Monday, May 09, 2005

Beatniksalad Abroad

I went to South America for six months between July 2004 and January 2005. I hiked the Inca Trail, got strangled half to death on a Peruvian backstreet, spent three months working in the world's highest capital city, saw a waterfall that made me cry and got mugged three times in a week in Rio. I even learned to say "how are you" in Aymara. I blogged it all here. This is its new home.

July 05, 2004 - The plan
So, it's been six months or so of planning and saving, having needles stuck in my arm, boring my friends and reading books by every South American author I've heard of (all three).
And here is the plan for the next six.

I fly from Manchester, England to Caracas, Venezuela on the 12th July, for a four-day stop-over before moving on to Quito, Ecuador. My guidebook says somthing along the lines of "Venezeuala is a cheap place to fly into, but don't just treat the country as a bridge to the rest of the continent - it's well worth taking some time to explore on its own merits". But I'm doing exactly that - treating it as a bridge.

I'd considered not staying in Venezuela at all - the country is in political turmoil at the moment. Half the population is clamouring for Hugo Chavez to go because he is becoming too dictatorial, and half is clamouring for him to stay because he's using oil revenues to help the poor. Or at least attempting to. Apart from that, Caracas is very much one of the less safe cities in the region, and the guidebook explains that most of the hostels in the city double as "love hotels". So this short first leg of my journey is the part I'm most wary of.

I'm already giving Colombia a miss - writing off an entire country just because of the occasional high-profile kidnapping (and to spare my family the heart attacks). So I'll spend four days in Caracas, keep my head down, visit some museums and try to learn something. And if I see crowds of people demonstrating, I'll resist the temptation to rush in and start yelling "¡Uh! ¡Ah! ¡Chavez no se va!".

I also feel like it would have been a better plan to spend more time in Venezuela and get out of Caracas a bit. I won't have time to travel more than a short way outside the city, which means I miss out on Angel Falls. Bad planning.

The next few days will be less daunting. On the 16th July at about 11.30pm I will, in theory, be greeted in Quito airport by someone from a Spanish school in Quito, who will be holding a card with my name on it. They will take me to a foundation for street children, 25km outside Quito. My week at the Fundacion will involve learning Spanish for four hours in the mornings, and spending the afternoons "volunteering". What kind of voluntering, I asked... Nothing too challenging, it seems from the reply:

> "The type of work is: helping children to do their homework, feeding> animals like rabbit, chicken, duck, etc. gardering, teaching enclish> and playing with the children, you want cooking for the children."

So far I've had a short beginners course in Spanish, at the Instituto Cervantes, and I need more. I've also been ravenously consuming teach-yerself type videos and books. My appetite for Spanish is insatiable! Give me moooore Spaaanish!

After my week-long program of learning and rabbit-feeding, I have about a month to get to Cusco, Peru. This is far longer than I need, and I'm not quite sure what I'll do. I might well try to get more Spanish lessons in. Then, in late August - still the dry season I hope - I'll get down with the gringo tourists to do the Inca trail, the most famous of the continent's attractions.

After this the plan is to make my way accross Macchu Piccu to Bolivia and La Paz, where I intend to pretty much live for three months. Hopefully I can find some useful volunteering things to do (perhaps more constructive than feeding animals). I have nothing planned or arranged, but I have it on relatively good authority that it's not so hard to turn up in La Paz and find volunteering work.

The plan then gets increasingly vague, as it probaby should do considering we're talking November time by this point. Towards the end of November, I meet up with mi compadre Roberto and travel, via some as-yet-undetermined route, to Rio de Janerio over the course of a few weeks. Then Rob goes home and, with a week's intermission around Christmas, Judith arrives. And so the last three weeks of my trip will be spent in and around Rio.
Anyone know how to say 'Happy New Year' in Portuguese? It's nochevieja in Spanish, which means 'old night' as far as I can work out.

Then I get back to Manchester on January 18th, 2005. That is the plan.

UPDATE: First prize goes to Will, who says they say "Bom Ano" and "Felicidades".

July 13, 2004 - Caracas
The German air stewardess asked if I was staying in Caracas as she was handing out the Targetas de Something-or-other you need to get into the country. Not many people needed them because most were taking connecting flights out to Bogotá or Lima or elsewhere.

When I said that yes, I was staying in Caracas, she said, in a very concerned voice, "Well, be careful. Do you have somewhere to stay?"

"Yes," I replied.
"Are they picking you up from the airport?"
"No, but it will be the middle of the day, I´ll get a taxi."
"Well, be careful in the taxi."

"Is it particularly bad in Caracas at the moment?" I asked, wondering if I´d missed news of rioting...
"Caracas is always bad."

Then I had eight hours to think about this. To think about this and the fact that I had just left everyone and everything I knew and loved to probably wind up getting stabbed in a Venezuelan backstreet.

After queueing for ages at the immigration desk, I was quite unexpectedly whisked off by a guy in a yellow shirt and tie, who spoke quicky and said "You want a taxi? You want change money? Okay, you change money here. $60? How long you here? Four days? You need more! You need $300!" I managed to get away with changing just $100 before being bustled into a taxi. I made sure the driver told me the price before we set off, but in my state of confusion I couldn´t really figure out what it meant. The driver didn´t look like he would drive me into the middle of nowhere and kill me and he didn´t, but he drove like a madman. I´m told it is winter in Venezuela, but you wouldn´t know it. It is hot and humid, and on the drive from the ai´rport the scenery is a mixture of shanty towns - homes which are just piles of bricks - and crumbling tower blocks baking in the heat. All built into a band of green mountain. Posters and graffitti everywhere saying "No!" and "Si!" for the referendum on Chavez´s leadership, which is in about one month.

Anyway, we got lost, people denied the existance of my hotel, the taxi driver called the place from a mobile on a street-corner (a picnic table covered in telephones, with a woman selling calls - these are illegal, but very common here), still couldn´t find the place, bought me a tiny coffee and eventually we found the hostel. The taxi driver charged me too much, and my first attempt to barter didn´t go so well as I ended up giving him more than the price he´d quoted me, even though that itself was twice what he should have charged.

The hostel is nice but empty, run by a Spaniard who speaks English and gives what so far seems to have been good advice. I´m staying in the Sabana Grande area of the city, which is safer than the historic center in the west and less posh than the east end. I spent the evening wandering the streets trying to find somewhere to buy beer, with the hostel owner´s 18-year-old friend Juan Carlos as my guide. The kid knew everyone - in the course of a fifteen-minute wander he must have shook hands with a dozen different people he knew.

So far I´m safe, I´ve spent too much money, and I´m looking forward to getting to Quito, where the threat of death or robbery seems to loom far less. But the city bustles, the people are friendly, it´s okay. I´m having trouble coming to terms with the idea that I´m not coming home until January though. Real trouble.

July 16, 2004 - Caracas - Parte Dos
Apparently there is a serial killer on the loose in Caracas. Eleven or twelve people have been killed in the last fortnight. Luckily though, the killer only targets homeless people rather than pasty gringo travellers. Lucky for me, that is. Not so lucky for the homeless people, who get their heads smashed open with rocks.

Actually they caught him. That´s what I was told by a friendly old geezer in a bar, who spoke English and could somehow tell that I wasn´t from around these parts. He said the Caracas has got worse over the last ten years, and that he used to be able to go out and drink until six in the morning, but now he made sure he left by 11.30. He recommended we did the same, but we ignored his advice and went on to meet the hostel owner and his Canadian guest at a bar in a covered mall type area.

By 'we' I mean me and the other English guest at the hostel. So finally I had some drinking buddies last night. I´m feeling a bit fragile this morning as a result. The bar itself looked like a kebab counter, but there were a load of tables outside, a huge stack of speakers blaring out salsa and lots of very impressive dancing going on. That and some quite bad dancing courtesy of the pasty gringo travellers. We were practically forced onto our feet by random strangers (not that I needed all that much convincing) and by the time we left everyone was our best friend.
I'm leaving this evening for Ecuador, and I´m sorry not to be able to stick around to see more of Venezuela. A trip to Trinidad sounds good too, it´s only two hours from venezuela by ferry. I´m considering coming back here... We'll see.

Yesterday I went to El Ávilla, the strip of mountain which seperates Caracs from the sea. I was accompanied by the hostel owner's friend, a Venezuelan boy who doesn't stop talking and singing and who spent two hours or so frantically dancing with imaginary partners in the front room of the hostel for an audience of two. "I am Ke-rayzee!" he liked to declare when he was done swivelling his hips. He says he's a singer, and lives in awe of Enrique Iglesias. I spent the afternoon bouncing along a broken path in the back of an old pick-up truck with him, as he chatted to anyone and everyone he saw. When we got to the top it bucketted down with rain and we ate something called Arepe and looked down on the city far below. We took the last truck back and the sun came out after the rain - everything was bright and orange coloured as we bombed back down this bouncy path. It´s the way to travel.

July 18, 2004 - Foundation for street children, Conocota, Near Quito, Ecuador
Well this week is going to be a bit different from last week. The Fundacion por los Niños de Calle is a half-hour walk from the nearest town, and is run a little like a military camp. But with more football, and worse food. The children get up at four in the morning on a schoolday, and each has a task to do. This might involve feeding the rabbits, of which there are 100 - these are used for food, and the children slaughter them themselves. Then there´s the ducks, which are for eggs, and the garden, where food is grown for both the children and the animals. There are chickens too, but ducks are better because they get sick less easily. Their eggs taste the same, it turns out.

Children have one change of clothing (two sets in total) and wash themselves and their clothing on alternate days. Water from the washing is recycled in the toilets, as the only water available is what is pumped from the river below. On Saturday afternoons they get to watch television.
Breakfast consists of fresh-baked bread (made by the French guy who runs the place, or his Ecuatorian wife) and home-made jam. Lunch yesterday consisted of a large bowl of rice with lettuce, a duck egg and half a platano (like a banana, only less sweet and eaten cooked). This was fine, because I hadn´t had platanos before and if you eke it out for long enough it makes the rice more palatable. When dinner turned out to be exactly the same thing, I had to stop myself from groaning with despair...

But the children seem mostly well-adjusted despite the fairly basic life they live here, and they play a mean game of football. I can mostly get the ball off of the under-sixes, but older than that and I´ve got no chance. I´m looking forward to learning some more Spanish because right now the phrase I use most is the one that means "I don´t understand", and I´m getting tired of saying it.

July 27, 2004 - Quito
Before the real traveling begins: one more week of Spanish. But not at the foundation for street kids this week. I wanted to do a week at the language school in Quito so I could see the city and study at the same time. It has nothing to do with the fact that life at the foundation involves getting up at four a.m. every day, peeling mountains of vegetables in the cold semi-darkness, eating the same food day-in day-out, washing clothes by hand and taking showers which are, if not cold, tepid at best.

No, nothing to do with these things. Because I want to do three months of this, or something like it, in Bolivia. Yes. Must. Do. Worthwhile. Things.

Needless to say, what I managed for a week the kids do every day. Except their showers are cold, and involve a hose-pipe in the back yard. They can leave, which some do. The ones who stay get regular meals, school and a relatively functional extended family for their troubles. Definitely a good thing. And washing your clothes by hand isn’t so bad. Washing machines here usually have no hot water going into the back anyway, in which case hand-washing is more effective. Unless you drop your clothes on the dirty ground immediately after washing them, which is what I did.

Being a not-very-well-travelled person, I'm quite surprised by the general lack of piped hot water anywhere. There are electric showers, though, which sometimes work. The first one I came across was in a hotel by a lake in the crater of a volcano, last Saturday. I electrocuted myself on it. Not seriously enough to cause any damage, but it was quite a shock. Obviously...
I thought those bits of metal on top of the thing might make the water get hotter.

At the moment I'm staying in the house of the director of the Spanish school, where the electric shower works fairly well, and the live wires are hidden fairly well out of the way of curious fingers. Within the house, I have a little self-contained flat to myself, so it's the lap of luxury. I have to spend every mealtime with two really irritating German girls, and the Mariscal area of Quito, where I study, is a horrible place, crawling with backpackers (like me, I know..) and full of hostels, Internet cafes and shopkeepers who tell you the price in English.

On the plus side, the family is very nice, the old town - from what I’ve seen - is a pretty good place to wander aimlessly around, and my Spanish is coming along nicely. Soon I’ll even be able to speak in the past tense, which will make me very happy. I could do with finding some good people to drink beer with though. Anyone but the German girls!


Ah yes, and quickly! Ecuador has an interesting climate - as far as I can make out, the country gets twelve hours of sunlight all year round. It’s bastard cold in the mornings until about mid-day, and then glorious until sunset. Also, from this point of view, the light of the sun hits the bottom edge of the moon rather than the side, so the moon looks like a big grin rather than a ).

August 01, 2004 - Quito, Parte Dos
The first Social Forum of the Americas has been happening in Quito this week. This meant that political activists from all over the continent descended on the town to talk a lot and march a bit and spray little A's in circles on every available surface, god bless 'em.

I contibuted to this event on Wednesday by joining a protest in a semi-drunken state for about ten minutes, and yesterday by poking my nose into various meeting rooms to see what was happening. And most of the time was was happening was a meeting, in Spanish, that had started about half an hour ago. But in front of the city's biggest museum was a huge queue of activist types, so I decided to join it. It turned out they were showing Michael Moore´s Farenheit 9/11 in English with Spanish subtitles, free of charge.


The highest mountain in Ecuador, Chimborazo, is also the highest mountain in the world if you measure from the centre of the earth rather than from sea level. This is because the world is a bit squashed.

I spent this morning in a bus, going as far up Cotopaxi as you can go in a bus. Cotopaxi is the second-highest summit in Ecuador, and an active volcano. When we got there it was blowing such a blizzard that the ice battered any exposed bit of skin and you couldn't see much. We didn't stay long.

Afterwards, in the old town, I had dirty boots. At one point I was surounded by half a dozen shoe-shine boys all begging for my custom. Don't go to the old town in Quito with dirty boots unless you have some change for the shoe-shine boys, that's my advice. They don't take no for an answer.


There's a lot of activism and protesting about in Ecuador at the moment. As well as the social forum, there is a forum for the indigenous people of Ecuador, and more seriously a two-week hunger-strike by pensioners. The pensioners are angry because their minimum pension is only $42 a month. I heard that tens of people died, but it's difficult to find anything about this in the news.

August 05, 2004 - Cuenca, Ecuador
Free at last from language schools, I'm heading south to Peru. In the last few days I´ve travelled from Quito to a tourist trap town called Baños, met some good people and been on a five-hour bike ride out of the Andes on a rickety bicycle with bad gears. Then I travelled a bit further south to Riobamba to ride on the roof of a train with about three hundred other backbackers, to Alausí via the Devil's Nose pass. It wasn't quite as hair-raising as the Lonely Planet thinks it is, but worth doing nonetheless.

And now I'm in Cuenca, and I'm sick. Tap water's difficult to avoid if you eat out and drink fresh lemonade and Jugos and the other delicious beverages they serve with the ridiculously cheap and filling $1.50 lunches Ecuador does so well. I think that's what is to blame for the havoc going on in my bowels at the moment, and pretty much everywhere else in my body too. Cuenca's a lovely town, but I think I'm going to be spending most of the next couple of days doing a lot of lying down and trying not to stray too far from the loo. Like you really needed to know.

August 08, 2004 - Campeón!
Campeón is a dog who wears sunglasses, and he sits around in Cuenca's central square posing for photographs. I'm not so good with types of dogs, but this was a big black mean-looking dog with silver wrap-around shades.

I was sat in this square waiting for the 37-year-old English teacher and the 30-year-old Irish social worker who were my friends for two days in Cuenca, and a woman came along to get a photo of her little girl with the dog.

So the dog's owner got up and hit the dog really hard. With a glitter of real enjoyment in his eyes, he raised his hand up into the air and bought it thwacking down into the dog's side, grabbing a handful of skin and hair in the process. Then he dragged the dog over to the bench where the child was sat, hit it again for good measure, and then sat it down by taking a stick and forcing its back legs into a sitting position. While he was doing thios he yelled "Campeón!" at the dog, which is how I learned its name.

Then he put the sunglasses in place (they were casually propped against it's forehead until this point) and held the dog steady while an older guy prepared to take the photo. The kid was looking scared by the level of violence. The guy holding the dog had to take his hand away for the photo, and as soon as he did so the dog got up and wandered off. "Campeón!" ... The dog got another smack and the kid burst into tears.

Well, they got their photo eventually, but it all made entertaining viewing, in a tragic kind of way.

August 10, 2004 - Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Tumbes, Peru
Vilcabamba is a small town near the border with Peru, full of beautiful tranquil gardens, great views and opportunities for horse-riding, biking and treking. Most of the hostels print their brochures in English and include fantastic all-day breakfasts and sporting activities in the (moderately inflated) prices of the rooms. People have raved about Vilcabamba to me since I was in Quito.

So anyway, I didn't go. I was on my way, but I changed my mind and decided to stay in Loja, 45 minutes away. I couldn't stand the thought of another backpacker town - since Quito everywhere I've been has been infested with the blighters. I keep bumping into people I met a few days before in a different town. There's a whole contingent, following the trail, and apart from anything else it isn't doing my Spanish any favours.

Loja, it turned out, is a bit of a dump, with just one redeeming quality - El Viejo Minero. The Old Miner pub. I spent a superb Saturday evening in there, drinking Ecuadorian beer and Chilean wine and Cuban rum, talking to the barman, talking to various locals... everyone who sat down at the bar would introduce themselves straight away. There was one other gringo in there, a 70-year-old Frenchman who talked about Paris in May '68 and how it was a shame the travel books didn't tell you where to find the whorehouses any more.

There was so little to do the next day I ended up going to the cinema to watch Troy. In the evening I went back to the Miner, and although I think it was closed, the owner gave me a beer and even accompanied me out for dinner.

Of course the whole time I was there everyone was telling me about Vilcabamba, how I was a fool not to have gone and 'no, really, it's not that touristy'.


Yesterday, Monday, I had a great bus ride to the border. I have made a conscious decision to start enjoying bus rides, because there are going to be plenty. And this was a great bus ride - out of the Andes and down to the coast in the baking sun, with pigs sleeping in the road, the mountains all the oranges and reds of the spice rack and vultures vulturing about overhead.
This was my first overland border crossing (apart from in Europe, which doesn't count) and, well, there was less queueing than I expected. I got off the bus 5km outside of the border town, Haquillas, got an exit stamp and taxi to the border. As soon as the taxi slowed up, we were surrounded by people waving cash and calculators at me and begging me to get in their taxis. I walked accross the international bridge being trailed by a very persistent cabbie, whom I eventually agreed to let take me to the Peruvian office. Then the swarm of moneychangers again, and a minibus to Tumbes where everyone else got off before me and I started to worry that they were going to kill me and got very cross with the driver's mate, what's your name, where do you come from, how old are you, SHUT UP, I JUST WANT TO GET OFF YOUR BUS!
My hostel in Tumbes was the worst so far - the toilet has neither a toilet seat, nor a light, nor functioning taps. And the matress was still wrapped in the plastic it came in - which is at least a sign that it's clean. Anyway, it were cheap, and I'm going to the beach this afternoon. I'm going to go to a coast town which isn't in my guidebook at all. Yay.

August 13, 2004 - Trujillo, Peru
The Moche were a pre-Inca people who made human sacrifices and painted dragons holding decapitated human heads on the walls of their temples. I visited the ruins of their Huaca de la Luna, and ended up in a group with a Spanish-speaking guide. Despite my hours of diligent study I was struggling to keep up, so I jumped ship and joined another group with an English guide.

After the tour, the people in my group got on a bus back to the town centre, so I piled in with them. The tour guide got in as well, and guided us all the way back to town. ("...and this is Av. de España, where the city walls were originally built when the town was founded in 15XX. The city was founded by Pizarro in 15XX and burned down by a fire in 16XX, and Simon Bolivar stayed in that house over there..."). At some point on the way it dawned on me that I'd just insinuated my way into a guided tour which had probably cost everyone else on the bus obscene amounts of money. I got a free bus ride though.

I also got some tips on what busses to take to the next town. I was going to take a night bus, that being the only option that I was offered, but a middle-aged Peruvian woman who was involved with the tour company told me that if I did I would sleep through the best views in all Peru, and that bus conductors were criminally inconsiderate for not telling me this, and that I should get a different bus and change half-way. She told me a great deal more, in very passionate and rapid Spanish, about things like how to make skin cream and bronchitus cures out of alfalfa and rhododendrons, but I didn't understand her very well and I forgot the recipe.

August 15, 2004 - Being ripped off
Just after writing the last post, I went back to my hostel, where there was an elderly man in the foyer. He was trying to sell sweets, or rather, begging, with some sweets as an incentive - I'd seen him earlier that day and turned him down. As soon as he saw me he approached me, asked where I was from, and said he was Peruvian. He even waved a little white card at me, which helped his case a great deal.

He'd caught me at a generous moment, and I was going to give him a sol or two for his sweets. I looked in my wallet and all I had were four five-sol pieces, and five sols was far too much to give him. So in a moment of blinding stupididity, I showed him all the money I had, saying look, I don't have anything small enough to give you.

Of course he started rummaging about in the palm of my hand, took two of the coins, and said, that's fine. That's ten sols!, I exclaimed. No, he said, showing me the single coin in the palm of his hand, it's five. It was pure wizardry! Two coins one moment, one the next. Stunning sleight of hand. I just said "Gah!" and stood with my mouth open while he kissed my hand, said "Muchas gracias!" and scarpered.

And so, I was robbed of ten sols. And true, it's only GBP1.65 at today's exchange rate, but that's how much I paid for the room I'm staying in tonight.

Yeah yeah, it taught me a lesson, he probably needs it more than I do, good magic deserves rewarding, they weren't bad sweets, etc., etc., but... Bastard!

August 19, 2004 - Busses
I've spent the last week rushing through Peru to get to Cuzco before I lose my Inca Trail deposit. This has involved 54.5 hours on busses.

Aguas Verdes (the Ecuadorian border) to Tumbes, Monday 9/08, 1hr. In one of the tiny minibusses which serve for local transport. The operators refuse to accept the idea that they could ever be full, and pack people on until people are falling over each other. No worse than the tube, mind you. This was the aforementioned occasion when everyone got off before me and I became convinced that I was going to be carted off somewhere and killed. I perhaps get convinced of this too often.

Tumbes to Máncora (the beach), Tuesday 10/08, 2.5hrs. Another tiny minibus, only less scary. I had a parcel of live crabs at my feet the whole time.

Máncora to Trujillo, Thursday 12/08, 8hrs overnight. A really comfortable bus with seats that reclined a long way and platforms to support your feet. I dozed the whole way. Lovely.

Trujillo to Huaraz, Saturday 14/08, 12hrs. The best bus journey ever. Having been recommended to take a day bus to Huaraz rather than go at night, I turned up at the bus station to find there were no seats left. I managed to get a five Sol discount and stand. The route was almost totally over unpaved roads. At one point we arrived at a worrying-looking bridge, and we all had to get off the bus and walk across to increase the chance of bus and passengers all making it across alive. Then a couple of hours later a landslide made the road impassable, and everyone clambered over the dirt to the other side with their various items of luggage, where, miraculously, there was another bus waiting for us. Even better, I got a seat for the rest of the journey.We arrived in Huaraz late, and passed Huarascarán, Peru's highest mountain, at sunset. The setting sun lit the snow-capped peak in red, with strips of blue where the clouds blocked the sun. Gorgeous - I hope the pictures come out.

Huaraz to Lima, Sunday 15/08, 8hrs overnight. I was the last person to realise we'd arrived in the morning. My backpack was stood by itself, everyone else had left. Every bus journey presents new opportunities to lose everything you possess.

Lima to Cusco, Tuesday 17/08, 23hrs. The big one, 23 hours on a bus with no toilet. There was a stop for dinner, as well as a stop to buy fruit at a market. Some people bought a hell of a lot of fruit. Why? They also stopped at 1.30am to let some vendedors on the bus to wake everyone up and try to sell us coca leaf tea in old mineral water bottles. That wouldn't have happened in first class.

August 22, 2004 - Ah, Cusco!
Cusco, Qosqo, so good they spell it two different ways. The ancient capital of the Inca empire, where tourists outnumber normal people and your view of the stunning architecture is usually obscured by the alpaca jumpers, onyx pumas, postcards and restaurant menus being pushed in your face at every turn. But, you know, it's great.

Indigenous women walk the streets in colourful traditional clothing, holding baby llamas and asking tourists to take their photographs for a tip. I have a feeling that there would be at least some indigenous women in traditional dress leading llamas down the city's narrow alleyways even if there were no tourists around to take photographs of them. It's hard to prove though.
Plus, it has made a nice change to spend five days in the same place - I was hoping to spend all five in the same hotel, but it didn't quite work out that way... I agreed to meet some friends in a bar the night before last, at 11.30 in the evening. (When I say friends, of course, I mean people I'd just met.) However when I came to leave the hostel, the door was locked and the owners had all gone to bed. Despite my making a horrendous racket for half an hour or more, waking everyone else up and getting shouted at, the owners didn't stir and I had nothing to do but go to bed. So I left the next day in revenge.

Other than that little episode, I've had altitude sickness, tried to treat it by chewing on coca leaves and ended up with green teeth as well as altitude sickness. I've seen a middle-aged woman urinate in the middle of the road. I've been drinking with, variously, some boring English girls, an interesting American who ran away, a South Korean with whom I ran out of things to talk about and an Israeli who I couldn't understand. I've seen a drunk man kick a dog. I've seen the world's worst painting of Jesus - he was somehow supporting a wonky cross on the palms of his hands, arms twisted implausably, whilst gushing blood into a bucket of grapes (how I laughed! in the convent...). And I've seen enough inca ruins to make the idea of walking four days uphill to see another inca ruin seem sort of stupid. But that's what I'm going to do, starting tomorrow at 5am.

August 28, 2004 - Rains, runs and ruins
August is the dry season in this part of Peru, with only six days of rain expected over the course of the whole month. Despite this, we got every weather phenomenon going over four days of hiking - snow, hail, thunder, rain, wind, fog, more rain, sleet, drizzle and even a few moments of sun. The suncream, sunhat and sunglasses I packed stayed packed until day four.

Day one was the easy part. We got up early and spent some time sitting on the bus eying each other warily and making snap judgements based on nationality and appearance. As we drove to the town of Ollantaytambo it began to dawn on us that we were 15, despite the advertised maximum group size of 12, and that we were with a completely different tour company than the one we'd booked with. I had an overpriced breakfast with three huge Canadians and we all bought sticks and gloves and rain ponchos which would turn out to be porous. Tickets were handed out and stamped, photos were taken by the wooden sign marking the start of the trail, and finally we walked a fairly easy 11km in persistent drizzle.

It was the second day when the drizzle turned into rain, and as we climbed and climbed and climbed it got colder and the rain turned into sleet and the sleet into snow. Our guide hadn't seen snow on the trail in the 8 months she had worked the route. So, yeah, we were lucky. By the time we'd passed the first pass at 4,200 meters everything was wet no matter how many layers of plastic it had been wrapped in, and everyone was pissed off and cold. There was no view as everything was enveloped in fog. Despite the treacherous and unusual conditions, the guides made no effort to keep us together and we had no idea where they were most of the time. I wasn't well impressed with the guides on the trek, considering the dollars we had shelled out. When one of the huge Canadians slipped we discovered that they didn't even have a first aid kit between them.

I had no problem with the food, however. I had expected ham sandwiches in crap Peruvian bread all the way, but we got chocolate snacks, we got breaks for popcorn and crackers, breakfasts involved pancakes, porrige and fruit salads, we got trout with tomato and onion sauce, spaghetti bolognaise, rice or pasta would inevitably come presented with a tomato fashioned into the shape of a rose or hummingbirds made of carrots, there were fantastic deserts... I haven't eaten so well since I left, in fact I have rarely eaten so well full stop.
So full credit to the chef, who was freelance and had nothing to do with the tour company. I still got the runs, mind you. I should have a constitution of steel by now, but some upleasant trips to the woods were necessary - not what you want when it's cold and raining and you have a heavy rucksack on your back. I recovered fairly quickly at least, and I was the only one, which makes it harder to apportion blame.

Full credit too to the porters. The porters are legendary on the Inca Trail. For a group of fifteen, plus two guides, we had nineteen porters, plus any extra people had asked for to carry their packs (I carried my own, because I'm hardcore). The porters carry the food and the tents and the gas and the backpacks of the folk less hardcore than myself, and they have to do each stretch of the journey faster than any of the hikers so they can put up the tents and have popcorn and coca tea waiting for us when we get there. These guys, men from the age of eighteen to sixty at least, literally run up the trail with 40 kilo packs (which, I gather, is heavy), and many do it in sandals and shorts. Sandals through the snow.

There is a big issue about mistreatment and underpayment of porters, and the company I booked with stressed their responsible attitude. But then I didn't hike with the company I booked with. The porters I spoke to seemed to enjoy the work, or at least not resent it, but if I was running a tour company that claimed to treat its porters well, I'd start by making sure they had shoes.

On day three it only rained a little; besides that and a brief hailstorm the weather was perfect. By this point all our clothes were wet and filthy and at 17km this was the longest day, but none of that mattered when we were treking through lush cloud forest with tremendous views on either side. The Dunkirk spirit induced by the previous day had pulled the group together as well, and I was chatting away happily with people I had dismissed on the first day when they emerged from plush hotels I could never afford.

Then yesterday, the last day, we were up at four and after a couple more kilometers we walked up steep steps (more damage was done to a mammoth Canadian, blood was spilt and still no first-aid kit emerged), over a low pass and there it was, Machu Picchu, sitting prettily waiting for the sunrise to hit it. Bathing in the attention, loving the cameras. And the sun came out.

UPDATE - Here's a picture of Machu Picchu sent to me by one of the guys we did the trail with. It's better than the postcard I had up here before, and besides, I was there when he took it, looking at the same view, taking the same photo in non-digital format. So it's almost my photo!

September 06, 2004 - Isla Kantati, one of the Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca (the Peruvian side).
I just spent about two hours writing page upon eloquent page about the utterly, arse-kickingly wonderful day I spent on one of the floating Uros islands of Lake Titicaca, relaxing on the reeds, chatting to the islanders and being the only tourist there all day long. Then the power went out and I lost it all.

September 06, 2004 - Stupid, stupid, stupid
I thought I had myself oriented pretty well, but last night returning from dinner I lost my way, walked a block too far and found myself lost. A man asked me what I was looking for, and directed me down a dark, threatening-looking backstreet. So I walked down the dark, threatening-looking backstreet.

Now I have red blotches around my eyes and a patch of red in the white one, burst blood vessels from where they strangled me.

The worst thing I lost (apart from control of my bladder) was my camera, with my photos from the aforementioned arse-kickingly wonderful day I spent on the Uros Islands. I had taken one panoramic shot that I thought would deserve framing - on the left were the men of the island, lazing on the reeds building their reed boat; in the centre, a reed hut; on the right, the women of the island lazing on the reeds, one or two holding children, with the pile of terracotta pots they used for a kitchen smouldering away on the far side of the frame. All Uros life was there, spread out from left to right, and in blazing sunshine. I'm sure it wouldn't have turned out as well as I'd hoped. Now I just have it idealised in my head as the perfect photograph.

The second worst thing was a booklet of poems in Spanish by Pablo Neruda, Poemas Militantes, which I had picked up in Quito at the social forum and spent hours trying to understand. I'd got all the way through this one, Heights of Machu Picchu XII, and was working on another, called A song for Bolívar. My dictionary too.

Now I need to spend another day in Puno, a town I didn't like very much when I got here (and now I like it even less...). Speaking to cops, phoning the insurance company. I wanted to be in Bolivia by this afternoon. Pants.

September 08, 2004 - La Paz, Bolivia
The bus from Puno to Bolivia involved a boat crossing over a stretch of Lake Titicaca. While the passengers got into a motorboat, the bus itself was transported over the lake on a raft. Miraculously, it made it accross.

The first thing I saw on the other side of the lake was a statue of a hero from the War of the Pacific. On the side of the base was a painting of a Bolivian soldier stabbing a Chilean soldier in the throat with a bayonnet, with the legend "what once was ours, will be ours again". This is because Chile nicked a bit of land off Bolivia in 1883, leaving the country landlocked.

1883! And still they have paintings practically inciting the murder of Chileans. I wonder if the phrase "let bygones be bygones" has an equivalent in Latin American Spanish?

Arequipa, Peru
I never wrote about Arequipa - I was there in between Cusco and Puno. It's Peru's second-largest city, and you can get four pisco sours for about two quid.

In between drinking cheap drinks with an Israeli and visiting stunning buildings made of white stone, I found myself sharing a dish of pork fat with a seventy-year-old Peruvian woman. I went into a cheap restaurant for some lunch, and this woman struck up a conversation with me in which she convinced me we had to take a taxi to a part of town I hadn't seen, where I absolutely must try chicharon, a traditional Andean meal which consists of the bits of pig that other people leave behind.

We'd both just eaten a full meal, but still I had to sit and pick at the huge plate of pork fat and bits of hairy pigskin. And the old woman, Mary, spoke to me about her five children and eight sisters, about her imminent trip to England, about how she didn't like Arabs (funny clothes, funny language) and about my Catholicism. I insisted that I wasn't Catholic, but she was adamant that I was, and that Jesus is the true way and the light, and that He was watching me always. It was a surreal afternoon. The meal was far too much, and I got to take most of it back to my hostel in a plastic bag, where it made its way swiftly to the bin.

The other highlight of my time in Arequipa was going on a long bus trip with a lot of dutch couples, watching condors fly and talking to tramps about Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War.

September 09, 2004 - Camel Planet Pronto
I may have co-starred in a television advert for a tourist agency yesterday. Me and some friends (p.I.j.m.) thought we had been offered a free city tour in a horse-drawn carriage, but we ended up in a strange landscape known as the Valley of the Moon, just outside La Paz, riding around in all-terrain buggies and being filmed so the tourist agency could use the footage as evidence of gringos having fun. There was a staged wedding as well, with a pale boy from the Basque Country pretending to wed a Bolivian girl in a stunning wedding dress with flowers in her hair. Why this happened I do not know. She was well out of his league, that was for sure.
It was a strange, confusing and entertaining day. We were generally called upon look like we were enjoying ourselves from time to time, and left abandoned on the side of the road when not needed. I heard later that the whole day had been a disaster because the horse wouldn't behave, but this wasn't apparent at the time.

The terrible night's sleep I'd had the previous night may have had something to do with my bewilderedness. I got back to my hostel at half one in the morning after some bar-crawling, and met my Columbian dorm-mate for the first time. He had a lip-piercing that looked like clotted blood, the sunken face of a man who has taken more than the recommended dose of Bad Drugs. He spent the night smoking cocaine out of a small pipe with two equally sunken-eyed mates and listening to music which ranged from Nirvana to Bob Marley to about an hour of Hari Krishna chanting. This went on until about 7am. Sleep was not an option; I could only hide under the covers (sleeping in my trousers with my cash in my pocket) and play dead. I have since moved rooms.

On the way back home last night after a second night of bar-crawling (this isn't a lifestyle I'll be able to sustain for long, money-wise at least. Not that I'll be staying in this evening, of course.) my cab passed a row of pieces of paper stuck to the inside of a road tunnel, each with a letter on. They spelled out the phrase 'Camel Planet Pronto'. And I can't call every post 'La Paz, Bolivia, Part X' for two months. So.

September 10, 2004 - What I'm going to be doing for the next two months.
I didn't come here to go out drinking every night! I came here to get some voluntary work.
So I met with an English guy who has lived in La Paz for fifteen years installing solar electricity and water supplies in rural communities. He was out of work, and anyway it sounded like I would need skills I don't have in order to help him. Over the course of four or five beers he suggested that as a person who hangs around in an office all day researching markets, I might be able to hang around in an Internet cafe all day researching markets for small Bolivian producers.

Or I could work in an orphanage, and spend two months playing with children. Huh.
So with this guy's help I managed to get in touch with someone from the Coordination Committee for five organisations representing variously, cooperative miners, campesino farmers, artisans, small businesses based in El Alto, and some other organisation I forgot. I just had a meeting with him, where he talked about trade agreements, tariffs, the War on Drugs, quality agreements and export rules. In Spanish. He gave me a copy of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (also in Spanish) and invited me to a meeting where these various groups will discuss the delinking of the Trade Promotion bit from the Drug Eradication bit.

{The US only wants to give poor countries access to its markets (and thus help them to sell things, make money and develop into less poor and more secure countries which are less likely to cause problems for the US in future) if it gets some short-term benefit out of it. It thinks the eradication of coca fields will provide such a benefit. It won't. It is just likely to get coca producers angrier and angrier until they take up arms against the state and you end up with a Columbian-style situation where guerrillas control 40% of the counry. And if the US does succeed in cutting the supply of cocaine, then the price of cocaine in the US will increase, the purity will deteriorate and the dangerous addicts (as opposed to the addicts working for multinational banks and consultants in New York City, who are dangerous too but in quite different ways) will be robbing more grannies to shove an inferior and more expensive substance into their bodies by whatever is their chosen method. Thus, the US should concentrate on how to stop its citizens becoming dangerous drug-addicted criminals, treating the citizens who are already dangerous drug-addicted criminals, and helping poor countries to develop just because it's the right thing to do rather than in return Bolivia putting poor coca-farmers out of work. That's what I reckon anyway. You were warned I might rant about politics, way back in the first post...}

So I feel hugely bewildered. I will need to read a lot of trade agreements, research how these organisations might export more goods, and if I do it well it could improve the livelihoods of peasants and artisans who really don't earn very much money (I read in the English-language travellers' rag that the average salary in El Alto is $500 a year). Hopefully I won't spend all my time in Internet cafes, either, and will get to meet the people making these things.
Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Will I waste two months and discover nothing of any use to anyone? Find out in subsequent exciting instalments...

Meanwhile, I promise to write less. A post a day is ridiculous.

September 12, 2004 - The "I just got out of San Pedro Prison" guy
I just met the "I just got out of San Pedro Prison" guy. I was sitting in a plaza having breakfast from a street stand (to drink, a hot red-and-yellow corn-based beverage called Api, to eat, deep-fried dough) when he came bowling up, swinging his arms, and drawling "Hey! Does anyone here speak Aynglish?"

"Yes!" I said, with more enthusiasm than was necessary. He was wearing a New York Giants sweater and was over-acting, screwing his face into expressions of exaggerated exasperation and scratching his face. "Oh man! I just got out..." he rubbed his head like a tired bear, "...just got out of San Pedro Prison man..."

Everyone I've met who has been anywhere near La Paz had met a guy who'd just got out of San Pedro Prison. Many seemed to believe he really had just got out of San Pedro Prison. He told me he was from New York, he'd been arrested for posession of half a gram, half an ounce, half a tonne, I forget how much coke. He'd been inside for four years. The details were familiar from the stories I'd been told. All the embassies were closed as it is Sunday today, and he needed money for food.

I shelled out two Bolivianos, which he said he'd save for lunch, and told him, you know, so many people I've met have met a guy who just got out of San Pedro Prison. "Well it's a big prison, man, seventy or eighty people get out a day." You must have learned some Spanish in all those four years? "Oh yeah, I speak Spanish." As we parted he thanked me and said if he could offer me any advice he'd be happy to dispense it. Then I went on my way, and watched him give my cash to a man on a street corner, who would no doubt give it back to him at lunch time.

[Link: ABC Foreign Correspondent page about San Pedro Prison]

September 17, 2004 - The country that wants to exist, etc.
In San Francisco Plaza, on a big screen outside the beautiful old colonial-mestizo style church, they've been showing footage of the violence here last October. I watched the very square where I was standing, filled with riot cops shooting randomly into crowds. Waves of people poured down from the hills, chanting something in Spanish to the 'tune' of "the people united will never be divided", totally peacefuly until the military got the tear gas out.

I just came out to find some chocolate and Halls Mentholyptus. The film was being screened as part of an effort to get a petition together to bring the ex-President, Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada, back to the country to be held responsible for the deaths that, according to everyone I have spoken to, he ordered.

The international press generally reports that sixty to a hundred people "died in clashes with the police". The people who were here at the time phrase this somewhat differently. "...And then the president started killing people" is one typical example.

Anyway, if you are interested, these short articles are well worth reading, and if you're not, they ain't.

Bolivia, The Country That Wants To Exist - By Eduardo Galeano
Kerry and Bolivia: To the Right of Bush? - By Sean Donahue
Bolivia: A Stew Pot Of Anti-Americanism, Natural Gas And Cocaine - By Ann Huggett. (For a different take on the situation.)

PS - A message to anyone who may worry - things seem a lot more stable now. A lot of people would still kind of like the country's gas reserves nationalised, and everyone's still very pissed off at the ex-president for killing all those people, but the chances of further violent insurrection (or rather peaceful insurrection and violent suppression) over the course of the next two months seem slight. All four of the political protests I've stumbled across this week have been very subdued affairs.

September 20, 2004 - Notes from my yellow cell
My work on increasing Bolivia's exports to Europe is progressing somewhat slowly, and all the people I met when I arrived in La Paz have either left, got sick, or got sick and then left. In addition, I've spent the weekend in a cold yellow box-room with only Don Quixote for company, trying to sleep off a head cold.

This has giving me some time to reflect on two months that have gone by in a blur. I'm not quite sure what I expected. I'm never sure what I expected - I don't think I form very solid expectations.

I've been reading an editorial (slowly, with dictionary) from one of the local papers. It talks about how foreigners with expensive cameras wander around the streets of Bolivia's cities, looking for curious souvenirs to take home. About how these youths hail, largely, from the 'first world', how they, in stark contrast to Bolivian youth, have almost everything. They aren't quite tourists - they generally fit into a group of people who are in some way rebelling against their comfortable first-world lives, and they've come with their vague revolutionary ideals to see, and if possible to immerse themselves in, the hard reality of Bolivian life.

The problem is that these backpackers, mochileros, don't know where folklore and tradition end and hardship and misery begin. They are, it is suggested, morbid voyeurs of poverty. The point of the article being that this is not healthy for Bolivia's image abroad.

Of course I'm not like them, because I don't have a camera, not any more. But in all other respects, they've got me nicely categorized. I think some kind of immersement in South American life was something I had hoped for, if not expected. The level to which there is a 'gringo trail' has really frustrated me, they way I've been part of a train of tourists, all seeing the same sights in more or less the same order. (I've met one Colombian guy in Lima, again in Cuzco, again at the top of a hill overlooking Machu Picchu, and again on a boat on Lake Titicaca.)
And this takes something away from the magic. Watching condors fly overhead and swoop meters from your face is a less profound experience when you have paid a tour agency to take you to the place where condors are known to swoop, when you arrive at the ideal swooping time, and when you watch the condors swoop with around three hundred other backpackers who have also paid to watch the swooping.

But it would be naive to think that I would just stumble across a spot in the desert where I could sit, without another human being in sight, and be surrounded by condors swooping just for me. I can't be the lone discoverer of Machu Picchu, and Cuzco wouldn't be Cuzco without the floods of tourists taking photos of the brightly-dressed indiginous women who stand in the street cradling baby llamas, cooing 'photo?'... Selling a simulation of their culture for your tip.

All the same, the best bits so far (excluding those which involved drinking with other backpackers) have been those which have come closest to 'immersement'. The week in a foundation for street children, definitely. The day and night on a floating island, after being told three times it wasn't possible, watching boats being built out of reeds, chatting about the islander's way of life, dancing about with them in circles to the only song they knew how to play (and they played it over and over again). And then the more brief encounters, with elderly ladies who made me eat pig fat and tramps who talked with me about the Falklands War.
But real 'immersement' is of course not desirable, or possible, for reasons that Jarvis Cocker has explained in his great philosphical treatease, "Common People".

"But still you'll never get it right / 'cos when you're laid in bed at night / watching roaches climb the wall /If you call your Dad he could stop it all." And other relevent lines.

I met a Portuguese guy with a name that is pronounced "Cxhooii", where "cxh" is the sound of a Portuguese guy clearing his throat. (I don't remember if I mentioned him... He quoted lines from Blackadder at me in his thick Portuguese accent. "I cxhaff a plang so cxhunning you could sticxh a txchail on it and cxhall it a wcxheasel." Aproximately. He was hilarious.) He'd been travelling form some months - I asked him what he had been doing in South America and he said, just sightseeing. A good philosophy, maybe.

But I'm here for two months, I'm living here rather than sightseeing, and I shall expect some high-quality genuine cultural immersement for my efforts. And how about "sympathetic witness" instead of "morbid voyeur", please? Give me a break, I'm trying to help you export stuff aren't I?

September 23, 2004 - I'm so happy
Today I met a woman who'd never heard of England.
She said, "Where are you from?"
I said, "England."
She said, "England? I don't know it."
I said, "It's in Europe."
She said, "Ah! Some other country."

September 29, 2004 - A catalogue of minor disasters
Nothing's going right at the moment and I'm in a foul mood that's just getting fouler and fouler. Just to show that travelling is not all a bunch of roses, I shall share with you the various things that have served to piss me off over the past 48 hours or so.

Tuesday night, my watch - a cheap one I'd bought to replace the cheap one I'd had stolen - broke for the third time in a row. I knew I had to get up early, and so I hardly slept at all for worrying about oversleeping.

After lying in bed and watching the sun get brighter outside my window for a few hours, I managed to make it on time to the cafe where I'd agreed to meet a friend. He had sounded very eager to help me out with the exporting-stuff business. He didn't turn up. This annoyed me more than it should have done, mainly because of the terrible night's sleep.

The plan was to meet this guy at 9, tell him a bit about what I was up to, and introduce him to the guy I'm working with (let's call him Luis) at the meeting we had planned for 10. But Luis didn't show either. I waited half an hour, went to an Internet cafe, returned an hour later, and was told that Luis was terribly busy and would meet me the next afternoon.

I'd done everything I could think of to do exporting-stuff-wise, and had nothing else to get on with, so I stropped about a museum for a bit, cursing how much time everything is taking, and how I feel more like I'm in this guy's way than anything else.

But at least I had something to look forward to. I was about to go off treking in the Cordillera Real and the Yungas, beautiful scenery surrounding La Paz, for four days. I'd met a French bloke who had a tent and a stove and everything we needed, so it would be cheap, independent, adventurous. It sounded fun.

But the French bloke, his foot started to go mouldy due to the lack of hygene in $2/night Bolivian hostels, and he wasn't up to treking. He told me this when I got back to the hostel. Instead he left on a bus this morning.

Today, to cheer myself up, I was given permission to open a package I'd been sent; presents from Judith for our anniversary, two days early. This did cheer me up indeed - in the box was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, amongst other things. I sat down, read thirty pages, and feeling suitably inspired, put it in my pocket and walked to a cafe (the same one) to read a bit more.
By the time I'd got to the cafe, the book had been removed from my pocket by a guy who had been following me rather closely down the street. I felt him take it without realising what had happened, and then tried to ignore him as he tried to attract my attention by going "Ma fren', Ma fren'" at me. Shame, as he would probably have sold it back to me. I traipsed round all the book stands in the nearby market looking for it, thinking he'd probably try to flog it there. I asked every stallholder if they'd recently bought a copy in English, to no avail.

Having a book that you've just started removed from your pocket, especially when it is a present with a loving inscription from your better half, and when you shouldn't have had it dangling out of your pocket like that in the first place, is just the most frustrating, maddening thing you need to top off a bad couple of days.

So now I just hate everything and want to go home. Instead of going treking, I'm going to pack a small bag, get on a bus and see the sights around La Paz for a few days, get the hell out of this city and spend some time sitting on hills doing nothing. I shall no doubt be eaten by pumas, stranded by strikers, fall to my death in a horrible bus crash or kidnapped by Iraqi terrorists who have by some freak accident found themselves in the Yungas of Bolivia. Bad luck comes in threes, and as I reckon I've had four doses, there's at least another two in store.

UPDATE: A catalogue of minor corrections

I tried to destroy my watch, and fixed it in the process. Well, it tells the time. It no longer wakes me up in the morning or goes "Bing! Son las catorce horas y veinte-cinco" when you press the speak button at 2.25pm (for example). But it tells the time.

I went back to the market stalls and found my book. The page with the note from Judith is gone, and so is a bookmark I was quite attached to, and I had to pay 14 Bolivianos (just under US$2) to get it back. But I have my book.

I met the French lad with the minging foot on the street. He hadn't left after all, but was just about to leave for a marvelous and extended jungle expedition in Rurrenabaque. I decided this was one of the signs and omens of the sort Paulo Coelho is talking about, that one has to follow in life, so I'm packing my bags and going with him. At least that's the plan right now. But who knows...

October 11, 2004 - Jungle diary (awim-ba-way, awim-ba-way).

Thursday - took the most dangerous road in the world to Coroico. One bus goes over the edge every two weeks on average, but rather than widen it they call it a tourist attraction. Biking down it looks fun, but in a bus I'd rather not. Sadly it's the only way of getting to where we want to go.

Friday - After chilling out in Coroico in pleasant but uneventful ways, we rode on the back of a truck to a junction. In the back of the truck with us were a Swiss couple and an English couple, who are our new friends. We had plenty of time to get to know them as our bus was two hours late.
In the evening, we watched from the window of the bus as the moon rose. It was fat and orange, and lit the clouds from behind like a dying sun.

Saturday - We arrived in Rurrenabaque at 6am and were greeted by the sound of insects everywhere, clicking and whistling. Found a hostel, and spent most of the day relaxing on hammocks and watching giant butterflies flit overhead. Rurrenabaque, we unanimously decided, is the most laid-back town in the word.
During dinner, a child came up to me and, wordlessly but fairly politely, took the lump of meat from my soup.
Sunday - First day of the jungle tour. My companions are Paul the French photographer and the Swiss couple, Any and Eveline. The guide is Melvin and the cook is Tina. Melvin spits a lot and has broken teeth.
We took a boat for three hours down a wide brown river and admired the unchanging but beautiful scenery. In the afternoon we took a walk in the jungle around the camp, and our guide in his camouflage trousers and Che Guevara hat hacked at things with his machete, sniffed the air, whistled at birds and barked at pigs. And spat.

In the evening, a lighting storm.

Monday - Still raining all morning. We sat and made rings and necklaces from jungle seeds. After lunch the weather cleared up and we took a second wander into the jungle. I ate a termite and it tasted like spearmint.
Round the camp, there were fireflies with yellowish lights the colour of street lamps on their bellies. When they stopped (which they do when you swat them out of the sky) they turned off the belly light and turned on bright green headlamps. "They are more technically advanced than most Bolivian aeroplanes" remarked Andy.

Tuesday - we went fishing unsuccessfully for piranhas. The heat today was really fierce, and the insects were biting. I've kept myself covered up, but still have dozens of bites on my hands and wrists.
In the afternoon, the shade and breeze of the boat was welcome. We motored downriver to where families live in clearings dotted along the river. The family we are staying with tonight consists of a 22-year-old pregnant mother of three and her husband. They can't be bothered to speak to us - the kids are shy and the adults just unfriendly. This is strange, as I haven't met many unfriendly Bolivians.

Wednesday - An early-morning walk during which our guide was quieter than usual and we saw very little, in addition to the heat, the sweat, the bites, the dirt and the family who don't want us there, has left us feeling a bit fed up. I hung around with the mother of the family, asked her if she needed a hand, but still barely got a word out of her. I got a few smiles out of the kids at least, mainly by banging my head against a bit of wood. It'¡s hard to tell if they are living in a natural paradise or in abject poverty.
Jungle noisesThere are:birds that make ambulance noisesbirds which make a rhythmic and quite funky high-pitched scratching soundcocks crowingtrees falling down loudly (near people's homes, outside the national park)Insects which make noises like power drills, apparently by farting through their wingsBirds that make noises like a xylophone falling into a sink

Thursday - After a return to Rurre, a very welcome shower and an even more welcome cold beer, we begin the pampas part of our trip. Our guide is Luis Alberto, and the group has lost Monsieur le photographeur (who refuses to see wildlife as it isn't his speciality, and has gone in search of indigenous folk with feathers through their noses), and instead gained the English couple from the truck - Duncan and Michelle, as well as Killion, from France.
After four hours in a van listening to terrible music - like a Chas'n'Dave cockney knees-up in Spanish - we took a long boat-ride along a narrow river. The pampas are flat, marshy lands near the jungle, where animals hang about in vast numbers. In the river, turtles hugged almost every bit of driftwood and alligators' eyes followed us. On its banks, more alligators, as well as the odd caiman, warmed their blood in the sun and smiled. Eagles watched us pass passively, herons stood about, marabou storks fed their babies in huge nests. There were capybaras by the bucketload. These are the world's largest rodent, chestnut-brown things like guinea pigs the size of substantial sheep, and they swam or stood looking aloof. We stopped to see a large group of little yellow monkeys, which scrambled to the edge of the trees and stared at us with a nervous curiosity.
At night we took another boat trip to shine torches in the eyes of alligators, which at night glow red like cigarette ends, and can be seen from way off.

Friday - We were woken by the hideous groans and burps of howler monkeys - which do not howl, but groan and burp. After an unsuccessful boat ride to try to spot these noisy beasts, we took a short walk into the marshlands and found an anaconda about 8 feet long. Well, our guide found it, and while he was looking a giant anteater loped past us and disappeared into the shrub. A strange looking creature, its big nose and a long straight tail making it look like a very hairy stick, with a body added in the middle as an afterthought.
The pampas trip is much more chilled out than the jungle - no effort is needed and the animals are everywhere. They serve cold(ish) beer in the camp too. But there's more of a sense of adventure in hacking through the plantlife with a guide who looks like a Colombian guerrilla, even if the only wildlife you see is caterpillars, spiders and the occasional frog.

Saturday - dia sin novedad, as Che likes to say in his Bolivian Diaries when nothing interesting happens. We went fishing for piranhas again, and I caught a dogfish, which I was immensely proud of.

Sunday - Everyone I've been hanging around with has decided they can't face the bus journey home, and they are all taking the plane. It's $50 for the plane and $6 for the bus, and being a proper budget traveller, unlike these pretenders, I risked death for a second time and spent all day and all night bumping along unpaved roads in a bus which looked much wider than many sections of the road. For the last section, Coroico to La Paz, I just kept my eyes closed and prayed.

Monday - I love La Paz. There are no mosquitoes at all.
Some time away has given me some perspective. I came all this way with the intention of speaking to some people and doing whatever voluntary work came along. Which is exactly what I am doing. Although I'd rather have found myself doing something a little more hands-on (with, maybe, free meals thrown in, if I'm honest), I'm hardly in a position to complain. If you leave things to chance like that, you have to accept what chance throws at you. And there's much more chance that what I'm doing will actually make a difference if I do it with some bloody vigour and enthusiasm. Six weeks to go.

October 14, 2004 - Fame

So maybe I didn't co-star in a television advert. It seemd unlikely. But here I am on a flyer for Tourismo Claudia.



Click on the pictures to make 'em bigger. Not so much bigger that you can actually see me, mind you.


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