Around the World a Bit at a Time

Travels: Past, Present and Future

An Oasis in Perú

Posted by Leanne on November 12, 2010

It got light at about 5am and so I reluctantly awakened from my broken sleep.  A stop in Nazca to drop some passengers off woke me up totally and so from then on, I kept an eye on the side of the roads, just in case i could glimpse some of the mysterious Nazca lines.  At one point I thought I might have seen something, and I most definitely did see some people standing on top of a metal tower taking some pictures, which meant that I was close enough to them to say I had been there.  And I could look up the pictures later on Google Earth.

Finally, we arrived in Ica and I bid farewell and buen viaje to Jorge.  I didn’t really have much of a plan for my arrival, and my guide book lacked a map or any kind of detailed information about the place, so I walked in the direction of what I thought must have been the town centre, in the hope of finding some kind of tourist information, which I didn’t stumble across, but a taxi driver did seem keen to take me somewhere, so I asked him for a ride to Huacachina and within 10 minutes, he was asking me if I was planning on going to the disco that night as we drove between towering sand dunes towards the dictionary definition of an oasis: Huacachina.

Huacachina

Huacachina

He dropped me off at a cheap hotel, where I took a private room (well, I had to share it with one cockroach, but he was tidy and very quiet) and wandered off to stroll around the lake and watch sandboarders tramp arduously up the sand dunes just to spend a few seconds tumbling back down on a sandboard.  I had no desire to join in – I was back at sea level with a temperature to match, and the most I could manage after a tiring bus journey was to book a sand buggying tour which would start at 4pm and an afternoon nap.  Which I awoke from at 4pm.

Luckily the sandbuggying tour was departing from my hotel, so I didn’t have far to run to meet the rest of our group.  We all mounted a metal cage on wheels and spent a thrilling half an hour being driven up and down sand dunes on what felt like a roller coaster without rails (and therefore without restrictions on where it could go) over rippled sand and perfect dunes.

Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes

After a thrilling hour of sliding down the dunes on white boards, we headed back to Huacachina, stopping for a few photos along the way.

Dune Buggy

Dune Buggy

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Onwards

Posted by Leanne on November 11, 2010

The thing about Cusco, is that it’s a lovely place to be if you’re in a good mood, but if you’ve had too much rum to drink the night before, the constant barrage of sales people stop being charming and a good opportunity to try out some of your newly acquired Spanish, and start being bloody annoying.

I tried walking up to the big Jesus on the hill, but was stopped in my tracks after walking so far in a heavy downpour because I needed a ticket to even get near it.

Rainy reconstruction, created by standing behind an artificial waterfall and taking a photo)

Rainy reconstruction, created by standing behind an artificial waterfall and taking a photo

I wanted to find somewhere for lunch but refused to enter anywhere with pushy salesmen, which meant that I was very hungry when one final salesman won me over by making me laugh:

“Don’t go in there,” he shouted over after seeing me look at someone else’s menu.

“That place is shit – ours is much better” he said and then showed me an almost identical menu to the place he was referring to – at an identical price…!  I went in anyway, since he had been so kind as to make me smile, and it was nice.

Later that day, after my final fresh fruit juice inside a gigantic craft market where I had been trying to get rid of the final bit of my friend’s never ending £20 which he had given me to buy him some jewellry, I picked up my heavy rucksack and walked to the bus station.  I’d never heard of the bus company, and even though the photos of the bus made it look glossy and comfortable, I knew that this wasn’t a guarantee of anything.  I was pleasantly surprised to give in my fingerprint and be filmed getting onto the bus (for security reasons) to find the most comfortable bus I’d encountered so far.  I sat next to Jorge, from somewhere near Huaraz who asked me what an Oompa Loompa was when one was mentioned in the in – bus film.  Up until then, I had no idea that I could explain what an Oompa Loompa is in Spanish.

I think I would have slept like a log, had it not been for the incredibly winding roads and an incredibly whiney baby… as it was, I had some broken sleep throughout the night as the bus driver carefully navigated the switchbacks in the road, unavoidably swinging his passengers from side to side as it went.

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Cuzco Otra Vez

Posted by Leanne on November 10, 2010

The bus arrived in Cusco at about 4am and so I resigned myself to hanging around the  station for a few hours before even attempting to find somewhere to stay to avoid having to pay for a room for two nights.  But then a man with a glossy flyer offered me a private ensuite room in a hostal for 30 soles which I could go to immediately and only pay for one night, so I let him put me in a taxi and went straight there for some sleep.

I knew I was back in Peru immediately when the taxi driver told me that I was pretty and asked if I wanted to go to a disco that night.  I smiled quietly to myself before politely turning him down.

Viva el Perú

Viva el Perú

As I suspected, my ‘luxury’ accommodation was a bit stingy with the hot water and was a 20 minute, rather than the promised 10 minute walk into the centre of town, but since the walk took me past a couple of immense craft markets which I would never have found if I hadn’t been staying there, it didn’t bother me all that much.

Over a towering stack of pancakes at Jacks for breakfast, I decided to try to plan my next move – Straight to Lima? Could I face 21 hours all in one go on a bus? Nazca?  Did I really want to spend a lot of money on a flight, just so that I could see some squiggly lines, which I could see just as easily at home with the help of my laptop and Google Earth? Or Ica?  Did I have time to go there, visit Huacachina and get back to Lima in time for my flight?

After 10 minutes of wandering up and down past the brightly lit counters at the bus station, I picked a company I’d never heard of and booked a ticket to Ica from a man sitting under a neon sign who told me that the bus would be direct.  We’ll see…

I spent the rest of the day stopping to chat to anyone who was in the street, trying to find out where I could go for a dance later that evening.  Eventually, Alfredo from Paracas started talking to me as I climbed a hill and since he said he could salsa, and that he had a girlfriend, I arranged to meet him for a dance later on.  He didn’t really know salsa, and I’m not entirely convinced he had a girlfriend either, but he did know some other English tourists from his work at a local hostel, and there were a few decent salsa dancers around to dance to the intermittent salsa tracks playing in the bar, so I had a drinks and dances with the group before sneaking off early, and got in a taxi with Ciro, who told me that he was single and gave me his card, just in case I had any more taxi needs whilst I was staying in Cusco…

 

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Bye Bye Bolivia

Posted by Leanne on November 9, 2010

If yesterday made me glad that I had stayed in La Paz, today made me glad that I was leaving.

I had stumbled upon the main street whilst on the way to a pub with the rest of my cycling tour group last night, and decided to make a return trip to see what it looked like in the daylight.  As I was walking down the street, a man coughed in my face.  “Lovely” I thought and carried on, forgetting all about it until, over on the other side of the road, a man looked straight at me as I walked past and then coughed all over me.  At which point I realised that both occasions must have been deliberate, and put it together with what some of the others in my cycling tour group had told me about being shouted at in the street to “Go home Gringos, we don’t want you here.” to conclude that it was because I was a Gringa.

By this time the second man was behind me, so I threw my arm backwards and hit him, before continuing on without looking back.  Probably shouldn’t have dropped to his level like that, but it made me feel better to get my own back.

I tried to get on with the day in good spirits, finishing up some shopping in the Witches Market and making the most of the rest of my time in Bolivia, but in truth, the morning had put me in a bad mood, and not even the traffic zebras could cheer me up.  All I wanted to do was go back to Peru, where the people, in my experience, had always been friendly, and grateful for the money and tourism that us Gringos were bringing to their country, so I turned up at the bus station an hour early, and waited to leave, whilst trying to concentrate on remembering the good experiences and great people I had met in Bolivia.

Old people, looking almost as happy as me to be in La Paz

Old people, looking almost as happy as me to be in La Paz

For a while, I thought I was going to get my uneventful bus journey.  After a brilliant Bolivian sunset, we arrived at the border and picked our way through the rapidly darkening, scattered and disorganised streets of Desaguadero. There were only 9 people on the bus, so it only took 30 minutes before we’d cleared the border and arrived in Peru, where more people got on the bus.

As we got moving again, out of the corner of my sleepy eye, I saw someone get up and sit next to the man opposite me.  They began talking in hushed voices.  Then 2 more people joined the whispering, crouching in the aisle, just a few metres away from my seat.  Just before the next stop, about 6 more people gathered round the shifty looking group and started to pass their luggage forward.  The man who was originally sitting there went into the toilet, taking several large boxes in before shutting himself in, and as the bus came to a stop, all but one of the crowd which had gathered around the exit disembarked.  Behind me, I could hear a couple, who were sat alone towards the back of the bus getting cosy together, and I prepared myself for yet another surreal evening of bus travel…

A while later, the man who had stayed on the bus started walking up and down, changing seats, and his phone kept ringing.  Then, shortly before the bus stopped again, the man who was hiding in the toilet got out, and I figured that the intermittent phone calls must have been between the two of them. At the stop, they both hastily exited the bus, taking their boxes with them, and I closed my eyes again, hoping that the rest of my direct journey to Cusco would be uneventful enough to allow me at least 40 winks.  But then we arrived in Puno, and our direct bus changed into an indirect bus which everyone had to get off to find their connection to their final destination.

And then it was an uneventful journey…

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El Camino de la Muerte

Posted by Leanne on November 8, 2010

I’d booked the Death Road trip on impulse yesterday morning.  Maybe it was due to lack of sleep, or maybe it was because it was something I’d been thinking about doing for a while and also because I felt obliged to make coming back to La Paz worthwhile.

Of course I’d talked to other people about the trip and found out that I should be paying about 600 – 700Bs for a reputable company who were going to have small groups, decent bikes and a pleasing safety record, but to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered to navigate the tangled streets to visit the numerous agencies to find myself the best deal –  I’d had trouble enough getting my map the right way up when I went out for breakfast that morning and so I just wandered downstairs to the hostel travel agency and asked them to book me on the tour.  And then wondered if I should be worried because it only cost me 450Bs…

The day started well with the guides turning up to collect us on time.  It turned out that there were only 6 of us in the group, with 2 guides, and the brakes on the bikes did work, so I breathed a sigh of relief and started to look forward to the day.

The bus pulled up on the top of a mountain, next to several other buses with bikes fixed to the roof, and we donned our safety gear, I borrowed a fetching pair of goggles, because, like a wally, I’d left my sunglasses behind at the Wally match in Sucre, and we tested out the bikes at an altitude of 4700m on the only bit of flat land we would see for the whole day.

The Team

The Team

Our first task was to cycle to Death Road on some steep downhill tarmac which gave us the chance to get to know the bikes.  “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”  I thought as we whizzed down the road at the same speed as some of the cars.  I wanted to go faster, but there was a no overtaking rule, so instead, I tested out the braking muscles in my hands and restricted my speed, as the guides whizzed on past us, cycling with no hands and taking photos and videos for the souvenir CD we would get later.

Weeeeeeeeeeee!

Weeeeeeeeeeee!

We stopped outside a tunnel and Kevin, our guide explained that we would cycle round the edge of the tunnel on a bumpy rocky surface which was much more like what we could expect from Death Road.

“OK, Let’s vamos” he said and I got back in the saddle and started to follow the group.  Far too fast as it turned out because it was about 5 seconds before I fell of my bike, covering myself with dust and badly bruising my thigh in the process.  But I got back up and soldiered on, given that we hadn’t even got as far as the dangerous bit yet. Oops.

Eventually we came to a fork in the road, the left side pointing towards the new ‘safe’ road which had opened in 2006 and the right side, a narrow rocky path, barely wide enough for a car which had an ominous skull and crossbones sign marking the entrance: El Camino de la Muerte, so called because of all the people who had fallen victim to the narrow winding surface, barely deserving the title of a path, yet alone a road, cut into the side of towering tree covered mountains.  It was difficult to believe that it used to be the main road between La Paz and Coroico with traffic moving both ways up and down it.  This crazy track affords some stunning views, none of which we saw during our ride because we were so intent on watching the floor for rocks which could potentially bounce us off course and over the side of the cliff where we would inevitably plunge to our death.

Perilous Beauty

Perilous Beauty

We were cycling for five minutes before the first stop – an opportunity to gawp at a small white speck half way down the cliff – a car which had plummeted from the side only four months previously, killing one of the three people inside.  Every 15 minutes there was another stop, and another memorial perched on the side of the road, as if we needed reminding that it was actually quite dangerous to be here.  The registration form for this particular tour was in fact the only one I’ve ever completed which asks for your blood type as standard.  And I’ve jumped out of planes, jumped off bridges and rafted over grade 5 rapids in my lifetime.

On the Edge

On the Edge

Fortunately for us, the new road meant that the traffic nowadays is mostly bicycles and their accompanying vans.  We only passed one or two none-tour group cars on the whole way down.

The narrowest part of the road didn’t even look wide enough for a whole car, yet alone one of the trucks or buses which must have regularly made the journey between La Paz and Corioco before the new road was built. And just to make it all the more precarious, it was wet and slippery from a dwindling waterfall which, in rainy season sends tonnes of fast flowing water over the edge and onto the road below.

Narrow waterfall-y bit

Narrow waterfall-y bit

By the time we stopped at Devil’s Corner – the most dangerous bit where there were countless memorials stuck into the ground on the cliff edge and scattered in sheltered sections of the cliff walls to represent the hundreds of people who had become its victim, our hands had moulded themselves into claws from the constant braking over the past three hours. It was therefore a relief, after the next 6 or 7 tricky corners, to be given a break in which we actually needed to pedal.  It was really very pleasant to at last be cycling at my own pace, not needing to use the brakes, and I even had a few moments when I took my eyes off the ground to appreciate the beauty which had no doubt been surrounding us all day.

After one final stop at the exit checkpoint, we got our braking muscles out again for one final tricky section of road (there was an easier route, but Kevin instisted that this one was ‘more fun’).  Just when I was starting to lose all feeling in my fingers and it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to keep pressure on the brakes for any longer, I rounded a corner to find some of my faster team mates waiting at the bottom of the road next to the van.  We had survived.

Exit Checkpoint

Exit Checkpoint

Kevin passed us a celebratory beer each and we sat on the side of the road sipping happily and watching the guides load the bikes back onto the van.

Celebratory Beer

Celebratory Beer

It would have been a bit of an anticlimax to get straight back in the van and drive back to La Paz right then, which is probably why they drove us to a nearby outdoor swimming pool and provided us with a buffet lunch, towels and shampoo.  Having descended to just 1200m altitude, the temperature had risen considerably and it was certainly bikini weather here.  Lazing by the pool isn’t my usual cup of tea, but it turned out to be just the ticket after an action packed 4 hours.

We drove back on the new road, which didn’t really look all that finished in some places, but was properly paved in the places where it mattered (i.e. the dangerous curvy bits).  As the sun set on our day, we glimpsed snatches of the mighty Death Road across the valley from us and marveled at the experience that we’d been fortunate (and brave) enough to have that day.

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Bolivian Buses

Posted by Leanne on November 7, 2010

When booking Bolivian buses, there’s a lot to think about.  Is it a cama or a semi-cama?  When travelling overnight this is essential for a bit of sleep.  Does it have a toilet?  This is irrelevant because if it does, it probably won’t work, but worth asking, because it may give you leeway to negotiate the price down.  Does it have heating?  Air conditioning?  If it doesn’t have heating, you will probably freeze.  If it does, it either won’t work, in which case you will freeze, or it will work too well and you will cook.  Either way it’s a minefield…

Sometimes I would quite like it if I could take a bus journey and not have a story to tell as a result.  But alas, last night’s 12 hour ride from Sucre to La Paz was not to be the one.

I picked the company, El Dorado because I’d seen the buses driving down the streets in La Paz and they looked shiny, and also because someone else had told me that they were good, so it just goes to show that shiny buses and a good reputation doesn’t always go that far in Bolivia.

I arrived at the station last night unwashed and unfed after spending longer than I expected playing Wally and saying goodbye to my teachers and fellow students, so made do with buying a chocolate bar from some small children on the bus.  I was glad I managed to turn up the recommended 30 minutes before the departure time since the bus left 10 minutes early.  I assumed that this was because everyone was on board, but it turned out I assumed wrong, because for the following 30 minutes the bus stopped at intervals to let angry people who had been racing to catch us up in taxis because they had only arrived 5 minutes before the departure time, and therefore missed the bus.  And then, calmness.  Apart from the french people nattering away loudly to each other.  I put on my ipod to shut out the noise and closed my eyes…

The bus stopped again about an hour into the 12 hour journey, for reasons I never found out.  It was at this point that I thought I could smell petrol… After about 10 minutes, the conductor walked through our level to the back of the bus and seemed to be looking for something – I imagined the source of the smell, but when the french people asked him what was going on, he denied that there was anything out of the ordinary.

After another 10 minutes, the fumes still hadn’t dissipated, even with the window open.  Just as I was contemplating whether it would be better to get off the bus in the middle of deepest, darkest Bolivia and take my chances with the elements, or risk death from inhalation of fumes, I heard a local lady ask the French people to close the window.  What followed was a heated argument, ending with the words “vamos a morir de asfixiation”, no window being closed and an attempt to get the conductor to come back to smell for himself.  He refused.

A local man, who was already annoyed because he was one of the ones who had to chase the bus in a taxi after its early departure, led a party upstairs to see if they could find some more seats away from the smell. There were only two spare, one of which he took, and the French people suggested that I should take the other one, since I was the only other person travelling solo.

As I gathered my things together to head up the stairs, some of the French group were perched on the narrow window ledge, trying to breathe in some fresh air from the small opening at the top of the window…

Once reseated, I settled into an uncomfortable and uneasy sleep, fingers crossed that the bus wouldn’t explode, and that we wouldn’t run out of petrol.

To my surprise, we arrived in La Paz on time, and the French people were still alive…

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Leche de Tigre

Posted by Leanne on November 6, 2010

I was incredibly sad to wake up on my last day in Sucre, and incredibly glad that there were things to do to keep me entertained.

Calvin had spent the morning shopping for a list of ingredients, provided by Jorge to make Leche de tigre (one too many makes you go ‘rah!’) and then came back to the house to start work on the process which went a little bit like this:

  1. Pose for a photo with all of the ingredients
  2. Jorge and Calvin go Tigre

    Jorge and Calvin go Tigre

  3. Pour lots of different kinds of milk into a saucepan with some cinnamon and clothes
  4. Bring to the boil
  5. Meanwhile, take 1 litre of ALCOHOL – just alcohol, not vodka, rum, gin or whisky, and then do this to it:
  6. While the milk and ALCOHOL cool in their separate containers, separate 6 eggs and whisk until they start to peak
  7. Once everything has cooled, stir in the egg whites and add vanilla essence, ALCOHOL and grated coconut to taste
  8. For that authentic Bolivian look, pour into plastic water bottles
  9. Go and play a game of Wallyball
  10. Get on a bus to La Paz

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Last Night in Sucre

Posted by Leanne on November 5, 2010

For my last Spanish class, Delia turned up with a portable CD player and a CD full of salsa music which wouldn’t play on it.  She looked quite disappointed and like she didn’t have many other ideas about what we could do in my final lesson.

“I don’t have much battery left,” I said, “but I have my ipod with me which is full of salsa music.”  Which is how we came to spend 2 hours listening to my salsa music and trying to decode some of the lyrics, and then an hour talking about phonetic transcription and clicks in Quechua, until it was time to go downstairs to join the other students and teachers for the weekly lunch-in.

Tha evening, Claudia, Siobhan, Aoife, Calvin and I went out for a few mojitos to mark my last night and we chatted about our experiences of South America so far.

Claudia told us about a conversation she had with some female Peruvian friends when she went out for a drink with them whilst living in Arequipa a few years ago.  She told them that the men in Switzerland don’t tend to whistle and make remarks to women like the men in Peru do.

“But,” replied her Peruvian friend in genuine bewilderment, “then how do you know that you look good?”

I looked forward to returning to Peru with this new perspective…

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Markets and Fairy Tales

Posted by Leanne on November 4, 2010

I felt quite hungover today after 3 turbo charged mojitos the day before, and not really in the mood for 3 hours of Spanish lessons, but it turned out that, not only did I get through them, they were surprisingly enjoyable.  Mainly because they involved reading fairy tales for 3 hours. After class, I really wanted to go home and to bed, but I had arranged to meet with Calvin for a walk to the ´American Market´ and he was outside the school waiting for me after classes, so I plowed on through the day.  Fortunately, the first thing he suggested was lunch, which boosted my hydration and sugar levels for a walk around the market, via a dinosaur phone and a plaza with some statues of soldiers on it.

Dinosaur phone

Dinosaur phone

The market itself was just another street market, but with clothes that would fit people who are larger than the average Bolivian (but still no ´giant´size 12 trainers for Calvin).  We got back into town just in time for a fresh jugo from the market before I headed off to help out with my English class.

And then I got to go to bed!

 

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Salsa

Posted by Leanne on November 3, 2010

In Bolivia, there are many different types of salsa, tomato based ones, chili based ones and they are generally served….

…only joking – I went dancing!

It took me almost a week to find out where things were happening on the dancefloor in Sucre on account of the fact that the only place that did host a salsa night doesn´t advertise in any way whatsoever – not even a small poster on the door of Cafe Cuba to let you know that if you come back later, you might be able to dance.

On a concrete yard outside Cafe Cuba, every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night, gringos and locals gather together for a line dance (to call it a class would be exagerating) for half an hour or so before grabbing a partner for a dance while the less experienced can practice steps on the side of the courtyard with the owner of the cafe and perfect their moves for their future partners.

I turned out to be quite popular, attracting both attention and compliments from the regulars who were impressed that I could follow a dance after only one lesson….  At one point I had to claim dehydration to get one guy to let me go after 5 dances in a row.

I also impressed them with my Spanish, over an extermely strong mojito or two after the dancing had finished, when I laughed at a joke that one of the locals told.  I hadn´t actually heard the joke, only that it was about a fish and  the punchline was ´por fin´which is funny because fish have fins.  This is not why it is funny in Spanish, but I seemed to get away with it!

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