Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The MP Diary And The Rest

Wake up. Shrug off sleeping, stretch out limbs and curl up again, not quite almost ready to face the day afresh. Sit up, work out where we are again, where the bathroom and the toilet is, who's sleeping over there, or underneath, bottom bunk full or empty? Is there even a bottom bunk, so maybe no need to climb down carefully another ladder that creaks enough to wake up whoever's still down there sleeping still. Find the towel and the soap and the shorts and make it over to the taps, aim for the bowl and flush (no paper down the pan, not on this continent) and turn on the shower head, step up under and cold. Happened too many times this trip for my liking. Started in Brazil, and hasn't been any fun since. Even in Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, the cold water still slides down your back even when you're out kayaking across a warm lake so fantastical that even Spike Milligan made it sound imaginary, and he had some imagination.

Borders, whether from sleep to waking or from country to country, are always vaguely harrowing experiences. Made it across from Bolivia into Peru only a few minutes before they closed the frontier for the night, and after a two hours journey in a minivan, Peru didn't feel that different from where we'd left. Puno, on the other side of the Goons' lake, wasn't up to much save a pretty cathedral and a hip bar, but then once you've been served warm lemonade at a seaside bar you know this isn't the town for you. Onwards then, and that twenty-two hours bus to Lima, all the way across the width of the country for Mary-Jane after a night on Pizza Street first, and then Pete was out early the next morn to meet his beloved at the airport. And so now there are three.

Mary-Jane of course doesn't carry a wallet, free-spirted girl that she is - never to be tied down by material possessions. so we've never carried three of those round with us. Except now we can't even manage two, after a loss in the centre of historic Lima. It might well have fallen out my jacket, or I might well have had my pocket picked - not to worry. I've had that wallet, brown, leather, Ted Baker if you happen to see it, since I was fourteen or so, and there's always a time to move on. Lost a fair few objet trouvés but then you have to eventually; a driving license, a passage from Socrates on the nature of madness, my father's Napier student ID card, a credit card or two, a receipt from a girl at Jessops who laughed more than she had to, a leaf I'm amazed was still left, a little piece of my card with my address my prep school gave me when I was twelve and in France, &c. But why be tied down my material possessions, right? Onwards and upwards, and I suppose it's easier when your pockets are lighter.

I'm all for leaving the scene of the crime, but this was my wallet, and it was full of all sorts of semi-valuables, so I'm at least thinking about insurance. (If mine covers me against kidnapping, you'd hope it would manage to sort out some petty theft.) There we were, standing talking to a sceptical member of the tourist police, when after a few crackled calls on his radio we were standing in the centre of a crowd with a squad car pulled up on the curb. Ushered in and whisked off to the station, siren wailing, we all found it a little too funny. Pete did have to pretend his hysterics were tears of pain at whatever crime Lima's finest thought we'd suffered. Into the bureaucracy upon arrival and I was giving my first ever police statement in Spanish. Where did I have lunch? Is that the church with the catacombs? Was I Irish? But they had sat us all down and listed to me, so I shouldn't complain. My trust in the whole process was rattled a little after the departure of the officer who had driven us to the station - not because he'd left, but because he came back five minutes later to fetch his forgotten hat.

The next day, having lost a wallet but not too much sleep over the matter, we made it to Arequipa. A view from the top of a cathedral, the only decent pizza we've had in South America, a British consulate who was out to lunch and now a phone that didn't work either - a mixed lot. What better to do than head white-water rafting? All of the boxes ticket, we didn't head north quite yet, but did climb again in altitude, up to Cuzco, and to the no-stars, self-proclaimed dark and gloomy and German-owned ('What do you expect?') Royal Frankenstein Hostel. I don't normally mention proper names, but I gave out one for Palestine, just in case you were passing through, and I can't help but at least give the Frankenstein credit where it's due. An iguana, a few piranha, an eccentric German, a Braveheart poster in the room, schnappes by the name of 'Frankenstein's Blood' and just off the main square - all I'd ever want in a hostel. Even had hot water, as did the fortunately named Agua Calientes - our next stop.

Perching between gorgeous Peruvian mountains and swarming with tourists, it's a Marmite place, but with that scenery it was hard to write it off completely. The town's the basic stop-over point if you're heading to Machu Picchu, and since we couldn't quite manage the Inca Trail but similarly couldn't face the spectacular ruins surrounded by everyone other Tom, Dick and Walter who's come to the continent, we wanted to up at half four in the a.m. and watching the sun rise over the top. Barely should have bothered sleeping, what with the marching band camped outside our window - and the window of our first triple room at that - but watching the sun rise out of the coach window on the way up to the top was quite something. As was Machu Picchu itself, I suppose. If the ruins were in Fishbourne, or even Pompeii, they'd still be quite something, but put them at the top of a mountain surrounded by grass-green rising peaks clouded with mist and you've got something that's really quite spectacular. But you know that.

Back to Lima, then, definitely not just to catch Harry Potter - true, really; we had to make a connection to get up north - and to Trujillo and the surfing capital of Peru, Huanchaco. Didn't really achieve much on the surfboards, but at least the water was warmer than Cornwall. Slept through the football match we meant to get up and watch, but did manage to trade in my battered and rather clichéd edition of Chatwin's In Patagonia for a 2005 edition of the lit. magazine The Believer, which means I'm now quite hot on obscure literary fiction from about six years ago. Try me. Did just about keep me going during the two-hour wait in an almost abandoned bus terminal in a border down in northern Peru, waiting to catch our next bus on and across the border into Ecuador. Arriving at immigration at two in the morning and queuing in the heat for a stamp I can barely read was probably worth it in the long-run, but at the time - not so much.

Guayaquil was hot. Humid hot. The seafront walk seemed more like a theme park than a boardwalk, what with all the overheated children running about. One night in our most luxurious hostel and one in our least was a study in contrasts too. Was too hot to get up to much save the obligatory beer-drinking and watching the iguanas laze in the park, but the sluggish river did give us the opportunity to catch a boat down it that evening, and it even had a bare libre. I pity the girl at the ticket office. What does bare libre mean? Free bar. For all the drinks? Yes. Everything? Yes. Where do we sign up? The next morning's bus to Quito was plenty of fun. We only had one whole day in the capital, but it did include a climb up a basilica that left the knees quaking, a few churches and a curry in the evening. Turns out you can't drink in Ecuador on a Sunday after four in the afternoon, which our reunion with an old friend Hugo was quieter than it could have been, but familiar faces are always welcome.

I could really do with one now. Caught a flight this morning from Quito to Columbia, that was fine. From Columbia to Costa Rica two hours later, that was fine. But we go to catch our connection to Havana? Delayed, leaving at four in the morning. We'll put you up in a hotel until then. Have dinner on us. So here I am. In a Best Western in San José in Costa Rica, with seven hours until we meet in the lobby to leave for the airport, and I won't even count how many hours until our flight. Been reading the guidebook to Cuba, and excited about getting there, but for once I don't think I can say it's the journey, not the destination. We'll see how it goes. At least the internet access is free, because I'm not sure how far our meagre remaining funds will stretch - we didn't want to bring any US dollars into Cuba, see. Glad my phone shortcircuited back in Peru too. But what is there to moan about - I've got a free dinner in Denny's coming up. Better dash.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Grand Gringo Tours

When you venture into a wildlife preserve the size of Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Holland combined, you do expect to encounter some rare creatures. The Pantanal may not have provided much in the way of native species, but we did spot a rare breed almost extinct in England. Some assert that they are merely mythical and even that claims to the contrary are only ever made by drunks and family members. So it was with some surprise  that we encountered a trio of Nice Etonians deep in the Brazilian wetlands. Their true colours were dulled after a few months in unfamiliar habitats, but this is common in migration season, typically lasting a few months after leaving the mother's nest, the alma mater. Gap year anthropology's been at its best in Bolivia, where we've been on the trail of all sorts of garden variety and exotic creatures. 

We've finished for piranha alongside a wisecracking Irish traveller and trekked barefoot through mud with a French couple whose terrifying cameras  left us whispering about using it right and preferring sighs to size. Nowadays we have to be careful what we say, because turns out the couple across the bus' aisle may well understand our discussing the merits of Hobbes' view of the natural state of man.  On the subject of popular culture, the films on the buses have improved further west, and going from Brazil to Santa Cruz in Bolivia we even had both Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. Maybe it's called 'The Death Train' because it also features Adam Sandler. 

Within twenty-four hours or so, we'd made it through Santa Cruz and into the mines at Potosí, so into the gates of hell and down the mines. It's the highest city of its size in the world, and yet all you go there to do is go down down down in these mines that have been mined in almost the same way for centuries. Buy your soda and your coca leaves and your cigarettes and your dynamite for the miners, don your mask and boots and let's go. Temps shooting up and ceilings falling down; you don't come here for the happiness index rating. Same with the Bolivian buses. But then you get to the salt flats the next day and you're in your jeep with two crazy lovely Danish girls and you really still feeling harrowed by those mine shafts when you're staring over salty white landscapes spreading out for kilometres or Technicolor lakes dotted with flamingoes? 

Not really. But try sleeping in minus degrees in a hostel made of salt. But then really do try running into a hot thermal spring at half six in the morning, which made La Paz with its pancake breakfasts and its llama foetuses and its curry houses and its running hot water a whole different place. Especially when you get in after an overnight bus one morning and don't leave the bar all day after watching the Wimbledon Mens' Final on English time and drinking barely even on Bolivian time - maybe back on Japanese time. But with free shots every ace, how could we not? Did mean the next day was a tad rushed, but we saw all we wanted to and made it to our bus to Bolivia's own Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Renting a kayak and paddling about out there was quite something, and a far easier form of transport than the minibus that evening across into Peru. But we made it, had a pleasant half day in Puni and then onto Lima, meeting Mary-Jane, and the fog. Even after another twenty-plus hour bus journey, we're still not sure about the natural state of man, but after Bolivia, we're pretty sure about the natural state of nature: we'll take the views any day, never mind the cold.