Thursday, 28 February 2008

2 treks ... 3 countries ... and still in high altitude, and moving fast fast fast!

Hello all!!

I have been recieving emails from people, asking why I havent posted in a while...well, the reason is because we have been moving pretty damn fast and have been ACTIVE!

Writing this blog now, we are in Quito, Ecuador, happily on the other side of the long dark tunnel that was the biggest trek I ever did, the Inca Trail to Machhu Pichhu...but more on that later...from what I remember now, I left you all way back in Copacabana, Bolivia, which is now 2 countries ago crazy is that!!!

So, where was I...way back in beloved Bolivia...let me pick up where I left off...

Did I say we were waiting to catch a boat to Isla Del Sol?

Initially, yes, that was the plan...till our plans changed after we bumped into the real life He-Man. He-Man, or the amazingly cool guy otherwise known as the Frenchman Thierry, is someone Mandi met on Mount Hauyana Potosi. He was one of the few people who actually managed to make it to the top, despite the bad weather. As we were sipping our Cervecas over our Truchas Planchas at the edge of Lake Titicaca, we saw him wander past, Mandi recognised him instantly. He looked alot like this:

That, back in Copacabana, Bolivia, was the beggining of a pretty epic three days. As the next three days evolved, we found ourselves becoming more and more in awe of this real life Superhero, and we turned into wide eyed giggly girls as we observed him with wonder. Why did we call him our Superhero? The reason was, because it seemed that there was nothing that this man couldn´t do! He was the strongest, fittest, most seemingly invincible man we had ever met, a total fitness fanatic, who had trekked everywhere, swam everywhere, climbed every mountain he happened to wander past, and more, you name it, he had done it...this guy was the definition of ´COOL.´
And whats more, he was sooo funny. Mostly without meaning to be. In his strong french accent, he came out with lines that would seem like terrible bragging from anyone else, but from him, were simple statements of fact. He would say, ´I kayaked from Brazil to Bolivia´, ´I fight 2 men´, ´Zat 4 day trek, I do in 2 days´. One of our personal favourites was, ´I run to zee busstop wiv my backpack...I am ALL muscle!´. He was, indeed, all muscle. Then he would say things like ´Where is zee mushroom?´instead of ´Where is the washroom´, such an innocent mis-pronounciation, and we giggled so much and were endeared to him even more.

Anyway, He-Man put the idea in Mandi´s head that we could trek the length of the coast towards Isla Del Sol, instead of take the tourist trap bus. It would be good practice for our trek through Macchu Picchu, which was so imminent. So we trekked.

We trekked along the coast of Copacabana, some 18km, (follow the orange line) over hills, through eucalyptus trees, through beautiful villages and past laughing locals, till we reached a small bay at the northerly tip of the pennisula, Yampupata, tired after 5 hours of intense trekking ( I only wanted to cry once this time, when I had a panic attack cos I couldn´t breathe again, cos of the high altitude, but that soon passed...) and when we reached this point, (HeMan hadn´t even broken a sweat) we got rowed over in a tiny boat to Isla Del Sol, just the three of us and the boat guy. We felt like we were in Lord Of The Rings, in our little boat...we scrambled out the other side onto a rocky, hilly island, and continued to trek another 2km, uphill all the way, to our hostel. For me, mangaging to complete 20km of trekking in one day across high altitude terrain was a pretty damn big deal, I was WELL impressed with myself, and we were all well rewarded with the most amazing views at the top of the Island when we finally reached our destination. I pulled up my deckchair to the edge of the cliff and sat there staring at the horizon, till the distant rain clouds made their way towards our hostel and rained all over us.

We stayed on the Island for a total of 3 days. In that time, HeMan kept us trekking and trekking, that man just can´t sit by the time we returned to Copacabana we had trekked over 35km at high altitude, (following almost all of the dotted orange lines on the Island map, and more) and we all felt more than a little bit pleased with ourselves. We were feeling GOOOOOD.

We left Bolivia with heavy hearts, despite being excited about what lay ahead.

I loved Bolivia, more than I expected to.

Bolivia gave me so taught me to love Spanish, and the soft eloquent way it was spoken there, I was so grateful that I started my trip there, where my fantastic Spanish lessons set me in good stead for the rest of my trip. Bolivia gave me time with some amazing new people...they know who they are...Bolivia reminded me of the power of incredible open landscapes, especially the trip to Uyuni, and I was reminded of how much I loved the scent of Euclyptus trees when we trekked in the land of the Incas. It also taught me that I am cut out for trekking, that I love the feeling of discovering a place on foot, of feeling it challenge and exhaust me. There were challenges there that I discovered I WAS cut out for... Dave knows what I mean, right! The experience on Mount Hauyana Potosi didnt defeat me after all...

Regardless, it was time to move on, time to get to Peru, where our booking for the Inca Trail Trek was imminent. We passed quickly through Puno, on the other side of Lake Titicaca, and were very eager to move was a dull town, but as soon as we arrived in Cusco, we were totally enchanted. OH MY GOD, Cusco is soooo beautiful, sooo stunning, and has a fascinating history. I was enchanted enough with the Inca stuff on Isla Del Sol, getting to Cusco and being in the heart of the Inca Empire history had me WELL excited. To say the least.

We had two days to absorb the city before the trek was to begin. It was no time at all.

Again, the night before the trek, we were so tired, the last thing we felt we wanted to do was trek! But I knew that this was one of my dreams, and after trekking for 3 days solid in Isla Del Sol, doing another 35 to 38km over 4 days to Machhu Pichhu didnt seem so bad after all! I treid not to think about the fact that most of it was uphill, and that we would have to tackle 3 high passes over ancient stone Inca steps that were BIG, before we got to our destination. My mantra was, don´t think, just do it. Take one step at a time. I was reminded of Dory in Finding Nemo...´Just keep swimming!´. I love that fish!

So thats what we did. We got on that trek, and we swam through it. Literally. It pissed down with rain so much of the time! Day by day, up steep steps, through ancient paths, we trudged. I was nervous about having panic attacks related to breathing difficulties again. But amazingly, I had no problem at all. Mandi raced ahead, and my breathing was great. My legs ached and I was knackered mostly, but that was easy to ignore. We were entertained and awed along the way by the most beautiful landscape, by all kinds of hummingbirds and butterflys, and by some of the most amazing plants I had ever seen. Mandi loves plants, and stopped often to admire flowers and to ask our guide about a particular species. It was a great excuse to stop and take a breathe, and our guide was AMAZINGLY full of knowledge. He pointed out plants that were good for all sorts of different diseases and ailments. I thought he had studied plant medicines, but all his knowledge was from local people. He was brilliant. We walked and walked and walked. It was incredible. The only thing that pissed on our fires was that we had a really dull, piss boring group. There were 2 Swiss German girls, who were the most stuck up, dry, boring, DULL, zero sense of humour girls we met on this trip so far. They were condascending and constantly complaining about most things...their company was painful! Then there was a father and son combo who seemed to be on a ´bonding trip´, seemed they didnt have much time together and this trip was making up for lost time. The father was very shy, but nice enough, the son was an all round miserable git. A teenager, we called ´Kevin´, after the Harry Enfield character. He was totally incapable of saying thankyou for anything, or being vaguely appreciative of anything, we both felt like slapping him at different points in the trip, the ungrateful spoilt brat. SO thanks to them, we had the knowledge of our guide all to ourselves, seeing as none of them seemed interested in the information he had. Along the way, we met plenty of other great trekkers, a lovely group of Finnish, Irish and some English folk, we great fun, and we ended up tagging along with them and being part of their group night out when we got back to Cusco, something that we would never have done with our own group. It just proved Mandi´s theory, that it is not language that creates a barrier with people, its just people. On our trip in Uyuni in Bolivia, we had non english speakers in our group, and yet we all communicated brilliantly and their personalities shone through, but on this trip, language wasnt an issue at all, attitude was.

Regardless of all that, Mandi and I laughed and joked and giggled all the way through the trek, gazing in awe at where we were, constantly reminding ourselves of how blessed we felt, as we gazed as the hummingbirds sipping nectar from the flowers only a few steps away from us. We were in a real life episode of ´Planet Earth´. Amazing.

The sense of awe would only grow. On the morning of the 4th and last day of the trek, we crawled out of our tents at 4am, in the heavy rain, to start our final trek up to Machhu Pichhu. Only 2km to go. Uphill. The rain was relentless. My brilliant boots held out for me through the rain and mud, but Mandi wasnt so lucky, her boots filled with water. We climbed and climbed, with our miserable shitty group, but were cheered some some random english girl singing ´I will survive´on the top of her voice. That made me giggle, and more people joined in. This was the point in the trip that we had all built up to, reaching the final high view point where we would get to see the picture postcard view of Machhu Pichhu, the image that was plastered all over Peru.

This is what we should´ve seen:

When we finally got to the top, the whole damn thing was covered in cloud! It was raining heavily, we had been up since 4am trudging through the rain and we couldn´t see a flippin thing!

GUTTED! It was so tragic, we had to laugh! We took a wicked picture, standing in front of the scene, head to toe in our wet weather clothes, nothing but a blanket of white sky behind us! It was funny.

It DID get better though...we trekked down to the actual site, and we had the rest of the morning to properly explore the actual site, and it was AMAZING. The mist from the clouds slowly cleared up, and the scale, beauty and ingeniousness of the whole inca site was revealed, bit by bit. It was magical.

The whole experience of the trek and the site will always be one of the most amazing experiences in my memory. I can totally understand why, for so many people, Machhu Pichhu is the highlight and reason for coming to South America. Next time I come to Peru, Im doing this trek again! (maybe 2 days trekking instead of 4 though....!)

We passed through Peru so fast, I felt we just sneezed and missed it. We were gutted that we didnt have more time, Peru has so much to offer, there was so much to see and do. But we stayed only for the Trek, and moved on quickly to get to the next place of our dreams: The Galapagos Islands.

Now, we are in Quito, Ecuador, recovering from the treks, getting rest from our speedy travelling and preparing to get out of high altitude once and for all! The weather here is crappy, too much like london, and it is cold, so we are happy to move on quickly, and tomorrow morning we catch an early flight out of Ecuadors´ highlands, and finally get to Sea level again! Sunshine, beautiful coastlines and some of the most incredible untouched Islands are waiting for us! Finally the bikinis come out! The snorkels go on, and the lounging begins!!!

Galapagos, here we come.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

La Paz - Sorata - Copacabana

La Paz was a city that we both connected to well, its bustling busy streets, strange smells, crazy traffic and great shopping kept us very well entertained, and I for one, felt right at home, loving the feeling of being back in a 'city' environment. Mandi returned from her triumphant trip up the mountain, where she reached an altitude of 5,700 m before the weather intervened and forced them to turn back. Mandi's own story of the ascent, coming soon...

From La Paz we took a 'Micro Bus' for a 3 hour journey down from the dizzy heights of La Paz, into the stunning lush valleys of Sorata. Sorata is small, sleepy but stunning. The climate changed here, it was much warmer, we were back in Palm tree zone! Despite being the ideal place to use as a base for trekking, we used it for the other thing it is most famous for, plain, simple Chilling Out. It's the weekend retreat for many from La Paz, and was a perfect place for Mandi to recover from the Mountain episode, and for me to swan around gazing dreamily at the amazing scenery, sketch a little and eat alot. There were long lazy lunches with some lovely Canadians we met, and sun drenched hours of immersion in my Garcia Marquez novel. After the bustle and activity filled days of La Paz, this was perfect. There were some odd moments, like the 'Reggae Bar', playing Bob Marley constantly, full of every type of cliched hippie traveller you ever took the piss out of...I felt like shouting 'will you all just take a f***ing shower!!!!!!!' As we sat there drinking playing cards, a friggin nasty little rut of a monkey jumped at us out of the dark and stole stuff off our table, then helped himself to our beer! I never thought I would find myself saying to a barman 'There's a Monkey in my beer'... least of all in bad spanish!

We tired of beautiful chilled and a bit weird Sorata after 2 days, and made our way to where I am writing from now, the lovely Bolivian Copacabana, a small tourist town which serves as the gateway to the awe inspiring Lake Titicaca, and Isla de Sol, the island of the sun, revered as the legendary birthpace of the Inca Empire. The Lake is huge, and straddles both Bolivia and Peru.

Here's the beautiful lake

As I write this, we are waiting for the rain to subside so we can take a boat over to the Island of the Incas. It's such an amazingly historical place, you can see why the lake and the area was considered so sacred, it takes your breath away.
Stay tuned.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Huayna Potosi - ´Begginers Mountain´

So off we went.
Mandi full of excitement, me full of trepidation.
I was unsure of this from the start, but I had to give it a go.

The plan:

Day 1
4,700 m, Basecamp. Trek for about an hour, to get to the Ice Glacier. Practice Ice Climbing. Trek back to basecamp. (Pictured). Sleep. (Note, we were to camp outdoors).

Day 2
Trek about 3 hours, up to 5,000 and something metres to the Midcamp. (This time, a proper building with a proper bed). With a view to sleep at around 6pm.

And get up at midnight, to begin the final ascent to the peak, at night, a 5 hour-ish trek, to 6,088m.

By which time it´s Day 3
Descend mountain.

The Raj version of events:
We arrive at basecamp. Have a fab lunch, just me, Mandi and our Bolivian guide who is tiny and built like a goat. (He has lost track of how many times he climbed the mountain, so VERY experienced.)

We layer on our gear: Merino wool baselayers, our regular day clothes, then tough North Face outer wear, snowboots, Alpaca wool gloves followed by snowgloves, crampons for the ice go in our backpacks, hats go on our heads and ice picks are in hand. (Ice picks double up as walking sticks...VERY necessary). I am told its a short hike uphill to the Ice Glacier where we practice our climbs. We should be there and back in about 3 hours. Apparently.

And we´re off.

First thing I notice, is that these snowboots are not so great for rocks. Great for snow, not great for rocks. But thats ok...´plough on´ I tell myself...

And so I step in front of the other...we climb.
And climb. And climb.
This glacier aint so close.
The guide and Mandi seem to be making much better progress than me.
The air is getting thinner. And thinner.
It´s hard to breathe. Damn, we are very high up.

Time goes on, and I start to panic a little.
I don´t know if I can do this.
I try to focus, on every breath, and with every step, I find myself saying a prayer.

Channeling the mind into a sort of rythymic meditative state, will help...and it did.
I managed to stop myself bursting into tears, about twice.
Higher and higher we climbed, and then we came to a little stream.
By this time, I was exhausted, my legs ached, I was panting for air and fighting tears.

Mandi appeared to fly across the rocks to the other side with apparent ease.

I panicked, I was terrified, I didnt trust my boots and the rocks were wet from the moisture from the cloud we were walking through. I did not want to fall in that stream.

The guide came back for me, held my hand, which I gripped with all my might, and I slowly, tentativly, crossed the stream, rock by rock. When I got to the other side, I was so relieved that I hadn´t fallen that I really did burst into tears, and gasping for breath I hugged Mandi, so glad she was there. The guide looked so bored by the whole scene...bless him, he must have seen this so many times, we had to laugh.

Anyway, eventually we got to the Ice Glacier. And it was well worth it.

That´s where we did this: (Image stolen from someone else´s blog...)

Now this was WICKED.
You put your crampons on your snowboots (big scary spikes) and grab your ice pick, wack the ice pick in the wall, then wack your foot in, haul yourself up, wack your other foot in, then the ice pick, and before you know it you have climbed to the top of the Glacier! SOOOOOO much fun! And not that hard...made the long arduous climb well worth it.
So that was Day 1 done. Back at basecamp, we ate well, watched the stars come up and gazed at the mountain that we agreed to climb. As night approached, I became more and more unsure of whether or not I wanted to do this. The mountain was prettier, and I liked it more, when I was NOT on it. Even the Llamas and goats avoided those heights. What the hell was I thinking, trying to go where no goat had gone before?!? Not a good sign...
We went to bed. Or rather, we crawled into our tent, wearing all the clothes we could get our hands on, crawled into our sleeping bags and lay awake freezing all night. That was enough to shift me into ´Princess mode´as Mandi calls it. I hate being cold. I hate sleeping in tents, unless its Summer and I am at a music festival, armed with whisky. As the night continued to insist on NOT ending, I lay awake asking myself, do I REALLY want to climb the mountain? How ´bovvered´am I, really? I pictured being back in La Paz, sleeping in a real bed, warm, dry, clean... spending the day wandering around town, stopping for a Cafe Solo, maybe a slice of cheescake, absorbng the atmosphere, sketching and drawing. I wanted to DRAW goddammit, not climb a friggin cold mountain. Every bone in my body was telling me ´you don´t want to do this, do you?´...and I was saying ´of course not!!!!´, this is Mandi´s strong area, this is her dream. I didn´t want to dissapoint her, but at the same time, I had to endure the trauma of the climb for the right reasons.
So when morning FINALLY came... I told Mandi that I didn´t want to climb.
She was understanding, but dissapointed...but glad I was being honest.
I was pissed off at myself for feeling that way, because I wanted this to be something we achieved together, you can´t get any more monumental than climbing a mountain, and I was sad that she was doing it alone...but both us knew it was for the best. This way, I wouldn´t hold her back by being the slowcoach, and she could focus better on getting to the top.
Everything was cool, we parted with heavy hearts, both worried for each other, hugged, said the ´I love yous´and waved at each other till she dissapeared over a hill.
She was off to climb her mountain.
And I was off to sleep.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Tomorrow we climb

We begin our ascent up Mount Hauyuni Potosi tomorrow.
We´ll be on it for 3 days.
Gonna be bloody freezing.
And very high up....
We are a bit nervous.

What the hell, if it is the last thing we do, it´s not a bad way to go.
If you don´t hear from us by tuesday, you have our permission to worry!


Monday, 11 February 2008

La Paz

We are in the capital of Bolivia, at an altitude of 3660m above sea level. By now, thanks to our visit to Potosi and our tour from Tupiza to Uyuni, we have already been quite high up, so we are pretty well acclimatised. The 14 hour bus ride eased us in too, despite leaving us properly knackered! We spent the best part of Mandi´s birthday in bed, exhausted from the journey and the tour, but managed to revive ourselves and leap out of bed to get to our celebration Indian meal! I was looking forward to speaking some Hindi or Punjabi again, and was very amused to walk into the restaurant to find it was run and owned by an english lad from Hertfordshire! How ironic...the food was excellent, the meal was drunken, and the birthday was great...full bellied and emotional, just as birthdays should be.

La Paz feels like a bonkers place, manic, busy, crowded...I love it.

Somehow, Manders had managed to convince me to go climb this mountain with her:

Mount huayna potosi....I´m cacking myself, but Í´m gonna do it anyway.
Hopefully I will survive it to tell the tale!
Watch this space....

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Potosi - Tupiza - Uyuni

There was not much to report on Potosi, it was cold, it was high up (it felt like we were almost eye level to the clouds, which was cool), Mandi got ill and we kept getting drenched with carnival waterbombs which pissed us both right off. BUT, we were there on a beautiful bright blue skied day, so we got great views of the city, and I managed to get some quality sketching time in. The point of going to Potosi for most people is to visit the silver mines, but neither of us liked the idea of crawling into cold, dark caves and tiny holes, so we only stayed one day, then caught an early bus to Tupiza the next day. After the beauty of Sucre, Potosi felt a bit ´vanilla´.

Our first Bus ride in Bolivia was entertaining enough, flat tyres in the middle of nowhere on a 8 hour journey was a bit nerveracking, but we met some entertaining Argentinians who had to endure the whole ride sitting on the floor. One of them was a violinist, and got us through the hot journey with some live music. Nice.

The reason for enduring the bus ride was so that we could see this, one of the natural wonders of the world, one of the most famous natural attractions of Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni, the Great Salt lake. It´s meant to look like this:

A huge expanse of crystalised salt, a massive expanse of white stretching for miles and miles.
However, we are here in the rainy season, so what we saw was more like this:

A shallow layer of water on top of the salt expanse creates an incredible effect, the lake turns into a huge mirror, the sky and land surface blend into one and you cant distinguish between the two. It is unbelievably breathtaking. (We still have not uploaded our own pics, still got crap internet connections, so I found these pics on the web, but they give you a pretty good idea!)After 3 days of journeying around the Bolivian countryside, seeing great lakes and amazing mountains, this was the climax. It was freezing cold, it was 5am and we climbed to the roof of the 4 wheel drive to watch the sunrise in the middle of the great salt lake. Totally enchanting. To get an impression of its size, check this:

The Nasa satellite image of th egreat lake...ITS MASSIVE!!!!

Our tour companions have been brilliant, a Polish girl from Camden who is learning Spanish and is excellent, and a couple from Barcelona who have been giving us both brilliant coaching in Spanish, so we spent a solid four days trying to keep english to a minimum, so now my vocabulary is expanding and Mandi´s Spanish is excellent.

Tonight, the 5 of us leave Uyuni and take a 14 bus journey to La Paz, and in the morning, we wake up to a very special day. We will be having our first Indian meal in what seems like forever, in honour of Mandi´s 30th birthday!!!!! WOOOO HOOO!!!!!


Monday, 4 February 2008

Parting is such sweet sorrow

I´m new to this travelling lark, this whole ´pass through a place, make friends, then leave´, knowing you are unlikely to cross paths again, though hoping and wishing you will, with all the best intentions. We had both become very attached to Sucre, the people, the place, and we had extended our stay so many times, that when it came to our last morning, we almost couldnt belíeve we were moving on.

So after our final Fiesta in the home of our host, which turned out to be a feast of meat and waterfights, and after our final breakfast the following morning, which soothed our sore heads and bellies, we set off. With heavy hearts, and not quite sure that we were ready to go, we had a final coffee at our favourite drinking hole, collected our ´TShirts´(no, really...very nice Tshirt too) and boarded a bus for Potosi.

3 hours later, we arrived at the highest city in the world.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Still in Sucre!

This pretty little colonial style town high in the Bolivian hills has proved to be a very hard place to leave! We are now on day 13!!!!! Tomorrow we FINALLY leave for Potosi, famous for its silver mines and for being the highest city in the world, at 4,824 meters (15,827 feet) above sea level.
But thats tomorrow.

Till now, we have been kept in Sucre by invitaions to party with Bolivian High Society (a very interesting night, which turned out to be at the home of my Spanish teacher!) by offers to salsa, by the Carnival (we have been waterbombed everytime we step out...which was funny for about 5 mins...but got funnier when Mandi retaliated with eggs, to great effect!) and we have also been stuck here because of the freak rains that have hit Bolivia, which have been so severe that much of the country has been made homeless, pretty sad situation.

So to escape the rain, and get over the slight sensitive tummies that we both had from adjusting to the altitude, we took refuge in one of the most well known and popular ´gringo bars´, called The Joyride, run and owned by a Dutch guy called Gert. We found ourselves defaulting to Joyride so many times, that the staff all know us by name and the Gert ended up taking us under his wing and showing us the real Sucre...hence the Bolivian´High Society´party. Turns out Mandi and I have found ourselves in Sucre at the énd of an era´for the owner of the Joyride, as this week he handed over ownership of the bar to its new owner, and that meant another big party! So, we found ourselves extending our stay here yet again, and before I knew it I spent 4 days helping Gert create a leaving film for his ´do´, editing film on a god awful PC with a crappy Windows application...painful! But, was great to get creative and help make the movie for the final, big, epic leaving do, attended again, but some of the ´biggest names´in Sucre.
Even better, we checked out of the crappy hostel we were in and moved into Gerts´spare room, and have enjoyed hanging out with his flatmate Linda and her beautiful baby Esme, so cool to be around kids again.
The final big party came and went with a bang, we were the only guest ´travellers´there, it turned out to be a pretty exclusive affair, so I am so glad I packed a glam dress. Needless to say, we had alot of fun, or in Mandi´s words, we were ´fighting them off with a shitstick´!!..Bolivian men are just a little bit too much....but they are brilliant dancers...!

Sucre has turned out to be pretty special, the guide book warned us that people stay here longer than planned, but we didnt expect to fall into that cliche! Thanks to the friends we made, we were able to see beyond just the travellers´spaces, and get to understand how the town feels for the people that really live here.

So tonight, the final the home of our host, and tomorrow, off to Potosi!

By the way, my camera got knicked, very gutted (for me like losing a limb!)
but we have Mandi´s camera, so will upload shots soon.