Saturday, 24 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Being misunderstood in Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying the view.



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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Taking On The Cholitas

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


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



You wouldn`t want to mess with these ladies.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

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



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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Lake Titicaca

Uros - the floating islands

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

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

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

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

Amantani Island


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

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

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

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

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

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

The lovely Quespe Yanaricos.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

#2 30b430 - Teach some English

When I was putting together my #30b430 list, one of the things which was really easy to add to it was some voluntary work. In the past some of the best experiences I have had on my travels have been working on projects alongside local people and other volunteers, so I knew it was definitely something I wanted to do again. I also like to feel as though I am doing something, however small, to help people in the country I am visiting. Travelling has thousands of benefits but a big one for me is that is really makes me appreciate life at home. While the UK is by no means perfect, I like living in a country where healthcare and education (minus the soon-to-become-a-reality extortionate university fees) are free. It´s heartbreaking to see old people here who are forced to beg on the streets and mothers who can´t afford to feed their children.
After making the decision to slow things down and stay around in Arequipa for a while I came across Traveller Not Tourist, an organisation which runs two projects in the city: an orphanage and an after-school programme where volunteers teach English and play with the children. I signed up to do two weeks at the school and was asked to take on the adults class.
At first I was a little disappointed as I´d had images of being surrounded by lots of cute kids in a Mary Poppins-esque manner (I even had the songs ready and everything). But then I remembered that the whole point in voluntary work is to go where you are needed, so I agreed to run the class. In hindsight this was definitely the best option. I really enjoyed my time with the adults, who were aged 17 to 22, and feel like they were probably able to benefit more from the short time I was able to spend at the school.
The Traveller Not Tourist School is located in the community of Flora Tristan, an under-resourced area on the outskirts of the city.  As most of my students worked or studied at university there were only a couple of regulars who came every day, while others just turned up every now and again, which could make lesson planning quite difficult. However there were usually a few of extra guests in the classes, including babies, dogs and even a monkey!


Some of my additional students.





My two weeks at the school flew by and I enjoyed planning lessons for the group and thinking up new games. It was also definitely a challenge for my Spanish as I tried to explain new rules and vocab.

Another brilliant lesson plan...

By the time I left I was fairly confident that my intermediate student had a good grasp of the past tense and that my beginners had been successfully introduced to the language. It would have been great to have been able to stay longer but unfortunately Machu Picchu was calling me.
Volunteering enabled me to meet some fantastic people, many of whom were really committed to the projects and had given months - and in one case more than a year - to ensure its success. As well as the day-to-day running of the school I also saw how hard the volunteers worked to ensure other projects could take place. They included three children receiving scholarships from the organisation to study at a private school, a fundraising football match and a meeting for parents about health and hygiene.


Some of the niños who attend the school.




Another highlight of my time in Arequipa was living with the other volunteers in a shared house. While on one hand this was like stepping back in time to my student days (think dirty dishes on the sink etc.), it was also incredibly fun. We had lots of great moments in the house - many of which revolved around food - and also explored the city (mainly it´s restaurants). As many of you have already heard I was also introduced to The World´s Best Lemon Meringue Pie. Does anyone see a food theme here?    

One of the downsides of communal living...

...but there are many, many, more good times.

(Including discovering The World`s Best Lemon Meringue Pie!)
All in all it was a fantastic experience and although I´ll be ticking it off my list I really hope I´ll get the chance to do some more voluntary work before my trip is over.
For more information about Traveller Not Tourist visit http://travellernottourist.com/

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Rules of the road

 As far as I can tell you can use your horn to say any of the following things on the roads in Peru:
 
1. Watch out, I'm behind you.
2. Get out of my way.
3. Hurry up.
4. Slow down.
5. (To pedestrians) Don't cross.
6. (To pedestrians) Cross.
 
So pretty much for any occasion...
 
The roads in Arequipa are interesting to say the least. I've tried hard to see whether drivers do follow any rules but as far as I can see people seem to make up their own. These include cars lining up side by side to turn left onto a main road (rather than waiting behind each other); pulling out of junctions directly into oncoming traffic and veering around buses which stop frequently for passengers who flag them down (no bus stops here for mean drivers to sail past).
 
I am assuming that there is some kind of seatbelt law, as many of the drivers wear their seatbelts draped across their chests but not actually plugged it - as though they are merely a fashion accessory rather than a potentially life-saving device.
 
Being settled in one place for a couple of weeks means I have been able to experience a lot more of the day to day life in Peru and one of my favourite parts of the day is the journey to and from school.
 
The bus we take is an old yellow school bus from America. After flagging it down, the next task is to squeeze yourself into a spot. Usually all of the seats are taken so the trick is to try and wedge yourself in as securely as possible, as the bus drivers have a tendency to carry out emergency stops (either to pick up a passenger or as a result of another car pulling in front of them.)
 
Standing for the duration of the journey isn't too bad for someone short like me. For once in my life I'm about 'average' height here in Peru. But for one of our volunteers who is 6ft 7ins, it can get a bit uncomfortable as he has to stand with his neck at an angle for the whole journey.
 
The ride to school costs 20p and usually takes about 45 minutes. However it's good to allow more time as it's not unusual for the bus to stop to fill up with petrol on the way, often only about 40 soles worth (less than 10 pounds).
 
I love people watching during the journey. The bus is always filled with excited school children, who like to shout 'hello, goodbye' at us; women carrying huge bags from the market, with their babies strapped to their backs in colourful blankets and people in smart suits going to and from their jobs in the city. We've already met a few characters, including a man who requested that the bus driver changed the cheesy Latino pop music for his Mick Jagger album before proceeding to tell us, in the Queen's English, how Mick had changed his life.
 
After two weeks something tells me that I'll never be able to figure out what the official rules of the road are here but I've definitely had fun trying to work it out.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A is for Arequipa

One of the suggestions on my list - by someone who is clearly trying to prolong my fun - is to visit places which begin with letters of the alphabet (in order). I guess it will be quite a while before I can officially tick this one off, but I'm kicking it off with Arequipa.

As soon as I arrived in Peru's second largest city I loved it. I love Plaza de Armas, the main square in front of the cathedral, which is always filled with people no matter what time of day it is. I love the fact that wherever you are you can catch a glimpse of one of the three volcanoes, El Misti (5,822m), Chachani (6,075m) and Pichu Pichu (5,571m), which dominate the skyline (for comparison the UK's highest mountain Ben Nevis stands at 1,344m.) I love the friendliness of the people. I love the men who polish shoes in the square and the others who sit with their typewriters, writing letters for people. I could sit and watch them all day.

My favourite place in Arequipa, Plaza de Armas.

Pretty hard to miss Misti.
Old School letter writing.

I also love the food here. As soon as I arrived I was lucky to meet two Canadian foodies Chris and Mark (who I must give a shout out to, as unfortunately by the time they read this they'll be back at their desks - sorry boys!). In the space of two days the three of us managed to eat our way through some of the most delicious food, usually at the recommendation of the locals. They ranged from rocoto relleno, chillies stuffed with meat (hot!) to chupe de camarones, shrimp soup. Sunday's special in Arequipa is adobo, pork which is marinated overnight before being cooked with spices in a clay pan and served in a gravy. It may be a world away from Yorkshire puddings but if you don't get there early they'll be sold out by lunchtime. I'm starting to get slightly worried about fitting into that bridesmaid's dress in April!

And so it begins, with rocoto relleno...

Eating my way around Arequipa with Mark and Chris.

But the thing I love most about Arequipa is the weather. I have finally found somewhere warm, where I don't have to live in the one hoody I brought with me, and I don't intend to leave for some time...

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The journey so far...

Like many countries in South America, the diversity of Peru amazes me. In the two weeks since I have been here I have spent time in big cities, experienced the wildlife on remote islands, been sand boarding down huge dunes in the desert and almost been pushed down a canyon by a mule.

Here are the highlights so far:

Islas de Ballestas

Nicknamed 'the poor man's Galapagos', I was expecting my trip to the islands to be a knocked-down version of a David Attenborough programme, with maybe the odd chance of seeing a bird or two.

But having managed to keep my stomach on the boat on the way over, I was rewarded with scenes which looked as though we had arrived on a film set. As we approached the islands pelicans flew alongside our boat and overhead thousands of birds filled the sky. It really was an amazing sight, which is impossible to capture in a photograph.

As we got closer to the islands we saw lots of Humboldt penguins bumbling along and, my favourite, huge colonies of sea lions which were sprawled out in the sun, looking perfectly satisfied with their lot in life.


Cute little guys.


Life is good.

Huacachina

Built as a resort for the Peruvian elite, this oasis is now famous for the sand boarding trips locals offer on the huge sand dunes which surround the two tiny streets which form the town.

Crammed into a dune buggy which the driver drove at breakneck speed over the massive dunes was scary enough for me. Battling up the steep slopes before flying down the other side was like being on a rollercoaster - without feeling as safe.

So when the time came to try the sand boarding (like snow boarding, but with sand - you get the picture) I opted for the easiest way to get down to the bottom which was to lay down on the board and slide down. At least it seemed like the best option. It was only as I was hurtling down the first dune that I realised a) you needed to keep every bit of you on the board or else suffer some severe friction burns and b) your only `brakes` were your feet. Needless to say I was the only person screaming.


It`s a hard job, but someone`s got to hang out here.

Woohoo, I survived!

Colca Canyon


Goodbye beautiful shoes...

...hello ugly hiking boots.

What the tour advertisement said: `On the third day you will get up at 8am and after breakfast you will take a leisurely 25 minute walk to the town.`
Translation: `On the third day you will get up at 5am. You will then walk up the side of a steep canyon for three hours. Along the way the sun will rise and as you bake in the heat a passing mule may try to knock you over the edge. You will arrive at the top of the canyon at 8am and, only then, will we give you breakfast.`

In all honesty, although the trek was not what I thought I`d signed up for, the canyon is absolutely beautiful. Day one of the trek was all downhill as we made our way into one of the world`s deepest canyons (3191m). The stony paths were pretty steep and, of course, I was the first one to fall. Most of the walking was finished by lunchtime and we had our meals and stayed overnight with a family who live in the canyon. For the first time on the trip so far I had my own room, which was bliss - even if it didn`t have any electricity.

The second day included another three hour hike, which ended in a pretty oasis. But it was the final day which was the toughest (and the most unexpected on my part!). We set off at 5am, just as the sun was rising and battled our way up very steep paths which zig-zagged up the canyon. Not only was the trek made more tricky by the altitude, which made it hard to breath, but there was also the hazards of passing mules to watch out for. Everything which is brought into the canyon arrives by mule so we got used to listening out for the clattering of hooves as they raced down the paths. They were usually accompanied by local men, with radios slung across their chests, as their own personal walkmen.

The trip was also my first chance to see some of the more traditional way of life in Peru. At many of the places we stopped women dressed in beautifully coloured outfits, with young children strapped to their backs with blankets, sold hats, scarves and toys they had made.

The beautiful Colca Canyon.

Not bad to have climbed a canyon by 8am. Who said I wasn`t a morning person?!

Shaken and stirred


When the table first started to shake at my hostel in Huacachina it took a second for me to process what was going on. At first I thought it was just a lorry going by until I realise we were in the middle of a desert and there was unlikely to be any heavy traffic passing through.

In the time it took me to compute that the ground beneath me was also swaying from side to side I heard the staff at our hostel shouting `earthquake`in Spanish and everyone ran for the door. Unlike you would expect back at home, there was no orders to follow, it was every man for himself, so we followed suit. Outside mothers were screaming, children were crying and tourists stood around looking dazed.

After 30 seconds or so the movement stopped and everyone stood shell-shocked for a minute. It was at that moment that one of the downsides of travelling alone really hit me. All around me people were reassuring each other and all I could think as I felt my heart racing was that I really needed a hug.

Legs shaking, we went back into the building. Although the staff assured us earthquakes were normal in the area, they too seemed shocked by the force of it. One member of staff shook his head and said to me: `We thought it was going to be a big one`.

It turns out the earthquake measure 6.9 Richter scale and a number of buildings in nearby Ica were damaged. Fortunately Huacachina was not affected too badly. However the concern felt by locals is understandable given the devastating earthquakes the country has seen in recent years. In 2007 80 percent of the nearby city of Pisco was destroyed in a huge earthquake, which measured 8.0, and much of it has still not been rebuilt.

Julio, who worked at my hostel, told me the experience had changed his view of life. He had lived with his grandmother but their house was destroyed during the earthquake and now he works in Huacachina and sends money home for his brothers and sisters.

He said: `Nature is more powerful that all of us. It can change your life in a second. Before I was always looking to the past or to the future but now I live for today. As long as life is tranquillo, I am happy.`

Sometimes it take someone else to put things into perspective.

Monday, 31 October 2011

#1 30b430 - have a surf lesson

The downside of being taught how to surf by someone who wasn't fluent in English became clear when I asked my instructor 'what shall I do if I fall in?' to which he answered 'no entiendo' (I don't understand).

Fernando, the owner of a surf school in Lima, had assured me that my tutor would speak English as I wasn't sure my limited Spanish could stretch to surf-speech. However it soon became clear after meeting Felix that his English was on a par with my Spanish. When I raised my concerns with Fernando his typically South American reply was: 'No worries, no worries. Un poco ingles and un poco español,' and my lesson began.

The first challenge was getting on my wetsuit, an extremely unflattering task which involved being pushed and prodded into the skin-tight suit. The end result was me looking like a somewhat flustered whale - I challenge anyone to look good in a wetsuit!

Perfecting the paddle technique

Looks easy enough...

Looking like a pro already
Next came the on-land instruction where, in a mixture of Spanglish, Felix taught me the four steps required to stand up on a board. This was a mission in itself and while Felix sprang up like a cat, I had absolutely zero elegance, I had all on managing to stand up and keep my balance on dry land, let alone in the water. It was about this time that the real panic set in.

'Tranquillo, tranquillo,' Fernando kept telling me. 'Stay calm, if you don´t stand up, you don't pay.' To be honest, that stressed me out even more, as I knew that meant they obviously expected you to stand up and I was blatantly going to be the only person in the history of surf who failed to do it.

The paddling begins
But there was no turning back and it was only as we were paddling out to sea (a mission in itself when you're lying flat on a board almost twice your height and you have no upper body strength) that I thought to ask the question about falling in. It was as I was panicking and trying to remember the four steps that I suddenly had a vague recollection about the dangers of a board hitting you on the head when you fell in.

Seeing as Felix didn´t seem to understand my question I tried to act out the scenario. 'Si yo...[miming falling in] que...should I do?´ If I hadn't been so scared at the time it would actually have been really funny.
In the end I decided I´d just have to figure it out when the time came as Felix was turning us around and seemed to be preparing me for my first wave. 'I will push you and when I say ´paddle´, paddle as hard as you can.´

Before I could even take that in he´s let go of me and I could just hear a small voice behind me shouting ´paddle, paddle!´so I did as I was told. No sooner was I paddling then the voice shouted ´jump, jump´. I was so panicked I instantly forgot all about the four steps and tried to jump wildly onto the board, completely losing my balance and instantly falling in.

As soon as I hit the water, images of a surf board crashing down me me filled my head and I started flapping around madly in the water - I have no idea what I thought that was going to achieve. Luckily the next moment Felix was by my side 'Emily, tranquillo, tranquillo.´I dragged myself back onto the board, feeling anything but calm.

Felix high-fived me. 'Very good, very good´he beamed. I had a feeling that this may have been a slight exaggeration. ´And now we paddle again.´So we turned around and repeated the entire routine again...and again.

Then, after several attempts, something amazing happened - I stood up! Just for a second and I was so surprised that I screamed and instantly fell off. But it was such a great feeling that I turned around and did it again.

You might need a magnifying glass but I'm standing - honest!
And for the next hour we repeated the routine. We paddled out (by far the hardest bit - those three years of yoga classes did nothing for my upper body strength), sat on our boards while we waited for a wave - during which time I´d have an impromptu Spanish lesson as Felix chatted away to me - and then I'd paddle with all my might and try to stand up. Sometimes I fell in and sometimes I made it. But the times when I managed to stand up felt fantastic.

The only down-side to the experience was that once again my pesky motion-sickness set in. For someone who loves to travel so much I seem to get sick on an awful lot of modes of transport and I can now add surf boards to that list. After an hour´s worth of going up and down on waves I was feeling distinctly green by the end of my lesson. 'Don´t worry,' Fernando said when I got back to the shore. És normal - next time will be better.'

Next time?!

So big thanks to Kasha for a great recommendation for my list. One down, 29 to go!

#1 of 30b430 - Done!

Friday, 28 October 2011

New beginnings...

So 30b430 has finally begun!

Waking up in my hostel in Lima on the first day of my trip felt very strange. Staring down the barrel of the next nine months suddenly felt very daunting. Even though it´s something I´ve been planning for a while, to actually be here living out those plans still doesn´t feel real in a way.

But it didn´t take too long to slip into the ´traveller´way of life and I´d soon met people in the hostel and set out to explore the city.

So what to make of Peru so far? At the moment I´ve only spent time in Lima, which like many South American cities, is a place of contradictions. On one hand there are towering office blocks, five star hotels and mobile phone shops, Starbucks and McDonalds on every street. People walk around with phone which are ten times more expensive than mine (not difficult, I know, for those of you who are familiar with my pink ´brick´) and drive flashy cars.

But there is also crippling poverty and many people live in slums or are forced to beg on the streets. Unemployment is off the scale but it is amazing to see the creative ways people try to make their living. Dragons´Den eat your heart out. Street vendors sell just about anything you can think of, men sit on wooden boxes to polish the shoes of passersby, I even saw a family who charged 20 centimos (about 5p) for people to weigh themselves on a set of scales in the street.

Lima itself is, again, like many big cities. There are some pretty buildings, but there are plenty of ugly ones too.

But what has been my overwhelming view of Peru so far has been the kindness of the people here. From Kiko, who sat next to me on the plane over, who gave me the Paulo Coelho book he´d just finished reading to Louis, the businessman who walked me to where I needed to go in the centre of Lima, everyone has been so friendly and helpful.

If people see you looking lost, they´ll stop and ask whether you´re ok. When I gave my seat to a granny on the bus she offered to hold my shopping bags on her knee.

And although I have seen little of the country so far, I think it is this which makes it such a special place.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Just where I’m supposed to be...

It was shortly after joining the M25 that I realised I had probably packed a bit too much into my car.

All three lanes of the motorway had been closed due to a big accident and everyone was being diverted to a single carriageway to join an A road.
It was as I was trying to navigate between the other disgruntled drivers then that I discovered the major disadvantage of not being able to use any of your mirrors.
My poor old Ford Ka was packed to the ceiling and the passenger seat was filled with an assortment of bags and boxes which threatened to fall on me every time I turned a corner.

Packing light has never been my forte - which doesn't really bode well for a round-the-world trip - and the trip back home to Scarborough was no exception.
Thankfully a kindly white van man took pity on me and gave me the space to get out, otherwise the chances are I'd still be sat on that motorway with my indicator blinking now. (I say kindly, but I think the beeping could probably have been interpreted in two ways).

The past couple of weeks have been a bit surreal. Finishing at work, leaving my friends in Brighton and saying goodbye to my family are all things I knew were coming but I hadn't let myself think about too much.
Leaving Brighton has been particularly strange as I have no idea whether I'll be moving back there in nine months time.

As I was packing up the three-and-a-half years worth of stuff I have managed to accumulate,  I came across a lot of things which reminded me of when I first moved to the city, when I had a very different life to the one I'm leading now.

Other the last few months, as we all prepare to move onto different stages of our lives, my friends and I have spent a lot of time talking about how things have turned out.
In our most brutally honest moments the conversations have often turned to “this isn’t where I thought I’d be”.
When I moved to Brighton I was in a long-term relationship and thought the last years of my twenties would be following the traditional route of settling down and thinking about a family.
So when the relationship ended suddenly I felt completely lost and it took a long time to figure out what my new life would be.

And even after finally making the leap and giving up everything to go on this trip there have still been many, many times when I've questioned my decision.

But back at home as I was trying to cram my many possessions into the bedroom I grew up in, I came across my old school year book. Among the questions about our most embarrassing moment and what we'd enjoyed most about our time at school, was the question: "Where do you think you'll be when you're 30?"
While many of my 16-year-old classmates had written "married, living in a nice house, with two children", I'd answered "A journalist, travelling the world."

So, strangely enough, it seems I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Over to you...

The eagle-eyed among you have pointed out that my 30b430 list is currently somewhat lacking, in that I only have 15 things on it so far.

I see that this may cause problems with the whole “30 before 30” concept and I’m trying my best to rectify the situation. But the problem is there’s so much that I want to do that it’s actually been a lot harder than I’d imagined to come up with a definitive list.

So, as much as I feel like I may possibly regret this, here’s where you come in.

My friends have pointed out that if I’m going to be gallivanting off around the world for nine months the least I could do is let them get involved too. And by that they meant helping to chose some of my 30 adventures.

Now a little bit of me is already thinking this may be a bad idea, especially after hearing some of the suggestions my so-called friends are coming up with. But I guess one of the points of this trip is to try things that I’ve never tried before and to get out of my comfort zone.

So I’m opening up the floor to suggestions. Please feel free to add yours. My disclaimer is I’m not definitely going to do everything suggested – especially if it’s dangerous or illegal (I’ve seen Banged Up Abroad and it ain’t pretty) – but I promise I’ll at least consider it. And if it’s something that will help to make my trip more memorable, I’ll give it a go...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Leaving on a jet plane...

So...the tickets are booked!

I don’t think the woman in the travel shop, who probably books these kinds of trips every day, shared my excitement, as she looked distinctly underwhelmed as I sat on the edge of my seat virtually shrieking as she confirmed the flights.
My 30b430 adventure will begin on October 23 when I will leave the UK on my first flight to Peru. I’ll then have just over three months travelling overland through Bolivia and Argentina to Chile. From there I’ll fly to New Zealand and then Australia. Then I’ll be heading up to Thailand, where I’ll be a bridesmaid for one of my best friends Kate, before travelling overland to China.
And then to top off what will hopefully be an amazing year, I’ll be home just in time to watch the Olympics in London with my family.

http://www.aardvarkmap.net/mape/52I5T173
Now that the tickets are booked, there really is no going back and suddenly it’s kick-started me into getting organised.
I have somewhat inexplicably been manically trying to finish things, as though I won’t be allowed to head off around the world unless I finish the jam in my fridge or use up the rest of my hair conditioner.
I’ve also become annoyingly sentimental about everything. I’ve turned into one of those people who keep saying “This is the last time I’ll ever...” The other day I saw a man walking down the street with a white rat on his shoulder and almost cried at how much I’m going to miss Brighton.

Where else am I going to find skateboarding dogs and a beach made of pebbles?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Decision made...

Two things happened last week.
1.       I turned 29.
2.       I handed in my notice.
To be fair I don’t think anyone at work was too surprised. I’ve been talking about this trip for so long (and so loudly) in the office, that I think most people already assumed I’d done it months ago. So the cake I’d baked for my birthday probably received a more enthusiastic response than my news.
But for me it all now feels very, very real. Finally there’s no going back and this crazy adventure really is going to happen.
It also feels very, very scary – for the exact same reason mentioned above.
However, it’s in another way it’s really nice. I feel as though I’m entering the final year of my 20s with a purpose. I had a brilliant birthday, my friends all thoroughly spoiled me and it’s always nice to get through the day without having to have one of those wailing “Where is my life going?” moments. I may not exactly know the answer to that question, but at least I know it’s going somewhere.
And if nothing else, at least this is going to panic me into doing some serious organising. Maybe I just work better to deadlines.