Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Argentina - Buenos Aires

We did it!... We finally managed to find a genuinely luxurious bus! We travelled the fifteen hours from Mendoza to Buenos Aires, our final South American journey, in comfort and style :0) The seats reclined and the foot-rests lifted up so we could lie completely flat. They brought around a meal which was too much for me to eat and it turned out it was only the starter, so then they brought around even more food! There was wine. We played bingo (a surprisingly common occurrence on South American buses) and despite the fact that Argentinian Spanish is really hard to understand, I won! Yet more wine! We watched a couple of films on the flat-screen TV that folded down in front of us. By the time they brought us glasses of champagne Ben was nearly wetting himself with excitement! (I think they may have guessed that we're not used to travelling first class!)

So our last stop in South America is Buenos Aires. We've eaten possibly the best ice-cream in the world, we've drunk great wine, Ben's eaten a huge steak, we've seen a Tango show as well as the famous (?) obelisk. We've wandered around and seen some of the city's sites, my favourite being the sight of the "professional dog-walkers" wandering the streets with ten dogs at a time! I've got blisters on my feet due to over-use of the beloved Havaianas (obviously due to defects with my feet rather than the sacred footwear!) and we've reflected on our time in South America.

It's been a wonderful experience, we've seen some incredible sites; Macchu Picchu, some of the highest mountains in the world, flamingo-filled lakes, salt plains, women in coloured skirts and bowler hats and monkeys in the jungle, to name but a few. We've met some lovely folk too and managed, more importantly, not to kill each other! But it feels like we're ready for something different now. We're both really excited about flying to New Zealand today. It feels a bit scary too though. This is the start of our new lives - or is that a bit dramatic?! I'm not so keen on having to start thinking about jobs and bank accounts and the like, but am really looking forward to the New Zealand greenery, being able to understand what people are saying (I'm sure we'll get the hang of the Kiwi accent in no time!) and seeing the sea again. We're thinking of buying a camper-van to do some exploring and my mind is filled with romantic images of sitting outside our little van, wine-glass in hand, BBQ on the go, overlooking the beach :0) So I think we may have a few more travelling adventures left in us yet before the big adventure of settling somewhere new begins.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Argentina - Mendoza

To be honest we were a little bit disappointed when we first arrived in Mendoza. We were expecting a more rural location, but instead found that Mendoza is another big, modern, European style city. It's very nice but once you've finished getting excited about the shops, bars and restaurants what do you actually do?! Well... Mendoza is at the heart of Argentina's wine growing region and that's why people come here.

Our guidebook suggests hiring bikes to explore some of the local wineries, however I must confess at this point that I've had something of a diva-style strop! I've been a bit poorly and it has not been helped by the fact that it is ferociously hot here. So hot it makes me want to curl up and die! I can't cope with it at all. I've taken to walking around under an umbrella, parasol-stylie and demanding ice lollies on a regular basis! In our bedroom, in the shade, with the windows open and the fan on full (no he hasn't taken me somewhere with air-con!) the temperature is 33 degrees centigrade. (I know that because the previously mentioned, and remarkably still working, Bolivian alarm clock, which is inclined to shout the time at us in Spanish and cuck-coo randomly, tells me so!!!) Bikes are a definite no-no and I have refused to go anywhere without air-conditioned transport!

And so it was that the wineries were visited on an air-conditioned minibus :0) We were tempted by the £100 posh tour which went to all the finest wineries and included a five course meal with a different wine selected to compliment each course. But in the end opted for the £9 WANKA tour! It was a fab day though. We went to two wineries, an olive oil farm and somewhere where they make liqueurs, among other things. I learned about the process of making wine and got to taste lots too, but unfortunately the thing that seems clearest to me as a result of the day is that I like young, fruity, light and therefore cheap, poor quality wine the best! Oh well having in-expensive tastes isn't such a bad thing :0) I am slightly concerned, however, at Ben's newly acquired desire to make his own wine and the confidence he's gained that he knows how to do it! Can't we just buy it and then at least it's likely to taste nice?!

I've had a few favourite moments in Mendoza, including eating huge pieces of chocolate cake in smart cafes and gorgeous fancy (yet surprisingly cheap) meals in lovely restaurants. In contrast however, Ben ate some of the local fast food - Mr. Dog, and sitting outside waiting for him to be served I was treated to something of a 'Jerry Springer Show' as all the dregs of Argentinian society scratching each others eyes out to get a seat! But my most favourite of all moments actually came about one evening as we were wandering though the streets and it began to rain. Yes rain! Oh how I've missed the rain! Of course I was delighted I finally had a brief reprieve from the scorching heat, but my joy of the occasion was magnified by the sight of the gathering of all the local emo kids scattering for shelter, hands above their heads, desperately trying to prevent the rain from spoiling their massive, ridiculous hair styles!!

Another Mendoza highlight worth mentioning, as far as I'm concerned, is my quest for the perfect Havaiana. Now I'm no shoes and handbag girl (you know who you are!) but if there has ever been a greater invention that the flip flop, then I am yet to discover it! Havaiana are the original and best makers of flip flops and they're a South American company (Brazilian actually, but we're not going there!) and everyone here wears them. So we've been searching for my perfect pair (yes I'm sure Ben's enjoyed the quest just as much as I have!) and I'm pleased to report I've found them! They are of course pink and there has been much praise sung to their wonder! I've tried to get Ben to photograph them but apparently they won't look too good in his portfolio!!

A few more photos from the wine tour can be found here.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Chile - Whoops

Instead of taking the tour all the way back to Uyuni we opted to get off at the Chilean boarder. We didn't plan on doing any travelling in Chile but just couldn't face any more Bolivian bus journeys! Also, we discovered that flying out of Bolivia to Buenos Aires, in Argentina, from where we're soon due to fly to New Zealand, is more complicated and expensive than we thought. So we decided to make our way to Buenos Aires over-land instead.

The jeep dropped us off in a particularly unremarkable spot in the desert, from where we were herded onto buses to be taken to the boarder. We knew instantly when we had reached Chilean soil as the tyre tracks in the sand suddenly became paved road. Paved roads... Only after spending a few weeks without them can you truly understand the joy of paved roads!!

It should have been simple, the plan was to spend a night in San Pedro de Atacama, the Chilean border town, then the next day jump on a direct bus over the Argentinian border and onto Salta. But "the best laid plans..." and all that. We were (naively) expecting that by passing over the border from Bolivia into Chile we would be immediately transported back into the developed world. So imagine our surprise at finding ourselves in a small, dusty town, built entirely from mud-brick, with far more of an Indian feel to it than European, or even South American for that matter, without even twenty-four hour electricity!

Someone told me that San Pedro is the hottest place in the world and I'm pretty sure that that's bollocks, but none-the-less it's bloody hot! So there we were, wandering around this little mud-brick town, carrying all our stuff, in the relentless heat, when we discovered that all the hostels were full. We staggered from place to place feeling less and less optimistic until finally a lovely lady took pity on us and sent us to a new place, which was kind of like a campsite, on the edge of town, with a few rooms to rent. Despite the fact that it actually cost more than we were used to paying for a nice room with private bathroom, cable tv, WiFi etc, we were pleased to take it!

The next disaster of the day involved us discovering that the only cashpoint in town wouldn't accept our cards. So we had no way of getting any money. It was very stressful I can tell you. With all the money in the world if you can't actually access any and you're miles from home and don't know anyone, what can you do? We couldn't even leave town to try and get somewhere with another cashpoint as we didn't have any money for the bus! Nightmare! However, that potentially disastrous situation was resolved remarkably easily in the end by someone showing us the location of the town's "secret" cashpoint (?!) that did take our card!

Once we had some money in our pockets and could relax a little we discovered that San Pedro is actually a nice place, something of an oasis in the desert, so things seemed to be working out again. Until... next disaster... the buses over the Argentinian border are all full for the next week. Bloody marvelous! Anyone who would like to look at a South American map will see that the potential options for crossing over from one side of the continent to the other are somewhat limited by the fact that the mighty Andes mountain range runs down the middle of it. Our next nearest option, therefore for crossing over was via the country's capital, Santiago, a mere twenty-two hour bus journey away!!!

So to cut a long story short, that's what we did, and believe it or not the bus journey wasn't half bad. Then once in Santiago we found that European-style Chile we'd been hearing all about. So there's really not too much more to tell about Chile really, we spent a couple of days taking in the cities' sights and rode on a cable-car through a huge park over-looking the city and got to eat some nice food and drink some good wine, for a change. But do you know what? It just doesn't feel like South America.

I only took the one photo in the entire of Chile!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni

Ok, so the reason for enduring the hellish bus journey and being in the hot, dusty desert town of Uyuni, is the remarkable surrounding geological formations, most importantly the incredible salt plains. We joined a tour and headed off in a jeep, for three days, to explore...

Our first stop, strangely enough, was a "train graveyard". Uyuni used to be an important transport hub for the export of locally mined minerals and metals. However, once the trade ceased and the trains were no longer needed, it seems they were simply left where they stood. The surrounding land has been reclaimed by the desert and so among the sand, in the middle of nowhere, are these huge, rusting trains. It's a pretty freaky sight and seems to bring out the kid in everyone as it is impossible to resist climbing all over them and making "choo choo" noises!

The sight of the salt plains themselves is one that is difficult to imagine without having seen it for yourself. Hopefully Ben's photos will give you some impression of the vastness of it. The sky is impossibly blue and apart from the vague outline of distant mountains on the horizon, all you can see, in any direction, is white! It's so huge that you lose all sense of perspective; you can't tell how big anything is or how far away (hence the fun illusion photos - Ben under my thumb, me in his palm etc :0)

Some of the salt is mined locally, so from time to time we came across a series of piles that had been dug out. It's pretty easy to see why salt isn't very good for you when you see it as large lumps of rock that have just come out of the ground! The salt is also used to make bricks for building, as well as all kinds of other kinds of crazy sculptures. Ben was very excited about staying in a hotel made entirely of salt, but to be honest I'm not sure that the salt-brick bed and sand-like salt floor quite lived up to his romantic expectations!

Just, it would seem, to make things even more bizarre, right in the middle of all the whiteness there are "islands". Literally jutting up from the "sea" of salt there are big rocky outcrops, covered in cacti! The cacti are like none I have ever seen before either. They are ridiculously tall, some over 40 metres high, and old, I mean really old. One of them is apparently over one thousand two hundred years old! How can a plant live that long?! (Please don't anyone actually try and tell me the answer to that question. I prefer to remain in ignorant awe. I find this technique quite useful in any number of situations!!)

Once leaving behind the salt plains we were in the desert. In preparation for this, Ben and I had replaced the remains of our previous hats with (controversially) caps bought from the local market. My pink, fake Nike cap cost the equivalent of a pound, Ben demonstrating his usual bargaining skills paid one pound fifty for his :0) I feel the need to explain this in order to justify the appearance of the terrible head-ware in some of the photos. Now under normal circumstances Ben would not, of course, be allowed to wear a baseball cap! But come on, it was the desert! I am, unsurprisingly, however regretting the decision to allow such a purchase to be made as the intended-specifically-for-use-only-in-the-desert head-ware has since been sported in any number of less appropriate environments! (I make no apologise to any cap-wearers among you - they look ridiculous! )

Anyway, back to the desert... It is filled with weird and wonderful volcanic sights; smoking volcanoes, geezers squirting hot steam high in the air, other-worldly bubbling mud pools, hot springs, strange rock formations and lagoons of different colours. We saw emus, llamas and vecunas and the wondrous sight of hundreds of pink flamingos standing in coloured lakes. (Photographing them, however, was made infinitely more difficult by a group of loud Germans who kept turning up close behind us everywhere we went. But I guess it's them we have to thank for the beautiful picture of three flamingos in flight, as it was them that had just scared them off!)

There are some more photos from the tour here and some more fun illusion photos here

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Bolivia - Uyuni

Our attempts to travel in comfort were thwarted yet again when we discovered that there were no flights and that the train, to our next stop Uyuni, was full. So we had to endure yet another overnight bus journey, but this time Bolivian style - generally agreed to be the crappest buses in South America, and we were not looking forward to it. We bought tickets for what was promised to be the best bus in the country, complete with an impressive flyer detailing it's numerous luxuries (the most important to us being the toilet) and turned up as instructed.

We should have realised by now that the fact that a bus ticket costs twice as much, does not mean that the bus is twice as nice. In fact the bus that we had bought tickets for (you know the flashy one in the pictures) wasn't even there! Instead, an hour late, we were put on a completely different bus, distinctly lacking in promised luxuries - including toilet, and told that despite the slogan of the bus company - "Why change buses? We offer a direct luxury overnight service", we would change onto a better bus in a town three hours away. What can you do?

We got on the bus and arrived in the town we were due to change buses in four and a half freezing-cold hours later, at two am. Was our luxury bus there? Not likely! Was I desperate for the toilet by then? Oh yes! So we sat around in the stationary bus for an hour or so while frantic phonecalls were made to locate the promised luxury bus. Then we carried on to search for it in person.

At four am we got off the bus and stood around in the street while they chucked off all the tourists on the now located luxury bus (doing the same journey in the opposite direction) and put them on our rubbish bus, much to their disgust. So we were finally put on the luxury bus - yey! To be fair the bus, once we were finally on it, was pretty good, and most importantly, it had a toilet. We even got blankets and bottled water.

However, the remainder of the journey was prevented from being a restful one by the fact that from this point on there was no road! A lot of the roads in Bolivia are not paved, which makes them pretty uncomfortable to travel on, but I don't mean that for the rest of the way there was no paved road. I mean there was no road! The route was flooded (which seems pretty weird given the fact that we've hardly seen any rain for weeks and we were in the desert!?) and so the bus had to find it's own way through the wet dusty lands, in the dark, with no way (as far as I could work out) of telling which way to go. So every now and again the bus would stop and men would get out and wander around poking the puddles and the tyres for a bit, and then we'd carry on!

Against all the odds, however, we did eventually make it to Uyuni, in one piece. Uyuni, however, was horrible. Just a tatty, dusty little town in the middle of the desert. After having had no sleep we were shattered, and it was boiling hot, and the hostel we were planning to stay in was closed. Then... I fell over! Because I was carrying my rucksack I landed on my hands and knees and couldn't get up again! I was not a happy bunny!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Bolivia - Lake Titicaca

The observant among you will know that this is not our first time on Lake Titicaca. We were on the Peruvian side a couple of months ago, but the Bolivian side is a hundred times nicer. Copacabana is like a little beach resort (which it sort of is, as Bolivia had it's only coastal region "stolen" from it by Chile, who wanted it for the bird poo that exists there which can be used as fuel. But that's another story!). It has donkeys to ride walking up and down the lake shore, there are pedalos to hire and even something of a beach, with the odd brave / stupid gringo lying in their bikini. The setting is beautiful, especially at sunset, as long as you can block out the rubbish which has been dumped everywhere and the resulting smell.

Ben and I went for a 12 mile hike along the lake shore and that really was lovely. The countryside is completely unspoiled and we saw people working in the fields and pigs, sheep, cows and llamas. Ben even chased an unsuspecting lady, taking a pig to market on a rope, up the road, to try and surreptitiously take her photo! All this with the backdrop of an unfeasibly blue sky, Lake Titicaca, who's size is difficult to comprehend and snowy mountains all around.

My brother is also travelling in South America at the moment, but going in the opposite direction, so we met up with him and a couple of his mates, in Copacabana and all went out to the Isla del Sol together. The island has major cultural and spiritual significance as it is said to be the birthplace of Pachamama (Mother Earth), however we managed not to learn any more about it and saw only one Inka ruin, which was unanimously described as "rubbish"! We did, however, have a lovely time. We did some hiking (only once getting lost and ending up in a pig sty!) and relaxing, but mostly just made the most of the beauty and tranquillity of the setting (only occasionally interrupted by the unnecessarily distressed ee-ore sound of a donkey!). Our hostel looked down from a ridge over fields to a small cove where we could see little boats coming and going. We sat on deckchairs, drinking beer, watching the sunset and thinking ourselves pretty lucky. That was until it was just about turning dark and we noticed the even more impressive view the other way, with the white mountain peaks reaching up into the sky! Duh!!

Scott has been very disappointed to discover that Ben has made me "go soft". We have been staying in nice places, eating in restaurants and travelling on "luxury" buses (luxury? Really? Come on!), whilst he and his mates have been haggling over every penny, sleeping in windowless cells, eating non-specific meat from the street vendors and travelling on livestock-filled buses, pumping out loud repetitive music! However, we got our comeuppance due to a ridiculous lack of cashpoint in Copacabana (what?!) which meant that we were stuck with hardly any money and had to resort to eating horrible, inexplicably llama-flavoured, food. We also paid double what they did for our transport and instead of being picked up at our door by a "tourist bus", as promised, we were picked up by a lady in a taxi, driven to the bus terminal, walked past all the nice buses and put on the same type of crappy bus as them, and not even sitting together!!

There are more photos here.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Bolivia - La Paz

La Paz, the highest capital in the world, is our first stop in Bolivia. The airport is 4058m above sea level and the sight of the city 500m below, lying at the bottom of a steep canyon and ringed by snow-capped mountains is breath-taking. It's good to be back on the road and exploring the world again, La Paz is brightly coloured and lively and surprisingly, given that I'm not a fan of big cities, I like it.

We're definitely back in South America proper now. The streets are clogged with collectivos (minibuses on set routes around the city) with someone hanging out of them shouting completely unidentifiable place names. The streets are lined with stalls selling every imaginable item, although a lot of them seem to be stocked from those bins you see in airports which are full of all the confiscated sharp items! Most of the women wear traditional outfits of full, brightly coloured skirts and bowler hats. What is it with bowler hats? In a country where the weather flits from burning hot sunshine to freezing cold, what the hell use is a bowler hat?! It doesn't offer protection from sun or cold. It's also a complete mystery to me how they stay perched on the top of their heads. Why don't they fall off?! What are the huge bundles they all constantly carry around on their backs in stripy cloths all about too, and do they really need to be carried up steep hills by old ladies?!

We've been stopped a few times on the street by dodgy-looking characters. Only once, however, have they been trying to sell us drugs. Every other time they've flashed us a fossil they're trying to sell. I'm not sure why fossil selling needs to be done in such a cloak and dagger fashion, or why they think we might want to buy them!

Bolivia is by far the least efficient country I have ever been to! It's a huge mission to get even the smallest thing done. When you order something in a restaurant it takes a ridiculously long time to come, comes all in the wrong order and is horrible anyway! Everyone tells you something different, no one ever has any change, the price of things fluctuates from one moment to the next and the ubiquitous shoe-shiners, who lurk around in black balaclavas looking distinctly sinister, insist that "it is possible" to shine flip flops!

Even getting a new alarm clock has been quite an adventure. Mine was stolen out of my rucksack on the flight here (it could have been worse) and we searched the city to find a replacement. The total lack of clocks for sale may go some way to explaining why everything here is always late! Eventually we found one and after some haggling, of which Ben was very proud and resulted in us getting a whole 20 pence off, we bought it. It lasted until ten o'clock! We now have another one that (fingers crossed) actually seems to work, but this one shouts, and I mean shouts, the time and temperature in Spanish when we least expect it! It also plays us little tunes and makes cuck coo noises from time to time too :0)

"You haven't been to Bolivia unless you've been tear-gassed", so we're told! So when a big political rally passed in the street setting off fire crackers and surrounded by lots of police armed with rubber-bullet firing guns and tear-gas canisters, we went the other way!

Whilst here we've explored the Witches Market, from where you can buy all kinds of herbs and potions, not to mention a llama foetus, should you ever have cause to require one (?!). We've been to the coca museum too and learned all about the cultivation and uses of coca throughout history. One of my favourite parts was where it described the way that the women working in the fields harvesting the coca wear their best brightly coloured clothes to attract the attention of the watching (notice not working!) men, who respond to the ladies flirtation by "playfully throwing rocks at them". It'd work for me I'm sure! We also explored the plush part of town, the Bolivian version of Beverly Hills, one of the best-known inhabitants of being the owner of the local beer company. We also visited the near-by Moon Valley, which Ben helpfully informs me is named such because it looks like the moon (!) and a cactus garden, which was disappointingly lacking in cactuses (I know it's cacti, but it sounds stupid!)

There are more photos here

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Happy New Year!

The local New Year's custom is for men to dress in drag and set up road blocks, then refuse to let anyone pass until they've paid them some money to feed their "baby" (nasty doll under their arm)! How strange. All the kids run around in masks asking for money too. We all headed to Banos, in masks of our own, and joined the huge street party. For us it was the usual drunken affair, with a little bit of Ecuadorian danger, in the form of out of control fires and fireworks, thrown in for good measure! There was much drinking and dancing in the street - much to the amusement of the locals. To be honest it's all a bit of a blur, unfortunately I foolishly video-recorded most of our antics, so I can't just pretend it never happened!

New Year's day was spent wondering if I'll ever be grown up enough to spend the first day of a new year without my head down a toilet!!! Which meant I completely let the side down and was too sick to get back to the centre in time to help with the animals. In fact we were all so late back that Gary (who had stayed behind to look after the place) had already done nearly all the work -what a hero!

Other notable happenings in our last week at the centre include; releasing the owl, having to round up the pig that kept escaping (don't picture a scene from 'Babe', these are wild pigs with massive teeth!), Ben completing the rubic's cube he had in his secret santa stocking (yep, still a geek!) and we almost couldn't leave on time as a three-legged monkey was loose in our room! We nearly managed to complete our time at the centre without any major animal bites, illnesses, injuries or accidents, until our final few hours, when Ben did a fairly spectacular twisting-fall, whilst trying to sit down (?!) resulting in a huge gash to his side.

So that's it -sob, sob! Our time in the jungle is over and we're back on the road. I'm really pleased to have had the opportunity to work at the centre, I've always wanted to do something like that and don't know if I'll ever get the chance again. I'll miss the animals, and yeah I suppose the people too, but I'm also quite excited about carrying on our explorations. Bolivia - here we come!

Again we have a video of the above but it will have to wait until we have more time!