Tuesday, 31 January 2012

#7 Climb a volcano

It`s easy enough to write down ´climb a volcano´on a list when you`re sat on your cosy warm sofa. But it was as I was putting on all the gear needed to climb Volcan Villarrica that I realised it might not be a walk in the park. First came the thick water-proof trousers and jacket, followed by heavy boots, gloves and a hard hat. We were also give ice-picks and although I may have looked the part I realised I had no idea what I was doing.

It had rained for three days solid in Pucon, Chile, as we waited to climb the volcano and it seemed that as soon as the rain stopped and we headed for the mountains, so did everyone else. The meeting point was packed with people and there was a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air as we made our final preparations.

The preparations begin (just don't tell anyone we have no idea what we're doing!)
 Our first task was getting up to the starting point of the climb on a chair-lift, something which always terrifies me as I feel sure that I`m going to be the person who falls off in a Bridget Jones-esque style. However, having managed to safely navigate that task, it was on to the next one - attaching crampons to our shoes to enable us to walk on the ice and listening to our safety talk. The only problem was out instructor only spoke Spanish, which the other three members of my group did not. So it was left to me to translate his commands into English. I wasn`t too sure how I felt about the group`s safety being based on my interpretations which went something along the lines of "er...keep your ice-pick  above you at all times or if you slip you´ll fall down the mountain" and "um, I think he`s saying ´if you fall, keep your legs up or the crampons could break them´." Eventually, after a lot of gesturing, pointing and nodding, we were ready to go.

We set off in single file, walking up the side of the snow-covered volcano in a zig-zag pattern, with our ice-picks always to the inside. The walk started off well and we made it to the first rest point without too much difficulty. But it was clear when we arrived there that the weather was not going to be on our side. The wind had picked up considerably and small pieces of ice, like hailstones, showered down on us from above. Our instructor Gabriel (somehow his name was reassuring) said we would wait for a while to see if the weather changed. Meanwhile as we hunkered down behind the rocks we could see other groups attempting the assent. Their bodies were bent double against the wind and every so often someone would lose their footing and start sliding down the mountain, only stopping when they managed to get a grip with their ice-pick or were grabbed by their guide.

Sitting out the storm...
Eventually it was decided that our group would try again and as we were about to set off Gabriel said to me: "Are you scared?" "No," I replied, before instantly panicking in my head: ´why should I be?` The answer to that question became clear as soon as we left the shelter of the rocks. The wind hit me so hard it took my breath away and for a moment I couldn't even remember what I was supposed to be doing. But I quickly pulled myself together and started following Gabriel´s footprints, turning when he turned and falling into a ´1-2-3´pattern of ice-pick, right foot, left foot. Every so often we`d hear a shout, which would be passed down the mountain from guide to guide as a boulder of ice came tumbling down. At one point I fell forward onto my knees and dug my ice-pick in for dear life as Gabriel pulled me back to my feet.

As we continued up we passed other groups who had abandoned their climb and were coming back down. "Impossible, impossible," one guide said. Gabriel told us he wasn`t sure whether we should go on. However he must have seen our disappointed faces peeking out from underneath our hats as he said we could try and go on a bit further. But unfortunately he was right. Each time I lifted a foot I felt as though the wind was going to blow me off the mountain, it was all I could do to keep my balance.  Eventually Gabriel told us it was too dangerous to carry on and we took his word for it and slipped and slid back to safety. Not one group made it to the top that day.

Even though it was disappointing not to have reached the summit, it was a brilliant experience and don`t they always say leave something to come back for? So technically, I realise that I didn`t make it to the top. But after being battered by hailstones, forced to dodge boulders and nearly being blown of the side of a mountain, I`m taking my number 7!

I'm taking my number 7!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

D is for Dolavon - en route to Gaiman (Continuing with the alphabet challenge)

Hmm...how did we end up here?
We were on our way to a Welsh teahouse and I was excited. (Why wouldn´t I be? I´m half Welsh, half Yorkshire, so it combined two of my favourite things - Welsh cakes and tea.) Getting the bus to the village of Gaiman, which was founded in Patagonia, Argentina, by Welsh settlers in 1874, had sounded straight-forward enough. We had successfully bought out tickets, navigated the change at Trelaw and were on a bus which said ´Gaiman´ on the front of it, usually an indication that this is the place where it will terminate. As we entered the village we debated where would be the best place to get off and decided that the final stop would probably be the easiest place as then we could get our bearings. So we were slightly surprised when the bus suddenly sped out of the village and carried on. I asked a fellow passenger where we were going and discovered it was to the next village, Dolavon. All of the locals were obviously familiar with this bus route and we were the only ones who were utterly confused at missing our stop.
Luckily we managed to get off at Dolavon and the other passenger kindly pointed us in the direction of the bus stop to get back to Gaiman. After a quick photo (I thought I may as well use our error for my alphabet challenge) we sat and waited for 20 minutes before exactly the same bus came back. It was a bit embarrassing to see the same driver, so to save any awkwardness we all did the polite thing of completely ignoring the fact that we had just got off his bus less than half an hour before. On the way back we did the safest thing and just got off at the first stop we came to in Gaiman.
Despite being founded more than 100 years ago, the village still maintains many of its traditions. For example, Welsh is taught in the schools and used in the songs and Bible readings in the church. Young people can also take part in language exchanges in Wales. The thing I liked most about Gaiman was that it felt like everyone knew everyone. I watched one old man walk down the street and wave to every single car which passed. 
Songbooks in Welsh and Spanish.
But for me the highlight of our visit was the teahouse. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love tea and put it with cakes and I´m in heaven. As that´s the only thing that it´s really famous for, Gaiman is filled with teahouses and the funny thing is that the locals are not allowed to recommend one to you. We asked a couple of people and they all looked horrified at the thought of choosing one over the other. So in the end we just picked one which looked like it had been going for a long time and we weren´t disappointed.
The teahouse owners were determined that we should try every kind of cake possible, so our table was filled with plates of homemade bread, Welsh cakes, bara brith and torta negra (Patagonian black Welsh cake). It felt quite surreal to be sat in a teahouse in Argentina which reminded me so much of home. We were surrounded by things which were so familiar to me like lovespoons on the walls, dolls in tiny Welsh costumes and tea towels with recipes for traditional home-cooked meals.
Cake anyone?
The owner definitely won in the battle of the cakes as there was no way we could eat them all. Luckily, due to the huge portion sizes in South America, I have become pretty good at asking to take food away, as there was no way I was leaving any of those cakes behind! 

Time for tea

As a self-confessed tea addict I am absolutely fascinated by the tea situation in Argentina. Now I'm all for travelling with tea - teabags being one of the ´luxury´ items I squeezed into my backpack - but Argentinians take their love of ´mate´ to the extreme by carrying their own flasks around.
The mate-making process is a complex one, first the mate leaves are poured into a special cup, which is then shook to loosen the leaves and allow the hot water which is poured over them to be infused. The mate is then drunk through a metal straw, with a strainer attached to the end of it. In summer the hot water is replaced by a flavoured juice but the method remains the same.
The thing I love the most about mate is the way it brings people together. Everywhere you go in Argentina you see old ladies gossiping in the street over it, shopkeepers talking business with it and couples sharing a cup of it. Talking to an Argentinian about their love for it, she told me that the sharing aspect of mate is very important. She explained that it's common to invite friends over for mate and fracturas (yummy pastries) and the host is always the person who pours the water from the flask.
But I've also seem mate bring absolute strangers together. My favourite memory of it was on a long bus journey when two middle-aged men sat next to each other, just opposite me. They introduced themselves and started chatting and by the end of the trip they were sharing a cup of mate between them. See, as I've always said, tea really does make the world a better place! 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

#6 Dance a tango in Argentina

I`m not sure whether the furore around Strictly Come Dancing in the UK had gone to my head when I added this challenge to my list. Because why else would I think it was a good idea? I`m the most un-coordinated person ever. I don`t play any sport and, despite travelling a fair amount in South America, I`ve never been able to pick up the steps for salsa. Even after three years of yoga classes, I can barely managed to stand on one leg without wobbling. But somehow dancing a tango made it onto the 30b430 list and, in a way, it's good that it did as I would definitely have chickened out of doing it otherwise.
Luckily I had a willing group of friends who were also keen to experience an important part of Argentinian culture and so we headed to a kind of community centre which we were assured was the best place to learn. As soon as we arrived at the place I began to worry when we saw a diagram outside which explained the tango steps. It all looked very complicated, with seven steps needed to complete each move.
We'd arrived at the end of a salsa lesson, where everybody taking part looked anything but 'beginner' standard and the nerves kicked in as we wondered what we'd let ourselves in for. But before we could change our minds and run for the door, the class began. We started off by watching some of the teachers dance and it was amazing to see the complete effortlessness with which they moved across the floor. Tango is so different to salsa, because it is very poised and controlled, and it is such a beautiful dance to watch.
Here's how it should look...
We were then divided into groups and, much to our relief, there was an absolute beginners class, which we joined along with lots of other nervous looking people. The men stood on one side and the women on the other while we were shown the seven steps required for each move. The teachers were lovely and went through everything very slowly so that when it came to trying it out with a partner I think we were all a bit shocked that it felt as though we vaguely knew what we were doing.
...and here's the reality.
One of the reasons why I`m so bad at salsa is because everything happens so fast. There's so much moving backwards and forwards and spinning around that most of the time my feet can't keep up with what my brain wants them to do. So I actually enjoyed dancing the tango because everything is so controlled and you move across the floor more slowly which gives you time to think about what you are doing.
Don't get me wrong - there was obviously a lot of standing on each other's feet and bumping into other people - but by the end of the lesson we felt as though we at least had managed to master the basics. Then the music started and people of all ages and abilities took to the dance floor. It was really nice to be dancing among other couples, although we quickly learned that our major downfall was that we didn't possess any of the steps needed to stop us bumping into people. So while the locals stood still and did some fancy footwork until a space opened up behind them on the dance floor, we had to stand awkwardly and wait.
However it was a brilliant evening and I'd love to have another go at dancing the tango, although I don't think I'll be getting called up for Strictly anytime soon...   
#6 Done and dusted.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A Rocky Journey to Sucre

The 12-hour journey from La Paz to Sucre in Bolivia was already turning out to be pretty uncomfortable.
At the bus station we had done as the guidebooks suggest and checked out the buses before choosing a company to go with. It was only after we´d purchased our tickets that the nice shiny bus we´d seen reversed out of its parking space and was replaced by one which was decidedly more worse for wear.

To read the rest of this article please visit http://www.vagabundomagazine.com/a-rocky-journey-to-sucre/

Monday, 9 January 2012

Happy New Year

I have always been a fan of New Year`s resolutions. Every since I was a little girl I remember waking up on January 1 and making promises that I was going to do my homework the night I got it (never happened) or keep my bedroom tidy (sorry mum!). There`s something nice about knowing you have the whole year ahead of you and deciding what you want to do with it. I`m the kind of person who always like to have a ´project´on the go so whether it`s studying for a Spanish A level, going to a book club, or training for a marathon (however unsuccessfully), I usually manage to find something to occupy my time.
New Year also gives you a chance to look back on the previous year and makes plans to try new things, make improvements and do all of those things you`ve been promising yourself you`ll get around to. So this year I was racking my brain for some resolutions I`d like to make. I considered the obvious ones like being more organised about the places I`m planning to visit next, worrying less about things and eating fewer cakes, but decided they were all pretty unrealistic. And after thinking about it for a while, I suddenly realised that I am really genuinely happy with everything just the way it is right now. I think my `New Year`s resolution´ began in October when I took a chance, quit my job and began this trip, something I have always wanted to do. Even though it was scary and stressful at the time, it was definitely the right decision. 
Now I get up each day and I am happy with the place I am. I don`t ever wish I was anywhere else or doing something different. I`m continually trying out new things and I regularly feel out of my comfort zone and it`s brilliant. So this year I don`t think I`ll bother to make any resolutions as I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and I think 2012 is going to be great.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

#5 Do something fun for Christmas

If you`re not a fan of the festive season, you probably don`t want to be friends with me. I`m one of those people who loves Christmas. I see December as a month-long excuse to play Christmas songs on repeat, cover my desk at work with garish decorations and generally annoy anyone who considers themseleves to be a bit of a Scrooge.

But for me my favourite thing about Christmas is that it`s a chance for my whole family to get together. When my sister and I were growing up we spent a lot of time with my auntie`s family but now that we`re older and many of us are living in different cities, it`s not often we all get to see each other at the same time.
So Christmas is always a time to go home and my annual pilgrimmage back up North has become a bit of a running joke after I`ve been hit by the snow for the last two years. Due to the fact that the UK pretty much grinds to a halt when it snows, last year turned into an epic 18-hour drive (which definitely put my Christmas cheer to the test.)

So for my first ever Christmas away from home it`s fitting that it was my cousin Sam who suggested I do something fun.

It was kind of difficult to get too excited in the run up to Christmas as it was very low-key here in South America. While there were some decorations in the streets and shops, there was nowhere near the barrage of Christmas paraphernalia we`re used to. During December I like all of my senses to be bombarded; I like listening to Christmas music, seeing houses covered in lights and running around the shops buying presesnts. I even like the cold weather. But there was definitely no chance of that in Argentina, where an unexpected heatwave meant that temperatures reached more than 40 degrees.

I`d decided pretty early on in my trip that I`d head to Buenos Aires for Christmas Day and, as these things often happen, I was lucky enough to meet some other English travellers in Peru who had the same plans so we arranged to stay in the same place. Arriving at the guesthouse (a special treat) on the 23rd was when I first started to feel Christmasy. It was really nice to meet up with other people I knew I`d be spending the day with and a visitor from home also arrived bearing important gifts of Yorkshire tea, soft toilet paper and M&Ms (all requested ´luxuries´ I`ve been missing from home - give me them over gold, frankinsence and myrrh any day.)

The party began on Christmas Eve, when our hosts organised a BBQ on the roof terrace and we saw in Christmas Day with the help of hundreds of fireworks the residents of Buenos Aires saw as their duty to let off (not necessarily always in the safest way - our neighbours, for example, were firing rockets from their balcony.)

Christmas morning was more of a traditional start to the day than I`d expected, as - despite heading towards 30 - I still love to get a stocking and as a suprise my mym and sister had sent out the one I`ve had since I was little. It was so much fun to have presents to open, which included the complusory pair of Christmas socks, silly games and a harmonica (in case times get hard and I need to busk, according to my mum.)

Looks like Santa´s been.

Christmas socks - always a must.

We then headed out to the city`s famous San Telmo market, which is held every Sunday and didn`t seem to let the fact that it was Christmas Day change that. It was actually suprisingly busy and it felt quite strange to be wandering around stalls in the sunshine.

A special part of my day was being able to talk to my family on skype. I remember when I first started travelling and calls home were always frustrating ten minute chats from phone boxes, where the card you`d bought for a ridiculously high amount always ran out before they`d said it would. So I love how easy it is to talk to - and see - my family now. It was so nice to hear about their day and have fun with them, albeit from miles away, and, unbenown to me, I managed to entertain the whole guesthouse with my rendition of Jingle Bells.  

In the evening we prepared a huge meal with enough food to keep us going for the next three days. While it wasn`t a traditional Christmas dinner, we did manage to confuse the locals with out crackers and party hats. We`d also each bought two Secret Santa presents, which were allocated by a dice game. After opening the present you`d chosen, rolling the correct number could then allow you to swap it with someone else, which led to some fairly ruthless swaps - particularly over a novelty shower hat.

The table´s laid...

...for Christmas dinner Buenos Aires style.
There was even a chance to wear the Christmas jumper.

The much-fought-over shower hat.

All in all it was a very fun day and although I was thousands of miles from home, it still contained many of the elements which make Christmas for me. There was lots of food, lots of noise and lots of laughter and, of course, my family.