Thursday, 20 December 2007

The dream is drum

La Paz has stolen my heart and my breath away in one fell swoop and although I wrote that the last blog entry was my last one, it wouldn't be right to leave it without some comment on this incredible city.

When I arrived in South America I was more lost than I have ever been in my life, and I think partly because I didn't take to Quito straight away. But La Paz encompasses everything I had ever dreamed of when I thought of South America and more. The streets are alive with an energy I have felt absent from many places, and everywhere your eyes focus there is something else of interest and something to tell you more secrets about Bolivian culture. Vendors sit at their stalls in bright coloured clothing, selling every type of food and drink and all kinds of random nicknacks and useful bits and pieces. As the exchange rate is so crazy, the cost of everything is ridiculously low, as low as it was in Turkey ten years ago, and often when you think you have just spent hundreds of pounds it turns out you have spent the equivalent of three pounds or less. Needless to remark, I have found myself a leather jacket to replace the stolen one, which I will be picking up tomorrow and that has put a smile on my face.

The people here are lovely, except the usual bunch of men who think fit to make kissing noises at me and the kind of noises you make when you are calling your cat in for its dinner (honestly, this happened to me even when I was in a goddarn cathedral). Today I asked a young indigenous lady (most of La Paz's population is indigenous) for directions and we ended up chatting for a while, just asking each other's names and so on but it was a good moment and one that would not take place in Quito or Lima, as far as I have experienced. I totally indulged in my non-tour freedom today and detached myself from my friends to just wander about and talk to the locals and taste things from the street stalls - such a perfect day. Feeling obliged to do something 'cultural'I went into the Museo de Arte Nationale, which was nothing special except for the building it sits in, which is an old palace of some sort. But the best thing you can do in La Paz is just walk around and soak up the atmosphere and I intend to do exactly the same with my day tomorrow, which happens to be my last day in South America for the time being.

STA have struck again and I officially have nowhere to sleep tomorrow night as they failed to sort that out for me, but luckily I have met some great people on this tour and will not be left without a roof over my head. It is all quite sad now, saying goodbyes again, but there is no doubt in my mind that I will be visiting Australia somewhere in the near future as I have met so many bloody Ozzies lately, it would be rude not to.

So, here goes for my real last words - I will miss South America dearly, with its diversity and its openess and for all its faults and all its good points. Its beautiful landscapes, its atrocious panpipes and reggaeton music, its shouting street vendors, its dirtiness and its friendliness and its strangeness and its poverty and its humbleness, its aggravating machismo culture, its beautiful almuerzos and its fresh fresh fruit, its 'special price for you' and its death-trip buses - I will truly miss it all. When I was sitting in that cathedral today I was contemplating my life the past few months and leaving it all behind and I felt an intense sadness and a complete peacefulness at the same time - so odd to think that in a few days I will be sitting in a very different church on the other side of the world. But here's to England and I can smell the turkey already and see the garish baubles twinkling on the Christmas tree, and despite the fact I have been invited to Buenos Aires for the festive season, I can honestly say I am happy to save that for another time and I wouldn't swap my England and its good plumbing system for the world.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Incas, deadly snakes and one big lake

So here I am now in Puno, a slightly drab and uneventful city on the shore of Lake Titicaca and the perfect place to catch up on my rather neglected blog.

I have seen an incredible number of incredible places in the past fortnight and I have had a lot of laughs with the group I have been travelling with, although I would still like to return to Peru and spend more time contemplating the locations we have rushed through.

The most anticipated part of this trip was the Inca Trail and it didn´t fail to disappoint me. The famous trek comprises four days of strenuous, intense walking and anyone who tries to tell you it isn´t hard is lying through their teeth! Aside from its length, however, the hike was no harder than some of the others I have undertaken in the past three months and it was well worth every aching muscle for the fabulous scenery we were rewarded with. Our guide, Jeremy, had good enough English to understand our senses of humour and the porters - all local indigenous men - were amazing people, so there was a great vibe and as a group we really bonded and helped each other to retain morale in the difficult times. The weather stayed dry and sunny, so I am a lot less pasty than usual (!) and it made the camping element a lot easier. I have never seen such human strength as that of the tiny porters who scuttled past us up the high stone steps for miles and miles (around 35km in total) carrying our duffle bags and tents etc on their shoulders - which made me feel a bit uncomfortable to tell the truth, especially as GAP appear not to pay them enough to live on (which we compensated for with good tips), but by South American standards they earn a semi-decent wage. The hardest part of the hike was the second day, which saw us climb the endless upward steepness of the Dead Woman´s Pass, and it is as usual the altitude that makes exercise so much more effort. Some of the group were still suffering from altitude sickness, a horrible breathless thing, but they managed to pull it off and we were a speedy group of hikers, often reaching our destinations over an hour before schedule. The trail was by no means over-run by tourists, as I had been led to believe, and if you set off mega early each day as we did, you can avoid the other tourists altogether. As my pace is neither the fastest nor the slowest, I found myself completely and contentedly alone at times and it is a truly humbling experience to find yourself looking down upon various Inca ruins against a glorious backdrop of mountains and cloudforest. The day we finally arrived at Machu Picchu I was quite exhausted and I think the half-asleep trancelike feeling only adds to the mystique of that first glimpse of the lost city appearing from behind an eerie mist. Unfortunately when we first arrived at the Sun Gate the mist was a little too thick and it was only when we started to descend down the steps to the site that the city appeared in all its glory - but in a way that only increased the appreciation. We spent some hours exploring Machu Picchu and listening to Jeremy´s information, but my concentration was as low as my energy levels and I was ready to sleep for days so I was actually glad when the time came to leave and eat lunch in the ugly tourist town of Aguas Calientes and reflect on the over-awing memory of the last four days.

No sooner had we reshuffled our backpacks back in beautiful Cusco and grabbed some quick showers (no time for laundry - yuk) and it was time to leave for the jungle, which I had managed to arrange to tag along with by booking directly through the lodge and by booking a flight with LAN Peru. Sailing in a canoe from Puerto Maldonado to the Cayman Lodge some three hours upstream, I caught my first glimpse of the Amazon and was struck dumb for some time by the power of its beauty and its strangeness to me. It is quite a feeling, to suddenly find yourself surrounded by murky brown water and tall trees and peculiar animal noises screeching into the silence around you, in the full knowledge that you are far far from civilisation and ´normality´. On the first night was took a night walk and were disappointed by the lack of animal activity, bar a few pretty fireflies and birds, but the next morning we were confronted by a Bushmaster - apparently the most deadly snake to be found in South America, which caused some alarm - leaping out on to the path ahead. Our guide for the jungle, Johnny, and his friend decided to kill the snake in front of us, which again raised some questions in my mind about responsible tourism, but selfishly I value my life too much to really condone their behaviour. Again a lot of hiking was involved in the excursion, and as it had rained in the night we ended up wading through several deep swamps, fully clothed, and heaven knows what was under that murky water but here I am to tell the tale with just a few mozzy bites and a scratch or two. In the evenings we were served typical delicious-but-simple Peruvian food and at one point the young jungle guys gave us an impromptu (and much needed) salsa lesson. I also spent some hours swinging in a hammock (before going out in a boat to find some baby caymans - part of the crocodile family - with their red eyes gleaming through the darkness) but the one thing that hampers my liking of jungle life definitively is the terrible humidity that consumes your energy and makes you feel grubby all the time. Needless to say, my journey into the jungle was one of the most exciting and unforgettable events of my life but I would be quite happy to never return to its odd sweatiness and undeniable danger.

We returned to Cusco once again before travelling by bus here, and that city has become quite a favourite for me. Once the centre of the Inca Empire, the city is unbelievably stunning and has a very safe and lively vibe to it, although it can get extremely irritating to have so many vendors shoving tack in your face every five minutes. But despite the fact that tourism has taken control, there is still something about Cusco that would make me happy to return there again and again. On Saturday night we went out on the town once again to dance the night away and our aching heads told the sorry tale the next morning at 6am when we were forced on to a day-long bus ride heading to Puno, complete with annoying, figure-quoting guide and plenty of stop-offs at yet more Inca sites - que peine! All Inca-ed out, we finally arrived here in Puno and the last couple of days have truly made my trip to South America complete.

The islands of Lake Titicaca are the kind of places that stick in your mind and your heart forever. I hadn´t even glanced twice at that part of the itinerary but visiting Isla Amantani yesterday and staying with a modest local family just made me wake up to Peru and see it for the wonderful place that it is. Before Amantani we spent time walking on Isla Taquile, where the locals all work as a sort of co-operative, alternating the opening days of their restaurants and sharing the profits of their handicrafts. The lake stretches out alongside like a calm blue oceanline and everything about it is peaceful - there is no crime and no need for police or lawyers. The men wear different types of the long, handmade hat depending on their marital and official status and the women choose their partners in life based on the quality of the hat the man has made. On Amatani, again there is no crime and no domestic violence (supposedly) and only the women wear the traditional dress, which includes big pom poms wrapped around stones for the single women to fight off any unwanted male attention! At night we each ate in the kitchen of our host family and were helped into our own costumes of this sort for the evening´s party, including two skirts worn on top of one another, which were very feminine but ageless at the same time and quite heavy to dance in. The principles of the island are ´don´t lie, don´t steal and don´t be lazy´, as on Taquile, and the only downfall of the community seems to be that many of the men have to leave to find work and only return at weekends, or sometimes not at all. It seems that here tourism is very controlled but very effective and is actually a positive influence on the people, as they have retained their traditions but benefit financially from the groups that flock there to get an insight into the culture. I have been irritated by the heavy tourism aspect of Peru and our guilty obligation to buy things at every corner, but in moderation and in controlled circumstances I can see how tourism is needed by a society in which the economy has fallen apart. At the same time, I don´t quite believe that what GAP and its contemporaries are achieving is truly responsible tourism and I worry that our presence on these people´s territory could instill the dangerous greed and the unquenchable desire that have gripped hold of Western society and will never let it go. Today we visited the floating islands of the Uros people, an ancient group of islands entirely made of reeds and soil when the Uros people fled the jungle to escape the aggressive Incas and other tribes, and it was so fascinating and so unusual. I hope that it never changes. With its reed houses that can be lifted and repositioned, and its charming, shy people, it is the most bizarre place I have ever seen and there is surely no place like it on earth.

Tomorrow we leave for the last day of this epic journey across Peru and will arrive in La Paz, Bolivia in the early evening. I cannot wait to see the reported colourfulness and vibrancy of this small, high city, but more than that I cannot wait to get home for Christmas. A big part of me is looking forward to no longer living out of a suitcase and grappling with my conscience as I flaunt my Westernness in the midst of this crazy, socially divided continent. I have learnt more here than I could ever have learnt sitting at home reading about it, and I have savoured every moment even if I can´t claim to have loved every moment. We were teaching the little girl of our host family some Christmas songs last night and it was silly and simple and beautiful. It made me feel so happy at the thought of being home for Christmas but also made me feel entirely at peace with where I am here and now and as though I am sure to return to South America one day. The connections we make with people when we are abroad are priceless and sudden and short-lived and strong and there is something in my heart which tells me I will continue to travel as long as I live, precisely to capture these fleeting feelings again.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

A busload of Ozzies and a bottle of Pisco

Yours truly is now in Arequipa, another pretty colonial town in the south of Peru, and just sitting down to reflect on the last few (very busy) days here. The coastal town I was referring to in the last post was in fact Paracas, nearby the famous Pisco, and after a boat trip to the lovely Ballestas Islands (a.k.a ´the poor man´s Galapagos´) we travelled to Nazca with a stop on the way at the Pisco factory.

Pisco is a strong spirit-like drink made from grapes and I have developed quite a taste for it, as has most of the group. Amusingly, at high altitude any alcohol goes straight to the head and as a lot of our time has been spent up in the mountains, I have been quite giddy and getting into the Christmas spirit already!

Despite not being a tour group kind of person (I feel sure this will be the last organised tour I will do) I am very impressed with GAP Adventures and think that they do what they do very well. I am basking in the luxury of the hotels we have been staying in - they are probably only two star places but compared to what I am used to they are super-luxurious, private bathrooms and everything! I am seeing a hell of a lot of southern Peru in a short amount of time and the people I am travelling with (a bunch of Ozzies and one drunken Finnish man, no less!) are good fun even if most of them have very different perspectives and expectations to myself.

At Nazca of course we flew over the mysterious lines - which were created by the Nazca people somewhere between 200BC and AD700 for possibly astronomical or possibly religious reasons, we don´t yet know - in a small plane, and when we landed back down I felt quite emotional (for a change!) partly because the experience was so strange and amazing, and partly because I never thought I would be able to do it due to a lifelong fear of heights, which seems to now have been faced head on much to my surprise. We also visited some Nazca tombs, which are remarkably intact complete with their skeletons and made me think deeply about death and the eerie empty shells it leaves behind.

We have just finished a two-day visit to the Colca Canyon area, which is astoundingly beautiful and a good change from the miles of barren land and desert that I have been surprised to see in Peru, and now are back in Arequipa for the night before taking a flight to Cuzco tomorrow in preparation for the much-anticipated Inca Trail! This pretty city also has much to offer, and I would like more time to potter through its streets and squares, but in order to see everything we do have time restraints. The other afternoon we visited the Monasteria Santa Catalina, an old nunnery which looks and smells as it would have done many moons ago when the nuns were still praying there, and unlike most museums which bore me to tears after ten minutes, every second there was fascinating and the guide was a fountain of interesting knowledge.

In fact all of our guides so far have been excellent, and I feel as though I am learning a lot more about Peru´s history than I did about Ecuador´s, even though I get the distinct impression that I am seeing it all through a tourist´s eyes. It took me a while to adjust to the massive difference in the way I am travelling here and the way I was in Ecuador, but overall I think it is good for me to experience South America in both ways. When our GAP guide, José, isn´t around, I am the unofficial translator for the group and I am still managing to use my Spanish quite frequently; I have definitely picked up more of the language than I thought.

The food here is absolutely incredible and, dare I say it, ten times tastier than Ecuador´s rice ´n meat staple meal! The variety is exceptional and I am especially enjoying the alpaca meat (alpacas are in the same family as llamas and just as doe-eyed and cute, so I do feel a twinge of guilt but not enough to stop me tucking in!). People just keep on feeding us these massive buffets and naturally I feel obliged to try everything, so mum you will be pleased to hear I am putting all that weight back on now in time for the festive season! The best meal was at a family restaurant in Nazca before we took the night bus to Arequipa (also a luxurious experience compared to previous night buses!) and we ate a traditional Peruvian meal that had been cooked in the ground and which I had to bless with Chicha (a fruity, alcoholic concoction) and coca leaves while thanking the god Mamayakkta (very bizarre indeed, but a fun insight into Peruvian culture!).

Apart from the drier landscape, Peru is similar to Ecuador in many ways too and I can see myself growing to love it equally, if only I had more time to explore. The people are defiantly proud, and keen to prove to me that it is better than Ecuador, but I don´t think they can ever succeed! However, every day is exciting and new for me, and I intend to make the most of the next fortnight - I have managed to get a flight to the jungle to join the others there and there is the Inca Trail to look forward to next week so I have plenty to keep me interested and occupied, much of which will be less passive than the things I have done this week.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Climbing Pichincha....and the disappearance of the red jacket

My last few days in Quito were somewhat of a whirlwind and now I am feeling all out of sync and surprised to find myself with a new set of people again, and in Peru. I am in a little town on the coast about three hours from Lima, but I forget that name - that is the problem with organised tours I suppose! I haven´t yet decided whether this was the best decision, but the guide does seem to know a lot and after the traumatic time I had on the way here, it is actually quite nice to have stuff organised for me and not to have to think straight.

Last Sunday I climbed Pichincha, the volcano just outside of Quito, despite my promise to myself that I would rest up in preparation for the busy week ahead! It was such an immense achievement, and the altitude makes you feel so light-headed that I had a whale of a time up there (it seriously makes you feel drunk!); it was worth all the strange shortness of breath and effort to reach the summit, even when I had to be practically carried back down due to my nuisance runner´s knee issues! Apparently we had taken the difficult route (typical) and ended up scrambling up some rather dangerous rocks to get to the very top, but we made it!

I took part in a very intense travel writing course with Viva this week, which was truly wonderful and I know all the tricks of the trade now!! But seriously, travel writing (at least for guidebooks) is so much more fast-paced and stressful than I had realised. I am still pretty keen to get into it though, and will probably return to South America at some point in the near future and teach English while I submit work and give it a proper go. Anyhow, on Thursday we went on a sort of field trip to Cotacachi, which is near the market town of Otavalo, and I bought a beautiful red leather jacket very specific to the area and so incredibly cheap considering the high quality. The jacket got stolen at the airport by some dodgy Austrian geezer who had been droning on at me about how his credit card had been stolen (god he was boring!) and that he needed ´something to sell´(alarm bells should´ve rung!) and I just didn´t pay enough attention, hence my beautiful jacket is gone and I was just devastated - I don´t know if it was the theft and the feeling victimised, or purely the fact that I had said goodbye to everyone in Quito and was completely alone again, but I sat and sobbed into my hands for two hours straight - what a sight!

It is true to say that bonds form quicker when you are living away from home, and I really felt so close to my friends here and felt as though I had known them for years. On Thursday night I went out with all of them (feeling good in my red jacket - the only nice piece of clothing I had, boohoo!) to a fantastic jazz bar-restaurant called El Pobre Diablo and it was the perfect last evening. The food was superb and afterwards Hannah, Erin, Carlos, Vince and I stayed for the live band, which was wonderful and played hits like Stevie Wonder´s Superstitious. Although I was exhausted from the week´s assingments and lectures, I was transfixed by it all and by the intense happiness I was feeling, and the saddest thing was that I knew as soon as we left the bar my time in Quito was officially over.

However, I am making a conscious effort to snap out of the nostalgia and enjoy the moment again; unfortunately STA travel have messed up yet again, and it looks as though I have been kindly opted out of the jungle trip part of the tour (unbelievable!) so I am quite furious with them but determined to go whatever happens, even if I have to arrange my own tour at Cuzco - this is one thing that goes against these tour operators; I just feel as though everything is out of my control!

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Parlez-vous Spancais?

Only eight days left for me in Ecuador, which actually makes me feel incredibly sad, but something tells me that I might come back one day, if not here then to live elsewhere on this amazing continent.

And Peru! I can´t wait to see that beautiful country - I am expecting Machu Picchu to be heaving with loud-mouthed tourists, but it will be wonderful to see all the same. In a way I regret booking an organised tour, because I so value my independence and I now know how easy it is to meet other travellers here - you are never really alone for long. But either way, I will be in Peru and that is what matters, and once I am there I don´t think I will mind missing the Fiestas de Quito which also take place that week.

It is funny how places become a part of you, once you have memories and attachments there, and I never expected Quito to become a part of me but somehow it has crept under my skin and will always be there in one way or another.

So much for my quiet weekend last week - I ended up going back to Mindo and its devastatingly lovely cloud forest with Emily, Vincent, Pascal and Julia (some of whom I live with and some of whom are friends of those I live with). We hiked up to the waterfalls, which was hot and sticky and hard work but fun - and reaching those waterfalls is beyond rewarding; I think that spot is one of my favourite places in Ecuador, it is so peaceful and completely calming.

That night I went for a insanely yummy hot chocolate at the Colombian chocolate shop in Plaza Foch, before heading down to Guapulo to meet Hannah, Ada and Graham at Guapulo´s art cafe (every South American city and town has one of these and I love their bright, warm decor and their crazy mishmash of antiques and paintings).

One of my only Sundays spent in Quito was then spent climbing to the top of the basilica, which involved battling some precarious ladders up to the towers - very South American - but resulted in unmissable views of Quito´s Centro Historico (old town). It really is incredible to look at, despite the crime and corruption that lurks in its narrow streets and around its white-washed corners.

I was pondering the lack of a sense of danger that South Americans seem to have, and how they live for the moment so much more than we do, and I think it is linked to their general lack of security in life. If something happens to us in Europe we think how to solve it and how we can get help, but here there is no help and there are no solutions - there is no dole system, no welfare, nothing. It is such a each-for-themselves society in a way and as a result people just seem less cautious. In just two months here I have felt myself adapting to the mentality slightly, and I trust more in other people and in fate to deliver me safely from potential harm - but I am still European through and through, and it never ceases to shock me how nonchalant people can be. In South America people are more free from convention than I am and yet completely trapped in the economic and social state of their society with everything they do.

Anyway, I have finally settled here just as it is nearly time to go, and I have loved living in the apartment with my flatmates and actually speaking a lot of Spanish with them. At some recent point, it suddenly clicked, and although I still sometimes have issues trying to understand the locals, I can have a decent conversation with people with whom I really connect. Worryingly, I am forgetting French as rapidly as I am learning Spanish and sometimes (especially with my French housemate) I lapse into a strange hybrid of the two - but maybe this is just a natural stage of language learning, who knows. I think perhaps it is a positive thing and shows that Spanish is getting into my consciousness at last.

In a twist of fate, I met someone at a one-off yoga class I went to on Monday who knew about a travel writing course that is being run by Viva Travel Guides in Quito next week. So naturally I applied, which has meant a very busy week for me finishing off everything for the newspaper so that I can concentrate just on that for my last week here. I am seriously considering really trying to get into something I want to do now, so hopefully I may even make contacts and gain some inside info on how to break in to the industry!

This weekend I was hoping to get to the jungle but it is a bit far to go just for a day and I need to be back on Sunday night for drinks with the travel writers. So as a compromise in the mañana I am heading to Papallacta, which is on the edge of the Northern Oriente (jungle country) and has good hiking possibilities and hot springs - perfecto for a chilled weekend.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

From mountains to coast and back again

Photographs aren´t the same as moments in time, and the best moments in time tend to be those that are not captured on camera at all. Still, if you peruse my photos from the past week you will be struck by the same thing that I was most struck by – that every city, town and village in Ecuador that I have visited is utterly different from the next and that those differences are remarkable.

From the colonial style city of Guaranda to the colourful indigenous community of Simiatug, from the garish gawkiness of Guayaquil to the friendly coastal pueblos of Montañita and Puerto Lopez, I feel as though I have passed through a whole world´s variety of places within the bounds of a relatively small country. We travelled down through the Andes, a stunning route I will never fail to gasp at, and later in the week across the banana plantations with their houses on stilts and then up to the lovely, warm, vibrant coast.

In Simiatug, there was a kind of mutual staring game going on, with the locals providing endless fascination for me going about their simple daily lives in their traditional dress and me for them with my strange western clothing and ghostly white complexion (although by my standards I am now quite tanned!!).

We arrived early in the day after getting up at 5am to catch the market traders´ bus from Ambato, and by 8am the place was all a-bustle with people selling livestock, vegetables and welly boots amongst other stuff. We talked to the craftswomen at a local fundacion (kind of a not-for-profit organisation – Ecuador is full of them) who hand-weave bags, children´s clothes, purses, toys and so on for a fair wage. This was the beginning of a week of long-winded interviews in Spanish which must be helping me to develop my language skills but can be pretty exhausting too.

It was also the beginning of a week full of cramped bus rides as varied as the places we visited; after one particularly hair-raising journey – which included a three-point turn hanging off the edge of a cliff – I got up from my seat and my knees were completely filthy from the back of the seat in front. Meanwhile, on a later route from Guayaquil to Montañita we were given the luxury of leg room and air conditioning on a sparkling clean vehicle; the kind of thing I have really learnt not to take for granted!

Guaranda, a city that is not actually colonial but rebuilt in the Spanish style still popular at the time, was a fascinating place in a very different way to Simiatug. Its main square was apparently the only one to have been designed by Guayasamin, a well-established painter and disciple of Fidel Castro, and this is evident from the way the park´s centrepiece is curved into a socialist symbol. We also were taken by one of Martijn´s many contacts to a gorgeous old colonial hospital building which is now used for a multitude of purposes including music rehearsal rooms and an archaeological museum, and to the university which I was excited to see had a student radio programme which was being recorded right in front of us.

Later in the week our task was to review the nightlife in Guayaquil, Ecuador´s biggest and most ridiculed city. The industrial, badly designed waterfront, the Malecon, made me giggle and reminded me ever so slightly of Liverpool or of Brest, although it is far more hideous to look at than the former and a bit less hideous than the latter. Like the down-trodden and stereotyped cities of Europe that I so love, Guayaquil has plenty of quirky character and more than its fair share of friendly people. It also has one quite attractive area, Las Peñas, which we spent an afternoon strolling through, and my god it was hot and humid – I could hardly believe it was November and nearly fainted from the strength of the sun, but a traditional two-course almuerzo (Ecuadorian lunch) in what appeared to be a family´s living room saved me, and we continued up to the top of the 300 steps to see the panoramic view of that odd and delightful city. The nightlife in the “Zona Rosa” was predictably amusing, with the usual selection of chancers grinding up to us and trying their Latino luck, and the choice of bars was a hell of a lot more varied than that on offer in Quito´s gringo-targeted, seedy Mariscal.

With Guayaquil been and done, we headed to the south coast (actually in the west) on Saturday morning to chill and check out the work of the fundaciones there. Montañita is a surfer´s paradise with as many hippies living there as locals and a beautiful beach stretching out for miles. The town was full of cocktail and smoothie bars (I could never tire of their many concoctions) and shops selling pretty things which I had to resist buying as my backpack is already bulging and I have to get to Peru and Bolivia with it yet. The following day we were met by a local lady who took us via trucks and buses to the outlying communities La Entrada, San José and Dos Mangas, so that we could see the work of jewellery makers and other craftspeople in the region. Once again, I was touched by the simplicity and modesty of these people and of their eagerness to help us out however they can. I only hope that our articles result in mutual help for them, and increased interest in their products without contributing to attracting too much tourism as to ruin their tranquil existence. Back in the more garish Montañita I also suppressed smiles as our hosts at the hostel wittered at us through huge stoned eyes and I wondered at their life; smoking themselves senseless day in, day out in a beach town and greeting travellers as they pass through; what a life!

Our plans to head to Puerto Lopez, a fishing village north of Montañita for our last evening, were almost scuppered as we missed the last bus, but we decided to take an expensive taxi costing us each $5 (a bus would be $1 per hour) and it was well worth it in my opinion. I have never been a morning person but in Ecuador I have never slept beyond 8am (and these people seem to think 6am is a reasonable hour to start meeting up!) and so I managed to fulfil my plans to get up at a decent time and watch the fishermen bringing in their catch and selling it in the market tent on the beach. Although many independent travellers have caught wind of Puerto Lopez and take time to visit, the village really retains its genuine feel and the local people still seem pleased to have us in their vicinity. I ate some of the best food I have ever tasted during our time along the coast (fresh fish twice a day; heaven!) although I can´t help but notice that different foods in Ecuador´s different regions is basically a variation on a theme – rice, beans or potatoes, fried platano and fish or meat, always always with a blob of aji spicy sauce – but still quite a novelty to me so I love it.

The bus back up to Quito was nothing short of a nightmare, as we left at 7pm and travelled for almost 12 hours overnight, plus the drivers were absolute maniacs and saw fit to race around corners, often racing against other buses on narrow pot-holed streets. At one point I made the mistake of opening my eyes and was faced with a typical Andean sheer-drop view as the bus continued to speed along. I thought that I would die on that bus, and was starting to mourn my unborn masterpiece writings (!) and the loves I have not yet loved, places I have not yet seen etc etc. So the sight of Quito was for once a welcome one to me yesterday morning and I slept off my exhaustion for the best part of the day.

Now I have a fair few articles to write, based on all those visits and interviews last week, and I am hoping to spend the next couple of weeks catching up with people in drizzly Quito and finishing off my work, as well as learning some salsa if I ever get round to it. I would like to fit in a trip to the jungle, but that depends on my budget and on time. Luis is still under the illusion that he is taking me paragliding, but I am not giving in to the peer pressure; I think I will just watch him and his friends jump instead!

My new flatmates are great and the apartment is really cosy and even has hot water sometimes (a luxury in Quito!). We are a mix of nationalities, and all can speak fluent French or English, but I am not giving in to the temptation and am struggling along in español as much as possible. In any case there are so many places that I have now heard about in South America that I have to visit, so I plan to return here one day for longer than three months – I was tempted to just not go home when I planned to this time, but unfortunately my purse is almost empty already and I also want to be in Manchester for Christmas because I think it would be pretty miserable being away from everyone at that time.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Ecuador tiene mi corazon

Hola my friends, I haven´t disappeared off the planet, but have just been super-busy the past couple of weeks – finally there is lots of writing to do, plus I have been gallavanting a bit and exploring this gorgeous country a bit more.

Last week I was mainly working in Quito and meeting up with friends here, but at the end of the week I went to Mindo and its cloudforest, the Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo, with Hannah and Martijn from the newspaper to interview a guy who does a lot of conservation work there. Mindo is just west of Quito and the climate is a bit warmer (hallelujah); it is a beautiful spot with “excellent bird-watching opportunities” although I kind of skipped that part of it and just soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed being out in the countryside and quite literally up in the clouds once again.

We stayed in a house made entirely of bamboo, eating from plates also made from some kind of sustainable material and using a compost toilet – quite an experience! Milton – the guy who owns the house and runs the environmental projects- had so much to tell, and the story of how Mindo went from being a town where people chopped wood for a living to a hub of sustainable tourism is pretty fascinating, especially considering this has only happened in the past 20 years.

Another lad from Holland called Martin was staying there for a month or so as a volunteer carpenter-conservationist and he and Hannah and I took advantage of the local sport, called “tubing”, which involves sitting on a bunch of tied-together tires and racing down a fast-flowing river – so much fun. We got completely soaked but it was well worth it and I was laughing all day after that. The other two also took a ride on the canopy, across a steep-dropping valley, but I chickened out of that one – however, I have to admit it looked quite safe so maybe next time?!

Last Friday evening when we got back from Mindo, after another sleepy bus journey, Hannah and I went across to Guapulo, the arty district of Quito. We were supposedly there to review the pretty wine bars and live folklorica scene, but we used the opportunity to get a little bit tipsy and chat to the locals, who were surprisingly much friendlier than most of the Quiteños I have met. Two of the guys, Luis and Santiago, then invited us to a house party the next night where there were also many chatty individuals and artsy types – so a great evening was had, and of course the party never actually ended so I ended up still being there in the early hours, stranded at the bottom of a hill north of the Mariscal and knowing full well that my flight to the Galapagos islands left in a few hours´ time and that my backpack was at Hannah´s at the other end of town.

I caught it though, a little worse for wear, and what followed was possibly the most beautiful, breath-taking week of my life. The Galapagos is everything everyone says about it, and more, and I loved seeing all these animals so close up – they are so unafraid of the human impostors and the sea lions just come bounding up to you like little puppies – they are adorable.

When I first saw our boat – a small, wobbly thing crammed full of tiny cabins – I wasn´t sure I could cope with living on it for an entire week, but after the first couple of nights of seasickness I adapted to the scary ocean crossings and the overpowering smell of diesel (which is fast becoming my most memorable Ecuador smell!) and just really absorbed myself into the moment and let myself go.

I was really lucky with the group of people I travelled with, and we bonded well over the three meals a day around a crowded table (in fact, the food was delicious and I ate enough food to last me a month) and during the visits to the incredible islands.

Our “English speaking guide”, Franklin, didn´t really speak much English, but that only added to the hilarity of it all; I think for a while I will wake up with the echoes of “dry landing, tennis shoes please!” ringing in my ears. He also referred to mangroves as ´mangolas´ and didn´t seem to know much at all about the wildlife – either that or his translations just didn´t make sense. However, despite all this, I was just completely content to be there and there were moments when I felt like the luckiest person on earth to have the privilege.

Following my recent dry-land adventures, I was persuaded by the crew to try out snorkelling and was blown away by being able to actually see under water – it was truly awe-inspiring, and especially because of the sheer numbers of tropical fish species there, not to mention the penguins, sea lions, star fish, turtles and sharks. I had failed to realise that all the creatures in the Galapagos are harmless to human beings and so when one of our group shouted “shark!”, I reacted as most people would under normal circumstances and dropped my mask, swallowed a lot of salt water and panicked, of course missing the sight of the harmless shark altogether. All was not lost, as two days later I saw two more of the creatures, and one of the days that I decided to miss the snorkelling I also saw dolphins swimming right beside the boat, which is something I won´t forget in a hurry.

Other animals that inhabit the islands include the prehistoric-looking iguanas, blue-footed boobies (no sniggering) and giant tortoises, all of which I have caught on camera and used up two entire batteries and god knows how much memory card in the process – if you want to bore yourself to sleep, they will be on Gmail shortly but you may not be quite as enamoured as I was being there beside them. I cannot describe in any words how it felt to be on that paradise, even as a tourist and even while being ordered to get up mega-early each morning, and besides the experience of being there I formed some friendships that will hopefully continue when I return to Europe (and generate more travels!).

Finally I feel that the 20 kg of emotional baggage I carried here with me is easing and I have regained a sense of freedom and contentment that I had forgotten existed. Even Quito feels less alien to me now, and I have moved into an apartment with some other young volunteers which makes for a much more relaxed environment than the homestay. My work is satisfying to say the least and it is really interesting to talk to Ecuadorians about their various projects and to see the place in a different light to most tourists. I am hardly ever in Quito itself – the writers are all off on another trip around the country tomorrow, to the west coast and to Guayaquil – but the time that I am here doesn´t seem so daunting now and I have a feeling that when the time comes to board the plane to Peru at the end of this month, it will be with some regret for leaving Ecuador.