Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas in the Jungle

Heather:
A few days before Christmas we were invited to the childrens party at the local school which proved to be a sight worth seeing. The phrase "Health and Safety Nightmare" springs to mind. They had a game where all the kids had to run over to a big bowl of water at the same time, suck up as much as they could, run across the room and spit in into a bottle. The first to fill their bottle was the winner! That left the floor good and slippery for musical chairs of death, before they brought out the pinatas made of clay which fired sharp pieces all over the room. We then went outside to watch the kids attempt to climb a huge greased pole with presents at the top. The winning tactic seemed to involve standing on each others faces! The adults weren't left out either as there were drinking games and a blow dart competition.

It was at this event that we were all finally forced to partake of the local alcoholic drink, as to refuse is to deeply offend. Not such a bad thing you say? So how would you feel about drinking a big bowl of fermented root vegetable that has been repeatedly chewed up and spat out by old ladies? I kid you not! The chicha of these parts is still made that way. After the second drink with more on the way Ben and I actually ran away!!

Christmas day itself started out like any other day at the centre as we cleaned and fed all the animals. After that though we ate too much, drank too much and spent the day wearing santa hats. There was turkey and party games and it was good to be among friends. I had to keep looking around to remind myself that we were actually in the jungle after all! The night ended particularly early for Glen who was a victim of his own drinking game and we were sent to sleep to the sounds of his retching!

So apart from the brief Christmas interlude life at the centre goes on... highlights include; seeing the tortoises lounging in the sun, watching the baby woolly monkey climb her first tall tree, finding hamster remains at the bottom of the owl's cage proving she can hunt, introducing the tyras to their new enclosure, going for a jungle walk and seeing Glen fall in the river, eating the fish that Sarah caught and cooked for us and having Vanessa have the puss squeezed out of her hugely swollen hand after getting it bitten by a coati! But I get the feeling that you probably had to be there :0)

Monday, 22 December 2008

Life in the Jungle Continues...

Ben:
Here's a video we've put together on life at the Rescue Centre.


Heather:
Life has carried on very much as before but now at least we have a bit more of a clue about what we're doing. Although if you saw some of the things that we've helped build you may doubt that somewhat! We're almost used to the fact that the electricity and water cuts out numerous times throughout the day and forgotten what it was like to not have monkey poo under our finger nails! I'm still not very brave when it comes to the giant insects though.

Most of our promised reinforcements didn't turn up though so volunteers are still a bit thin on the ground. We have two long-term and four-short term volunteers which means there's a lot of work to do, but it hasn't stopped us enjoying it. The Dusky Titi monkey is still my favourite and she comes back to me when we let her out now. In fact she likes to sit on my shoulder and look for nits in my hair (quite worryingly she seems to find them too!) And today Ben was the only one that the baby woolly monkey would come down out of a tree to (apparently it was his Jonny Morris impression that did it!)

During our last day off we couldn't resist heading back to Banos for a bit of luxury in civilisation, and treated ourselves to a night in a relatively plush hotel. Other than going out and drinking lots of ridiculously cheap cocktails, and buying some goodies, there's really not much to report though. So now we're back in the jungle for Christmas and have stocked up with booze, food and silly hats and even have some fairy lights up. It's not the most Christmassy of settings but will be one to remember I'm sure.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Ecuador - Flor de la Amazonia Animal Rescue Centre

The Project
Flor de la Amazonia project rescues animals that have been involved in animal trafficking. Wild animals are captured in the jungle and sold illegally as pets. The conditions that the animals are kept in are inappropriate and often cruel. Baby monkeys, for example, are sold for just US$20 and kept tied up or in tiny cages in people's homes. This can become especially problematic when they grow larger and harder to handle. The project aims to rescue these animals and rehabilitate them for release back into the wild. Where release is not a viable option, because an animal is no longer capable of learning to survive in the wild, they are kept in large, stimulating enclosures and cared for appropriately. The project works closely with local communities in order to support them in developing alternatives to hunting wildlife for the illegal pet trade. For example, they have encouraged the growing of fruit, which is bought at a reasonable price, as food for the animals and supported the development of a tourist jungle adventure walk enterprise. It also hosts English Language classes, which it hopes will provide a forum for awareness raising and education about the project and further strengthen links with the local community.



The Animals
Currently the project is home to rescued; woolly, capuchin, and dusky titi monkeys, a margay (large) cat, tyras (playful but ferocious large weasel-like animals), coatis (remember them from the Costa Rica photos?), tortoises, a turtle, a toucan, macaws, parrots, parakeets, a spinx's guan (turkey-ish bird), a kinkajous (a gorgeous but extremely vicious little thing that looks like a gremlin!), collared peccaries (boar-like pigs, they're beautiful but have huge teeth!), an owl (yet to be identified), a pet/guard dog (doberman/jungle mongrel!), three pet cats, various mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and chicks (but they don't really count as they're live food for the margay and owl!), the trees are filled with semi-wild squirrel monkeys and of course there's us; the volunteers. Gloudina is the permanent project coordinator, there are a couple of long-term volunteers, a local family, with whom the centre has close ties and those of us who join for a few weeks at a time. Generally the centre has about twelve volunteers at a time but at the moment there's only a few of us here, we are promised that reinforcements are on the way though!

Location
The centre is located in the beautiful setting of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest at an altitude of 900 metres, with a warm wet climate. It's about an hour and a half into the jungle by bus from Puyo (the nearest town), and about a five minute walk, up hill, from the road. It is made up of wooden buildings; "the house" which has four dorm rooms and two bathrooms, the kitchen with big dining room table (and make-shift table-tennis table), the "meeting room" - seats under a roof, a couple of sheds for fruit and tools and a shelter with hammocks and a fire pit under it. The conditions are pretty basic, although we do have electricity and running water (most of the time), which is about as luxurious as it gets around here! At the moment Ben and I have a room to ourselves, but seeing as our beds are separated by a wall of mosquito net and a big gap, and the walls don't reach the ceiling, so you can hear EVERYTHING, there is absolutely no naughty business!! Spreading out from the centre, among the trees, are the enclosures which have been made for the animals.



The Work
It's hard work and a long day but I love it. Every morning we start work at 8am and clean out and feed all the animals. We're split into teams and work with the same animals every day so that they get to know us and vice versa. On my list are; the big woolly monkey, the dusky titi monkey, a coati, the tortoises, turtle and pigs. Ben's critters are; a capuchin monkey, baby woolly monkeys, another coati, the kinkajous and the tyras. We're not supposed to interact with or name the animals that are due for release but because monkeys are sociable creatures and get depressed without contact we're allowed to talk to and cuddle those that are on their own.

Once we've finished cleaning and feeding the animals it's the dull housework type jobs until lunch time. We get an hour and a quarter off for lunch then after a bit of lounging in the hammocks it's back to work. We help build enclosures and do other maintenance work, although our fixing of a table resulted in us giving it three additional legs! We collect insects to feed to the animals, which is quite a sight to see; Europeans leaping among the undergrowth with nets, wrestling grass-hoppers into pots! We pick up birds that have fallen/climbed off their perches. Also we walk the coatis, it's not ideal putting wild animals on leads but they get sick if they don't eat enough insects and they're much more effective at catching them than we are! The worst job is carrying the sacks of building materials or fruit and other heavy stuff, that has been left for us by the road at the bottom of the hill, up to the centre. The favourite job is getting some of the smaller monkeys out of their enclosures so that they can practice climbing among the bigger trees and have some company and cuddles. Then we check on all the animals and give food to those that need evening feeding before finishing work, usually tired and minging at about 6pm.



Free Time
We take it in turns to cook the evening meal and sit around chatting, listening to music, playing darts or table tennis, chilling by the fire, playing with the dog, stroking the cats etc etc. We work a full day Monday to Friday, a half day on Saturday then have Sundays off. Most people head off to Puyo, Banos or further afield for the weekend, but this week Ben and I stayed behind and enjoyed the peace (but not really quiet with all the squawking birds, buzzing insects, squirrel monkeys jumping up and down on the roof and Ricky the dog begging for attention!).

Life in the jungle...
So life in the jungle... mostly I love it. I really enjoy working with the animals and the setting is stunning. I'm not so keen on the bugs, and there are some HUGE bugs. I'm covered in mozzie bites (we can't use repellent as it's harmful to the animals) and had to take my first ever shower here whilst being dive-bombed by a moth the size of a bat! There are even some bugs which impress me though, like the grass-hoppers the size of my big finger (which I can appreciate from a distance!) and the beetle we saw with two bright glow-in-the-dark spots on it's back. I like not having to worry about what I look like and spending every day in the same dirty t-shirt, jogging bottoms and wellies, but am missing my pink wellies and am not so keen on spending most of my time smelling of a mix of my own sweat and various animals' poo! A couple of the highlights of my day are searching through the undergrowth for tortoises and watching the pigs charge at full pelt at the food I've just put out for them. I love stroking the tiny, fluffy dusky titi monkey, although last time we had her out she wouldn't come out of the tree to me until some squirrel monkeys ganged up on her! Ben is often seen with a baby woolly monkey clinging to his head or trying to teach the parrots to whistle the Linda Mcartney theme tune!!



For more photos click here

Monday, 8 December 2008

Ecuador - Puyo

Heather:
Puyo is a dump! The only reason that we're here is that we're on our way to a voluntary work placement and we needed to stop off to buy wellies and mosquito nets (the obvious tourist purchases). It's really grim and we won't be in any rush to come back!

Tomorrow we head into the Amazon to join an animal rescue and rehabilitation centre for a month. Here's a link to their website so have a look...
Flor de la Amazonia

We've been on the go for what feels like a long time now and want to stop in one place for a while. We thought we'd like to do some voluntary work and found this place on the net. We're going to be there for Christmas too which has to be nicer than being in a hotel or something, at least we can cook a nice dinner and stuff.

We weren't even planning on coming to Ecuador, but the opportunity to work with animals in the jungle was not to be missed. My plan is to cuddle all the animals back to health but I'm sure there'll be be much more in the way of shovelling poo! Maybe Ben can get some animal photos if I hold them down (in a loving and rehabilitative way of course!!!)

Unfortunately I don't think we're going to get much in the way of Internet access for a while so this is bye bye for now.

Oh.... and

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Ecuador - Banos

Heather:
Still loving Ecuador :0) Banos is a little jungle town and it's perfect. It's pretty and friendly, with loads of hot springs and tonnes of vegetarian restaurants - what more could a girl want?! The setting is spectacular as it's perched on the side of an active(!) volcano and surrounded by forest covered mountains.

We hired bikes to explore near-by waterfalls and found some ropey little cable-car things. They zoom from one side of the valley to the other, way above the river and even right over one of the waterfalls. We made a cheesy little video of our adventures so be sure to check it out.



As well as enjoying the scenery, relaxed atmosphere and great food we also had a go in a steam-bath. It was free in our hostel so even though we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for we gave it a go! For anyone who doesn't know... A steam-bath actually involves being shut in a wooden box with only your head sticking out the top whilst the box is filled with hot steam. Obviously you get very sweaty and I presume it's supposed to get rid of toxins or something. To be honest it felt like some sort of torture device, especially as we really weren't sure how we were supposed to get out again! Fortunately we were released by someone who then got us to sit on a big basin of freezing water whilst she threw more cold water at any bits of us that had escaped being submerged! Hmmmm... Still not convinced.

Unfortunately we only had a couple of days in Banos and would love to have stayed longer, so we may go back at some point. The only other disappointment was the fact that we didn't see any monkeys when our guide book promised us them in our hostel garden and Ben put a lot of effort into calling them :0)



Ben:
Not many photos again and the ones I've got are of yet more waterfalls! I promise to take some photos of other things next time! The photos are here.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Ecuador - Quito

Heather:
Quito - a breath of fresh air. As soon as we stepped off the plane the difference was noticeable. Quito is full of parks, the buildings are all finished (in Peru if you build a house you have to pay tax on it once it's finished. So they never finish them! Almost everyone lives in a building with big, ugly metal supports sticking out of the roof and surrounded by piles of rubble), the roads are clean (Peru - rubbish everywhere), the cars do not threaten to mow each other down at every opportunity and it's quiet - no car horns or desperate whistle blowing!!

It's like coming home. Only nicer! I mean it, I REALLY like Quito. It's a modern, relaxed, green, friendly, small - one million people, city, and it's got way better public transport than we do (plus it's all wheelchair accessible). I love it, I want to live here, and the food is amazing, and the people have all been really friendly and it's really cheap (well compared to home anyway). Plus we arrived in the middle of a huge fiesta so the streets have constantly been filled with parades and brass bands playing on the roofs of trucks. A boy in a suit gave me a rose and we were both forced join in and dance with costumed folk!

OK maybe I'm getting a little bit over excited, it is just a city after all and actually the old part is not as nice as we imagined it would be, but I think it just goes to show how unbelievably badly governed Peru has been as Ecuador, it's far less rich in natural resources neighbour, is clearly prospering so much more.

Having said all that... Ben has been a big fat slacker on the photography front so you're going to have to take my word for Quito's fabulousness as we don't have any pictures to prove it :0(

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Peru - La Merced

Heather:
There's no rest for the wicked so after a days sight-seeing in Lima we were straight onto another night bus. The buses have surprised us in how comfortable they are, but this nine hour journey over some really high mountains on windy, windy roads wasn't the easiest on our delicate western constitutions, so I was feeling slightly poorly by the time we reached our jungle destination. Antonieta and her husband Jeremy have a house in the scenic spot of La Merced, between the highlands and cloud-forest, and we arrived at their home just in time for my vomiting and diarrhea to kick in!! So, for me, the first twenty-four hours of our stay involved running to and from the bathroom and whimpering pathetically (I am an AWFUL patient) whilst Ben, bless him, ran 'round putting wet flannels on my forehead and the like.



Fortunately for us all I was feeling much better the next day, so we were able to do a bit of exploring. We did some hiking, found a waterfall and really appreciated all the greenery. It was a welcome break to be away from the city and lovely to stay in a family home rather than a hotel / hostel. Chatting to Antonieta and Jeremy meant we got to learn a lot more about Peruvian life and politics and our brief time in La Merced showed us that had we spent more time in the jungle and smaller towns our experience in Peru would have been a very different one. We feel like we've spent a lot of time in cities and buses and not nearly enough time enjoying the countryside. We've realised that we're definitely not cut out for desert life and have both really missed greenery and vegetation. That's not to say we haven't enjoyed ourselves, because we have, and trekking the Inca Trail in particular was a wonderful experience, but we haven't come to love Peru in the same way as we did both Cuba and Costa Rica.

Ben:
A few more photos can be found here

Friday, 28 November 2008

Peru - Lima

Heather:
Ok... this time we actually got to see Lima, well as much of it as could be squeezed in in a day anyway. We were met from the Nazca bus by Antonieta who is the mother of Ben's cousin's wife (tenuous link!) and we spent the night with her family. It was lovely, we were like guests of honour and met all the extended family and had a traditional Peruvian meal with them (potatoes and corn based - the Peruvian staples). The following day we had a whistle stop tour of Lima, which is ridiculously big; eleven million people, but nicer than I anticipated, with some beautiful buildings and squares and a pretty coastline. (Well that is when I was able to open my eyes, as every time we had to get into a cab I genuinely thought we were going to die, so coped by just not looking!) The whistle stop nature of the tour means there's no photos of Lima though - sorry :0(

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Peru - Nazca

Heather:
About a thousand years ago the folk of Nazca made strange markings in the desert. They're still there. No-one really knows what they were for. In fact no-one even realised what they were until relatively recently, when someone flew over them and saw that they weren't just random lines in the sand, but in fact geometrical figures and designs. There's a dog, a monkey, birds (one with a wing span of over a hundred metres), a spider, a tree and hands to name but a few. From the ground you can't see anything, which is why their function is such a mystery, as presumably they didn't fly too often a thousand years ago (although one theory suggests that the Nazca people actually had hot air balloons). Some people say that they mark out some sort of astronomical chart, others think it's about water sources, it may be a form of worship and one theory even has them down as running tracks! Who knows? Anyway the point is there's these really big, really old weird marks in the desert and we went to see them...



In order to see the Nazca lines we flew over them in a tiny six seater (including the pilot) plane. I have to say the markings really are impressive, the designs are so intricate it's impossible to imagine how they were created without being able to see them from above. From the pictures you can get an impression of what they look like but really no idea of the scale of the things. They are HUGE! However, my personal enjoyment of witnessing the spectacle was somewhat hampered by the fact I spent the majority of the flight trying desperately not to be sick. In fact the only point at which I wasn't trying not to be sick was when I actually was being sick! Fortunately it was into a bag provided for just such an event. It happens all the time as the pilot insists on flying the plane around each shape completely on it's side then turning around and flying past the same shape banking steeply on the other side. It's something that I'm finding incredibly difficult to describe without the use of hand signals and sound effects! But take it from me it was far from pleasant and I wasn't the only one turned green by the experience. The point of this crazy behaviour is to allow you to take photos of the lines but with all that swooping about and trying not to vomit even Ben's photos are a bit crap, so apologise in advance! (Look out for the alien Nazca line which we're sure is someone taking the piss!)

The other thing the Nazca people did was bury their dead in the desert. They intended for the bodies to be preserved for as long as possible so they would be whole when entering into the next life. As a result archaeologists (and treasure hunters) have been digging them up ever since and we went to have a look. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about looking at corpses lying (actually sitting as they were always in the foetal position in order to be born into the next life) in their open graves. It's all done fairly respectfully but to me it just looked like something from the "Goonies"! Good photo ops though...



Ben:
A few pictures of the bodies can be found here. Whereas the Nazca line photos have been relegated to facebook and can be found here.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Peru - Arequipa

Heather:
It feels like we've been in Arequipa a long time. We were ready to leave a few days ago but the buses were full so we've had to hang around a bit longer. We're in a lovely hostel; luxury room, cable tv, WIFI, pretty garden and little pool, but it's a bit of a trek from town and that combined with the fact that we've really seen everything that there is to see in town, means that we seem to have turned into Wayne and Waynetta Slob! We've had take away pizza twice - twice! I never have take away pizza at home. It's no wonder I'm bursting out of my clothes - a situation not helped by the fact they've been shrunk in the tumble dryer! Anyway we leave today on the night bus, on which we have bed-seats booked, whatever that means. I wonder if it'll be like first class on a plane where they bring you wine and massage your feet (that is what happens in first class isn't it?!).

So, Arequipa... Another city. We're pleased that we've been on the treks into the countryside because otherwise it feels like we've been in cities a lot, and we don't really like cities, and they're ugly too. Arequipa is the second biggest city after Lima (but Lima is ten times the size so they don't really compare). The centre is pretty but most of it is just really dusty and the streets are gridlocked with little yellow taxis spewing fumes. Each crossroad terrifies me as the right of way appears to go to whichever vehicle gets there first and fastest whilst hooting it's horn the loudest! On every corner is a police man or woman who blows their whistle constantly, but as far as we can tell several aggressive bursts of the whistle means "Everyone carry on doing exactly what you're doing"!

The touristy sights to see here include a museum telling the story of the recovered bodies of children sacrificed by the Inkas. They were trying to appease the angry mountain gods, following a volcanic eruption. The bodies and other sacrificial items were preserved as they froze solid on the mountain until they were uncovered by archaeologists. It was pretty spooky looking at a five hundred year old corpse!

There's also a huge nunnery here, which is like a whole town behind walls within the city. Most of it is open to the public now and you can wander around the beautiful old buildings and gardens. Apparently there used to be a tunnel leading to the near-by monastery, but the tour guides deny that. It reminded me a lot of home as the decorators seem to share Ben's taste as most of it is painted either bright orange or dark blue :0)



The main event during our time in Arequipa was a night out on the town with some of the people from the last trek. Given that Ben and I have been in bed by half nine most nights and not really drunk since our leaving party, I blame entirely the influence of the Irish boys for all drunken behaviour!! A deadly mix of rum-based beverages ensured that the night was carnage! The Irish left the club to get straight on an early morning flight - nutters! I just about made it to breakfast (it's included, of course I wouldn't miss it!) but then promptly puked it back up and had to spend the day in bed!

Ben:
Didn't take many photos in Arequipa, but there are few more photos of the nunnery here.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Peru - Colca Canyon

Heather:
Another trek; this one in the Colca Canyon, which is (apparently) twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A group of twelve people from all over Europe: Switzerland, France, Lithuania, Holland and Ireland (plus Wales of course), a guide and a driver on a three day adventure together...



For most of the journey to the canyon the landscape was incredibly barren, with desert stretching between mountains and volcanoes. On route, we hung out in a "rock forest" (big, weird rock formations in the middle of the desert) and saw strange high altitude plants which are as hard as rock. We visited villages and saw little kids waving placards with their striking teachers. We learned the differences between llama (bigger, longer neck, tail up) and alpaca (smaller, shorter neck, tail down, woolly face) and that only the males have coloured wool threaded through their ears, the more wool - the more important - like llama bling! We failed to get excited at the sight of condors (birds - yawn!) but did get excited about seeing little chinchilla / rabbit things (cute, fluffy and cuddly!), of course Ben didn't get a picture of either, they're too fast (or he's too slow)!

The valley that narrows to become Colca Canyon is green and farmed, with animals grazing in it, a relief after so much desert. No-one (not even wikipedia!) seems to know the difference between a canyon and a gorge, but it was deep and steep and there was a river at the bottom. It looked pretty far down - and it was! We spent the first night in a hotel in a village at the top, and the following morning walked down into the canyon. It was dusty, steep, slippery and hot and took about three hours to reach the bottom. Fortunately mules carried most of out stuff and we were greeted by an "oasis", complete with flowers, palms and swimming pools, where we camped for the night. (Although it wasn't quite as luxurious as it first appeared with dodgy toilets, tents that didn't zip up and midges but I'm keeping the focus on the positive!)



There was great debate over dinner as to whether the group should get up at three am to climb back out of the canyon, in the dark, to look for more (boring, boring) condors or have a lie-in until six (when the hell did six am become a lie-in?!) and fortunately good sense prevailed! So after our "lie-in" we climbed back up the canyon side (a thousand metres - that's a kilometer - straight up - higher than Snowdon - from sea level!!!!!) and I'm pleased to say that I didn't even require the services of the "emergency mule"!

After lunch (where we were entertained by an ever-present panpipe player - Ben's personal favourite) we had a dip in a hot spring. A bit weird in the blazing sunshine (once again... rainy season?!) but good for the aching joints. Then we headed back, with a stop to see hawks (I think? Some sort of big birds anyway!) that even Ben could manage to photograph as they were tied to their keepers!



Ben:
There are more photos here!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Peru - Lake Titicaca

Heather:
Having already discovered that long bus journeys are not Ben's favourite way to spend his time (and I'm not really a fan either) we weren't really looking forward to our first long Peruvian bus journey. However, once we established that there really was a toilet on-board and Ben discovered that he had plenty of leg room, we relaxed. In fact I think it's fair to say that we were quite impressed, especially when they brought around sandwiches and put on a film in English. But, inevitably it all went a bit "tits up" when we ran out of water just in time for the bus to grind to a halt because the road was being blockaded by striking farmers. In both directions for miles, as far as the eye could see, were bus, after truck, after bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The time spent sitting in a stationary queue of traffic extended our supposedly six hour journey to more like eight, and we were really thirsty and starving but there was nothing to be bought. Finally an enterprising local woman appeared selling bananas and Ben put his bargaining skills into action, resulting in us acquiring five of the smallest bananas you have ever seen!

Eventually we made it to PUNO, which is the main town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It hasn't impressed us much. It's ugly and smelly and I fell on my arse in the street! Ben decided to buy some ripped off DVDs for us to watch on his laptop,and as a result of we are now the owners of twenty-seven Hollywood classics dubbed into Spanish. He wasn't a happy boy!

However, the reason to come to this part of the world is to see Lake Titicaca, which is unbelievably huge, and to visit it's islands and their people:



ISLAS DE UROS is a series of floating islands made from reeds by the people who live upon them. It's pretty bizarre to be on a man-made island and to see what the inhabitants manage to make with the reeds. They build houses and boats and eat them too (that's the reeds, not the houses and boats!) Usually several families live on one island but apparently if they fall out they can just saw apart their islands and float their separate ways!

My favourite bit was seeing the guinea pigs running around. I should probably explain for those of you who don't know at this point, that one of the main local dishes here is roasted guinea pig. They're not too popular with the tourists because they arrive on your plate whole, complete with claws and little teeth, and as Ben says "a lot of people don't like their dinner to look back at them"! But the way I see it, if you're going to eat meat, those guinea pigs looked a lot happier snuffeling around in the reeds than the battery-reared chickens you get at home. Anyway...

ISLA TAQUILE is the second island we visited, it's very pretty and home to another unusual community of people. We learned about some of the local customs, such as the different coloured bobble hats worn by the men to indicate whether they are married or not and that the people greet each other not with a handshake but with an exchange of coca leaves (which they keep in brightly coloured bags that are the exact same ones in every hippy shop in the UK!). Also only men on the island are allowed to knit, and when couple's get married instead of handing over a ring the bride presents her man with a belt woven not just of wool but also her hair. Nice!



Ben:
There are more photos here!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Peru - The Inka Trail to Machu Picchu

Heather:
We did it! It was "punishing" and "utterly exhausting" at times and little men carrying huge loads did jog past me, but I didn't need oxygen or a piggy back :0) The trek involved hiking for four days through the peaks of the Andes, along the old Inka Trail which runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The scenery was breath-taking, in both senses of the words; walking among mountains so high that they contain glaciers left me feeling both in awe and short of breath!



We were lucky enough to be in a group of only four people. But my hopes for the other couple being fat Americans (to make me look better!) were dashed when we met the fit Bob and Sharon from Scotland. For just the four of us we had a guide, Fernando, and nine, yes nine, porters. We carried our day-packs, with water and a jumper etc in, and the porters carried everything else. They would bring us coca tea and a bowl of hot water for washing, to our beds in the morning. They'd arrive at our lunch spot ahead of us so that we could sit down at a table in a big tent (which of course they had carried) and eat the lunch they had prepared. After a little siesta on the sleeping mats they'd laid out for us, we'd trot off, leaving them to wash up, pack up and come rushing past us on the trail, so that they could have our overnight camp and delicious three course meal ready for our arrival in the evening. We'd then be tucked up in bed in the tents that had been put up for us by eight o'clock every night. It felt like we were part of the Raj or something! But seriously, seeing the porters, who were all about half the size of me, some of them just boys really and others old men, carrying packs bigger than them and wearing tatty old sandals, charging up and down the mountain sides was a very humbling experience.

The first day was relatively easy. We stopped regularly for breaks and for Fernando to tell us all about the increasingly impressive Inka sites that we passed along the way with contagious enthusiasm. But day two was the really tough one. We set off early in the morning and over the course of the day climbed the two highest peaks on the trail, the highest being around 4500 metres and rather disconcertingly called Dead Woman's Pass! The uphill sections were unbelievably steep and even the porters looked like they might collapse at any moment. We all sounded like a troop of Darth Vaders panting our way to the top, sporting ridiculous head-wear to protect us from the unforgiving sun (what "rainy season"?!) and leaning on our trusty sticks. But it was worth the pain as it was a truly exhilarating experience to look down from the top of the highest pass, quite literally "on top of the world"!




Ben has, we've found, a remarkable ability to somehow leap gazelle-like up the slopes disappearing into the distance only to periodically reappear, puppy-like, to make sure we're still following painfully slowly behind! This was fortunate as he captured some fantastic shots whilst waiting for the rest of us to catch up. I remained well behind for the whole trek with the only exception being the time when I was desperate for the loo and had to run off to camp to avoid making a terrible mess!

Day three was in comparison an absolute breeze, although it was just as well, given that we were all (even Ben!) hampered by our aching muscles. The idea was that we'd all be bright and breezy the next day, despite getting up at four am, for the final push to Machu Picchu. Of course everyone wants to be the first to see it, so there was something of a "Wacky Races" feel to the last few miles as lots of trekkers jostled for position along the path, despite the sheer drop to one side, and the excitement built!... Then that first view of Machu Picchu, from above, with the morning mist rolling around it, and the feeling of a pilgrimage complete, really was magical.



The site is enormous and impressive both in terms of it's architecture but also for it's position among the sheer mountain tops. No one really knows what it was for, but it's clear that it was religiously significant, and one theory goes that it was a place for witches and mediums to worship the Inka gods of the mountains, water, earth and so on. All I know is that for someone with very sore legs there are a ridiculous amount of steps!!

Ben:
There are more photos here!

Friday, 7 November 2008

Peru - Cuzco

Heather:
For the last week we have been in Cusco. It's the 'gringo' capital of Peru and is filled with tourists of all kinds, from backpackers to posh five star holiday-makers. The city itself is dusty and sprawling but the old town is made up of beautiful old Spanish colonial buildings, lots of pretty squares and a ridiculous amount of churches, all linked by steep, narrow cobbled streets (with mental taxi drivers flying down them!). But the reason that everyone comes here is because of it's setting among the colossal snow-capped mountains of the Andes and the numerous ruins of the mighty Inka civilisation. Cusco is the place from which the famous Inka Trail to Machu Picchu begins.



Cusco is located more than 3300m above sea level. Now figures like that don't really mean much to me, but think about it... Nearly three and a half kilometers up!! (How many Billy Wints is that Karen?!) Because of the altitude we were pretty rough for the first few days we were here. We felt like we were moving through treacle and would end up wheezing like old ladies with a 40 a-day habit from simply walking up the street. We were both grumpy and shouted at each other a lot too! Our grumpiness was not helped by the fact that we went to some really shit museums (I'm sorry but I just can't get excited about bits of broken pot, even if they are really old!) or Ben having a tantrum when he locked the keys for his camera bag inside his camera bag!! However, things have definitely improved since then. We've been to the Sacred Valley to see a number of important Inka sites and even I have to admit that some of them really are impressive. Although whilst Ben was off taking photos I did fall asleep at the last one!

Cusco is filled with women in traditional dress with babies strapped to their backs (or in the absence of a baby a lamb!) and grubby children leading llamas around, all hoping to have their picture taken for a tip. Obviously this is something of a show for the tourists but even when you get away from town the women working in the fields are dressed the same way and there's still llamas all over the place! There also seems to be some kind of parade or other around Cusco's main square every other day. One day it's the military, the next a marching band, today lots of kids dressed in various traditional outfits are dancing along. Bless them though they've been at it all day and look pretty knackered now!



Initially Ben wouldn't let us go out after dark, which was pretty awkward when it came to getting dinner as it gets dark at 6.30pm because he'd read about "strangle muggings"! However, I'm pleased to say that there has been no evidence of the aforementioned "strangle muggers" but that might be partly because we've been in bed by 9.30pm every night (even when we went for a beer in the obligatory Irish bar!) because even though it's sunny by day in the evening it gets really cold.

As well as the odd bit of site-seeing we've been trying to acclimatise and mentally and physically prepare ourselves for the four day Inka Trail trek that we embark on tommorrow. Ben's only concern is his new hat which he is convinced gives him a headache and so has gouged air-holes out the side of with his "trusty pocket knife"! However, I have to confess the words "punishing climb" and "utterly exhausting" which are used to describe various sections of route in the guidebook have slightly freaked me out! I just know that little men with giant loads on their back are going to jog passed me in bare-feet whilst I have to be given oxygen and a piggy-back!



Ben:
There are more photos here.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Peru - Lima

We flew into Lima from San Jose and as we were flying out again the next morning stayed in a hotel near to the airport. We asked in reception about somewhere to get some dinner and were handed a pile of takeaway pizza menus. We had a wander and found nothing but shops behind bars. In order to buy anything you had to point (in our case) to what you wanted and pay before it was handed through the bars. We decided that this probably indicated that we weren't in the nicest part of town, so we went back to the hotel and ordered takeaway pizza!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Costa Rica - San Jose (again!)

Ben:
After another long arduous bus journey, we arrived back in San Jose. At which point I had a stinking headache and had to lie down. Got to the hostel... moaned a lot... got Heather to place a cold flannel on my head... and tried to sleep whilst feeling worse and worse. In the meantime Heather went to get some food. In the ten minutes whilst she was gone I threw up all over myself and all over the laundry room floor (the bathroom was occupied)... and immediately felt fine again, though a little damp! Half an hour later feeling amazingly recovered I went to get take away for myself too!

The next day we wanted to go shopping in the city centre. San Jose is not the prettiest of cities. The 'Lonely Planet' guide book has most of it's San Jose space dedicated to warning you of all the bad areas of the city. It gives advice such as "if at any point you're held at knife or gunpoint, do not resist or fight back". So having taken off all our watches and jewelry and stashed money for the day in secret pockets we venture into town. First thing you notice is how all the local lots have security guards with big guns and large razor wire fences around them! Thankfully the trip went without incident and I even managed to buy some nice new shorts to replace the army camouflaged shorts that I've been advised not to wear in South America! Suffice to say the camera didn't come with us so there are no photos.

Today, our final day in Costa Rica, we've spent the day white water rafting in a national park near San Jose. It was a three hour raft trip over class III and IV rapids. To be fair I didn't know what class IV rapid really meant. Now I know it means you get very wet! Apparently it's one of the top five white water rafting rivers in the world. There were five people in a raft, a guide who would give commands to the other four who would then paddle appropriately. I was at the front of the raft and I realised at one point that I was failing to hear some of the commands when after a particularly vicious rapid that involved me getting drenched and almost falling off, I was wondering why no one else was still paddling. Turning round I noticed everyone else was lying on the bottom of the raft and I had missed the vital "get down" command! It was amazing fun and a great way to end our time in Costa Rica.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Costa Rica - Parque National Rincon de la Vieja

Heather:
We've left the major tourist trail behind now and have headed into a much more remote national park. There's no town, we're in a lodge a few kilometres from the park entrance, and once again you can''t get anywhere without 4WD. It's a beautiful setting and we've got our own porch, complete with hammock, rocking chairs and dog, from where we can enjoy the view.

Getting here was something of a mission though and in the process we have learned that Ben doesn't really go in for the whole economy travel thing! As we got off our bus I commented "See that wasn't too bad" and Ben's response was "I'm trying to imagine in what way it could have been worse"! Now admittedly I wasn't the one contorted into a strange position, stuck behind a girl who wouldn't move her chair forward or next to an overweight woman who allegedly kept farting (no it wasn't me!) with a ridiculously heavy camera bag in my lap but hey, it REALLY could have been worse!



The environment is completely different from where we've been so far. The forest is much more like woodland that we have at home, but much older and more gnarly-looking. It's like an enchanted wood in a fairytale. I keep expecting one of the trees to start talking to us or a vine or tree root to wrap itself around my ankle and hold me captive! There's spooky things caused by volcanic activity too like pools of boiling mud, multicoloured lakes and smoking holes in the ground that add to the surreal feeling.

Our animal watching was fruitless until we sat down to eat our lunch and the wildlife came bounding out of the forest to try and get a bit! The trees were suddenly filled with whitefaced monkeys (but not close enough for photos - obviously!) and a ridiculously bold coati actually jumped up onto the picnic table and tried to unzip our bags (no we didn't feed it). It looked like it would have been happy for me to give it a little cuddle though but I was just a bit scared of it's huge claws!



Ben:
More photos here!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Costa Rica - Monteverde

Heather:
We travelled to Monteverde via 'Jeep-Boat-Jeep' and despite Ben's excitement that doesn't mean we came here by transformer! Just a jeep, a boat and then another jeep. Bless him! It was more than exciting enough for me though as the roads are unsurfaced and we were sliding all over the place even in a 4WD trying to get through the mud without getting stuck. We made it though and are now in a little town surrounded by tropical cloudforest. Not being an ecologist I can't tell the difference between the cloudforests and the rainforests but I guess it's to do with being higher and the clouds tend to settle in the forest giving it something of an eery quality.



We've been doing lots more hiking and a little bit of tree hugging - the trees are incredible and definitely worth hugging :0) In parts of the forest there are hanging-bridges set up so you can actually walk through, and above, the cloudforest canopy, which is pretty special. It feels totally different walking through the canopy than on the forest floor. As you look down you can't see the ground as the plants are so dense and beingamong the tops of the trees gives you a much better understanding of the symbiotic relationships going on around you (and some not so symbiotic but I'm sticking with my romantic vision). Each tree has so many other plants growing on it and is obviously supporting loads of insects, and birds, and other animals, each tree is an ecosystem in it's own right.

We're still wildlife spotting and keep finding that as we walk quietly for miles in the forest, looking up, trying hard to spot things we don't actually see much in the way of animals, yet as we get back to the ranger station, and Ben packs his camera away, wild animals seem to practically dance through the car park!!! We've spotted quite a few fury friends right by the road. We saw a grey fox and some coatis (Ben even managed to get some photos - I take it all back!). Also, in one spot someone has set up lots of bird feeders filled with sugar water and so there are literally hundreds of beautiful multicoloured humming birds flying around. They were hovering so close it felt like I could have just reached over and picked one straight out of the sky.



My special reward for being so incredibly patient whilst Ben takes all his photos (!) was to go zip-lining. When I signed up for it I thought it was going to be one of those 'death-slide' things you see atassault courses, but there were actually fifteen of them and the longest one was 600 metres! It was so exciting! I had to wear a climbing harness thing then was attached to a metal cable right upamong the tallest trees and then just zipped along from platform to platform. Some of the runs were really fast and scary and some of them you could just enjoy the views below whilst hanging in mid-air. I loved it apart from thisTarzan swing thing they got us to do, which basically involved falling off one of the very high up platforms and then swinging around in the air until one of the (young buff!) instructors jumped up and hung off your feet and dragged you back down to earth. It was all a bit too much like a mini bungee jump for my liking. (Sorry there's no photos so you'll just have to take my word for it. Ben was off photographing more things that will stay still for him!)

Ben:
More photos here!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Costa Rica - La Fortuna

Heather:
La Fortuna is our first real stop and it's a small town pretty much entirely dedicated to providing services to the tourists (mostly American) of Costa Rica, and it does so very well. It's built up at the foot of a volcano called ARENAL, which believe it or not is still active. So one of the most popular activities here is to watch the lava which constantly flows down it and lights up at night. It's pretty amazing to see, well actually it's not all that impressive - not like in the pictures in the postcards with flames spewing out the top - but pretty amazing in a if-you-think-about-it sort of way. In reality it looks a bit like a few rubbish fireworks going off in the distance! But doesn't that seem a bit unwise to you? Building a town at the foot of an active volcano I mean?! There are big eruptions every now and again, so there's certain things you have to do to make sure there will be as few casualties as possible in the next one, one of which is to always park your car facing away from the volcano. I've got to say, I'm not entirely convinced that that's going to be all that effective in the event. But then who am I say?!



Apart from the active volcano there's loads of dormant ones, so we climbed up the one next to Arenal. It was very, and I mean VERY, hard. Practically straight up! My legs have hurt ever since. It was pretty amazing though because we had to climb up through rainforest. At the top there was a lake in the crater and I was just paddling and contemplating a swim when I pointed out the "little Ely things" to someone who informed me they were leeches (everyone seen 'Stand by me'?) and that put an end to that idea! It did look impressive though and really green. Also we got some really good views (and therefore photos of course) of the top of Arenal, which doesn't often reveal itself from behind the clouds. We were a little disappointed though not to spot any monkeys in the rainforest (I imagine my heavy-breathing may have put them off), that is until we were on the way down and could hear the loudest, angriest sounding monkey noises ever and imagined huge ferocious gorillas would appear at any moment to rip us limb from limb, at which point we were very relieved not to have seen them! (We've since learned that tiny cute little howler monkeys were responsible for the racket!)

Our more successful rainforest wildlife spotting endeavours have meant we've seen deadly snakes and frogs (cute tiny little bright red tree-frogs), tonnes of birds, most of which I have no idea what they are (apologise to both Ben's Dad and Karen!) but do include toucans, humming birds and some sort of special heron (sorry!!!!), hundreds of butterflies, lizards and iguanas (massive ones in trees, sitting on branches that look like they might give way at any moment), black squirrels, a howler monkey and most excitingly as far as I'm concerned... Sloths! (Now this might be a good time to warn you not to get too excited about seeing photos of most of the afore mentioned species, this is for two reasons, the first being that rather annoyingly the animals do not pose attractively waiting to be snapped, and in fact the sloths mostly looked like balls of fur wedged in the trees! Also secondly, those of you who have experience being photographed by Ben - standing with a stiff smile for an inordinate amount of time whilst he twiddles camera dials, will not be surprised to learn; a wildlife photographer he is not! So expect to see photos of things that don't move!)



Ben:
There are more pictures of immobile objects here!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Costa Rica - San Jose

Heather:
I can't actually tell you about San Jose as although we spent our first night in Costa Rica there we didn't actually see it! We were so excited by the novelty of all the luxuries of modern living and so put off by the rain, not to mention all the tales of how hideous and unsafe the city is, that we didn't venture out of our (scarily reminiscent of a youth club) hostel. We are flying out from there too so maybe we'll make it out the front door next time!

I must admit that despite the fact we knew it was rainy season the relentless torrential rain that greeted us did catch us a bit off guard. We weren't comforted to be told it had been that way all day, every day for the previous nine days, or by the terrible forecast (we've got WiFi of course we can check the forecast). However, I am very pleased (and a little bit smug) to say that since then it's been pretty good. I mean it does rain, we're in the rainforest (the clue's in the name) but we've had lots of sun and only brief showers most of the time. The 'showers' do result in an absolute drenching when you get caught in one though!

Costa Rica

Heather:
After three weeks in Cuba it's been something of a culture shock arriving in Costa Rica. It feels like the two hour plane journey didn't just bring us to another country, but also shot us forward in time several generations! Suddenly the roads are filled with cars, with not an animal-drawn vehicle of any kind to be seen. There are people cutting the vegetation with strimmers instead of huge macheties. Suddenly the billboards displaying Communist slogans are replaced by blinding adverts for all kinds of tempting crap we don't really need. The American pollution (did I say 'pollution'? Maybe influence is more polite) is everywhere in the form of Dennys, Burger King, Wendys and of course the evil Mc Donalds. Prices are all in dollars, the locals all speak perfect English (if you can call American English 'perfect'!) and refer to us as "guys" and our counterparts are all teenagers who appear to have stepped straight out of an episode of 'Beverly Hills 90219' - aaagggghhhh!!!!

However, the up side of all this of course is... The food is fantastic. Everything runs ultra-efficiently. You know exactly what you're going to get when you hand your cash over. The facilities are astonishing; WiFi internet access in your room? Swimming pools? Roof-top bars? Hammocks? Cable TV? Folks that arrange everything for you? Pick ups from the door? Whoever said this travelling lark was hard?!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Cuba - Havana (again)

Heather:
Unfortuntely our time in Cuba is now over. We're back in Havana for the night as we fly out early in the morning. We really have had a fantastic time though and have learned loads about a country which is no doubt going to change dramatically over the coming years. There are still a lot of things that remain something of a mystery to me, such as how a government can call itself Communist then have regions of it's own country where only foreign tourists are allowed to go, or introduce a second currency that can't fail to increase the divide between those that have and those that don't. And I certainly won't miss the bloody awful food, not being able to access the internet or constantly being asked if I want to buy cigars!

But I think my Spanish is improving, and I'm definately understanding more and getting better at interacting with people, whereas Ben seems to have advanced from saying "Si" to everything to answering any question that he's asked with "Cerveza" (beer), not always that helpful in practice!And I will miss the scenery, the relaxed lifestyle, the sunshine and most of all the people, who are so friendly and have a real sense of community.

Still tommorrow... Costa Rica!

Ben:
There's some bonus photos from Cuba taken on the small camera that can be found here!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Cuba - Bens little bit on Politics

Ben:
After writing all the blog entries for cuba Heather has told me that I have to write something too! So I thought I'd write a bit about my polical observations of Cuba!

Being in Cuba it's hard not to form opinions on the political system here and to speculate on where it's going. Back in my Swansea university days people selling Socialist Worker papers would wear che t-shirts and would idolise cuba as a how revolution can work. I don't doubt that after the revolution first happened there were good intentions within the new regime. This is shown through Cuba's health and education services, both of which we are told are very good (though thankfully we never had to put this to the test). Though che's efforts to encourage moral incentives to work rather than materials was never sustainable. The buildings are crumbling, the streets are full of potholes, the shops are empty, the food is rationed and many people each year try to "escape" to the states.



Over the years Fidel has blamed USA for all of it's problems (this can be seen in Havana's very biased Musea de Revolucion!), and to be fair there is some truth in this. The trade embargo from cuba's closest and largest neighbour has made the importing and exporting of goods expensive. Until the late eighties Cuba's economy was mainly held up by their close ally Russia. But when the Berlin Wall fell in Europe Cuba lost trade and credit of $5 billion dollars overnight. This resulted in a five year spiral of poverty. To stop the riots in the streets the government was forced to legalise the US dollar and promote tourism. Ploughing the money made from tourism to eleviate poverty. This has created the cuba we see today. Two economic systems running side by side, the national communist peso and the more capitilist tourist money (the dollar was taken out of circulation in 2004 to be replaced by this second cuban currency of equivelent value). This of course is creating a divide that the initial revolution was trying to stop. Now beggars and touts on the street collecting foreign tourist money can earn more in a day than a doctor on a government salary can in a month. This double economy is not sustainable and will eventually have to change. I cannot see communism lasting in Cuba and I imagine as the government changes power over the next few years we'll see more capitilism coming back into Cuba. Hopefully, though, change won't come too quickly so that the country won't lose it's culture, identity and sense of community.

Cuba - Trinidad

Heather:
Our time in Cuba has carried on getting better and better :0) We spent most of our last week in Trinidad, and haven't wanted to leave as we've made ourselves well and truly at home in another 'casa', headed by Ramonita, a wonderful tiny energetic little old Cuban lady.



Our initial arrival didn't quite go according to plan though as we were whisked off the bus (which had broken down on the way) by a guy pretending to be from the casa we were looking for. He dumped us on the back of a bicycle rickshaw, that didn't cope too well with carrying me, Ben and all our luggage and promptly broke! This led to some comedy antics as we were dragged around town by a second rickshaw, with our driver holding on to the back. The streets are pretty hilly, so every time they got up some momentum there was no way they were going to stop at junctions, regardless of whether or not there were motorbikes headed straight for us!

We realised pretty sharpish that we'd been taken to the wrong place and sought out the right house (on the same street) where we found Ramonita. We then hid behind her, as she let rip at the dodgy guy, despite the fact she was too small to reach his doorbell! Then took us home to her beautiful house, complete with peacock in the garden.

Since then it's been all plain sailing. We've explored Trinidad, which is a pretty, biggish town, with cobbled streets and multicoloured houses. There are lots of great bars, with all manner of rum-based beverages, and fantastic music and dancing. Even I can recognise some Cuban tunes now but still haven't learned to salsa.

Ramonita has kept us well fed, but always gets upset when we're not able to finish the mountains of food she lays on for us every night, but to be honest I could probably do without the microwaved cheese sandwiches she gives us for breakfast!

There's a beach (PLAYA ANCON) near-by, so we hired bikes and cycled there (resulting in sore bums but surprisingly no strops) and spent a couple of days lounging around occasionally venturing out of the shade to work on the tans (I've got a bit of a peely belly) and went snorkelling on a near-by coral reef. The best bit for me was sailing out to it on a tiny catamaran, hanging on to the side as the waves splashed over our heads (not quite so health and safety mad over here!).



I'd say the highlights though have involved hiking in the near-by mountains (TOPES DE COLLANTES and RANCHON EL CUBANO) where we walked through incredible tropical vegetation (again generally with a mangy dog or two at our heels!) to reach waterfalls where we could swim. And as if that wasn't cool enough already... at one we swam right through the waterfall into a cave which was full of bats! Amazing.

Ben:
You can see some more photos here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Cuba - Vinales

Heather:
Havana was hectic and Playa Del Esta was deserted, we're now in Vinales, which is tranquil. It really is lovely. We're properly in the country, with chickens and pigs snuffelling past and the farmers going about their business with Ox-pulled ploughs. We also seem to constantly have a mangy dog at our heels (and I don't encourage them and really don't need Ben to keep shouting "Don't look at it! Don't give it eye contact!").



The scenery is fantastic; with these huge imposing limestone mountain things (I can't really describe them, have a look at the photos) all around and all kinds of crops growing including tobacco, coffee, sugar cane and tropical fruit (finally fruit!!) among the palm trees. We've done loads of walking (and I mean LOADS, even though it's like a million degrees and we're bright red with sunburn). We've also seen lots of evidence of the major hurricane (Gusto) that hit here about a month a go.

Instead of being in a hotel we're renting a room in a 'casa', the home of a local family (it's the main form of accommodation for tourists in Cuba away from the big resorts). The family were recommended to us by some Americans we met (one of whom, bizzarely, is the nanny for Eddie Vedder from Perl Jam's kids - cool hey?!) It's been such a positive experience, the family (and in fact the whole town) have been so warm and welcoming. Also, finally, we've had some good food, as the Gran of the family has cooked a feast for us every night (still no fresh veg though and I seem to be on a four eggs a day diet, which I'm not entirely convinced is good for me!).

One of the neighbours took us on a guided hike and we met some of the local farmers who showed us how to roll cigars, fed us pinapple straight from the plant and gave us sugar-cane drinks (with rum - obviously!). After this our guide (having drank a LOT of rum) proceeded to strip off down to his pants and jump in the nearest river. He semed confused by our refusal to join him in the muddy water!



Being here has definately won Cuba over for us. We're starting to love the place and the people and are excited about moving-on tomorrow to continue our explorations :0)

Ben:
You can see some more photos here!

Friday, 3 October 2008

Cuba - Playa del Este (part 2)

Heather:
The rain did clear, but not until we'd had some fantastic storms. The lightening was so close I was sure it was going to hit and I was torn between wanting to watch and wanting to run and hide when the thunder rolled around us, especially when all the power went off. It was all worth it though because what followed was perfect beach weather. We're both looking browner and blonder now (Ben looks even more like a German!) and it feels a bit more like we're actually on holiday.



The whole food fiasco continues though. We have both actually been dreaming about fruit and veg and even pizza has deserted me now. Last night the restaurant we ate in had no milk or bread and I was served a pizza base covered in tinned tomato soup and cheese! Other memorable low lights include for Ben a plate of various tinned meats arranged neatly on a plate (everyone loves spam, right?!) and for me the local speciality dessert that I naively believed couldn't actually be what it sounded like, but no sure enough was a saucer full of marmalade covered in grated cheese! After nearly 20 years of vegetarianism following a week long diet of white rice and raw grated white cabbage (as yet the only veg not from a tin we've eaten in this town) I've been driven to eating fish! I'm also developing quite a taste for mojitos :0)

Ben:
There are some photos here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Cuba - Playa del Este (part 1)

Heather:
We're at the beach now and it really is beautiful; white sand, clear water, palm trees, the lot, but... and it feels like quite a big 'but' at the moment... It's raining! We thought we'd sussed the weather - sunny in the morning, downpour at two-ish then clear again afterwards. So I wasn't too impressed this morning when I bounded out in my bikini, ready for my first day of luxuriating, to see the drizzle. Still I'm sure it'll pass, surely?!

Thought I'd shard with you the teachings of our 'Latin American Spanish Phrasebook' in the 'Romance' chapter...

Kiss me - Besame
I want you - Te deseo
Take this off - Sacate esto
Touch me here - Tocame aqui
Do you like this? - Esto to gusta?
I (don't) like that - Esto (no) me gusta
Please stop! - Para!
Please don't stop! - No pares!
Oh my god! - Ay dios que rico!
Oh yeah! - Asi carino, asi!
That's great - Eso, eso.
Easy tiger! - Con calma!

faster - mas rapido
harder - mas fuerte
slower - mas despacio
softer - mas suave

[ a line of butterflies ]

That was amazing - Eso fue increible
It's my first time - Es me primeria vez
I can't get it up, sorry - Lo siento, no puedo levantaria
Don't worry I'll do it myself - No to precupes, lo hago yo
It helps to have a sense of humour - Ayuda tener un sentido de humor

Genius!

Cuba - Havana

Heather
On our second night away, in the early hours of the morning, unable to sleep thanks to jet-lag, there were tears as it finally started to sink in that we really have gone! But we're starting to settle in to the travelling thing now, which is a relief after getting fleeced about five times within the first day and a half of arriving. Fortunately the 'I've-just-stepped-off-the-plane-and-don't-have-a-clue-please-rip-me-off' look seems to have worn off!

We spent three days in Havana, just doing the touristy thing really. We saw the sights, got used to shrugging off the touts, attempted to put our spanish classes into action and tried to make some sense of this crazy place. We went to the national museam about the revolution, which was basically a giant (tatty) shrine to Fidel Castro. I may have seen countless items that Fidel once touched but I still feel pretty clueless as to what it's all about!



There are two currencies used here; one for the locals and one for the tourists (supposedly) but in reality everyone uses both. Prices are really hard to understand because both currencies have the same symbol but are worth completely diferent amounts, and everything seems to be either surprisingly expensive or ridiculously cheap. The tourists are clearly spending a lot of money but it's hard to see where it's going.

We are coming to the conclusion that Cuba is WEIRD! I'm trying to get my head around it but lots of things just don't seem to make any sense. We've seen those things that you always see in the postcards; old American cars, tonnes of musicians, wall to wall cigars, tropical beaches, Che's face all over the place and stuff but then there are all these amazing big beautiful buildings everywhere that are falling down, I mean properly crumbling to pieces.

In Havana the touristy bit is relatively plush but as you walk down the road there's like a line and from that point on it's all really grotty. It's bizzare, no gradual decline but a specific point where suddenly the buildings are half collapsed, the road is more holes than anything else and the rubbish is piled in the street. This, by the way, is the route by which our taxi driver who brought us from the airport on our first day chose to take us. It was pretty bloody scary bouncing down the delapidated narrow alley ways with the driver shouting out the window to find out the way!

Another freaky thing is the food. Or rather lack of it. Since leaving Havana we haven't seen any fresh fruit or veg and in the shops we can't even buy bread, though they do all stock a plentifull supply of rum and beer! For breakfast we've just eaten crackers and honey. That can't be right! We even tried to buy some tinned fruit but it was more than two years out of date. What the hell is that about?! It appears that for the foreseeable future I will mostly be eating pizza (praise the lord for the Italians!).

Anyway, my personal highlight so far was queueing up with the locals to buy a 'peso pizza' for 30 pence and then sitting around in a Havana park with everyone else to eat it. Now admittedly I didn't feel quite right afterwards as it seemed to swell to the size of a football in my tummy and Ben's piece with 'chorizo' looked like it was covered in dogfood, but I refuse to let my moment be spoiled!

Ben
there are more photos here

Sunday, 21 September 2008

End of the Road

The last festival of the season. It was sad saying goodbye to the festival scene and all the new friends we've made. It wasn't so sad saying goodbye to camping in a field though! We took great delight in binning our broken tent and punctured airbed!



You can see a few photos here.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Bestival

After two days of torrential rain and knee deep mud we renamed bestival worstival. But Ben at least got to drive a buggy and dig a trench.



See more snaps from bestival here.

Of course before the rain there was actually grass in the campsite. As can be seen in this little video we made.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Electric Picnic

The fantastic Electric Picnic in Ireland reminded us why we love festivals. The Irish are relentless in their drinking and partying! There was no end of bizarreness to keep us entertained and we were even inspired to make a "montage"!



Lots of arty pictures too



You can see some more here.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Greenbelt

By far our dullest, well behaved festival, the christian; Greenbelt. The best entertainment was provided by beer and hymns in the Jesus Arms and break dancing for God!



Take a look here.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Beautiful Days

A festival full of crusty aged Levellers fans rolling around, drunk on cider, in the mud.



There were plenty of photo opportunitues, which can be seen here!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Big Chill

Big chill is Heathers usual festival so were able to catch up with lots of friends.



Here are a few of Ben's photos.

Heather's are mostly people in dodgy costumes and can be seen here!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Secret Garden Party

Our best festivals to date; mud wrestling, burning ships, tonnes of costumes, lots of sunshine, endless madness and not a hint of health and safety. Apparently there were a few bands playing too.


Come inside and have a look

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Benicassim

Rather than working at rainy british festivals, we went to play at a sunny spanish one!

Ben's Snaps

Heather's Snaps

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Geekfest III

We had a weekend off camping at festivals so had our own festival "Geekfest" camping in the gower with friends! Meet the gang...

Heathers Snaps

Bens Snaps

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Cornbury

It rained a lot...



... as well as smoothies we were also selling tasty vegetarian curry's in the Curry Shed. The shed looked really impressive but it was quite a mission getting the giant marquees up and decorating the interior. It was made more "fun" by the indian style health and safety rules! You can see more photos here

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Glastonbury

Two days after glastonbury and we are only just starting to mend! It was hard work but we still managed to see a bit of what was going on and have a laugh along the way. On the smoothies stall we had in fancy dress theme for each day, pink and purple, pyjama party and day at the office, which caused a few raised eyebrows!



More photos can be found here.

Whilst we were chilling out by the stone circle on the sunday night we met this character.

video

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Amateur Photographer.

Another photo printed in Amateur Photographer. Managed to make it to 8th on the leaderboard.

Mountain Bike Mayhem

No music, no drunk people, no fancy dress, just lots of bikes racing for 24 hours. ... oh and the weather was shit and we all had colds!



See more photos here.

These people were pretty amazing to watch though.
video

Isle of Wight

From Rockness we had another epic road trip to the Isle of Wight. The sex pistols and the police were headlining so we were practically youngsters! Of course the best act was on the Tuesday night when we opened the festival with an amazing rendition of Happy Birthday on the main stage (we sneaked on without security spotting us).



I didn't take the main camera out but still got some snaps on my small camera which can be seen here

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Rockness

It was over a ten hour drive to get to rockness but it was worth the drive as the festival surroundings are beautifull. The grounds give you beautiful views across Loch Ness.



You can see some more photos here.

The festival itself was complete contrast to wychwood. Gone were the family's sitting out on rugs sipping pimm's, to be replaced by groups of very drunk underage kids downing tennants super! Festival highlight had to be watching some guy on sunday morning try and walk and eat a burger at the same time, only to drop the burger... attempt to pick it up... fall over... grab the burger... stumble forward... fall over... drop the burger... stumble forward...

The best customer had to be this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

video

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Wychwood Festival

We managed to survive the first festival of the year, wychwood!



You can browse the photos I took at the festival here.


One of my highlights of the festival was this angel.
video

Next is a two week road trip to Rockness in Inverness and then straight to the Isle of Wight Festival!