Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Waitangi Weekend

One of the things I love most about travelling is seeing different cultures. I'm a nosy person at the best of times so I love watching the way other people live their lives; listening to their stories and traditions and having those moments where you think 'you'd never see that at home' (said in a broad Yorkshire accent, obviously). Nothing puts me off a place more than when people say: "It's just like England, but with nicer weather." If that's the case I may as well save myself the money and just sit under a heat lamp at home.

So I was excited when, purely by chance, I found myself in the Bay of Islands as Waitangi weekend approached. Waitangi is one of New Zealand's most important historical sites as it was where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in 1840.

Now I'm not for a moment going to pretend that I understand everything which has gone on in the past, and is still going on today, between the Maori people and various governments over the years. But needless to say there have been many problems, not least that the leaders signed two different translations of the treaty all those years ago. But what I loved about the weekend was that it was a chance to see a totally different side of New Zealand. People from all over the country descended on the town to celebrate their heritage and, as with most celebrations, it involved lots of food, lots of singing and lots of dancing.

The day itself began with a waka (boat) race between members of the different tribes, dressed in their traditional costumes. Before setting off each group performed a haka, a war dance complete with stomping feet and frightening facial expressions designed to instill pride and scare the enemy. It was followed by some rather formal performance by the Navy, but I much preferred the singing and dancing which came later from the Maori groups. Although I couldn't understand the language, the songs were so beautiful to listen to. And then, of course, there was the food. Lunch was a hangi - meat and vegetables which had been cooked in an underground pit overnight. Nothing beats sitting on the beach, eating a feast (preferably one prepared by someone else.)

The day did include a number of peaceful protests, but it was quite calm on both sides (definitely no kettling tactics from the police here). It was also an interesting experience just to sit and listen to what was going on and not have to be chasing people around to report on it for a change.

Since Waitangi day I have seen lots of different 'Maori cultural evenings' advertised in different towns. But I preferred seeing it this way, when people had travelled from their homes across the country not to entertain the tourists, but to show that they were proud of their past and hopeful for their future.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

#9 Do something which terrifies me

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to dive.
Until one night when her buddy left her. Alone. In the dark.
And despite the fact that she made it to the surface safely, shaken but unhurt, the girl never dived again.

Fear is a funny old thing. Because even though I can vividly remember that night seven years ago in Thailand - the panic I felt as I flashed my torch on and off to signal there was a problem; the cramp which began in my foot and made me want to race to the surface, regardless of the necessary safety stops; and finally reaching the top, coughing and spluttering, half crying with fear and relief - it never occurred to me that I would be afraid to dive again. Over the years I've always maintained that I love diving. I never even acknowledged the times I made excuses not to do it - last year in Colombia for example, I told myself the visibility wasn't good enough. Even here in the Poor Knight's Islands, which is supposed to be the best dive site in New Zealand, I nearly talked myself out of it, reasoning that I'd be going to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia later on my trip. But after hearing stories from other divers I decided I had to do it.

It was only as I was in the dive shop, picking up my equipment that I first thought "I don't want to do this". I was actually kind of surprised by the thought and I quickly tried to put it out of my head. But as we boarded the boat and started to check our kit I could feel my panic growing. I'd signed up for a refresher course and as we were travelling to our first dive site our instructor Kate went over the basics with us. Even though it all came back to me easily, I just couldn't let go of the fear. I kept imagining what it would be like to be under the water again and to be honest I wasn't sure whether I could do it.

I thought I'd better explain the situation to Kate before we got into the sea, just in case I did panic. But as I calmly tried to explain what had happened to her I actually burst into tears, which was very embarrassing for everyone concerned (as many of you who have witnessed one of my weepy moments will know). Luckily Kate was lovely and very reassuring and, as she was going to be my buddy, she promised she wouldn't leave me.

The first thing we had to do when we arrived at the site was to put all of our equipment on. Diving in cold water is so different to the warm temperatures I've always dived in before and our buoyancy would be totally different, which meant I had to wear 9kgs of weights on my weight belt just to make sure I could actually descend and, once again, struggle into an extremely thick/unflattering wetsuit (I feel like this is becoming a bit of a theme on my trip.)

Before I stepped off the edge of the boat I kept repeating the mantra my mum has always said to my sister and I when we're worried or nervous about something: "You can do it. You can do it." And as I landed in the water and we started going over the skills - what to do if your mask fills with water and how to share your oxygen with your buddy in an emergency - I realised that yes, I could do it.

Obviously I wasn't perfect and I discovered that I panic much more quickly now if there's even a hint of a problem. So there was a lot of reminding myself to stay calm and remembering to keep breathing (one of the most important rules of diving is never to hold your breath).

But by taking the plunge and facing my fear I was rewarded with the most amazing dive. To put into words what it is like down there is impossible, but when it's described as one of the best dive sites in the world, it's no exaggeration. The seabed was an underwater forest of kelp, which was constantly moving back and forth with the currents, which made you feel as though you were in a totally different world. Huge fish swam by, completely uninterested in our attempts to be graceful under water, and schools of tiny fish darted past us as they tried not to become lunch for the bigger ones which followed.

The dive flew by and I couldn't believe it when it was time to ascend. Then it was just a matter of trying to hold down my lunch while we sailed to the second dive point. Luckily, for once, I didn't feel too ill. But one couple did not have the most romantic start to their honeymoon as they spent the whole time throwing up.

Before we began our next dive Kate told us it would include going into a cave. The thought of being in the dark wasn't too appealing but there wasn't too much time to worry about it. The second dive site was completely different to the first, with a sandy seabed and a rocky wall inhabited by sea creatures. We saw tiny eggs, camouflaged fish and eels. In the cave (which was a lot less scary than it had sounded) fish looked at us in surprise as we entered their dark hiding place. It really was amazing.

I know I would have had to get back in the water at some point - the Great Barrier Reef is on my 30b430 list after all - but it feels nice to have done it early on in my trip and I'm hoping the more diving I do it, the more my confidence will grow.

And so, after facing her fear (with the help of a few words of wisdom from her mum), the girl learnt how to love how to dive again.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Teething troubles in New Zealand.

The dentist was still talking but to be honest I'd stopped listening after the words "root canal". It seems that while I had embraced South American food (I may have mentioned my love-affair with it once or twice), the sugary goodness had not done me much good. So as well as gaining a few extra pounds on the waistline, it seems my teeth have also suffered (and I did brush them twice a day mum - promise!) As though to prove that point a huge chunk of one of my teeth fell out on the day I was leaving the country.

Which meant that one of my first experiences in New Zealand was a trip to the dentist. Although he was nice and friendly, for some reason, after briefly examining my mouth, the dentist decided to give me a 'worst case sceneraio' talk first in which the dreaded root canal was mentioned. I don't know whether it was some sort of psychological trick, so that whatever I did need didn't seem as bad or whether he genuinely thought I might need one. Either was I nearly burst into tears and was actually glad when he stuck the needle into my gum as I didn't trust myself to speak without blubbing.

As my mouth was numbing the dentist decided to ask me 20 Questions. (I guess it must get a bit boring sometimes just doing that count-y thing they do on your teeth and asking people whether they want a scale and polish.) His chief enquiry was "Don't you get lonely travelling by yourself?" To which I felt like answering: "Only when people bring it up all the time. Honestly it's like when you're single and people say: "Don't you want a boyfriend?" and you realise you probably wouldn't think half as much about it if people didn't feel the need to keep going on about it.

Fortunately it didn't take too long for my gum to numb and, even more fortunately, it turned out I didn't need root canal treatment. For now. The dentist went to great pains to point out that at some point in the future I would probably need one. "It could be in a week, it could be in 20 years," he told me reassuringly.

In the meantime a filling would do and as he tipped the chair back I noticed a huge television screen installed on the ceiling, with Sky rolling news playing, so at least as I was having my mouth drilled I could see how the Dow Jones was doing.

So after two days in New Zealand, with a $380 dollar bill in my pocket and the threat of root canal treatment hanging over me forever more, I'm seriously hoping my trip goes uphill from here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A shock to the system.

The first thing that's struck me since arriving in New Zealand is how easy everything is. As soon as I arrived at the airport there was a clearly marked bus straight to the city centre, with a driver who actually called out my stop for me.

After the crazy, hectic, hustle and bustle of South America everything here seems very calm and quiet and ordered. The streets are clean and even the cars drive on the 'normal' side of the road (for us Brits anyway). And I don't want to jinx it by speaking too soon, but so far everything has been so straightforward. The other day I was following a map to get to Auckland Museum when I came to a dual carriageway. I was just contemplating what I should do when I saw a sign attached to a lamp post. "Trying to get to Auckland Museum?" it said, "You can't cross here but here are three options." It then proceeded to explain three different ways to get there. That would never happen in South America and I'd have ended up risking life and limb trying to cross the road.

The fact that everyone speaks English is also great for the gossip in me. So far the best think I've overheard was a brilliant break-up line on the bus. Girl: "So you're saying you don't love me anymore?" Boy: "No, I'm just saying I don't love you today, tomorrow I might change my mind". (He sure knows how to make a girl feel special.)

I'm sure in a few days it will all become the norm to me but at the moment it's still feels nice to only have to ask a question once, rather than in five different ways to five different people before I can find someone who understands me. And yes, I have to remember that I'm back in a country where paper can go down the toilet and at some point I need to stop confusing all the lovely people here by saying "gracias" and "permisso" to them. But for now I'm just enjoying the novelty. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Moving on...

So the South American part of my adventure has come to an end. On one hand it feels like a lifetime ago that I was saying goodbye to everyone at home and setting off on this crazy journey, but on the other hand I can't believe my first three months have flown by already.

Often when you're constantly travelling from place to place you don't have time to sit back and reflect on everything you've seen. But looking back on it now I am amazed at how much I got to do in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile; from the awe-inspiring Inca Trail and Salar de Uyuni to my special Christmas and New Year in Argentina and the brilliant end to my trip in Torres del Paine. As well as ticking eight things off my 30b430 list I have also had so many other incredible experiences. I saw penguins, drank tea in Welsh teashops and was lucky enough to volunteer alongside some fantastic people. And it's not just the 'big' things I've loved. Some of my most memorable moments have been very ordinary - watching gorgeous sunsets on some of my many long bus rides, buying food in the markets and entertaining the locals with my attempts at Spanish, to name but a few. There have  been so many great times that it almost feels a bit greedy to be continuing with my travels to collect more.

But it would be wrong to make out that everything has been plain-sailing. In the future I'm sure I'll look back on this time with rose-tinted glasses and remember that everything was perfect. But that's not the way travelling works and, of course, there have been times when I've felt frustrated or scared or lonely. Actually the hardest part of my trip was right at the beginning. At home I was so used to always being surrounded by people - working in a busy office; spending lots of time with my friends and talking to my family regularly on the phone - that I found it difficult to get used to being by myself. Often your experience of a place is influenced by the people you end up meeting along the way and sometimes you just don't meet anyone and that can be hard. I think I'm still learning to enjoy my own company but it's definitely getting easier.

And, of course, for every difficult day there are so many more amazing ones and usually just when you're feeling tired or grumpy someone will come along and invite you for lunch or tell you a funny story and suddenly you love travelling again and you can't even remember what you were annoyed about in the first place.

So, to all of the brilliant people I've met along the way and to everyone at home who has encouraged and supported me every step of the way: thank you. Here's to the next six months!

Things I'll never forget
* Walking through the Sun Gate on the final morning of the Inca Trail.
* Meeting all of the brilliant volunteers and children at Traveller Not Tourist.
* Seeing the stunning Salar de Uyuni for the first time.
*Spending Christmas and New Year in Buenos Aires with a fantastic bunch of people.
*Enjoying a private picnic at Iguazu Falls.
* Seeing penguins in the wild for the first time.
* Attempting to climb a volcano.
* 42 hour bus rides.
* Watching the sunrise over Torres del Paine.
* The many, many, amazing people I've met along the way, who helped to make my time in South America so special.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Ride 'em Cowgirl

When I signed up for a horse riding trip in Tupiza I’d had a romantic vision of being carried leisurely through countryside which wouldn’t look out of place in a Wild West film. After all, this is how the Lonely Planet describes the Bolivian town: “If there’s ever a place where you want to throw your leg over a horse, brandish spurs and say, 'ride ‘em cowboy', this is it.”

What I hadn’t expected was to be thrown off a crazy horse less than five minutes after getting on it.

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Saturday, 4 February 2012

#8 Trek in the amazing Torres del Paine

"There are going to be times when the wind blows so hard you are going to have to lie down so you don´t get blown off the side of a mountain," the guy who was giving an introductory talk to Torres del Paine told us. To be honest he wasn´t really selling it too well. So far he´d told us we´d have to wade through rivers, endure sudden rain storms and it was inevitable that at some point during our visit to Chile´s most famous National Park we were going to end up peeing on ourselves due to the constantly changing wind direction.

Just weeks before I arrived at Torres del Paine a huge area of the park had been destroyed by a fire. Although the authorities had managed to reopen some areas, much of it was still off-limits, including one of its biggest attractions, a huge glacier. The effects on tourism were clearly being felt in Puerto Natales, the gateway to the park. When we were at the introductory talk the staff told us it was usually attended by anywhere from 50 to 100 people every day, compared to the eight who had turned up.

Not wanting to tackle the trek alone, I paired up with a Swiss girl, which enabled us to share the task of carrying the tent, our stove and food along with the rest of our equipment. She was also a keen trekker and camper which I thought could be a good thing, as it´s been quite a few years since I attempted to put up a tent in Girl Guides (and even then, to be honest, I was usually the person who faffed about trying to look busy while not actually doing much).

We decided on a four day trek to avoid doubling back on ourselves too much as a result of the closed routes. The success of carrying my own stuff on the Inca Trail had clearly gone to my head, as I was feeling quite confident about being able to carry everything, after all the only extra things were a tent and our food - how hard could it be? The answer, or course, is very. After packing all of the essentials my bag weighed an absolute tonne.

Do I look the part? (Can we all please take a moment to appreciate the fact that I am rocking a bumbag?)
Thankfully the first day didn't look too bad, as it was just a four hour walk to our first campsite. However I quickly discovered my trekking partner and I operated on very different speeds. While she sped up the steep paths 
at the speed at which I would approach a shoe sale, I was left lagging behind trying to drag myself to the top. When I eventually reached where she´d stopped to wait for me she´d usually give me some encouraging words like "Can´t you go any faster?" Obviously completely oblivious to the look of absolute horror on my bright red face.

The hardest part of the day came when we had to cross a huge river. Despite what we had been advised in our pre-trek talk there was no way I wanted to get my feet soaking wet by walking through it when we still had another two hours to go. Everyone else obviously felt the same and people were stepping from rock to rock to cross the fast-flowing water. Which is all very well when you're tall but when you have got short legs like me and you're carrying a backpack which is almost half your body weight, it's not so easy. To my credit, I at least managed to get halfway across before I absolutely froze. I was eventually rescued by a kind American girl who obviously thought I'd be standing there all day if she didn't come and help me.

One foot wrong and it's an early dip...

By the time we got to the first camp my shoulders were killing me and all I wanted to do was lie down and have a really long sleep. But unfortunately it was straight into putting up the tent, collecting water from the stream to make our dinner (just call me Bear Elliott) and cooking the staple campers' meal of pasta.

Cooking up a storm.

The next day was a full eight hours of walking but luckily we were able to leave most of our things at the campsite. I felt like I was walking on air without my big backpack. Walking up the French Valley was lovely and shaded and when we reached the Mirador at the top we had an amazing 360 degree view of snow-capped mountains and the beautiful lake. At the top we met some Israelis who kept us entertained on the long, steep, walk back down, before inviting us for a cookies and dulce de leche party (the height of excitement when you're camping.)

One perfect view...

...after another...

after another.

The third day of our trek was the most difficult as we needed to carry all of of things to the next campsite. There was a lot of very steep hills to climb up and down and despite being told about all of the different weather  conditions we would could expect, we only experienced one - sun. After setting up camp we set off again without our bags to one of the parks most famous sights, the three towers. The path was steep and very rocky, especially towards the top but the view when we finally got there made everything worthwhile. The three towers which stand above an ice-blue lake were absolutely stunning.

Worth the walk.

It was an early night for me as I had an early start planned. Even though I am not a morning person (as anyone who knows me can attest to) I'd heard enough about the sunrise over the towers to know that it was worth setting the alarm for. At 5am I headed out into the freezing cold with my head torch and began the same climb as the evening before. However in the dark everything obviously looks different and somehow (don't ask me how) I managed to lose the path. One minute I was following the red poles which marked the path and the next minute I was climbing over huge boulders. I could tell I'd gone the wrong way but as I wasn't sure where I decided there was no point turning back and as I could see the top I thought I'd just head up. As I climbed over boulders I tried not to think about all the horror stories of walkers falling and breaking bones and laying undiscovered for days. The more I climbed the further away the top seemed to be and I was just starting to panic when I saw some walkers on the path up ahead who looked very surprised to see my sweaty face appearing from a sea of rocks below them. Talk about the path less travelled.

But after my somewhat unusual climb to the top I then got to enjoy a perfect morning for my troubles. I had taken my sleeping bag and some porridge with me so I ending up having the best breakfast in bed ever as I watched the towers light up one by one as the sun rose over them. Definitely the highlight of my trek.

Taking the road less travelled...

...but it was worth the climb.
When I got back to the bottom my camping companion asked me how it had been. "Great" I said. There was no way I was admitting to her what had happened...