Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Big Apple

Your average New Yorker.
Never has a city been so full of it. I’m talking bright lights and personalities to match. The city of New York is all about the hustle, New Yorkers know nothing but how, come during the week but don’t make your mind up then, instead wait for the weekend and it’s a whole different story. Coming from the best city in the world is hard enough, but coming to New York is tough especially when the only pauses are for rain, then its back on. It’s the city that’s filled with the tourists we try not to be, nevertheless the big apple is the city that never sleeps.

NYC is split into its different parts and if you’re around long enough, it’s easy to figure out who’s from where- Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, BK or even New Jersey. Locals cross different trends when it comes to fashion, you can tell who’s who. As a city, this place can be anything you make of it and dreams line the blocks of streets. Harlem, the Bronx, and little Italy are just some cultural places full of some empowering history.

This city is living it up in a different way, its edgy, focused and open . It’s a city worth coming to and coming back to. If only for the singing folk on the subway who turn Monday blues into something to smile about (true story).  If only to cross the Brooklyn bridge just because, or ride across to Staten Island to see Lady Liberty, just because. Getting to New York is simple, just follow the bright lights.

p.s- Take my word when I say accidentally walking onto a movie set DOES happen!
Welcome to Manhattan

Saturday, 14 April 2012

How life should be lived.

Tough and extreme, Patagonia.
It’s been just over 6 months since I first landed in Quito, Ecuador. The day I first set foot in South America is still as clear today as it was back then. I’m now in North America, somewhere in Colorado and still find myself daydreaming about days I spent in school learning Spanish, nights I spent in Patagonia wondering if my tent would last the night in the hurricane force winds. I miss countries, people and time. Everything is still so clear but I look at the calendar and still ask myself where did the time go. I guess it flies when you’re having fun.

With everything in mind, time and all, I have been busy moving between continents. You all heard from me after a great month living out of my tent and travelling through Patagonia. That month was challenging but also amazing. So amazing that I still find myself talking about it, but I guess the story following Patagonia is missing. I moved onto Buenos Aires after Ushuaia.

Buenos Aires as a lot of people know is Argentina’s capital and I had planned to spend a bit of time there, relaxing and embracing the culture. I arrived all hot and bothered at 2am after a somewhat pleasant flight. I couldn’t have planned it any better, I wanted to experience the Argentinian flare at its best and BA was just that. I loved that city more than anything, it was so young but with the beauty of a mature city, so European, so Italian and so familiar. The reality of BA is that everyone in the city is related. That makes for a proud city full of proud people willing to go out of their own way for each other.

Buenos Aires had a lot going for it and I never found myself bored, especially when I could learn the Tango and walk between the city's streets doing nothing for hours. BA is the Paris of the south and it has some of South America’s best hangouts, but Tango like nothing else defines the city and defines the country. I made a friend who’s lived in the city for years and absolutely loves it. She taught me to Tango, which was great, and just about easy enough. I remember learning to Salsa back in Ecuador and that was great too, but you see Tango, it’s different and is WAY more fun, more sophisticated. It’s sort of a shame I haven’t practised much since then, but I bet I could still pull off a few moves.

Crossing the border back into "Land of Cheap" Arg-Bolv.
As great as Argentina was though, it was expensive. I ended up leaving earlier than expected by heading up through Bolivia with a friend of mine. I crossed into Peru to visit some friends, then back to Ecuador. The reason I moved so much was only because I had so much time, I was meant to spend a few weeks in BA meeting with charity workers, but that didn’t work out. That in turn gave me time, time to travel. I hit up all the usual spots back in the countries I was familiar with and I enjoyed meeting people I’d met before, and I also enjoyed speaking proper Spanish (Spanish in Chile and Argentina is different).

My hat being made!
Passing through Ecuador meant I had the chance to make some house calls, I went back to Cuenca where they made the hats and they actually showed me the whole process which was cool, and also convenient since I had to pick up a new sombrero since mine was stolen in Bolivia. Yeah, I loved that old hat, but the new one is great. So I did Ecuador, again, but still with time, the hard part was deciding what to do next, I had played with the idea of visiting Colombia several times but I was in a country I loved ohh so much, but then had the opportunity to explore another country. I pondered crossing the border north to Colombia.

Colombian breakfast.
“Beautiful women and Beautiful country”. I couldn’t ignore such an honest opinion and since I had time to be the explorer, I moved on through (I was also kind of persuaded by a cheap flight to Central America from Colombia). Another border and Colombia by night, I arrived and set myself down. Crossing over from Ecuador was easy, I was welcomed with open arms. Nothing could have prepared me for the sort of country Colombia was. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories and shied away from even the thought of visiting the country, “It just isn’t worth it”, but you know what? It is.

 Now to be honest, my time in Colombia wasn’t as trouble free as I make it sound, but whatever. The Colombians, to me where a great example on how to live life. After crossing another international border, I grabbed some grub and found my place for the night. The next morning I went on to Cali, the city of Salsa. Now this bus ride taught me something that has stuck with me ever since.

On this bus, people always smiled and always greeted each other but once it got going, we would continuously stop along the Pan-American as police would come on board. I was in Colombia and my Spanish was as good as it could be, all the local gossip was easy to understand and despite that the stops were unusual for me, not to mention frustrating since that first route was not advised at night. I ended up arriving at 2am, but I was safe. On top of that, I gained a lot of respect and patience, only because Colombians were so open. They had nothing to hide, the police would enter the bus and wish everyone a good afternoon and it was with immediate effect everyone, including myself, would reply with a smile. The police checks where usually swift and everyone went on with their day. To me, this repeated experience made the Colombians stand out.

Rainy days in Colombia.
I can only guess how annoyed I would have been at home from being stopped for nothing, but in Colombia it’s as if there are better things to stress about. I guess that can explain what I did, but can you blame me, I got stuck again. New people and rainy days.The rainy days were always the best.
A day came when I had to leave Colombia and get to Central America, I went on to Panama and Costa Rica and they were adventures on their own. The best thing I did was probably spend a day on a beach in Costa Rica before flying out and over to the US. A next to empty beach, in Central America a rarity and I loved that.

Pimped out!
One more thing though, I've come from riding some really funny buses over the past six months or so but nothing really matched the latest, and my last Latin experience on the "Diablo Rojos" of Panama City. The red devils are awesome, and are old US school buses but better, pimped out and blasting out music. What takes your fancy? Reggatone? Salsa? Dance? Just wait for the right bus. It’s kind of a let down though because I arrived in the US two weeks ago and have seen some school buses, but for some reason they don’t look as cool?

But yeah… It’s clear to me that Latin America as a region was different and the way of life seemed to form a pattern as I travelled through and around each country with each person I met. I love the Latin culture and how it always involves family. What will always stick with me is how Latin Americans, or at least those in South America work to live and to me that sets them apart from a lot of other cultures, capitalist countries, where people usually live to work. It all sounds fine and is just a mix of words but it really makes a huge difference. Latin Americans greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, or even a hug. They always have time for everyone around them.

That lesson is hard to forget and now I am in the US and missing Latin America, a region I fell in love with and that
I always found myself someplace, stuck for longer than expected. My definition of stuck, though, is a sense of freedom, a freedom that let me explore cultures that I was comfortable in. I admit it, I was stuck in Latin America as a whole and in separate stages. I was stuck in Ecuador, I was stuck in Bolivia, I was stuck in Colombia. I was always stuck by choice.

Stuck? Yes, by choice.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Patagonia and all it's wonders

Home is where my bag is
The next part of this entry starts abruptly just after the one below. Having arrived in Argentina and spent a few days in the northern city of Salta- beautiful place, but then gotten onto a bus heading south to Mendoza. 18 hours. I did everything and saw enough but since the start of my travels, I've been looking forward to getting as far south as possible and seeing Patagonia. This part in my trip had been the most unplanned but I knew what I wanted, independent travel, something new and that bit more uncomfortable. I knew all I needed was a tent. 

No hostels, none of the comforts. Believe me when I say I've pushed my body.

A casual sunday stroll through Torres Del Paine

Any map would show how large Patagonia is, and at a size twice that of some of the countries I visited further north, it’s an awe inspiring wild destination filled with beauty, ruggedness and sounds unmatched by others. Imagination runs wild just at the thought of Patagonia with aged forests, marching glaciers, treasured scapes, incredible wildlife and even clear night skies that open up to the further extent of beauty that climbs up and over the planet. Wild and untamed, Patagonia was sure to be a challenge and only a few dare to seriously challenge the notorious Patagonian climate. Through the day, through the night, exposed and under the stars without a solid roof. Sure, home comforts can easily be found but where's the challenge? Natures sights, natures sounds, natures extremity.

I started the journey solo and around what some consider the Lake District part of Argentinia, but some consider Patagonia. The first of many nights in a tent went well, and funny enough I was camping right next to a lake. That’s when everything opened up, with first the night skies that gave me a continuous view over the wonders above to the next night with insight into some people’s simple way of life. Eventually I was in a rhythm and would go days and even weeks without needing to speak English.

Summer time is the best time to travel in Patagonia, more is open, weathers better, but you still get cold nights. You give some, you lose some. My time was always filled and with National Parks and everything, everyday had a hike. I went to Junin, San Martin, Bariloche, Esquel and a whole other heap of places, the weather had even been on my side, until when I reached Bariloche which meant a few days waiting out on the weather, rain, rain and more rain. Time is slow down in Patagonia but supposedly for the better, patience is a virtue and each day brings something new. Camping out from the city meant a long trek but with the chocolate capital of Argentina, Bariloche was worth the trek after a few days in the rain. All I can tell you is chocolate is sweeter when it’s free and warm.

After a few days doing all, I’d cover some distance due south on Argentina’s buses, easy enough and worth it each time. On one day I had an 18 hour wait for a bus, in a terminal without luggage storage, so literally 18 hours just sitting. Yeah I know, and it was a 12 hour ride once the bus had gotten there, but I got through it.

Empty trails!
I’ve seen a few national parks, and fallen in love with a few as well. I visited El Chalten, Argentina’s trekking capital and stayed there for a few days, with a 35km hike on one day, and hours more the other days. I couldn't help it, my feet found a rhythm in that place and I loved just being there, it happened that if I planned everything right and down to the T, I could be in places and be the only one, and although the national park in Chalten wasn't that busy, it could get crowded. Despite it all and with perfectly planned treks, I saw most things in the park. Mountains, lagoons and backdrops from ancient National Geographic magazines. Being in Chalten, just wowed me. Easily one of my favourite places in the World.

Living within the boundaries of a national park has its rules, but one of the best things is the water source, open, accessible and drinkable- straight out of the lakes or flowing streams. The water comes melted straight from the ice, cool, filtered and as good as it gets. Nothing better.

The Torres of Torres
I’m sure I treaded across paradise over the last few weeks, really, and I knew that even before my penultimate national park, which was the big one, the best one South America had- Torres Del Paine. To get to Torres, it meant I had to cross over the border and into Chile, I did and I came I saw and I concurred. What a spectacle it was too. Also tough, and the weather was as rough as Patagonia could throw at me, rain and wind (we’re talking Hurricane force). I even came back on my last night to find my tent knocked down from where it was sheltered. Whatever right, but on top of that I got summer as well. The sun made it a beautiful place to be, but with a huge backpack on my back and up steep inclines (ouch) in an area with one of the thinnest layers of ozone in the world it was hot and I probably even tanned a bit.

But still, don’t take anything as a complaint, Torres Del Paine was another place previously covered by National Geographic over the years, another backdrop and busy as. I took four days around the park and wanted to do what’s known as the ‘W’ but couldn’t, the park had been burnt down partially in December just past so I modified things a bit. I never missed out on anything, the part of the park I didn’t visit was the part with a glacier, I still got up at 4am to trek up a mountain and have breakfast up there and it was worth it.

I didn’t miss the glacier because I’d already seen one. While in Argentina I popped over from El Calafate to see Glacier Perito Merino. One of the Worlds few advancing glaciers, with sounds matching its grandeur. Ice would creak off the recrystallized snow which shone different shades of blue and just roar as it crashed into the iceberg channel below.

Glacier Perito Merino
It’s difficult to summarise what I should be saying and what you should be reading, I’ve learnt a lot about how to live my life, and to live simply and just get on with things. Really. It doesn't seem a long time but different situations everyday meant I needed to react to a different challenge. A political challenge even came up with an Argentinian and we talked politics, the Falklands.

It's thanks to this part in my trip I can appreciate some things more on a Geographical scale, the physical side. On my last day in Torres Del Paine as if the park was dancing, gusts of wind would blow so often, changing direction and treading across the water, causing tides to rise and spray, then the sun would shine, casting a rainbow over the blue lagoon. I'm even more content with how amazing the world is.

Now I'm in Ushuaia (The World’s most southern city), I'm complacent. I've seen the end of the world and even with extremity, the harshest of things can be the most beautiful when nature is involved.

Ushuaia- Fin Del Mundo
Living out of a tent in Patagonia was worth every second. Now? Tent sold and tonight I fly to Buenos Aires, City of culture!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Back to the routine

Hitting the road.

It seems I'm back to that old routine, waking up at 5am for that 6 O'clock bus. Luck would seem to be on my side, arriving with 5 minutes and getting the last seat. Then again the crying babies and baby milk spilt on me, hardly luck. “Anything but the hat, stay away from the hat…” My message para todos niƱos (for all children).

Who am I kidding though, going local is what I love.

This all means I'm finally out of La Paz, a city that you don't hate, well at least I didn't hate it, but it did let me realise a lot about Bolivia as a country. The way that Bolivia is as a country is strange, with its beauty, land locked self and bright personalities, troubled past and also determination. I can’t put a finger on it. The country has rich, has poor, Bolivia is South America’s poorest country but it’s more than that.
Admittedly, I found Bolivia to be a difficult country and the people reflected that but they ALL had a soft spot, and when found you’d be talking to some really warm hearted folk willing to share a serious laugh with unguarded humour. Humour on a level that you share with any long-time friend, honestly, but of course first comes finding that soft spot.

Two Bolivians in a small village along the way.
As brilliant as Bolivia is, it unfortunately has that title- "South America’s poorest country" and that in itself makes things difficult within a difficult country. Bolivia is far from its title... People can be difficult and the majority of the time they are, but also some of the nicest people I've met have been Bolivians.

La Paz meant Christmas, it meant New Years, and fair enough a lot has happened since my last update. I visited one of the most inspiring sites imaginable; Machu Picchu and I honestly loved it and was blown away. I got there by any means possible, and it wasn't the Inca Trail, but it was a great trip. Starting in Cusco and then heading to Ollataytamba (Olly for short) and that was a great town, where I met some brilliant people.
From Olly, I found out the hard way that Machu Picchu really is the biggest tourist attraction in South America and of course the price tag to get there showed that .The only feasible way of getting there was by train and the alternative at the time, was walking along the train tracks for 8 hours which is meant to be illegal, so let’s just say I took the train (which I did).

So 8 hours later I got to the town for Machu Picchu (joke- 2hours!), bought my ticket after they wouldn’t accept my student card, got to my bed and slept. Come 4am I was up and it was pouring. There was a bus going up to Machu Picchu but after paying full price for my entrance I chose to walk up. Still pouring, I got out my hiking gear and soldiered on for 2 hours up the vertical path and in all fairness it was a bitch. Worth it, but a bitch.

Sitting over Machu Picchu with some Peruvians.
The best thing about it all though, was that I had no guide. I was tired when I arrived but I was one of the first people there but it was also cloudy. I made my way around for a bit and eventually to the view point where I was able to sit literally for a few hours, until a point when it hit me. It was bad enough getting up there that morning in all my gear, but then for the Inca’s to have a city up in the clouds however many hundreds of years ago, and to have built it, seems incredible. How did they do it? and I guess the best part is no one really knows. You can sit, get lost and easily wonder. That’s the best part.

Bolivian Internet is the reason this is so long, it's near impossible to get things done because a snail running backwards would be faster. Anyhow, I've been to Copacabana and The Island of the Sun and trekked and all sorts. I've ridden La Paz's World famous Death Road, clearly survived and after falling off a good 4 times I think I deserved my survivor’s shirt.

From there it's been a celebration shall we say, New Years and Christmas, obviously different from home and I'm glad to say I've been here, but with my holidays like that? Never again.

I’m finishing this post from the other side of Bolivia’s border. From La Paz I headed south because I needed to get to Argentina, and here I am. Before making it to the border, I did though make sure to visit Oruro, Potosi, Tupiza and Uyuni in Bolivia, all which were nice places and really different from La Paz. From there, I managed to get a better picture of Bolivia. Being able to speak Spanish has its benefits. I’m told I should visit other parts of Bolivia in the east, and so that’s my intention hopefully during this trip.

Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia doesn’t have a tourist industry that markets the country that much, and so that’s why not a lot of people know that one very cool natural landscape is in Bolivia. Besides telling you how they’re formed, I can say that The World’s largest Salt flats are in Bolivia. In Uyuni to be precise.
After getting to Uyuni somehow, I visited the Salt Flats, and they were amazing, especially as now is the rainy season, so they weren’t dry, but instead covered with a layer of water that in some places reflected everything perfectly. Because of all of that, sunset was amazing, and cold, but amazing. I’m definitely going back again. Many more great photos to be taken.

From the Bolivian outback, I got off a horse a few days ago and came to the Argentinian border, an experience difficult but now done. I’ve been through it all in Bolivia, even worked for a while in an Irish Bar in La Paz! Onwards, and the challenges just keep on coming. Now I’m trying to get a hold of Argentinian Spanish which isn’t easy to understand but I’m also moving and heading south, as far south as possible. The most southern city in the World. Ushuaia’s been calling me for a while now, and I’m going! To the End of the World!

For now, chau.

PS: I bought some film which expired during the last Olympics, good old Bolivia, and yes believe me, this is a great thing!

PSS: Never play football against Bolivians in the World’s Highest City (La Paz). There’s a reason they “blame it on the altitude” and no one apart from the local team ever wins!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Peru is like? Well..

A taxi picked up me and two of my travelling companions up from the ranch and we had to get to Peru, but first catch the bus. The ranch we stayed at was a while away from the bus station and on a slow dirt road, so in a careful rush we drove through. We finally got to the main road and to the station and could see the bus pulling out, but as if off the opening scene from an Indiana Jones movie our driver pulled up for that split second so the station attendant could point at the bus and we raced off, fourth gear, fifth gear similar to Hamilton tailing Massa but wanting to zoom past our driver honked and honked, swerving then finally streaming past to pull the bus over. I entered the bus, greeted by the drivers smirk and putting on my sombrero, definitely an Indiana Jones moment. Cue music and Welcome to Peru, land of the Inca’s, land of beauty and treasures.

We chose to enter the country from a less touristy border, fair enough, it took us a few days to get to any sizeable town but while making that trip, the sights along the way, and the people were so, I’m not sure, so something!  Towns huddled around green spaces, and even though it took us a few days to get ‘anywhere’ we did it in style, combi’s all the way with the locals!

The ruins at Kuelap

Peru is easily known for its vast tourist industry with everything from Inca ruins like Machu Picchu to some great surfs. There was a time however, when the Inca’s dominated this country, so it meant one heck of an advanced civilisation. Their methods so brilliant and questionable, like ‘how did they do that?’  So when the chance came to see a grand Inca site, rivalled by none other than Machu Picchu, we took it up. Kuelap. Northern Peru. Just like everything, it was pretty cool. If only because there weren’t many tourists?

Remembering that Peru is five times bigger than the UK, bus rides are long and a lot happened but eventually…
The view over Lima at sunset
I arrived in Lima and hadn’t been in a big city for a while, and it tends to be with places like Lima, you either love it or you hate it. It’s just another big city, but I liked it, I didn’t hate it, I liked it. I decided to see if any projects were going while I was in Lima and was lucky enough to find one volunteering with a charity for ‘disabled children’ called Peru Children’s Charity. Working with the charity was one of the best things I’ve done in a while, I got to be me. Do what I love to do. When I arrived, the Christmas nativity was fast approaching and they needed a hand, so I was able to help with the music, teach the music, take photographs and help with crafts.

The charity is based in northern Lima in one of the capitals poorest areas, unconnected with running water or a sewage system. Seeing the poverty in the area was astounding, the government had made various previous promises to help out but repeatedly failed. It was difficult to understand how a capital city could have such a wide social divide. The division is so wide that on the road leading to the centre, is a speed bump, seriously a speed bump, which separates the area that has running water and a sewage system, from the place that doesn’t. Terrible really, but it’s fair to mention the government have promised things will improve.
The street of the charity

Even with the circumstances, the children turned up every day, for therapy in what they needed (Speech, Physical etc). Everyday saw me greeted with a smile, I saw the amount of appreciation they have for every single person- abrazos (hugs)!

I had to keep my eyes really open, these weren’t disabled children, these were differently abled people, smiling, laughing and showing as much love and willingness to learn as any other person reading this is capable of. Every day the children would turn up and receive their therapy, whether it be physical or speech or whatever else, but after they would stay. It’s hard to believe that before the centre was opened three years ago, some of these people didn’t even have wheelchairs and had to go about on their backs.

The Godfathers
A few weeks passed and we somehow came to my last day, the day of the nativity play. Practise in check and it really did go well, baby Jesus, Mary, the three wise men. The festivities even included Minnie mouse! The culture around here says that the man who gives the most, however that may be, is the one who is the Godfather to the cause. I see that person as being  the founder but also the man who helped build the centre.

I was staying in Lima and commuted everyday two hours each way, and that wasn’t a problem, time is free but it’s also priceless, I was easily shocked with where I was but I enjoyed every minute & I learnt something every minute.  I’m amazed at how the few days I had planned, easily turned into a few weeks but I also appreciate the genuine smile that came at the end of it all.
I was always told to smile more!..

A bit of a treat, yesterday I went sand boarding and dune buggy-ing in the desert of Ica. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! Especially because it was during sunset and when the last bit of light rolled from the different height of the dunes. TOP day. Now I’m in Nazca and going to Cusco in a bit, Cusco is where sits Machu Picchu! More to come, chau.
Me catching some sand in Peru's desert!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A hitchhiker's guide to Ecuador

I’ve been in Ecuador for nearly 6 weeks, and I haven’t really written anything worth reading for 3 weeks. The fact is, it’s not that there isn’t enough to write, or enough inspiration, but actually that this gem of a country tucked away in its little corner, has so much going for it. The things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met and the places I have lived are enough for any great blog entry, but I don’t think my words can exceptionally describe this place enough. The fact though is how I set out to live and travel is mainly independently, meaning actually trying to find opportunities, projects, all away from the touristy attractions. They say you don’t really know a country until you travel in it.

It hasn’t been hard to forget how small this country is, compared to my next country, Peru which is three times bigger than the UK, Ecuador in size can’t even match up. Anyone could spend ages seeing and doing everything Ecuador has, but would still never do it all. From the capital Quito, I spent time learning Spanish, but also doing some work with some professors from one of the country’s best Universities. I’ve been to the Orient (the Amazon basin). I’ve ridden and seen landscapes transform from city, past waterfalls, cloud forests and into the Amazon all from the handle bars of a bike on what’s said to be one of the country’s best roads. Cities worth a thousand words and I’ve also lived in landscapes worth losing your breath for but also learnt the Ecuadorian way of life.
My last city, Cuenca, hosts and distributes what I think is an interesting industry. While being the jewel of the south and possibly Ecuador, Cuenca didn’t even disappoint, easily outshining Quito but also greeting me with an admirable tease.  Hailed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 because of its potential benefit and importance for humankind, the city agreed and from arrival it was clear how special it was just because of the peering architecture slowly revealed as I headed towards the square.
My time in Cuenca made me question if we ever consider where some of the things we buy come from. Where the latest fashion has been imported from. Usually, it’s not China. Made in China doesn’t (always) mean thought up in China. My point? The Panama hat. Made famous by President Roosevelt when he opened the Panama Canal wearing one, but actual fact being, it’s an Ecuadorian export. The reeds used can only grow in Ecuador. So in turn I was interested in Cuenca for its hat industry, the city has a museum and factory all in one but as things go though, you can ask the right questions and come out with some interesting information. It took a while to get the right answer but we found out that the hats are made by some very skilled people in a village a few hours from Cuenca, then brought over to be finished.  Needless to say, I wanted to go there and I did. The amount of skill involved in a Panama hat is a great deal and as an export, Panama hats seem to hold a high revenue. Eco-tourism all the way and with 0 air miles I bought myself a few handmade hats and then I had them personally finished. Proud purchase really.

Ecuador as a country is growing from what is said to be a “diamond in the rough” which is clear with all the small industries grouping together and creating what is the Ecuadorian economy. From tourism to oil to fashion, the country has the ability to do well within most industries. Two of the highest active volcanoes in the world, but also the furthest point from the Earth are in Ecuador. This country also has what is said to be the most diverse Eco system in the world within its Amazon.

One of the best projects I visited has to have been in the highlands where sits the brilliant place that is Salinas de Guaranda. Traditional meals for dinner EVERY night with the family and friends that I made. My time in the village (population under 300) was something else, I was off the beaten track with no one within reach for at least one whole hour. I loved that. The village represents one of Ecuador’s best community run development projects which at the time of start-up spread to other regions and changed the previous economic industry which was mining into something more suited for the 20th and 21st century. Salinas has so much significance that while I was there, the minister of culture for Ecuador was as well, recognizing the village for its importance within Ecuador, as a place, and as a micro economy distributing nationally and even globally to places like Europe.

Salinas makes some of the Ecuador’s best and most recognizable produce from cheese, to chocolate, to meat. I only intended to visit for a short time, but ended up staying there longer, I appreciated it that much, but also got more opportunities within that tiny village than could be expected in bigger cities.  I worked, in a shop but also taught English, and learnt what I could about the community and Spanish.

All great in Ecuador really, but things haven’t been as smooth sailing as I describe them, I got to Cuenca having travelled in Ecuador in probably the worst week possible. The week just gone coincided with the festival of the dead which takes place at the beginning of November every year across Latin America. The holiday meant that everyone was travelling, and that made it difficult to travel and get to some of my projects and also find anywhere to stay. I didn’t even get to ride the legendary devils nose down a mountain cliff from the train’s roof. Believe me I tried hard, even going along to the next town. Another time.

Despite it all the week taught me a lot and made me think back to some of my Geography explaining “staycations” which England had about 50 years ago, which would explain the development changes and how holiday time everyone would flock round the country to the beach, places like Brighton and Blackpool would fill up like crazy. It’s easier to fly somewhere in Europe now though, so we flock elsewhere. In turn not so great for our tourist industry, but look at Ecuador, I’m sure it does well (.. sorry, I’m having a moment). Just a thought though. But then again if you think about it, there’s one climate in the UK, which usually is cold, but Ecuador has it all, the highlands are cold, the coast and the Orient are warm, snow-capped mountains. Enough said, in country tourism here can do it all.

I’m lucky enough to be writing this from a ranch in southern Ecuador, but I’m soon heading even further south to the border where I’m going to Peru. The plan is to keep going, and of course see what opportunities present themselves. Ecuador has been amazing and possibly I’ll come back, there’s a few projects waiting in this diamond in the rough, Galapagos being top of the list. All in all though, the best way to see a place is to be willing to accept what happens but also put yourself out there, wherever. Peru, I’m coming. Watch out.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Life of a traveller

The last time I had to jump on a bus while moving was a while ago, maybe when I was last back home in Zimbabwe? That or on the older London buses. Either way, it was a while ago. Crazy as it sounds though, it’s different it kind of makes you feel like you’re on the edge! Na, I’m only messing, start with a joke right?

Living in a different country away from everyone you know means you have to be more confident, independent and decisive. As soon as the weekend came, I made a decision. Get out of the city. The last week has been manic, and I needed to go. I found out that some banks back home block your account even though you tell them you're moving abroad, I literally went three days on $5. Go back twenty years or even ten years, what would I have done?

Today there’s direct debit, credit cards, travellers cheques and all that, which is all great, but no way would that have worked out on my route. Nothing was going to ruin this for me, sure, three bank cards didn’t work, but I had planned for this! I made sure everything was done right, I made sure my mum was signed on my accounts, just in case. Just in case three of my cards didn’t work. Just in case I had no money to live on. Yeah, there’s more to the story, but who would’ve thought it. Always prepare for the worst, I guess I did.

Friday came, and like I said, I had decided to go.

High mountain roads, deep valleys in and around the Pan-American Highway and we weren't wasting time, last bus out of Quito and the destination Otavalo. Siting a few hours outside Quito but hosting one of the world’s most famous markets. Yes, world.

The bus ride to Otavalo really was something, when was the last time you saw a Datsun car on the road, or sat on a bus as the only non-locals? Me and Lou were loving it. The ride was meant to take two hours, but of course that turned into three and a half. That’s not a complaint though, it seems out here that there’s more time for anything, more time to enjoy life. Personally, I’d hoped the bus would break down somewhere along the trip. It did. Only for twenty minutes though, I was gutted. Anyway, we got to Otavalo, and we were the only one’s getting off. The conductor (which we had not seen before) came to get us, funny how he knew who the non-locals were!

Off the bus, 6.30pm, eyes rolled their way over to us. We felt them looking, “Don’t make eye contact!” It was only a joke, well- to me anyway, Lou didn’t quite think so. A dollar cab ride later, we got to the hostel, Spanish in check and ready to use. At the time, I could only manage small talk, but it was enough to keep a conversation flowing! Learning Spanish is challenging but so interesting, not to mention useful! A week of lessons, 4 hours STRAIGHT and I’m starting conversations, keeping them, telling jokes! Sure it’s a bit slow but from little to no Spanish to some decent Spanish in about a week, I’m proud!

Friday had been a long day so eventually we went to sleep.
Saturday morning, out the front door, and the market was there to greet us. Neither of us had expected something on such a scale. The streets were filled with sellers and market stalls, the people had surely been up a few hours before us and we were up and out at 8am. Something like this says a lot about the Otavalans, their organisation and everything. It wasn’t as if their streets weren’t used for anything important, Friday night had the streets full of cars and commuters, but for this one day, the streets had no cars whatsoever. The surprise is something my words can’t really describe, maybe a photograph?

We were heading for the animal market a few blocks up the road. I had my eye on a Llama or two, but there were so many other things there. From pigs, to horses, cows, chickens, sheep, ducks and a lot more. All for sale. I can see the point that some people would not agree with something like this, but personal beliefs can’t always go against the way of life of some people, and countries, this is how it works. It may be that the odd tourist spectator make it seem fake or staged or whatever, but despite the tourist attention, the people here still get on with their business, simply because trading in livestock is business. Business needed for money and a decent standard of living.

On the other hand though, some things I can question. Take for example how I was in the market and a kid was trying to reach into my bag, there was nothing in there, and I caught him, but that makes me question certain things. Why, is the biggest question and I suppose I don’t have an answer for that yet but I don’t know, I’m not angry at the kid, I don’t know.

It just happens that when you are travelling, you have to get used to certain things. You have to get used to being the only non-local. You have to get used to certain types of people. You have to get used to relying on yourself, relying on others. That in turn means trust. Trusting the people you share a cab with, trusting the people in your hostel. Without some sort of trust, travelling would become a difficult chore. With trust, there’s a way to make new friends and actually have fun.

I’ve met a few people in the last few weeks, made friends, but everyone has a place they need to be. Some in the jungle, others somewhere down south, and me in the middle. Either way though, it was ok, being out here alone makes it so easy to meet new people, travel buddies or whatever you want to call them. Although you go your separate ways after a few days, you somehow meet somewhere along the journey. The weekend in Otavalo was really random, I saw so many people I have met in different places, some from Universities, some from Quito but who were meant to be in the jungle. It’s crazy, unplanned, it’s the life of a traveller.

I’m having fun and learning a lot and seeing incredible things. Everything is to my advantage so far, and I guess that all goes down to all the preparation and the openness. Then again.. I enjoy living unprepared, under pressure, but I also love this. This being the bus I'm sitting on writing my blog, surrounded by Ecuadorians, driving home at sunset over some great landscapes, some great roads.

With the next 8 months or whatever, I’m going to have a great time and I guess that’s down to the pressure travelling brings and will bring. It challenges us, and that's the only way we learn.

Need I say more?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Settling down..

I’ve only been in Ecuador a few days now, and I’ve spent them all in Quito, and so far, the city really is something else. Sitting at over 2850 meters above sea level, Quito is the highest capital in the world second to none other than La Paz in Bolivia. That reason itself explains why my first few days have been ‘chill’. It takes time and after 24 hours of travelling, I needed to take it easy and get used to the altitude.

Needing to do one thing is different from what you actually do right? Well.. being in the city, I can’t help but go out and admire how attractive it is and also appreciate the historic district that was the first to be titled a World Heritage site. To put it simply, Quito’s old town is so different to the New Town that it’s as if they represent two different cities. The way everything is designed in Old Town, there’s reason behind it, the buildings built in a certain way, but also limited in height, especially because of the airport in the city. It all makes sense, the people, everything! Somehow similar to what you might find in some European cities, but different.

It seems the culture of this place is really diverse, people make a living in different ways, live in different places, but share the same background and beliefs.

“Te amo Ecuador” Not one of my lines.. But instead the reply coming from the sea of fans that watched Ecuador beat Venezuela in the 2014 World Cup Qualifier on Friday.. I couldn’t resist, I had to be there, and also what better way to learn about a country and its people than from soccer? In some countries throughout Latin America, soccer, or football as we know it back home, is regarded as a second religion. I wasn’t going to disrespect the people! Football in Ecuador clearly represents something special. From early morning the streets were lined with people wearing their soccer tops, and for 6 bucks, if you didn’t have one, you could get one! Every bit of that day and that game was amazing, it was a family event, even if you weren’t related or from Ecuador. If you ever get the chance, get to a stadium in South America- no health and safety, you stand anywhere and on anyone, you get soaked in alcohol after every goal, and you get trampled on or into a fight (which by the way, everyone will hate you for) BUT, you’ll still have an amazing time, different from what European football can offer. Viva la Valencia!

Yes, Quito has its flaws, with most places you go in and around, you’ll get advice telling you to “cuidar de su bolsa” (look after your bag) and understandably that is an invaluable piece of advice, especially when crime in Ecuador’s capital is considered high. Someone I went to the soccer game with had their camera stolen,  that bummed me out even though it wasn’t my camera! Even with all that in mind, I can’t help but still cautiously love this place. The culture, the people, the way of life. Heck I’ve only been here a few days though right!?

Well whatever your take is on that… tomorrow I start Spanish school, so in that respect life here will become much easier and I’ll start being able to better relate with everyone around me.

In a bit.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Its never enough to dream..

So two days into my journey through the Americas, I thought maybe I ought to start my blog.

As you may well know, I landed in Quito, Ecuador on the 5th of October. Quito has become the places central to everything I do over the next 9 or so months. While I'm here, I'll be finding my feet as an independent traveller, but also learning more of the local lingo- Spanish.

Im lucky enough to have a learning and leading scholarship from the Royal Geographical Society, and because of that the next '9 or so months' are going to be awesome! Ive started everything here in Ecuador, and from here ill be travelling south down the continent through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. While in argentina, ill move right from the north of the country, all the way south down to the most southern city in the WORLD! Which of course will be in freezing and challenging conditions, but all will be worth it when I get to head back north to the warm vibrant capital that is Buenos Aires! There on, I'm off to Rio!

After Rio, im heading North to Central America, hitting up Panama and Costa Rica for a few great weeks! From there, I'm off to the US of A! Land of opportunity right? Ohh yes!

Its never enough to dream and all this awesome travelling is will definitely be challenging, but it's meant to be! Otherwise it wouldn't be fun. "There's only one minimum requirement to happiness- Courage".