Saturday, May 20, 2006

And that's a wrap

And so our journey comes to an end. Many stories remain untold in this forum - in the last couple of weeks alone we've ridden horses in Butch and Sundance territory, driven across a salt plain that covers 1200 square km, felt the heat of geysers in the freezing cold of an early Bolivian morning and bathed in hot springs surrounded by volcanoes. But we can bore you with all that next time we see you.
We had a simple plan for the last few days - lounge around a pool in the kind of hotel we would never normally allow ourselves, soaking up our last few rays of sun and reflecting on all we've seen and done. We were exhausted. Bolivia is a country that is long on extraordinary natural beauty, but short on oxygen. There's no heating, and we've been sleeping in temperatures as low as -15 degrees. It's hard work.
But "sweltering" Santa Cruz in the lowlands proved to be windy, rainy and not warm enough that I could allow my sole remaining pair of trousers the laundering they so desperately need. We had to spend most of our last few days on the phone attempting to ensure we actually had a flight home after the two airlines and Expedia got their wires well and truly crossed. Add in a farewell case of food poisoning, and you don't have the greatest note to end on.
But that doesn't matter. The truth is that we are ready to come home - and that's the highlight we're waiting for. This has been a life-altering experience in many ways. We're happier and we're healthier. We have hundreds of memories and thousands of pictures to take with us, we've made new friends, we've learnt a new language and discovered a new passion in diving. We feel better than we have in years. And now we want to come home, feeling good, and to appreciate what we have there - the friends, the family, the future that we're going to share together.
Thank you for waiting for us - we'll see you soon.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Marmalade sandwiches

At least, that´s what I´d been let to expect we´d get to eat here. But perhaps that´s only in deepest, darkest Peru. We´re in high, bright and slightly chilly Peru right now, and here they apparently have Jam for breakfast instead.

So this is Cuzco, Peru - jumping off point to visit Machu Picchu, an allegedly stunning set of Inca ruins nestled in the Andes. Unfortunately, Montezuma´s revenge has struck once again and Lizzie has yet to leave the hotel we checked into yesterday morning. But she´s doing better today, and hopefully we´ll be able to make it in the next day or two. Meantime, I´m soaking up the local culture - as ever an uneasy mix of traditional, tourist and American modern. I´ve had a overpriced shoe shine from a young boy, bought a replacement Swiss Army knife and persuaded a restaurant specialing in grilled Guinea Pig to do me spaghetti and pesto.

South America has been friendly, and with slight differences in flora and fauna. The pigeons, for instance, are often brown and white rather than grey. The trees seem to have enormous blooms, almost as if a parisitical species has set up camp on their branches. Subtle changes, but a little unsettling. FYI - we´ve worked out that we´re currently at somthing like a 90 degree angle compared to the UK. Look over at the wall, and imagine having to walk along that instead of the floor. Welcome to our world.

We spent a day or so in Lima, which is shrouded in fog for much of the year - quite alarming when we landed there and lost visibilty about 100ft off the ground. But we found a brightish day to wander the streets and tick off a series of closed attractions in our tourist leaflet. Apparently bank holidays are for everyone and everything here, and tourism is either not expected or not welcomed.

Lima did provide an tremendously exciting supermarket, however, with decent red wine, and lots of nice bread and vegetables. Having been used to the Central American style of ´White or yellow´ cheese, it was quite a shock to encounter Brie, Gorgonzola and Edam again.

So more to come when we get out into the mountains, so far only seen from a distance.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A rush and a push and Panama is ours

Travel tip no. 3
If you find yourself in a hotel with the first bathtub you've seen in months, only to discover that the hotel has no plugs, you may feel a heart-wrenching disappointment, particuarly if you spent the previous night sleeping fitfully on a bus. But do not despair - simply fill a balloon with water, to a size slightly larger than the plug-hole, and you'll find it makes a surprisingly effective seal.

So we bit off more than we could chew. San Diego to Bolivia overground, in four and a half months, cannot be done if you keep blowing the timetable - one week over in Mexico, two weeks over in Guatemala, one week over the revised timetable in Honduras. This left us with about 3 days each in Nicaragua and Panama, not counting the several 18-hour travel slogs we needed to get there, and about 20 knackered hours in San Jose, Costa Rica. And we are now down to only 3 weeks in South America.
Have I captured your pity yet? Doth your heart bleed for us? Perhaps not, but it has been a tiring week. Fortunately for us, the budgetish hotel our taxi driver led us to in Panama City has a small rooftop swimming pool, and we have whiled away the impossibly hot afternoons playing Underwater Hunt with a scuba mask and leftover Costa Rican change - Lizzie usually wins.
We did manage to catch a little of this city. And it's been a while since we've seen a skyline like this one.

Our paltry remaining budget would not stretch to cruising the canal, or diving in it - which we would have loved to do. But on today, our last day here, we did manage to venture out to see the mammoth locks at Miraflores, where Atlantic bounds cargo ships take an hour or so to raise up about 80ft in three stages, to meet the elevated water level of the canal itself. This process results in the loss of around 50 million gallons of freshwater into the sea - for every single ship that comes through. That's more than enough to slake the daily thirst of the entire UK population.

The ships we saw were Panamax - the biggest size the canal can accommodate - 294.1m by 32.3m, no more than 57.91m high and with a draft of no more than 12m. Bet you didn't know that. And trust me, that's plenty big.

We also went for a walk in the local Panama City woods. Except, this being South America, it's a slice of full-on rainforest inside city limits. We're relatively old hands at jungle walking by now, but I am still always astonished by the amount of moisture I am capable of unleashing in the course of a gentle stroll.

My favourite jungle creature is the humble ant, who maintains his own pristine six-inch wide highways and spends the days transporting bits of leaf to and fro. Theirs paths intertwined continually with the tourist walkways, but this didn't seem to bother them much.

I'm still shooting for Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year. But this time Lizzie has an entry too.

Tomorrow we fly for the first time since we got to San Diego - all the way to Lima. A whirlwind tour of Peru and Bolivia will follow, and 21 days later we fly again - this time, we're coming home.


Despite the great times we've been having, it has often been hard to be so far away from home, missing births and engagements, the cat and of course just seeing and talking to all you great folks. But it is has never been harder than the last few weeks. Ben, we miss you and we love you, and you're in our thoughts constantly. Say the word and we're on a plane tomorrow, but you knew that. We hear all signs are good, which is fantastic, but we won't feel like we're home until we see you again. Take care of yourself.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Moving on

Amusing Country Song title #1 (in an occasional series)

'It's hard to kiss the lips, at night, that chew your ass out all night long'

Stupid question #? (no point in even trying to keep track of these)

Why do all female dogs south of the US Mexican border have udders?

The song of the above title was heard in a bar on Pigeon Caye, one of 10 or so Cayes lying off the Honduran Bay Island of Utila, where we bacame so damned good at diving. Pigeon Caye is connected to Jewel Caye, where the dive school is, by a wooden bridge. To walk from the end of one caye to the end of the other you'd have to allow a good five minutes if you were sauntering in the heat of the day and about 30 seconds if you're riding four to a bike like the local kids do. There's a Norwegian anthropologist staying on Pigeon Caye at the moment writing an ethnography of the Utila Cayes, as well she might: these keys are mighty strange to gringos like us. Jewel and Pigeon Cayes have a population of about 250 people which is small but diverse, with a pretty even spread of white, black carib and spanish people. This population manages to support 7, yes 7, churches. Combine that fact with the song title above and you're starting to get the picture. With the clapboard houses and everyone going by the name of 'Miss Daphne', 'Miss Ruth' or 'Mr Donald' we felt a little like we'd stumbled into a kind of Caribbean Steel Magnolias. Even the dive boat was called Miss - Miss Kary, which I have to admit, made me suspicious. It's not a name that quite inspires the confidence you require from a boat that carries your emergency oxygen. The cayes, like the Bay islands, are pretty much bilingual. Whilst everyone can speak spanish, you're more likely to be spoken to in a kind of pidgen english which sounds like a cross between a deep southern US accent and a more kind of trademark Caribbean accent. When we were confused over whether or not to speak spanish or english to someone, one of the dive instructors advised us; 'if they're white speak english, if they're not, speak spanish'. That's all well and good but when you get a reply it's one thing to not be able to understand spanish (and after 2 1/2 months in spanish speaking countries, 3 weeks of which was at a spanish school, that's bad enough), but when you don't understand english when it's spoken to you, you just feel plain daft. A strange, confusing and beautiful place!
Anyway, enough of the cod anthropology, what, dear Schmeeta are we doing now? Well, at present we're in San Juan del Sur, a small fishing town in the south east corner of Nicaragua. We came here hoping to hear of Sandanistas, revolution and to learn a little more about Nicaragua's recent bloody history which has led it to be one of the poorest countries in the region, second only to Haiti. So far, however, we've spent more time listening to northamericans tell us how much profit they're going to make off their newly purchased Nicaraguan real estate and advising us on the best place to start building a hotel than having ad-hoc history lessons from former revolutionaries. Apparantly, if you buy land in Nica at the moment you get 10 years grace on income tax (30% the man said, disgustedly) and 5 years duty free import rights. I appreciate why, after years of war, corruption and poverty the Nicaraguan government is trying to promote tourism. But this seems to be to the extent that Nicaraguans don't stand a chance of reaping any of the benefits. Anyway, I appear to have digressed into cod economics now, on with the show...
So, we've reached a bit of an impasse in our plans, a figurative brother to the physical impasse of the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. We've got four weeks left and Bolivia is still a hell of a long way away. Whilst we really wanted to get to know Nicaragua and Panama a little we've come to the conclusion that we're better off getting south as quickly as possible from this point. We could go to a few other places in both countries, but to be honest our time now is so limited that we don't feel we've got enough days to spare getting off the beaten track enough to avoid the Canadian and American real estate junkies, the backpacker trail, and bars called things like 'Dave's Wave Bar'. Dave's wave bar is a very nice place, don't get me wrong. But it feels like a while, what with our two weeks in the curious cayes and the fact that so much land in beautiful places and so much of the tourist infrastructure in central america is owned by foreigners, since we've been able to spend any time with people who are actually from here! So, we hope to be in Peru by the end of the week, ready for a bit of Inca action and Bolivia soon after to follow the trail of Butch and Sundance. Still the tourist trail, clearly, for that is what we are, but in a whole new continent...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

We like diving in our mar...

Dearest Schmeet, so sorry for 'going dark' as Peter says, we have been busy with the fishes in Honduras - no, looking at them not eating them you naughty cat!

I would like to do a little visualization with you, imagine, if you will, a fully grown Evans male. He walks along level ground unencumbered. He will manage to perform this exercise well enough but may look a little ungainly, if not clumsy. Now dress this Evans in scuba gear - fins, 14lbs on a weight belt, huge walloping tank on the back and drop him in the water to a depth where he should be able to control his position in the water using only the volume of air in his lungs, where he should not be flapping his arms around and should in fact glide or hang motionless in the water. I'll leave it to you to picture the passage of this Evans through the water. Once you've done that, turn out the lights and imagine him diving at night..! Strewth, now imagine the poor person who has to be this Evans' 'buddy'. Who as it happens, looks a little like a seal herself, a seal on dry land that is...

No really, we were actually rather good in the water, and only destroyed a few pieces of irreplacable coral reef whilst clattering round under the waves. We can't have been too bad anyway, because, dear schmeeta, believe it or not (probably not, seeing as at times over the last year, you yourself have made me feel guilty with your levels of 'activity' compared to my sloth), but we are now Advanced at a sport. Well, maybe not a competitive sport but a physical activity anyway.

We have been in the beautiful Bay Islands, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras and have been diving our wetsuits off. We went there to do our Open Water course - 4 dives and a bit of an exam about buoyancy, decompression sickness and neoprene - and came away, 14 dives later, with our Advanced Open Water qualification, and an addiction that might not be so easy to sate back in the UK. Every dive was splendid but the highlights include diving at night, diving deep (90ft), diving a wreck, seeing a shark, southern stingrays and eagle rays, and finally, diving all on our own with no divemaster, no boat, no problem! The coral reefs around the Bay Islands are a magical place full of life and many many busy fishes. The fish we have seen can be grouped into several broad categories:

Fish named after other animals, i.e. cowfish (triangle shaped with horns), squirrelfish (big eyes, bushy tail), toadfish (they croak), parrotfish (scoff the coral like nobody's business with their great big beaks), hogfish, frogfish (look like a Simpsons frog), goatfish (they have a beard!) and porcupinefish (pretty eyes and yes, lots of spines).

Fish named after stationery, bits of other animals and random objects i.e filefish (an 'odd shaped swimmer'), needlefish, trunkfish (has no discernible trunk and doesn't look remotely like a trunk), triggerfish, trumpetfish.

Fish named after occupations i.e. nurse shark, sergeant major, surgeonfish, doctorfish,

Fish named after people i.e. bar jack

As you can see, many fish derive their names from other animals. What I want to know is why are there so few other animals named after fish? Por ejemplo, you can have a cat fish but not a fish cat, goatfishes but not fishgoats, you get the idea. There is however a fisheagle, but no eagle-fish, GO FIGURE!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Still alive

Please forgive our slack blogging habits. We have been enjoying spending a few weeks in one place, learning Spanish and - despite the grumpiness of a previous post - making friends in English with a great bunch of fellow travellers at the school. We also got to know some of the local people, and to see some of their problems - more on that another time. We´re on the move again now so more news soon.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Daily Grind of San Pedro la Laguna, Lago de Atitlan

Alas! the crushing monotony of a daily routine.... check out ours

6.30 a.m Arise and have warm if not hot shower

7.00a.m. Eat porridge and a huge bowl of melon, watermelon and banana

7.30 a.m.Leave for our classes at Casa Rosario, our spanish school. This is what we see on our way to school:

8.00-10.00 a.m. One to one Spanish tuition with Jose (Lizzie) and Concepcion (Jos) in the garden of the school that looks something like this:

10.00 a.m. Break to eat either watermelon, pineapple or guacamole

10.30 - 12 noon Second half of Spanish lesson. This is Chepe, Lizzie's teacher, at the top of the 'Indio Nariz' mountain that he took us up:

12 noon Return to our temporary home with the Bixchul family for lunch

1p.m. approx Return to Casa Rosario to lounge in hammocks on beach overlooking lake. Gaze dreamily at the 3 volcanoes surrounding the lake, watch reeds wave gently in breeze, gasp at startling blue of water, see lanchas skidding across the water or kayakers slowly paddling, watch shadows change on mountains across the bay as sun moves through sky, doze, read.

2.30p.m. approx Scramble over rocks to best swimming place. Enter cool refreshing water. Swim leisurely.

3.00 p.m. Either, laze on rock to dry off whilst doing Spanish homework
Or, scramble back over rocks, trying to avoid catching the eye of various naked people lounging, swimming or washing in the lake and continue to the school garden to complete homework.

5.00p.m. Walk slowly back home. On the way stop for coffee and cake at small cafe. Maybe read a little more.

6.30 p.m. Eat dinner of tortillas, eggs, beans, various veg, often avocado etc. Sit around with Bixchuls and try out our Spanish on them.

Later Something along the lines of- Head down to one of the bars by the dock, drink two litros de Gallo and play cards, watch bonfires across the bay, discuss rainbows with 11yr old Meyra, say no gracias to many pieces of delicious looking cake because we are too damned stuffed from the 3 octagonal meals already eaten...

10.00 - 10.30 pm Retire to bed