October 30, 2006

I don’t really have an angle for this post, and it’s probably going to be rather a boring read full of superlatives. Right  now I’m uploading some of the 800 or so pictures I took out in the Galapagos. Don’t worry, they’re not all going up on flickr, but I will be having a slide show round at my house when I get back.

Without sounding really cheesy, the best thing I can probably say about the Galapagos is that they exceeded any of my expectations and gave me the most magical, awe-inspiring and humbling “holiday” I’ll ever have. That was cheesy American wasn’t it?

From the highlands of Santa Cruz where the tortoises live, to the volcanic moonscapes of Bartholome, the school of dolphins riding the bow wave of our ship, the scuba diving and snorkeling with feeding turtles, hammerhead and white tip reef sharks, star fish the size of dinner plates, parrot fish, sea-lions and penguins (yes penguins!!). The beautiful rocky and white sand beaches littered with sleeping marine iguanas and pelicans resting in the red mangrove trees, bright red sally light-foot crabs on every dock, frigate birds catching the air thermals above us and Darwin’s finches hopping on our beach towel. It was and is utterly amazing.

We spent 4 days on the island of Santa Cruz and a further 5 days/4 nights on M/V Santa Cruz (the 1st class ship). The time on the island allowed us to get into the spirit of the islands and the Galapaganeons, eat some fabulous sea food (yes I know I’m on a restricted diet, but it was fresh and gorgeous) and I did some scuba diving (largely unsuccessfully – ears not equalising very well, threw up 3 times off the side of the very small boat and had a nose bleed) . We also spent a day at the beach at Tortuga Bay, just watching the birds and the marine iguanas swimming in the waves. We swam in the sheltered bay and locals surfed on Brava Beach around the corner, just past the prickly pear cactus forest.

On the island we split our time between the very expensive (and in my opinion overrated) Royal Palm hotel, which is up in the highlands – so it’s cold and rainy, and the luxury pool is of little use, however we dined in the posh restaurant by an open fire and had the place entirely to ourselves. Also had a fabulous if exorbitant (by Ecuadorian standards) massage from a woman who told me lots about my stomach illness, from massaging the soles of my feet and who employed a bit of impromptu chiropracty (?!?) on Sarah’s twisted back.

After the luxury of the Royal Palm I made Sarah slum it in some hotel that boasted hot water (and nothing else) and cost us about a tenner a night, but was in the middle of the small town of Puerto Ayora right on the coast. To give you an idea of weather, up at the Royal Palm it was fleeces and waterproof jackets and down on the coast it was shorts, vest tops and plenty of sun cream.

The island people are different to the mainland people, largely because they’re taller and inclined to be a little fatter (they don’t have the living at altitude, get thin effect going on here; just the amazing food and sunny beach living thing), but they’re also a lot more blase about westerners wandering around. So we don’t get stared at so much and more people can speak English. Although Sarah did fall victim to “blanco infatuation”, which is when locals get all mesmerised by your white skin and want to come up to you and stroke your arm. Freaky.

After the island we boarded our luxury motor vessel – along with 70 or so British and German OAPS. It wasn’t as bad as that makes it sound. The crew and naturalist guides were all our age and a good laugh and we made friends with a young Aussie couple on their honeymoon and another young Dutch couple. Plus because we were young, we got bucket loads of flattering Latino attention from waiters and guides – which always goes down well. (It’s okay Mum, I know my swollen head will go back down to size the moment I get back to Britain!)

Every day on-board was different, we’d have two trips to different islands each day and a briefing each evening. You could walk, snorkel or just hand out on the beach watching sea-lions being born or frigate bird chicks being fed. The guides were all “level 3” and very knowledgeable about the plants, wildlife and formation of each island. They answered all our questions and more and were clearly really excited themselves about what we saw, as it’s different every time they visit.

On the more touristy side of things (although to be honest they were quite adamant that our trip was an “expedition” not a “cruise”, and it really was) the captain sang and played a mean guitar and there was a jacuzzi on deck where we had a beer watching the sunset after an afternoons snorkeling.

We were immensly sad to leave, and spent a morning frantically shopping for keyrings and t-shirts in San Christobel to remind us of our trip. Athough if the hundreds of photos we took aren’t enough I hope we can remember it up here (I’m tapping my head) for the rest of our lives.

Ohmygalapagos!

October 24, 2006

FYI – we’re in the galapagos. writing this from the ship, Santa Cruz. Have seen marine iguanas, lava lizards and lava herons, plus swam with sea lions, turtles, manta ray and tonnes of fish, star fish and other underwater stuff.

A German lady’s breathing down my neck to use the internet, so better scoot. Had beer in the jacuzzi earlier looking out at million year old lava flows… it’s an amazing place. Great for a honeymoon Jim!!

Tourist girl

October 19, 2006

Only been here 4 months and finally got around to seeing some of the stuff that Quito’s famous for.

Sarah’s been here 2 full days (having survived the nightmareish transfer which is Miami airport) and so far we’ve “done” the Old Town and today been to the centre of the Earth (Mitad Del Mundo). Some pics on the right or on flickr.

See how scarily high we were when we climbed one of the clock towers in the Basillica and how sophisticated and health and safety conscious the ladders are!

There’s also a few views over Quito from El Panecillo (The Virgin on the hill). Pic of the virgin itself was naff – so not on flickr yet.

Today (following some investigation in Spanish) we caught a couple of buses up North about an hour to Mitad Del Mundo where you can actually balance an egg on it’s end (see Emma… we did it for you!!) Although actually the monument is about 250 meters in the wrong place (the French came and erected it 70 years ago, before it could be checked by GPS and they got it wrong). Amazingly over 1200 years before (before even the Inca’s made it to Ecuador) the indigenous people had got it right and in the last 10 years, with the advent of GPS excavation has begun on the real middle of the Earth location. And guess what, they found stone circles (in the shape of a lunar eclipse) which shows that earlier civilisations had it worked out. (Likely they had it sussed because they’d noticed that on the solcistes that there are NO shadows thrown on the exact equator line.)

From the Mitad Del Mundo we took a little tour to the largest inahbitated active volcanic creater in the World. There’s a pic of me standing on the edge of the crater which is 4km wide and inhabitated by 300 people. In fact take a look at the pic on flickr and you’ll see that there’s a hill on the far side of the crater… that’s actually the middle of the crater and the hill is the cone of the top of what was the volcano which fell into the middle of the crater when it erupted 2500 years ago. Pretty interesting stuff.

Moving on to less cultural and more sociable things… last night we went to a salsa bar (pure salsa this one – no dodgy regaton), so that Sarah could get a feel for the locals dancing salsa… and tonight we (Anne, Sarah and I) went to an hours salsa class. The dance school did a sterling job fielding 3 male dancers (of considerable height and some English language skills!) for us to partner with, and we had a laugh. (Not saying how much was actually learnt about the skillfull art of authentic salsa bum-wiggling, but we gave it our best). (Sadly no pics yet of my dancing… although maybe in the not too distant).

Then afterwards at happy hour in El Cafecito we managed a few cocktails (for Anne and Sarah who can drink – I have another week of penance to go), before showing our collective English faces at a very English pub quiz in one of the two English themed pubs in the Mariscal district. (Out of about 40 South American Explorer members, our team of 3 – named Pedro, in honour of the mule that kicked Anne in the face last week – managed not to come last or first.)

And that’s it – sorry this is so hurried, but I’m pooped and need to be bright eyed and bushy tailed tomorrow to do my David Attenborough impression as we fly to the Galapagos early tomorrow morning. Probably forgotten to pack all sorts of things and on current form will get bitten, burnt and catch some tropical disease whilst I’m there. Anyway, will be trying to get some decent pictures of the wildlife and really hoping to do the Gordon Rocks dive and see a school of hammerhead sharks. Catch you all when I get back…

Strict diet and no booze

October 14, 2006

Hmmm… so not much fun for me then. Went to the docs 3 times this week, and that’s the outcome. My poor tummy is worn out with germs and bugs, so I’m on mash, rice and boiled carrots for the foreseable. Oh and nothing alcoholic for 2 weeks. I’m in shock. Need to go and lie down.

That aside I’m desperately looking forward to seeing Sarah out here and getting to the Galapagos. I’ve officially been told to “take it easy”, so it is the perfect time for a proper holiday and looking at a few sealions and Darwinian finches.

Noticed Strictly Come Dancing’s spattered all over the BBC website, so it must officially be Autumn. Who’s any good and who’s really rubbish is what I really want to know, come on dish the dirt…

Although I’m back in Quito and taking things easy until I’m pronounced 100% by the docs, I had to cheer myself up yesterday in between having needles stuck in my arms, with a new pair of shoes. Not expensive, just a pair of heels (tácons). I didn’t bring any out here and one of my new size 7-8 jeans (American sizes I think!) really needed a lift with some higher shoes. (no – honestly!)

So last night it was a bit after nine, dark like midnight and had been for a couple of hours, and I was about to go to bed and read for a bit. Hey ho, just ended up trying on the shoes, and the jeans, oh and did I mention I got a new DKNY top? and what did you know I was ready for a night out. Suggested this to Anne who dived past me in a rush to apply some slap and 10 minutes later we were legging it down the road in the rain (yes it rains here) to find a cab.

A few hours later, many cokes for me, and a few Pilsner for Anne, we were minding our own bees wax in a bar and approached by an Latino-looking American, LA cap on backwards, possibly from ‘the hood’ who introduced himself as Luis. Turns out he’s a Marine. So was his friend – exponentially quieter in front of his Sergeant I never quite caught his name.

Now we’re 48 hours before a presidential election out here right now. (An amazing farce with over 15 candidates, who’s only political campaigning seems to be getting people to drive around in convoy with a loud speaker and flags on their cars. No-one has a clue who stands for what or who they’ll vote for. Incidentally the voting forms are really complicated, so you have to have a degree to manage to vote for the right person – assuming of course you know who you want to vote for.) Voting is compulsory over here and also the country is Ley Secca (i.e. dry; no booze) for at least 48 hours before the election. Yes – that’s right – goodness only knows how they enforce it, but no-one is allowed to drink, be seen drinking, or be drunk around election time. It’s a serious business.

Anyway, so the bar we were in duly closed its beer-distribution services and we were invited back to the Marine residency to enjoy the American’s keg hospitality. Never girls to say no to opportunity, we decided to accept this kind invitation and were duly spirited to a very swish apartment in the New Town.

Now we all know the Yanks have got a few dollars… But did you really expect that 5 marines would live in a three story building, with full size American pool table, fully stocked bar, table football, dart board, ping pong, video wall, Kenwood stack system, basketball court, private garden, bbq, balconies, dining room with chandeliers and silver coffee pots, spiral staircase, chef, maid and private 24/7 driver?

Very nice facilities boys.

Anyway, so we hung out there for a while, Anne interrogating both guys in a very forthright left-wing way about decisions Bush had made and why didn’t they question their government more (I would go into more detail here, but I was actually playing pool and having a shufty around the place and wasn’t really that interested). I believe she covered War, Religion and Gays in the military.

Conversely, I found out the guys both had Mexican parents, Luis has two older sisters, they had both joined the military young to get out of the LA and San Diego ‘hoods’, both spoke excellent Spanish and that Luis – who has an immense scar all the way around his shaved head… a bit like you’d make when cracking an egg… was injured by a rocket-fired grenade in Baghdad.

They weren’t quite what I expected marines to be like. I mean they were initially, big burly Americans, but Luis didn’t really seem to be the gun-toting American Marine you’d traditionally expect once you got to know him. I suppose being hit in the head by a granade and losing a few days would do that to you.

Anyway, it was late and we decided to jump in a cab home. The guys were having none of it, and we were ushered into the HUGE white Chevy truck, blacked-out, bullet proof, windows and leather as standard, and driven home by the driver (who looked like an ex-soviet spy). Toast and coffee later, we were tucked up in bed. We have an open invitation to pop round to see the Marines whenever, and as yet we haven’t met the other 3 who live there, so never say never…

I’ve heard so many things here blamed on altitude I thought I’d write them down for before I forget. There’s quite a range, and I’d like to know if any are actually scientifically true…

At altitude – where there’s less oxygen in the air –  

1. Rice cooks differently; I think it takes less time to cook (as does pasta)

2. Water boils at a lower temperature, due to reduced air pressure apparently

2. You dream more

3. You sleep more lightly

4. If you’re acclimatising well, you fart more

5. Living at altitude can bring on a girls period more often, no idea why

6. You digest more slowly (hence no big meals after 6 or 7 or you’re digesting them until morning!)

7. Alcohol has a bigger effect (can’t say I’ve noticed that one)

8. You lose weight, because your body’s working harder up here (yup!) (kids born here develop larger lungs and rib cages)

9. Clothes on the line dry quicker

10. A really obvious one… you get out of breath quicker walking up a hill

11. Bread doesn’t go moldy as quick – presumably because the air is drier

12. Cucumbers grow more slowly, so we don’t eat the outside as it tastes quite bitter

13. Cars need to be re-tuned to perform better at altitude – and most seem underpowered on hills

14. Pringles tubes have blown up tops, they blow up when they are delivered up to altitude

15. Fountain pens brought in from low alitude Europe blob nasty big blobs of ink when opened over here

Accidents in threes…

October 11, 2006

As you’ll no doubt have guessed I’m slightly more cheered up over here with my exciting romance with my chagra. He said he’s going to come out of bull riding retirement for me and ride one at a local fiesta next month (bit worried he might injure himself for me, so will have to see if I let him carry out his promise). Anyway have just spent the best part of a week with him on tour, which has been lovely. 

Health-wise he’s also been an UTTER SWEATHEART this week – looking after me when I’ve been sick as a dog again.

First on Monday I burnt my hand under an exploding tap of hot water at Hacienda La Cienega, then I was feeding a dog some scraps at Hacienda La Merced and got bitten on the thumb. Yes there was blood, so I got some special burning alcohol poured on it to protect me against rabies. (Rabies… now there’s another thing I don’t want out here). The typhoid thing, which  I still have, is raging on despite over 2 weeks worth of super strong antibiotics.

I’m off to the docs again tomorrow for more samples and blood tests. Honestly thought I was over it, but then got really sick a couple of nights back – chills, high temp, weak, no energy, nausea, dizzy etc. So was sent home early from the tour – a 4 hour Land Rover journey across a road made up entirely of massive boulders – didn’t get over 10 miles an hour the whole journey. Not exactly pleasant when you’re feeling well, but when you’re sick, it’s really really bad. Had to make a couple of emergency toilet and pharmacy stops along route, but I know without Santiago driving and letting me lie along the front bench seat, head on his leg, I would have just burst into tears and been moaning in pain. 

Anyway, so that’s the good part (although it doesn’t sound it, right?). The bad part is that Patricio who I work with at the farm with the horses all the time, as some kind of problem/chip on his shoulder about me, so is being a munchkin-sized eegit. Have dealt with far worse back home, but it’s certainly a bit irritating when I’ve been getting up at 4.30am to help him get ready for tours and he still says ‘muy mal’ which means basically my work is rubbish. He’s impossible to please. (It could also be that I knocked back his advances a couple of months ago). Ah well, you win some you lose some.

Not much else to report, Anne probably had the worst thing happen to her this week. Santiago’s mule – Pedro – kicked her in the face as we were grooming the horses one morning. Fortunately he didn’t have metal shoes on, so she only ended with a lip twice the size of her face and some bruising that looks like a dodgy tash. Extremely painful at the time and she’s very very lucky she didn’t lose any teeth – one is a smidge wobbly. So if you’re counting that’s officially four bad things this week – sincerely hope we don’t need two more to finish the cycle.

Very luckily for me Sarah is out here in 5 days time for our Galapagos trip amongst other exciting Ecuadorian things, it will really be lovely to see a familiar face. Hopefully I’ll be off the boiled rice diet and able to have some fun. I’ve actually been out today and booked us in for one night only at the Royal Palm on Santa Cruise Island – the most exclusive of all the hotels in the Galapagos (hence only the one night!!), other nights will have to be spent in more frugal accommodation to make up for this flippant luxury!

Incidentally went out and bought 2 new pairs of jeans today (a girl has to cheer herself up when she’s sick, right?)- Only 20/25 quid each. One pair is a pair I tried on a few weeks back and couldn’t fit into, but now I can!!! The joys of typhoid and appetite surpression!

That’s your lot for now kids.

‘Tra