Tuesday, May 19, 2009

And now, our main stories again...

I'm off to the airport in about 2 hours. I'm sitting here trying to think how to do this next bit, wondering if the slight sniffle I seem to have developed is the on-set of swine flu or just second hand germs from the pungent dutch teenagers that have been coughing and hacking around the hostal in their unwashed feet since yesterday afternoon, and whether the slight nausea I'm feeling is due to the reheated chinese noodles I've just eaten, or a physical response to the confused feelings I have about leaving.

Part of me is longing to get home (both to the UK and NZ) and back to some kind of normality, but equally I know that it will be most likely years before I get to do a trip like this again, if ever, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I can't imagine never coming back to South America, that's for sure, but how and when are baffling me at the moment. I think I will probably shed a tear as the plane takes off. A tough, macho tear, obviously, but a tear nonetheless.

Maybe I should start by remembering the things I won't miss. For example, buttock cramps caused by 11 hours in the saddle; wind so cold in my face that my eyeballs stop working properly and seeing things clearly becomes nigh impossible; the smell of pee in the streets, thanks to the locals' indifference to public urination at any time of the day or night: when you gotta go, you gotta go is their philosophy; suicidal / kamikaze bus drivers - it amounts to the same thing; the moment of complete certainty that I am about to fall off again, and the accompanying knowledge that it is really going to hurt, but the uncertainty of just how much; the anxiousness I always felt in the days leading up to a "new country" and the unknown (although discovering the anxiousness was unfounded was always a plus); and now I'm struggling to think of more. Which is surely a good thing.

On a more positive note, I have so many good memories, many of which I have already shared, and trying to re-cap them all here, whether for my benefit or yours, would be impossible. I guess they fall in to different categories (not sure how many yet), including places, people, activities, and so on. So, in an effort to get things moving and in roughly the order they occured, but certainly not in any order of preference, some of the most memorable moments would have to include the following:

The first crossing of the Andes, in the snow; running out of road and in to the construction crew trying to get to San Agustín; meeting Juan Manuel and his family in Chepes on account of my bent handle bars; Camping at Capilla del Montt; the ride into and then the walk across the river to Salta de Moconá; the waterfalls at Iguacú; the mountain top in Parque Naçional Marumbí; a surreal night out on our way up the coast in Brasil; Rio; Sandro and Ximena in Buenos Aires; Jorje in Azul; General la Madrid and the motorbike rally; Peninsula Valdez and the whales; crossing in to Ushuaia with Rich, and reaching the southern most point of our trip; setting off up Ruta 40 for my first solo mission; the ride from Puerto Ibañez to Coihaique and then on to Puerto Chacabucco; El Bolsón; the ride north from Bariloche to Mendoza; crossing our first high altitude pass; camping on the volcano on the Salar de Uyuni; the mines in Potosi; 2 weeks in the jungle, even with the mozzies; Cusco and Bruce Peru and the kids I got to know there; the solo mission through the Cordillera Blancas; the Galapagos Islands.

What this woefully incomplete list fails to mention, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, are the people I met on the way, tourists and locals alike. Despite my own misgivings, coupled with numerous warnings (largely from people who had never been here, it has to be said), all my fears about the dishonest, dangerous folk who roam the countries of South America robbing and beating foreigners have been proved to be false. Of course, we didn't get into every nook and cranny, but we did pretty well, and in all that time never met a corrupt cop or dicey customs official, were welcomed with smiles and help wherever we went, and I for one have been left with the idea that South America has a reputation it does not deserve. I suspect the victims of all this alledged crime and violence would, in another place, be up for a Darwin award. Common sense keeps you safe, and without that you will fall foul of criminal mindermasts in any place on earth. I have felt far more unsafe in parts of NZ than I did in the vast majority of South America, and that includes Rio!

So, coming back on task a little, a huge thank you to everyone I met here who helped us in some way, with with directions, mechanical assistance, food, beer or fun. If we never meet again, it will be a shame, but if (when) I come back, I will be in touch. And, of course, there is a standing invitation to you, should you make it to NZ at any point.

2 days later...

I'm back in the UK now, and have just re-read the above. I think I'll publish this one now to keep the poor folks happy, and pick up the thread later when I have adjusted back into the real world a bit. In the mean time, I may try and add a few photos to some of the blogs, so feel free to take a look at the back-catalogue. And just in case we don't talk again, its been a pleasure, and thanks for keeping me company along the way.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Getting my Just Deserts, or The End of the Road

Its nearly all over. Of course, I still have to pack things up and get back to the UK, but the biking part is at an end. I won't have a lot more of much interest to write about (I realise its quite presumptuous of me to suggest its been interesting so far), but I have been considering doing a "nothing but the truth" edition to wrap up with, where those stories considered too traumatic to let the poor parents in on are revealed in all their anticlimactic glory. I may also fill in some of the shady blanks of earlier entries. Or I may forget and not bother. Oh, I can sense the excitment of the unknown building already!

Right now though, I am on day 14 in Lima, and cabin fever is setting in, with still 3 days to go until I fly out. Getting in to Lima was a bit of a trial - there is a major through road that keeps you out of the city centre - but having just lept blindly from it hoping to discover my whereabouts on my feeble Lonely Planet map, I discovered I was lost in the dodgy part of town, so adopted the new strategy (and what a great time for new strategies, I might add) of paying a taxi driver to lead me to where I wanted to go. Not just a hat rack, my friends, not just a hat rack.

The hostal I was hoping to use was full, as were most of the others I approached (it was a holiday weekend after all), but one had spaces for the next night and a garden out back, so the parking was sorted, and I suffered through one night in a private hotel room before setting up camp in a dormitory in one of the 4 Flying Dog Hostals around El Óvalo in Miraflores. Perfick.

I have spent the last 2 weeks mostly avoiding spending money where possible, as I knew that at some point I would be cutting off an arm and a leg to get the bike back to NZ. Therefore, other than the obligatory souvenir shopping that I have now been able to do, on account of not having to transport said goodies around the continent, I have hidden in the TV room or the sun lounge, dismantled and cleaned my bike thoroughly, or walked the streets of Miraflores to fill my days. There are tours I could sign up on, obviously, but having already seen pretty much everything they could hope to show me somewhere else on my travels, I figured there was little point. Also, being on the home straight as it were, I have lost motivation almost completely to sit on buses and be a tourist. If I still had months ahead of me to travel, then I'd be right up for it, don't get me wrong, but I have accepted that its all over for this trip, and am just keen to get home.

On top of all that, there has been the arrangements for the bike to make. In fairness to Pacific Anchor Line, in whom I am entrusting my noble steed, despite the foot dragging that went on at the start of the process, they have been pretty good. Not very on the ball with setting me up with an agent that spoke English, mind you, so struggling through all new shipping vocabulary was rather tricky, but generally efficient in all other respects. I hope. It remains to be seen exactly where / when my bike arrives, and whether I have the appropriate documentation to claim it, but that will be fun and games for when I get back to NZ. Trying to decipher emails that were written in Spanish then translated with Babelfish, or some other inadequate website tool, in to English has been interesting to say the least. It pretty much arrives in my in-box as Gibberish, and an obscure dialect of Gibberish at that, so in the end I asked them to re-send everything in Spanish and got the staff at the hostal to translate it for me.

The up-shot of it all is that I took the bike to the port in the back of a truck (didn't want to get it dirty again, and besides, I had to drain the fuel tank and remove the battery) on Tuesday, got it crated up (well, put inside a wooden frame and wrapped in clingfilm), said a little prayer to the gods of motorcycle transportation, and left it for the Peruvian dock workers to put on the right ship. I was marginally concerned that they didn't feel it was necessary for me to put my name or address anywhere on the finished article, but I insisted, so with a bit of luck....

I also had to hand over my passport for the customs clearance amid assurances that it would be returned to me by Thursday afternoon at the latest. It is now Friday morning, and still no sign, but the latest Enigma code from PAL promises it will be with me this afternoon at 3pm. Lets hope so, its the weekend tomorrow so they won't do anything then, and I fly out on Monday, which would be cutting it a bit fine. But hey, they're professionals, right? Right? Hmmmm.

Richard would no doubt be amused to hear that I actually miss having my bike parked up nearby. Yes, Rich, I have grown, if not to love my bike exactly, then certainly to be very fond of it. Not fond of the rack, mind you, I hate the rack with its fragile breakiness and constant need for repairs and attention, but I can't really fault the bike, with its powers of bounce that were tested to the full, and its ability to run in a virtual vacuum at the top of the mountains.

I think I will call a halt for today, but before I leave Lima I will have a crack at a Golden Moments edition. Another one more for me than for you, but please feel free to look over my e-shoulder as I commit my thoughts to the interweb. And now I'm off to go surfing. Not in the quite-possibly-polluted-and-certainly-very-cold waters off the coast in Lima, but in the lounge with the TV remote. Don't judge me til you've ridden 30,000km in South America. Toodle pip.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Oops. Dropped the ball a bit there, sorry. Its now been 3 weeks since my last confession, and I apologise to Ed who has been stuck in his office prison cell waiting (a little impatiently, it has to be said) for me to write some more. He did get a phone call though, so he can blummin' well button his lip..

You know when you are looking forward to something and it gets built up to be this really, really good thing, and you get more and more excited about it, and then it happens, and its all a little disappointing after all that? (you know what I'm talking about, girls). The Galapagos is nothing like that. I have been watching documentaries and nature shows and reading books about the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember, and have always wanted to visit but never thought I would, even on this trip. Lets face it after all, had I still been travelling with Rich, we would have driven straight past and up to Colombia, thus missing the best chance yet to go.

However, making the decision to go, and for 12 days at that, was one of the best choices for me in the last 10 months. The Islands lived up to the hype, they were everything that nice Mr Attenborough said they would be, and even though I almost had to mug other tourists to pay for everything due to the rather over inflated costs, it was worth every penny. Almost. But I'll explain that a bit more later.

So, there I was at the airport, having just paid $100 cash for my National Park entry ticket, waiting for my bags to be delivered to baggage claim on a trolley à la Nelson airport, when a girl comes over and asks me for $100 to pay her Nat Park fee as she didn't have enough cash, they didn't take visa and there was no cash machine in the airport.

"Oh ho", I thought. "The rip-off artists are getting bolder by the minute, I must have "sucker" tattooed on my forehead or something. Like I'd fall for that!" But hey, she was cute, and if she was ripping me off, at least she asked first, rather than just stealing, so I handed it over, and that's how I met Polly. We shared a cab to Puerto Ayuro where she paid me back from a cash machine (eventually - but not her fault), and we started making plans for the next week. Polly had a heap of info she'd been given by a guy she'd met and was sort of dating in Ecuador, so knew all the best places to eat, visit, drink at, and get internet access etc, so was very handy to hang out with.

I had booked a boat trip for the following Friday, so that gave me a week to explore. Day 1 involved a walk to Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay for the un-Spanish out there) for a bit of a snorkel, and as luck would have it, my "waterproof to 10m" digital camera decided to go on the fritz the first time I took it in the water. It still took pictures, but the screen on the back stopped working, so I had to guess a bit as to what it was I was actually taking pictures of. Perfect for a week on the Galapagos, obviously. Fortunately my wee video camera also took stills, though of a much poorer quality, so most of the photos on flicker are from that.

The beach was stunning , the water warm, and the marine iguanas and sally light-foot crabs there to be tripped over. Unfortunately, what I didn't know was that the smaller, murkier bay was actually a nursery area for sharks and visited by turtles (hence the name, Einstein), but I didn't actually snorkel there, and very possibly missed out on seeing hammerheads and other things, but there you go. Oh, and I got sunburned a bit. Still, Englishman abroad in a hot country, goes without saying really.

In the pip emma, visited the tortoise farm where they are breeding the giant tortoises for re-introduction programmes. Met Lonesome George, the only one of his kind left, and a few others, so that was cool. Apparently the tortoises have different shaped shells depending on their particular species, as well as long or short necks etc. All very interesting and part of what influenced the evolution of most of the endemic plant species on the islands with regard to height above ground and whether they have spikes or not. All very clever.

Sunday dawned hot and sweaty as was the norm, but I was up with Darwin's finches and off to the island Santa Maria (aka Floreanna) for some diving. An hour and a half each way got us there, we collected a couple of other divers at the island, and had a couple of dives (although neither, rather disappointingly at the Devil's Crown - a partly submerged volcano mouth appaerently very good for sharks). The diving was good, but very different to the other diving I'd done in the Phillipines. Less colour, less coral, fewer flashy fish, but far more in the way of bizarre underwater structures caused by the lava flow, and more big fish. If I'm honest, I was a little disappointed with the diving, but that soon changed.

Next morning I had a wee stroll to Las Grietas, a short, narrow canyon about 10m down to the water, and 12m to the botton of that. The water was crystal clear and a mix of fresh and salty, and given the humidity and heat was the nicest place to swim on the island. In the afternoon, I was off to Isabela Island.

Now, the clever buggers in head office have worked this out very well. In order to share the tourist dollar about a bit, the boats to Isabela leave daily at 2pm and arrive at 4pm, thus meaning you have to stay at least one night. Added to this, the return boat leaves Isabela daily at 6am, meaning you pretty much have to stay a second night if you want to do anything at all while you are there.

I opted for the tour of Sierra Negro (the biggest live volcanic crater in the world, and the 2nd biggest if you include extinct volcanoes) and Volcan Chico (smaller but relatively recently erupted) by horse of all things, followed by some snorkelling at Las Tintoneras (sp?), a group of small islands in the bay. The volcanoes were impressive, as was the amount of discomfort I felt at sitting on a horse for so long. Can somebody please explain to me what you are supposed to do to make trotting comfortable? I feel like I've tried everything and still look like a rag doll on a bucking bronco! Its one of the curuellest things a boy can do to hismarble pouch.

The snorkelling was cool, with sealions to play with, and rays and sharks to look at - something I was getting used to after much of the same experienced from diving.

Next morning was bright and early back to Santa Cruz, where I was able to stow away on another boat off diving to North Seymour Island and Bartolome. Bit further this time, up to 3 hours away, so by the time I got back that night at about half 7, I'd spend about 8 hours of the day riding about on boats, and a couple swimming about under them.

The First dive at North Seymour was very poor, with visibility down to 2m or so thanks to lots of green gunk in the water. Currents or something stirring everything up. The second dive at Bartolome (not much more than a big rock in the sea) was spectacular. A series of volcanic terraces under the sea took us down, then we followed the wall round the rock, which was pretty much like an underwater skyscraper, inhabited by all sorts of critters. Sealions came to investigate and play, and with scuba gear I was able to play back, rather than hurry to the surface gasping for breath, as I tend to do with a snorkel.

Next day was....diving again! I was really getting into it again by now, having got used to what I could expect to see, and learned to appreciate it for what it was rather than comparing it to a tropical coral reef, which it wasn't even trying to be (could that be a thinly veiled life-lesson? hmmm.....) Today was 3 dives, but while I had hoped to go to Gordon's Rocks where the Hammerheads hang out in numbers, we were going back to North Seymour - the site of yesterday's disappointing dive. This was due to the divers, unfortunately. Originally, we were all going to be realtively experienced and up to the challenge of the strong currents at Gordon's that attract the sharks. But the others (person's unknown) cancelled, and the replacements were all rookies, so the dive company took us somewhere safer. As it turned out, this was better than I could have hoped for. The poor visibility from the day before had cleared up, and we had 3 fantastic dives at 3 different locations around North Seymour, including seeing a group of 5 manta rays that drifted past like ghosts. No hammerheads though, despite the guides claim that he saw one within seconds of descending. All lies to keep the punters enthusiastic, if you ask me.

Finally Friday rolled round, and it was time for the tour on the boat. Four days and 3 nights of high seas adventure. Or so I thought...

Ok, so the boat was fine, the crew friendly and good at their jobs (we didn't sink anyway), and the guide seemed to know his stuff, but for $750 I was expecting 4 days and 3 nights. I can't really dispute the 3 nights, I definitely spent 3 nights on the boat, but the days were less clear cut, with day 1 starting at about half 12, and day 4 being all over by 9.15 am.

We visited a bunch of islands and saw all sorts of land iguanas, wild giant tortoises (easy to track - you follow the flattened grass until you meet a big slow moving rock. Not too good at escaping, those tortoises), frigate birds and boobies (stop it. You're better than that), but I felt slightly conned I have to say. I'd have preferred to have visited the places myself on day trips and spent the difference on a couple more dives. Would have been cheaper, but they don't tell you how easy it is to do your own thing when you ask them. Funny that...

Feeling a little let down after the first fantastic week, I stumbled about on San Cristóbal until I bumped into Sanghita from Belgium, who'd been on SC for a while and knew the best beaches to go to, and places to eat at, so for my final 18 hours on the Islands at least I wsa entertained and full.

So, aside from the "mid-range cruise", the Galapagos lived up to the hype, and I feel fairly sure I will get back there one day, if only to dive Gordon's Rocks and see the hammerheads.

So now, I'm back in Trujillo in Peru and about to head to Lima to pack the bike. Wish me luck, this could be the biggest challenge of the trip so far!

Friday, April 10, 2009

This is Getting Beyond a Joke

Remember that tyre man I was supposed to remember to visit? Well, I forgot. Or at least I based my decision not to visit one on the way out of Huancayo on the fact that the last repair lasted 5000km, more than enough to get to Trujillo and do it there. So I passed all the llanterias and vulcanizadoras by with barely a glance, as I motored the totally tarmac route to Hunaco. Until, that is that my rear end started feeling squishy again. Its no laughing matter, let me tell you, when your rear end starts to feel squishy! I pulled over, peered backwards at my tyre and, lo and behold, it was flat again.

Luckily, a mere 1km at walking-pace-on-a-flat-tyre up the road, was a vulcanizadora who sorted me right out for S/.5 , including fixing the bodged patch on my spare tube as well. Crisis averted, and in only an hour too. Great what you can do quickly when you spend your life doing it, eh?

The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully, just racking up the miles and getting to Huanaco by evening no worries. Next morning at 0805 I set off again, on what was looking to be a long day of 350km, the first bit all off road. As it turned out it was persisting down, but despite this I decided to give it a go, not least because Hunaco is not a very inspiring place.

The road out of town was bad, the river running alongside was in full flood, and as the road got steeper, it also got pot-holier, muddier and lumpier. The temptation to turn back and sod it was great, but on I soldiered at the remarkably swift rate of 20km/h for the next 6 1/2 hours. Yes, it took me that long to get to La Union, the almost-but-not-quite half-way point, and the only other place to stop for the night before Huaraz. And so I stopped, given that it was at least 4 more hours at best, in the rain, and no guarantee of getting there anyway. Reckon I'll finish it off tomorrow. And this too.

I'm mildly aware, incidentally, that I don't want this to turn into a dull and repetitive day by day acount of me driving places (I hope it hasn't so far). I'll work on it. In the meantime, back straight, shoulders back, head up, take a deep breath and hold iiiitt.......

....Aaaaand relax! Bloody lying hostal owner. It was far closer and nearly all on tarmac from La Union to Huaraz, not gravel and stuff like he said. Still, he probably just needed someone, anyone, to stay in his hostal. It still took about 4 hours as well, so not something I'd have wanted to do yeseterday afternoon in the rain. Huaraz strikes me as a very Quessnstown-y place as far as scenery goes (big mountians with snow on, pine trees and rivers etc), but the town is once again typically run down. It is, however, aware of its potential as a tourist honeypot, and is working on its image. Well done Huaraz! Stayed one night, during which it rained almost continually, and delayed the decision as to whether I go on to Trujillo tomorrow until the morning.

Wow. I've said that before about other things, but wow. Double wow, in fact. Almost a triple wow, come to think about it. Its only not a triple wow because the off road section was only 70km or so, otherwise it would be triple wow for sure. Given that I'm drawing to an end of the motorbiking section of the trip, this was one hell of a way to go out.

Out of Huaraz there is a road. Its a road that begins with tarmac, albeit tarmac with surprise pot-holes around cormers and sections of mud where the cliff collapsed across it one evening having been unable to withstand the rain just a little bit longer. It was raining last night as it happens, so some of these slips were still in the "little man with a spade trying to move several tonnes of mud and tapir-sized rocks off the road" stage (apologies for the similie there, I've worked with a tapir, you see, so I know for a fact the rocks were the same size as one. Go to the zoo if you want a better mental picture). This less-than-pristine tarmac continues for about 100km, maybe a little less, then becomes a gravel-and-other-substances road for 70-odd km, before returning to actually very good tarmac indeed. Its the 70-odd km that deserve a mention here. That's 70-odd km that go by the name of......Duck Canyon (Dah dah daaaahh!!!!).

Ok, its a crap name. Its name is actually Canyon del Pato, and pato in Spanish translates to duck, so I guessed it meant Canyon of the Duck, or Duck Canyon, if you will. I'm hoping, none too secretly as it happens, that "pato" in Quechuan, the local Indian dialect, translates as something like "road that all but the bravest warriors fear to tread" or somesuch, but "pato" just seems a little too short of a word to mean all that.

Anyhow, back to the road, and don't let the name lull you into a false sense of security. Its lucky, I think its fair to say, that I had taken the road less travelled in the preceeding few days, because it was, as it turns out, great training for Duck Canyon. Because of where I had been recently, I had seen nearly everything Duck Canyon had to offer.There was less deep mud in the canyon, and it didn't climb as high as I had expected it to, but that was all that was missing. But its not what was missing that was the significant part; its what it had extra that's important.

Imagine, if you will, a raging torrent, fuelled by heavy rains and a catchment area the size of NZ (OK, that might be an exageration a bit, but it was big and raging, for sure, and it had been raining). Now alongside the river, 'pon a high path barely wide enough for a truck with ne'er a protective barrier to be seen, throw in a cocktail of big rocks, potholes, landslips, loose shale, streams, tunnels chipped from the very rock faces themsleves, a drop to near certain death should even a slight mistake be made...but no, I better stop there, lest you have nightmares for a week, and Mother has kittens.

It was not the best surfaced road in Peru, I'll give it that, and the drop-off was genuine, as were the tunnels and other stuff, and speed was once again limited by these factors to a still fairly hairy feeling 30km/h. I tried, I really did, to take video footage as I went along, and I hope it comes out well enough to make Richard even more sorry he stuffed up his bike visa (sorry mate, but you would have loved this road!).

It was a fine parting shot for the Crazy Roads Tour. Utterly appropriate and, combined with the previous few days, a suitable tribute and swansong for the whole journey. During the days ride, I notched up kilometre number 30,000, dropped the bike a number of times, almost entirely due to overbalancing on the treacherous surface while at a standstill (an old favourite of mine, that), bent the handle bars a little picking the bike up, the chain started to stretch like a rubber band that only stretches one way, probably due to my neglecting it over the last week when it got dusty and wet and muddy many, many times. Serves me right. Oh, and the luggage rack appears to have broken again, in an altogether new and more serious place than ever before. Givi have a lot to answer for, let me tell you.

So, on my arrival in Trujillo where I had a couple of days to gather my wits, a monumental decsion was made. I would leave the bike in Trujillo (where Bruce Peru can keep half an eye on it and my ramaining luggage) and I would take a small bag and a...I can barely bring myself to say it....a bus...to Ecuador and sort out a trip over to the Galapagos Islands for the last couple of weeks left to me before I have to get to Lima for the rather tedious, and no doubt highly complicated, process of crating and shipping the bike back to NZ.

It makes sense really. Why drive an extra 2 - 3000km up long, straight, dusty, tedious desert roads, seeing nothing that I haven't seen before, just to turn around and come back pretty much the same way, with no real certainty of having a safe place to leave my stuff, of getting a flight to the islands or even a tour when I got there? This way, I can save time and money travelling, get longer on the islands, and get back to Trujillo in time for tea and scones, hurrah! Although I won't get to Columbia, which sucks a bit but probably eases the olds' minds a bit. They've had a lot to put up with over the last 10 months or so, bless them.

And that's exactly what has happened. I sit here before you (well, before this computer screen writing to you) in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, having just visited a small town park crawling with iguanas that try to steal packed lunches, awaiting my flight in the morning to the island of Santa Cruz, from whence I shall book some scuba diving and day trips as I await my vessel to set sail in Darwin's footprints (oh, you know what I mean) on a 4 day voyage of re-discovery, before docking on the island of San Cristobal in order to return to Guayquil and thence Trujillo, where I shall collect my bike and luggage and delicately, so as not to further damage the rack, proceed to Lima and the last stop on the Crazy Roads Tour. I fully expect to be able to write a little more from the Islands (they have all sorts of modern contraptions you know, including, I believe, a horseless cart that moves under its own power!! Amazing!) so fear ye not (can someone please explain why this entry seems to have gone all medievel in its language?), I shall be in touch before too long. Now, go and powder you codpieces ready for tomorrows jousting, you blaggards.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Flying without my Rear-gunner. So to Speak.

Blimey. I can tell already that I have lots of long days with short distances ahead of me. I figured I might, but its looking worse than I thought. Or better, come to think of it.

Yesterday was Cusco - Andahuaylas (a name I had enormous trouble remembering for some reason, every time I stopped to ask if this was the road to A...), and I knew before I started that the bit to Abancay would take 3 hours minimum, followed by a second 130km odd stretch that took about 3 1/2 hours.

The first bit was as good as I knew it would be, having ridden it the other way just a week or so before. The second bit was almost entirely gravel, and just as steep and curving as the first bit. Some amazing scenery that left me thinking how much Rich would be enjoying it, and feeling that for almost the first time I was seeing the Peru that I had imagined. Huge, sharp-edged mountains, erupting out of lush, cultivated valleys, in the middle of nowhere. Fantastic.

And today (Sunday) was about the same. 260km in 8 1/2 hours form Andahuaylas to Ayacucho, over every type of off-road you could hope to get (keeping in mind there are some sorts - sand, mud, snow, deep gravel etc - you don't want to get). It started as normal, stoney gravel, became extremely pot-holed, all of which were filled with water, requiring much 1st and 2nd gear dodging in and out (I'm getting very good at potholes - I manage to hit nearly everyone!), immaculate smooth hard pack with light gravel, turning to light sand (bearable) and becoming extremely lumpy without being pothole-y, also requiring 1st and 2nd gear (I'm good at lumps, too). The apparently final stretch was immaculate hard-pack (got a little worried when it showered, as it could have become slippery), and then finished with a lumpy flourish. It was a fantastic day to ride, and perfect training for the road between Ayacucho and Huancayo, which has a reputation, and I'll say no more until afterwards. It was tiring though, and when I got to Ayacucho, I experienced the first major issue of journeying alone. Security.

Normally, one of us would stay with the bikes while the other arranged barracks. Today, even though I parked in sight of the reception desk and was gone barely 5 minutes, when I came out to collect my stuff, one of the front bags had been emptied. I think they only really got a bunch of long johns and shorts etc, but also my English-Spanish dictionary and my bendy tripod, thus making self-photos harder. And to think it was not only a Sunday, but the first day of their holy week Easter celebrations. Godless heathens.

Ok, we're 2 days later, and I'm in Huancayo. 280kmin 11 hours, door to door. All very exciting, and one of the most satisfying days yet. I left Ayacuchu as early as possible, about 0750, not wanting to stay in a town that robbed me, besides which it didn't seem like a welcoming place. every on seemed in a hurry, which is not typical of anywhere in South AMerica really, except some of the major cities.

A quick blat up some tarmac took me about 90km into the day in an hour and a half, and then the good stuff started (Rich maybe slightly surprised and hopefully a little proud to hear me refer to off-road as "good stuff"). Up the curvy roads I went, climbing all the while, checking my progress with nearly every bemused looking local I passed, as road signs wre non-existant, and despite the fact there was only one road marked on my map, there were many more out in the real world.

I was planning to take the high road to Huancayo, rather than the one that followed the river, and in Mayocc where the road split, I checked which was the right one with the local police. After firmly recommending the river road, he conceded and directed me to the mountain road, warning me of the altitude and cold and potholes (hah! he had no idea who he was talking to!) and off I went. It was shaping up to be as good as I'd hoped (video does exist - if the camera was set up OK), and when my back end went spongy, even a puncture didn't dampen my spirits. It ws 1125.

Hmmm. Edge of winding mountain road - outside edge, that is - flat tyre, no mate to help, just my raw wits and hard earned experience. Bike chocked up on side box+rock, wheel off no probs, but how to break the seal to take the tyre off, without a second bike with convenient side stand? Just then, as luck would have it, a massive construction truck came past (actually, as I was in the middle of an area of road construction, several came past, but this one stopped) and the driver kindly suggested that maybe if he drove over the tyre, it might break the seal. It didn't. Either time. But nice try. Only one thing for it, I'd need to use the stand on my own bike. So, with much struggling, lifting, balancing and shuffling with foot, I got the tyre under the stand, leaned on it and off she popped. Shuffled tyre out, lifted bike back on to box (harder than it sounds) and got on with the job. Time 1150-ish.

Tyre off rim very easily, tube out, offending nail removed from 3-day old, brand new tyre, patch applied in 2 places (second was precautionary - I might have damaged the tube taking off the tyre), tube stuffed back in and tyre re-fitted with remarkable ease (be proud, Rich, be proud!). Re-inflation underway, time 1220-ish. No holes (a first for me - replacing tyre without digging more holes in the tube, requiring second removal of tyre), pressure up (hand pump only), bead on one side popped out, but not on the other. Damn. Time 1240. Two choices: stick wheel on bike and hop it pops out as I ride along, or deflate and have another go. Option 2 it was, and given breaks for a snack and rest, by 1310-ish, still not right. Option 1 then. Wheel back on bike and boxes reloaded by 1330, and off I went, with about 5 hours of riding and 5 hours of daylight. It was going to be close if I wanted to get to Huancayo before dark. Which I did. The policeman in Mayocc had said there were bandidos in the hills at night!

Fortune favours the brave, though, and before long a check showed the tyre had popped its bead perfectly (Yes!!), and the riding was still superb. Until I got up in the clouds (about 4500m if the choking sound from my bike were to be believed) and it began to drizzle and rain. Road turned...not slippery exactly (thank god) but not totally trustworthy either, so speed much reduced, and time still ticking past rather quickly. Conditions improved though, as did visibility, and before long I was on the down hill side and moving well again. Made it to Pampas, my emergency-plan town by 5pm, and the police there reckoned it'd be easy to get to Huancayo before dark, showed me the road and waved me away. He was right. More up and curves, great surface, and before I knew it I was on the tarmac stetch in to town, and what a treat that was! For the first time in 3 days I was able to get above 70km/h, and hurtled into town just as it got dimpsey. Picked a hotel from my book and moved in, bugger the cost its on Visa, and decided to have a day off. I figure I'd deserved it. Should be in Trujillo by Friday, giving me Easter weekend at the beach. Fingers crossed, eh? Must remember to take the bike to a proper tyre repair man.....

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cusco-ver Again

I was right, you know. It did take 2 days to get back to Cusco.

The first was in 2 parts as far as Abancay. Part one, as far as Puquio, was a bit rough with many inconvenient roadworks and roads with top surface removed in readiness for new asphalt. Can't complain about that I guess, and the scenery was stunning nonetheless, and the road as winding as you could have hoped for. From Puquio onwards, the surface was outstanding, the curves went over a stretch of alti-plano, where a vicuña (part of the llama family) nearly took me out for good by crossing the road at almost exactly the wrong moment (luckily my lightening quick reflexes and suprememly safe riding style kept me safe), and then down to follow a river up a valley into Abancay. A truely lovely ride, I have to say.

Day 2 was a short one from Abancay to Cusco, only 180km, and not gravelly as my map suggested, but quality surface again. Still took 3 hours, mind you, so that gives you some idea of how curvy it actually was. Very enjoyable as well, and I got to Cusco about 12ish on Friday.

I was expecting to be staying until about Wednesday, allowing for urgently needed chiropractic appointments, visits to Machu Picchu and catching up with Rich, but in fact left only today, 8 days later.

I got my chiro, visited my badass massage lady (pain like you wouldn't believe. My back's going to take some straightening when I get back to UK/NZ), caught up with everyone I'd met while working in town, got to MP for the day and waited for Rich. And here is where the problem lay. Rich, bless him, asked the customs office in Cusco for an extension on his bike documents as they were about to expire in a couple days. They said "you have to leave the country and come back in to get extensions, but if you ask in the SUNAT office, they'll give you an exemption to give you time to get back to Bolivia". They lied. Well, they didn't lie, exactly, SUNAT wrote a letter for Rich giving him 10 days extra, so he didn't rush to the border, and arrived 3 days after the original documents expired. He showed the customs guys the letter, and then had to wait 10 minutes until they stopped laughing. It turns out SUNAT have no authority to grant extensions, Rich's bike was 3 days over its limit, and was therefore supposed to be impounded, never to be released again, ever. Luckily, the customs people were extremely helpful, gave Rich all sorts of advice about how to avoid impoundage (flee, basically) and actually encouraged him to run the border, by getting his passport stamped and then just driving the bike across and not looking back. Which he did, into Bolivia, then came back to Cusco on the bus to collect his stuff and have an emergency meeting. After much umm-ing and aaah-ing and beer, we came to the difficult decision that I should continue to Ecuador and beyond, and aim for Lima at the end, and he would go back south and explore a bit more in Bolivia and Chile etc, and find an alternative port to ship from. Sad, but true. The team has been disbanded thanks to mis-information, and the final 5 weeks or so will be 2 separate solo missions. On the upside, I can make up all sorts of wild and crazy tales and have no-one to contradict me, but then again, I doubt I'll be needing to make anything up!

But that all aside, I glossed over the Machu Picchu day, which deserves better, quite frankly. I decided, for many reasons, to take the easy option and do MP in a day by train. So, a 7.40 train took me 11okm in 4 hours, to Aguas Calientes, then a bus took me up to the ruins. I did the hard yards then, and went up Wayna Picchu, which, if you've ever seen a photo of MP, is the taller of the 2 mountains usually in the background. Yes, that's right, the hugely, ridiculously, you-can't-be-serious, steep mountain. Its top is about 300m higher than MP, and that's an almost vertical climb up what I guess are the original steps, up to the ruins on the top of the hill. "What were they thinking when they decided to build up here" popped into my head as I huffed and puffed to the top, the huffing and puffing due less to the altitude (which was only 2500m after all) and more to my terrible fitness levels. I made it though, and it was worth the effort. The view was astounding, the ruins were more authentic than in MP on account of looking more aged and less restored, and the satisfaction of a job well done helped with the climb down.

Machu itself was also pretty amazing. Its the sort of place where its possible to wander around for hours getting lost in a kind of time-warp, as long as you can ignore the soudn of the tourist police blowing their whistles if they suspect you of staring at the walls too hard. But, due to my return train, I only had a couple of hours, before jumping on the bus down the hill and hopping the train for the painfully slow trip back to Cusco. Hopefully the photos will paint a better picture than me, when I finally get them on to Flickr, but sadly its one of those over-photograophed places that no matter how hard I try will just seem like all the other photos and postcards out there. Except that I'm in some of them, of course...

The only other occasion of note while back in Cusco was meeting up with David and Judith for dinner one night, which as a huge amount of fun, and we all enjoyed our cholesterol-free alpaca steaks to the max. Looking forward to catching up with them in July.

And that's it for now. I'm in Andahuaylas tonight, but I'll tell you all about that next time. And I guess all that is left to say is something along the lines of "go safely Rich, and thanks for everything. Its time to stand on my own 2 feet. See you in NZ in August". Why do I have all the classic comedy sign offs in my head? Now is the time to say goodbye...its goodbye from me and its goodbye from him...soupy twist...I should probably save them for the last entry at the end of the trip, huh? Sleep tight.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lines and lines and lines and lines

Its been a busy few days, then. Having left the jungle last Wednesday and updating you, I have now got as far as Nazca on my way back to Cusco. That'd be 2159km or there abouts in less than a week, with about 600km left to go. Its been through jungle, up mountains (well I'd call 4500m a mountain even if you wouldn't), across alti-planos, back down mountains, along coasts and through deserts.

The fantastic road I took to get to Santa Maria was marginally less fantastic in the low cloud and drizzle, but when I got some moments of clarity I tried to take a couple of photos. Nothing like the real thing, obviously, and my plans to video part of it were thwarted (now there's a word that doesn't get enough use these days) by the rain. I made it to Copacobana and did get some video of the ride into there, and then instead of heading back to Cusco, I went south-ish to Arequipa, finding my way with ease into town thanks to being led by some bloke coming out of a quadbike store next to where I had pulled over to check the town map. I had a rest day, jumping a tourist bus (will Rich ever forgive me?) at 2am (I actually got up for 1am as I'd forgotten to change my watch when I crossed the Bolivia-Chile border. Doh.) out to Colca Canyon. This, as the name suggests, is a canyon, about 3400m deep, making it deeper than the Grand Canyon, though not as wide. It has a view point at its deepest point called Cruce Del Condors (Cross of the Condors) where on a good day you can see double figures of condors at eye level as they are under the impression they are 2000m up a canyon cliff face. Which, I suppose, they are. They just aren't expecting to see people up that high. Although by now I suppose they might be. Anyway, needless to say I didn't get a good day, but did see several nonetheless, albeit further away than I'd have hoped. Impressive and spectacular it was though, so no complaints here.

From there it was up the coast to Nazca. I had been warned that the coast road was a bit on the dull side, but the person doing the warning had obviously done it in a bus, because it was far from dull. Very winding, very dramatic scenery, with coastlines, craggy bits and big wide open spaces, all leading into the typically scruffy desert town of Nazca. Towns this far out in the desert can't help but be scruffy, with winds blowing across open plains, not enough water to go round (but strangely always enough to keep a beautifully lush and well maintained Plaza), and populated by people tough enough to survive here, even given the presumably large amounts of tourist money coming in. The Plaza de Armas was a nice surprise - not because it was especially fantastic in itself, it just had about a dozen nightjars flying around as dusk fell, chasing the flies that were drawn to the lights. Very pleasant surprise, that, although probably only Mother will really appreciate it!

Anyway, I got hijacked (in a good way) as I came into town. I pulled over to try and decipher the inadequate Lonely Planet town map (or maybe the map was fine and it was the inadequate town signage), and a woman trotted over, offered me a room and board in a hotel on the plaza with parking for the bike for only S/.15 a night. Bargain, and her driver led me through the streets to find the place. All very convenient. She also conveniently ran a tour company and could offer me a flight over the lines in the morning, but all the reservations for tomorrow stopped in 10 minutes at 5 o'clock, so better hurry and choose. Good job my brain wasn't at all befuddled by 9 hours of driving through hot deserts and windy coastlines all day. I coughed up probably more than I needed to, but just as probably not by much, and then, due to lack of communication or bad planning on their part, ended up going on the wrong plane. Saw the same stuff though, I expect, and apart from the briefness of the flight, it was all very impressive. The line shapes are huge, and there are far more of them than the tour companies let on, they're just not all of animals and stuff. Many are just shapes and patterns, but the famous ones are easy enough to pick out, although photos are a bit trickier. Hopefully got some of them on film. I mean chip...And that's the last few days. I reckon its a 2 day ride back to Cusco as I don't want to rush the gravelly bits, where I hope to catch up with David and Judith on Sunday, and Rich on Monday. Or something. Plans are flexible, as always.

So, until I get the chance to add some more photos while I'm in Cusco, fare thee well, and mind those dark lanes on the full moon. Stay off the moors!!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jungle Fever

Right, some thoughts and stuff. First though, for those interested enough, I forgot to give the park details if you want to check web sites etc. The organisation is called Inti Wara Yassi, and they have 2 working parks and one being set up. The web site is a bit dated (far more animals now, and the info about numbers of volunteers is a bit off - they routinely get 40-50 volunteers in Parque Ambue Ari at peak times of the year, and there were 23 while I was there). I went to Parque Ambue Ari, and I forget the names of the other two.

So, where was I? The park is run by the head vet, Zandro, and he, the other vet and the local women who come in to cook for the volunteers are the only people who get paid. There are a bunch (6 or so) of locals who live at the the park, all quite young, many living there due to being orphans, and Zandro acts as their guardian for school registration etc. They work at the park after school and weekends to earn there keep, and none of them pay to be there. Its a great system, gets them educated, interested in their environment, and safe from harm.

While I was there, there were about 23 other volunteers, but that number changed as people came and went fairly randomly, some staying the minimum 2 weeks (ahem), others several months, or returning for 2nd or 3rd visits. Of the people there, only one was a bit of a tosser, and he was from Australia, so it's only to be expected. The other Australians there redeemed their nation however, so all is not lost. I met some great people there who I hope to see again, either in NZ or else where. My first impression of arriving in the park was of a shabby funeral, with everyone walking about in a variety of hats with black mourning veils and gardening clothes. Or maybe a group of badly dressed bee-keepers. A few moments later as I was crossing the "patio" to my room, Morocha the spider monkey climbed up me and sat on my head. Welcome to Ambue Ari.

And all that leaves to do is jot down some final memories of what the jungle is to me. It's hot. And wet. Very hot (mid-30ºC) and wet (80%+ humidity). When it rains, it doesn't mess about and sticks at it for about 4 days non-stop. It's more mosquitos than I've ever seen before, and more bites than I ever want again. It's 2 pairs of trousers and 2 shirts and mosquito net hat all the time, regardless of how hot it is. Did I mention the Mozzies? let me tell you about the mozzies. When you're in the jungle, all you can hear is the whine of mosquitos as they circle your head, searching for a way in. The camp record for "number of mozzies killed with one slap of one hand", achieved at the peak of the season, is 42. My personal best was 12, but then I was there as the season was dwindling. There is nothing more depressing than sitting at the tables in the comedor in the evenings and seeing a mozzie, so full of blood that it can't actually fly any more, plop on to the table in front of you, and then make its way along in 3 inch hops. They make quite a stain if squashed, let me tell you, and an attractive ornament in trapped in molten wax from a candle. It's monkeys in the compound that giggle when you tickle them. It's not being able to sleep at night due the heat and humidity, the rock hard mattress and the stifling, but vital, mosquito net. It's seeing large snakes, hairy tarantulas and monkeys (but no chickens) crossing the road. It's having your jungle path go from thick mud today to thigh deep water tomorrow thanks to a rain shower. And staying that way. It's walking carefully on the paths to avoid getting water in your boots, even though you know you'll be thigh deep round the next bend. It's seeing cappuchin, howler and squirrel monkeys in the trees as you walk about. It's glimpsing a lizard as it scrambles out of your way. Its millions of ants of all sizes, colours and shapes, many of them off to the races to judge by the head gear they are carrying. or maybe they are off windsurfing, sails hoisted to catch the breeze. It's astonishment at how much some of them carry and how neat and tidy their trails are. It's a cacophany of noise from insects, and frogs that sound like the whine of a firework that forgets to explode (luckily for the frogs), or maybe the zoom sound of a passing Formula 1 racing car. It's walking a short rope length behind a large, partly untamed jaguar, and then playing rough and tumble with it. It's being tackled to the ground before your eyes even realise the cat has moved. It's having your arm licked by the jaguar, with a tongue that will draw blood if you don't rotate your arm fast enough. It's walking across the compound and having your hand taken by Morocha as she walks alongside you, and then scales you to sit on your shoulders, resting her head on yours and draping herself around your neck. Its standing in a group below Faustino who is sat on the roof, and wailing his name full volume at him in order to get him howling in return. It's being woken up at the crack of dawn by the most unearthly of sounds: a troop of howlers doing their thing. It's wishing you had a tail so you could climb as well as Morocha. It's regret that I picked the worst time of year for weather and bugs, and hope that I get back there some day. It's The Jungle: not the most comfortable of places, but one of the most unforgettable. Another golden moment, despite (or maybe because of) the difficulties.

Til next time, then.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More Than a Match for Me

OK. I'll come clean from the off. I caved. I tried to stay strong, even gave myself options, but when push came to shove, I threw in the towel, after using it to flap about my head to try and keep the bugs at bay.

Here's the scoop. After my last entry (written in Guarayos, mosquito-free haven 50km from the park), I returned to Ambue Ari with renewed hope. Only to find that hope vastly misplaced. I spoke to the volunteer coordinator on the Sunday night and said that if the mozzies didn't quit, I would have to, and that I realised it was letting them down, so I would try to do at least 2 weeks and make a final decision then. If that meant being taken off the jaguar, so be it; the animal's well being came before mine. The decision was then made that I would stay with the jag, and closer to the 2 weeks, if new volunteers had turned up and I still planned to go, a replacement would be trained up then.

The next day, it started to rain in the late afternoon. Just a shower, but it scared the mozzies off a bit. Then, for the rest of the week it bucketed down, almost non-stop, and the previously muddy paths on the 2km trail to Ru's house became thigh-deep-in-water paths. The bug numbers dwindled to almost acceptable levels, the temperature became almost bearable, the humidty plummeted from about 90% to maybe 85%, and things were looking up. OK, so now we were all soaking all day, but with some careful planning there were dry clothes for the evenings, and its not like it ever got cold along with the wet.

But after 4 days, the rain stopped, the sun came out, the humidity went up again, and even though the frogs had arrived and were doing there best to make tadpoles to eat mozzie larvae, and subsequently adult frogs to eat mozzies, unfortunately the bugs were back. Not as bad as before, certainly livable-with, had I been planning to stay a couple of months, but having mucked the management about already, and having a bunch of new blokes arrive, and because it actually gave me more time to do other things, I stuck with the leaving idea, and skipped town this morning. Leaving was actually far harder than I thought it would be, as every day Ru became friendlier and I enjoyed hanging out with him more, so to have to leave that behind was very difficult. I would love to go back some day, preferably at a better time of year, and do a full month, and see how he's doing. In the meantime, its on the road again, and an extended return trip to Cusco, via Arequipa and Nazcar.

But before that (because I'm not there yet), a little more about the park. Its about 600ha of reclaimed jungle, housing 23 cats (5 jaguars, 13 pumas, 4 ocelots and a mini bolivian wild cat), a bunch of monkeys (howlers and a spider), a tapir called Herbie, 2 deers and some parrots and macaws. All the animals have been rescued from illegal collections, peoples' homes or zoos and circuses, and for some it marks the start of a rehabilitation and release programme. Not for the cats, unfortunately, as the governement requires all sorts of licences and red tape which they almost never grant due to the problems associated with releasing large, dangerous cats into the wild, not to mention the shrinking rainforests and habitats etc. But many of the parrots and macaws are released, and if enough monkeys of the same sort are gathered, they can be encouraged to form a troop, allowing them to be released as well. We actually have a small group of Howler monkeys that visit the camp now and again, as they used to live there, which disturbs the resident Howler no end, and gives the resident spider monkey all sorts of fun.

The camp is very basic, with no electricity or mains water supply (they have a gas run generator that pumps water to the header tank in the trees and a gas run freezer for minimal food storage), long drop toilets that got washed out in the big rain, leaving us with the "poop in the woods" option, or the "large, precarious hole dug on the top of a very muddy hill with a tarp roof" option, both of which left the brave soul rudely exposed (quite literally) to the mercy of the mozzies. And they had no mercy, let me tell you! In camp, we have a resident howler monkey called Faustino (10 years old, ex-hotel owned, and apparently ex-smoker and -alcoholic) and a resident spider monkey called Morocha, who is the funniest creature I have ever met. Highly acrobatic (unlike Faustino, who is very slow about the place, and whose only real trick is to howl like a fury at any invading monkeys or volunteers who wail at him first), very chatty, hugely comical, and very ticklish. It is hilarious to watch her wriggle around and laugh when you tickle her, like a wee kid. Always looking for an opportunity to get into rooms or the comedor (the other day she snuck in via the back door and ran out the front waving two captured bread rolls above her head in the classic monkey fashion), chasing the 3 resident peccaries (pigs) and pulling at their legs, lying flat out, trying to be invisible, or generally crashing about in the trees, defying gravity.

Work is from about 7am to 5.30pm-ish, and for me consisted of camp chores (that's chores around the camp, not mincing about with a duster and a pinnie) followed by a 2km, 40 min walk through the flooded jungle to Ru's house, and taking him out round his paths on a long, double rope lead, one for each person. Ru is 5 years old, and came to the park, aged about 8 months, from a private family who had him as a pet, and were convinced by someone from the park that he would have a better life at Ambue Ari. Which he does. He picks his route, and we follow behind, letting him stop, sleep, turn around or whatever he wants. He has access to the river and often goes for a swim, and generally mooches about until 3, when he goes back to his cage for food. He is generally scared of everything in the jungle, be it snapping sticks, lizards that run across the path or sudden loud stamping behind him (hey, its funny to watch him jump in the air and run off, OK?), but did, on one auspicious day, catch a careless agouti (large rodent) and thoroughly enjoyed eating it as the afternoon wore on. He is wary of new folks at first, not showing them much attention other than trying to jump them for a bit of a dry hump (and you know when you've been humped by a 100kg jaguar, let me tell you!), but as he gets used to you, he gets very house-cat like, with head rubbing, hand licking and generally enjoying hanging with the boys. Jaguars are not noisy cats, and can't purr or yowl or roar (unlike pumas that are like max volume house cats with purrs and meowing), but he does sometimes make groaning and grunting noises when he is having a particularly satisfying belly-rub or nap in the sun. He never fully gives up the humping though, and is always trying to out-flank the walkers so he can get them from behind. If that fails, he hooks a huge paw around the back of one of your knees from in front of you and pretty much hauls you to the ground. He is generally slow moving, however, so it is usually easy to spot when he is making his move, and thus relatively easy to avoid, especially with help from the other walker on the other lead (pumas are again opposite, and move very fast and unexpectedly). His other favourite game is a full on pounce, this time at high speed, when no-one is expecting it. He never jumps high, always to the legs or waist, and again, when 100kg of jaguar hits you in the knees, the only place you're going is to the ground! But he never uses claws, and always lets go when he has you down and has made his point. He's just a big kid, playing and making sure you know whose jungle it is.

So, yes, hard to go in the end but overall the best decision, both for my physical comfort and for the greater good of the trip in general. Only about 7 weeks to go until the bikes get packed away, and we still have to get to Colombia! I want to write a bit more about the jungle in general, but that can have an entry to itself. Its another of those "things I want to remember" efforts, so you can take it or leave it when the time comes. It'll be for me, more than you. Sorry 'bout that.

So beaten by mozzies, but still in the fight, know what I mean, 'Arry? Seconds away, round 2 tomorrow.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Once bitten, twice bitten.

So there I was, pootling along the deserted Bolivian highways, heading further and further away from the big cities, and closer and closer to the unknown, when a thought drifted into my head. They do that, thoughts, as you ride along by yourself, ipod-less due to previously encountered thieves etc. This particular thought was roughly along the lines of: "aren't the remotest areas of Bolivia supposed to be teeming with drug barons and unscrupulous muggers and stuff? At least there's two of us travelling together, we'll be safe as houses as long as we stic....hang on, Rich is back in Cusco....." I cut that thought off about there, and tried to think of more pleasant things. Like the fact that, thanks to the bus drivers in Copacobana who laughed at me when I asked them whether I could ride my bike along the road to Trinidad, I decided to give "death road" a miss and stick to the tarmac. This was a great decision out of Copacobana, especially when I saw the horrendously black storm clouds ahead and somehow managed to skirt round them on about 3 sides, avoiding a drenching.

Once I turned off the alti plano road and started along the route for Cochabamba, the road turned spectacular, with twists, curves, ups downs and all the good stuff bikers love. I had a night in Cochabamba, then headed on to the sanctuary, or so I hoped. It was going to be a big day if I made it, and it started well, with another great road out of town. Things went well until about 3pm, when the road marked as a main one on the map turned into gravel. Not so bad I thought, but then it ran out altogether, and I had to ask some local villagers who lived in the swamp in which I found myself if I was still on the right road. With difficulty, I understood that I was. I say "with difficulty" because, having boasted to various people that I now understood about 70% of Spanish spoken to me, these locals in the back end of Bolivia spoke the laziest, worst Spanish ever, dropping letters, slurring words, mumbling and mixing in local dialect, I suspect, so I struggled.

Anyhow, on I went, until I got stuck in a deep mud puddle. Luckily a local bloke with no shoes came along and helped pull me out. It was during this stage that I wondered again if it was possible to grow cocaine in the swamps, or not, and whether I'd stumbled upon something best left un-stumbled on. But he was a helpful chap, waved me on, and about 1/2km further on, I was lost in the bushes. I found the river bank (river bank? what river bank?) but the river was way to big and fast to cross - we're talking 400m or so and very muddy and deep looking. I left the bike and went a-wandering, as I had seen what looked like a bridge up river a ways, then heard a bike heading to where I'd left my bike, and tried to rush back, only to find I was nearly lost. Luckily, I stumbled across my bike, and also a bloke keen to lead me to the river crossing.

So, I followed him into the bushes a bit further, with a little voice in my head suggesting following strange Bolivians deeper into marshy bushes might not be the wisest thing to do. Sure enough, though, he led me to the "ferries" that would take me across, and rather nervously I drove up the rickety ramp onto the tiny boat and was taken across. To be met by about 10 other men. Who wanted paying. I think they were honest chaps though, and even though they asked for 50 bolivianos for the ride, the loading and unloading, and holding the bike while I relaoded the boxes, which seemed a bit high, I paid up. And realised I rather foolishly had all my cash in my wallet. No probs, though, and they even had change for a 100! And helped me up when I dropped the bike in the mud on the way off the river bank! Despite their honest dispositions, I have to admit I high-tailed it out of there along the gravel road, watching my mirror carefully for signs of pursuit, in case they had changed their minds, but they were just friendly blokes making a living. Given a choice, however, I'll find a different route back, if only for the mud avoidance!

That night, I never made it to Santa Maria and the animal park, it got dark too early, and I was exhausted, hot, hungry and dehydrated. I stopped in a small town, and noticed my box frame was broken again, so I got that welded, and in the process got more badly bitten by mosquitos, on my shoulders, through my thin top, than I had ever been in my life before. Unfortunately, this was to be a sign of things to come. It was such a small town as well, that I was unable to buy food, so went to bed hungry. In the morning at crack of sparrow's, I was off, and the rest of the way was a breeze, all be it a warm, humid breeze. I rolled into the the sanctuary at about 10am, and was mozzie bitten all over my head by 10.15. And it hasn't gotten any better. At the risk of being a whinging pom, its too hot, too humid, everything is wet, the beds are too hard, there are too many mozzies (like millions too many) and even a mozzie net is not up to the job. If I was to shake hands with a blind man right now, his braille skills would tell a very bizarre story as he felt the bumps on my hands, and if he ran his fingers over my neck or hairline, he would have almost enough words to write War and Peace (or some other lenghty book)! I have to be honest, I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm not sure I can stand a month of this. I'm 4 days in and have nearly been driven insane. Its only the fact that I am walking a real live jaguar through the jungle every day that is keeping me there. And not because its fascinating either, because its not. He just sleeps a lot, usually in areas of maximum mozzie concentration, but its a committment to the animal, and I want to do the right thing by him (Ru, the Jaguar). I will see how the rest of the week goes, and maybe reduce my time to the minimum fortnight, which is still jipping a bit, as I should do a month if I'm with a big cat. But I don't know if I can. We'll see. On the up side - because there is always an up side - we have spider and howler monkeys in the compound, the food is great, and the jungle is an interesting place to go for a walk. It could work, possibly. We'll see.

Until then, I have to go buy meat for a BBQ tonight, and food to supplement my breakfast, and have a cold beer. and maybe some more long sleeved/legged clothes to fight off the bugs. Wish me luck. More than ever I think I'm going to need it for this part of the trip.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On The Road Again

Wow. And double wow. I have just left Cusco after finishing my 2 months with Bruce Peru, and I have to say that, despite the stress and mental and physical exhaustion, it has been one of the best times I have ever had. A bit emotional towards the end, when we had to say goodbye to the kids, but seeing as most of them didn't really seem to register that we (4 of the volunteers, and all of the kids, as they are of to big school in a week) will never see each other again. Probably. If I've learned anyting on this trip its to never say never, so maybe I'll be back some time. I certanly can't imagine never returning, and could well sign up for a month of voluntary work down the line. Todo es posible en Peru, as they say.

So anyway, the last few weeks were tiring, I got in a power strop just because I was finding it hard to live in a tiny shack with 10 people, and spent part of the time trying to keep myself to myself, but I should make it clear (in case any of them ever read this) that it was entirely me that was having issues, and nothing any of the volunteers had done. They were just far too energetic all of the time for an old fudder like me, who every now and then needs to have a bit of peace and quiet to watch crap on the telly and unwind. Being completely honest, we (Rich and I, temporary Co-Directors) could not have asked for a better, more motivated, friendly bunch of volunteers, and we got so much done in such a short space of time exactly because they were young and energtic. Long may it continue, and I hope the long-stayers enjoy the rest of their time. I'll be back to pick up some stuff in early April, so will see how they're doing then.

The last week was made even more interesting as Bruce himself and Ana Tere his wife, came to town for a visit and a chat. Its not often that you meet truly inspirational people in life (OK, apart from you. And you...and you...), but Bruce would have to up there near the top. The sacrifices he has made in his life to provide funds for his projects; the amount of work he has to do now, at the age of 67 (sorry Bruce, I'm making a point), is truly astounding. He pretty much works with his laptop in bed until he falls asleep in front of it, and when he wakes up later he carries straight on, just to earn enough money through his internet streamlining job (too complicated for a dimble-brain like me to fully understand what he does) that he can keep his centres and schools open. And he's been doing it for abut 40 years. It was a privilege to meet himw, and I hope to pop in to the headquarters in Trujillo on my way north to see how them both again. I imagine I will have my work cut out in NZ trying to raise money to send over, once I get back.

But what for the daring duo now? Well, Rich is hanging out in Cusco for another month, while I am heading back to Bolivia to do a month of voluntary work for an animal rescue centre deep in the jungle. If I score the jack pot for jobs going, I could be spending the month walking a jaguar through the jungle as it recooperates from whatever mistreatment it has suffered. Alternatively, I could be working with monkeys, parrots or any number of other critters, so I am pretty excited about the whole thing. On the down side, there is no internet access at the sanctuary, so I'll be struggling to find opportunities to keep you up to date as things happen. Rest assured, however, that as soon as I get a chance to fill people in, you'll be the first to know.

Anyow, that's just a quick update for you. I rode my bike for about 10 hours door to door today, covering about 520km at 3500-4000m about sea level, so I'm pretty weary and need my bed. And you're looking pretty tired yourself, so how's about we all go and get some shut eye? See you in the morning. Sleep tight. Unfortunately for me, the bedbugs have already bitten. Probably won't be the last time over the next month, either. And don't forget to brush your teeth.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Colourful Cusco

Hello again, remember me? Give me a moment and I'll see if I can recall how this thing is supposed to work...

Yes, yes, I know its been a while since the last entry, but somehow staying in one place for 2 months has not afforded me more time to keep in touch, but rather it has left me rushed off my feet and almost permanently busy. Still, I'm back now, so make the most of it. After the last post, which was all business, I'll attempt to keep this one a bit more touristy, so you can get an idea of the town a bit more. Hopefully you'll have seen the new photos that have gone up, surprisingly not all of them being taken at school, so you may have got a pictorial idea of what its like over here, at least.

Anyhow, its been a bit crazy. Remember my last post? There's a bit near the end where I suggest it would be safe to send me money to give to Bruce Peru on your behalf, and that you could trust me as no-one could meet these kids and then rip them off. How wrong I was!

One of our little stories so far in Cusco centers around a volunteer we recruited from a seemingly safe source, and being from Ecuador (apparently) he seemed perfect. Not only could he help us out while he was in Cusco, but when he went home to Quito, he could help there too. The fact he'd been robbed at the bus station and had no money just tugged on our heart strings a bit harder, and we offered him accomodation until his dad sent him money, at which time he could pay us. A week passed, he was great with the kids, helped out round the hostel, even got a free rafting trip out us, and no-one felt bad lending him a bit of cash now and again, just til his money came, you understand. But by the end of the week, with problem after problem interferring with the arrival or collection of his money, we told him he'd have to pay up or move out until he could pay, as we couldn't afford to keep him indefinitely. This, it seems, was his cue to sneak off that evening, taking a camera, cellphone and ipod with him (they weren't his, incidentally), and leaving his bill unpaid and his loans un-repaid. The police, it turned out when we showed them a photo, knew him from his many similar cons, and we learned a lesson. Turns out I was wrong, and some people are able to rip off the kids after meeting them.

Other than that, Cusco is great. It is highly policed, so you actually feel very safe in the streets; it has a beautiful main plaza in the historical centre, and many narrow, ancient streets and local markets. If you look carefully enough, you can easily avoid the ones aimed at tourists, and find pretty much the same stuff at half the price in the local sector. If you go with a local too, you certainly won't get ripped off for price. There is plenty of night life, although at this time of year - summer, but also, strangely, the rainy season - there are fewer tourists about, making our fundraising efforts that little bit harder.

Close to town, there are many (and I mean many) ancient ruin sites, although obviously Macchu Picchu is the main one. I think its main draw is both the Inca trail trek needed to walk there in 4 days (you can do it in less without the walk if you want) and its location on the top of mountain (I won't be going until the end of March I think), but the 2 others I have visited at Tipon and Pisaq are spectacular for themselves, just not quite so remote. Hopefully you'll get some idea from the photos.

I have also spent many Saturday mornings in the local farmers market, which is probably my favourite place in Cusco, as it is the most real experience I think you can get in town. I, and the other volunteers brought along to carry the heavy shopping, are ususally the only white folk there, and no one pays us any attention. It is as genuine "local colour" as you could hope to get, and I have been encouraging our cook to make some money on the side by offering tours there to backpackers. I reckon she'd make a killing!

Other than that, we had out day out rafting, and the waterproof camera came into its own as it did for Ed in NZ in Jan '08. Unfortunately, many of the photos have the thief in them , thus rendering them effectively spoiled. Still, its where we got a shot to show the police, so it paid off in one respect, I guess.

And that, my little armchair travellers, is about it for now. The rest of my time is spent working, in one way or another. We have had a school trip to a local fun park (nothing electrical in the place, thank God - Peruvian electrics are not to be trusted. We had a 6th birthday party at Huancaro for one of the wee lads there. It seems I have a natural ability for reading pub quizzes (OK, so its not that hard, but needs someone shouty who doesn't mind drunk people), I have shut my thumb in a taxi door so now the nail looks like a chromatography experiment, and between us, Rich and I seem to be making a pretty good go of running the centre, thanks largely to the fantastic volunteers we are recruiting (and are recruiting each other), often as a result of the aforementioned quiz nights. One bad apple has certainly not ruined the barrel, and as Bruce told us, its not the first time and won't be the last. Live and learn , as they say.

I'll try not to leave it so long for the next one, but there is less exciting stuff happening on a day to day basis right now, as we are effectively back in the workforce, all be it voluntarily. That said, I'll drop in and let youknow if I have visited any other ruins, and hopefully keep a trickle of new photos coming in. And I'll try to refrain from all of them being taken at the schools.

Enjoy your winter snow, or summer BBQs, depending on which hemisphere you are living in, and remember to wash your hands. We have to over here, or we end up very ill indeed. Toodle pip.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Can You Do When You Can't Do Enough?

So there we were, in Copacobana just about Christmas time, recovering from a bout of festive food poisoning, when we checked our emails and discovered that we had been asked to step up to the role of Directors and Volunteer Co-ordinators for the Bruce Organisation. Not just volunteers, then, but actually running the joint. Something to do with the previous director having an urgent situation in the States to return to, and no-one else on the horizon to take over.

We took it on the chin, as you'd expect of us by now, and rocked up to Cusco on the 28th, half expecting some kind of introductory note or some such, but only being handed a key to let ourselves into the centre, to find shelves of manuals, cupboards of resources, and not much else. No clues, certainly, but we buckled down, read manuals, dug through resources, and organised meetings with various important local contacts. The teachers, for example, and the social worker, and the owner of the Bruce Centre office-cum-controller of the staff wages. And, slowly but surely (well, not that slowly, we didn't have much time) things fell into place.

Maybe you're wondering what this Bruce Organisation thing is (its all on the link...). If so, in a nutshell of indeterminate size, its basically 13 schools throughout South America, most of them in Peru, that try and take the poorest children in the towns in which they operate and give them sufficient schooling to enable them to be accepted into the national school system. It then continues to offer support to the kids for the next 2 years, ensuring they get a good inital grounding, and hopefully giving them and their parents the motivation to continue to study. Initially, the challenge is getting the kids into school, as their parents often keep them out to work, due to their often extreme level of poverty. Some of the programmes have been extended to include offering a basic business education to the parents, allowing them to maximise their earning potential, thus reducing the families need to have the youngest members out working.

Right now in Cusco, we have 2 schools running in two of the local barrios (poorer areas of the town), with a total of 38 children aged 6 to only-just-turned-8 enrolled, and possibly a few more to come. Every day, between 9am and noon, the kids arrive, wash their hands with soap (not something they often get to do by the looks of things), have a breakfast roll and drink provided by Bruce Peru, then brush their teeth (again, not a common activity for most of them). They then have classes in Maths or Spanish (I'd say English, but its not, its Spanish, but basically its reading and writing) until 11ish, have a bit of play and come back in to finish off until 12, when they head home with a piece of fruit (2 if there is enough and they helped tidy up). And that's it. We are running a summer school programme right now in Cusco, trying to get our kids to first grade level in time for the March intake, and for some of them its the first time they have held a pencil, even if they are able to count to 10.

These kids would bring a tear to the eye of the toughest of characters. They turn up in their poorly fitting hand-me-downs, only not bare-footed due to the under- or over-sized shoes/sandals they have, grubby faces, shy smiles, and by the end of the session they are animated, laughing, happy and excited, and keen to come back tomorrow. Many of their home lives are overshadowed by neglect and possibly other forms of abuse as well, so the positive attention they get for 3 hours a day could be the only affection they get that day. Same goes for the food they are given. The way some of them attack their bread roll with a smear of jam or mashed banana, you'd think they hadn't eaten since the last school breakfast. This is particularly apparent on Monday mornings...

The biggest frustration right now for me is my failing in the language. The kids chatter away and I miss the key words due to gaps in my vocabulary, which they find very funny, and then annoying as the stupid gringo just doesn't get it! Still, for the most part, they are patient and understanding and teach me words in Spanish, as I teach them numbers or colours in English when we have a break.

And so what then? The kids go home and we have an afternoon to kill. Its back to the centre for promotions and fund raising ideas, and while we are here we are concentrating on establishing low cost, high reward systems, hopefully involving local businesses, that can be continued by anyone that comes after us. We have re-established relations with a bar or two that had dropped off the radar for pub quizzes, we are trying to launch an affiliates voucher system that has business owners donating a portion of their bills to BP, and we are trying to link up with the local Fire Service to assist in mutual fund raising activities into the future. Basically, we have to spend as much time as possible raising money just to cover costs for renting classrooms, paying teachers, buying school stationery, paying for the kids breakfasts, etc.

The classrooms are virtually windowless concrete bunkers under someone's house, rented to BP for the princely sum of S/60 a month (about 12 quid), which is, incidentally, what the teachers and social worker are paid. The breakfasts cost S/3.50 a week per child. That's about 70p. And we struggle to raise the money to meet these costs. So far, the lowest cost / hightest reward activity has been bucket shaking in the main Plaza, an activity we were amazed to find had never been tried before, despite the fact it allows us to talk to many people about the work BP does, which also assists in the recruitment of volunteers. I'm proud to say it was my idea, although Richard is better at it than me! I always said he could sell ice to eskimoes (pardon me, Innuits), and now it turns out he can fleece tourists too! Between new year's eve and the following friday, we rasied nearly S/800 just from this activity, and when you add in the nearly S/500 we have made from the two pub quizzes so far organised, we are just about on top of things.

Of course, if anyone out there would like to help by donating cash or stationery (colouring pencils, colouring books, jigsaws, games etc), you can either email me and ask for an address to post stuff, donate on the Bruce Peru site (see the link), or if you want to help Cusco kids specifically and directly, you can transfer your donation to my account and I will instantly withdraw it and use in for our kids. I realise this last option requires a certain amount of trust between us, but I think that after spending the best part of 5 months on the road together, you should know me to be honest and reliable, and a man of my word. Not to mention that no-one could spend a week with these kids and then rip them off. Its just not possible. Its all on you to help if you can, or spread the word if you can't. I'm doing what I can from this end.

Sorry for the lecture-y post, next time will be more tourist orientated. In the mean time, I have some photos I will try and load up tonight, after which I dare you to do nothing. I dare you.

I'm off to our first Real McCoy Quiz now, so wish me luck. I'm reading the questions....