Thursday, March 05, 2009

Happy Just Bumming Around...

Loyal Readers,

Just a little note to let you know I'm still out here, lurking in the far north of NZ. We're quietly marshalling our strength, and news is coming, but this is just a little holler-atcha to let you know all is well.

Life's been, how can I say? 'Energy-conserving,' since we've been back, but I did manage to get to two gigs by one of my favourite artists (results of over-excitement shown above), and am currently in intense talks about reforming the mighty mighty Cosmic Wheels. Excited? Not half as much as I am...

Be good,


Monday, December 22, 2008

El Ultimo Dia

Loyal Readers,

Well, it's been a wild ride over the last 114 days, but this is the last one on this continent for a while. We're just doing some final chores here in lovely sunny Buenos Aires, and fly out late tonight. We've just narrowly averted disaster by actually trying to reconfirm our BA-AKL flight, only to find that it's been slightly rescheduled. After some confusion about whether it was made 2hrs late or 22hrs early, we're calm now in the knowledge that we haven't missed our flight home and will just be a little delayed. We will miss our previous domestic flights down from AKL, but after pounding the credit card (oooooo it gets spendy when you try to get seats on Xmas eve at the last minute!) we're only going to end up an hour later than previously thought. If anyone's organising a flyover, fireworks display or welcome concert for us then considered yourself warned.

We said goodbye to Rob and Carlos on the 20th with tears in our eyes. They were the most amazing hosts and barely let us lift a finger. I feel like I've seen a different side to the guy I sat opposite to at Collado Collins for the last two years. Stories were shared (some not fit for publication, some sufficient for half a dozen 23 minute sitcom episodes, INHO), much wine was drunk, we played Perudo, 3D Connect Four, and I had my ass comprehensively whipped by Carlos at chess. Seeing Rob stretched out in a hammock with nothing on his (usually very carefully prioritised) list made me very happy. Like so many farewells over the last 5 months we don't know when we'll see them again, but I have a comforting feeling that we definitely will.

By complete coincidence, we managed to bump into Fausto at the antiques market in San Telmo yesterday - remember him, our guide when we first arrived in Salvador, Brazil? He was just as surprised to see us as we were him, and we had the chance to thank him personally for giving us such a great introduction and glowing recommendation of Bahia.

There will be a greatest hits blog post (Ana has suggested 'best pets', 'best lookalike' and 'best photo' categories already), and news of life back in the homeland. But, expect some time offline over the holidays, when much ham will be carved and delicious Summer Ale supped. There are some dear folk to catch up with, and gifts to distribute. Tales will be told and tans maintained. It's the holidays.

Wherever you are scattered, I hope you have great Christmas and New Years' holiday time, with all your favourite people around (or at least contactable on Skype), and a little something for you under the tree.

Feliz Navidad,


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ah, But You Would Now Moira...

Loyal Readers,

This time I'm really doing it, a proper and long overdue blog post from our last leisurely stop on the trip - the impossibly named Florianopolis, in Santa Catarina province, Brazil.

Forgive the long delay.  I could say it's because we've been up early, off to the beach, preparing fantastic meals and just generally too busy being intrepid and busy to do it.  The truth is that we've just been lazy. Bone idle, in fact.  Practised and committed to this difficult discipline, we thought it a sin to break the last few days of delicious laziness.

I'll start where we last properly left off, leaving Salvador and heading to Porto Seguro.  Famous for its 'Street of Alcohol', it was the first landing point in Brazil for the Portuguese in the year 1500.  In what seems to be a trend, it was diminished only by the biblical quantities of rain falling during the day we were there. 

After the requisite nap - which always follows an 18hr bus journey - we took a walk around town only to be caught in one of the fastest arriving rainstorms I've ever seen.  It was like being sprayed with a hose.  By the time I felt rain on my face my ankles were already wet.  Between showers we made it out for a couple of tasty caiparinhas before cancelling proceedings and deciding we'd head to the little town of Arraial D'Ajuda, just a few kilometres south of Porto Seguro, and reached by a short ferry and bus ride.

Getting there was a simple affair, but finding the hostel we'd been recommended threw us once again into the gaping maw of the 'let's exploit the tourist' industry that two lost gringos carrying packs seem to attract. Our first attempt at asking for directions yielded a blank face from the friendly senhorita at the shop, but we quickly had a local come to our aid, complete with a folder of maps and information.  Strangely, when we asked for directions to the street we were looking for he explained that it was a very long way and difficult to find.  But, had we heard of this alternative hostel?  It's very good, and much closer.  Show you my map? No, that's not really possible, I'd have to charge you 15 Reals for that.  I have to make a living you know... Sigh...

Further enquiries found us a local woman with sufficient English (and morals) to point us in the right direction and we were soon checked into the splendid Pousada La Luna, which has to be one of the best 
places we've laid our weary heads in the whole trip.  Our hosts, Raul and Solange, were great company.  Argentinians, they were of course Spanish speakers, which felt almost like we were speaking English again after the trials of making conversation in Portuguese.

Our cunning plan of going somewhere where there was nothing to do except laze around on the beach was thwarted by getting weather which strictly prevented us from leaving the guesthouse.  Rain belted down like the finest dotted lines of water you could imagine.  Edgar Allen Poe slowed down my reading and kept me occupied, and our little terrace outside the room was as nice a place as we could hope for to wait for it to clear (that's it on the left, pretty lush!)

But clear it did not, and after some help from Raul and Solange we had organised ourselves nearly 24 hours of bus travel.  Midday on the 6th we caught the local bus from Arraial D'Ajuda to Euanopolis (buses from Porto Seguro were already full), waited three hours at the local bus station there, then boarded our Sao Geraldo coach down to Rio De Janeiro.  We couldn't get seats together, and I was seated next to a young man who smelled like he'd been using his trousers as a urinal for the last week.  He didn't want to swap seats with Ana so we could sit together, so I drifted into one of those reveries where I imagined taking advantage of the language barrier to tell him plainly that he make the aquaintance of either a bathroom or some incontinence pants.  He graciously offered to change during our 4am "kick everyone off the bus while we clean it" stop, and by 11:30am on Sunday we were coming through the outskirts of Rio.

The sprawl of Rio made Quito look like a village, and like an artichoke all the nice bits are in the middle and only reached after a lot of hard work.  Our hostel in Botafogo was awaiting us, reached after a taxi ride
that took us past the Sambadrome before we caught a glimpse of Christ the Redeemer's feet.  The rest of him had been whitewashed out by the frequent clouds that obscure him at this time of year.  Naptime out of the way we passed the evening watching Quantum of Solace, the new Bond film.  It's set in Bolivia, but not as we recognised it.  A little research shows none of it was filmed there, the biggest giveaway being the pristine paved highway running through the desert.  If this existed it would be a tourist attraction in its own right...

Blessed with a sparkling day on Monday we set out to visit the Pao De Acucar, a 500m lookout, reached by two cablecars. We struck gold with the weather, and the city gradually unfolded beneath us over the two rides.  It has to be one of the most spectacular views in the world, Rio spills into the landscape, settling like dry ice between the folds of the surrounding hills.  At the bottom of nearly all of these lowlands lie crescent shaped beaches which serrate the coastline as far as you can see.  The boats moored off Botafoga below are all equally spaced, pointing towards the same spot on the beach.  They looked like spokey 
dokeys from up where we were. We spent over two hours up there, watching planes taking off and landing from the city airport, people circling the handrails taking pictures, and generally just pausing to say, "crikey, check out the view!"

Neither one of us are much ones for just leaning back and soaking in a city view - we chose to sit looking up at the Eiffel Tower rather than spend 4 hours in line imagining how we'd get up it - but I think I could have just about spent the whole afternoon up there.  Ana waited with great tolerance while I watched the sightseeing helicopter fly past, and we we made our way back down to ground level, 5 tonne parcels of people suspended from steel ropes.

Local buses here work a treat, if you can handle the maniacal driving.  Fortunately the traffic's so heavy that you rarely get up any speed, but we made our way across to Copacabana beach for the afternoon.  Our beach chairs were cheap and the prawns were expensive, but some of the best I've had yet.  We took a couple of dips (chilly!), read and watched the people.  Contrary to what we previously thought, the people come in every shape and size.  Their common quality seems to be a strong contempt for one-piece 
swimwear and a complete disregard for melanoma.  There are slightly fewer leathery old men than I've seen in Italy, and many more washboard-ab'd Adonises than in England.  With my T-Shirt tan lines and unfashionable Ecuadorian swimwear, I stood out.  Hackysack seems to be unheard of, and along the entire length of the beach groups of people play the same game, but with a football.

We made it along to Ipanema the next day, which curves off into the distance and is fronted by apartments and hotels along its entire length.  There are still a few Art Deco buildings to be seen, and you can imagine what an amazing place it must have looked in the Thirties.  Dinner took us to our first Churrascaria, all-you-can-eat steakhouses where the waiters bring round endless skewers of tender charcoal-roasted carne.  Everything was on offer; pork, steak, chicken, sausages, and that old favourite from Japan, chicken hearts.  By the time a waiter brought round a trolley the size of a gurney with an entire side of beef (ribs and all), our repose was so complete that Ana could only burp a muffled "no," and we knew it was the end.  We waddled out onto the pavement, rubbing our aching bellies and confirming on sight for the prospective customers outside that they would indeed get their money's worth...

We moved hostels midweek, heading across to stay just behind Copacobana beach, and the excellent Bamboo Rio was waiting for us.  Plush double room with cable TV and aircon, our budget gone out the window, and for the first time in a while, some other travellers to meet.  We quickly fell in with a couple of Irish girls, let's call them Lorraine and Moira.  With the day slowly clouding over, we called Beer O'Clock a little earlier than usual and proceeded to yarn the most part of the afternoon away with our new friends.  At the risk of perpetuating a bit of a national stereotype, these girls could talk the legs off a centipede and had us in stitches.  They seemed to think nothing of simply dipping out of conversation for a while to argue something amongst themselves.  We witnessed a few of these exchanges, some of them long enough to finish a can of beer.  Here's an example of a typical exchange, conducted at extremely high speed (cod-
Irish accent optional);

"Now come on Moira, you're telling me that if you were auditioning for X-Factor and they said to you, 'Ah you've got a lovely voice now Moira, you're through to the next round,' that you wouldn't do it?"
"Bollocks you wouldn't Moira, you'd do it!"
"But no I wouldn't, I wouldn't be auditioning in the first place,"
"Even if you could win, be famous and make a living - you would now."
"Well, I might, just for the craic.  But no, I wouldn't be doing it in the first place."
"Ohhh, you liar, you bloody well would now."
"I wouldn't!"
"Ah, but you would now, Moira."

Repeat till fade...

Later that day, the hostel staff approached us to ask if we'd like to be interviewed for Brazilian TV.  Turns out national celebrity and supermodel Leticia Birkheuer was filming her weekly show and wanted to ask some questions of us humble tourists.  There was some reluctance amongst our group, but being no shrinking violet I pressed for participation, and we chatted with the production crew for a little while. Unfortunately our brush with fame never come through, poor Leticia 'wasn't feeling well' and couldn't make it, the poor dear.  I was quite looking forward to sharing a I-met-a-supermodel story with a certain someone I used to work with who I know would have greatly appreciated it.

Clouds gathered.  Rain fell.  There was no relief.

Plenty of entertaining chat with the guests (more Irish, young Australians, fascinating Swedes) more than made up for the weather, but the time had come to make our last long-distance coach journey to the south and we set out for Florianopolis on the afternoon of the 13th, arriving into the welcoming arms of Rob and Carlos the next morning.  After so many arrivals in unresearched towns, braving the bus station, fending off the locals, confronting the trip to the guesthouse district and just generally finding arrivals to be more stressful than departures, it was glorious relief to be met and escorted to an actual 'home', after a little tiki-tour along the way.

The same patchy weather has kept us a little further from the beach than we would have liked, but that hasn't stopped our hosts from taking us out to see the lovely island of Santa Cantarina, on which Florianopolis is situated.  Food has been a particular highlight, with Carlos masterminding a mouthwatering churrasco on our first night.  I have gleaned barbeque secrets I am sworn to take to the grave.  Breakfast is fresh fruit salad, yoghurt, coffee and juice, but you can imagine our embarrassment when Ana and I realised we had broken the breakfast rules by not dressing in matching clothes...  Prawn intake remains very high, as does that of wine.  Such good wine (or such was our thirst, it's hard to tell), that Ana, Rob and I gasbagged our way through several bottles of it before realising that 4am might just be time to head to bed!

The local market here is plentiful and cheap, and has fueled a couple of meals at least.  A dozen fresh oysters can be purchased for just 4 Reals, the equivalent of about £1.20.  Cloudy weather hasn't stopped us visiting the beaches, just venturing into the water or spending a whole day there is a little bit difficult.  We continue to pray for sun, but if it's not forthcoming we pray for wine.

One week to go till touchdown, and the shopping list has been officially ticked clean.  Buenos Aires beckons once more before we fly, and we are grateful to be spending this last stage in such good company.  You should take a break tho, you've been sitting here too long.  It was a long time since the last post, but this is just a bit silly.  Go stretch your legs.  We've got some home-cooked Feijoada to tuck into.

Yours in increasing girth,


Best. Boobie. Pic. Ever.

Suggestions as to how this may be turned into a wall-sized print, t-shirt, or children's party costume will be welcomed...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Loyal Readers,

No, it's not the Rio entry you were hoping for, just a little note to let you know that we're happily nestled in the comfort and exceptional care of Rob and Carlos here in Florianopolis.

We've been very well fed and looked after, but the rains persist - there is hope for it clearing tomorrow.  I'll get a proper post up hopefully today, pics and all, to cover the last two weeks.  For now we're off into Florianopolis for some last minute shopping and lunch, although more than anything food has been plentiful so far!

Stay tuned,


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Stop! Hammock time...

Loyal Readers,

We're just back in Salvador again, 12 days after we first arrived and girding ourselves to leave this lovely part of the country to make the journey south. We last left you at Praia Do Forte, which turned out to be just lovely. Beach time is surely accumulating, we ate and rested well, and then bussed back to Salvador for a night in the Pelourinho district, the historic centre of the town.

We've latched on to the HI hostels, which are clean and cheap, and have served us particularly well here in Brazil. We took a little wander round the town (saw some guys smoking crack, always a great time to pull out the camera) to take in the vistas and delicious street food. It was just a short stop tho, ready as we were to take in the much recommended island of Morro De São Paulo.

After a suspiciously circuituous route down to the port, we were underway on the local catamaran service. One very apparent difference here in Brazil, as compared to the other countries we've been to, is that everything's just a little better organised. Not quite as many shambolic cars, nor rickety old boats.

Morro De São Paulo is truly a paradise, a colonial era fort rounds the point, there's the platonic ideal of a lighthouse perched above, and the primary mode of transport (for luggage, supplies, even children) is wheelbarrow. Steep paths wend their way through the bush, their steps traversed with hand trowelled ramps for the barrows. We were checked in, and parked in a hammock in short order.

The island is ringed with beaches, each numbered from 1-6, plus a couple of little stretches with actual names. We walked the length of the first four, before settling on loungers on Segunda Praia (Second Beach) for several hours of book reading and people watching, to idly while away our day. We have a familiar routine now, setting up on the beach or in a hammock, devouring books like meals - one large one or two smaller ones per day - and then shrimps for dinner. I have now eaten shrimps for 13 days in a row, and could hardly be happier.

There are few western tourists on the island, but as always the Germans get everywhere, like fine sand. Our mumbled Spanish is sufficient to pass for impaired Portuguese most of the time, and our demands hardly require verbosity anyway.

Most of our after-dinner conversation the night before last was occupied with discussion of the purchase of a 'lady of the night', which Ana spotted being transacted at the neighbouring table. I always knew this happened, but it was a real shock to see it being done so brazenly - in the middle of the tables set on the beach, with money-exchanging handshakes performed clumsily under the table. Four guys, with their three girls, who all looked incredibly bored. The money's better spent on shrimps in my opinion...

Three nights there and we made our way back to Salvador, and on to Porto Seguro tomorrow night by bus. We're hoping to catch up with Fausto again, as he's huge fun and a great person to show us round Salvador.

Cheers again for the comments - I have increased the size of the text on the last post as requested (McKenzie, I know it's you, I nearly have enough to convict you. In time, you'll make a slip-up, and when you do, I'll be waiting...). RIP to the great architect Jorn Utzon, who was declared 'practically complete' by great building inspector in the sky yesterday...

Yours in golden brown-ness,


PS: There's a split infinitive up there somewhere. Call it a message to a certain someone out there who I know will have spotted it, drop me a line with your dates, and don't say I don't do anything for you...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Belly of the Plane and Beyond...

Loyal Readers,

I know it's been a while, but I needed some space, some time away, room to think, you know? It's not you, it's me...

But, in that time we've been up to a lot, landing in Brasil, a long bus journey to the coast, some beaches, monkeys and even a haircut. Let's get the party started...

Our last night in Quito was nice and calm, and we made it out to the airport in good time for our longest internal flight yet across to Brasilia. Turns out that you can't actually fly directly between these two neighbouring capitals, and our route took us through the night stopping in Lima and Sao Paolo before arriving in Brasilia on the 16th, having spent more time in airports than in the air. The airport was our first taste of the 'big vision' architecture that we were going to dose up on in the next couple of days - concrete and red-painted spaceframes, upturned soupbowls, and big bold shapes. There isn't a single hostel you can book online (that we found), so we put ourselves in the hands of the local info kiosk, who helpfully rang around a few before pointing us in the direction of the Hotel Byblos, a completely whacky building in the pic to the left.

If you're bemused by our choice to come to this rarely visited capital, it's a bit of an architectural pilgrimage for me. The city of Brasilia is well-studied among architects and urban designers, being fully planned in 1958 by Lucio Costo with the principal architect being the famous Oscar Niemeyer. There are few examples of such a grand gesture (there's good reason for this too!), Milton Keynes springs to mind as a place showing why it's not necessarily a popular idea... The entire city is laid out like an airplane, the 'wings' being mostly the residential superblocks, and the 'body' housing the federal & national government buildings. There are specified areas for every use, meaning there's very little mixing of different functions. It seemed like a good idea at the time...

Our room was basic, half underground, and expensive. We were in SHN: Sector Hotel North. All the addresses here are formed in a string of acronyms, standing for the sector, the quadrant, block, and building number. There's very little romance in whispering to an admirer, "meet me at SCRN 708/709 Bl E, s/n - lj 26, and don't be late"...

Still, we were very happy to be there, and set about working out how to see the damn place. In true Archbold/Simkiss fashion it started raining soon after we arrived, not stopping until we left the city limits a few days later. We took a turn up to the TV tower, a 220m structure on the central axis, to find it closing just as we joined the line. It didn't take us long to appreciate just how vehicle-centric the ideals of the planners were. The distances between anything are vast, and due to the rigorous adherence to the layout of the separate uses, it's a long trip to buy something as simple as a bottle of water.

Our first day washed out, we took a well earned rest after all the travel and decided to give a city tour a crack, the following day. We made it up the TV tower this time, for stunning views over the city, but the promised tourist info centre there simply didn't exist. As luck would have it we were able to book a tour from our hotel, and set off at 2pm for a guided trip around the main buildings. I'm not going to turn this into a lengthy architect's only post, I'll save that for a slide session over some Glenfiddich back in the motherland, but have to post just a few pics of the real highlights. The first of these was the Sanctuario Dom Bosco, a severe concrete building from the outside, but sublimely lit with blue glass within. The first real 'deep breath' moment for this little bald architect so far.

We took in as much as we could, notching up all the big sights and buildings; Niemeyer's cathedral, the Congresso, JK Bridge, the National Library, Cultural Complex of the Republic, the ministry buildings, pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle. There's a lot to see there, and we visited again on the second day to take in the interior of the cathedral, and try to visit the Congresso. Would have been nice if someone had told me that you can't enter if you're wearing shorts, but hey, I'll be back here again shortly...

The interior of the cathedral was truly spectacular. You enter down a ramp, passing under the moat that surrounds the building, so the floor is subterranean. Once inside the dome you are washed with the light from the stained glass, which you can't really see from the outside, except of course at night when it's lit internally. I don't know that everyone would like it, the colours are bright, almost garish, and it's not as slick or rich as the lovely subterranean church in Finland, but I liked it a lot.
After our second day of visiting we were ready to move on, it's a real challenge even getting around the city. We dined a couple of times in the local mall, the only place where you can do several things without having to walk for several kilometers, pondered what a strange place this is. There is so much unused/-able space, carefully planned out to be green parks and beautiful curlicues for vehicle ramps. But, people have a nasty habit of actually 'using' space, and tend to populate this with stalls, sleeping, or just garbage. The revered Jane Jacobs would have been waving her finger with a satisfied, "told you so!" I'm sure...
I'm really glad I saw the place. The planning of the city baffles me, inorganic, inflexible, resistant to growth (planned for 500,000 people, now groaning under the weight of 2 million), and very difficult if you don't have a car. But, the individual buildings are really amazing and almost everything I imagined from when I first saw them in textbooks at school. Except - up close, like a lot of famous modernist work - they're just a little bit dirtier and cracked than you remember them... Strange strange place, be very careful, architects.

Twas a 24hr bus ride out of town, taking us 1,500km east to the coastal town of Salvador, in the famous province of Bahia. We had a room, a supermarket across the road, and even a guide in the form of Rob and Carlos' friend Fausto. After some messing around with communications, we got in touch with him and he took us out for drive through the city before a gargantuan cauldron of moqueca by the sea. Credit to Fausto, he really loves his city and we loved the chance to meet him and be shown around by him. Really hope we can meet up with him again when we next swing through Salvador.

After the obligatory full day on the beach at Praia do Barra, parked under our umbrella while I read Tom Clancy (bigotted, dick-swinging rubbish, but it filled in my day), we were once again struck by the usual rain that had followed us from Brasilia. Taking this chance to hit the hammocks, we planned out trip out of town, where you find us now. On Fausto's recommendation we're now in Praia do Forte, 55km from Salvador. It's truly lovely here, very much our pace, but raining of course...
We've been to the Projecto Tamar, eaten excellent food with tamarind monkeys sitting next to us, and just plain relaxed. It's fair to say that we are just the tiniest bit jaded, with motivation a tad depleted. The main 'attractions' of our adventure are behind us, so rest and relaxation are the main priorities for now. I pampered myself with a haircut (sans beard, sans hair, sans everything), and Ana and I spent a little bit too much money last night sampling the streetscape with some caiparainhas.
All is well with us, and I sure hope the same goes for the rest of you. To the architects, there's a special edition postcard on its way, and the rest of you might get one next time we're parked on the beach with, say, 6-7 hours to kill.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Stockholm Syndrome

Loyal Readers,

Welcome back after our sojourn to the Galapagos, and by hokey don't we have some tales to share. There was a lot of adventure on the high seas, marine adventures, the whole gamut. But it's a mammoth story, so settle yourselves in if you want to read the whole lot. I've just tried to cut down the 800 photos I took into a selection from the blog, and realise I might actually have too many photos of seals...

The start is a good place to begin, so I'll just take it one day at a time...

7th - Day 1 - A eye-wateringly early start and off to the airport for our 7:30am flight, on local carrier TAME. We stopped briefly in Guayaquil (like the buses, the planes regularly stop along the way to collect more passengers), and arrived roughly on time on the island of Balta, where the airport is. It's always reassuring when you are flying over open ocean to find the little dot of land you're looking for. After paying our $100 park entrance fee (more watering eyes) we collected our luggage. They have a pretty interesting system here; the bags are unloaded by hand off the plane, then taken into a room where they are laid out on the floor roughly in the shape of a baggage carousel. 'Cos of course they don't actually have a baggage carousel... We were met by Freddy who grouped us together with the people also on our boat (the soon to be infamous M/Y Friendship, but more on that later) before telling us we had to wait for the next plane and more people. I don't know who organised it for us, but the Vice President of Ecuador arrived on the next flight, that's his entourage waiting on the tarmac in the pic. Huge land iguanas had to be shooed off the runway before they could roll out the carpet. After our long wait we were pleased to be put on a bus/boat/bus combo to take us across to Puerto Ayora on the adjacent island of Santa Cruz. We were rolled into the local restaurant for fish and rice and to meet the rest of the group, 17 of us in all.

After some confusion as to where to leave our luggage (weren't we staying on a boat tonight?) we were shepherded off to the Giant Tortoise centre on Santa Cruz, where we got our first taste of the ridonkulous nature we were going to be seeing. They aren't kidding when they call these things 'giant', and they roam (slowly) around in what's basically a paddock, grazing on the grass like cows with shells. Which is actually very much what they're like when you take time to study them. They're not really able to run away from people, so their reaction to fright is to pull in their extremities (their legs fold up to create an armoured shield where the gaps are) and exhale a deep hissing breath.

After the giant tortoises we took a little wander through a natural lava tunnel, created when the lava flows back underground and water washes it out after it's hardened. That was pretty mad, in parts it looks like it's been made by a machine, and is beautifully sinuous and smooth.

We had a guide for this visit but she didn't mention anything about accompanying us on the boat and we were starting to wonder what was going on. We were back down in Puerto Ayora for dinner (just three hours after our lunch) when we started asking some simple questions, like when are we getting on the boat? Freddy explained first that there was a small problem with the boat, first telling us it was stuck in the harbour 'cos it was low tide. If this was true then it didn't exactly inspire faith in the nautical abilities of our crew. Fortunately for us, it wasn't true. We were subsequently told the boat didn't have enough fresh water, had just been painted, and several other obvious lies. Credit be to Klaus (one of our group, who used to be a management consultant) who asked for the captain so we could find out what was going on. the 'captain' came down to explain that we wouldn't be boarding the boat tonight and would have to stay in a hostel - not a great start. We organised to swap a couple of days of our itinerary and were assured by the captain that we wouldn't miss anything in our schedule. Unsure of whether we had a guide, or what we'd be doing tomorrow, we retired to a local bar to get to know the group while drowning our grumbles in Pilsener. The town was hopping due to festivities put on for El Vice Presidente, and we parked up in our hostel to await the next day...

8th - Day 2 - We were greeted today by our second guide, Sebastian. He was a ray of sun after yesterday, fluent English and very capable, we were somewhat comforted and started on our trip around Santa Cruz, going first to the Charles Darwin Research Centre to the tortoise breeding centre there. We looked at the little baby tortoises in their hutches (all the tortoises are incubated and hand reared, kept in little enclosures with the breed and year of birth, just like a wine!), before going to see the star attraction, El Solitario Jorge (or Lonesome George as he's known in English). It's a sad, sad tale, George is the last known member of his species, around 90 years old, and hasn't shown too much interest in the ladies in attempts to create a half breed to continue his lineage. That is until earlier this year, when he successfully mated in front of a large group of tourists. They await his potential parentage with palpable anticipation... Anyway, he's in pretty good shape for an old guy (that's him at the left) and I feel priviledged to have seen him.

We also saw our first giant land iguanas, huge spiky yellow things, and fat - which I think is this season's look for iguanas, judging by what we've seen. There were 14 species of tortoise on the Galapagos, but 3 are now extinct. You can tell them apart by the shape of the shell, but I'm still pretty rusty, the Saddleback Tortoise is the easy one for obvious reasons... They have examples of all of them at the research centre and have been really successful in increasing numbers over the last 50 years. We also discovered that they yawn, who knew?

Sebastian took us back down to the port and told us we'd be boarding the boat in tim
e for lunch on board. Turns out this didn't happen, and we had lunch on shore (rice and fish. get used to it) before getting on board around 3pm... The first big argument ensued when we debated how to get 17 people onto a 16 berth boat (that's her at the right). We met the actual captain, after discovering the guy who came to meet us last night was actually the cook! The captain, to use the parlance of our times, was a b@stard, who told us it was 'our problem, not his', and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth some compensation was arranged for the three girls who had to share a two bed cabin. Ana and I were up on the top deck, in a good little berth near the front of the boat, and some equilibrium was restored before we headed out in the late afternoon to Tortuga Bay. We saw our first marine iguanas there, loafing on the rocks trying to soak up the last of the heat, providing just the excuse I needed to take about 65 photos in 7 minutes.

We finally had our first meal on the boat, at the end of our second day. The table was set by the lovely Victor, our erstwhile captain Soto did the cooking, and we were all suitably impressed with our first meal. We met our official guide for the week, the rather strange Fabian. He impressed us all with a whiteboard listing tomorrow's activities and times thereof, and things were looking up. Much wine was drunk in celebration and we retired to our cabins for a reasonably rocky journey to South Plaza overnight.

9th - Day 3 - Hmmm, sleeping on a boat isn't actually that easy! I was in the top bunk, in a cabin on
the upper deck, pretty much ideal conditions for mixing a cocktail in your stomach. I actually pulled muscles trying not to roll out of bed, but at least Ana, in the bunk below, managed to sleep like the true professional she is.

We went by dingy from the Friendship to the shores of South Plaza, almost gagging at the stench of the sea lion colonies. Little clusters of females loll about on the shores or bask in the shallows, with their cubs parked up in the rocks. The Bull (or 'Bitchmaster' as Fabian bluntly described him) constantly patrols back and forth in the shallows, waiting for challengers and protecting his harem. We arrived on shore just after a birth, check out the proud new mum and her cub as the frigate birds jostle for bites of the placenta. That's a David Attenborough moment right there...

After lunch we made the short journey over to Santa Fe, accompanied by a fleet of frigate birds who hung in formation just a few feet above the sun deck. I watched them for almost an hour, the male scything between them to nip his rivals and keep pole position. Santa Fe is very dry and bony, covered with a ground covering succulent, which is a bright red shade at this time of year. The seal colonies were plentiful, but more of them had made their way inland 100m or so to find prize perches basking in the sun. They're either fearless or completely used to people, and you can get within inches of them (you're not really supposed to, but as long as you don't touch them it's ok). After our walk around we did our first snorkelling trip, rolling backwards into the water from the dingy like real pros. The water here is crystal clear, clear enough to see the giant bull as he zooms past barking, while we all grabbed one another pointing at the next fish, more colourful than the last. It was a good first trip, and we saw stingrays, parrotfish, and sea turtles. No sharks yet, but it's a waiting game...

10th - Day 4 - It was a long and extremely rough journey overnight. Most people went to bed once we started sailing, it was too bumpy to do anything else. Despite my romantic ideas of travel at sea and being gently rocked to sleep, I'd rather be put in a barrel and hit with hammers than do another trip that bumpy...

Still, the journey was worth it, and we took breakfast in Gardner Bay on Isla Española. We saw a LOT of seals here, who seem to love to sit in the water's edge being tumbled by the waves and pretending to be sharks (well, that's our theory anyway, check out this guy). The cubs are parked in a creche, looked after by one female as they practice their swimming skills. They seem to have an eye for the camera, and flop their way up to our group to practically pose in front for a photo.

On this island are the famous fearless mockingbirds, known for literally climbing on you, cheeping in your face, and demanding entertainment. It doesn't take long to start anthropomorphising animals, but these had real character, and almost frowned at you if you didn't pay them attention. As usual, after our walking trip around the island, everything explained by Fabian, we took to the water for some more snorkelling. The highlight this time was the sea lions, who came over to play with us for several minutes. While the flap around on land, they're like bullets in the water, and they zoomed around us, twisting and looping right in front of you, blowing bubbles right in your face. Strange to be in the water with something so aware and curious of you, a real highlight. Circling further round the rocks we saw our first shark, a 6ft white tipped reef shark. My reaction was less than macho, and experiencing a blood red flash of terror I flapped around like a huge piece of Arch-flavoured jerkey and made the executive decision to exit the water. First time ok, cut me a break!

Our second visit of the day was to Puerta Suarez, to take in more piles of marine iguanas, nesting Albatrosses, and an amazing natural blowhole on the shoreline, while blue footed boobies made their nests around us. It was a lovely evening to sit up on the sun deck of the boat and watch the sunset. I counted the stars as they came out one by one and feeling pretty content. We had a long journey ahead, so we rolled into our cabins after a few quiet wines on the roof, a really good day.

11th - Day 5 - Turns out the boat's engine broke down last night, and we were towed into Punta Cormorant on Isla Floreana by our own dingy. The sand here is tinged with green (due to tiny specs of naturally formed glass), and it's a marine turtle breeding ground to boot. We were lucky enough to see one who'd just laid her eggs and was making her way back down to the waterfront, surrounded by retired Canadian teachers frantically snapping pics of her progress. We also saw the resident flamingoes, vivid pink and much brighter than the ones we saw in Bolivia. The snorkelling trip (to a partly submerged volcanic peak called the Devils Crown) saw me keep my nerve in the face of another shark, and we watched it glide by about 5 metres from us. Once you get it into your head that they're more afraid of you than you are of them it's great to just hang in the water and watch them. There's so much life here that the sharks don't seem to inspire much fear in the other fish, and they all get along strangely well.

Our afternoon trip was to Post Office Bay, famous for being an outpost where whalers left notes to be taken home by returning crews. The tradition continues today, and you can leave a postcard as long as you take one for you final destination. We managed to find one from NZ, which we'll deliver when we're home, before taking the big group photo, 16 times. The engine still wasn't working by this point, and it looks like our guide was given the tough job of taking us off the ship, to the bay, and breaking the news that the repair couldn't be done on board and we wouldn't be continuing on the Friendship. Tempers ran pretty high, there was a little shouting, and Fabian threatened to quit and leave us there. After some handshakes and cooling of tempers we eventually got our bags off the boat and caught a ride back to Puerta Ayora, where we'd started the trip just 4 days earlier. Once again we were put up in the same hostel, assured that we had an itinerary for tomorrow that would in some way fill in the remaining three days of our tour. We had the unfortunate opportunity to email our agent once again with news of where we were...

Many sorrows were drowned on the roof with the rest of the team, and we went to bed knowing we were going to be woken early for (hopefully) a big day over on Isla Isabella.

12th - Day 6 - Up bright and early, but sadly we were waiting around at the port for almost three hours, taking the chance again to email our agent with our woes. We finally got under way around 11:30, landing on Isabella just after 2pm. Fabian (or someone behind the scenes) had actually found us a fantastic little hotel, and after a late lunch we took little boats across to Las Tintorellas, to see the iguanas and reef sharks basking in a shallow grotto. The grotto is a small rift in the rocks, and the sharks come in here to rest and sleep, which the iguanas clamber around on the rock walls, presumably trying very hard not to fall in. We were meant to snorkel, but the light was fading and we took dinner round the corner before our first hot showers in a week and settling into the yard for more drinks and talking with our team - who were now down to only 12. Five decided not to come to Isabella and pursue other options to compensate them for the trip falling to bits.

13th - Day 7 - Things looked good today, and we took a bus up to the volcano Sierra Negra, to take to horses for the 8km trip to the caldera. Unlike the horses we rode in Argentina, I was lucky I think to get the 'boss' horse, who liked to be out front, and was the only one who could be persuaded to canter. The track was pretty greasy and potholed in parts, but after halfway some speed could be reached, and I was on my own when I reached the rim of the crater. The caldera is ten kilometres across, and filled with the black lava of past eruptions, the most recent of which was only 2 years ago. It's impossible to photograph this, but the shot at left is at least a taste, the rims of the crater arcing around to disappear in the mist on the far side. It was just clear enough to sense the size of it. At the end of the trail we tied up our horses for a walk over the fresh lava field, with the volcano gently puffing away on the horizon. We saw some great lava tubes, which I'd never seen before, and the different colours of the rock showed where older and newer flows were. It was a spectacular view over the bay, and the martian landscape made me affect Darth Vader breathing and walk around as if in low gravity.

We ate our lunch under 4 trees, while Darwin Finches and Yellow Warblers hopped around us. After walking back to the horses, and the precarious ride back - it had started drizzling by now - we got back in the bus for the trip back to our hotel. It was meant to be a quick changeover, just pick up the snorkelling gear and Fabian would meet us in 15 minutes to take us to the lagoon. He still wasn't there after an hour (at least it wasn't a surprise), so we made our own way down to the beach for a last swim in the shores of the Galapagos for a while.

Those of you familiar with Beardwatch should be told of the news that after around 75 days of gathering scraps of food and sweat, the heat got too much for me and decided to shave. With the help of a postage-stamp sized mirror and a pair of scissors, much of the ground coverage was trimmed, and I hacked away the rest in cold water with my trusty Mach 3, leaving a little 'Selleck' for dinner. Don't worry, it's been excised now, and I am once again clean shaved and youthfully beautiful.

After dinner, around 8pm, Fabian showed up, telling some brazen porkies before confessing he went home and fell asleep. He was fairly well savaged by the group, but assured us everything was organised for tomorrow and our trip back to Balta to catch the plane. Our Spanish speakers, Rosa and Ann-Katrin helped us form a backup plan with the helpful restaurant owner Antonio, and we retired to our hotel to once again drink and chat. The plan from Fabian was that we'd be leaving on a bus at 5:30am, and while we would all have liked to stay up a little later, we hit the hay with very strange feelings about our last night on the Galapagos.

14th - Day 8, last day - Well, it wasn't easy, but we made it back in the end. It was a beautiful sunrise over the Pacific, and other than some minor delays we all made our flight and got back to Quito. Poor Fabian waved us goodbye at the airport, unsure if he was going to be paid, or really work again on the island. If he hadn't done a no-show on us last night I'm sure he could have pocketed a tidy sum in the accumulation of modest tips, but the goodwill wasn't really there amongst the group. First job on landing was to go to our agent, Happy Gringo, to give a full report on what happened and discuss the refund. To their credit, they were amazingly understanding. Our 8 day tour amounted to staying only 3 days on the boat, a huge change to the itinerary, missing three islands, and endless stress an waiting. They refunded just over half of what we paid, which we had agreed beforehand was what we would accept. It was handshakes all round, and we are very glad we booked through a reputable agent, as we think some of the others in the group might have a much harder time.

So, I hope you're not too sore if you've read this top to tail. It was an amazing trip all the same. Problems aside, we swam with seals, saw rays and sharks, came nose to nose with week old seal cubs, saw Boobies in all their variety, swam in warm seas, saw sunrises and sunsets, and did it all with a really great bunch of people. It's been a huge highlight and the problems will rapidly recede into the depths of forgotten hassles.

We've a few more hours in Quito now before we head to the airport for the overnight flight to Brasilia. Things feel a little rushed, but now I've got some serious Architecture ahead of me before hopefully some lasting beach time. We'll post again from somewhere in another time zone.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Vamos a Galapagos!

Loyal Readers,

We're on a time constraint here, it's a last email check before we head off to the Galapagos early tomorrow morning - no internet for a week, eek! Big shoutouts to my peeps Mr. Smith and Baron Von Bechtolstein (he's gonna kill me for getting the spelling so bad) who have birthdays this week.

We had a lovely time in Mindo, only time to post two very familar views to us, we spent a LOT of time hanging in the hammocks in the lovely Jardin De Armonia, the first separate accomodation we've seen so far and we relished it. Mindo is lovely, veiled in clouds, very small (which we love) and somewhere you can actually get a sh*tkicking steak if you need one. We did. We weren't as intrepid as usual, just relaxing around our hostel and watching the plentiful hummingbirds. They're difficult little buggers to photograph, and I expended several megs of memory card only to get little indistinct blurs that don't really look like hummingbirds at all. They're completely mesmerising however, and I really could just sit all day watching their unnaturally mechanical movements. We lolled about in hammocks, read a lot of pages (Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, a brilliant kids book and vociferous attack on organised religion, and Louis De Bernieres' Birds Without Wings, which is as sensual as he always is.)

The Galapagos beckons, so the next post will come to you from Brasilia, perhaps, as it will be a little busy when we're back from the islands, jumping straight on a plane to Brasil. Take good care of yourselves out there and we'll be in touch soon with pics of Lonesome George, Boobies (of which I hope to see an inordinate amount), and hopefully many more of the rich fauna of this unique little corner of the world.

Be good, bask in the delicious hope of Obama and be very mindful of the type of person was chosen by the republicans to be potential VP.

See you in a week or so,


Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Most Delicious Hope I've Ever Tasted...

Greetings Loyal Readers,

Coming at you today from the rainforest of Mindo, on what at least on Spanish newspaper is already describing as 'Martes Negro', or Black Tuesday as we wake to the news of Obama's victory. Well done America, and thank you. I'd love to hear his acceptance speech, but the bandwidth here doesn't really permit it. I'm settling for a transcript instead, and find myself really sad that his Grandmother didn't make it to see him win this.

Anyway, it's been a while since a decent post, so we've made some time to tap out what we've been up to. After the sudden change of plans, decided on the day we were about to head into Lago Agrio to begin a deep jungle trip, we decided to head to the recommended town of Baños (which means 'bathroom') a few hours south of Quito. We were seated on the roof terrace of hostel Plantas y Blancas before nightfall with a beer and the company of some fantastic Canadians, who are very thick on the ground in Ecuador it would seem. To the left is a shot of the town from up on the hill, just a small place, and a huge relief after the clamour and slight seediness that is Quito.

We shopped around on our first day for a 3 day trip kind of into a national park, all very lovely although not technically 'deep' jungle, and after waiting to see if they could fill the other places on the tour we were booked to leave on Saturday. Woe betide us, we had to wait another day, i.e. another night up on the roof terrace with the Canadians, this time stretching much further into the wee hours with talk of empire, elections and the economy. Thanks be to Ray, who takes the trophy as the wisest conversationalist we've met so far.

We set off on our trip the next day, beginning with a 20km mostly downhill bike out of the town following the river past the huge hydroelectric dam. As soon as you get out of town you really appreciate just how lush and verdant everything in this country seems to be. Life springs from every surface, and it seems you just scratch a line in the dark brown soil for new growth to spring forth. The ride down was beautiful, and although I passed on the bridge swing I couldn't resist taking the 'cable car' across the ravine to look at this waterfall. It's a pretty hairy ride, you're just in a metal car that holds about 8 people and is strung from a single steel cable. Controlling it from one end is a guy with a car engine (complete with gearbox) that drives a thin line which pulls you across. Changing gears makes for an audible gasp from the passengers... Views were fantastic, and after missing my return ride our guide Eduardo managed to persuade Ana to come over and fetch me.

After finishing our ride in Rio Verde we were briefed on our 20km river rafting trip, joining up with Italian foodie/engineer/photographer/traveller Antonello. The grade IV rapids have been cancelled lately due to high water, so we took a fairly leisurely trip down the grade III sections. Twas much fun, and quite tiring, but I did manage to stay in the boat, unlike Ana who was actually pushed in by Eduardo! Admittedly he's a member of the Ecuadorian rafting team, so we were in good hands.

After a quick lunch in the town of Shell (yes, named after the oil company, it was the first place in Ecuador to strike black gold) we drove on to our camp, just an hour on from the town of Puyo. Deciding to skip on a 2hr walk to a waterfall, we slunk into hammocks to chat and relax before walking up the hill to our very loosely described 'lodge', at left. Perched atop the hill there were amazing views out over the valley, and we were treated to a shimmering lightning storm before dinner and bed shortly afterwards.

Our second day began a little late, after Angel our guide slumbered a little too long, but we headed out into the jungle to visit the Hola Vida waterfall. It stayed fairly dry, so we saw lots of creepy crawlies and birds, and the walking wasn't too bad. Angel (Mr. Black Eyed Peas at the right) talked us into smearing our faces with clay, telling us it was good for your skin. I'm sure he tells that to everyone...

The waterfall was well worth the walk tho, 15m of vertical spray and the perfect substitute for a cold shower in the morning. We stopped a while, washed and enjoyed the view and headed back to the camp for lunch, delicious fishes that we'd bought the day before at the fish farm. After lunch we did the obligatory trip to an 'indigenous community', which is all a little naff really and makes me kind of uncomfortable. At this point the first cracks in the organisation of our tour started to show, when the canoe taking us across the river started to sink. Not a huge problem for either of us, but Antonello with his $3,000 camera was understandably nervous. We made it back downstream, in a new canoe, and were parked up again at our camp by late afternoon to wait for 5 others who were joining the trip.

Grim faced and tired, they arrived just before dark; four Norwegian nurses, and a French baker. It sounds like the start of a dirty joke, but we stuck in the Gallic corner and spent most of the evening chatting with the baker, who had sold his shop and was travelling for 18 months. Day three and the skies had opened, proper Apocalypse Now type jungle walking, the sucking of gumboots stuck in mud, and clambering up 'paths' slick with greasy goo. Having been told we were 'taking a walk to a waterfall' we put on our last dry socks, only to be completely drenched an hour into the walk. Angel strangely took us back to the same waterfall we'd been to the day before (cracks? fingers? dykes?), and we walked waist deep down the river to get to camp for our final lunch.

Turns out our return transport to Baños had fallen apart, but we weren't told this until 4pm. So, slightly frustrated, and extremely smelly and wet, we were driven to Puyo to take a bus back to Baños, taking a reliably good room at Plantas y Blancas by 8pm, a little too late to get back to Quito where we had a hotel booking. Dabnabbit if I didn't find that sometime over the last 3 days and someone had stolen the $100 I keep in the sole of my shoe for emergencies... Well well, these things happen, and at least it wasn't a passport. We were both comforted by the rooftop terrace, and a delicious steak and wine later on, farewelling Baños the following morning.

So, yesterday was a travel day, 4hrs to Quito, then another 3 to the outskirts of Mindo, where (by luck or management I know not) someone with a van was waiting to drive us the 15 minutes in the dark down to the town. We walked around for 10 minutes before a local carrying a baby (if that's not a guy you can trust then I don't know who is) took us to a little spot backing onto the forest. They have cabins (another first in S.A. so far!) with hammocks and a comfy place to lay our head. No cable TV tho (not ften I have that stipulation), so a quick check of the election results last night was all we had until this morning.

We woke to find thousands of butterflies flittering around the cabin, and had our breakfast outside watching the countless hummingbirds while watching CNN Español's coverage of La Victoria De Obama. You could say it's been a pretty great day so far... Ana's just sent me The Onion's coverage of the election, which I also recommend. Think we'll head off to the flying foxes above the town later on today, zipping through the forest canopy, and we're back to Quito tomorrow night to stay before flying to the Galapagos on the 7th. Expect radio silence until the 14th, then some gushing reports of what the Japanese love to refer to as The Nature.

Until then,