Thursday, 10 April 2008

So is this the end of the journey...?

...he asked, as we took off from Lima and headed toward Miami.

'It's not the end till I'm home and asleep in my bed', I answered.
Even the flight home is part of the trip, in as much as the flight outward bound always is.
I was sitting next to Ozzie, a Happy American, the type that is all brimming with smiles even though its stupidly early and everyone is stupidly tired, and he should, within rights, be a miserable bastard at that time of the morning. He was not, and not only was he not miserable, he was great company and eased the pain of having to endure a flight on American Airlines, which is always shit.

Ozzie was also part of Marc Anthonys' band (for those of you who don't live in South America, you won't be familiar with Marc Anthony as a hugely successful Latin American Singer with a following of thousands of screaming girls, you'll know him as J Lo's fella.)
Ozzie is one of his trumpeters, and he kept me entertained with his rock n roll stories, while I apparently kept him entertained because I could identify Cirrus clouds, and I read a novel about Simon Bolivar, so he thought I was 'waaaay smart'. As well as thinking I was 'awesome', he was all round great to talk to, and the 5 hour journey was more of a pleasure than I expected.

So by the time I was ready to board my connecting flight from Miami to London, I was mega tired, and looking forward to getting some kip, and maybe watching a film.

Not so. I sat next to Martin, who had just come back from a worldwide Mosaic Art Convention in Miami, at which he was one of the key speakers. Now this would make most people fall asleep instantly, but the nerd in me wanted to know more, and before I knew it 4 hours had passed of us talking art, education and glass melding (or whatever its called) and we'd both drunk alot of wine. He was really interesting, and after much banter he recommended I join the Chelsea Arts Club, cos apparently I was 'just the sort of person they were trying to attract'. I smiled politely and took his card, knowing that my chances of getting membership to a private art club, where you have to pay shedloads a year to get in and needed to be recommended to even be considered, was quite low. But his work sounded really interesting, and I took his card knowing it would interest some of my other artist friends too.

It seemed like a good omen that I spent the journey home having great conversations with two very creative people, and despite my fatigue, it fired me up for getting on with all of the ideas that have developed in my head while I have been away on this trip.

And it reminded me of all the impressive people I met while I was away.
South America is like no where else in the whole world. The hospitality of the people is amazing, the history is mind boggling, the landscapes are breathtaking. So many people go only to visit and end up staying forever, and I can see why. I barely scraped the surface of what it has to offer, and I know I am going back. When I do return, my Spanish will be well up to scratch!

So till then, thanks for following my journey. Getting messages and emails from people I care about so much meant a lot to me while I was so far from home. But for now, make spaces in your diaries for me, because I can't wait to see you all.

I'm home, and it feels great.


Monday, 7 April 2008

Last stop. Colombia.

I started to write this post last week.

In the past two weeks, it feels as though we have done so much, felt so much, that in a weird way it now feels like it was a really long time ago. Sitting here now, in Lima, having parted with Mandi yesterday as she flew to Costa Rica, all I can feel now are those feelings and contemplations that you inevitably feel at the end of any big trip.

But I will try to ignore that headspace and focus myself back to Colombia, Cartagena, Santa Marta and Tayrona. So get your bearings with the map below, and I shall paint you a picture.

Right then. Colombia, well known for its coffee, the white stuff and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Till we agreed to meet Phil there, it hadnt been part of our original travel plan. We had heard too many scare stories about how unsafe it was there (mostly from people who hadnt been before), so, being sensible female travellers, we ignored the place.
However, as we travelled, we met so many people who had just come from Colombia, and every single person raved about it. It is one of the countries in South America which hasnt been totally run over by tourism, so has a more raw feel to the place. When we knew Phil and Annabelle would be able to meet us in Cartagena, we decided to change our plans. Mandi hadnt seen Phil in 5 years, and quite frankly, I felt alot safer travelling with a guy in Colombia. (As a female traveller, you become acutely aware of your vulnerability. This would be a nice change.)
So in our time in that intruiging country, we passed through the historical town of Cartagena, the slightly odd Santa Marta and the stunningly breathtaking Tayrona National Park.
For me, Cartagena was just gorgeous. I had already filled my head with all sorts of visuals of it, from reading too much G.G.Marquez and Isabelle Allende, and for me the place didnt disspoint. The old colonial town is surrounded by fortress walls, and is now the well preserved posh part of town, filled with beautiful little plazas, colonial houses with huge balconies overflowing with flowers and plants. It is postcard perfect. The heat of the sun brings out the best in everyone, the women are dressed up all sexy and the men dont bother with shirts, we were in the Carribbean now! And we felt good!
We didnt stay in the posh part, but we got a great hotel in Getsemani, a bit of a rougher Barrio, but still beautiful in its decayed sort of way. It was how I imagined Cuba to be. Stuck in time gone by. It was here, In Cafe Havana, that we absorbed the energy of the place, it was in this very cool bar that we got a taste of how the Colombians party. Let me tell you , EVERY Colombian in that place could dance and was dancing, to the brilliant live band that was playing. We were on the dancefloor till the place closed, we Salsa-d our asses off. Beautiful locals, young and old, a handful of travellers and everyone in between packed that dancefloor out. SO much fun.
Aside from the partying, Cartagena felt like a place which had alot to discover, alot to uncover. If it wasnt for the fact that the Spanish here sounded so different, and was so much harder to understand, I would have considered taking classes here.
We then moved onto Santa Marta, the 4 of us, and from here I decided to head into Tayrona National Park and spend some quality time on the Carribean beaches there, while the others headed into the Jungle, to trek for 5 days up to Ciudad Perdida, the ancient settlement.
With only 2 weeks left of my trip till the chill of London hit me again, I didnt revel in the thought of dealing with Jungle humidity, giant mosquitos, snakes, spiders and leeches, or not being able to wash for 5 days. Just didnt quite appeal...
It worked out perfectly, I rested, they trekked, and had a brilliant time all round. I posted some pics up in an earlier post of us all together...I think they speak for themselves!
Once Phil, Mandi and Annabelle returned from the trek, we had a quality day together in Tyrona, before Phil headed back to Mexico, Annabelle to Bogota to fly home and the two of us back to Cartagena. There, we decided to just stay put, allow the heat of the place to relax us, and start to prepare for the end of the trip.
Together in the last days, we talked over everywhere we had been. The people we had met. The laughs and tears we had shared, the jokes and arguments that taught us so much more about each other. All the things that reaffirmed our friendship. We were amazed at the things we had seen together. Colombia, such a different vibe from the other countries, was a brilliant place to end our trip together on. In a way, its hard to do it justice in a post like this. In fact, its hard to do justice to any of this trip in this blog, despite my efforts. Trying to capture the essence of a place in words, with words that do it justice, is better left to great novelists. I hope I have managed to give you a vague idea! Maybe I be able to think about the experiences more clearly, and with more accuracy, when I recall them, back in London.
For now, its the end. No more South America. (Till I return, which I will!)
Today I drink my last Pisco Sour, eat my last Ceviche, feel the last few rays of the Peruvian sunshine on my back and speak my last few lines of Spanish. For now.
It been an amazing journey, but tomorrow, I go home.
Back to where the heart is.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Filling in the Gaps: The Amazing Galapagos.

The last proper post describing our journey was all about ´Pre-Inca Trail´time. That ending of that trek, for us, marked a significant turning point in the way we would be travelling, and in what surroundings we wanted to be in. ´Pre-Inca Trail´was all high altitude and cold weather, living in our hiking boots and alpaca wool. ´Post-Inca Trail´was much anticipated, because finally we would be at Sea Level again, where breathing is easy, climate is warm and the only footwear necessary are flip flops. Heaven. Indeed, after spending a few very cold nights and days in Quito, the highlight of which was nourishing our souls with some great Indian food, we were desperate to get out of the hills.

So you can imagine our joy when we stepped off the plane in Galapagos and felt the heat bathe us...stunning blue sky and intensly green landscapes greeted us. It wasnt long till we felt the sweat start to trickle down our backs, it was a very welcome feeling. Despite the fact that we hadnt slept in over 24 hours (our last night in Quito ended up being a big one), we felt rejuvenated. Welcome to the Galapagos!

This trip really did live up to the hype, at least for me. I have never been anywhere so beautiful in my life, and I felt priveleged to be in this incredible, unique part of the world. Straight off the flight, we met with our group leader and headed off for the start of our 10 day boat tour of the Islands. Now, in that 10 days, we saw some of the most incredible landscape, and got very close to so many different creatures (sometimes too close), that there is no way I will be able to properly do justice to everything in this blog. But, I will try to give you a taster.

Firtsly, I had no idea I would be so enthralled by all the creatures we saw. Many of the creatures that inhabit the Islands are Endemic (are only found naturally there, and exist nowhere else on the planet). Amongst these creatures are certain species of Land and Marine Iguanas, the famous Turtles, Penguins (!!), and countless species of plants. Take a look.

These stunning crabs shone an amazing shade of orange against the black volcanic rocks.
The world famous Galapagos Turtles.
Sea lions were everywhere...we swam with them so many times, they are so entertaining in the water! Total stars, so playful and friendly.
A Land Iguana. Being up so close to them was weird. But very cool.
A Penguin! We had no idea you could see Penguins in warm weather areas! An Endemic species to the Galapagos. As we snorkelled around the Islands, we were lucky enought to see a whole group of them swimming past.
A reef shark swimming near our boat. There were plenty of these when we were snorkelling too. In fact, there was a scary moment when Me, Mandi and a german guy who was with us, were circled by 2 of them! They were swimming around us as the three of us had our backs to each other...they say reef sharks are harmless, and luckily we were fine, but I don´t want to experience that feeling ever again! We were sh*t scared!
Apart from the amazing sights, sounds and activities of the trip, we met some great people. Special shout out goes to Cameron, the beautiful artist from Canada, who we had alot of fun with. Cameron, you rock. Also, to Andy & Clare, the British couple from Isleworth, London, of all places! The last thing I expected was be on a tour in the Galapagos with a couple who lived 10 minutes away from me in London! A&C stayed on for longer than they expected on the Islands and did some incredible dives. Looking forward to seeing the pics in the pub when we get back.
All in all, our 11 or so days in the Galapagos was just the balm we needed to heal our aching hiking feet. The first dip in the warm ocean was a feeling I wont forget, the hours of snorkelling, the hot, warm days, and that night on the roof of the boat where we sat shivering, huddled up, as we stared at the stars (seeing the Big Dipper constellation upside down for the first time!), and talking about all sorts of philosophical rubbish. Swimming with Sea Turtles, sailing alongside a huge group of Dolphins, dodging sharks, seeing Stingrays leap out of the ocean (didn´t even know they could do that!) ...there were alot of great moments.´
Our last night on the Islands was epic in itself, partying with great company and not sleeping till we were on the flight back to Quito the next morning. We left with heavy hearts, we didn´t feel ready to go (by now a familiar feeling) and we had time enough to get attached to new people again, but we left with an incredible sense of achievment. We had come to know the Galapagos well. So with tired eyes, and very brown skin, we set off in the direction of Colombia.
Our final country together.