Saturday, November 26, 2011

on the road for 1 year - pictures and reflections

The day of my first ever riding lesson... when my South American travels changed forever...
the thing is, it's been just over 1 year of travelling. it doesn't feel like it, i wonder whether i've changed or become a more balanced person, how my experiences, who i've met, what i've seen - the good and bad, will shape my future and whether it is all worth it?? in the moment i think, well i'm the same person, i've not changed, but when I remember back over the months of travel, things emerge that start to make me think that yes, it has been worth it and I have/am becoming a better person for it. 

so. time for some reflection. but before I dive into that heavy stuff, i thought in memory of my simon's cat t-shirt given to me at the start of my travels by mike in london (that is now about to be retired due to overuse), I'd mention that i've put together two highlights reels (one of Simon's Cat, other of all highlights) of experiences that have made it so wonderful. The full albums on Picasa have more detailed captions that I didn't reproduce in full in this post.

Chasing South America - 2011
A year with Simon's Cat

Not all the pictures are mine.. so thanks to... Sara and Kim for pics from Buenos Aires, Rick and Shai for pics from Antarctica, Ushuaia and Torres del Paine, Dana for pics from Antarctica and Mendoza, Julia for pics from Bariloche, Fred and Philipe for pics from Bolivia and biking, Mark for pics from Sucre and rafting and Matt for pics from Santiago.

so onto the heavier stuff... for me, the past year of travel has not been like a holiday... i'm not 'taking a break' from the routine of daily life, i'm not resting and getting over a stressful six months or project, i'm not trying to make best use of the little time I have... rather travel IS my routine, I have no time pressure apart from that which I create for myself, there's not really any tickboxes of things to see or do, and it's who you meet that mostly shapes your travels.

for all this, it does sound pretty luxurious, and I'm really thankful that I've had the opportunity to do it, but, (I guess there's often a but) there's times that I crave having a job to put my effort into, regular friends to muse about how shit and wonderful life is over a glass of wine after said job, having my own kitchen, having comforts of books, artwork and creative activities around me that I could dapple into when I felt like it, and the consistency to really get into and enjoy life in one spot. Moving around constantly, or even staying somewhere for a while (like I have done for the past 2 months getting dental treatment or studying spanish) does have a routine, but you get lazy. You stop making efforts to be 'touristic', you become conscious of the money you're spending to just live, you get sick of eating out nearly every meal, you get anxious about moving on, then you stress about finding a suitable hostal or hidden camping spot as dusk falls, and all in all you feel just a little guilty that this is all you really seem to worry about.

goodness, it all sounds like I'm a little down with it all; partly I think it's because of the thrice weekly dental appointments of the past 2 months, partly because after 1 year money is not something I can happily ignore anymore, partly becuase at some point I'm going to have to decide what's next. But I'm going to stop with all that now. It's enough no?!

So... what about the things that make it truly worthwhile? For me they have been...
  • the wonderful experiences of meeting people who work 6 days a year and earn less than $10/day to support their family, yet still welcome you into their home and share their food, or others that invite you to spend a week living in their house and sharing their lives
Stewart in the Bolivian jungle invited us to stay a week at his house
Invited to share beer, chatting and food (and the verandah to pitch our tent on) after being stranded near Rurre, Bolivia.
We camped in Eva's grandparents yard, and even had a delightful orange grove shower in Bolivia.
  • meeting other travellers on similar journeys who are going about it in different ways - like cycling the length of South America up 4500m passes and through the desert, or volunteering at various farms, education, construction and other aid projects
Chase, Urban, Steffan, Ziss, Carmen, Miguel, Jon, xmas orphans Dec 2011 Buenos Aires
Paulus, from Lithuania... pass conquering, cold bearing, chain smoker cyclist!
  • seeing the wonderful colours of indigenous communities who still preserve their way of life (partly for tourism, but partly to retain their cultural identity) I love the top hats worn by Bolivian altiplano women... doesn't seem to have any practical use but matches their gold or purple billowing skirts and tights
Bolivia women in their bowler hats
In the Lares Valley near Cusco... beautiful embroidered hats and colourful ponchos still worn by kids going to school
Ever enterprising... the girl without the hat is 12 years old and weaves before and after school to help support her family. THe little boy is wearing the traditional poncho.

  • learning about practices of indigenous cultures, and the steep learning curve of aid organisations when they try to make improvements (from their eyes) 
  • becoming aware of the person you are in situations - like pushing on extra kms to find water or a safe place to sleep, not being able to sleep because it's too cold and there's ice forming INSIDE your tent on your sleeping bag, how you tell your story for the 176th time to the new traveller you meet, how you deal with feeling alone, away from your family and friends and the isolation of where you've got yourself, how you feel when you're in one fo the most amazing places you've ever been, and you want to remember it forever.
Bundling up against cold camping at 4200m. The evening before ice on sleeping episode
Taking refuge on the altiplano winds in Bolivia
Just a routine chain tightening on the lowlands in Bolivia
  • experiencing things and conquering situations that you never thought you'd be able to deal with - taking 1 step forward for every 4 steps backward in rain on slippery rocks after falling into a river because of the ferocious wind while hiking, swimming in Antarctica, getting just a little lost following pig tracks in the cloud forest, being awed watching your 70 year old parents ascend 1200m in 4 hours at 6am in the morning
Dana and I swimming in Antarctica. Yes. it was bloody freezing.
Perfect day in Torres del Paine after 4 days of rain
Cerro Piltriquitron in El Bolson, Argentina... my first view of the entire expanse of the Andes mountain range
First solo 4700m pass, 1 month after learning to ride a bike
  • challenging yourself to keep going when things are not great - reminding yourself why you got yourself there, and finding a moment to put you back on track again
Near Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. The hardest riding I've ever done.
Trailing after my parents descending into the deepest canyon of the world in the Colca, Peru

  • having the time to think, write, take pictures, draw knowing that's your main activity for the day
Being awed by the Andes yet again, this time from the other side (Chile)
  • and of course.. the beautiful landscapes, inspriring people and moments of pure happieness of being where you are at that moment.

Inpromptu tango with Kim in Buenos Aires
Enjoying finally being in the mountains 2 months after arriving in South America
Jumping with Julia at Nahuel Haupi NP near Bariloche in Argentina
Blimps in Argentina
Bit of salar yoga is good for the soul no?

Trailing after my parents descending into the deepest canyon of the world in the Colca, Peru.
Thinking back over specific memories that make me smile, the following are a start at what I hope will stay with me forever..
  • Riding out of Calama on my small 200cc bike at the head of 3 other big bikes (and big german/swiss men - Fred, Philipe and Kurt) .. about to conquer the Bolivian Altiplano and largest salt flat in the world as part of a very special family
Oh yes, my 200cc bike led this 650, 1100 and 1000cc bike out proudly!
  • The immediate comradry of meeting other bikers, swapping notes on good and bad routes, discussing mechanical issues, the joy of travelling on two wheels, and the feeling of being with people that know what it's like to travel on a bike! 
  • Travelling with my parents in Peru - trekking, camping, visiting Machu Picchu, having wonderful conversations about life
Mum in the Lares Valley near Cusco

Looking down at Machu Picchu
  • Being awed by the light, expanse and majesty of Antarctica, and being introduced by Dana to the luscious but deadly Pisco Sour on the boat in Antarctica

Dana's photo - thanks!

  • Riding out of Santiago on the back of the bike after approximately 2 hours driving experience, and then riding the bike back in, fully loaded with a passenger 2 days later after finding my 'wheels' riding gravel in a quarry in the Cajon del Maipo outside Santiago in Chile. Sure beat doing circles around city parks in Santiago!
Finding my wheels in the Cajon del Maipo.
  • Maneouvering my bike into a run down gatehouse just off Ruta 40 in Argentina and being treated to a beautiful sunset (one of those moments to put things back into perspective and on back on track)
Riding 20kms of muddy road only dropping the bike once, after the 4 drops and 4 hours of travel on the way in. Northern Argentina (Baritu National Park)
  • Being surprised by the natural formations of the Lago Queni hotsprings in Patagonia with Max.. natural pools in a cascading river, then lathering up in mud to have some spa treatment
  • Hiking the full circuit of Torres del Paine in 5 days instead of the normal 9 - for this I have to thank Rick and Shai

  • Seeing the length of the Andes mountain range stretch out before me from Cerro Piltriquitron in El Bolson 
  • Going for dusk runs and morning meditations in the Eco Yoga Park near Buenos Aires.
Remolacha = Beetroot - one of my first words learnt in South America
  • Camping on the floor of a tourist restaurant in isolated southwest Bolivia near the Arbole del Piedra (Rock Tree), and being greeted in the morning by loads tourists bundling out of 4WDs to have their breakfast
  • Having the hot spring next to the restaurant to ourselves after a week of really hard riding and not so hot showers
At the Arbole de Piedra, Bolivia
  • The hot shower in Tarija bolivia after 1 week of bathing in rivers 
  • Being culinaryly creative with Yas and Matt in our hostel kitchen in Santiago, then going for hike with fig and goats cheese tart as a snack!

Easter egg hunting ... 5.45am:)
I'm going to stop now... i'm getting all nostalgic and want to do bits of it again! But the journey continues... I'm now in Arequipa in southern Peru, but I'm about to fly fly fly away.. northwards for a European Xmas. (what!!!) I'm going to Vienna (with a lil side trip to London) to spend xmas with Philipe and his family and friends, and then we will head back via New Orleans (to eat eat eat which I've been dreaming about for a very long time), a 10 day silent (now, don't laugh, i'll see how I go!) meditation seminar in Dallas, and for me a very anticipated reunion with my cousin Lisi. Then its back to Lima first, then down to Arica in Northern Chile where we've left our bikes (Peruvian visa reasons) and back on the road, 2 up on the sidecar, up to Ecuador, Colombia and then who knows?!

My travel is still evolutionary, it's still chasing serendipity... and we will see where the next year takes us all!
Thanks for keeping me company and inspring me to keep on going;)
Lots of love

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

unfolding a day in Cusco

Cusco is Peru's most touristed town... you can't walk more than 2 metres in the centre of town without bumping into a beanie wearing, rainjacket toting, hiking booted tourist, or neither can you escape from a barrage of local women in indigenous dress leading around munching llamas or alpacas wanting you to buy their photo. But it's definitely a town of charms ... twisty cobblestone streets, plethora of great restaurants, people going about their daily business, a wonderful history including being the centre of the Inca world and now, a large agricultural hub.

This post is a little late in coming, but after spending close to a month there, I thought it might be different to peek into how I saw a day unfold in Cusco... it seemed to go like this:

first... the pre 6am rush.. 
the minivans trundling bleary eyed tourists to their treks and crammed machu pacchu visit. the town still waking up, blue before sunrise light breaking through the darkness of night and golden streetlights
then, from 6am to 8am.. 
locals start going about their day... heading to catch a smoke billowing, affixiating collectivo (shared taxi) to work, old ladies from the campesino (country) carring a towering mound of chamoile flowers and fruit and veggies slung in a colour blanket on their back, reading the morning paper while getting shoe shines, people crowding around the market to slurp up a morning soup of vegetables and floating of questionable meat item.

Shoe shine booths set up near the central market and train station
Oddly every morning police will pile out of vans and stand in front of the University cathedral entrance... supposedly guarding against protest
The other more local central market next to the more touristic central market. Confusing!

8am market activity buying fish. Luckily it's on the shady side of the street.

10am ..
now the tourists start falling out of their hostels with full stomachs of bread, jam and coca tea mate. the standard hostal breakfast. the wooden doors of tourist shops start to open up and become adorned by trashy t-shirts, alpaca beanies and chompas (jumpers), art pieces and more things to pad out the backpacks. the ladies leading alpacas and colourfully dressed children start marching out their well worn routes past the most visited sights like the 12 sided inca stone, cathedral, restaurants, san blas plaza and museums.
7am . A very touristic street BEFORE the shops open up
The famed inca wall where the 12 sided inca stone rests. Usually a group of children or tour guides offering their services to point the stone out of course for a small tip.
San Blas market on a Fri night/Sat... a beautiful square with afternoon musical and dance performances 

almuerzos (set lunches) start getting munched down, they range from 2.50 Soles (1USD) to 22 Soles (8USD) often consisting of quinoa soup, a segundo (main) of pollo o carne (chicken or meat), a small postre (dessert) and refresco (a fruit based cordial drink). sometimes the tourists dare to enter a local establishment or eat at the bustling markets, or otherwise they succumb to the comforts of a western run cafe or restaurant where they can enjoy familiar flavours and service.
Juice stands (the best part of the market) where for 4 Soles (USD1.50) you get 2 glasses of fresh juice or smoothies
Cusco Plaza de Armas at lunchtime. It really is gorgeous.
NOT a set lunch... but rather AWESOME burger... about 12 Soles (4.50USD)

early afternoon.. 
tourist concentration really is at its peak; the outfitted tourists poking through various artesanal gifts to take home, country centric groups being led around by local guides, intercepting and sometimes succumbing to the offer of mules to visit Saskaywaman (nicknamed Sexy Woman), an Inca ruin on the hill about Cusco, visiting museums and other sights like the Santa Domingo convent and wandering around looking for supplies for upcoming treks. Around this time you often spot the very tired looking tourist still coming in and out of the plethora of tourist agencies to find their unique machu picchu experience after arriving at 6am from Arequipa or Puno.
Wandering the streets of San Blas - this is just outside our hostel where we stayed for 20 Soles (7.50USD) per person in a private room 
The not so picturesque side of Cusco... up above San Blas where the houses peter out to Eucalyptus forest.. and the local rubbish dump. You wonder in the wet season whether all this ends up in the main plaza??

after an early evening lull when the tourists are back in their hostel lazing about or catching up on emails and uploading their photos, the lowering evening light starts to bring people out to begin their cusco night. shops, espeically those for the tourists (like gear shops, tour agencies) are open till 10pm often, so last minute shopping for the following day's booked trek is sometimes done on the way out to dinner. around 7pm the locals start finishing up work, jumping back onto collectivos and buses to head back to their homes. outside of the touristy centre, life continues and shop lights come on, but in the centre people start sitting around the beautiful plaza de armes (plaza of arms.. pretty much every town has this as their centre plaza, a wonderful design as it brings a focal point to any sized town) looking at the colourful fountain.

San Blas streets after coming back from Halloween party at 2am.. just imagine taxis going 2 ways trying to fit in these streets.
The Plaza de Armas at night

As the night deepens, some of the tourists find their way to the regular tourist bars, as do the locals aspring to hook up with tourists. sometimes you catch some music being performed on the street, or see a group of teenagers practicing dance moves in the plaza outside the SONAT customs office and the pretty lights of cusco light up dark cobblestone alleyways and you can see the definite boundary of where electicity reaches up the hillside. The empy twisty streets of san blas are beautiful at this time... with the warm glow of street lamps throwing shadows, and quechua street names adding to the ambience.

Is this every day?? Well the thing about South America in general is that because people work 6 days a week, Sundays really is a rest and family day so in addition to seeing families out for lunch, or gathered around the table behind a still open shopfront, often on a Sunday you would see parties/ferias for christenings, muscial concerts, and without fail, a flag raising with marching representatves of the 4 differetn types of police, military and other services in the main square.

Celebration in the forecourt of a school... 
Part of a parade on a Sunday
Al the town's dignitaries and armed forces ready for the raising of the flag and parades on a Sunday morning.

Many foreigners come to Cusco with the intention of staying a couple of weeks, and end up staying for a couple of months... it's got that odd combination of familiar comforts, services and foods as well as being a large provincial centre for agriculture and regular life. And of course being in an incredibly beautiful and culturallly rich part of the country. I see the appeal, not sure how long I myself could survive there... but my month was defintiely enough.