Posts Tagged With: RTW

Epi-BLOG: So this is it… and that was that

MARK/SARAH:  So this is it.   Or perhaps we should say, “that was that”.  This, our last overseas blog post of our epic MASTERS 2015/2016 Round the World Trip.  What do you say on such an auspicious occasion?  To quote Freddie, our Swiss traveller friend, “it was fine”, which translates from Swiss-German into English as “we had a blast”.

A BLAST

A BLAST

Well we had a blast for most of the time. The last few days here in Brazil have in truth been very hard work.  It’s been a bit like the prelude to your Summer holiday when you are running on empty at work and desperately in need of a break.  We need a break from all this travelling and could do with a good holiday.  Two hundred and sixty four days is a long time in anybody’s money and we can’t wait to get home now.  Brazil and South America in general have been good.  The fact that I’m not saying “fantastic or brilliant” says more about our present state of mind rather than the countries we have visited.  You know you have had enough when you stare at the magnificent Iguassu Falls and think to yourself “they’re nice”.  They’re nice for God’s sake, is that all you can say?

Another Rainbow....

Another Rainbow….

Our thoughts are now very much in the future.  Back in the UK, with family and friends.  Looking forward to the next chapter in our life story which promises to be equally as challenging and exciting as the last nine months.  What does that future looks like? The pieces of the jigsaw are now all turned over on the dining room table.  They are ready to be assembled and the dream will become a reality during the months to come.  That there is no doubt.

Turning our World upside down

Turning our World upside down

But back to the here and now for a minute.  This blog is a bit of a “dog’s dinner” in terms of content.  However the format is clear.

Firstly, over to you our dear readers, and a big thanks to all the many people, who after the last blog, sent in their questions about our trip.  We’ll endeavour to answer them jointly in an open and honest way.  Next up is our TOP 5 (or nearly 5) section where we reveal a range of our TOP likes and dislikes.  Then it’s on to the final stats count where we add up all the various methods of transportation from bus to boat, tuk-tuk to train.  That’s it.  All clear?  Good, let’s begin!

Speed King

Speed King

ANY QUESTIONS?

First up a question from Ian P, who I would like to first of all publicly thank for all his personal support during our trip.  Ian is one of those people you need when you are embarking on a trip like this.  He was extremely wise council before we left with various tips, ideas and suggestions.  Together with Linda, they kindly bought us very useful gifts.  And then most importantly he stayed in touch acting as a father figure/mentor through the ups and downs, the highlights and the low-lights. Thanks mate, so looking forward to seeing you.

IAN ASKS:  I have two challenging questions for you both; Firstly, what do you suppose the true cost of your trip has been? I don’t mean Pounds, shillings and pence either but I think you know that.  Secondly what has been the value of the trip to you both – that might be two different answers?

Thanks Ian.  This one made us think very hard at 0630 in the morning flying from Iguassu Foz to Sao Paulo.  We guess you mean by the word “cost”, the downside to the trip.  Or put another way, the “opportunity cost” – what we’ve missed out on by embarking on a trip like this.  We hope this is what you meant?

Now Sir.....

Now Sir…..

In truth, “not a lot” is the first thought that springs to mind.  Good old Yorkshire tea is a starter for ten. We’ve missed the British seasons – chasing the sun has worked – 25 days rain only in 264.  But there’s a lot to be said by the UK’s changing seasons, the Autumn tints and the first signs of Spring.  We suppose you could bring in here the “true cost of friendship” and people we care about who have been thousands of miles away…. But this has been countered to some extent by the hundreds of people we have met around the World and also the great experience of staying with Sarah’s brother Shane and his family over Christmas in Australia.  I have known Shane as my brother-in-law for over 30 years.  But we have never spent more than a couple of days together.  So having the chance to spend “real quality time” to use that awful expression was a real plus….

Shane and Eddie - lads!

Shane and Eddie – lads!

That last statement makes me think we are moving into Part 2 of your question – the value of the trip to you both…

The value is hard to quantify in terms of pounds shillings and pence.  If we had to guess, it would be like the Mastercard Advertisement – PRICELESS.  Do we regret not buying a couple of BMWs, building an extension or putting a sizeable down payment on a holiday home instead?  NO is the simple two letter answer.  We feel much richer than simple material possessions can bring because of the hundreds of positive experiences we’ve had.

The question really is where on Earth (if you pardon the pun) do you begin to start when reviewing each experience and the value there attached?  We’ve experienced the value of seeing so many different cultures at first hand – from poor Buddhist farmers in Nepal to City Bankers (I said bankers) in Hong Kong.  Different landscapes have amazed us at every turn from the Salt Flats of Bolivia to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Everest and the stunning beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.  One of the reasons we wrote the blog was so that we could look back and remember in months and years to come.  Without this aide-memoire, complete with photos we would struggle to take it all in.

Sarah Attenborough

Sarah Attenborough

The value of having time to think cannot be under-estimated.  We managed a year ago to get off the corporate roundabout where we both latterly never really had time to think. Not having to worry about deadlines and targets has been wonderful and yet we are both now ready to revisit the western World of Work, except this time it will be very much on “our terms”.

Finally, we know exactly who and what we are as people and this trip has been valuable in giving us the time and opportunity to confirm this.  In fairness little has changed, we will not be coming back having “seen the light” or wearing sandals, but we know what we like, what we don’t like and this knowledge and experience will guide us in the future in all that we will do.  It will act as a great strength and future sign-post. We won’t be afraid to follow a life path that is of our own making and nobody else’s.

Does that answer your question?

PS:  The “Thingy Thing” you very kindly gave us has been most helpful!  We’ve had a couple of beers or three (opener) and the “saw” was extremely useful when plastic baggage tags had been applied in Vietnam and the only way to get them off was to use the saw!

Smile please

Smile please

SUE ASKS: “I adore seeing sunsets….The passing of another day. Where has been the best and why?” 

Thanks for this Sue!  A really good question.  The sunsets we have seen, have been amazing.  Amazing because they have been simply beautiful and because of their wonderful, often iconic locations.  Some of our favourites have been…..

just missed the birds..... Chitwan in Nepal

just missed the birds….. Chitwan in Nepal

Laos lights

Laos lights

Perfect Peru

Perfect Peru

But our “bestest” and the one we both agreed on independently was when we had our own house boat in Kerala (Southern India).  It was a unique location, we’d just had an amazing dinner cooked by our own personal chef and the backdrop was beautiful.  It was made even more special because next morning we were perfectly placed to see the sunrise again in spectacular fashion.  Special, very special!

House boat sunset part 1

House boat sunset part 1

House boat sunset part 2

House boat sunset part 2

... and in the morning...

… and in the morning…

MARK’S MUM ASKS:   Which has been your favourite country and what difference has this tour made in both your lives?

Hello Mum!  We’re split on this one and so best to refer to the Top 5 below.  Sarah has gone for Laos and New Zealand.  Laos a surprise package and a truly beautiful unspoilt (except for the UXO/80 million unexploded bombs) country.  New Zealand another scenic sensation where you see different beauty at every turn of the road (or sky).

Lovely Laos

Lovely Laos

Mill pond still

Mill pond still

I agree with Sarah’s choices, but for me India is still the Number 1.  It was a powerful power-keg of emotions as far as I was concerned.  The colour, the contrasts, the smells and above all, the people.  Because we travelled over 12,000 miles from the top to the bottom and planned the entire itinerary ourselves I can still remember every place as if it was yesterday. And I’ll never forget Garima and her family at Delhi station.

A great highlight for us - meeting Garima and her family

A great highlight for us – meeting Garima and her family

The harder question to answer is the difference the trip has made to our lives. We both think that time back in England will give us the answer to this question.  Can we come back to you on this one?

MARY ASKS:  What next – both in terms of travel and choice of future employment? I somehow feel the corporate world will not sit comfortably after all you have both seen and experienced.

Hi Mary, a very perceptive question!  We’ve lots of ideas and indeed plans which unfortunately we cannot reveal just yet!  Neither of us are trying to be evasive, it’s just that there are likely to be a number of exciting choices to make in the weeks to come.  The best analogy we can perhaps use is a series of roads which lie ahead rather than a cross roads as we are well past that point on our metaphorical journey.  The corporate world is one I (Mark) still love and I can’t wait to rejoin it, in whatever form that takes.  Sarah meanwhile has had her social conscience pricked many times during the past few months and could well explore this avenue.

What next in terms of travel is an easy one.  We have drawn up our next list of destinations and we’ll aim to knock these off over the next ten years or so. Returning to the UK will be a first in that for the first time in 30 years we have not got an overseas trip (other than Yorkshire) planned.  The MASTERS BUCKET LIST INCLUDES – not in any particular order except the first destination:

  • Vancouver/Portland/Oregon – September 2017 – Court/Linda are you free to put us up as we have run out of money?
  • Japan
  • Lviv – (Ukraine)
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania/Namibia/Ethiopia
  • Costa Rica/Belize
  • Antarctica
  • Rocky Mountain Express and then cruise to Alaska – likely to be when we are in mid 70s as cruising is for old people (controversial).
Planning our next adventure....

Planning our next adventure….

FRANK ASKS:  Apart from “which bit do you think you enjoyed the most?” I think my other question would be “How do you feel about returning to the UK, to “normality”? I’m sure you will be glad to be home in many ways, but how to focus the mind on the daily tasks, that may seem a bit mundane or tame after such an adventure?

Good to have your two-part question Frank!  Hope Radio Frimley Park is going strong!   In terms of the best bit, I’m going to duck that question and refer you to the Top 5 section below which is all jointly agreed.  But I will answer the question another way.  One of the highlights for me was when the wheels of the giant Emirates A380 took off from Heathrow on 31st August 2015.  It was at that precise moment that I knew all the plans were going to happen and there was no going back….

No going back and no point in feeling blue

No going back and no point in feeling blue

The second part of your question is a really interesting point.  I was chatting on Skype to a close friend who warned of the likely feeling of deflation on our return to Frimley… To be frank (not possible I know) we are really looking forward to a little bit of normality.  There has been only five times in nine months where we have been in the same bed for four days or more.  The average is 2.25 nights!  So to banish any negative thoughts, we have a very full programme planned during the first few days of our return.  We then hope that our future plans will come to fruition so we don’t have to endure “normality” for too long.  Sounds all a bit cryptic, so watch this space Frank.

Normality

Normality

KATY ASKS:   Will your sedulous travels have made a difference to your future plans and dreams?

Firstly thank you for all the references to gin on Facebook.  The thought of a proper G & T has kept me going for nine months.  And secondly thanks for using the word sedulous!  Now, your question.  The trip has crystallised rather than changed our future plans.  The job now is to convert the dreams into reality which we both feel better equipped to do having spent so much time away.  What we have learnt, is that if you have a vision/goal and you then commit to it (in writing or publicly), things happen.  We’ve learnt that “us oldies” can still give the younger generation a run for their money and in some ways I am now feeling more competitive and focussed than I did in my mid-20s.  There is only a finite amount of time we are on this mortal coil and experiences such as zip-lining, abseiling and walking the Inca Trail have reinforced the fact that you can do anything you want – if you want to.  People we have met on this trip and indeed people we know in the UK, have said “we couldn’t do that”.  The reality though is somewhat different in our opinion.  If they really wanted to travel the World most of them could – it’s just that they have other priorities, goals and objectives which is fair enough.  Now, where’s that gin before I get too philosophical.

Climb every mountain

Climb every mountain

LINDA ASKS: From all the places you have ticked on your bucket list for this trip, were there any surprises? May be somewhere that has given you a different memory to the one anticipated.

Thanks for this excellent question Linda.  Sarah first: I had two surprises…. The first was Laos, as it was so beautiful and unspoilt and I never realised what a sad history it had and still has. I don’t want to go back again though as I know that in 10 years’ time it will be completely different as mass tourism takes over.

The second is Australia. Having spent time in Australia over 35 years’ ago, I was looking forward to re-visiting old stomping grounds and re-living those 12 months of my life “down under.” However, the highlight for me was spending time with my brother, Shane and his family over Christmas and New Year. With only 13 month’s between us, Shane and I were never really close and growing up, we did everything possible to annoy each other! Maybe at last, maturity has kicked in and we are now able to enjoy each other’s company. (Note; I wrote this (re Shane) independently having not read Mark’s earlier response to Ian!!)

Talking to the 'roo

Talking to the ‘roo – Nephew Eddie

Mark’s turn:  I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at the poor quality of food and service in South America, with one noteable exception.  Having had culinary feasts in China, Indo-China and Malaysia, we assumed Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil would deliver.  Alas no.  Complete lack of customer service in most of Peru and all of Bolivia and a diet of fried meat and not much else everywhere.  The one beacon of excellence was the Inca Trail.  How the hell the porters and chef’s served up such high quality food I will never know and all this on two gas burners.  It just shows what can be achieved.

More tea vicar?

More tea vicar? Harry Porter and the Inca Boys..

MASTERS TOP 5/TOP 10/TOP 15

This took forever to agree, but agree we did.

So, the TOP 5/TOP 10/TOP 15 answers below are not ranked with the exception of the airlines.

TOP COUNTRIES

  • India
  • Laos
  • New Zealand
  • Ecuador
  • Nepal

TOP PEOPLE

  • Indians
  • Nepalese
  • Cambodians
  • Australians
  • Laotians

TOP FOOD

  • India
  • China
  • Vietnam
  • Australia
  • Thailand

TOP EXPERIENCES – MARK

  • Zip lining/Canyonning – Ecuador
  • Train and people spotting – CST – Mumbai – India
  • Flight over Great Barrier Reef – Australia
  • Abseiling -Vietnam
  • Flight x 2 around Mt Everest, Nepal and China

TOP EXPERIENCES – SARAH

  • Snorkelling – Great Barrier Reef
  • Walking the Inca Trail – Peru
  • Flight over Mt Cook and Fox Glacier – New Zealand
  • Riding on a motorbike – Vietnam
  • Floating down the Mekong – Laos

TOP SIGHTS x 15 as could not narrow down

  • Great Barrier Reef, above and on – Australia
  • Mount Cook from above – New Zealand
  • The Great Wall of China
  • Terracotta Warriors – China
  • Golden Temple, Amritsar – India
  • Machu Piccu – Peru
  • Salt Flats, Bolivia
  • Iguassu Falls, Argentina
  • 12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road – Australia
  • Dolphins – New Zealand
  • The Killing Fields – Cambodia
  • Ku Chi Tunnels – Vietnam
  • Mount Everest – Nepal
  • Pantanal – Brazil
  • Where the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef meet

TOP DISAPPOINTMENTS

  • Ankor Wat – Cambodia
  • Nazca Lines – Peru
  • Ayers Rock – Australia
  • Anybody in Bolivia who claims to work in hospitality
  • Food in South America

TOP 5 PHOTOS

NUMBER 1: The bras hit the fan - great drier, but only on slow spin speed!

NUMBER 1: The bras hit the fan – great drier, but only on slow spin speed!

Number 2: Fishing for compliments – nice line Mark!

Number 2: Fishing for compliments – nice line Mark!  Kerala House Boat – sunset – see Sue’s question above

NUMBER 3: The 12 Apostles

NUMBER 3: The 12 Apostles

Great Barrier Reef

NUMBER 4:  Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Made it

NUMBER 5:  Machu Picchu

TOP AIRLINES

  1. Emirates
  2. Air China
  3. LAN
  4. Qantas
  5. Air Asia

 

TRAINS, BOATS AND PLANES –  The Scores on the Doors

Yes we did try to get all the numbers in a straight line below, but failed miserably.  Sorry.  ED.

Bus                                      103

Car/Taxi                                60

Plane                                    39

Metro                                    35

Tuk-tuk                                 28

Ferry                                    26

Boat                                     25

Train                                    19

Rickshaw                               9

Truck                                     8

Cable-car                               6

Tram                                      6

Hire Car                                 5

Bike                                       3

Kayak                                    2

Rib-boat                                 2

4WD                                       2

Monorail                                2

Rowing boat                          1

Tub(ing)                                 1

Motor-bike                             1

Cyclo                                      1

Quad Bike                              1

Golf cart                                 1

Chair-lift                                 1

Toboggan                               1

Horse                                     1

Elephant                                1

Jet Boat                                 1

Jet ski                                    1

Helicopter                             1

Hummer                                1

Funicular                               1

Swing                                    1

Dune Buggy                         1

 

AND SO THE END IS NIGH

MARK:  And so if you have read down to this final paragraph, you must be a true MASTERS follower.  And for that we thank you.  I know we have said it before, but thank you for taking the trouble to keep in touch.  For those that couldn’t or didn’t or wouldn’t, thank you for helping us re-shape our Christmas card list for 2016!  LOL.

Travelling is a strange thing.  You meet many friends, but at the same time it can be very lonely.  Just like the many mountains and valleys, there are highs and there are lows.  For richer for poorer, for better for worse.  The good thing is we will be coming back on the same British Airways plane together and that is probably our biggest highlight and achievement.  Two hundred and sixty four days together, 24 hours a day is a hell of a long time.  Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me!

However, we don’t want you to think we’ve ended on a downer.  No, we prefer to look at the many hundreds of things we have achieved.

Look at the transport stats (above) for one!  We had just one plane that was cancelled resulting in a 12 hour change of plan.  The rest was spot on.  Not one delay on 39 flights.  Every single hotel booking happened as planned.  There were no mistakes, no cock-ups.  Nothing, zilch.  The many hours of planning paid off big time and the contingency plans and back-ups were never used – a pity that as it would have been good in some ways to have been really put to the test.

So the last word goes to me (Mark).  I have, as you have probably gathered written all but one of these blogs.  Sarah’s “The bra hits the fan…..” however, still goes down as one of the most popular, particularly the photo of that dingy little room in Amritsar.  I may have written many of these words and re-kindled my enjoyment for writing, but Sarah has read and edited every single blog. It has been she that re-works my bad English and grammatical mistakes.  It has been Sarah that tweaks and amends and is the “line in the sand when I go too far…..” and to quote MB further;   “You’re every line, you’re every word, you’re everything…..”   Mx

SARAH:  Remember that I’m still the Editor and of course it’s me that has THE LAST WORD!  T’was ever thus.

THAT’S IT.  Thanks for reading, supporting and commenting.  It was a blast!

THE END!!

THE END!!

MARK AND SARAH – THE MASTERS

 

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Any Questions So Far?????

MARK: The Brazilian Pantanal is big.  No really, it is!

The World’s largest tropical wetland area is the size of the UK and sits “slap bang” in the heart of South America.  A haven for wildlife and blessed with the largest concentration of different bird species anywhere on the planet, it is an amazing, magical place.

The stats are impressive:  The Pantanal is home to 1000 different varieties of bird, 400 different fish, 300 mammals and 480 unique reptiles.

A yellow bird

A yellow bird

Not much for supper

Not much for supper

Forgotten the name of this fella

Forgotten the name of this fella

Steady boy!

Steady boy!

To get there though is far from easy, as we found out, finally arriving at our South American Ranch after a long, tortuous, 19 hour overland journey!  In fairness, the initial 11 hour overnight bus from Santa Cruz (Bolivia) to the Brazilian border was pretty painless.  We managed some sleep curled up in our front seats of the double decker bus aided by extra space as there was just three, rather than the normal four seats across the interior cabin.  Furthermore, the broken upper front windscreen was hidden from our initial view behind the obligatory grubby orange bus curtain and the unsubstantiated stains on the seats remained hidden until we got off.

However, when we did manage to stumble down the bus stairs at 0726 and into the cold morning air, our ordeal was far from over.  Ahead of us was a long windy queue of dishevelled, weary bodies, Adidas and Puma tracksuits predominating. We joined this human line and queued for two hours to clear Bolivian customs. Exit stamp obtained in passport, a short 300m walk through “no mans land”. And then, guess what?  Yep another two hours queue, this time to navigate Brazilian customs.  All sorts of confusion prevailed as fellow travellers exited the dingy customs office.  Some people had entry stamps in their passport, some were without and some lucky blighters had a passport stamp and white paper exit form. This was the longest ever immigration/border crossing of my 52 years. I only had a stamp – so at time of writing, am still not sure whether the rest of my life means I will be incarcerated for time immemorial in some Brazilian hell hole.

In and out stamp

In and out stamp

Planning our next adventure....

Planning our next adventure….

Fortunately, there was a Mercedes Mini-Bus on the “other side”.  Unfortunately, its presence heralded a further three hour trip through the Brazilian countryside.  It was cold.  It was wet. It should have been 30C+.  It wasn’t.  It was more like 16C.  What is happening to the World weather????

All went reasonably well until the van pulled off the main road and then the bumping associated with a mud road started.  It continued for twenty minutes.  A sharp right turn on to a small track really did start to shake our bodies to the core, but fortunately this lasted for just a few minutes as we drew up alongside a “safari type” truck.  Just one more leg through the wetlands.  “Forty minutes and we’ll be there….”  came the cry from Isaac our guide.

On safari

On safari

He was right.  In 42 minutes, 30 seconds we arrived at Passo de Lontra.  A few buildings in the middle of a raised green area, surrounded by water.  We’d arrived in the Pantanal proper, a friendly Caiman smiled at the group as we grabbed our bags.

Caiman/alligator - either way they still bite

Caiman/alligator – either way they still bite

Sarah was pretty cold by this stage, not helped by a really bad head cold. So we took one look at the row of hammocks in the windswept communal dormitory and decided we’d prefer the relative comfort of our own room for two days.  The upgrade fee of £50 was quickly paid, guaranteeing us a breeze block built “cell” with convector heated shower and 25 year old TV.

Next day the weather was better and surprisingly few degrees warmer.  It was therefore time, after watching a beautiful sunrise, to saddle up and head through the marshland on horseback.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Invaded by goats outside our luxury pent-house

Invaded by goats outside our luxury pent-house

I felt sure the cowboys wouldn’t find a horse big enough for a 100kg super heavyweight – but they did.  And do you know what, I’m glad they did.  The experience of being on a horse for the first time in 40 years was great fun especially as the procession of nags waded through murky water up to five feet deep, wildlife all around.

Off we went... I managed a trot and got wet

Off we went… I managed a trot and got wet

Beautiful countryside

Beautiful countryside

The final furlong....

The final furlong….

My “Uncle Crisp” – who is actually Uncle Chris but the name stuck thanks to Joe – visited the Pantanal area recently and as an avid bird enthusiast came back very excited.  We could see why as there were so many different varieties of feathered friends ranging from stunning kingfishers and brightly coloured woodpeckers through to unbelievable Guinness toucans and pairs of brilliant blue macaws.

Friendly

Friendly

Very friendly

Very friendly

A member of the woodpecker family

A member of the woodpecker family

Little red chap

Little red chap

Toucan play at that game!

Toucan play at that game!

One of five different kingfishers seen

One of five different kingfishers seen

This one chirped a lot

This one chirped a lot

Tall

Tall

Yellow eyed woodpecker

Yellow eyed woodpecker

A robin?

A robin?

But birds also share this amazing landscape with over 40,000,000 predatory caiman.  Yes you did read right – 40 million of the alligator snappers, the biggest of which we saw was in excess of three metres. I was particularly thrilled to discover quite by chance when reviewing various shots, that one of the caiman had a large dragon fly perched right on the end of its nose.  One of my better shots…..

We encountered many of these fascinating creatures who in the main were more frightened of us than we were of them….

Perfectly formed

Perfectly formed

Love the dragon fly on this boys nose

Love the dragon fly on this boy’s nose

Curious - this taken from 3 metres away

Curious – this taken from 3 metres away

Indeed we saw a lot of different animals on our three day expedition including anteaters, capybara (the largest rhodent in the World), marsh deer and peccaries (wild pigs).

Capybara on the move

Capybara on the move

Wonderful creature - the giant ant-eater

Wonderful creature – the giant ant-eater

We also caught some fish!  About 12 of us, complete with bamboo canes, fishing wire and hooks, attempted to land some piranhas for tea, hanging off a bridge some 15 miles from our ranch base.  The piranhas didn’t play ball, but some snake fish did and I’m pleased to say that yours truly caught three of the five fish the group landed!

Like kids - great fun

Like kids – great fun

Look at the size of that..

Look at the size of that..

Talking of water, a couple of days after we left the Pantanal, and en-route to the Iguassu Falls (Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border), we had a most enjoyable experience, snorkelling in some of the clearest water anywhere in the World at a place called Bonito.  Limestone filtered water surges from a spring at a rate of 10,000 litres a minute.  You jump in complete with wet suit, snorkel and mask and then serenely float down the river marvelling at the clarity of vision – 60 metres no less – and the myriad of fish that are happy to share their natural aquarium.

Relaxing

Relaxing

Beautifully clear

Beautifully clear

Not sure what sort of fish this is...

Not sure what sort of fish this is…

and relax....

and relax….

That was pretty special, but nothing compared to the Iguassu Falls which border Brazil and Argentina.  We’ll gloss over the awful 14 hour bus ride to get there which was truly horrendous.  Instead, I’ll focus on the fantastic helicopter ride and walk down by these amazing waterfalls – in pictures only.

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

Within ten minutes we were there..

Within ten minutes we were there..

One of my better attempts

One of my better attempts

Argentina on the right and Brazil nearside

Argentina on the right and Brazil nearside

And down on the ground the shots views were good as well

And down on the ground the views were just as good

Another Rainbow....

Another Rainbow….

And that’s really just about it, for this blog and MASTERS20152016.COM.  We may have time for another Blog before we return on 10 May – just not sure how the time will pan out between now and then.  We do also have a mega blog that needs to be completed, which shares many tips, thoughts and views about our 9 months on the road, but I am not sure quite when and where this will be published….

In the meantime one final idea.  If you would like to ask Sarah and me any questions about our Round the World Trip, add them to the comments section on this blog and we will endeavour to weave them in to our final posting.

Stay safe and see you very, very soon.

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , ,

“ASALT” on the SENSES!!!!

WARNING:  THIS IS OUR LONGEST BLOG YET.  SO…. IF YOU CANNOT SLEEP AT NIGHT AND DON’T WANT TO TAKE SLEEPING PILLS, READ IT AS IT’S A GUARANTEED SURE FIRE WAY OF FALLING ASLEEP FAST!

MARK:  Less than three weeks to go on our epic MASTERS20152016 Round the World Trip.  The reality of normality now very much just around the corner! The EU debate, queues of traffic on the M25, the start of the cricket season and hopefully, confirmation that Middlesbrough FC make it back to the Premiership after a nine year absence.  So many things to look forward to.  And ooooh yes, we will see our little Joey when we get back at 1300 on Tuesday May 10, @T5 London Heathrow Airport.  Bunting out in Regent Way Frimley, I can see it now.

Flying!

Flying!

We’re still living in the moment and my goodness me, what a few moments we’ve had in Bolivia over the past few days!  It’s been full on ever since we left the capital La Paz – a fairly interesting, if somewhat boring place.  The highlight for us of this administrative capital was quite literally the fantastic cable car system which transports upwards of 70,000 people a day across the city, at heights of up to 4,000m.

The high life

The high life

We left La Paz after a couple of days at 9.00pm at night, from a dirty smelly street, half a mile from our hotel, on yet another overnight bus.  There was no tread on the tyres.  The bus itself looked 20 years old. And when you got inside, you wondered how you would survive the ten hour, 500km ride to the deep south.  Worse was to follow.  The on-board information leaflet confirmed that 185km would be on “dirt roads”.  Deep joy!  The only thing keeping us going was the knowledge that we were heading to another Geographical Wonder of the World, namely the Bolivian Salt flats!

Time to go - I think????

Time to go – I think????

Sarah was not happy – her knee was still hurting.  Mark was not happy – his shoulder was still hurting.  The bus trundled relentlessly on occasionally hitting an incredibly high top speed of 80kph (49.7mph)!   At 1.00am we shuddered to a halt in some deserted back street. “Banos” was the cry from the driver.  Fellow travellers rushed out obviously feeling the effects of the in-bus served fried cheese balls, rice, cold carrots and beans.  We were hanging on with no ill-effects.  Eight months travelling and no need for Imodium.  Is that a record??  I suppose 28 years of Sarah’s cooking had helped prepare my stomach for this RTW eating extravaganza….

Bacon anyone?

Bacon anyone?

At 0300 the bumping, shaking, rattling and bouncing started.  A glance through the window behind the dirty orange bus curtain, revealed a lunar landscape lit coincidentally by a full moon.  We were in the Bolivian desert and boy did our poor bodies know it.  We had reached the end of the metaled road and the bus’s shock absorbers simply could not cope. But as in all cases, there was light at the end of this mammoth trip when at about 6.00am, rays of blue/orange light pierced the mountains in the distance to reveal a stunning backdrop of nothingness.  We were in an amazing wilderness, with the occasional tuft of tumbleweed blowing through small green bushes that managed to survive in what was a harsh high landscape at an altitude of 3,700m.

Lunar landscape

Lunar landscape

After a delicious (NOT) on-board breakfast of biscuits, cake and yoghurt we arrived in Uyuni, a two-horse town at the head of the Salt Flats.  Miraculously our bags on the public bus had not been stolen thanks to our metal chains and two combination locks, so we disembarked, jumped into a taxi complete with furry dashboard and were transported five minutes later through deserted streets to our hotel.  It was Sunday morning.  Nobody was up except for a scraggy looking black cat that had obviously returned late from a heavy night out on the tiles.

Sunday, sunday

Sunday, Sunday

Line up

Line up

Not expecting much, we were amazed that we had arrived at a reasonable hotel in this Bolivian back water.  We made full use of the warm shower and greedily helped ourselves to scrambled eggs, sugar puffs, vanilla yoghurt and a bread roll.  Yum!

A short time later we were told to be in the hotel reception ready to leave on our three day, 4 Wheel Drive (4WD) trip to the Salt Flats.  Just before we left, a short itinerary was thrust into our hands and it soon became clear that our 4WD adventure was going to be just that, a hard core trip into the unknown.  Both of us had not really studied the main itinerary.  We knew when we booked our trip 18 months ago that we would be in the Bolivian outback but little more than that.  So glancing at the A4 sheets we were surprised and delighted to see that we would be visiting a cemetery for trains, the oldest cemetery in South America (1200AD) for humans, as well as staying in an Eco-hotel made out of salt bricks.  Add on a drive through the mountains visiting geysers and the chance to spot flamingos and there you had it, an action packed 60 hour voyage of discovery.

Driving round town and beyond

Driving round town and beyond

Four 4×4 vehicles were patiently waiting just outside of the hotel.  Two Toyota Land Cruisers (the oldest built in 1995) and two Nissan Patrol vehicles.  Sarah and I were in the lead Land Cruiser together with a 30 year old Aussie called Dayne from Sydney and our inexperienced tour guide, a pleasant 26 year old guy called Nico, who was born in Argentina and whose Dad 25 years ago used to be Uruguay’s International Goal Keeper.  We were in safe hands!

Lead vehicle

Lead vehicle

Our “caravan” of 4x4s eventually set off, with one of the vehicles looking as if it would not make the first corner of the street, never mind a 500+ mile trip through the mountains.

First stop, a visit to the “Train Cemetery” just outside of town.  I was expecting a graveyard full of people who had died building the line through Bolivia to neighbouring Chile.  WRONG with a capital W.  This was a graveyard of old British, French and American steam trains, rusting slightly in the arid desert.  Train buffs – Scott Ford, Ian Jones, James Duckworth, David Parker, Stuart Bailey, Ian Prescott – will have fond memories of Barry Island where old de-commissioned British Rail Steam Engines went to be sold or die/cut up into scrap.  It was just like that, but much, much bigger, plus you could climb all over these giant iron hulks, which had been brought here after the railways closed.  There was even talk that one of the engines was riddled with bullet holes as this was the area of Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were eventually killed.

Casey Bailey

Casey Bailey

We discovered a 1914 engine built by Vickers and two engines built by a firm called Taylors in the mid 1950s.  One even looked like part of the shell of a Mallard locomotive.  Surely it can’t have been?  I look forward to any comments that can help me identify the steam engines from the shots below.  No prizes for guessing the name of the “old boiler”.

Going loco

Going loco

Sarah had to guard against falling off...

Sarah had to guard against falling off…

End of the line

End of the line

Sad end..

Sad end..

Is this a "Mallard"????

Is this a “Mallard”????

Our “dead good” visit to the cemetery ended all too soon…..

Did not want to leave

Did not want to leave

…and we quickly made our way along well tarmacked roads to a village called Colchani at the edge of the Salt Flats, known for making cooking salt.  We were not particularly enamoured with what we saw.  A small oven heated by wood collected from the local area which in turn dried the salt and hey presto, it was bagged and sold to local shops.  Wow!  What was though much more interesting were the strange assortment of toys and other “bric a brac” which could be purchased outside.  It was just like the car boot sale held in Farnborough on a Sunday morning.  Amongst the wackier items up for sale were green, red and grey dinosaurs ranging from the ferocious ‘T’ Rex to the heavy weight Diplodocus.  Stranger still, our fellow traveller, Col’ Jim, our 73 year old former head of the Canadian Airborne Division in Europe purchased a green ‘T’ Rex.  “You’ll see” he said with a glint in his eye….

Back on board and with thoughts of Jurassic Park flashing through my mind we soon entered a white wonderland.  We were on the World famous Bolivian salt flats and as far as the eye could see stretched a dazzling white carpet of sparkling hexagonal shaped salt crystals.  The only thing I’ve ever seen which remotely comes close was the frozen lake at Zell am Zee in Austria, when it had been covered in six inches of snow back in 1989.  Or put it another way, the perspective views were like a TV studio with white floor and white backing curtains creating that wonderful thing called infinity.

Unbelievable

Unbelievable

Our 4WD caravan did not hang around.  At speeds of around 100kph (62mph) we hammered across the white desert landscape.

Burning up the salt

Burning up the salt

Heading south

Heading south

First stop on our journey was the chance to see a former salt hotel and salt monument dedicated to the Paris-Dhakar rally.

A block of salt

A block of salt

And then, photos snapped we were back in our seats for a 30 minute drive to the centre of the Flats and a chance to take perspective photos.  The Col’s Green 8 inch high ‘T’ Rex suddenly made an appearance and then it dawned on me.  If you took any object (I managed to find a peanut, a bottle of Bolivian red wine and a full bottle of Sprite), you could make all sorts of weird and wonderful photos.  Take a look for yourself…

Pea-nut

Pea-nut

Sarah on top of my sunnies

Sarah on top of my sunnies

Sarah liked dancing on a bottle of sprite

Sarah liked dancing on a bottle of Sprite

A vintage balancing act by MSTJB

A vintage balancing act by MSTJB

We were just like kids.  What a laugh.  What fun!

Suddenly, the light began to fade, the temperature dropped close to zero and it was time to reach our resting place for the night, the interestingly named Ecolodge Tambo Coquesa.  This quite simply was a half-finished series of bedroom units and a central “restaurant area” made from blocks of salt.  Our group on arrival was split up and we shared a room with two 23 year old Belgians – Diet and El’ plus boy wonder Matt, my Inca Trail walking buddy.  It was like we had three new surrogate children as we were affectionately referred to as “Mum and Dad”.

The children ready for bed

The children ready for bed

The room was very warm as the salt blocks had heated up during the day and slowly let out their warmth overnight.  That was all fine, but the toilets were something else! The bowl was divided into two compartments.  Compartment One at the front was for “Number One’s” whilst the hole at the back of the bowl was for “Number Two’s” which if got your aim right fell into a black hole of smelly compost type material some three metres below.  Ummm.  It’s really interesting from a marketing point of view what you can get away with if you include the word “Eco”…. Must remember that sometime.

The restaurant was a simple seating area made out of salt, with salt stools.  And the floor, yes you’ve guessed it, was a carpet of crystallised rock salt.  The food was sadly not much to write home about and Sarah found it mildly amusing that all the dishes served “needed some salt”!! But the bedrooms were warm and cosy as the rain came down.

Pass the salt please

Pass the salt please – the restaurant

Next morning, we had the chance to run down to the edge of the salt flats which were by now partly covered in water from the overnight storm.  There we spotted numerous pink flamingos – officially called “James” Flamingos!!  It was a chance to get some photos and admire Mother Nature yet again:

Near the salt hotel

Near the salt hotel

Flamingoland, North Yorkshire

Flamingoland, North Yorkshire

The group was due to set off at 8.00am on Day 2 and just in the nick of time I made it back to the bedroom block, quickly stuffed my back-pack with my belongings and ran to the idling Land Cruiser which was still freezing cold inside after its’ nightly sleep.

We headed back on to the Salt “Lake” and were told that in parts, the water underneath the salt crust was some 25m deep and it was not uncommon for heavily laden 4×4’s to get stuck and sink.  But before that happened, we arrived at Incahausi Island a small rocky outcrop, 150m high, covered in cacti and offering a great view of the surrounding area despite the grey conditions.  Back down to the salt flats and I “borrowed” what looked like a Union Jack and promptly “claimed” the island for Britain.  Not sure if this jingoistic act was lost on our young Argentinian Guide!

Now British

Now British

Island of pricks

Island of pricks

Island in the salt centre

Island in the salt centre

So you can guess the next bit.  Yes, back in to the vehicles.  Two and a half hours later we arrived in San Juan having seen en-route what appeared to be half of the Bolivian Army training in really harsh terrain.

Left, right left

Left, right left

Tummy’s rumbling and just before lunch, we had the chance to see what was a real highlight for me, the World famous San Juan Cemetery.  We walked through an area of high ground where we could see “bee-hive shaped” tombs dating back to 1200AD and made out of volcanic rock.  The route through the graveyard was clearly marked by white arrows and they directed us to the first tomb which had a 1m square hole in the front.  We peeked in, not quite sure what we might find and boy were we shocked!  Inside was a human skeleton “sat” against the back wall still clothed!  Other tombs revealed foetal positioned skeletons and bodies “stuffed” in clay pots.  It was macabre, fascinating and quite unbelievable.  We made our way to different tombs and were amazed at what we saw…The dry desert like conditions had preserved the mummified bodies so well that you wondered if you might have a conversation with these people from yesteryear.  Take a look for yourself.

The cemetery

The cemetery

A tomb

A tomb

Grave 1

Grave 1

Grave 2

Grave 2

Grave 3

Grave 3

Grave 4

Grave 4

Grave 5

Grave 5

Grave 6

Grave 6

The afternoon journey through the mountains was equally interesting but this time because of the stunning scenery.  The beauty was there for all to behold.  Enough of my words – look at these shots….

Stunner

Stunner

Hello James Flamingo

Hello James Flamingo

The red algae gives the pin to the flamingos

The red algae gives the pink to the flamingos

End of the day

End of the day

That night we stayed in a terrible “hotel” where bread buns were rationed to one each.  I could tell you a whole new story about what happened next, but perhaps that story would be best told over a pint of beer back in the UK… what stays on tour and all that.

It rained all night and the next morning we got up at 0500 in the pitch black to be greeted by now full buckets of water strategically placed along the hall way underneath the dodgy leaking roof. One bread bun later, we clambered slowly back into the lead Land Cruiser, bumped along for 15 minutes and then the lights behind us went out.  We turned round and discovered one of the Nissan’s with its bonnet up.  The alternator had failed.

Not well

Not well

One hour later, the only solution was to “swap out” a battery from the second Nissan – something which they had to do every couple of hours for the next two days.  Not an ideal solution, but at least one that worked.

The remainder of our 4WD tour centred largely around Bolivia’s natural beauty – welcome to Day 3. To our right, about five miles away over the mountain range was Chile.  To our left and 20 miles away was Argentina.  We were at the southerly most point of Bolivia.  We were also very high – above 5,000m and it was cold with plenty of snow.

Snow!!!!!! Coldest we have been in 15 months

Snow!!!!!! Coldest we have been in 15 months

At times we could only travel at a few miles per hour.  Then suddenly we would scream along deserted volcanic plains at high speed.  The rock formations were fascinating.

A rock tree - ok so you have to use your imagination...

A rock tree – ok so you have to use your imagination…

Lakes, like the one below had a myriad of beautiful colours.

Colourful

Colourful

Flamingos were everywhere.

Turning away

Turning away

Even geysers and hot springs made an appearance.

yes, tis I

yes, tis I

It was a fascinating few days and even the five hour journey back to our base hotel in Uyuni near the salt flats wasn’t too bad – just two breakdowns to contend with.

Not well

Not well

So onward now to the city where Silver is King (Potosi), then another bus to Sucre and then over the border to Brazil, Argentina and finally back in to Brazil again.

For those that are interested in reading more about what we have been up to, check out my latest TRIP ADVISOR REVIEWS by going to https://www.tripadvisor.co.nz/members/MStJB/.  I am thrilled and delighted to say (sarcasm) that I am still Camberley’s Number #1 contributor a position I would gladly swap for guaranteed promotion to the Premiership.

Stay safe, see you soon and of course #UTB

Where next?

Where next?

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , , , ,

Peruvian People Postcards

MARK:  The sun is going down in Bolivia.  Late evening rays hit the red houses that adorn the mountainside as I look out from our hotel window, here in La Paz.

Peru has been and gone.  A country of highs and lows for us, literally and metaphorically.  After the highs of Machu Piccu we got even higher at Lake Titicaca where we had another really interesting home stay and I met a little friend called Aldo.

We then travelled to the Bolivian Border and subsequently endured the worst bus journey of our lives, as we were bumped and shaken for three hours on roads that really shouldn’t have been called roads.

But this short Photo-Blog is not about Bolivia, more about this fascinating country another day.  No, this missive from Mark focusses on the People of Peru.  You don’t need many words, when you look at the pictures of their etched faces, old and new.  So as we say goodbye to the Land of Paddington Bear, we leave you with some lasting memories from us in the form of a few photo postcards.  Have a good weekend.  Three and a bit weeks to go.  Eeeeeekkkkkkk.

Life's a beach.... full of litter

Life’s a beach…. full of litter

Beatification beckons... Saint Sarah deserves it after eight months!

Beatification beckons… Saint Sarah deserves it after eight months!

The dead centre of Peru

The dead centre of Peru

Baby on tour 1

Baby on tour 1

Baby on Tour 2

Baby on Tour 2

Baby on Tour 3

Baby on Tour 3

Nursery school

Nursery school

Tally ho

Tally ho

Reed Island Dwellers

Reed Island Dwellers

Holding on for dear life

Holding on for dear life with a reed lady

Kiss me quick

Kiss me quick

Happy Days

Happy Days

Nimble mover... why is that I always get picked?

Nimble mover… why is it that I always get picked?

Down town

Down town

Frogs legs anyone?

Frogs legs anyone?

The excitement was intents during the Inca Trail

The excitement was “intents” during the Inca Trail

Fruity

Fruity

A wonderful way of life

A wonderful way of life

Ladies rule where-ever you are in the World

Ladies rule where-ever you are in the World

Found this girl in tears...

Found this girl in tears…

Me and my mate Aldo. He spoke for an hour to me in Spannish - I just said "Si Si Aldo" and he seemed to be happy with that!

Me and my mate Aldo. He spoke for an hour to me in Spanish – I just said “Si Si Aldo” and he seemed to be happy with that!

Group Peru

Group Peru

And it's goodbye to Peru from them

And it’s goodbye to Peru from them

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR BEST WISHES AND COMMENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND INDEED ON THE MASTERS SITE.  THE GOOD NEWS IS YOU ONLY HAVE TO ENDURE A FEW MORE POSTINGS….

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , , ,

Chasing the Pink Umbrella to Machu Picchu

MARK:  Straight to the point and no suspense.  We did it! No, we smashed it!  Two middle-aged people walked, climbed and ran the Inca Trail, seeing Machu Picchu at dawn through the Sun Gate – or should I say Cloud Gate?

Yes, we did it!

Yes, we did it!

Surprisingly, we found the challenge hard but not nearly as hard as we had anticipated.  The 45km, four day, 12,000 stair hike was without doubt one of our Round the World highlights and if you ever get the chance, DO IT as you won’t be disappointed!

Our GOAL - reaching Machu Picchu in three days

Our GOAL – reaching Machu Picchu in four days

Where to start?  Well the beginning I guess and a 45 minute mini-bus ride took us to the start of the Trail, from our overnight stay in Ollantaytambo.  On arrival, purple shirted porters were busy preparing their bags.  They had everything you could think of including the kitchen sink.  And boy, were they fit. Carrying in excess of 50lbs they literally ran everywhere…

Running like the wind

Running like the wind

A gentle amble down the valley for 10 minutes brought us to the start of the Trail.  Cue tourist picture.

Classic shot with our guide Jay and a porter!

Classic shot with our guide J and a porter!

Another five minutes and we were at the first check point.  Two hundred people a day get passes to walk the Inca Trail, the Bailey’s had their paperwork reviewed, including passport and we were off!

Cleared to go

Cleared to go

The first morning was a pleasant walk at relatively low altitude – 2,650m along the banks of the river.  Views were stunning, spirits were high, the sun was shining.

Gentle pace

Gentle pace

Every so often, a train would blow its horn, lamas and other animals would run quickly away.  Randomly, in the distance, a man with a pink umbrella was setting a very fast pace.

The first Inca settlement – there would be 10 to see – was reached at around 1100 after two hours steady walking, with little incline.

First Inca Site

First Inca Site

Little friend

Little friend

The views over the site were spectacular, but lunch beckoned and so we flew over the ridge and up towards the camp where we enjoyed a hearty lunch including soup and chicken, all prepared from two gas burners.  Excellent.

Lunch is served

Lunch is served

Great service

Great service

Our Porters having lunch

Our porters having lunch

The afternoon was more challenging with some steep hills, but we took them in our stride and as the sun began to set behind some striking mountains we saw our little red tents all lined up.  Time to wash our feet and to sink a quick beer that somebody had kindly brought! Tomorrow we all knew was going to be a different ball game….

Beer and water

Beer and water

At 0500 we awoke from our semi-sleep.  Fitful would be a better word for it as the air mattresses supplied ensured we felt every bump of the hard ground.

But outside, the sun was coming up and we were ready for the big one.

Sun rise

Sun rise

Day 2 is the day people dread on the Inca Trail.  A four/five hour trek from 2,700m to 4,200m to reach Dead Woman’s Pass and then a steep climb down the other side to 3,600m.  Our Group of 11 quickly split into two.  I was setting the pace with Matt, Sarah just behind with Hannah.  But then Matt (29) and just 60kg, took off like a mountain goat and showed why he was an expert climber.  God, the boy flew. Three hours later, I caught him up, smiling!  He had arrived ten minutes earlier.  But I felt better when I realised that our back marker was over an hour behind us.  It wasn’t a race, but it was a personal test of stamina and fitness.

Matt - boy wonder

Matt – boy wonder

Duck on tour...

Duck on tour…

Half way up towards Dead Woman's Pass

Half way up towards Dead Woman’s Pass

At 1000 we set off again to reach the summit, this time working as a team to keep each other going.  It was hard, very hard.  Calves hurting, the pink umbrella could clearly be seen half a mile ahead.  Heart racing, the last 250m was really tough, but as the cloud closed in we reached the summit in just over an hour.  The view down the valley spectacular, which prompted a short “live” video report.  Click on the link/arrow/photo below to play the video:

This shot from distance - 4km away and 500m higher

This shot from distance – 4km away and 500m higher – Dead Woman’s Pass

At the top - 4,200m

At the top – 4,200m, Matt stripping off

Sarah wasn’t far behind.  All that training had paid off and even though her knee was hurting from the Ecuadorian Volcano fall, she still managed a smile!

Sarah nearly there

Sarah nearly there

Team MASTERS

Team MASTERS

Group photo done, we were off down the other side, a steep track with hundreds of stairs.  It was now that M Bailey Esq came into his own as he sped downhill with poles providing an all important support. It was great fun, music loud on I-pod.  Happy Days.

Camp that night was great fun, superb views and wonderful food.

Sarah and Hannah - from Milford

Sarah and Hannah – from Milford

Great views

Great views even though it was grey!

DAY 3:  This was billed as a “gentle walk”, with the chance to see numerous Inca settlements.  The day though was far from easy.  16km of ascent and descent, with heavy rain during the middle part of the day. Throw in to the mix paths which were a metre wide with 500m drops and you get the rather soggy picture.  Matt though, got me through my bouts of vertigo by walking on the edge acting as a human shield.  Hero.

Grey start

Grey start

Trees are us

Trees are us

Kept going

Kept going

A flower

A flower

Lads

Lads!

It certainly wasn’t plain sailing as during the late morning, Dieter, a lovely 23 year old guy from Belgium, really wasn’t very well and had to be helped down to the last camp by our Number 2 Guide and two porters.  This was getting hard!

Dieter when fit... if you know what I mean

Dieter when fit… if you know what I mean

The descent continued.  This time from 3,600m to 2,600m.  Walking down thousands of stairs is arguably harder than going up.  It really plays on your knees, but we kept on going through caves and along the side of steep gorges until we found the last but one Inca settlement.  This was stunning despite the fact that it was now 6.00pm with the light rapidly fading….

Stunning

Stunning

Going down hill

Going down hill

Treemendous

Treemendous

A quiet group ate dinner that night.  Thoughts were with Dieter in his tent and two other members of the group who were beginning to struggle.  Our Guide, J then hit us with the bombshell that our wake up call was going to be 3.30am next morning, we would clear camp by 4.30am ready for the final 6kms of the trek.  The aim was to be at the Sun Gate that overlooks Machu Picchu by sunrise.

It was cold and wet and miserable, when we woke up.  But who managed to crawl out of his tent? Dieter!!  “I’ve not come all this bloody way not to do this…”  Fair Play.

0430 - pissing down

0430 – pissing down

The final push in low cloud and mist, where was the sun?  A bit of a bun fight developed as 200 people walked at quick speed along narrow ledges and up the flight of monkey stairs – 75 rock steps.  We hung back aware that a tourist had recently been accidentally “knocked” over the cliff face to her death 300m below. We’d come so far and weren’t going to not get there.

Nearly there

Nearly there

Duck getting excited

Duck getting excited

And then we arrived at the Sun Gate, which I renamed Cloud Gate…. But the mist lifted and wow what a view… take a look at the shots below.  They speak for themselves.  Oh yes and I finally met Mr Pink Umbrella – a Doctor from Delhi!

Wow what a view

Wow what a view

Cloud lift

Cloud lift

Nice views

Nice views

Duck made it

Duck made it

Wow!

Wow!

And another

And another

He made it.... Diet' left

He made it…. Dieter right

The Man with the Pink Umbrella

The Man with the Pink Umbrella

We then headed down to MP.  Another 45 minutes!  And wow what a place.  Quite amazing.

Stunning!

Stunning!

Stunning!!

Stunning!!

Lama meets drone

Lama meets drone

We loved walking around all smelly and looking a mess as all the “rich tourists” in their designer gear walked past.  They knew what we’d done.  We knew what we’d done.

As we sign off, heading south now to Lake Titicaca and on to Bolivia, we are into our final month away. May 10th and LHR T5 gets ever closer.  But we live in the moment. If we don’t then we will never appreciate fully just what we are doing and what we have achieved.

Good bye from MP and SB

Good bye from MP and SB

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , ,

Saved from death by bush – Sarah rocks and then rolls

MARK: For a few awful seconds I thought “Oh my God, I’ve lost Sarah.”  It was a surreal moment.

Doubtless you’ve heard the expression, “it was just like watching in slow motion”. It’s the hackneyed phrase often reported when someone witnesses a road accident or some other terrible event. And for me, it was just like that!

I was following Sarah, a few steps behind her green and white Osprey day pack down a steep ledge on the side of a dormant volcano.  It was Maundy Thursday and we were both high in the Ecuadorian Andes close to the Colombian Border, when suddenly she slipped….

Close to the fall site - 3,900m

Close to the fall site – 3,900m

It was all so different the day before, when we had arrived at our wonderful homestay to be greeted by our hosts Teresa and Luis. The backdrop to their rustic house in San Clemente was the formidable Imbabura Mountain which loomed ominously behind, like a watchful giant. I was glad to hear its last eruption had been some 500 years before as I didn’t particularly like the thought of a Vesuvian style destruction of Pompeii on my doorstep.

Mount Imbabura - 4,600m high

Mount Imbabura – 4,600m high

It was clear from the start that this was going to be nothing like our “disappointing” homestay visit in Laos:

https://masters20152016.com/2015/11/13/exploitation-or-salvation-the-jurys-still-out-on-this-one/

This was the real thing!  Ecuadorian hospitality first hand.

Our group was split into three, Sarah and I, together with our travelling companions Rita and Cheryl were the guests of the Tuquerres Family.  We “bagged” the back bedroom which was accessed by the dining room and began to explore our fascinating surroundings.  Outside the front door, chickens chased, turkeys gobbled, pigs snorted, dogs yapped and I got my shoes covered in what looked like duck poo.  It was quite a menagerie.

Gobble - gobble

Gobble – gobble

All friends

All friends

Tired

Tired

ahh

Ahh…

All around the house, which can be best described as a small holding, crops including corn and beans grew, whilst elsewhere, delicious blackberries were ready for picking and limes hung with droplets of water on their bright green skin.  The only thing missing was the bottle of Gordon’s.

Self-sufficient

Self-sufficient

Ice and a slice...

Ice and a slice…

The house itself was a strange mix of buildings which had been added to over a period of a few years.  The extreme right of the house, featured a joiners workshop, with a decidedly dodgy roof.  Through the courtyard, you came in to a semi-closed off area in the shape of an L.  At one end was a wood fire which doubled sometimes as a stove.  Because we were on the Equator, the temperature at night only fluctuates from 12-15C throughout the year.  However, it was the coldest we had been since leaving the UK and we were glad of the heat.  A “westernised” kitchen looked really out of place, particularly when you saw micro-waves and blenders which were at odds with the simply furnished bedrooms, dining room and “washing” area – the latter looking more like something from the Middle-Ages than anything out of the 21st Century.  They did however have to our surprise an inside toilet and indeed a shower. But it was home and we were made to feel so very welcome.

A bit wooden

A bit wooden

The courtyard entrance

The courtyard entrance

Cheryl, Rita and Sarah keeping warm

Cheryl, Rita and Sarah keeping warm

Inside out

Inside out

Dining room

Dining room

And yes I did do some washing

And yes I did do some washing

Though none of us spoke each other’s respective language, we managed to have great fun at meal times through a mixture of sign language, experimenting with French and German to see if their vocabulary was vaguely similar to our Spanish friends and occasionally using Google Translate when the wifi decided to work.

Meal times - special times

Meal times – special times

Our Group of 14 came together for various joint activities and it was during one of these sessions that Nathalie our Guide offered the wider group the opportunity to climb the forbidding peak Imbabura!

There was some interest, but most people sensibly decided to opt for ploughing the fields with Oxen or cooking dinner with their respective hosts. But Sarah and I had different ideas.  This would be the perfect test of our fitness.  More than that, we would be climbing at high altitude with only two days of acclimatisation since our stay at sea level in the “olde-worlde” Pacific resort of Puerto Lopez. Not the smartest of ideas perhaps, but hey, if we were going to show signs of altitude sickness, then this would be it. If we survived this then the Inca Trail should be a doddle!

Nathalie gave more information. Our homestay was 2,700m (8,900 ft).  At 0500 we would be taken by 4WD truck to the base of Mount Imbabura at 3,100m (10,170ft) with a Guide.  The ascent would start at 0530 and last for four/five hours until we reached the summit of 4,600m (15,100ft).

We said yes. And as the sun went down, we both kept looking at the mountain mesmorised by its size and height and wondering what the hell we had let ourselves in for the next day….

Mean and Moody - the Mountain, not Marco

Mean and Moody – the Mountain, not Marco

We then had one of those nights sleep which is fitful to say the least.  The night you barely sleep, glancing every 15 minutes at the alarm clock to see if it was time to get up.  At 0430 it was, the alarm never went off.  We’d both been awake since 0300.

We packed our bags with all we needed.  Phone for emergencies.  Three litres of water for me, two for Sarah.  Thinking we would have to skip breakfast, we were thrilled and delighted to see the sight of Teresa cooking “bread cakes” over the dying embers of the fire as we came out of our bedroom, the cock crowing just outside our window.  How’s that for hospitality!

The warm bread was packed in our day packs, together with bananas and a coffee flask.  We were ready.

Teresa making us breakfast

Teresa making us breakfast

Lovely bread cakes - made in the open fire

Lovely bread cakes – made in the open fire

It was not long before we picked up our guide, Tupac who we were relieved to hear spoke English.  I’m sure he was thinking that these two old farts wouldn’t make it… But before I had chance to speak, two bright shining eyes stared directly at me as I sat in the front of the 4WD.  It was a Honey Bear, who soon ran away at the throbbing sound of the 3.5 litre Chevrolet engine.  Fifteen minutes and what felt like hundred jolts later, the road petered out into a rough track and the base of the Mountain began to appear into view like the unveiling of a black cape. Dawn was breaking.  It was time for the start of our morning stroll….

It wasn’t long before we were both breathing heavily, the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere making us pant for air.  Heart rates rose.  We’d walked less than half a mile of the seven mile return trip.  God it was hard!  But bit by bit and with regular stops at around 100m of elevation we made our way slowly up the side of what was mainly scrub grass with occasional rocks.  Marvellous views kept us going and after about two hours we were sort of into a rhythm.  Advice given has always been to go at your own pace when climbing mountains and we did just that, stopping to take photos of beautiful scenery and wonderfully small Alpine type plants.

0500 - time to go

0500 – time to go

Sun coming up...

Sun coming up…

and up

and up

Beautiful plants

Beautiful plants

Just as we were getting the hang of this high walking lark, the weather changed.  Within five minutes we were enveloped in mist.  We had got to 3,600m, the next 1,000m we realised would be walking in a permanent drizzle, with visibility down to a 100m.  Suddenly the wind got up, the temperature dropped. We could have been on the Yorkshire Moors, it looked the same.  North Face coats on, we trudged higher, the pathway now rocks and steep terrain which rose at an angle of close to 60 degrees.  This was not what we had signed up for.

Mist moving in - our goal top left

Mist moving in – our goal top left

Miserable

Miserable

Hard to see Tupac on right

Hard to see Tupac on right

And then we hit the 4000m mark.  “Come on, we can do this” I shouted to Sarah, who looked quite forlorn with her little hood up.

Getting there

Getting there

Head for heights

Head for heights

We carried on, but by this time the weather had closed right in, we could see 10m ahead and it was raining.  It was also blowing a gale as we rounded a corner, the wind whistling over the ridge.  The path was narrow rocks, there were steep drops.  Bang!  Vertigo set in.  I inched myself over a large rock that ordinarily I would have climbed with ease.  But with a drop of 500m and stories of the death of a German guy at the same point ringing in my ears, I decided enough was enough.  We were at 4,300m, there was no way I was going any higher, with even greater drops.  We could see nothing, I bottled it.  Sarah meanwhile, was happy to continue, but in true team spirit decided to support her old man and come back down.  I was not ashamed or disappointed because we had got to over 4,300m and this was higher than any point on the Inca-trail. I might have got vertigo, but at least I had no altitude sickness and we had climbed over 1300m straight up with no ill effects.

High enough

High enough

4260 - we went 50m higher and then called it a day

4260m – we went 50m higher and then called it a day

We trudged down, much quicker, but mindful of the extremely slippery rocks, mud and grass.  We both soon realised that going down was going to be arguably even harder, but this time in a different way.

And then it happened.  Sarah slipped and somersaulted twice over the edge of the narrow track.  The angle of the slope here was 70 degrees, the fall down the mountain on rocks and scree some 500 metres.

The slow motion video in my mind kicked in as I saw the whole episode play out in front of me. There was nothing I could do.  In what seemed an age, but was no more than four or five seconds, Sarah managed to break her fall in what appeared to be a Gorse type bush, some three metres across.  To the left, a horrifying drop.

There was no sound, but I quickly realised she was alive and kicking as we managed to pull her out!

Her knee hurt – it had twisted – but apart from that, she was ok!!!!!!!!!!!!

Alive...

Alive…

...and kicking

…and kicking

We continued our descent in a watchful way.  Each step we took gingerly.  I fell twice.  But Tupac our guide fell three times.  Ha, even professionals can get caught out.  In two hours we were down, safe and sound.

That afternoon and evening we shared our experience with the rest of the group as we danced the night away with the friends from the village community.  But I had to do a double take as guess who was the Leader of the Band?  Tupac.  From guide one minute to impresario the next.

Rocking

Rocking

The lovely Meyer

The lovely Meyer

Chezza's birthday

Chezza’s birthday

Cardiff girl cuts her cake

Cardiff girl cuts cake

Temptation

Temptation

Boogey on down

Boogey on down

In serious mode - Marco

In serious mode – Marco – note NOT my hands!

Tupac - Leader of the Band

Tupac – Leader of the Band

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep we got out of bed, only for Sarah to realise that her knee was still causing quite severe pain.  But trooper that she is, she got moving and found that if she walked a bit, ironically the pain eased.

But the smell of breakfast raised our spirits and even Teresa let me make a “Marco,” her name for my cheese and banana deep fried empanada.  Lovely coffee, a blackberry drink, and a bowl of strawberries, mangos and kiwi fruit completed the offering.  What a way to finish our homestay and what a way to end our trip to Ecuador.

Making empanadas

Making empanadas

Beautiful breakfast

Beautiful breakfast

We have sadly left our lovely group – 2 nights early, as we have to fly to Lima to start our 45 day marathon across South America with our next tour group.  Unfortunately, the departure dates did not work in our favour and hence we had to cut short our Ecuadorian experience.

But we leave with many memories.  Our jungle experience, two amazing adrenalin filled days in the Andes, visiting the coast and the “Poor Man’s” Galapagos – another blog in itself, our fantastic homestay and last but not least our superb travelling companions – you know who you are…!

Lovely people

Lovely people

Ecuador – we can both recommend this fascinating country.  Just don’t attempt walks up/down volcanoes!

The End

The End

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , , , ,

Train spotting nerd turns Superman in high octane 48 hours

MARK: Ah yes! Diesel fumes from old diesel trains.  One of the nicest smells in the World. A bit like aviation fuel – a whiff always means you are travelling somewhere. It doesn’t matter where.

Darlington Bank Top Station, the Mecca of rail that is York and of course Kings Cross, the end of the East Coast Mainline.  These and other stations still create passionate emotions for me 30 + years down the line.

The magnificent Deltic Diesels (Class 55s) that plied the 393 mile route from London to Edinburgh in the 1970’s and 80’s were my favourite locomotives, racing thoroughbreds no less.  Indeed some were even named after racehorses.  Meld, Alycidon and Ballymoss, each travelled at speeds in excess of 100mph.

Alycidon powering her way north of Hartfield

Alycidon powering her way north of Hatfield

They flew like the wind, their throaty roar from their throbbing Napier 1450 horse power engines created an amazing noise as they pulled their rake of twelve carriages away from the platform.  It was like the finest symphony orchestra to me as an 11 year old who collected train numbers – I had seen and ridden on 22 of the 22 that were built.

So now you know my secret. I was/am a train spotter. Please don’t laugh.  It’s no different from collecting dolls or playing with Action Men – is it…?

Today took me right back to those halcyon days.  I wasn’t at Peterborough, Stevenage or Doncaster but in a small Ecuadorian town called Alausi – 9,000ft up in the Andes and my head was craned out of the small wooden framed 1950’s carriage as the big red diesel loco (that sounded like a Class 33 for those that know what I mean), pulled the five carriages down the middle of the high street!

Trains in the high street

Trains in the high street

Ready to go

Ready to go

Last coach

Last coach

My fav' position on a train

My fav’ position on a train

A plume of fumes that got up my nostrils took me right back.  Except this was no standard rail journey!  Nope, this was the Devil’s Nose Railway, one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World as we raced along at speeds of 20mph down the side of the mountainside, plunging nearly 3,000ft in just eight miles. Two thousand five hundred mainly Caribbean workers perished in the nearly three years it took to build this section from Alausi to Sibambe – one of the steepest sections of standard gauge rail lines anywhere in the World.

Sadly, grey cloud enveloped much of the view going down to the bottom of the valley, but once there we had a great time meeting new friends and wandering around what once had been a major rail hub.

Grey start

Grey start

Love the sign

Love the sign

New friend

New friend

No need for water

No need for water

Very funny

Very funny

Two locals out for a walk

Two locals out for a walk

On the way back

On the way back

The horn of the engine sounded after about an hour and we clambered back aboard our Casey Jones style carriage.  The return weather was clear and you couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing engineering including the switchback track change, which enabled the train to shunt zig-zag style back up the hillside.  Impressive.

Sun came out

Sun came out

Switchback push-pull

Switchback push-pull

Switchback

Switchback

Devil's Nose

Devil’s Nose

The journey back was a time to reflect as the train and all its sounds and smells took me back like some sort of instant, regressive time machine.  I gazed through the window out on to dramatic scenery, or rather looked, but did not see.  My mind was reflecting on the previous two adrenalin filled days and the fact we only had 55 days left before who knows what in the UK.

I posed on the way back for Gabby who gave me the inspiration for this blog

I posed on the way back for Gabby who gave me the inspiration for this blog

Thoughts came thick and fast.  About our group, people at home, the craziness of this once in a life time trip.  For one of the few times in the last seven months, I allowed myself to look backwards and also forwards, NOT really taking in the here and now.  My mindfulness button was switched off and you know what, I was damned if I cared, because I knew sooner or later a slight reality check was bound to kick in.

However, the previous two days I’d definitely been in the here and now.  Indeed I have always known that when you put your neck on the line, you have to be clearly focussed on the present to ensure you survive.  All other thoughts are quickly banished.

As I was pushed off the side of the mountain, suspended by two ropes on a 700 metre long zip-line, arms facing forward, all I was thinking about was how the hell does Superman” fly like that every day? “Uno, duo tres” we were off.

Getting kitted out

Getting kitted out

Jump off point

Jump off point

Team Jump

Team Jump

My group travelling colleague “Curly B” on my right hand side was shrieking with a mixture of terror and excitement.  Strangely though I had no nerves as we travelled in excess of 50mph.  I started to look down at the 900ft drop beneath me.  I spotted a couple of giant brown eagles and could hear children play in the rocks far below.  All too soon the “ride” ended as the green landing area came in to view.  A massive jolt slowed us both down to 0mph in less than twenty yards.  We had made it.

Take off

Take off

Half way across - 950ft beneath us

Half way across – 950ft beneath us

Flying

Flying

Landing site, complete with part of somebody's cupboard to get us down

Landing site, complete with part of somebody’s cupboard to get us down

High fives all round, we waited for the other mad people to land and off we went, climbing up the side of another steep mountain to Zipline 2.  Now this was a different ball game.  The initial jump off point had been a bit dodgy like an old Municipal swimming pool’s diving board from the 1960’s.  But over on the other side of the valley all we had now was a few wooden planks, with the steel zip wire precariously balanced on the top of four rocks and a large piece of black rubber.  In England, you would have freaked.  Here you just accepted the risk and got on with it.  This, a baby single 300m leap of faith across a forest and deep ravine.  Doddle.  Landed safely with yet another jolt as the line screamed in agony as the brake tightened.

Jump 2.... barely visible from the other side

Jump 2…. barely visible from the other side

One to go.  The big one.  ONE THOUSAND METRES a kilometre, a bloody long way.  I could not see Sarah at the other side close to where we started.  We’d climbed up still further to get the elevation for the crossing.  And yes, you guessed it, my turn to go first.  A shove of my backside and I was underway, going like the clappers as the zip wire nearly started smoking due to the friction half way across, the rocks 1,000ft below looking bigger than my first zip.  I started flapping my wings like a giant bird coming in to land hoping Sarah would capture the moment as I came in to view.  Damn, she didn’t, thinking I was somebody else instead.  So the one of the shots below are of Chris and Curly B, but hopefully you get the idea……….

Off I go...

Off I go…line on right

The journey back 1,000m - Chris on his way

The journey back 1,000m – Chris on his way

Lady B flying over

Curly B flying over

Sarah gets the camera out - better ate than never

Sarah gets the camera out – better late than never

Next day in Banos – which really is like Queenstown, New Zealand in terms of outdoor activities, I was up for more excitement.  This time canyoning was the source of the adrenalin fix – abseiling and lugeing down waterfalls… as you do.

Picked up by mini-bus we first found ourselves in a falling down shed, trying to fit into wet suits, harnesses and helmets that still smelt of the previous user.  Plimsole style shoes allocated, they didn’t really fit. Ah well, what do you expect for US $35 all in?  But thanks to Chris, a really nice guy in our group from Little Rock, Arkansaw, who was a climber and confirmed the Austrian kit was “good”, so that was that, we headed off on a 20 minute drive to the waterfalls.

After a twenty minute walk we arrived at our first waterfall – nothing too difficult.

The start a quick shower

The start, a quick shower

The second and third falls were more challenging – 75ft with overhang and a guaranteed soaking on the way down.  Nailed it.

Fall 2

Fall 2

Fall 2

Fall 2

Fall 3

Fall 3

Bottom of Fall 3

Bottom of Fall 3

The final descent and I nearly lost my nerve.  “Curly B” my German co-zipline buddy had made her way down to the edge of the waterfall, with safety line on she reached the instructor.  The Instructor, took off her safety line, but Curly B took her hands off the descent rope as well before being reattached to the second safety line and the main abseil rope down the waterfall.  She was literally on the edge, not realising she had no support.  I could see it and shouted to hold the rope, which she did, closely followed by the security afforded by the second safety line that was soon attached.  Phew.

I could see why she had had difficulty.  The crawl across slippery rocks to the descent point was challenging to say the least.  And when it came to my turn, all I could think of was what might have happened a few moments earlier, my head fuddled and not thinking clearly.  After what seemed an age, I managed to scrabble to a wooden ladder and start my descent.  Once over the edge, no problem, getting to that point though had been a completely different matter.

Fall 4

Fall 4

Fall 4

Fall 4

Allowing myself a moment of personal congratulation, I honestly thought that was it for the day.  Wrong! We discovered there was one final bit of fun.

Celebrating - premature

Celebrating – premature

Yours truly was told to go first as I had been at the back of the group of 6 for most of the time.  I thought it would be another abseil. Er no!  My harness was attached to the instructor who told me to sit on the top of a large slippery rock in the middle of the flowing water.  This was no abseil but a “luge” down the sheer rock face straight into a pool.  Woosh, part one complete.  Out of the pool I sat on the next ledge ready to go the bottom when “funny boy” instructor, yanked the line and I was submerged backwards in to the pool I had just climbed out of.  Out again and this time at the bottom.  Yes, did it.

Ready...

Ready…

weeeee

weeeee

splash

splash

With a jolt the train brought my reflective journey to a halt back in the town of Alausi, our original start point as perfume in the form of diesel fumes wafted through the open window. No more time to reflect. We needed to pack, grab some food and rush to catch the local bus for a four hour journey down to sea level and Ecuador’s second city Guayaquil.  33C and 98% humidity beckoned.

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , ,

Life is never black or white – or even 50 shades of grey for that matter

I half expected the Pearl and Dean music to start as the lights dimmed and changed colour.  We’d just taken off from Auckland in our brand new LAN Airlines Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner”, the plane seemingly taking an age to get off the ground.

Dream on

Dream on

I’m not a nervous flyer, well not now after 31 flights.  However, the thought of flying 6,000 miles across the South Pacific on two engines to Santiago, Chile with no land in between, did make me briefly think I might not see my beloved Middlesbrough play in the Premiership next season. EDITOR:  Mr B not a happy Blogger after the away defeat at Rotherham United!

But it was a fantastic ambient light show in the plane’s cabin that distracted me from thoughts of death.  We’ve been in a couple of the giant A380 Airbuses on our RTW travels and they have had different lighting states. However our first ever flight in the Dreamliner topped that by some distance.  Firstly, as we boarded, a nice pinky/rose colour helped passengers de-stress as seatbelts were tightened.  Then as we hurtled down the runway, it changed to a bluey crimson colour – which must mean something, although I know not what.

At 34,000 feet, as we flew over the International Dateline, the lights took on an orange glow as dinner was served – in-lieu of candles perhaps?  Then, with people wanting to sleep, the purple hue around the cabin ceiling gradually became a silver/yellow moonlike shimmer, gradually fading to black as the cabin lights dimmed.

Hats off to manufacturer Boeing who are being really clever here as they try to trick our mind and circadian (body) clock through different shades of light.  I think it worked in fairness, particularly as the onboard computer also controlled the 40% larger than normal ‘portal’ windows by dimming and brightening when necessary.  For example, we set off at 1830 for an 11 hour flight, went over the dateline and arrived at 1400 the same day. But despite the sun having “been up” for the last 7 hours of the flight, the windows pretended that it was still night.  Clever.  So we were up for 31 hours and had no jet lag the next day despite very little sleep due to the excessive turbulence.  Maybe that’s the downside of these flexible light-weight carbon fibre planes.

Just wished I had taken some photos – but hey, for once, hope the above prose gives you an idea.

So, Santiago, Chile.  A new country and our first time in South America.  Excited.

Well we were for five minutes as we got in to the taxi, but suddenly we both thought it all looked a bit grey as we sped in to the centre of town.  Situated in a “bowl” haze not heavy smog, enveloped the City.  Something akin to Beijing was in the air, but we could breath.

Not a good start

Not a good start

We quickly dumped our bags in our 1970s throwback hotel, interestingly called The Vegas and headed out to explore, our legs still seized up thanks to the not so generous 30” legroom afforded in LAN Cattle Class. Dream on Dreamliner.

But what was this?  Nobody around. Shutters shut, grey coloured streets with nobody in them. Lots of concrete, randomly mixed with the odd Cubanesque colourful style building. We headed for the central plaza, graffiti everywhere.  The city increasingly looked like a cross between Romania in the height of the cold-war mixed with a down-at-heel part of Birmingham.  More graffiti.  It was sprayed everywhere.  Still nobody around as a piece of “Donald Trump” hair, sorry tumbleweed, blew across the street in-front of us as if we were in some sort of spaghetti western.

Translation please

Translation please

"Back end of beyond perhaps.....?"

“Back end of beyond perhaps…..?”  Look closely

Not open

Not open

Ah yes a BT phone

Ah yes a BT phone and a few more people

Baching Mad

Locals thought I was “Baching Mad” taking a shot of this

Shutter up

Shutter up

No escape from the spray.... not even trees

No escape from the spray…. not even trees

From the beauty of New Zealand to this in the blink of an eye.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and headed to a rather poor Italian restaurant for a bowl of pasta and a pizza.  It was the only thing we could find open within a half mile walk of the hotel.  In a corner, a hunched up old lady who must have been in her 90s, kept shouting out to her 65+ year old daughter over Sunday/ “Mother’s Day” lunch?  Back to the care home for her, time for bed for us after being up for 31 hours.

Next day, Monday, a different day and a good day.  The sun was shining, an excellent start.  The grey had changed to blue and suddenly there were people everywhere.  The place was alive, nay bustling, a veritable hive of activity in the street surrounding our hotel.  Streets and areas that yesterday had appeared to be reminiscent of a former 1980s Soviet State suddenly looked amazingly capitalist.  With the sun now out to play, temperatures quickly rose into the late 20s.

That's better, old and new

That’s better, old and new in the blue

Flag greets MASTERS arrival

Flag greets MASTERS arrival

Life and soul of the street

Life and sole of the street party

Coffee - ah yes coffee! More of that in a moment

Coffee – ah yes coffee! More of that in a moment

Fidel sadly could not make the free tour

Fidel sadly could not make it in person

Welcome to Santiago proper!

We decided to join the 1000 Free Walking Tour which started in the main Piazza. No hills, but still good exercise and the chance to find out more about the city we were in for 72 hours.

Franco (or El Presidente as I dubbed him), our late 20s tour guide was a real pro’ – he should have been after six years.  But as I said to him, his passion and enthusiasm were infectious.  It was as if this was his first, not 1400th tour.  Fair play and you could see why he lives off tips, he was that good.

Make Franco President

Start point of our tour

Start point of our tour – The Cathedral

Franco's followers, Mrs B at the back

Franco’s followers, Mrs B at the back

So our four hour tour started, taking in at first the historic bits of the central area as one would expect.  But I am delighted to say there was loads of social commentary and background on modern day Santiago and the people of Chile.  It was all fascinating.  So please, let me share some small vignettes from our walk to give you a flavour of this interesting capital.

MORE COFFEE VICAR?

Thirty minutes after we started, Franco stopped the group in the street and began talking about coffee houses… I was so glad he did!  Earlier that morning, I had stumbled in to what I thought was a café selling coffee, only to be met by a couple of men and a rather well-endowed young lady who asked me with a twinkle in her glass eye what I wanted!!!  Franco’s explanation was interesting.  Chile, he explained is not known for its quality of coffee so in the 1980s some bright spark had the notion of selling coffee in cafes with no chairs (just poser tables) served by ladies in short skirts.  The idea was a simple one. Men would be distracted from the poor treacle/stewed coffee by the beauty of the ladies and everybody would be happy. It summed up for me typical male crass thinking.  The irony, that this was International Women’s Day not lost on me or Sarah. We squinted through partially covered frosted window pains and both got eye fulls!  Libidos in check, we continued as history beckoned.

Distracted

Distracted

... It's not difficult to be distracted

… It’s not difficult to be distracted in Santiago

MAGGIE THATCHER’S MATE…. “The Party of Pinochet” – Blair 1999

We stopped, overlooking the Presidential Palace – not particularly ornate or grand as the photo shows.  But interesting because on the 9th September 1973 there was a coup and Margaret Thatcher’s friend General Pinochet strangely came to power after two President’s died in the space of a week. He was third in line. I personally remember Pinochet for a couple of reasons.

The first was his support of the British when we took back the Falklands.  Pinochet had no love for the Argentinians although officially neutral.  But when Margaret needed assistance to bomb the Falkland Islands, General P offered radar support in exchange for some Hawker fighters….  The “friendship” continued into the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and coincided with the second reason I remember this rather nasty Dictator.  Joe, our son once went to a birthday party when he was 3 on the Wentworth Estate.  Not any old party, but the leaving party for the Sultan of Brunei’s two sons who went to the same nursery – Happy Days (yes the real name of the nursery).  It was quite literally a palace, but interestingly close by was General P’s UK residence where he was holed up after being ousted from power in 1990 to evade possible arrest for nasties carried out under his watch.

Presidential Palace, the scene of the coup in 9/11/1973

Presidential Palace, the scene of the coup on the 11/9/1973 – Pinochet died in 2006

POLICE STATE?

Pinochet is long since dead, but one lasting memory I do have of Santiago is the Police presence on the streets.  Those of you who are Facebook friends will have seen a tongue in cheek posting I made a couple of days ago showing water canon units, armed personnel carriers and military police in full riot gear.  This heavy police presence was not as first reports claimed, needed to quell the disquiet of Middlesbrough FC fans in Santiago (me) after their diabolical performance against Rotherham, but was to “observe” what appeared to be a perfectly quiet demonstration involving around 10,000 mainly women who were campaigning for a range of women’s rights, including abortion.

You are conscious of the police

You are conscious of the police

Not always smiling

Not always smiling

COLOURFUL GRAFITI

Pity the police don’t earn their money by nailing people with spray cans in their hands.  I mentioned earlier that graffiti was everywhere and wasn’t a pretty sight.  However on our walking tour we saw examples of much better, even semi-professional “street art” which was actually quite good….

Good G

Good G

Better but not right

Better but not right

ART FOR ARTSAKE?

… but better still were the many artists who worked in the historic streets in the old quarter and in the student side of town close to a myriad of bars and clubs – the latter where a more “free” or should I say “drunk” style of painting prevailed .  I really liked their work, bright vivid colours reminding me in some cases of the great work of Steve Eker and Cate Field, who I hasten to add are both teetotal.

A chap called Bills

A chap called Bills

No pictures of Trump thank goodness

No pictures of Trump thank goodness

View from the top - better than my grey image

View from the top of the big hill – better than my grey image

ARCHITECTURALLY VERY GOOD

The Santiagan artists had some lovely backdrops to paint in-front of and Franco showed us many fine sights, the old buildings mixing with the new quite well except in the case of the Telefonica Tower, which looked like the stupid “brick” that it was in terms of a poor copy of a mobile phone circa 1995.  Judge for yourself.

Side by side

Side by side

The opera house

The opera house

Telefonica Brick circa 1995

Telefonica Brick circa 1995

BAILEY’S POLICE HIT LIKED BY LOCALS

Just round the corner from the Tower, I could hear the clear sounds of a rock band.  Listening to the music I was astounded to see a guy on drums and another on bass guitar “busking” in front of four lanes of cars waiting at traffic lights.  With full amplification, they started each time the traffic stopped giving them around 35 seconds to belt out various tracks before rushing down the sides of the vehicles to receive cash.  I watched these guys completely  fascinated, having broken away  from the walking tour party who were now busy looking at some really, really boring statue of a bloke from 1756.  The drummer stayed with his kit on the pavement whilst the guitarist gyrated big time as the lights turned to red.  Two performances later I heard the Police Number 1 “Don’t stand so close to me” from 1980.  I could not resist singing along from the centre of the dual carriageway much to the pleasure of the band and it would appear cars alike.  Tune over, we nipped down the cars and collected about 500 pesos – around 50P – which my fellow band members seemed pleased with.  I tried to explain that I was from “near Newcastle where Sting comes from” but my Spanish Geordie accent was not good and I think the message (in a bottle) was lost in translation.

No police, just Sting

No police, just Sting

Back to the group, the rest of the international walking tour members just never knew what they missed…

So, next up, Ecuador and our trip to the Amazon Basin and the “Poor Man’s” Galapagos.  Our LAN Airbus 320 has just pulled up on the stand beneath where I am sitting.  The white and blue fuselage shining in the late afternoon sun. We’ve had a really colourful last three days, just wish it had been longer really.

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