Saturday, 19 November 2011

Day 282: Afterthoughts (07/11/2011)

I bashed out a rather trite post a little while ago to wrap up the blog.

To be truthful, the impetus to write about travelling tends to lose something when you start to settle back into the daily routine.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that nothing really happens at home and that all the action is on the open road - or for that matter, the closed one.

Clare sat at my elbow as the cursor hovered over the 'publish' button for Day 271 and suggested that something a little more meaningful might be appropriate for the last day of a long, and possibly a once in a life time experience.

On reflection, nabbing someone else's poem might not be the way that I would have liked to finish this, when looking back on it in 20 years time. So that means that I have to actually think about the way I feel - which, like most men, is not something that I am either very good at or particularly talented at expressing.

Phase one was clearly the angst ridden process of leaving a long time job.

Sometimes - no, always - it takes someone who is one step removed to provide you with an honest assessment of how you are feeling. The answer, from Clare's perspective, was feeling a bit trapped and wondering whether there was something better out there.

Phase two was settling into a routine that didn't involve being woken up by the news on the radio every morning. It sounds like a slacker's life but in fact there was rarely a day when I wasn't in bed by 9pm and out of it before 6.30am - same hours, just slightly rearranged.

Phase three is somehow digesting the new diet of broken routine and a different place every day. It is a process that is still underway, even now that we are back in the UK.

That is because a break is as good as a change. Time away from the coal face has made me realise that I was never chained to the pick and shovel. I just thought I was. Clare learned that lesson a long time ago and has been trying in a variety of ways to impart that learning to me. Sadly, or happily, depending on your point of view, it took me longer than it might have. But that means that the lesson when learned was all the better.

Phase four is what to do with all this new found wisdom. The initial tendency of the newly converted is to get all preachy and try and convince everyone else to see the light. That won't work because everyone finds out things in their own way and what we have done may not be for all. The only thing that I can do is try and hold onto the sense of freedom that the last year has given me, and top up the bottle from time to time.

At the moment I harbour all kinds of crazy ideas about sticking it to the man in a variety of ways but in reality that means nothing and will achieve nothing. Clare is all for channelling this new found energy into something constructive. It may be doing the same thing with a newly rediscovered sense of enthusiasm. It may, on the other hand, be setting up a restaurant serving only Guineau Pig.

I suspect that it will be the former but I will never rule anything out.

And I will never make the mistake of clinging to the rock face when there is a soft landing to be had. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Day 271: Come to the Edge (26/10/2011)

Amongst many of the strategies that Clare deployed to entice me away from my desk for a year of so (or maybe more) was a poem.

I think it is a lovely way to round off a great year travelling the world and seeing endless examples of how the rest of the world's population are different from us.

And the same.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.

Thank you for reading what my brother calls 'my whimsies'.

Thank you for all your interest while we have been away and for the practical help and support you have given us.

The book, stage and screen rights to this work are available for sale.

For the next few weeks I shall be retiring daily between the hours of 10am and 10pm to edit them into novel form.

Sophie has already offered $5 for the rights to these.

Further bids are invited.

Day 270: Homeward Bound (25/10/2011)

Clare has a special gift.

On the way out, she bagged a flight from London to Buenos Aires for a mere $1,000.00 when the going rate was over £1,500.00.

On the way back she surpassed even her own lofty achievements.

LAN are Chile's national flag carrier and maybe they had a rush of blood to the head in the pricing department - or perhaps it was just a straight forward stroke.
For something approaching a nano-second, the deal of the century flickered across the LAN website screen and Clare, never being one to pass up on the opportunity to fly half way round the world for less than bugger-all, snapped up the chance.

Five hundred, I hear you ask?



Ahem - I don't think so.


I know. I know. You don't believe me so let me put you out of your misery. A mere $121.00 in fact.

It's not attractive and I'm not proud of boasting about it but I think the lovely wife deserves some credit. After all, she has patiently born the endless photographs and forgone the sleep as I tapped away at the computer late into the night, to catch up on the endless backlog of unposted blogs. She's waited while I dawdled and even carried the pebble collection across continents when my arms were full of unwanted purchases that will find their way to Oxfam faster than a Christmas sweater.

So ridiculously low was the fare that we waited weeks with baited breath, expecting an email from an apologetic but ultimately implacable LAN official. It would tell us that there had been some terrible mistake, some glitch in the software, that unless we were willing to add another zero to the ticket price, we would have to....have to....I can't even say it.




We arrived at the airport.

The bazooka weilding soldier at the door asked for our passports and tickets. There were no tickets we said. This was an e-booking. He stared blankly for a moment and told us that we could not come into the terminal without a ticket.

We went in circles for a while.

Finally he relented. We could come into the terminal if first we got a stamped copy of the booking confirmation from the LAN desk. And where was the LAN desk?

In the terminal.


Sometime later the paradox dawned on him and, rather disconcertingly, he waved us through the doors with the pointy end of his bazooka, on condition that we returned immediately.

The pretty LAN lady greeted us enthusiastically and as soon as we explained the requirements of the bazooka, began tapping equally enthusiastically on her keyboard. After a moment she looked up apologetically. There was no LAN flight to Madrid today. She checked and double checked but the answer was the same.

Bazooka was eyeing us suspiciously from the doorway a mere 20m away.

Oh Dear!

This was worse than we thought. Clearly LAN had not only withdrawn our tickets but cancelled the whole flight in a bold gesture of defiance. We had a wedding to go to. What could we do?

Another LAN employee in trousers that could have been shorts and a jacket that might once have been his trousers, spoke frenetically into his walkie-talkie in rapid machine-gun Spanish while Bazooka fingered his trigger in the near distance.

Was this how it ended? Banged up in some bleak Ecuadorian prison for the rest of our lives, while the Foreign Office sent some ineffectual, chinless fellow shuttling back and forth to plead on our behalf just like in that second Bridget Jones movie.

I've seen Midnight Run. I know what happens to handsome auburn chaps like me, who look younger than the age in their passport - and its not good.

I could see bazooka approaching from the corner of my eye. Oh Dear God - no!

Turns out we had the wrong terminal all along. Bazooka very helpfully pointed us in the right direction and an equally enthusiastic LAN person checked us in across the corridor in the international terminal.

For $1,000.00 Air Europa had only provided two engines for 10,000 miles on the way out. LAN went the whole hog and gave us four on the way back.

There is subtle sense of relief that comes from a plane so noisy that you can't really hear what the person sitting next to you is saying.

It turns out that the fare was even better than we expected.

It included the $45.00 Ecuadorian exit fee as well.

Now, you can't ask for better than that.

Day 269: Rocky and Ping-Pong (24/10/2011)

Tom and Jerry.

Itchy and Scratchy.

Now - welcome Rocky and Ping-Pong to the pantheon of the toothesome twosomes.

Brothers, indistinguishable in their black and white coats, they were part labrador and part bull-mastiff. There was something else in the oven when they were being cooked - and it might have been Fresian.

This meant they had the muzzles of a gun dog and the barrel chests of a fighting variety. The colour scheme was definitely bovine and their temperament was a mixture of everything.

When they were alone, they were placid.

When free to roam with the other four members of their extended family, they hunted like a pack and posed a serious threat to anything on two legs or four.

The rest of the time they lay in the sunshine in a prolonged stretch, one eye propped open in case there was food to be had.

They barked in the darkness and their howls echoed off the crater walls like the soundscape of a Hammer Horror. In the daylight they ran with us as we rode Renato's horses and frolicked with us as we wandered the quiet roads that crisscross the crater floor.

They have their own You Tube presence.

When they worried the neighbour's fowl - and by worried I mean shredded - Renato's response was ruthless and effective. He tied them to different trees outside the hostel, all day. Every hour, he came out with the remains of the dead chicken and slapped them roundly and repeatedly about the face until the message was received.

They still fight with the neighbour's dogs.

They never touch the chickens, though.

Day 268: Zeus and Lucifer (23/10/2011)

Day 267: Crater (22/10/2011)

Quito is embraced by a necklace of six volcanoes.

Most people probably consider them a quaint reminder of the region's distant past but in geological terms this is a city living on the edge - of a lake of molten lava.

Two hours drive across the mountains from Quito is Banos. While Quito currently only gets a dusting of volcanic ash from time to time, Banos is rocked by eruptions regularly, the last of which was barely 18 months ago.

Lava spurts from the local cauldron and flaming globs of molten rock rain down on the mountainside. The town is peppered with signs pointing the way to 'safe places' but until they invent a sports hall roof that can take a direct hit from a fully loaded, 2000 centigrade articulated lorry, travelling at 600mph, the assurance of safety is probably over-stated.

And so, with this knowledge firmly in the forefront of our minds, we caught a cab to the Pululahua Crater.

Ecuadorian cab drivers seem to share an infuriating tendency to shrug their shoulders at your best pronounciation of the local destinations when clearly they understand what you are asking.

Maybe it is a fare booster or perhaps part of some elaborate game. Either way, more than once we have been reduced to pointing at maps and giving directions to a place that we have never been before.

Our driver, Francisco, it turned out, was the worst offender of all as, despite protesting his ignorance, when we got there, he greeted our host like a long lost friend and even the local dogs only chewed his leg until he scolded them each by name.

The cloud-bound road into the crater is like passing beyond the curtain of mist into the Land That Time Forgot - only without the submarine. We climbed the arid dirt track to the rim and once over the top, descended into the lush, tropical micro-climate of the 30 square kilometre cauldara.

The mountain blew its top 2500 years ago and has remained soundly asleep since. Apart, that is, from recent tremors that sweep across the 6,000 acres of land that is farmed at the bottom of the basin and the ever present lava cone that looms menacingly over the neat patchwork of fields.

Renato bought the land, and built the delightful Pululahua Hostel six years ago but has watched the crater population dwindle from one hundred and thirty to a mere thirty in that time, as youngsters leave the community for the bright lights of Quito.

What they leave behind is a citadel of steep sided ravines on all sides, into which the afternoon clouds roll like clockwork at 2pm, turning brilliant sunshine into a fogbound soup bowl.

The walls of the crater envelope the land in a 360 degree wall of rock, 750m high. Wildlife thrives as people rarely venture into the area without a good reason. It was declared a Conservancy by the government and now has become a twitcher's paradise.

Francisco left his exhaust behind as a testament to the arduous journey into the crater and so horseback is really the only way to get around as there is never a journey of more than a few kilometres.

The walls reflect sound in a eerie fashion - the bellowing cows, the neighing horses, the squealing pigs - everything comes back at you in stereoscopic sound.

For those who leave, the crater is a poverty trap that they are glad to be freed from. For those who visit, this place is a strange and enchanting oasis of calm.

Please, go there if you are passing.

If you do, I defy you to leave without at least asking about the cost of land.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Day 266: The Cloud Forest (21/10/2011)

Gabriel was a little late this morning.

In the early hours, I got a call from him. He had been taken in for questioning by officers from the Crimes Against Donkeys Unit.

I pulled myself out of bed and caught a taxi across town to explain that the incident yesterday had resulted from a tragic misunderstanding. It would really, I implored, be in everybody's best interests if they just hosed down the road and forgot about the whole sorry affair.

After all, the donkey wasn't complaining.

And on the basis that every road-kill cloud has an edible lining, they could put the contents of the evidence locker in the station fridge for the next fundraising barbeque.

Police business resolved, we headed out of town on the slow moving Occidental Highway to Mindo, an hour to the east of Quito.

Mindo is home to many of Ecuador's numerous hummingbird species.

As a rather ingenious survival strategy, they have taken to living at such a great height that the clouds conceal them. Just in case Ecuador's intrepid hummingbird hunters did decide to run the gauntlet of the head spinning altitudes, they also have to contend with the volcano that acts as the hummer's last line of defence.

Although, considering it erupts from time to time, it might seem a miscalulation on the tiny bird's part - a kind of 'if I'm going, I'm taking you down with me' strategy of mutually assured destruction.

Whatever the merits, it seems to work and the hummers thrive at altitudes usually reserved for passing aircraft.

Gabriel chatted happily about his deal with the Donkey Police as we wound up the bumpy track to the Bellavista Hummingbird Reserve. In return for signing a voluntary non-molestation behaviour contract, the Quito donkey population could breathe a sigh of relief.

And the Police Commissioner's annual bash in support of the city's Donkey Sanctuary had both the meat and someone to turn it on the grill.

It seemed a fair deal as Quito still has a dedicated bullring. Only recently has legislation been brought forward to discourage the rural populace from throwing llamas off church roofs.

The term 'cloud forest' - which the forest in the clouds has cleverly been named - conjures images of a lush tropical landscape something between Avatar and Predator. As the car climbed up the narrow winding road, it became clear that to venture off it would require a mechanised groundforce of Arnies to cut through the dense foliage.

The surreal experience of driving above the cloud line is usually reserved for slightly overblown car adverts, filmed against the backdrop of barren mountain top star-gazing observatories.

Gabriel, never known for selecting an appropriate gear, flitted between first and fifth, ignoring anything inbetween. As a result, first gear heralded the machine-gun clatter of rocks being sprayed into the undergrowth by the spinning tyres. Fifth gear induced a death rattle from the jeep's transmission as it tried to coax something out of Gabriel's determined - but ultimately futile - top gear, low speed hill climb.

With one layer of cloud below us, another appeared above us and soon the tree tops were disappearing in the shroud that also enveloped us.

Parking at the lodge headquarters of the reservation, we followed the path into the gloom and would have been entirely lost were it not for the screech of Americans coming from somewhere further up the trail.

The timid and publicity-shy bird population of the reservation, respond particularly well to people shouting alot. It was with a sigh that Gabriel steered us down a different path in the hope that the fog would muffle the American foolishness and the birds would settle down to roost once more.

And thankfully they did.

A pair of Toucan clattered their beaks overhead. Beautiful Jays - both their name and their description - flitted between the boughs. Clare stumbled across a rare but indiscriminately angry Oil Bird who launched from a branch by her shoulder before wheeling on the offensive.

Unpeturbed by having his eyes clawed out by the furious creature, Gabriel was beside himself, and flicked through his braille edition of 'Birds of Ecuador' to identify the attacker.

When we returned to the lodge, the hummers were out in force drinking from the feeders. Their iridescent feathers flashed in the sunlight and their wings beat a hundred times a second, sounding like someone ruffling the pages of a Tolstoy novel.

On the way back, between thundering waterfalls and thousands of delicate butterflies the size of dinner plates, we ate lunch in Mindo town and crawled back along the Occidental Highway as the rush hour started to build.

The Quito buses spouted thick, black deisel smoke into the narrow colonial streets as we arrived back at the hostel and we swapped the cloud laced jungle for the forest of buildings wreathed in smoke.

It wasn't a fair exchange.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Day 266: Market Forces (21/10/2011)

About an hour's drive outside Quito, there is a market in a small town called Otavalo.

Each Saturday, Ecuadorians gather from all over the country to make it the biggest market in South America.

So we went on a Tuesday.

The stalls stretch across the main square and down the side streets. You can buy anything long as it is woven, knitted or stitched in some way.

Gabriel was our guide and very well he was doing for himself. He picked us up from the Hostel Quito Cultural in a very shiny jeepy-thingy. He must have been doing quite well as he didn't seem to mind too much about the cost of petrol.

Why, I hear you ask - because he drove for an hour and only got out of third gear once - in order to reverse into a parking spot in the town square in Otavalo.

But petrol is cheap here. A full tank cost him $30.00 when in the UK it is closer to $100.00. But even Gabriel had something to say on the subject of extortionate fuel prices. After all, he could drive over the border into Venezuela and fill up!

Well, not actually for free but certainly for the bank breaking sum $3.00. Apparently they have so much oil that all they have to do is whisper something about not having WMD and the Americans invade and extract it all for free - strictly in the name of democracy.

The Otavalo market was extremly colourful but on a Tuesday it wasn't exactly lively. Stall holders outnumbered tourists by a ratio of ten to one and business was obviously quiet.

I've been hassled by people selling things, from Cairo to Cordoba, but the good people of Otavalo have a relentless sales pitch - they never stop smiling and they never give up.

We left with Ponchos and Panamas, stuffed Guinea Pigs and colourful rugs.

In the end they threw in the donkey to carry it all home. All the while Gabriel didn't put a foot wrong apart from the incident with our four-legged friend.

On reflection, tying the hapless creature to his back bumper, while we stopped for a quick coffee before the return trip to the capital, was not his worst mistake.

Forgetting to untie it until we reached the outskirts of the capital might have been.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Day 265: The Lunchpack of Notre Dame (20/10/2011)

The Pope consecrated Quito's Basilica in 1988.

They started building in 1887, one hundred and one years before - with a budget of 12,000 pesos. It probably explains why it took so long to finish.

Today, that will buy you a sandwich and a fizzy drink but don't bother waiting for any change.

For a long time it was the plain old Sacred Heart of Our Lady. If the French hadn't slept through the alarm in 1532 it would have been Notre Dame but the Spanish got here first and the rest is history - which is probably for the best, as the French were never very good at building empires and got turfed out of everywhere they tried it.

Now it is called The National Vow which sounds disturbingly like a bad Nicholas Cage movie. It does, however, have all the ingredients of a good film plot.

After eventually sneaking past the scary lady on the door who had made it her mission to turn away anyone with a ticket, I climbed to the top of the bell towers. At 115m it gives the best view of Quito - better than the cable car on the west side of town because the clouds are programmed to roll into the valley just as you get high enough to get a decent look-see.

The early stages of the ascent were easy enough. A lift to the fifth floor and a brief pause to admire the rose window and the view of the interior of the basilica from the elevated gallery.

Then things became a little hairy.

The steps wound up another two levels to a bizarre gift shop appearing to sell only pictures drawn by distinctly untalented children and non-specific tat, wrapped in plastic banana leaves.

And sun awnings.

Past the gift shop lay the point at which the music began to take on a more threatening tone. Nick, toupe carefully re-adjusted between takes, parted the curtain of cobwebs. Armed only with a pithy one-liner and a flaming torch, he entered the rickety-roof clambering scene that will form the basis of a lacklustre theme park ride in years to come.

Notre Dame's USP is the death defying climb to the top of the rear bell tower.

First you must traverse the rope-bridge that swings violently beneath your feet, 70m above the basilica's floor. Every second plank is dusty and rotten with decay. More than once they gave way, leaving me dangling in a Cage-esque cliff-hanger, hairpeice turning end over end below me.

As if crossing the century old bridge wasn't difficult enough, I had to contend with people coming in the opposite direction. And particularly those who didn't have the sense to realise that an additional 280lbs of fat from Madison, Wisconsin was unlikely to persuade the tired old ropes to hold out for another century.

Not mentioning any names, but Hetty Cakegobbler - I concede, it might not actually have been her real name but that's what I remember - marched toward me from the far side as I was reaching the middle, otherwise known to scientists as the point of greatest undulation.

Her great mass unleashed a wave in the flimsy rope bridge that surged along its fibres, directly toward me. Thankfully I saw it coming, lashed myself to the handrail and prayed to the Building-Owner that the bridge would hold. It bucked beneath me like a rodeo-bull but I clung on like a limpet - if you can excuse the mixed metaphors.

The wave passed and the bridge remained intact only for me to be faced with the next and even more daunting challenge - getting past her on the less than one man wide walkway when she was, by anyone's measurements, at least three men wide.

There was no option and I immediately backed-up, realising that celebrating the moral high-ground from 70m below it, would be considerably harder with my face buried 18 inches into the roof of the crypt.

She waddled past and offered those jolly pleasantries that people do when they are either blithely unaware of, or more likely  entirely unconcerned by their effect on the rest of the world.

I skipped across the bridge realising, too late, that Nick would have made short work of her by jabbing her in the face with his flaming torch before pushing her ruthlessly to her death on the flagstones below.

Ho, hum.

Instead I climbed a vertical ladder 10m to the apex of the basilica roof and stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine, momentarily before my legs gave way and I remembered that leaning out over stomach churning heights is low on my list of  things to do of an evening.

It was very high indeed and the small rail around the narrow parapit was more of a trip hazard than a safety feature. I pressed my back to the wall of the tower and, keeping a firm grip on anything that was reliably attached to the building, edged my way to the next ladder.

There are few things that can distract you when you are nose-to-nose with pure terror but counting steps, backwards in German, to the theme-tune of The Monkees, might be regarded as one of them. It helped, and before long I was stepping over the top of the uppermost gantry that lead to the highest point on the basilica.

Sadly, as I did so, the five youth in the bell tower in front of  me had just finished their spray paint additions to the structure and were setting about hosing down the roof tiles 20m below.

Nick would have said something dryly derisive before cuffing the youth-leader roughly about the head with his torch and sending them on their way.

I channelled the spirit of the Cage through the medium of coughing quietly and looking down at my feet like someone who hopes he will get away without a beating.

And I do, of course, have form for getting beaten up by gangs of teenagers....but that is a story for another day.

They clearly felt the authority of the Hair-Piece, zipped up and sauntered, one by one, down the death-trap ladders, fooling around as they went, with nothing between one false move and a 300 foot drop.

After I had changed my shorts and dried my trousers in the stiff breeze, I sat down to eat my packed lunch - which was rather disturbed when  my ears started bleeding.

It was The Bells.

The Bells.