Sunday, November 09, 2008

a bon voyage ...

Exactly 24 hours after leaving Marrakech we made it to Madrid.

Prado, Medrid

It doesn't actually take so much travel time, but train connections and an hours time difference working against us and we had a few extra hours to kill taking a leisurely breakfast in Tarifa.

After spending an obligatory couple of hours each day on "cultural duties" we would commence lunch and wine sampling at around 2pm. Even so we only managed to visit a miniscule proportion of the bars in Madrid - reputedly the most in any city worldwide - a staggering 6 for every 100 people.

I don't know if the sherry bars (imagine a glass of Tio Pepe served straight from the barrel) will ever be my cup of tea, but in every other respect I found the Madrileno lifestyle most agreeable - it reminded me of our month in Buenos Aires.

Shopfront, Madrid

With the trip almost complete we boarded the Trenhotel to Paris and spent the evening dining a la carte in the restaurant watching the world pass by. The bumpy line meant the primary entertainment was watching the waitress attempting to pour wine, beer, water and coffee with increasingly comical results.

When I ordered my fourth refill of coffee Mel spotted what was going on and put an end to what she described as a "cruel sport".

After two weeks off almost seamless transport connections we found ourselves in Paris at Gare du Nord to the news of major dispruption to Eurostar due to an accident and power failure just North of Paris. I guess it serves us right for being so cocky after dodging September's tunnel fire by a week.

Our trip was at serious risk of ending with a day (or longer) of total frustration, and we were on the verge of trying to book a flight home when the first trains started rolling into the station and things started looking up.

We managed to get reassigned to an earlier train leaving just 2 hours after our intended departure (work that out if you can), but it wasn't until we boarded that we realised we'd been upgraded to first class.

The delay and slower journey time sufficiently balanced by complimentary champagne, wine and food, we were even more delighted when everyone on the train was given a free return journey on Eurostar by way of compensation for the problems.

We spent the journey sat across from a middle-aged, stereotypically French couple who were chattering away, clearly excited at the prospect of their weekend in London.

"hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw, Kate Moss, hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw, Feesh and Chips, hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw, Welsh Rarebit"

No matter where you travel it can be just as interesting to hear what people from other cultures find fascinating about your own ...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

funky cold medina ...

Fruit & Veg for sale in the Kasbah

As we stepped of the boat I remembered a long standing promise from 15 years ago.

"If you're ever in Tangier, let me know and I will get my family to kill a sheep for you"

Now I'm as partial to a bit of roast lamb as the next man, but I doubt I could eat a whole one in the 2 hours before our train was due to leave.

I hadn't kept in contact with my old work pal Ali, and however much I suspected the bright lights of Rotherham may not have kept him from making a return to his previous business giving camel rides to tourists on the beach here, there wasn't going to be time to engage in a full scale man-hunt.

Our first class sleeper berths were basic but (an abominable toilet aside) comfy and we soon dozed off to the gentle rocking motion of the train. I awoke an hour before arrival as we were still rolling through the rock strewn desert with nothing more than the occasional settlement breaking the monotony. Then, out of nowhere the bright green oasis that is the Palmerie of Marrakech came into view, set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas mountains.

The city of Marrakech splits into two parts, the relatively modern "new town" complete with sparkling marble floored train station and high street brands. Then the terracotta walls of the old town, looking like something from a film (doubtless plenty have used it as a location).

It's only once inside the walled city you appreciate the enormity of its network of bustling souks and medinas - although boosted by a thriving tourist economy this is still very evidently a way of life for most of the local population.

Most of the thoroughfares are off limits to cars, so after a taxi ride to the nearest road we hired a local guide with a pushcart to help us find the Riad (traditional house set around a courtyard) that would be our base for the next four days. The vast network of derbs (alleyways) that fill the city walls was just like a gigantic maze for grown ups and had us constantly lost over the duration of our stay.

Hat for sale in the Souk

The epicenter of the old town is the huge main square where snake charmers and musicians gather to entertain the crowds. Around dusk the food vendors arrive to set up their stalls and begin selling traditional Moroccan delicacies like Tagines, Kebabs and Couscous and, in reference to their French colonial past, a whole row of stalls selling steaming bowls of fresh snails.

Competition from the stallholders was fairly brisk, and at times we would find our way blocked by several hawkers armed with laminated menus trying to win our business. Each stall had a number, so after managing to bypass their advances they would invariably call out something like "remember me, number 23!" as you disappeared into the night. As we deftly sidestepped one vendor his unique call stopped us in our tracks "remember me, Sainsbury's - taste the difference!".

Well, you can't blame him for trying.

The cold and rain we had outrun on our dash South had caught us up again, so we spent our final day visiting a traditional spa in a Villa out in the Palmerie. I had only made the trip to join Mel for lunch, however when I discovered that the traditional Hammam involved being "washed like a baby" by two young girls in swimsuits I could hardly refuse.

Now I should point out that any thoughts you may be having that this was some sort of vaguely erotic experience are severely misplaced. What they had failed to mention is that in between each bathing came exfoliation with what could be best be described as rough mittens of a texture like a Brillo pad.

It left me feeling less "washed like a baby" than "scrubbed like a saucepan", but at least my skin was glowing as we boarded the return sleeper to Marrakech ...

Saturday, November 01, 2008

the trains in spain ...

It seems Spain is available in 2 temperatures.

Too hot or too cold.

Despite the outside temperature of 5-10 Celsius we spent the 5 hour journey to Madrid sweating in the 30 degree heat of the train carriage.

Other than a sentimental longing for summertime I can think of no explanation why this should be the case.

It was refreshing to emerge into the chilly night air wearing a t-shirt, much to the amusement of the taxi driver who took us to our hotel. He was wearing a winter jacket and scarf and kept saying "mucho frio?" as he shook his head at my attire.

Normally at this point with an English speaking person from a foreign land (say for instance London) I would launch into an explanation about this being normal attire for a winter night out in Leeds. A tale which invariably ends with the statement "...and you should see what they wear in Newcastle".

This being Spain the only thing I could think of saying by way of explanation was "Loco Ingles" while pointing at my own chest.

In the end I decided against reinforcing the stereotype.

Our initial delight at being upgraded to a suite in our hotel was short-lived, as was my enthusiasm for the cold. It was bloody freezing. I can honestly say I haven't had such a cold sleepless night since camping out in the snows of Mongolia.

Predictably the opportunity to thaw-out came early the next morning as we boarded our train to find the thermostat turned up to the max. I think Renfe should start running hotels.

2 hours into the second leg of our coast to coast journey we finally broke free of the rain cloud which had dominated our trip so far and emerged into clear blue skies and gorgeous rolling countryside of southern Spain.

Algeciras will not be remembered as a highpoint of the trip.

As the main haulage route from Europe to Africa it seems to cater primarily to migrant workers, lorry drivers and drug smugglers rather than tourists. Not so much a destination as a transit point with all the aesthetic charms of Grimsby.

In the end our quickest route out was a short bus journey down the coast to the far more visually pleasing fishing port of Tarifa, where we boarded a fast boat to Tangier hoping to arrive in time to make our connection with the overnight train to Marrakech ...

Friday, October 31, 2008

the rain in spain ...

As we left London early on Sunday morning I had a spring in my step.

It was raining, which meant a strong possibility of an exciting ferry crossing from Plymouth to Santander. This particular route has something of a reputation for bumpy crossings - not everyone's cup of tea I know, but a trip I'd been hoping to take for some time.

In the end the storm in a teacup didn't materialise and we had quite a smooth journey, arriving in Santander the following lunchtime. Sadly with the rain still in tow, but I guess that's what you get for holidaying in Europe in late October.

From Santander we decided to pass on the shorter and cheaper bus journey to Bilbao in favour of the local FEVE train. The train was no speeding bullet, taking almost 3 hours to complete the 100km journey, but it did give us chance to admire the spectacular mountain pine clad mountain valleys of Northern Spain.

Not the most efficient means of transportation, but definitely to be recommended - if not for the scenery then for the spectalcularly bushy beards of the station masters in each village en-route.

In Bilbao the rain continued relentlessly for the duration of our two days, but even so we couldn't help liking the place. Not only was a glass of Rioja only EU1.50, but it was served up with the uniquely Basque version of Tapas - Pintxos - from such treats as deep fried Morcilla (black pudding) balls coated in chopped nuts, to the slightly healthier goats cheese, jamon iberico and apricot jam (and yes, that is all one dish).

Of course what really brings tourists to Bilbao is the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum - the titanium cladding made the fish-inspired structure shimmer in midst of that morning's thunderstorm. We left rather more impressed by the building than the art within it, but what a building it is.

I suppose we could complain about our luck with the weather, but then who wants to see a fish out of water anyway?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

tv moments ...

Almost 6 months down the line since we got back and so many people have asked with concerned looks "how does it feel not travelling?".

It's a fair question. After taking the adventure of a lifetime just how do you adjust to the humdrum of every day life? I think I have found the solution.

Just keep travelling.

We have assumed a strange double-life where on increasingly dark Monday mornings we set out for the 200 mile commute and start of the working week in London. I doubt whether this is something we would be doing now if it wasn't for our year out - so the legacy of the trip lives on.

I had to check my diary to work out the most number of nights I have spent in one place since getting back.


Definitely still travelling.

One thing that's definitely changed since we got back is how we watch television. More than ever I now realise just how uniquely negative the UK media can be. We just don't get as much out of watching travel programmes these days, with a few notable exceptions they seem to be more about selling sanitised package holidays than real travel.

A couple of months ago we chanced upon a repeat of The Long Way Round to find Ewan and Charlie wandering around a Ger camp we stayed at in Mongolia, then last week in his new series By Any Means, Charlie Boorman was staying at the same hotel as us in Yangshuo, China.

The world is definitely a small place. I'm half expecting to run into the pair of them on our next trip.

Speaking of which, just how do we follow up the "big trip" without it turning into an anticlimax?

It's not that we've turned into environmental extremists (although I'm sure Mel would given half a chance), but these days flying just doesn't seem like the attractive option it once did.

3 hour check-ins, being herded around like cattle, treated with disdain by overworked airport staff, and surely I can't alone in thinking the increasingly lengthy list of items you need to remove for scanning is more about perception than genuine security?

We've decided to stick close to the ground for our next few trips.

Our first mission a few weeks ago to Paris on Eurostar was a resounding success - a 10 minute stroll from our new pad in London and little more than 2 hours later we arrived in the centre of Paris.

If we had decided to fly I think we would still have been waiting in the lounge in Heathrow.

So on the return journey we started thinking bigger. Just how far could we get on the 2 week holiday we'd promised ourselves before the Christmas? 24 hours later and a quick session on the legendary Man in Seat 61 and we had set our next target.


Or more specifically, the Medina's of Marrakech. Leaving in 2 weeks time.

I'm not going to reveal our route just yet, but for those of you whose interest in our travels isn't been completely exhausted I'll be posting installments on our progress right here.

Back to the box and one of the best things we've seen since returning came from an unlikely source. Better even than the highly recommened Amazon with Bruce Parry (quickly discounted as a realistic option for our 2 week trip) was an old episode of Top Gear.

You can see below just what had us glued to the screen ...

Conclusive proof if ever it were needed that the 1500cc 1987 Toyota Liteace is indeed King of Campervans ...

Monday, May 19, 2008

the final word from dubai ...

As I arrived at my pal's apartment in Dubai I discovered this rather interesting leaflet sticking out of his door (just click on the picture if you can't read the text).

Not only did the use of English rival some of the very best Chinglish we experienced during our visit to China last year - but the offer of a male "house boy" maid sounded suspiciously ambiguous at best.

Closer inspection revealed Line 8, and confirmed my suspicions, "By experience and skilled maid. Male and Female." Not or, and. Male and Female. Now I was just left with one question. Why the hell was this organisation targeting Chris?

I've only been away for a year, but some things have definitely changed.

Dubai is all about construction, yet despite it's reputation nothing really prepares you for the scale of the building projects. It's absolutely everywhere. Every road is lined with cones, layouts change on a daily basis to provide access to building sites and even after 15 years of focused development the number of skyscrapers under current construction far outweigh what's already there.

I was joking about visiting airconditioned greenhouses in my last post - I certainly wasn't expecting this.

The airconditioned bus stop.

It sounds pretty extravagant, but with the temperature already pushing 40 degrees in late spring they might not be very environmentally friendly, but one would be welcome all the same if I found myself waiting for a bus. It's the economics of energy in the Middle East that make this kind of thing possible, in fact there's only one statistic I need to share with UK consumers to make the point - £8 for a tank of petrol. I just paid £63 for my last fill up.

The highlight of the trip was taking a self-drive dune buggy safari into the desert. After two hours bouncing up and down near vertical dunes in the scorching heat we were covered in sweat and even more sand, but grinning from ear to ear. It was fantastic fun, of a type that would surely only have been improved without the hangovers.

On the way back to the airport I did notice an exciting feature on Chris' car which instantly transported me back to our time in New Zealand last year.

SC Mode? Surely it was too good to be true, a BMW Z4 that turns into a vintage Toyota Liteace Super Casual?

I know which we'd rather have.

Thanks for reading - I hope you've enjoyed reading about our adventures half as much as we've appreciated all your comments and emails along the way.

At the outset a year sounds like such a long time - it isn't. There are so many interesting places out there, even a lifetime of travelling wouldn't do more than scratch the surface of everything our planet has to offer. If we've learnt anything during our time away it's that life is short - planning for the future is one thing, but not at the expense of today.

It's back to work tomorrow - which could rate as an even bigger culture shock than our first night camping with the nomadic herdsmen of Mongolia.

Yes, that's right, I'm going to work in London.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

london calling ...

Checking into our hotel felt oddly like returning home - I guess that's what happens when you've been on the road for so long.

We'd only been home for a few days, but it was a relief to leave the chaos of unpacking our belongings behind and head down to the capital for a few days. The main reason for the trip was to kick off the job hunting in earnest, but it also gave us the chance to catch up with a few friends and we even managed to squeeze in a cultural attraction.

The Tate Modern is well worth a visit - not only is it cunningly housed in the shell of an old power station on the banks of the Thames, but the art is pretty good too - or at least most of it is. Wandering around a room with paintings by Rothko and Pollock I spotted a sign for a multimedia installation and decided to check it out.

Inside the white room films were being projected onto all four walls. The main one was of a guy stumbling around in a bathtub wearing nothing - and I do mean nothing - except for a boxing helmet and gloves. The action alternated between him punching himself repeatedly in his well-padded head, and smearing the contents of a bottle of ketchup over his loins. 

It's put me right off tomato sauce I can tell you ...

The job hunting went better than expected. Mel is about to embark on a round of second interviews this coming week - and I've got a new job working at EMAP in London from the beginning of June. It's been a really busy couple of weeks - I guess we're lucky that we haven't had a chance to sit around and mope about the end of our trip. 

Before real life resumes there's just enough time to pack my bag for one more trip - this time checking out some air-conditioned greenhouses in the desert. 

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

the finish post ...

They say all good things must come to an end.

I just wish they didn't have to.

The excesses of Vegas and L.A. had left us in desperate need of sleep as we arrived at JFK late at night we made our way to our lodgings at the Pod Hotel - only in New York can they turn lack of space into a selling point.

We resurfaced late the following morning to the realisation we had just 24 hours before our flight back to the UK. We needed to prioritise.

Sushi, shopping and cerveza.

And here it is - entry 150 in the league - a pint of Brooklyn Lager. Travelling around the world is hardly carbon friendly, but at least I can take pleasure in my unique brand of offsetting; consuming as much locally produced beer as possible.

The coming home experience started at JFK's British Airways terminal where all the announcements are delivered in the finest home counties accent. For some reason we found this incredibly amusing after a whole year out of the country - I rather suspect BA's staff are encouraged to "ham up" the Englishness for American tourists.

Getting home is very strange - everything costs more than anywhere else we've been in the past 12 months - Leeds more expensive than Tokyo? You'd better beleive it. I think it's going to take a while to get used to the UK way of doing things in shops and call centres - I've begun to think of it as service with a grunt. OK, so it's not true of everyone, but in my recent experience BT are doing enough bad work to make up for all the good examples out there - still no home phone or broadband after first contacting them in mid-March.

Of course there are some great things too - curry, fish & chips and of course going to see Leeds win at home - next stop the play offs. I've already got my ticket.

It's been great to start catching up with friends over the last few days - and we're really looking forward to seeing the rest of you over the coming weeks. I'll be keeping the blog running for the next few weeks as I visit a few more interesting destinations.

After all, it's not as though you can phone me ...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

last orders in la-la land ...

I've not been sure what to write about our weekend in LA.

We had a really nice time meeting up with our friends Sean, John & Laura, but I didn't take any photos, and how interesting is hearing about other peoples dinner (tea if you're from Yorkshire) and shopping trips? Not very I suspect.

I know you're only interested in the drinking.

After dinner on our last evening we headed to one of Pasadena's bars for a quick drink. I don't know if it's the same for you, but whenever that is the pretext for an evening out it inevitably ends up being anything but quick. This is always bad news, but especially when you have to leave for the airport at 5.30am.

We met lots of interesting locals during the evening. The ones I'll remember most are the couple who walked up and by way of an introduction asked me if I used to play the trumpet as a child. No, only the fool I told them.

We got talking and it turned out they were on a date the format of which they had decided would be a treasure hunt - finding people who had played various instruments in childhood was one of the questions.

As the conversation turned to pets we found out the guy had a female cat called Zeus. In retrospect this was obviously a setup and when Mel made the comment we were all thinking - "surely that's a boys name?" the girl let out massive "YYYY-ES!!" and punched the air as she crossed one more off her list.

Later, and after receiving a complimentary pint of Guiness in return for helping the barman to sign You'll Never Walk Alone (a transaction I still don't fully understand) I looked up just in time to see the girl from earlier giving her boyfriend a piggyback through the bar.

I checked my watch and confirmed it was indeed that time of night. 3am.

Otherwise known as stupid o'clock ...

Of course you really just want to know how this affects the league ...

After sampling Woodie Gold, Sierra Nevada Summerfest and Beech Wood Red I got a bit of a scare as the bar menu described Blue Moon (sampled in late 2007) as a Canadian Beer. A spot of internet research has revealed that despite being owned by a Canadian company, Blue Moon is very much a US brewed beer, so the current total stands at 149.

I hope I'll be able to find at least one more in New York ..

Sunday, April 27, 2008

getting our kicks on route 66 ...

After 3 nights in Vegas I'd had my fill, so I was glad to set out into the desert for one final road trip.

After the relative excitement of driving across the top of the Hoover Dam, the highway running through the Arizona desert was dull, dull, dull. A whole hour without the slightest curve or kink made me very glad indeed of cruise control - never again will I think of motorway driving in the UK as boring.

We spent the night at the old Route 66 town of Williams just 60 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, which nowadays has reinvented itself as a tourist gateway, with restored 1950's diners.

A we drove out to the canyon the following morning we nearly hit a roadrunner crossing the highway - having now had the opportunity to observe both a Coyote and a Roadrunner, I feel qualified to raise a few issues with the classic cartoon.

Running out front of cars is just plain stupid. However, the Coyote we saw displayed his wiley characteristics perfectly as he stalked a small herd of deer - wandering off casually behind a building after being sighted, only to reappear moments later from a completely different direction. In real life I just don't think there would be any contest, much less the need to spend a small fortune at ACME.

But the biggest question is why? Roadruners are tinier than the cartoon makes out. In fact I reckon you'd probably get more meat on your average housesparrow. I can't see that in real life a Coyote would even bother.

The Grand Canyon was well worth the journey, and if anything possibly more impressive than I had expected. After taking in several viewpoints, the return journey gave us the opportunity to take the more scenic route for a couple of hours along the 66. It was just a small taster of the classic road trip from Los Angeles to Chicago, but I think the full route would make an excellent holiday - and current exchange rates I doubt there'll ever be a better time to do it.

We'd had a great day, but as we took lunch in a classic 1950's Soda fountain (think lemonade, with vanilla ice-cream and fresh cherries) I couldn't help thinking Mel had let all this talk of cartoons go to her head ...

Finding new beers to sample is becoming increasingly difficult but as we stayed just outside Vegas I got to sample of couple of hitherto unseen beers from Utah at a local wine bar.

My eye was especially drawn to the Polygamy Porter and after ordering a bottle I was even more amused by the strapline on the bottle - Why only have one?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

bringing down the house ...

I'd never really thought Vegas would be my sort of place.

Checking out flights from Denver to California I discovered that rather than flying direct it was cheaper to stop over in Vegas, stay in a 4-star hotel for 3 nights and hire a convertible sports car for 2 days.

So of course that's what we did.

Nothing I saw in the first 24 hours altered my preconceptions, and on the second afternoon I found myself having to escape to the hotel pool to avoid the pulsating neon and crowds of loud margharita swilling tourists wandering the strip.

The first evening we'd restricted ourselves to a few dollars in the 1 cent slot machines (at one stage reaching the dizzying heights of a $5 profit), but no trip to Sin City would be complete without at least trying our hand at some slightly more serious gambling.

Our budget is by no means "hardcore backpacker", but neither is it endless. After blowing $50 in just 20 minutes playing roulette we thought we figured we wouldn't be spending much of our time playing the $10 minimum bet table games.

Since reading Bringing Down the House earlier in the trip (watch out for the film, it's a great story) I'd been keen to at least try playing blackjack, so we decided to commit just another $40 to a few quick hands - our main objective being to spin things out long enough to land a free round of drinks.

So we were quite suprised when 3 hours later we were still playing and had managed to increase our stake five-fold to $200 - and almost as good we'd had at least a dozen free drinks each.

Compared to the MIT students in the book we might only have brought down the equivalent of a small garden shed, but despite my expectations we had a great time here.

I found another 4 beers here from the aptly named Sin City Brewing Company, taking the current total to 144 as we enter the last week of the trip.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

the denver dozen ...

Any concerns I might have had about the magnitude of my self imposed target of 150 beers for the league are now a thing of the past.

This weekend I was introduced to Total Beverage, a super-sized liquor warehouse where they have 6 whole chillers full of pick 'n' mix beer (top). With 9 varieties of microbrewed beer on each shelf (no repeats) I calculated a staggering 324 different bottled microbrews to choose from.

At this late stage in our trip staying in Denver for a month to sample them all was out of the question so I had to be content with just four before we heaed out for the evening with our friends Cathy and Leon took us for a fantastic seafood meal at their local branch of Bonefish Grill.
If there was a downside it was only minor, just one new beer on the menu, the "low alcohol" Michelob Ultra. Hitting the magic 150 is one thing, but not if you have to compromise your principles.

After dinner it all came right with a visit to the nearby Rock Bottom microbrewery where it didn't take long for me to decide from a long menu of choices - their 8 beer sampler (below), served on laminated tasting notes.

A move as natural as it was good.

A big thanks to Cathy and Leon for all their hospitality during our weekend in Denver - we had a great time and the beer league wouldn't be in such great shape without you.

With 140 beers now sampled, the target for the rest of the trip has come into sharp focus - a beer a day for the next 10 days ...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

the joy of six ...

I've just found a very useful facility in the liqour store near our cabin in the rockies - a whole shelf of beer from which you are encouraged to "pick'n'mix" your own six pack.

Better still, I managed to fill my hopper with 6 beers I hadn't tried yet.

Being from small breweries they all have interesting names like Mothership Wit, Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale, Road Dog and my personal favourite - Moose Drool. Add another couple sampled on the way up here and we have 8 more beers for the league, bringing the total upto 128.

With just two weeks left to go I've decided to set myself a challenging target - 150 before I return to the UK.

So it's lucky that we're going to Denver next. Apparently they have more microbreweries than anywhere else in the US - although even I won't be able to sample all the output in just 36 hours.

But I will try ...

Friday, April 18, 2008

snowed in ...

First stop over the border into Colorado was the old mining town of Silverton.

Located in a secluded valley over 9,000 feet high in the mountains and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, winter was still in evidence here with snow reaching the upper storeys of some buildings as we explored the historic town.

It was here that we discovered that it is not only Bolivia where you can get a high altitude hangover. Of course it wasn't really our fault - the only place open after 7pm was the local tavern.

In fact, the following morning's hangover was so bad I had to continually fight the urge to stop and bury my head in the snow drifts for relief. But despite the headaches our drive through the stunning Red Canyon was fantastic with superb far reaching views and 12-foot long icicles hanging by the side of the road.

It wasn't until lunchtime the following day that we reached Rocky Mountains National Park in the north of Colorado.

After stocking up on supplies at the local store we found a cabin for the evening just as a snowstorm was beginning to hit. By 6pm there was already 3 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature had fallen to -4C, but it takes more than that to stop us making full use of the hot tub - the contrast in temperatures was invigorating.

Especially the walk to and from the cabin in flip-flops.

We're having such a good time here that we've abandoned our plans to visit Boulder in favour of another two nights in the cabin.

Driving around the National Park by day offers some unbeatable views, but we've discovered that the wildlife around our cabin is just as plentiful as in the protected area. Every day we've seen scores of ground squirrels and deer, and even a coyote hanging around this morning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

truth or consequences ...

If we hadn't already known Texas is the "bible belt" of the US, we'd have worked it out pretty quickly arriving in El Paso.

As I went in search of the indoor pool I stumbled across an audience of several hundred in one of the hotels atriums. Some kind of religious conference was in full swing, with loud clapping and cheering at every other sentence.

In the process of collecting our hire car we discovered there are two kinds of clientelle at the airport here, groups of teenagers wearing a uniform of bible camp t-shirts, or military types from the nearby Fort Bliss sporting crew cuts and combats.

It struck me just how easily religion and the machinery of war sit side by side here - yet somehow we never seem to hear much about the dangers of Christian fundamentalism in the media.

Driving into New Mexico our first stop was the unusually named town of Truth or Consequences, who intially won their name on a radio show - you can read more about that here. After spending the night in a refurbished 1950's motel we hit the hot springs, enjoying a private pool along the banks of the Rio Grande overlooking turtleback mountain.

Food in Mexico tends to be quite different from the Mexican food we enjoy at home, which is probably more accurately described as Tex-Mex (i.e the americanised version) and to my taste at least far nicer.

Here of course they prefer to use the term New Mexican.

Continuing the drive north we stopped at a diner in Albuquerque for lunch where I had the nicest burrito I'm ever likely to taste (stuffed with chilli con carne and refried beans, topped with loads of cheese, guacamole and sour cream) - hardly diet food, but then again we are on holiday - which has been the universal excuse for pretty much everything over the last 50 weeks.

Our final stop in New Mexico was the town of Santa Fe in the high desert, characterised by it's trademark adobe buildings. To be honest, it all seemed a bit manufactured - even the town carpark (below) got the same treatment ...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

friends reunited ...

There is a temptation to think of everywhere in Central and South America as being fairly close together. Not so.

The final leg of our journey began by taking the 10 hour flight from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, which is actually the same distance as travelling from the north coast of Ireland to Botswana.

I know this because Mel's Dad, Robert, worked it out for us.

Using the trusted method of measuring out the distance on his map between forefinger and thumb, then making an arc out from Ballycastle to identify destinations of the same distance from his home. Hardly scientific, but pretty accurate all the same I reckon.

Leaving the capital we headed up to Los Mochis for the classic Copper Canyon Train to Chihuahua (above). The ride of 16 hours took us through stunning scenery, clinging to the edge of steep canyons and traversing single guage bridges over numerous lakes, rivers and valleys.

However, the fantastic train ride was quickly forgotten though as we discovered the state of our hotel in Chihuahua - the worst part being that our arrival in the middle of the night didn't really give us the option of taking our business elsewhere.

I'll spare you the goriest of the details, but Mel was forced into wearing flip flops due to a sudden onset of carpet-phobia and our shower curtain rail was partially constructed using a bar of soap. You get the idea.

Classic rail journeys are one thing, but perhaps even better our brief return to Mexico gave us the chance to catch up with a few old amigos.

Victoria, Montejo, Tecate and of course, Modelo Especial (below).

Still reigning numero uno in the beer league.

Those of you paying really close attention will have noticed this is in fact an export bottle of Modelo.

I forgot while actually in Mexico, but it wasn't to hard to pick up a six-pack as we crossed the border into the Texas.

More on that next time ...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

one last tango ...

Suddenly we found ourselves with just a few short days to cram in everything we had promised to do during our month in Buenos Aires.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of our final weekend was taking in a Tango Show in Bar Sur, an atmospheric bar situated on a cobbled backstreet in our neighbourhood of San Telmo with just a dozen tiny tables pushed back against the walls to make space for the musicians and dancers.

Our evenings entertainment was a 2 hour repetoire of tango standards on piano, violin, guitar and accordion - accompanied by the occasional ageing crooner it matched the historic surroundings of the bar (and of course a bottle of bubbly).

Of course the highlight of the show were the professional dancers, with the characteristic between-the-legs kicks of the ladies in 4-inch heels seeming to pass perilously close to the male dancers unmentionables. The show was made all the more impressive for the extreme lack of floorspace and it required inch-perfect coordination to avoid accidents of all types.

One more Boca Juniors game, a final steak and we were ready to close the door for the last time on our apartment in San Telmo.

I can only think of one last word to adequately describe our time here.


I also had a final opportunity to raid the Argentine beer cellar for last minute additions to the league and came up with another five, one in particular the simply outstanding Palermo at 90%.

I only ever saw it in our local supermarket, but due to mistaking the label for a wheat beer I didn't try it until the final few days. Just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Recycled in Buenos Aires ...

The financial crisis in 2002 left a lot of Argentines out of work, but like every cloud it had a silver lining.

Or in this case, green.

Granted it's little to compensate for the huge-dirty-great-black cloud that is financial collapse, but I doubt whether the cities recycling has ever been in better shape.

As businesses and housholds put their rubbish out every evening, thousands of unofficial recyclers descend on the city centre to sift through the days waste before the refuse collection lorries make their rounds. Cardboard seems to be the major prize on offer here - so much so that they even have a special name for the people that collect it.

Meet the Cartoneros.

Even in the so-called developed world it's fairly common to see the poor and homeless collecting aluminium cans for recycling (in Cambodia we even had kids following us, waiting to collect cans we were mid-way through drinking), but what really impresses here is the collective effort.

Households actually take the trouble to separate out the rubbish that has value (cans, carboard etc.) to make it easier for the recyclers to deal with. I'm not sure which is the biggest motivator, green tendencies, human empathy or just attempts to keep the street clean - either way the effect is great recycling.

I may not have joined the ranks of the Cartoneros, but you'll be pleased to know I'm doing my bit too. Not only do we pre-sort the rubbish from our apartment, but I've been recycling tremendous quantities of glass bottles almost every day over the past month. Beer bottles of course.

The deposit of $1.50 (pesos) on a litre bottle is over half the cost of the actual beer ($2.70) - thus ensuring almost every bottle in the city gets returned to the brewery for refilling. Our local supermarket even reuses the plastic bag you bring the empties back with for the full ones.

I think the current bag has made about 25 trips now ...

My guide to using the Guia T has just been published over on Day 12, where my blog is also featured this month ...

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

getting stuffed on the empanada trail ...

We'll be leaving Argentina in a few days time, but I couldn't move on without giving a mention to the humble empanada.

A bit like an extra-tasty miniature cornish pasty, they are available with a wide variety of fillings and are sold absolutely everywhere, from bakeries to top-end restaurants as starters. To put it quite simply the Argentines are empanada crazy, and after several weeks here a little of the madness has rubbed off on us too.

So when our friend Sherri emailed from Melbourne with a link to this interesting article by Dan whose secret restaurant we visited the evening beforehand, we started to wonder, would be possible to visit each of the empanada vendors in a single day?

And what if you had to take public transport aided by a copy of the Guia T?

The gauntlet was laid down.

First came the planning. Aside from a couple of "hot spots" with outlets a few blocks apart the locations were spread throughout the city so it was important to try and minimise travel time and connections. I won't go into detail but let's just say it involved four hours, various improvised diagrams and quite a bit of swearing before I finally managed to map out a circuit in preparation for the following morning.

On the back of arriving home at 4am the previous evening, we didn't get started until 11.40am, and we set off for the 15 minute walk to the bakery of La Familia. Thankfully empanadas are great hangover food and served in Santiago de Estero style here they didn't dissapoint - still warm from the oven, the crisp light pastry was filled with a tasty mix of mince, onion and chopped egg. It was our first food of the day and we had to curb our natural instincts to order a second, remembering we had a further 9 stores to visit.

From here we jumped on the subway to the city centre and the small restaurant of Los Chilenos where we sat down and ordered a coffee and empanada apiece. Our waiter returned from the kitchen with devastating news. No empanadas due to lack of beef. It appears we are caught in the midst of a seige situation as farmers blockades attempt to starve the capital into submission. You can read more here.

We quickly moved on.

Just a few blocks away we found El Federal, specialising in Patagonian cuisine. Panic buying is a feature of all good sieges so here we decided to go for their tempting gustation platter (above) of 6 empanadas with beef, lamb, cheese and humita (sweetcorn & cheese) fillings. We found the pastry a touch greasy but the fillings were to die for, the best one being melt-in-the-mouth patagonian lamb.

Taking our first bus of the day to Barrio Norte we arrived at La Cocina - a cafeteria/takeway joint with walls covered in fading rock and reggae posters. We were back in pastry heaven with their Catamarca style empanadas, which we sampled in ricotta and ham, and chicken varieties. Even though we were beginning to feel a little bit sick we thought the fillings were pretty good too.

It was almost a relief when we found the nearby La Querencia closed as it gave us 30 minutes of digestion time while we took another bus out to the suburb of Palermo Viejo. Not only were both the restaurants here closed but Mel had started saying things like "I'm going to be sick" and "I'll get you back for this". It didn't bode well.

Other than a brief interlude where we unexpectedly found ourselves wandering through the middle of a film set as we walked through Palermo Viejo it had been a wasted journey. So when we arrived at our next destination in Belgrano to find it too was very much closed, it prompted Mel to unleash the threat of the ultimate weapon.

Handbag shopping.

We were on the next bus home.

Mel has an irrational fear of sweetcorn, an intolerance of peppers and quite frankly "wasn't in the mood" for the final one (not on Dan's list) I had with my coffee just before we caught the bus home, but here's how they stack up.

Marks for pastry and filling are out of 10, overall out of 20, averaged where applicable.


La Familia

Mel 8/5
Mark 8/7

El Federal

Queso 10.5
Mel 5/6
Mark 5/5

Carne 12
Mark 5/7

Humita 11
Mark 5/6

Lamb 13
Mel 5/8
Mark 5/8

La Cocina

Ricotta/ham 14
Mel 7/7
Mark 7/7

Chicken 13.5
Mel 7/6
Mark 7/7


Rquefort 12
Mark 6/6

Moving on to stuffing of a different kind, I'm pleased to report that the eagle creek pack system is continuing to perform excellently. Although I didn't need to main bag for our recent trip to Uruguay I still used one of the cubes to good effect in my hand luggage.

If I'd started worrying that I was maybe taking things a bit too far by reducing my round-the-world luggage to a mere 12kg, then I needn't have. After checking out Crazy Eric's website I am reassured that I am a sane and well-adjusted individual. Just like he claims to be ...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

the size of a cow ...

Remember when the e-commerce revolution promised us the convenience and service of on-line shopping?

It's a shame no-one told the ferry company that runs between Buenos Aires and Uruguay.

After an hour of trying to order the tickets on-line I resorted to the call centre - quite possibly the single most frustrating experience of my life.

The next 18 hours involved regular phone calls during which I would correct the previous operators spelling mistakes, before returning to my vigil at the internet cafe as I waited for the e-tickets to arrive in my inbox.

Forty minutes before we were due to sail they finally decided to let me collect them at the port and I discovered the most recent translation of my surname. Fretweoo.

After I had painstakingly provided examples for each letter (e.g. "L is for Limbo") I can't understand how there can be any ambiguity left, but in the interests of my sanity I've decided to let it go.

Suprisingly the e-tickets still haven't arrived.

Our first stop in Uruguay was the old Portuguese smuggling port of Colonia del Sacramento (above) where we spent th afternoon exploring the cobbled streets and plazas of the old town to the sound of parrots squawking loudly from the orange trees.

It was impossible not to relax in a surroundings like this and the frustrations of the morning were soon forgotten.

In the evening we set to work at one of the pavement cafes, sampling the local beers and wines, accompanied by nibbles in the form of a Picada - basically a wooden platter with a shovel-sized heap of crips, nuts, olives, ham, cheese and salami.

After a while we noticed the music in the bar was strangely familiar - familiar, yet somehow not quite right. On closer attention we discovered the female vocalist was singing the back catalogue of Guns and Roses to the sound of a casio keyboard and panpipes. If you can imagine The Cardigans covering Metallica's greatest hits you've probably got the general idea. It was so rubbish you couldn't help laughing.

The next morning we hopped on a bus for the drive around the coastline to Montevideo. The buildings in the capital seemed to either be superb colonial era buildings (albeit in varying states of disrepair) or the kind of 1960's concrete buildings that make Coventry such an appealing tourist destination. Throw in the odd horse and cart moving through the city centre traffic and you complete the picture of a eclectic city - modern on the surface but with it's rural roots showing through.

Beef is big business in Uruguay and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit one of the cities biggest tourist attractions, Mercado del Puerto - an enormous glass roofed building where just about every stall is home to it's own woodfired parilla, or barbeque. Just pull up a stool at the counter and choose from the extensive chalkboard menu of cow parts.

I think my steak deserved to be reclassified as a Sunday roast.

In a small concession to healthy eating I decided to avoid the chips and go for one of the foil wrapped potatoes I could see cooking in the embers of the fire.

Not having yet learnt the word in Spanish for jacket I started scanning the menu and was suprised to find them described as Papas a la Plomo or in other words, Potatoes in Lead.

Mmm, how tempting.

Perhaps this is what the staff at Buquebus have been eating?

Uruguay offered us 3 new beers for the league - the best being Patricia Rubio at 81%. It will also be the last brand new country we visit on our travels, so the league is now somewhere near approaching a completed work.

I was especially pleased to hear that one of my readers has been putting the league to good effect, trying out a bottle of the highly rated MAC Spring Tide on a trip to New Zealand. Best of luck working through the rest of the NZ list Paul ...

Monday, March 24, 2008

back to winning ways ...

Puerto Madero
Originally uploaded by leedstolaosandbeyond
This weekend your Buenos Aires football correspondent was back at the Bombonera for Boca Juniors vs. Colon.

Boca dominated from the off, scoring twice in the first half (thankfully in the right net this time) and from there the victory never looked in doubt. Despite the consolation of grabbing a goal in the last minute of extra time Colon were, somewhat ironically, crap.

It just goes to show that perseverance pays off.

Seems that also goes for following the Leeds United results, also back to winning ways this weekend with a vital 2-0 win over Walsall. About time too. Perhaps my hopes of attending the play-off final in May aren't such a distant dream after all.

Those of you (or should I say both of you?) whose interest in difficult-to-use Argentinian publications has been ignited by my previous post on the Guia-T should head over to Mel's blog where the current subjects of discussion are Easter eggs and the local TV guide.

In other sporting news the holiday weekend closure of our gym has forced my new exercise regime outdoors for a run around the docklands of Puerto Madero (above).

Other than very sore legs I managed to acquire a spot of sunburn.

Which proves conclusively that I'm not yet running faster than the speed of light ...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

on the buses ...

It can be tricky to get a true sense of orientation in Buenos Aires.

The microcentre of chain stores with the docklands of Puerto Madero lying to the east is easy enough, but it's once you start moving outwards that the problems begin.

With a few notable exceptions, the cities architecture varies little as you move between different barrios (neighbourhoods) and distances can be substantial as you traverse the gigantic grid system that accomadates 13 million inhabitants.

Taxi's are pretty good value here and the fare may only have just reached the dizzying heights of a five pounds as you reach your destination, yet you suddenly realise that you've just spent yet another 40 minutes gazing out of the window as the cab twists and turns through the maze of one-way streets. It can be a pretty disorientating experience.

It was becoming clear that if we wanted to really get to know the city in our month here we would need to start working a bit harder. It was time to take to the buses, and so we went in search of information.

Enter the Guia T - the bible of bus travel in Buenos Aires.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Sitting down to study our new purchase I was still utterly confused after half an hour had passed. None of the 30+ street maps in the booklet had routes marked on them, and there were no timetables to be seen anywhere.

Sure enough, the directory of bus routes in the rear of guide would allow you to trace the route of any given bus from map to map, but this didn't seem much use without some way of knowing whether it's the correct bus to start with. With over 250 bus routes to plot it was going to take me a couple of days just to find the right bus. I was completely stuck.

In other latin american cities collectivo's are hail-and-ride minibuses that operate fixed routes and we'd used them on several ocassions previously. Armed with that piece of knowledge I had disregarded as irrelevant the grid of collectivo numbers on the left hand side of each map page.

As Mel cleverly pointed out, the missing piece of the puzzle is that buses are called collectivos here, and all of a sudden things started making sense.

Well almost.

It is still possibly the most confusing bus timetable on the planet.

Here's my easy-to-use, step-by-step guide to using the Guia T.

Step 1

Look up the street of your destination in the index (fig. 1) to find the map number and grid reference. This may span several maps.

Step 2

Find the correct cuadre (block) using the building number (e.g 360 Avendia Sante Fe).

The street number is marked periodically on the map pages (fig. 2), and most blocks cover exactly 100 (e.g. 500-600). You may have to track a long street over a number of pages to find the right block but you should easily locate your destination.

Step 3

Finding which bus routes pass nearby is now fairly straightforward. Your block will lie within a grid reference on the map (e.g. A3) and by looking at the corresponding grid on the left hand side of the map page (fig. 2) you can identify all the buses which pass through each gird reference.

Bear in mind that buses in adjacent grid references (which are several cuadres wide) may pass much closer to your actual destination, particularly if your destination is close to the perimeter.

Considering a 3-square block of 9 grid references is therefore good practice and should generate you a list of 10-50 potential buses serving your destination.

Step 4

Repeat steps 1-3 for your current location and compare results.

This should leave you with a short list of buses which travel from approximately your location, to your destination.

If there are no "matches" then you could consider changing buses.

A more effective strategy would be to catch a cab if you don't have time for the week of planning this would surely involve.

Step 5

In order to know where to get on and off the bus (essential information I feel) you now need to plot the route, using the street-by-street route in the bus index at the rear of the guide (fig. 3).

You don't need to do this in it's entirety, just for a few streets around your location and destination so you can (a) find the bus stop, and (b) have an idea of how you'll arrive at your desintation.

If you have more than one bus on your short list then repeat this exercise for each one - it could help avoid an unnecesary long walk at either end.

Beware the law of diminishing returns. Once you have located a bus within a short walk (say 5 cuadres) of either end you are unlikely to find a bus which saves more time than the effort required to locate it.

Advanced planners will select routes using major avenues as much faster routes for covering the same distance.

Step 6

Go catch your bus!

Walk to the street nearest your current location and walk along it in the direction of the bus route to find the bus stop with the corresponding number on it. The Guia T doesn't provide any times, but we've never had to wait for longer than 3-4 minutes for one to turn up.

You will need to tell your destination (using a cross street or a plaza) to the driver who will assign a price (usually 0.90 or 1.00 Peso) and you then drop coins of the same or higher value into the ticket machine behind him. Most will give change, but its important to know that you cannot travel without having coins.

Also most bus drivers seem to only speak and comprehend local slang and the Porteño pronunciations of Spanish, so take the Guia T and revert to pointing out your destination in the event your language skills fail you.

To alight just ring the bell a caudre or two before your intended intersection and you should end up somewhere close by.

If you think this all sounds a bit complex, you'd be right. It is. But after a short while you end up getting to know the routes that pass close to your lodgings well enough to know which to catch for other parts of the city. It does start getting easier. Not easy, just easier.

I'm convinced from a publishing viewpoint they could develop a much easier format, and of course we still laugh about having to start planning our evening out straight after breakfast. Mel joked the other afternoon that "It's probably written by taxi drivers" with the implication that it helps them drum up trade.

And just for a moment I almost beleived it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

the draw specialist ...

We arrived back in Buenos Aires just over a week ago to begin the gradual process of rehabilitating ourselves back to something approaching normal life, by taking up a months rental on the apartment we stayed at during early January.

Porteño's (as the locals are called) like their evenings late. Mostly people don't sit down to eat until 10 or 11pm, and the cities nightclubs don't even open until 2am - much less get busy.

How do they do it you might well ask? Well, we've been wondering too and after asking around the answer seems to lie in extended lunch breaks akin to the Spanish siesta and taking "disco naps" in between finishing work and heading out for the evening.

Accordingly our days here have taken on a similar pattern (or at least without the work) of late nights enjoying world class steaks and wines at seriously bargain prices, the occasional cultural activity in the afternoon, but generally focusing our attention on enjoying the excellent nearby cafes (above) and the relative novelty of domesticity.

Other than joining the local gym to help counteract the adverse effects of this lifestyle (most notably the rapid onset of Argie Belly) we seem to have fallen into a remarkably similar pattern to our first week here, with one exception.

This time the football season is in full swing.

First Sunday in town and I joined a football tour for the local derby match between Boca Juniors and Independiente at the legendary Bombonera Stadium (above), along with 65,000 passionate supporters who provided every bit as much entertainment as the on-pitch action.

It was my third game of the trip and after the games in Japan and Vietnam both ended in draws I might reasonably hoped for more of a result from this game. Despite Boca scoring twice without reply, the fact that first was in their own net after a failed clearance meant I had to settle for the usual result after what was otherwise a highly entertaining high tempo game.

With football tours costing 150-250 Pesos for a 20-30 Peso ticket with return transport, I was keen to try going to a game without all the tourist "packaging". The following Sunday, armed with nothing more than a copy of the local bus timetable, a smattering of basic spanish and a chap called Brian from Chicago I headed for yet another local derby, this time between River Plate and Racing.

With Brian and I both effectively falling into the category of "big lads" we were trying not to be too nervous about the fact that River is the current home of football hooliganism in Buenos Aires. Strength in numbers and all that.

It all started off fairly smoothly. Within minutes of stepping off the bus we managed to score some black market tickets for the populares (terraces) for a fraction of the cost of a tour and proceeded towards the stadium with the rest of the fans. It wasn't until then that I started spotting some notable differences to the Boca game.

Just getting into the ground we had to pass through four separate security check points, receiving a gentle pat down at each. Along the way we saw some of the locals being dragged off for rather more vigorous searches, some even being required to blow into a breathalyser to domonstrate their sobriety. Once inside the stadium and climbing the staircase to the upper stadium tier we found the concourse lined with about 200 police in full riot gear with shields.

We quickly found somewhere to sit, a nice shady spot right under the video screen behind the goal mouth with a great arial view of the pitch.

It wasn't until a couple of minutes before kick off as we stood wedged shoulder-to-shoulder with local supporters that the banners started unfurling and we realised we were right at the back of the "Borrachos" or translated to English "Drunkards" - River's ultra hardcore supporters.

It was a little like being in the front few rows of a rock concert, and almost immediately I started to regret my choice of footwear. Flip flops. With no easy way of getting to a calmer area we just did our best to join in as they sang an endless repetoire of songs about taking marjuana, cocaine and famous fights with the police and supporters of other clubs.

It was a pretty unique experience that you definitely don't get on a tour, but in all honesty it wasn't too easy to keep our attention on the game so at half time we moved to an area of equally passionate, but slightly less physical support to watch out the second half.

The final score?

A seemingly innevitable 0-0 draw.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

taking it all with a pinch of salt ...

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Mel seems to have shrunk whilst we've been travelling?

Our final destination in Bolivia was the high altitude (3700m) "Salaar de Uyuni" salt flats, where we hooked up with our pal Kate and a few others for a 3 day trip.

The huge unspoilt scenery reminded a little of our trip around Mongolia, but with toilets. Over three days our trip took in everything from steaming fumeroles and geysers, to lakes packed with flamingoes, red lagoons, green lagoons and active volcanoes.

The best day by far though was the first as we headed out onto the salt flat itself. All 1000 square km of it. Trying to take photos, the reflected light was so blinding you almost couldn't see the resulting image on the LCD screen of your digital camera, but it was worth the effort as the unique perspectives allowed for some interesting photographs (see above).

At this time of year the rains cause large areas of Salaar de Uyuni to flood. So I wasn't really expecting it when our driver drove straight our Land Cruiser straight into the foot-deep brine as we progressed to the central area of the flats.

Not that I didn't think the vehicle could cope, just that with salt being a catalyst for rust it's hardly going to do much for the resale value of a piece of machinery that most likely costs more than the average house in Bolivia.

Our next stop was the incredibly unlikely sight of Incahausi Island. A huge rock formation jutting out of endless miles of salt and covered with giant cactus plants.

Despite being well aware of where I was, something about the endless white background was causing my brain to scream "an island of cacti..? in the snow..? you must be kidding!".

After climbing to the top the vistas became even more surreal as we enjoyed unninterupted 360 degree views for tens of kilometers to the mountains surrounding the flats, which, because of the intense light looked as though they were floating on mirages.

Returning to our vehicle we sat down to lunch at picnic benches and table crafted out of pure rock salt. It was all of about a minute into our meal before the obvious joke made it's first appearance of many - "has anyone seen the salt?" I enquired.

And who says my jokes are bad?

After leaving the salt flat we drove to a small village where we had the pleasure of staying in a small guesthouse constructed almost entirely of salt (we were noticing a theme developing). It was a real novelty staying here, but I don't really think it will catch on for comfort purposes.

Quite apart from anything else, I just can't imagine hoovering a floor like this.

You meet some real characters while travelling. Often eccentric and frequently seeking a little direction in life, but in our experience almost universally pleasant people to share a conversation and a beer with.

Not on this trip though.

We started to get the idea that one of our companions was a little odd over dinner that evening as he explained at length that since leaving the US military and spending the last four years travelling, he makes it a rule never to eat with tourists - preferring instead to eat in "places where no one else wants to". The undertone being that food poisoning is for wimps, not tough army guys like him.

Clearly we were not sufficiently impressed by this, so for his next trick he went fishing around in the communal soup pot for the chicken foot we had discovered a few minutes earlier (presumably added for flavouring) and started gnawing at it like a wild animal.

Here was a man who knows how to attract the ladies I thought - and in fact he did attract a few sideways glances from our Bolivian ladies doing the cooking for us.

I think most people would have given up at this point. Yet half an hour later when a selection of tea bags, mugs and a thermos of hot water arrived at our table he decided finish with one final act.

Taking one herbal and one ordinary tea bag he ripped them open and emptied the contents in his mug before adding hot water.

This did attract our attention.

He went on to explain that he had discovered he preferred it this way one time when he "got a bit too agressive" stirring his tea and the bag split, and he seemed utterly convinced that he was "getting more of the goodness this way".

There is a word for people like this, but it's not one I'll be using on my blog.

The following morning provided one of the high points of the trip. As we sat down to breakfast his girlfriend (who rather ironically is deaf) informed us he wouldn't be joining us, due to having spent most of the night making visits to the toilet.

We tried really hard not to laugh.

I'll let you decide how succesful we were.

Monday, March 10, 2008

world's most dangerous ...

With Mel over the border in Peru for a few days I decided to make my own little excursion into the rainforested lowlands of the Yungas region to see a very different side to Bolivia.

This was one trip where it would be every bit as much about the journey as the destination. My chosen mode of transport for the 64km to Coroico? By mountain bike down the worlds most dangerous road of course. You can read more about the terrifying Yungas road here.

After enjoying two rather sleepless nights in anticipation of the day I'd resorted to an extended session at the English Pub in La Paz on the pretense of "ensuring sleep". As a coping strategy it was rubbish.

I awoke at 4am in a cold sweat convinced of two things, firstly that adrenaline is a far more powerful drug than alcohol, and secondly that a high altitude hangover is terrible preparation for riding a bike within inches of the edge of 600m+ high cliffs.

We started by taking a minibus to the top of the snowy mountain pass high above La Paz at almost 5000m where we would start our ride, and spent the next half hour getting to know our bikes and kitting ourselves out with all weather gear.

Despite the fact that we were in Bolivia where people drive on the right hand side of the road, our safety briefing revealed a shocking piece of information. We would in fact be required to ride on the "scenic" left hand side of the road. Otherwise known as the side next to the huge drop.

It seems that where steep, unpaved, single track roads with precipitous drops are concerned the road rules are conveniently reversed. Logic being that left hand drive vehicles are safer driving close to the edge as the driver can look out the window to see how close his wheels are to the edge.

Whilst I couldn't dispute the logic, the fact that the road has consistently claimed 2-300 lives per annum didn't really fill me with confidence either. I could at least take a little comfort from the fact that I wasn't a bus, the mode of transport reputedly responsible for the majority of deaths.

In actual fact biking death road is quite a bit safer these days, since most of the traffic uses the quicker and considerably safer new road which opened in 2006 at a cost of $5m per km. That is unless it's blocked by landslides. Which being wet season it had been the previous day.

Today's outlook? Rain. A lot of rain.

In the end the torrential downpour that accompanied our descent turned out to be a blessing as far as my fear of heights was concerned. Not only did the cloud obscure the full extent of the exposure, but the new road remained open, leaving us to enjoy a very wet, but largely traffic free day as we hurtled down the 64km of downhill through landslides, waterfalls, streams and several hundred litres of mud, most of which seemed to have made it into my shoes by the time we reached the bottom.

Here's a short video one of us riding through a waterfall as we approach the most photogenic corner on the route. Just for the record I'm in 7th place, wearing a silver helmet - but as you'll see, it could be anyone.

Rather than return to La Paz with the group in the afternoon I'd arranged to stay in Coroico at the incredible La Senda Verde wildlife rescue centre. When the resident monkey population weren't unexpectedly jumping on my head from the treetops, they were engaged in a rather amusing running battle with the catering staff in their attempts to steal food.

The main protagonist always seemed to be Sambito the Spider Monkey (below) who had acquired an almost Che Guevara-like reputation around camp for his daring guerilla-style attacks on the kitchen.

Of course it wasn't just the staff who suffered at his hands.

On my first evening he jumped from behind onto my shoulder as I drank from a beer glass, with the inevitable consequence that I spilled the contents on the floor. He then proceeded to greedily lick up the evidence.

I'm convinced he planned it.

Then, as I sat waiting for my taxi to the bus station for the trip back to La Paz he struck again. As he jumped onto my lap I mistook his actions for genuine affection, that is until I felt the telltale warming sensation seeping through my jeans.

Through their barely stifled laughter the staff informed me he has a little difficulty controlling his emotions.

Lucky for him I have better control of mine ...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Homer erotic ...

I'm not awarding any prizes for most amusing use of Simpsons imagery on this trip.

But if I was, Belissimas "nightclub" in La Paz would have a strong claim on first place.

For the first time in what seems like weeks I've finally reached a decent internet connection (i.e. one which doesn't take an hour to load up 3 photo's), so next week I'll be able to bring you up to date on the rest of our exploits in Bolivia.

For now I've updated the beer league - best in Bolivia by a mile is Paceña's Pico de Oro, which translates to Little Piece of Gold - in a very respectable 13th place. It lives up to it's name in price as well as taste at 10 Bolivianos (or 65p) a 330ml bottle in the local bar - the same price as a pint of anything else here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

seeing things in La Paz ...

After just an evening here in the world's highest capital city of La Paz, Mel has headed off to Peru for a few days.

I've decided to use the time to just hang out here for a few days while I plan my own little excursion to see a bit more of Bolivia. More on that later.

In between watching football and researching new beers in the bar, I've found some fairly unique sights in Laz Paz - from the slightly gruesome dried Llama Feoti (above) readily available from any number of stores to a surprising number of people urinating in the street in broad daylight.

Mostly they don't even bother finding a wall and just do it in the gutter facing the pedestrians walking along the street. Bolivia is a fairly poor country so I guess a significant number of people just can't justify spending the 50 centavos (3p) required to use a public loo. I can't really blame them, I just wish they were a little less open about it.

Perhaps one of the most memorable sights though are the two Zebra's (below) who can be seen directing traffic every afternoon at one of the city's busiest road junctions. Initially I presumed it was some form of advertising stunt, but there isn't a trace of branding to be seen.

I can only guess that someone at the council got the wrong end of the stick when they decided a Zebra Crossing was needed ...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

the two-and-a-half mile high club ...

It's been a while since the last update, so I'll let you know what we've been up to.

Our next stop was the worlds highest city of Potosi, a mere 4060m above sea level - the lack of oxygen had us gasping for breath just walking to the taxi rank at the bus station with our luggage.

In the days when much of South America belonged to Spain, Potosi's silver mine reputedly bankrolled their empire for almost two hundred years. Although much of the silver reserves are now exhausted the cities economy still thrives on mining, exploiting the areas rich mineral deposits.

Our main reason for coming here was to take a trip down a working mine. It promised medieval conditions - dust, intolerable heat, toxic gases, back breaking tunnels and climbing down crude stone shafts running with water in the pitch black. Not only that, but the opportunity to blow something up with dynamite sounded very cool indeed.

Talking over breakfast with some of the residents of our hostel about our intended trip we started hearing ominous phrases like "horrible", "couldn't breathe" and "glad to get out of there". It brought us swiftly to the conclusion that it probably wasn't going to a fun day out, so we decided to pass on it.

So, although Potosi is a pleasant enough city, we were left without much else to detain us so we decided to skip town a day earlier than planned to head for La Paz.

Our visit wasn't completely without reward though. Just before we left I noticed a surprising sight in the main plaza.

Looks like my old employer has started an exciting new venture in Bolivia ...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

on the trail of butch and sundance ...

5.15am on Monday morning and I found myself queuing in the freezing cold, dying for the toilet, stood on a bridge in no-mans-land, waiting for the Bolivian immigration office to open.

As I idly checked the UK time I realised that people back home would be just arriving at their warm desks to a fresh cup of coffee, ready for a chat about their weekend exploits. And getting paid for it. I was having one of those "why the hell are we doing this?" moments.

No sooner than the immigration office opened and the mood lightened as I read the incredibly ardous list of immigration requirements for US citizens. Bolivia might be South America's poorest country, but I found it heartening to see that at least they seem to be making some kind of statement about their pretty despicable treatment at the hands of US foreign policy.
They didn't even appear to check the photo page in our passports before stamping us in.

It makes me wonder how destroying the agricultural livelihood of some of the poorest people in South America can possibly be a justifiable solution to the problem of US citizens wanting to shove increasing amounts of white powder up their hooters. Decide for yourself, but if you want to read more then you could do worse than starting here.

The bus station in Villazon on the Bolivian side of the border couldn't have been more different from their more prosperous neighbours to the South as I was greeted by a toilet experience that reminded me so much of the opening scenes to Trainspotting. True our tickets for the 3 hour journey to Tupiza may have only cost 95p each, but one look at the queuing buses outside the station told us that we may well end up paying in other ways.

The ride along unsealed roads to Tupiza was dusty and uncomfortable beyond belief - as we progressed the rear axle complained in unnatural tones that seemed to increase in volume with every bump in the road. Still, it didn't appear to bother the traditionally attired lady absently breastfeeding in the seat next to me, so why should it bother us? And where else in the world will you find a bus conductor who sings you as song before departure?

Welcome to Bolivia.

Ask anyone to conjour up an image of the wild west and I bet you'd come up with something close to the area around Tupiza. Villages of mud-brick houses set amid spectacular canyons, locals on horseback and a cactus every couple of yards. It was no suprise to learn that this is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally ended their days as their luck ran out after one final payroll robbery nearby.

The 3000m altitude of the altiplano left us gasping for breath on arrival as we spent 2 nights aclimitising here before moving on to greater heights. It left us time for an excellent day discovering the local area on horseback, 4WD but most significantly mountain bikes.
The day concluded with us driving to 3700m and stunning views of Camino El Sillar (above) before letting gravity take over as we biked the return course involving 17km of precipitous hairpin bends (below).

One of our group put it perfectly when he said "This is like a mountain bikers wet dream".

Personally I managed to avoid getting quite that excited as we spent an hour hurtling back to town - in fact the actual sensation was rather closer to pain than pleasure as it felt at times that the vibrations were trying to shake the very flesh from my bones.

The main challenge in our descent lay in the continual application of brakes to moderate our speed just enough to keep us on the road and at the same time the vibrations from the unsealed surface below the pain threshold. By the time we'd reached the bottom I found my hands had cramped into permanent claws, but with an equally permanent grin on my face. It was great fun.

Tupiza was great interlude and we were dissapointed to leave so soon, but like the legendary Bolivian powders time marches on. At least we hoped to have found a more comfortable bus for the 8 hour journey to our next destination ...

Once again apologies to my US readers ...

One of the curiosities of altitude is it's effect on beer drinking. It is most definitely not recommended during the aclimitisation process, and even afterwards the altitude is rumoured to magnify the effects of any alcohol significantly. Thus I have been abstaining.

OK, not quite. I have managed to sampled one local brew - purely for scientific research of course. It was pretty average, but after the equivalent of 3 pints although a little merrier than usual I am pleased to report no serious adverse effects. Other that is than the other effect of altitude on beer - a seriously frothy head taking up about 90% of the glass when first poured!