Sunday, February 24, 2008

A little more sugar!

Well, it's been a while since my last blog...and what has happened since then?

To cap up on it all, I trekked, rafted, lazed and travelled! More specific? Ok!

We hung out in The Point, wandering around the lovely cobbled streets of Cusco, finding ever-cheaper coffee shops to eat huge chunks of chocolate cake in - a worthy quest! We decided to sign up to the Inca trek then - possibly frightened by the sight of our expanding waistlines. The Inca Trail - the main tourist one finishing at the Sun Gate in Machu Pichu - is closed for February, but as the entire country of Peru is dotted with Inca trails meandering all over their fabulous mountains, we signed up for another trek advertised in the hostel...a four day ending in Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Pichu.

So, all seven of us (our fab Scots included) got our bags ready, packing small backpacks, (as we had to carry them every day on the hike), to cover our few days away from the hostel. We met the guide at 7 and took a local bus to our initial destination - the first day was to be downhill mountain biking, so we had to head to a high point. The bus journey was one of the most terrifying ever - the roads were winding upwards along a mountain, and the drops were inches from the wheels at every turn. The worst part was that there had been landslides in the days preceding, and at one point three quarters of the road was covered in rocks and muck, and the bus had to drive over it, making it tilt towards the drop at the edge of the road. I swear, the bus was INCHES from the edge, and I got thrown against Alan at the window and found myself staring straight downwards at the valley below, with nothing to hold me to the road. Bloody terrifying! Alan thought it was brilliant, but I spent most of the time saying silent prayers in my head that we'd be OK.....

The bus let us off at the top of the mountain, and we took our bikes off the top. Bikes! They didn't deserve to be called 'bikes'! The best of them had crappy brakes, and no gears to speak of. Mine had front brakes, but no gear changes....Bones's, as we were to discover, probably had no brakes at all... Anyway, we set off, all seven of us feeling like pros after our death-road experience - but with an addition to the group, Nada, an Iraqi-Canadian girl who didn't enjoy the cycling, so we had to keep stopping to let her catch up. Our guide was very blase about the whole thing, and stayed with her, while we raced on ahead on rocky roads with cliff drops beside us. Unfortunately, towards the end, Bones came off his bike pretty hard, shredding his jeans and leg, grazing his elbow pretty bad, but the worst was his shoulder, which he pulled a lot of skin off of, but also bruised pretty hard. So, we took it slow for the last while to get Bones to the village. Myself and Gail took a stroll around to find a chemists to patch him up, but found a medical centre instead. The nurse there said to bring him down, so I got Bones and brought him back. The woman cleaned all his wounds with iodine and oxigenated water, using steralized equipment and not touching him with her own hands, and bandaged it up with sterile gauze. We wondered how much this would cost, and on asking discovered it was 3 soles (about 70 cent)! Bones gave her 10 - for a drink for herself too! What a health service...

Next day was the beginning of the hiking. The village we were staying in was a little further away from where the original village had stood until 1995, when a landslide and avalanche from a mountain at the other end of the valley had swept along the river and engulfed the houses, killing about 1000 people. As we hiked from the village we passed destroyed houses and banks, shops and streets, and found parts of the road still hadn't been dug up from under the debris - in fact, at one point of the road, we had to walk while looking upwards, to ensure falling rocks didn't hit us. The first day was pretty tough. We had to hike uphill for basically 4 hours - it was an eight hour hike in total, but the uphill was KILLER! In the full heat of the day, and absolutely feeling every step in our out-of-practice muscles, it was a relief to get the to the top! Halfway up, though, we stopped for a rest at a women's home, where they had a pet monkey. I had great fun playing with him - the photos are on bebo. He was hilarious! When we got around the side of the mountain, looking down on the Urumbamba river below us (which we were following to Machu Pichu), we discovered that the Inca trail we were on crossed along the side of a pretty sheer drop for about 20 minutes of walking, and the path was barely a meter wide. With steps up and down, and straight bits across, it was pretty hairy! I was fine with it, as I'm not too bothered by heights in this situation, where I am the one in control of my life - in the bus it's having the bus driver in charge that makes me so nervous! Alan, on the other hand, discovered a latent fear of heights! Who knew.....! His legs were literally vibrating at every step, and I felt very sorry for him walking behind him - but he soldiered on, and completed the whole thing, so I was very proud of him (at the risk of sounding patronising!).

We had to cross the Urumbamba quite high up, and a fabulous little contraption set up across the river at intervals awaited our adventure-seeking party! Cables were strung across the raging waters (and as it was rainy season, they really did rage!), and a small tray was attached to the cable. A platform was set up on opposing sides of the river, and it was up the the person in the tray to pull themselves across to the other side using the rope and pulley system. This particular tray held two people, crossed the river at a height of about 30 meters, and spanned about 400 meters to the other side. The tray was big enough for two people sitting with their knees up to their chins, squashed together, and Gail and Alan bravely went first! They were pushed across, stopped halfway, and we had to watch as they painfully and slowly dragged themselves over. Myself and Alan went next, and it was bloody terrifying...besides the huge drop, tottering across in a rusty tray barely big enough for us to crouch in, gazing at the frayed ropes above, and listening to the creaking of the joints was really giving us the heebies! Alan and Gail helped pull us in on the other side, though, so it was slightly less tiring than their ordeal! What a bloody adventure!

After we crested the hill, we hiked back down towards the river, and ended the day at hot springs past a bamboo swamp, where we swam in the volcanic heat for a good two hours, loving the views of the massive mountains around us, and the soothing warmth on our aching muscles! We had a choice to walk another hour (it had begun to rain!) uphill to our next stop, or take a collectivo (mini-van thing, like a taxi). So we took the collectivo! And this quickly became the NEW worst road journey of my life! Squashed into the van with the others, with the rain lashing down, and all the windows fogged up - even the drivers windscreen - he proceeded to drive at breakneck speed up the hill, with the road collapsing under him at the edge, and rock falling under us. Jesus Christ! Myself and Gail were seriously terrified!! But we made it up there eventually....after what seemed a very bloody long journey, but was really only about 15 minutes.

This next hostel was a bit grubbier than our last, probably not helped by the rain, and the fact that we couldn't dry our clothes from that day! But we're fine with a little hardship...makes you feel that this is a real experience (if you don't suffer, you don't know the sunshine, and all that!). So, next day, we set off early and hiked back down to the river and took a shorter and less high tray across some cables again, and began the easier days trekking. This time the sun shone, and the road was not as tough or up-and-down as the previous days, so it was an easier slog. We reached the valley behind Machu Pichu by lunchtime, and ate lunch with the faintest glimpse of the ruins visible in the distance. That afternoon was pretty monotonous, as we just followed the train tracks around the mountain to Aguas Calientes - literally followed them, we had to hop from sleeper to sleeper for four hours of straight walking (the initial 'Stand By Me' jokes and laughter soon wore thin....). Bones, who had preformed admirably in the previous two days considering the pain of his new bike injuries, and his old ankle break, took the train to Aguas Calientes. His only concession in two days of flat-out strenuous hikes! What a guy....

Our arrival in Aguas Calientes was greeted with the news that we could have hot showers - what luxury - so we all headed to the hostel rooms and relaxed a lot for the night! Next morning we were due to either get up and hike up the hill to Machu Pichu to catch the sunrise, or else take the bus. The two Alan's, in a fit of competativeness methinks, decided to get up at 4.30 to leave at 5 for the hike - along with Nada, which was very strange as she had displayed no interest (and in fact an aversion) to hiking in general! But, fair play to her, she did it! The rest of us got up at 5.00 and took the bus....

When we arrived, we ate our breakfast snack while watching the mist climb higher and higher, until the sky was obscured completely. So, unfortunately, we did not get to see the sun rise above Machu Pichu, but what we did see was an amazing group of ruins and pathways partially obscured by mist, which gave a mystical feel to things that caused us to whisper as we wandered about. Our guide (Rojan, by the way) gave us the tour of the ruins, explaining each of the temples, and also informing us that he still believes in the Inca Gods. His belief came through quite strongly, actually, and the ancient mysticism of Machu Pichu was definitely more impressed upon me on this trip moreso than the last (probably because by the time I reached Machu Pichu last time I was sick from constant hiking at very high altitude, and also bloody wrecked from 6 days of hardcore trekking).

As the sun rose, so did the level of tourists, and by 8.00 am, we were hard pushed to get a photo minus a bunch of Japanese tourists carrying every conceivable digital recording device. A few of us decided to give Wynu Pichu a go - a tough vertical climb along Inca steps with huge drops next to them ending at a summit overlooking the main ruins. Last time I was at Machu Pichu with Concern, we climbed to the Sun Gate, over the other peak beside Machu Pichu, so I was delighted to have a shot at something a little different this time! The climb was extremely vertical - so much so that there were sometimes ropes hammered into the cliff face on your right side to help drag yourself up to the steps. Alan, considering his new-found heights aversion, did amazingly, and we all felt a little fitter when we finally reached the top - taking the usually 1-hour climb in only 40 minutes (but by God, was I sweating!). It was actually great fun, and the view from the top well worth any exersion! Welly hit the Sun Gate with Nada, as she is afraid of heights so didn't want to do Wynu (and I mean seriously afraid - wheras Alan took the Inca steps with shaky legs and didn't enjoy it, she had to sit down and slowly move herself across them on her bum), and as he will be returning here in April with Jane, when she arrives, and wanted to climb it with her.

We returned to Aguas Calientes for our first meal outside of the group-trek (i.e., the first one we had to pay for, and therefore the first we could choose our food), and we ate all round us!! We had a few hours until our train, so we whiled away some time strolling through the markets, and fooling around on the internet. The train was a special tourist train, as tourists cannot travel on the local trains - to keep the trains from being over-packed in high season and stopping regulars from fitting on, and also to maintain a low price for locals. It was nice, and we travelled further along the river Urumbamba to the Sacred Valley, finishing in Ollantaytambo. We took a bus from there back to our hostel (a tire blew out on the way, and the bus swerved dramatically), arriving safe and sound back in Cusco pretty late at night.

We had a day of rest before we were due to head off on a two-day white water rafting tour, and on the morning of the trip Bones unfortunately discovered that the days since his bike accident had not healed his shoulder, and it had actually seized up rather painfully. The rest of us set off for the river at about 9, discovering as we did so that the river we would be rafting on was the very one we had hiked alongside to Machu Pichu...a scary thought, as that river had flowed powerfully and dangerously next to us on a continuous basis! However, further discussion revealed that day one was to be grade 2-3 rapids. As we had rafted grade 3 in Bariloche, we were a little underwhelmed by the news! But rafting is always fun, no matter what! Ed and Alan took the front this time, as Alan the Scot and Welly had taken the front in Bariloche - myself and Gail had jumped to take the next days positions! The first day was relatively easy - nothing we couldn't handle, despite having a trainee instructor onboard with our guy who kept sending us wrong instructions! The other team, consisting of four people over 60 and a couple of first-timers, capsized on one of the rapids, and while we laughed at them (how mature!), panic ensued...we had not been given proper instructions on what to do in this situation, so while we knew the proper course of action, they did not. We went in to pull a few out of the water, and help the rescue team, and looked on it as a bit of an adventure to liven up the otherwise ho-hum rapids...although having my lip split open from a panicked and large elderly Japanese man was a tad annoying! We got them all out, but there was considerable panic amongst the othe group, with one girl giving a very convincing preformance of someone who has just cheated death, and isn't happy about it!

We had lunch back at the group centre, and ate a hearty lunch with the other group. They departed for the evening, and we spent the afternoon walking into town - where, for one of the few times on the trip, we were genuinely the only gringos in town - and buying cards, playing cards, and then building a fire outside our tent. We were left mainly to our own devices until dinner, and then we retired to our tents for the night. Next morning we were greated to the greatest breakfast I have ever had! A giant steaming pot of porridge and quinea, fresh bread, delicious pancakes and eggs scrambled with onions and spices - not to mention the jams, honey and dulce de leche mixed in! So we ate very heartily, and headed off for our most exciting day - the grade 3-4 and possibly 5 rapids! Myself and Gail were a bit nervous up front, but we steeled ourselves to the challenge of leading the rowing and setting the pace. We set off higher up the mountain this time, and hit some 3's first of all - exciting ones, much better than the day before. But the real thrill of the day was definitely held in those grade 4 (some nearly 5!) doozies! You literally crest the pounding water and drop vertically into holes - where all myself and Gail could see around us was water - then climb another vertical drop so you are looking straight up at the sky, before crashing down again, with waves of water assailing you at every turn. We were soaked and thrilled - screaming in each rapid, and laughing hysterically when we successfully got out the other side! The other team, a new group this time, were also unlucky - they capsized and our rescue mission was called into force again. But the entire day was absolutely amazing, and one of the best yet! I absolutely adore the rafting, and hitting the giant rapids gave such a burst of adrenalin and hilarity that I would happily strap myself in there again!

When we returned to Cusco, to our boy-back-home Bones, we discovered that the tourist agency wouldn't return his money. Having a good track record with getting refunds, I offered my services, and together myself and Bones bypassed the contracted 'no refund' clause, and managed to get half his money back. The best we could do in the circumstances! Our combined diplomacy, charm, and threats to camp out at the tourist desk and tell everyone in the hostel that the company were scam artists, seemed to have done the trick.......

We did absolutely nothing else in Cusco but laze around! And we also said goodbye to our fabulous Scottish friends, Gail and Allan, who were heading back over to Rio for some sun and sand before heading home to Scotland. We've organised visits, though - we're hitting Durness, where they live, for the Highland Games in July, and they're hopefully coming over to Electric Picnic in September, so hopefully we keep in good contact with them. It's weird being without them - they were around for three of our four months travelling! So, we're now back to five people, though hopefully Mac is meeting us in Bogota, and then at least we'll have even numbers for dinners!

We left for Lima on the overnight bus - supposed to be 19 hours, but in reality quite a bit more! We had splashed out for the fully cama seats, which should fold back into beds, but were tricked a little because the seats - though comfortable - didn't go back fully. It was an OK bus journey, but I think I got ten minutes sleep in total! The roads leading out of Cusco were strewn with rocks and fallen branches, making the usual precarious journey up winding roads with cliff drops abounding, even more nerve-racking! We have seen on the news that the rocks and branches are not from landslides, as we thought, but are being placed there by protesters to stop anyone entering or leaving Cusco - I'm not sure yet what the protest is for. The journey went straight across the Andes, so the scenery was beautiful, but because of the extremely high altitudes we were hitting, we were all a little sick and couldn't sleep very well.

We arrived in Lima to sunshine and a lovely hostel in the posh part of Miraflores, where I made the happy discovery that the shopping plaza at the end of our street, overlooking the Pacific, is the very one I had lunch in on my last day in Peru with Concern! It also has a very nice cinema! Oh, what withdrawals I have had!!! Going from the cinema once a week at home to once a MONTH here is shocking to the system..... So, we went to see 'No Country for Old Men' the first night, and 'There Will be Blood' the second. 'No Country' was by far the better movie, with subtle and powerful preformances from all involved, not to mention excellent sound and directing, with no music used in any scene - making those gunshots just that little more frightening! It was a simple and forcefully told story, and we all left the cinema agreeing that it was one of the best movies we'd ever seen. 'There Will be Blood', on the other hand, failed as so many of those sweeping epics do! An OK story, it fell back on Daniel Day Lewis' amazing acting one too many times - he carried the movie with his consistantly tough and skillfull acting. Worth watching for his preformance, but for little else - he raises it from dull and monotonous to stimulating and frightening.

And the Oscar results tonight confirmed things for me, with 'No Country' sweeping the best sections, and Danny Day getting a well deserved statue to add to the collection! It feels so weird not watching it - it's the first time that I have not only not seen practically every movie in every catagory, but that I am not sitting on my couch avidly awaiting the results!

And, between Barnsley beating Liverpool in the FA Cup and Liverpool beating Milan in the Champions League, it's been an interesting while for footie, and I've thankfully caught most of Liverpools matches. With Tottenham beating Chelsea in the Carling Cup final today, it's been nice to keep up with what footie we can - after all, watching Chelsea lose a match is always something to make you smile!

So, that brings us up to date! We're trying to find flights to Bogota at the moment - travelling through Ecuador by bus might be too tricky, as recent extreme floods and volcanic activity has forced the president to declare a state of emergency in the country. So, that's a cost I wasn't expecting, but I'll have to find some way to budget it in. Cuba is still the number one destination, despite being both expensive to visit, and expensive to fly to - it's a pity that Castro has officially stepped down, as seeing the country under his rule was one of my main reasons for hitting it. But I'm sure, as his brother has de facto been in charge these past ten years or so, the country should still tick over nicely!

Here's looking forward to Bogota, then! Another month, another country, as my refrain goes...

No comments: