The only time you'll catch me not talking about Motorsport.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

An Argentine Gaucho named Bruno
Said there's certainly one thing I do know
Young Ladies are fine
And a sheep is divine
But a Llama is Numero Uno!
22nd July, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Did the Salar de Uyuni trip with Colque tours. All went really well, its so beautiful, you have to do it sometime. Three days of real 4wd stuff with no tarmac between the two points. And the landscape was like driving across the moon except for the Salar which was like driving acorss a sea of salt because that's exactly what it is. When in the middle of it, all you can see as far as the Horizon is a flat world of Hard salt. Anyway, Virtually no human settlement for 3 full days of Driving. Just staggering scenery but again it was bloody cold. -20 degrees at night again and on our second night we stayed in a some sort of military weather station way up in the mountains.

At this point we headed back into the nice & worthwhile 50% of holiday which with all it's comforts does not really make good for interesting reading.... (skip the next two paragraphs to get to the next bit - Ed)

So after that, down to 2600 Metres to a small spot called San Pedro de Atacama in Chile which is supposed to be 'the backpackers hangout spot in the Atacama Desert' according to the Lonoely planet. A quaint town with just mud walled buildings and dusty 'streets' between them. It's purposely being kept quaint for the tourist industry. Yeah... It might be quaint if they took out the hot water and the swanky restauants. We were a little bit unimpressed by the authentic look of the place but I think that may have been entirely down to the fact that it was so bloody dusty. Anyway we checked into a hotel which was basically the most expensive accomodation since leaving Sydney but we really needed the nice shower and insulation in the ceiling. so 2 nice relaxed days were spent there.

Following the Currency crisis in Aregentina Chile has apparently taken over as the biggest and definitely the most thriving economy in South America. Since the locals can't really afford to fly much, buses are very important and the bus we got was like being on a plane anyway. Almost fully reclining seats, meals, movies and blankets to keep us happy for 24 hours of heading through the desert and down to Santiago where we'd catch our flight to Buenos Aires. Again nothing amazing to report from Santiago except that we were wishing we had the money and time to do some skiing (Apparently there was a special deal to get the bus up to the local ski resort and be given a pass and equipment, all for US$60). Oh yes we never heard about the Casa Roja hosel which everybody else seems to say was the best the ever stayed in. Instead we stayed around the Corner in the Hostelling Intenational place which didn't allow boys and girls in the same rooms!

Flew from Santiago to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Anyway.... That's all marginal & boring stuff which you don't need to know about. The big news that I have is that Buenos Aires is a fabulous place. Paris of the south is what it's referred to as and it's true. There's a great buzz in the place and since the currency crisis in Dec 2001 when the Argentinian Peso crashed, the place is rock bottom cheap to live in. We have been eating like kings in the best restaurants for peanuts. Argentina is generally regarded to produce the best steak in the world and that's what we've been making the most of. I try to have steak at least once a Day. A big 3 course meal with a 500G Fillet steak as the main course and red wine is costing us the grand total of about 8 or 9 Euros. A beer is about 1 Euro in a pub. The buildings are beautiful and the shops are swankier than most places in London. Anything made in Argentina is about a third the price of it's equivalent at home. An apartment can be bought for about 25 Grand. The only bad thing about the place is the timetables these lunatic Argentines follow on a typical day. It's all the same as our day until about 5pm when they all seem to disappear until about 9pm or 10pm. It's only then that they decide to go out for dinner. Then they stay out at pubs and nightclubs until about 7am or 8am in the morning. It's feckin crazy. We went out on Saturday night and sat down in a restauant for dinner at 11:30pm. When leaving the restaurant at 2am to go to a nightclub, there was still people coming in to the restaurant to be served! These were not coming out of nightclubs or anything, they were all fresh & just starting their nights out. The thing is I just wouldn't be interested in being out that late. Sleep is underrated here. I'm going to have stock up on shirts and ties before I leave. Save a few sheckles.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

11th July, 2003, Uyuni, Southern Bolivia.

Which American CEO was it that said "We spend 10 Million dollars a year on advertising and we know that 50% of that is definitely a complete waste of money. The trouble is we dont know which 50%"? Of course his dilemma is that he has to spend the 100% to be sure we hit the right 50%...

I feel the same way about travelling. There are so many bloody things in the lonely planet which are described as "must do" and then when you talk to other travellers about them, they confirm that you must do them. No matter what they say, 50% of the travelling experiences are good and worthwhile but 50% (Maybe even more) I just didnt need to do. Seeing the postcard would have been enough.

However theres one redeeming feature about the 50% waste of time and thats that the best stories usually come out of that sector. Nobody ever gets a laugh out of the bits that worked well and perfectly according to plan. E.G. I had a great time in Cuzco. Lovely hotel, did the Inca trail, made it no problems, see you when I get home blah blah blah. Boring. And heres and example of the opposite...

Having completed the 4 days of the Inca Trail and toured Macchu Pichu, Caitriona and I felt like we had really achieved something and really felt in Touch with this land and its way of life. So we came to thre conclusion that taking our flights from Cuzco to Lima to Santiago and then doing a bit of skiing 30 mins outside of Santiago was an uncultured way to continue our trip down here in South America. We reckoned would miss out on too much like the Jungle or the Salar De Uyuni (Although we only had enough time to do one of these). So we decided to do the purist thing and cancel our luxurious multi-meals flights and make our way overland down to the great salar de Uyuni and then take the 3 day trip from there to San Pedro De Atacama. This little trip is becoming as much of a must do as the Inca trail itself as the salt plains are supposed to be stunning as is the Atacama desert of Chile. An additional bonus was that by doing this we would also be able to do the adrenaline filled "downhillmadness" mountainbiking as we passed back through La Paz again which weve heard rave reviews about. Basically for US$45 they take you to the top of a mountain at 4600 metres and give you a very cool mountain bike with Disk Brakes and you whizz down the next 64 km over asphalt (20km) and then the locally famous " Death Road" which is Gravel all the way (44KM) down into the jungle at 1300M Altitude. Sounds very cool.

So for $20 we got the bus from Cuzco to La paz. Depart 10pm, Arrive 11am. No Internal lights. No internal heating. Outside temp -5C. Condensation on the windows turned to ice at about 2am. Almost froze to death. On Board toilet with no lock, no water, no flush, no paper and no sink to wash your hands. The biggest problem here was no so much how uncomfortable it was to use the toilet but more about how uncomfortable you felt when you couldn't lock the door to keep the smell you just created contained in the toilet. So we Checked into our same nice hotel in La Paz. Thank Christ that was over.

Booked our tickets and Ate like kings for next to nothing in La Paz and reconfirmed that its not too bad once you get to know bits of it. Next day set off from 4600M and whizzed down the asphalt section. Excellent fun. But then the dirt track bit was a very stony and dusty trail which was great fun for 5 mins after which it turned into a painful and monotonous bore as it gave massive vibrations though your arms for the next 40 KM. When a vehicle went by you, you couldnt see a thing through the dust. At one of the snack stops, Under all the dust gathered on Caitrionas face I could see one unhappy individual who was very annoyed at having done this instead of a days skiing with the elite of Chile! Its easy to spot when she{s annoyed as there not a squeak from her. Uh Oh sorry ( I had been the big promoter of this event!) It went on and on and on and I ve done plenty of mountainbiking through forests etc at home and its good fun this was turning into shite and the blisters on my thumbs which will not heel at the alt. and temp. are now reminders. I dont know which was worse though - the 3 hr descent or the 3hr ascent in the back of a clapped out Toyota minibus. Again, filled with dust. I{ll never complain about Bus Eireann Again! Happy to be back at our lovely hotel with its snakey and slimey little (male) receptionist, we got into bed and thought about the great things ahead such as the Salar de Uyuni.

So for $7 we got the bus from La paz to Uyuni. Depart 4pm, Arrive 5am. Stinky stinky. No Internal lights. No internal heating. Stop after 4 hours for 20 mins. All diligently back in the bus after 20 mins but no driver. 30 mins later an infuriated and cold Bolivian gets up to find driver. Lots of shouting heard from the Cafe; The driver was watching the nightly sports review programme on the T bloody V! Outside temp -15C. Condensation on the windows turned to 2mm of unscratchable ice at about 1am. No on Board toilet. Asphalt disappeared about 10 KM after the Cafe stop so the last 9 hours was done on a dirt track that wouldnt pass safety scrutiny in the Paris Dakar Rally. The bus shook and vibrated us like paint in one of those high tech Dulux paint mixers you see in Woodies DIY for 9... fucken... hours! The speed varied between 1kmph as we went down into dried up river beds to 20 KMph as the driver saw a straight patch and tried to make up time at our chattering teeth{s expense. It was so bloody awful that I{m laughing here wonding if I was having a nightmare, it was that surreal. Just to complete the image this was a 50 seater bus with about 60 people on board (Lots of Bolivians standing in the aisle) and one of the back windows had already fallen out on a previous trip. On arrival we were in -15 and feeling every bit of so we were so happy to check into our hotel, hop into bed wearing all of our clothes including hats and think about the great things ahead such as the Salar de Uyuni.

So, this section is definitely being filed into the 50% a complete waste of time. But like the advertising it has to be done to get to the next section: our three day tour of Salar, Atacama etc. I hope to God the update will read like this:

Did the Salar de Uyuni trip with Colque tours. All went really well, its so beautiful, you have to do it sometime.JP.

Fingers crossed anyway. Ciao for now.

7th July 2003, Cuzco, Peru

4 Day Inca Trail was great too! Well worth it. I'd hate to have gone on the train, wouldn't you Pauly Saunders?

Yikes, I'm getting bad at this snobbery about who did what the best!

7th July 2003, Cuzco, Peru

South American Traveller's Snobbery

One thing I've noticed that is laughable is the snobbery among travellers 'Doing' South America. By definition backpackers are on the lowest level of the travelling hierarchy but the 'Backpacker' community itself is so varied by the amount of time people spend in places and how well and thouroughly people 'do' places. I'll confess myself that I don't consider myseklf a backpacker - I only stay in Hostals because they are cheap! (Tongue in cheek for that one) But my bit of snobbery would be that I reckon a world trip to english speaking only places is not hugely enlightening and not hugely culturally stimulating and therefore reckon that our stint in South America is somewhat superior to the typical Sydney-Auckland-Fiji-LA-London Heathrow route home from Oz (Sorry Fran!!). Ah it's all Horses for Courses I suppose. But there's a wave of people doing South America alone for 6 months+ who consider themselves to be great experts at it and better appreciators of the continent than anyone who is less committed by time. On emailing one of the aforementioned 6 monthers, to say simply 'La Paz is mind blowing isn't it?' I received a return email written in a D4 accent saying, 'Ohmigod, JP, How can you be serious? How could you possibly know? You weren't even in the place for a week!'

Hmmm..... Exceptional I know. It takes all sorts.
3rd July 2003, Cuzco, Peru.

We made a hasty decision to hit the road and head up North towards Cuzco Peru travelling Via Copacabana and Puno and travelling along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Needless to say we paid over the odds for our package of hotels, Buses and trains but what we didn't realise until our tour guide talked to no one else was that we had paid for our own personal tour guide! Bizarre! We felt like the real american tourists with this fella habnging out with us. He was a nice guy but his English was marginally btter than our spanish and he didn't really tell us any more about Copacabana than the Lonely planet. Copacabana was a sacred place for the Incas.

This is all a bit meaningless without knowing a bit on the Incas. So listen up children....

Very Brief History Lesson 1: There's a place near La Paz called Tihuanaco which has a very significant archaeological site which, because of its architecture and monuments, is believed to have been home to the predecessors of the Incas. It's believed to date from about 1200 AD. Apparently for some reason Tihuanaco people gradually moved North and they changed a bit and reappeared in Cuzco a couple of hundred years (1300s - 1500s) later as the Incas. Sort of like the way the old Tyrell Formula 1 team became BAR when they moved to Brackley from Ockham. There are lots of suggested reasons for the move. Maybe this maybe that. Maybe like Eircom, the Tihuanaco stock was low so to appease shareholders, they sold off the profitable part of the tribe to an expanding Civilisation who rebadged them as Incas. Who knows? Anyway, on their way North, they built various sites at places like Copacabana and Isla Del Sol on lake Titicaca which were really impressive.

The other most significant thing about Copacabana is that it is not the Hottest spot Noth of Havana as Barry Manilow claims and therefore didn't have cable which meant I missed the French Grand Prix. I kept up to date when I next got on the Internet. Interesting result: Ralf Schu 1, Montoya 2nd. Michelin Tyres the key factor.

So on to Puno and the floating Islands (which were made of reeds). This was some sight. Bunches of families living out on these thing in the middle of lake titicaca and fish for a living. The original purpose was to escape the Spanish Slavery system. So they live out here independently. I was afraid to ask if they knew that the spanish hadn't been in charge for the last 150 years but I reckoned they might know this and that they were holding on to a good tourist money spinner when the little kids came running out to us with postcards, alpaca woolen hats which they definitely didn't knit and offered us to take photos for a mere single sol (30 cents) each. I'm being too sarcastic here. It has a fantastic sight to see how they live.

There's one thing I notice about these bolivians and peruvians from the Altiplano (Racially they sem to be identical) is that whether on land or lake, they all have a hard life. And it seems to be the women and children doing most of the work too. They look like a cross between chinese and Spaniards and the children are really beautiful. But after the teens the women seem to age phenomenally. It's as if they skip from about 25 to 45! I'm talking about these 'Cholitas' - the little women with the big skirts and the little bowler hats on their heads. Caitriona is reading Hiram Bingmhams (he discovered Macchu Pichu in 1911) account of Macchu Pichu and he said the same thing about the people - plenty of lazy men but rarely do you see an Idle cholita.

Anyway apart from the floating Islands and the delicious Pizza for dinner, the only significant event in Puno was that it was the first place that I gave in to the little show polish shitheads who were the most persistent so far. These little bar-stewards were harassing me so much that Caitriona, who was trying to ring home on a public telephone, copuldn't hear a thing over their sales pitches. 'I Tom Cruise. I champion Shoeshine!' So the only way I could get them to shut up was to get one of them to polish my shoes and move away from the phone booth. With all the stiching on my shoes now dyed red, I paid the little bugger 10 cents to feck off! Again though, it's a hard life here - these kids were barely 10 years old and they were all out and working at 9pm at night to bring a few shillings home.

So into Cuzco we came which is a stunnigngly beautiful city. This is where most people base themselves for the Inca Trail and Macchu Pichu.

Very Brief History Lesson 2: The Incas originated from about the 1200s or 1300s and Cuzco was their capital city. Their control was very brief but for about 100 years it spanned along the Andes Mountains from the middle of Chile through Peru to Nothern Equador. Cuzco was right in the centre of all that. Then the Spanish arrived in Cuzco in 1533 and by 1536 they had robbed the place of all it's gold, knocked down all the lovely temples and almost wiped out the entire Inca population. Over time they built their own colonial spanish style buildings on top of the foundatiuons of the INCA buildigns. The incas didn't have writing so The only account of the Inca heritage was made by the spanish during those 3 years. What makes Macchu Pichu so special is that the Spanish don't seem to have ever known about it as it was so high in the mountains. It's believed to have been a secret last sanctuary for the Incas before they were wiped out.

Can't wait to start the trek to see it.

27th June 2003, La Paz, Bolivia.

The more time you spend in a place, the more you recognise where you are. Once one starts recognizing places, one feels a lot more relaxed. So now That I'm in that relaxed state of mind about downtown La Paz, I'm feling a little bit guilty about where I left off on my description of La Paz as it was mainly my initial impression and I didn't mention any of the good things about the place that we subsequently discovered.

Firstly despite the poverty, the people are very colourful and there's a considerable buzz about the place with all the on-Street trading which I love. I still hate the harassment from some of the traders but it's not as bad here as in some of the places we've been.

One thing that bugged me about Venice, Italy when we visited it was that it had become a tourist trap i.e. the only peple working there were there for the tourist industry. I just felt like they were all scavengers trying anything to get our money from us. Well La Paz is the opposite as the scale of the tourism here is miniscule. Tourism is a relatively new thing here (but growing quite quickly) and it's hard enuogh to spot another tourist so you almost feel as if you're discovering the place. It's just a relaxed city with everyone going about their own business. So far anyway we haven't had any trouble although we've heard of people who've been mugged. Finbgers crossed it remains like that!

The biggest bonus about La Pazx is how far your money goes. Double Room in a 2 star hotel is 100 Bolivianos tonight which is about 12 Euros. That's probably mnore than what the average backpacker is paying but who cares and we need the hot water. I can't mention all the ridicuolously cheap things or my sisters and Niece will know how much I paid for their presents!

Downtown La Paz is full of run down but beautiful Spanish Colonial Buildings and many of the streets are all cobbled so it makes for a nice scene. I don't know if this is what is called 2nd world or 3rd world. I often wonder how different it is from the scenes my Dad saw in Russia. Not hugely different I reckon although the language barrier in Russia would be blody intimidating but then he did have a bodyguard!

One thing you expect when yopu think of South America is hot sweaty climates, in forests and tanned people etc. Not here. Up here on the Altiplano we are at 3600M and going by the general rule that the temp drops 6Deg Celcius per 1000m, we are 21.6 Deg C colder than thse at sea level. We've been wearing wooly hats since we left Sydney.


Tuesday, July 08, 2003

26th June, 2003, La Paz, Bolivia.

OK, I am not one for big mass emails as they are so commonplace these days that I reckon most of us just delete them. I did anyway. Hence I didn´t send any from Australia or NZ. So I will not be offended if your stressed in work and you decide to delete this!

But this is different. Australia & NZ were both really great places but they are both English speaking western countries so they are great places but they are not hugely different from Ireland. OK Apart from the weather that is. OK OK Australia has an amazingly different landscape to Ireland and is the size of the US and New Zealand is almost Identical to Ireland but it has a glacier and a lot of bungy jumps. We had a really great fun in both and they must both be two of the best places to live in the world. The thing is though, socially these places are truly identical to Ireland and not hugely eye opening from a cultural point of view. With this in mind, I realised South America was going to be the Zenith of this travelling business for me.

So Caitriona and I got into Santiago, Chile from Auckland, NZ and had 18 hours to kill before getting the next flight to La Paz, Bolivia. So we skipped into the city and like the books say it`looks like a somewhat poorer European city. Eastern European city that is but Spanish speakign. Crappy buses and generally dirty. Some nice bits but just a typical city. Not a huge amount to report about it really except that we both felt a little nervy given that neither of us are spanish speakers and almost nobody had a word of english. So on to La Paz.

La Paz has the Highest airport in the world - approximately 4000 Metres above sea level. Thats 4 times higher than Carrauntohill in Kerry and approx 400 metres higher than the 12,000 feet from which we jumped from a perfectly good aeroplane in NZ. So we immediately felt out of breath due to the thin air and lack of Oxygen. As we drove out of the airport, I noticed the local Air force base looked like a fleet from a classic airshow - they still fly their troops around in DC3s & DC6s! (They are WW2 aircraft for the untrained eye). Then we drove through El Alto, the spawling suburb of La Paz which was just shockingly poor. Barely a strip of tarmac went through the place and there along the streets were hundreds of people all staring into the taxi at us. They were all filthy too - I suppose that since the houses didn´t even have windows, Hot water and washing machines are out of the question. The buildings were all concrete frames filled in with a few red breeze blocks and almost none of them finished. Planning permission must be the local authority´s dream. Then there were Mud Brick buildings and the shops were mainly made out of corrugated Iron and black plastic bags. It was jsut unbeסieveable - I´d been talkign about wanting a culture shock and this was it in the extreme for ages. It´s all very difficult to describe but it seemed like images from a ´send us money asap or these children will die´ ad during the six o´clock news. So the taxi continued down to La Paz which is in a big valley and a stunning sight as you drive down and into it. More of the same poor housing but as we got to the city centre it was a good deal more civilised but again Tarmac roads were a privilege. We checked into a Hotel at 12pm and literally fell asleep until the next morning. They say this is the best thing to do to combat the Altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness is something I read about in the book about the Everest climb and disaster. Not something I thought would ever affect me. Until I woke up in La Paz that is. It was as if my Brain was just expanding and causing intense pain which in turn made me feel like throwing up. Not a funny thing. So a moderate intake of Aspirin solved it temporarily but once that wore off I realised that the problem hadn´t gone away. 10 days later, I´m much better but still not 100%. They say going back down to Sea level is a wonderful experience.

Anyway, we wandered around La Paz for a day or two and and started booking our journey to Lake Titicaca and up to Cuzco Peru, The former capital of the Incas. Actually the Incas Originated from a place near La Paz called Tihuanaco which also has an amazing architectural site but it´s been overshadowed by Macchu Pichu in Peru. Try looking up the atlas to see where I am.

During the time in La Paz we turned down about 200 offers to have our shoes polished, felt a bit intimidated by the Uzi Guns the thousands of police were all carrying, inhaled about a lifetime´s worth of Diesel fumes, saw a million stray dogs we´d love to keep and found the the language barrier very frustrating. Being a French speaker, I wish to God it had been the French who conquered South America and not the Spanish. Parce que ma Francais nיst pas trop mal at je nai pas une mot dֹspanol! I did spent about 10 hrs trying to learn spanish at Santiago airport but It´s all slipped out of my brain. I blame the altitude etc. We should have planned to do two weeks languaחge course on Arrival in SA.

Finally nothing written or said by me would be complete without a bit on Cars. Well as far as South America is concerned from a motoring point of view, It couldn´t be less inspiring. Toyota is the new Volkswagen. Apparently this place used to be full of VW Beetles and VW Combi Vans. Well these have all been replaced by the Toyota Corolla and the Toyota Hiace. They are all diesel too. Public transport doesn´t seem to exist though and instead they have the Toyota Hiace. Every Hiace has a driver and a salesman I suppose. They have a general direction in mind - like a suburb. So on their way there, The salesman sticks his head out the side window of the sliding door in the back and literally screams the destination and other places along the way, to everyone on the street. These things can be packed full of people all pauying about the equivalent of 5 Euro cents to get home. I´m not necessarily saying it´s crap as it seems to work. My guess is that one can get from A to B in La Paz a lot more quickly than they can in Dublin.

That´s it for now. I´ll send another email after Inca Trail.



JP Flynn

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