health and safety doesn't really feature on mountain tops in South America and people balanced precariously on the edge of the huge boulders to take photos of the bird's eye view of Machu Picchu. Climbing Wayna Picchu was definitely one of the highlights of the four days and even the fact that I had to get down the steps on my bum as I'm not a fan of heights didn't matter.     
So #3 was a fantastic way to end Peru and who knows, now that I've conquered my fear of the 26 miles, I might even sign up for another marathon...(jokes people, jokes!)

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Lake Titicaca

Uros - the floating islands

Often on my trips the ingenuity of people amazes me and the islands of Uros are the perfect example. Even though they explained to us exactly how the islands float it is still difficult to get your head around it when you`re standing on them. Despite knowing that you can`t sink, the fact that the ground beneath you is not quite stable makes you question how that`s possible. In case you`re wondering, here`s how to build your own floating island:

1. Cut the roots of the totora plant (which float) and bind into blocks.
2. Connect the blocks together securely, using rope.
3. Fasten down with stakes buried into the bed of the lake.
4. Now the the base of the island is complete, create the floor by building up layers of the totora, alternating them back and forth, on top of the roots.
5. Every 15 days add new layers on top of the old ones. (When you need to redo underneath your house - which is also made of totora - simply lift it to one side.)

Easy right?
A beginner`s guide to making your own floating island.
When we arrived on the island we were shown into the house of a couple who had only married two months ago. They proudly showed us the one small room where they cook, eat and sleep. The husband was also extremely excited to explain how their tiny television set was run from a battery, which was powered by a little solar panel. It was the equivalent of someone at home explaining the benefits of an iPad to you.
Cutting-edge technology for island life.

Although the couple make some of their money from fishing, like most of the families on the islands, the majority of their income comes from tourists who flock to Lake Titicaca on a daily basis to marvel at the way they have been living their lives for years.
While the islands are very beautiful it is sad to see the effects tourism has had on their inhabitants. Everything on the islands now has a price, from the handmade goods the women sell to taking a photograph. I even met someone who had been part of a group which had visited a school where the children had been trying to sell the work from their desks, encouraged by their teacher.

Amantani Island

We were lucky enough to stay the night with the Quespe Yanarico family in Amantani. Fredy and Violeta and their children Deigo (13) and Selina (6) welcomed us into their home and gave us so much more information about the island than a guide book ever could.

Life on Amantani is hard and although the family has guests once a month, they mainly rely on agriculture for their income. Violeta (who is only 26 - you do the maths) also knits jumpers and hats from alpaca wool. When I bought a hat from her, which had taken a week to make, she hugged me so tightly and was so grateful that I actually felt embarrassed that I`d only paid about 7 pounds for it.

Education is very important to Fredy and Violeta and they pay 50 soles a month (about 12 pounds) to send Selina to a private school on the island, as the state school does not have a very good reputation. Deigo walks two hours a day to the island`s only secondary school and his parents hope that he will become a tour guide when he is older. Tourism really is seen as a way out of poverty here.

As well as giving us lovely meals and a cosy room for the night - the family has no heating but I had so many blankets on my bed I could barely move - they also dressed us up in traditional clothes to go to a dance in the island`s main hall.

A warm bed for the night and amazing lake views, a girl couldn`t ask for more.

The clothes the women wear are beautiful. Bright colourful skirts, white shirts, embroidered with flowers and black shawls with more embroidery on, which I was surprised to hear the men actually sew, with each shawl taking a couple of months to make.
Nice outfit, shame about the boots...
Staying with a family allowed us to experience another side of island life aside from the obvious tourism and although things are not easy for the Quespe Yanaricos it was nice to see how Fredy and Violeta, like parents the world over, are working hard to ensure their children have a better quality of life.

The lovely Quespe Yanaricos.