Tuesday, May 19, 2009

And now, our main stories again...

I'm off to the airport in about 2 hours. I'm sitting here trying to think how to do this next bit, wondering if the slight sniffle I seem to have developed is the on-set of swine flu or just second hand germs from the pungent dutch teenagers that have been coughing and hacking around the hostal in their unwashed feet since yesterday afternoon, and whether the slight nausea I'm feeling is due to the reheated chinese noodles I've just eaten, or a physical response to the confused feelings I have about leaving.

Part of me is longing to get home (both to the UK and NZ) and back to some kind of normality, but equally I know that it will be most likely years before I get to do a trip like this again, if ever, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I can't imagine never coming back to South America, that's for sure, but how and when are baffling me at the moment. I think I will probably shed a tear as the plane takes off. A tough, macho tear, obviously, but a tear nonetheless.

Maybe I should start by remembering the things I won't miss. For example, buttock cramps caused by 11 hours in the saddle; wind so cold in my face that my eyeballs stop working properly and seeing things clearly becomes nigh impossible; the smell of pee in the streets, thanks to the locals' indifference to public urination at any time of the day or night: when you gotta go, you gotta go is their philosophy; suicidal / kamikaze bus drivers - it amounts to the same thing; the moment of complete certainty that I am about to fall off again, and the accompanying knowledge that it is really going to hurt, but the uncertainty of just how much; the anxiousness I always felt in the days leading up to a "new country" and the unknown (although discovering the anxiousness was unfounded was always a plus); and now I'm struggling to think of more. Which is surely a good thing.

On a more positive note, I have so many good memories, many of which I have already shared, and trying to re-cap them all here, whether for my benefit or yours, would be impossible. I guess they fall in to different categories (not sure how many yet), including places, people, activities, and so on. So, in an effort to get things moving and in roughly the order they occured, but certainly not in any order of preference, some of the most memorable moments would have to include the following:

The first crossing of the Andes, in the snow; running out of road and in to the construction crew trying to get to San Agustín; meeting Juan Manuel and his family in Chepes on account of my bent handle bars; Camping at Capilla del Montt; the ride into and then the walk across the river to Salta de Moconá; the waterfalls at Iguacú; the mountain top in Parque Naçional Marumbí; a surreal night out on our way up the coast in Brasil; Rio; Sandro and Ximena in Buenos Aires; Jorje in Azul; General la Madrid and the motorbike rally; Peninsula Valdez and the whales; crossing in to Ushuaia with Rich, and reaching the southern most point of our trip; setting off up Ruta 40 for my first solo mission; the ride from Puerto Ibañez to Coihaique and then on to Puerto Chacabucco; El Bolsón; the ride north from Bariloche to Mendoza; crossing our first high altitude pass; camping on the volcano on the Salar de Uyuni; the mines in Potosi; 2 weeks in the jungle, even with the mozzies; Cusco and Bruce Peru and the kids I got to know there; the solo mission through the Cordillera Blancas; the Galapagos Islands.

What this woefully incomplete list fails to mention, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, are the people I met on the way, tourists and locals alike. Despite my own misgivings, coupled with numerous warnings (largely from people who had never been here, it has to be said), all my fears about the dishonest, dangerous folk who roam the countries of South America robbing and beating foreigners have been proved to be false. Of course, we didn't get into every nook and cranny, but we did pretty well, and in all that time never met a corrupt cop or dicey customs official, were welcomed with smiles and help wherever we went, and I for one have been left with the idea that South America has a reputation it does not deserve. I suspect the victims of all this alledged crime and violence would, in another place, be up for a Darwin award. Common sense keeps you safe, and without that you will fall foul of criminal mindermasts in any place on earth. I have felt far more unsafe in parts of NZ than I did in the vast majority of South America, and that includes Rio!

So, coming back on task a little, a huge thank you to everyone I met here who helped us in some way, with with directions, mechanical assistance, food, beer or fun. If we never meet again, it will be a shame, but if (when) I come back, I will be in touch. And, of course, there is a standing invitation to you, should you make it to NZ at any point.

2 days later...

I'm back in the UK now, and have just re-read the above. I think I'll publish this one now to keep the poor folks happy, and pick up the thread later when I have adjusted back into the real world a bit. In the mean time, I may try and add a few photos to some of the blogs, so feel free to take a look at the back-catalogue. And just in case we don't talk again, its been a pleasure, and thanks for keeping me company along the way.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Getting my Just Deserts, or The End of the Road

Its nearly all over. Of course, I still have to pack things up and get back to the UK, but the biking part is at an end. I won't have a lot more of much interest to write about (I realise its quite presumptuous of me to suggest its been interesting so far), but I have been considering doing a "nothing but the truth" edition to wrap up with, where those stories considered too traumatic to let the poor parents in on are revealed in all their anticlimactic glory. I may also fill in some of the shady blanks of earlier entries. Or I may forget and not bother. Oh, I can sense the excitment of the unknown building already!

Right now though, I am on day 14 in Lima, and cabin fever is setting in, with still 3 days to go until I fly out. Getting in to Lima was a bit of a trial - there is a major through road that keeps you out of the city centre - but having just lept blindly from it hoping to discover my whereabouts on my feeble Lonely Planet map, I discovered I was lost in the dodgy part of town, so adopted the new strategy (and what a great time for new strategies, I might add) of paying a taxi driver to lead me to where I wanted to go. Not just a hat rack, my friends, not just a hat rack.

The hostal I was hoping to use was full, as were most of the others I approached (it was a holiday weekend after all), but one had spaces for the next night and a garden out back, so the parking was sorted, and I suffered through one night in a private hotel room before setting up camp in a dormitory in one of the 4 Flying Dog Hostals around El Óvalo in Miraflores. Perfick.

I have spent the last 2 weeks mostly avoiding spending money where possible, as I knew that at some point I would be cutting off an arm and a leg to get the bike back to NZ. Therefore, other than the obligatory souvenir shopping that I have now been able to do, on account of not having to transport said goodies around the continent, I have hidden in the TV room or the sun lounge, dismantled and cleaned my bike thoroughly, or walked the streets of Miraflores to fill my days. There are tours I could sign up on, obviously, but having already seen pretty much everything they could hope to show me somewhere else on my travels, I figured there was little point. Also, being on the home straight as it were, I have lost motivation almost completely to sit on buses and be a tourist. If I still had months ahead of me to travel, then I'd be right up for it, don't get me wrong, but I have accepted that its all over for this trip, and am just keen to get home.

On top of all that, there has been the arrangements for the bike to make. In fairness to Pacific Anchor Line, in whom I am entrusting my noble steed, despite the foot dragging that went on at the start of the process, they have been pretty good. Not very on the ball with setting me up with an agent that spoke English, mind you, so struggling through all new shipping vocabulary was rather tricky, but generally efficient in all other respects. I hope. It remains to be seen exactly where / when my bike arrives, and whether I have the appropriate documentation to claim it, but that will be fun and games for when I get back to NZ. Trying to decipher emails that were written in Spanish then translated with Babelfish, or some other inadequate website tool, in to English has been interesting to say the least. It pretty much arrives in my in-box as Gibberish, and an obscure dialect of Gibberish at that, so in the end I asked them to re-send everything in Spanish and got the staff at the hostal to translate it for me.

The up-shot of it all is that I took the bike to the port in the back of a truck (didn't want to get it dirty again, and besides, I had to drain the fuel tank and remove the battery) on Tuesday, got it crated up (well, put inside a wooden frame and wrapped in clingfilm), said a little prayer to the gods of motorcycle transportation, and left it for the Peruvian dock workers to put on the right ship. I was marginally concerned that they didn't feel it was necessary for me to put my name or address anywhere on the finished article, but I insisted, so with a bit of luck....

I also had to hand over my passport for the customs clearance amid assurances that it would be returned to me by Thursday afternoon at the latest. It is now Friday morning, and still no sign, but the latest Enigma code from PAL promises it will be with me this afternoon at 3pm. Lets hope so, its the weekend tomorrow so they won't do anything then, and I fly out on Monday, which would be cutting it a bit fine. But hey, they're professionals, right? Right? Hmmmm.

Richard would no doubt be amused to hear that I actually miss having my bike parked up nearby. Yes, Rich, I have grown, if not to love my bike exactly, then certainly to be very fond of it. Not fond of the rack, mind you, I hate the rack with its fragile breakiness and constant need for repairs and attention, but I can't really fault the bike, with its powers of bounce that were tested to the full, and its ability to run in a virtual vacuum at the top of the mountains.

I think I will call a halt for today, but before I leave Lima I will have a crack at a Golden Moments edition. Another one more for me than for you, but please feel free to look over my e-shoulder as I commit my thoughts to the interweb. And now I'm off to go surfing. Not in the quite-possibly-polluted-and-certainly-very-cold waters off the coast in Lima, but in the lounge with the TV remote. Don't judge me til you've ridden 30,000km in South America. Toodle pip.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Oops. Dropped the ball a bit there, sorry. Its now been 3 weeks since my last confession, and I apologise to Ed who has been stuck in his office prison cell waiting (a little impatiently, it has to be said) for me to write some more. He did get a phone call though, so he can blummin' well button his lip..

You know when you are looking forward to something and it gets built up to be this really, really good thing, and you get more and more excited about it, and then it happens, and its all a little disappointing after all that? (you know what I'm talking about, girls). The Galapagos is nothing like that. I have been watching documentaries and nature shows and reading books about the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember, and have always wanted to visit but never thought I would, even on this trip. Lets face it after all, had I still been travelling with Rich, we would have driven straight past and up to Colombia, thus missing the best chance yet to go.

However, making the decision to go, and for 12 days at that, was one of the best choices for me in the last 10 months. The Islands lived up to the hype, they were everything that nice Mr Attenborough said they would be, and even though I almost had to mug other tourists to pay for everything due to the rather over inflated costs, it was worth every penny. Almost. But I'll explain that a bit more later.

So, there I was at the airport, having just paid $100 cash for my National Park entry ticket, waiting for my bags to be delivered to baggage claim on a trolley à la Nelson airport, when a girl comes over and asks me for $100 to pay her Nat Park fee as she didn't have enough cash, they didn't take visa and there was no cash machine in the airport.

"Oh ho", I thought. "The rip-off artists are getting bolder by the minute, I must have "sucker" tattooed on my forehead or something. Like I'd fall for that!" But hey, she was cute, and if she was ripping me off, at least she asked first, rather than just stealing, so I handed it over, and that's how I met Polly. We shared a cab to Puerto Ayuro where she paid me back from a cash machine (eventually - but not her fault), and we started making plans for the next week. Polly had a heap of info she'd been given by a guy she'd met and was sort of dating in Ecuador, so knew all the best places to eat, visit, drink at, and get internet access etc, so was very handy to hang out with.

I had booked a boat trip for the following Friday, so that gave me a week to explore. Day 1 involved a walk to Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay for the un-Spanish out there) for a bit of a snorkel, and as luck would have it, my "waterproof to 10m" digital camera decided to go on the fritz the first time I took it in the water. It still took pictures, but the screen on the back stopped working, so I had to guess a bit as to what it was I was actually taking pictures of. Perfect for a week on the Galapagos, obviously. Fortunately my wee video camera also took stills, though of a much poorer quality, so most of the photos on flicker are from that.

The beach was stunning , the water warm, and the marine iguanas and sally light-foot crabs there to be tripped over. Unfortunately, what I didn't know was that the smaller, murkier bay was actually a nursery area for sharks and visited by turtles (hence the name, Einstein), but I didn't actually snorkel there, and very possibly missed out on seeing hammerheads and other things, but there you go. Oh, and I got sunburned a bit. Still, Englishman abroad in a hot country, goes without saying really.

In the pip emma, visited the tortoise farm where they are breeding the giant tortoises for re-introduction programmes. Met Lonesome George, the only one of his kind left, and a few others, so that was cool. Apparently the tortoises have different shaped shells depending on their particular species, as well as long or short necks etc. All very interesting and part of what influenced the evolution of most of the endemic plant species on the islands with regard to height above ground and whether they have spikes or not. All very clever.

Sunday dawned hot and sweaty as was the norm, but I was up with Darwin's finches and off to the island Santa Maria (aka Floreanna) for some diving. An hour and a half each way got us there, we collected a couple of other divers at the island, and had a couple of dives (although neither, rather disappointingly at the Devil's Crown - a partly submerged volcano mouth appaerently very good for sharks). The diving was good, but very different to the other diving I'd done in the Phillipines. Less colour, less coral, fewer flashy fish, but far more in the way of bizarre underwater structures caused by the lava flow, and more big fish. If I'm honest, I was a little disappointed with the diving, but that soon changed.

Next morning I had a wee stroll to Las Grietas, a short, narrow canyon about 10m down to the water, and 12m to the botton of that. The water was crystal clear and a mix of fresh and salty, and given the humidity and heat was the nicest place to swim on the island. In the afternoon, I was off to Isabela Island.

Now, the clever buggers in head office have worked this out very well. In order to share the tourist dollar about a bit, the boats to Isabela leave daily at 2pm and arrive at 4pm, thus meaning you have to stay at least one night. Added to this, the return boat leaves Isabela daily at 6am, meaning you pretty much have to stay a second night if you want to do anything at all while you are there.

I opted for the tour of Sierra Negro (the biggest live volcanic crater in the world, and the 2nd biggest if you include extinct volcanoes) and Volcan Chico (smaller but relatively recently erupted) by horse of all things, followed by some snorkelling at Las Tintoneras (sp?), a group of small islands in the bay. The volcanoes were impressive, as was the amount of discomfort I felt at sitting on a horse for so long. Can somebody please explain to me what you are supposed to do to make trotting comfortable? I feel like I've tried everything and still look like a rag doll on a bucking bronco! Its one of the curuellest things a boy can do to hismarble pouch.

The snorkelling was cool, with sealions to play with, and rays and sharks to look at - something I was getting used to after much of the same experienced from diving.

Next morning was bright and early back to Santa Cruz, where I was able to stow away on another boat off diving to North Seymour Island and Bartolome. Bit further this time, up to 3 hours away, so by the time I got back that night at about half 7, I'd spend about 8 hours of the day riding about on boats, and a couple swimming about under them.

The First dive at North Seymour was very poor, with visibility down to 2m or so thanks to lots of green gunk in the water. Currents or something stirring everything up. The second dive at Bartolome (not much more than a big rock in the sea) was spectacular. A series of volcanic terraces under the sea took us down, then we followed the wall round the rock, which was pretty much like an underwater skyscraper, inhabited by all sorts of critters. Sealions came to investigate and play, and with scuba gear I was able to play back, rather than hurry to the surface gasping for breath, as I tend to do with a snorkel.

Next day was....diving again! I was really getting into it again by now, having got used to what I could expect to see, and learned to appreciate it for what it was rather than comparing it to a tropical coral reef, which it wasn't even trying to be (could that be a thinly veiled life-lesson? hmmm.....) Today was 3 dives, but while I had hoped to go to Gordon's Rocks where the Hammerheads hang out in numbers, we were going back to North Seymour - the site of yesterday's disappointing dive. This was due to the divers, unfortunately. Originally, we were all going to be realtively experienced and up to the challenge of the strong currents at Gordon's that attract the sharks. But the others (person's unknown) cancelled, and the replacements were all rookies, so the dive company took us somewhere safer. As it turned out, this was better than I could have hoped for. The poor visibility from the day before had cleared up, and we had 3 fantastic dives at 3 different locations around North Seymour, including seeing a group of 5 manta rays that drifted past like ghosts. No hammerheads though, despite the guides claim that he saw one within seconds of descending. All lies to keep the punters enthusiastic, if you ask me.

Finally Friday rolled round, and it was time for the tour on the boat. Four days and 3 nights of high seas adventure. Or so I thought...

Ok, so the boat was fine, the crew friendly and good at their jobs (we didn't sink anyway), and the guide seemed to know his stuff, but for $750 I was expecting 4 days and 3 nights. I can't really dispute the 3 nights, I definitely spent 3 nights on the boat, but the days were less clear cut, with day 1 starting at about half 12, and day 4 being all over by 9.15 am.

We visited a bunch of islands and saw all sorts of land iguanas, wild giant tortoises (easy to track - you follow the flattened grass until you meet a big slow moving rock. Not too good at escaping, those tortoises), frigate birds and boobies (stop it. You're better than that), but I felt slightly conned I have to say. I'd have preferred to have visited the places myself on day trips and spent the difference on a couple more dives. Would have been cheaper, but they don't tell you how easy it is to do your own thing when you ask them. Funny that...

Feeling a little let down after the first fantastic week, I stumbled about on San Cristóbal until I bumped into Sanghita from Belgium, who'd been on SC for a while and knew the best beaches to go to, and places to eat at, so for my final 18 hours on the Islands at least I wsa entertained and full.

So, aside from the "mid-range cruise", the Galapagos lived up to the hype, and I feel fairly sure I will get back there one day, if only to dive Gordon's Rocks and see the hammerheads.

So now, I'm back in Trujillo in Peru and about to head to Lima to pack the bike. Wish me luck, this could be the biggest challenge of the trip so far!