Wednesday, December 14, 2005

alpaca tastes yummy

But I haven´t tried guinea pig yet. Someday, I am sure it´s time will come, but right now I am content eating cute little furry things that keep my fingers warm with my new fingerless gloves, and keep my belly full.

Other food highlights have been a Turkish restaurant in Arequipa, and an unlimited supply of muesli, fruit and yoghurt with honey in the Colca Canyon. You know, the best backpackers are run on their stomachs. And of course, mine is still expanding, just in time for Christmas.

After Nazca, we got the overnight bus to Arequipa, which was quite comfortable. The journey, or at least, the bits that I was awake for, was quite picturesque, driving through the desert, and of course, Arequipa is a beautiful city. It is known for the white rock that is used in building, called silar. The whole of the city centre is constructed from this rock, and it is incredibly striking with the sun beating down on it. Perhaps the most famous attraction in Arequipa is the Santa Catalina convent, which was built by a wealthy Spaniard in the 16th century, and is a city within a city. Furthermore, along with beautiful winding alleys and courtyards with cloisters, the two main colours that the monastery are painted in are a bright cobalt blue, and gorgeous sienna-orange. It makes for a very peaceful and enjoyable couple of hours strolling through the many rooms and streets.

The architecture in Arequipa, as I mentioned, is fabulous, including the amazing churches in the Plaza de Armas, and, even better for me, the little courtyards and alleys up which you could find fantastic cafes and resturants to while away a couple of hours reading or writing. Sometimes that is the best thing about travelling - that chance just to be on your own with a book and a crepe. Aaah, bliss!

From Arequipa we went to the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. The first is right beside it, and I can never remember the name. I have to say though, that the Grand Canyon is more spectacular, perhaps because it is wider - the narrowness of the gorge that makes the Colca Canyon makes it rather hard to comprehend the scale. What is fabulous about the Colca is the fact that it is home to condors, and we spent a hour looking for these huge birds. I am no bird lover, but I do have to admit that they were spectacular.

Whilst in the Colca, I indulged in another bout of horse-riding, which was tons of fun. Our guide spoke no English, but he was nice enough to speak super basic Spanish, so that I could understand him, and translate for everyone else. (Yes, GCSE spanish really does have a use.) We rode up to an Incan village ruin, which was in the process of being restored by DESCO, which is a Peruvian institution, I assume aimed at protecting Peruvian heritage. I also met Scooby at the ruins, who was the most adorable little puppy dog, who was rather fond of tugging at my leg, and trying to me to play with him. Come on, it´s a puppy dog, how could I resist?

We ended up in a restaurant which did local dances along with food. Now, normally I hate that kind of thing, and I wasn´t best pleased about it, but the final dance made up for it, because it had such a bizarre story line. There was a boy and a girl, and then one of them would get sick, and fall on the floor, shaking with fever. The other one would then take a rope and whip them, and then when that didn´t cure them, they would sit on their head, acting out the sick person drinking their pee! If that isn´t the strangest dance storyline, I don´t know what is.

Right now I am in Puno, a port on Lake Titikaka. It´s quite a happening little tourist town, and in a minute I am going to get myself some cake, at one of the many restaurants along the main pedestrian drag. The tourists come to see the Floating Islands (Uros), and the other islands on the lake. I went out yesterday, and it was a pretty good trip. The floating islands were amazing - they are made from a special reed which grows in the lake, and are anchored down. If they weren´t anchored, they would be blown around in storms. The people who live there now seem to mainly be supported by tourism, which is a shame, but their lifestyle is fascinating, with everything being linked back to this reed - their land, their houses, their food. The other island that we went to we actually stayed on - Amanti. There were maybe a hundred tourists who stayed with families on the island when I was there, which was also a little weird, but it was amazing to see such a simple life - no running water, no electricity, and lots of potatoes growing in fields run by irrigation (it hardly ever rains up there). The kids in our family were fantastic - they were only 3 and 5, and were so much fun. Furthermore, there was a tar heel sticker in the courtyard of my family´s home, so I felt right at home. Some other tourist had given it to them.

Whilst we were on the island the boys played a football match against the locals, and I went for a hike up the mountain (it was more of a hill, but since the summit was 4,600m above sea level, I definitely get to call it a mountain) where at the top there were some Incan ruins. I was accompanied up the hill by three little boys playing various musical instruments, which made for an incredibly novel motivational factor. Maybe this is the key to getting up the inca trail - have my own band supporting me!

This morning we went to another island, and then home. I am absolutely exhausted now, and will sleep like a baby before catching the bus to Cusco tomorrow. I am most excited about that. It is where I have been looking forward to most in Peru.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

back to tuktuks

Peru has tuktuks - my website title makes sense again. Although, they are not called tuktuks, they are called combis. And I haven´t had a chance to ride in one yet, though I will, I am sure, before I leave. I have ridden in the twingo taxis. I don´t know if anyone knows about Renault Twingos apart from me and my dad, but they are these impossibly small, box-like cars that are very popular in France, and all the taxis here seem to be based on them. They have too many stickers stuck all over them for me to see whether they are actually twingoes, but I shall do some more research on it over the next few days.

Being in Peru is making me feel like a real-live backpacker again, which Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Patagonia all sort of knocked out of me. There, everything was easy, because everyone spoke English, or I wasn´t having to make decisions or work anything out. Peru is much more challenging in that respect, which is good. It is good to end my trip on a proper culture shock again. There are dogs in the streets, the houses are made of bamboo and that woven straw-like material, most of them seem to have only three and a half walls, a large proportion of the population like to sit outside of their houses and do nothing. I often wonder why the greatest philosophers have not come from Cambodia, Laos, and now Peru, since all the people do is sit and watch the world go by. With all that time thinking, surely great thoughts must emerge? I know, I am being naive. But still...

I haven´t tried Inka Kola yet, but I think that even my sweet tooth will be defeated by it. Everything here is very sweet, and I am over sweet foods. An excess of dulce du leche has sickened me. I actually have to admit that the food here has managed to completely underwhelm me, and no one in the entire country, can fry an egg. The lack of bon cuisine is actually good, since it now means that I have two weeks to diet, which I sorely need, in time for Christmas. It would be nice to come home thin and tanned, but neither of them are likely. Oh, I can´t be mean about all the food - the fruit is fabulous and cheap.

I arrived in Lima a few days ago, and it was the shithole that I had been led to believe, and I was in the nice part, Miraflores. I had to go out and change some travellers cheques, and of course the banks were charging 12%. I eventually found one of those dodgy dealers that you have to count back the notes twice to make sure that they are right, and that you are sure the notes are either stolen or counterfeit, although they look too grubby to be the second. Who cares, when the commision is only 3%? I then wandered around a bit, was unimpressed, and went back to my room to get my last dose of CNN for a long time.

The next day we headed to Pisco, named for the drink, which turned out to be a bit of a shithole (I am sure the Lonely called it charming, or with character.). However, from Pisco you head to the Islas Ballestras, which are the "Little Galapagos", and they themselves were pretty awesome. It was the usual deal of a tourist company picking everyone up late, dumping you at a cafe to "wait", meaning "buy", and then take a tour of the islands. I actually felt quite happy at the familiarity of the set up. The islands were cool in that there were thousands of inquisitive sea lions, and zillions of birds, including pelicans, tropical cormorants, penguins, although I didn´t manage to spot any boobies. I am not sure what a booby looks like, and that might have been part of the problem. Kate should have been there to help me out.

From Islas Ballestras we went to Huacachino, where you go dune buggy riding and sandboarding. I did sandboarding in New Zealand, and dune buggying in Oregon a few years ago, so I thought I knew what to expect. Of course, I hadn´t counted on the Peruvian attitude to things. Our seatbelts were tied to the buggy instead of being adjustable, and today I can hardly move my neck. (I am just picturing my mother´s face right now. Don´t worry, it is the last "adventure" sport I do) The sandboards were based on snowboards, apart from there was no way of controlling them or stopping them, which we only found out after we watched the guide fall over as well. I gave up on that sport pretty quickly. Huacachino though was a pretty nice place - a little oasis in the desert, with a lake in the centre of the two street town. Looked like a cool place to spend some time. We headed onto Nazca though, so we could take a flight this morning.

Upon arriving to Nazca, it turned out that there was no electricity, and therefore no running water. Hardly ideal. But what can you do? The hotel was good enough to heat us a bucket of water to wash in, so it was like having an Asian shower. Not great, but not horrendous. The beds were comfortable, and that´s the main thing.

This morning was an early flight over the Nazca lines. One thing that I have discovered whilst travelling is that I love to be in small flying things, and a four seater aircraft was no different - I loved it! The fact that strange, mythical lines in the desert were on display was simply a bonus. The lines themselves were actually awesome, especially since they are no more than 5cm deep in the desert. Of course, no one knows really why they are there, although the theory that I like is that they were drawn using the movements of the stars. I am going to a planetarium show tonight to learn more about it. And then, a night bus to Arequipa, the white city.

Home in two weeks today. I am really looking forward to it, but it doesn´t mean that I am not having a good time here. I am. It is an interesting country, although I can´t say that I love it yet. I think that the lack of Spanish might be the main barrier, but I couldn´t say for sure.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

europe on the other side of the world

Buenos Aires is one of the most European cities I have ever been to. There are coffee shops everywhere, where people eat croissants and drink coffee. San Telmo has a fabulous flea market, and there are Catholic churches abound. It is truly beautiful, with cobbled streets, antique stores, and kids playing futbol everywhere. Furthermore, there is the fantastically colourful and beautiful La Boca to visit - a sort of slum-like area where the corrugated iron roofes and walls have been painted orange and teal and pink. Amazingly wonderful to wander, and even better to photograph. Of course, you have to share it with thousands of other tourists, and the ubiquituous tango dancers who perform in the street. It´s a fantastic city to wander, and with the added bonus of great restaurants and fabulous ice cream, a good place to spend a wkend recharging my batteries before heading to Lima tomorrow for my final leg of travelling. In only 19 days I go home, and I have to say that I am looking forward to it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

for once, nothing doin´

I have spent the last couple of days doing absolutely nothing, and that has been really rather nice. Catching up on reading and emails, drinking hot chocolate and finally being on my own has all recharged my batteries. I was beginning to worry that I was going to be constantly exhausted for the next 3wks and would never have any time to sleep. Instead, I have managed to get drunk in an Irish bar, survive a Beagle Channel cruise (not exactly exciting, and I like lighthouses), drink my body weight in the fabulous hot chocolate at Tante Sara, and avoid everyone I have been hanging out with. I can´t help it, sometimes I need to be a loner. There is not tons to do in Ushuaia though, it is a port town which thrives on tourism, being the most southerly city, and the starting point for the majority of Antarctica cruises. Everyone here wanders around wearing fabulous amounts of North Face with the biggest cameras I´ve ever seen, basically waiting to leave. This all gives the town a rather transient feel. This morning I did head to Tierra Del Fuego National Park, and did a rather lovely walk along the coast. The Beagle Channel is very interesting in that it is a channel through which the Atlantic and Pacific meet. If I had better Spanish, I could find out whether this creates any interesting currents or weather patterns, but unfortunately I am linguistically challenged. I am good enough at asking for what I want, and translating what barmen or waiters are saying for other people (what can I say? I am ruled by my stomach), but real conversations? Not a chance.

Tomorrow, the heat of Buenos Aires. I have to admit to looking forward to being warm and wearing flip flops again. Although I will miss the sunshine until 10pm at night. I will never get tired of that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

it's the end of the world

I have made it to the end of the world. I've dropped off the mainland American continent, and am now on the Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), in the Argentinian city of Ushuaia. It's been a lot of fun getting here.

After leaving El Chalten, all grubby and tired from SuperTrekking, we headed to El Calafate, a tourist town that has sprung up due to it's proximity to the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is one of the largest glaciers in the world that lies outside of the poles. It is huge. Unspeakable gigantic. And even more fun than being a giant chunk of ice, it actually calves off hunks of ice into the lake on a regular basis, so there were tons of icebergs (ice cubes for those who had been down to the Antarctic) in the glacial lake, and every so often you would hear a huge crash as another piece came heaving off the glacier. This made for exciting watching, and we spent a pleasantly warm (a surprising state of affairs in Patagonia) lunch watching the iceberg, in the hope that another piece would come of. Of course, I managed to betray my Northern Irish roots by suggesting we chucked on a molotov cocktail to speed up the calving process, but thankfully no one took up my suggestion. We also took a boat ride out to the glacier to get a full view of the front of it, which was beautiful - lots of clear, blue ice in incredible formations, betraying any sense of gravity or other natural powers. What must have been truly amazing would have been to dive under the water and see the glacier from below, but of course, that is manically dangerous, what with the potential of an iceberg landing on your head.

After Calafate we crossed the border and went back into Chile, stopping at Puerto Natales, another little tourist town. The main attraction of Puerto Natales is the fact that the Navimag, a boat which sails the Chilean fjords between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales arrives here, and the proximity of Torres Del Paine National Park. Torres Del Paine is probably the most famous national park in the Patagonia region, and rightly so. It hosts not only fantastic scenery, but some amazing hikes, including El Circuito, and the "W". I did two legs of the "W" whilst I was there, unfortunately leaving out what looked to have been the most spectacular leg (I do have to say that our Tucan guide has not impressed me with her information, and I ought to have relied more upon my old friend Lonely), which was the Frances Valley. Having said that, the first hike we did was the hike to the Torres themselves, which was a lot of fun. It started with a pretty tough hour, then an easy hour, and then a 45min scramble up some boulders to make it to a fabulous viewpoint which is so close to the towers of granite that you can almost touch them. By the time we made it though, the weather had closed in and it was snowing, so we headed down. However, for some reason we decided that it was clearing, so we burned up the scramble again for a second summit, which wasn't really worth it from a photographic point of view, but certainly made me feel that I was at least deserving of large amounts of South American Dairy Milk.

Something in me said that double summits were not enough physical punishment for my body, and I signed up for 8hrs of horse riding through the park the next day. What an amazing experience, alhtough I am still aching from it today! We had an amazingly, authentic gaucho guide, complete with red beret, fabulous leather boots (something that I was deeply envious of, because I have permanent bruises on my calves from my stirrup straps), and a beautiful multi-coloured woven belt. We went trekking through the forests and lakes and rivers of the park, doing a couple of river crossings and several fabulously long canters, on horses that certainly knew their way around the park, although it didn't always make for easy riding. Still, the entire day was absolutely amazing, and at the end of it, we were taken back to the very humble home of the gaucho for coffee and bread with rhubarb jam, which was a sharp reminder of how touch gaucho life seems to be.

Our own campsite was far from tough. Unlike the freezing night I spent SuperTrekking, this time I was using my own sleeping back, the fabulous and faithful Blue Kazoo, so naturally I was toasty warm all night, although the air mattress I had been given had a leak, which did nothing for my already tortured back. I have been plagued by a sore back since I fell off the motorcycle, but I think it is more a case of bad beds and constantly dragging my backpack places. Hopefully it will settle down when I do. The campsite was also complete with the usual tightrope, which I had a go on, and did a little better than last time, managing a whole two steps before having to grab the boys beside me and getting off. We also had generous amounts of wine and food, and were basically well taken care off. Even the weather wasn't horrendous, only raining on the last day. Oh, the final day in the park we did a walk out to the Grey Glacier, which was good, but having seen the opening of the Frances Valley, I know that I would have preferred that leg of the "W". However, transport in the park was problematic, being both expensive and not running the ful timetable, meaning that some hikes were not very accessible whilst we were there. IT was funny though, because Patagonia so far had been pretty empty until we got to Torres, which was positively heaving. I am not sure I would even want to be there in high season.

After Torres, we drove down to Punto Arenas, with the intention of checking out the penguin colony. Penguins proved to be as stupid as I had thought they would be. I wonder if they get frustrated with falling over all the time, and their pathetically short legs. I know, they are extremely graceful when they are in the water, but watching them on land is just too funny for words. I could have done it for hours if it hadn't been so windy that it actually hurt my ears.

And so from Punto Arenas across the Magellen Straits, some more driving, and then Ushuaia, the most southerly city inthe world. The city has a great feel about it - good time tourism is the main order of the day. It is the jumping off point for Antarctica, and right now the boats are empty due to an airline strike, so berths are going very cheaply. Still not cheaply enough for me to jump aboard, but it is extremely tempting. There is also meant to be a deluge of outdoor stores here, but I haven't spotted a bargain, so maybe not. It's a shame, because I was going to get everyone something North Face for Christmas, since I knew that would bring a smile to some faces. Instead, you are all just going to have something strange and colourful from Peru. That is, assuming the airlines stop striking, and I'm not stuck here for ages.

Monday, November 28, 2005


I haven´t posted for a while, mainly because I simply haven´t had a moment to myself for the last two weeks at all. For the most part, this has been fine, but I am now in serious need of some me time.

Enough of my complaining. I have been having an amazing time for the last two weeks seeing some incredible wide open spaces. Patagonia has the biggest sky I have ever seen - bigger than in Montana or New Zealand. It just goes on forever. However, to get to the big sky, you have to travel for about 2000km on a dirt road, which is not exactly relaxing. Ruta 40 runs down the Patagonian plains of Argentina, and it seems to be the emptiest road in the world. On the first day that we drove it, we saw 2 vehicles, and the second 4. Not the ideal place for hitchhiking or breaking down. Along the drive was also acres and acres of pampa, and the odd wild, or not quite so wild horse. There would also be evidence of human life, such as barbed wire fences and dirt tracks leading out into the distance, but no actual people. There were most likely estancias out and over the hills, but of course, if you have that much space, why would you live near the road?

Bariloche was the first stop in Argentina, and it was a swanky little ski town, filled with chocolate places and cable cars to check out the views. It was very cute, but not really much more than that. After that, two serious days of driving brought us to El Chalten, which is situated right in the centre of Fitzroy National Park. This was my absolute highlight. We hooked up with El Chalten Travel for a two day experience called, originally enough, SuperTrekking. SuperTrekking involved hiking out to a camp, and then dumping our overnight stuff, and then hiking out to the Torre Glacier. This was a fairly tough, muddy hike. We were lucky that the day was fabulously clear, because the last four days had been snow and rain. One of the initial challenges of the day (apart from actually ending up with the wrong trekking company) was crossing the river on a zip-line that we had to pull ourselves along, hand over hand. I found it quite relaxing to stare up at the blue blue sky, so didn´t fancy being hurried, but there were 15 other people who fancied a chance at this, so of course I was yelled at for taking my time.

Once we had crossed the river, it was still another two hours to hike to the glacier, where we did some ice climbing. Ice climbing is rapidly becoming my favourite activity, mainly because it is an activity that completely empties my mind. Whilst climbing, there is simply no space in your head for anything else apart from where you put your axes in and where to place your feet. It´s a great feeling. Unfortunately, we did only one climb before turning back to camp. Camp was fantastic. It was maintained by some climbing guys, who in return for maintaing camp and cooking meals, get paid to go climbing. The camp was gorgeous, in full view were the most amazing mountains that I have ever seen - the Cerro Torre, which are really three chimney like spires that shriek up into the sky. Amazingly beautiful, especially when they glow red-orange in the sunrise. A completely fabulous moment.

The rest of the second day was spent hiking through the park, under Mt Fitzroy, which is also a dynamic rock lifting up into the sky, although it lacked the fiercesome beauty of the Cerro Torre. Our guide also pointed out some puma tracks, which was great, a couple of wild horses, some condors, and then we saw a penumbra round the sun, which was great. Francis actually didn´t want to point it out, because he thought he had blinded himself, but we all saw it, and it was amazing. A sort of brown shadow emanating from the sun. I have no idea why they happen, but I am sure it is something to do with atmosphere and clouds. Anyway, we arrived back at El Chalten grubby and tired, to be bundled onto another bus and to try and sleep again for a couple of hours before getting to El Calafate, the town of the huge Perito Moreno Glacier. More coming soon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I'll be sliding down the mountain when I come

I've spent the last couple of days in Pucon, which is about 800km south of Santiago. It's not quite Patagonia yet, but it's getting there. The main reason to be in Pucon is to climb Villarica, an active volcano that spits out toxic fumes and you can see lava from the edge of the crater. Yesterday's attempt was cancelled due to bad weather, and so instead I went for some training in the gym, somewhere I haven't been since I have been away. In that sense, it was quite novel. I went with a couple of guys from my tour bus, and so we had a "plank" competition, which unfortunately I lost. Turns out I'm not as strong or as fit as I used to be. After that, all the good work done by my 5k was cancelled by hanging out in a coffee shop and eating muffins. Pucon is very much a little ski town, and has a Swiss chalet feel to it, with all the buildings being very tasteful and wooden. Tres chic.

Anyways, today's volcano attempt was successful in that I got to climb the volcano. It was vaguely unsuccessful in that I was utterly bored the entire time I was climbing it (coming down was another matter). The reason for my boredom was the complete cloud cover that we were climbing in, and so the scenery of complete white (we were climbing on snow) did not change for 4hrs. The only thing that was quite amusing was the fact that the climb was completely orchestrated, I think by CONAF's (the national parks people in Chile) request. So there were hordes of people climbing up in single file, and you could see them making their way up the mountain like lemmings. Amusing for a while, but not enough to really make me wonder why I was climbing. The reason I was questioning my motivation is that my original motivation was to see cool volcanic landscapes, and to check out the crater. I then realised that it was going to be so cold that the crater was going to be enveloped in steam, and there was no point. This was actually true - at the top we saw nothing but cloud, although it stank. And my face was partly frozen, as were the tips of my hair. A good look, but not as good as the stripe I have across my forehead from sunburn where my hat was. Anyways, like I said there was no view, but that doesn't mean that the hike was in vain, because we did do one of the most fun descents ever -sliding down the entire mountain on our bums in chutes which have been dug in. It was awesome! Of course, the 4hr ascent took only 45mins to get down, but so worth it. Plus the sun had come out, we could see the summit, the snow was white, and basically, the craic was great. So a wasted morning turned into a great afternoon.

Tonight, the boys are cooking up a steak night for the girls, which is how it should be, and then tomorrow, we're heading for the steak country that is Argentina.

Friday, November 11, 2005

bienvenidos a santiago

Contrary to popular belief, I have actually made it to Santiago, although the sim card for my phone did not, and I am now incommunicado. It's like being in the dark ages. Well no, not really, and it will save an awful lot of money, not having the temptation of constant communication available. C'est la vie.

All the guidebooks rave about Santiago's "European"ness. Well, I guess. Yes, there are some beautiful squares, with amazing buildings, and I saw a fantastic open-air photography expo, but it was still extremely grimy, smoggy, with a distinct lack of signs, anywhere. This didn't detract from my pleasant wanderings of the city. I did it in what I call Cara style. Vaguely point myself in the right direction, and wander along stopping at whatever takes my fancy, and hopefully I'll end up at the right spot. It worked very well indeed today, and like I said, I happened upon a great photography display, a school singing pop hymns at San Cristobal (the sight of a very big Virgin Mary, on top of a hill overlooking the city), and some very interesting cafes. The cafes intrigue me no end. There are two main chains - Cafe Haiti, and Cafe Caribe. They both seem to be the same as each other, so far. Anyway, neither of them have anywhere to sit, instead you kinda hover at a counter. So much for relaxing the afternoon away, thinking deep existential thoughts. And even if you did have deep existential thoughts, you would be distracted from them by the waitresses, whose uniform consists of the shortest skirts I have ever seen. No wonder the majority of the clientele was male.

So, the Lonely claimed that I was staying in the "boho" part of town. This morning, I thought that was a stretch, to say the least. I have however, kind of found the cool, studenty part of my wee area, and yes, I do rather like it, although to call it boho is still pushing the boat out. Ah, the Lonely. Sometimes it misses so much by trying so hard. Something I have learnt not to fall for is anywhere the Lonely says "has charm". It's a translation for "is crap, but I'm a traveller, and I love slumming it".

Something has been confusing me for a while, and whilst I am sure it is perfectly simple, I just cannot get my wee blonde head around is the whole crossing of the international date line. I mean, how did I go from 12hrs ahead of my parents, and being awake when they are asleep, to somehow being 5hrs behind them? And how did I get two Wednesday, 9th Novembers? I can't live a day twice! (To make up with this grave error in the universe, I slept through the second one). But seriously, when I was on the plane, what exactly happened. I know that I was alive, and only for 10hrs, but were other people living more? So confusing. Does time really stretch? Someone please help me out on this one.

frequent flyer points

I actually do not collect any frequent flyer points, which in light on the recent amount of time I have spent in international air space, is an absolute crime. Anyway, I do have a couple of comments about some airlines.

I started out of Auckland on Singapore Airlines, who were pretty damn good - reasonably spacious seats, good food, complete with menu, so that you could identify what your food was, and, most importantly for a daytime flight, an in-flight entertainment system that included a screen in your seat, and a hard-drive with over 30 movies to choose from. So many that I had a hard time choosing, before eventually going for The Wedding Crashers, and then Crash. Top marks for Singapore.

The rest of my flights were with Lufthansa. For some reason, Lufthansa have a good reputation. God knows why. They suck. Their planes are cramped, their entertainment system is of the old school of screens in the middle of the aisles, their food was shitty (the options really were "chicken or beef?". Not even an explanation of that the chicken and beef were!), and they were late. I had the worst seat in the plane, on the very back row. Now, when I got this seat on LAN, I could still recline, and it was comfortable enough. Not so on Lufthansa, whose seats are cramped enough as it is. Worse is when the guy in front of me reclines so that his seat is actually touching my knees, and there is nowhere for me to go. The flight´s only redeeming features were the two guys beside me who at least sympathised with my pain and made me laugh. Oh, and Lufhthansa kept pushing their revolutionary Flynet service, which is an in-flight broadband service. Well, I don´t want an overpriced ability to check my email (which I couldn´t do anyway, since the seats are so small that laptops are actually at risk if the person in front decides to recline in their seat), I want some choices in my in-flight entertainment. No points for Lufthansa. And negative points for (a) using Frankfurt as a hub - it´s dark, dank, smells of smoke, and has no comfortable seating and (b) grossly overbooking its service to Tel Aviv, meaning that about 30 people did not get on the flight they had booked. Why like this?

Air New Zealand. Ah, I cannot speak highly enough of Air New Zealand, mainly because of their classy service. Their staff were fantastic, their seats comfortable and spacious, and their food fantastic. I had waffles with bacon and maple syrup for breakfast. How awesome is that?

Coming from New Zealand to Santiago, I flew with LAN, so back to the oneworld team, after my dalliance with staralliance. Absolutely no complaints - seats were good, entertainment fine, although they could have had more choices, and the food was okay. Something to note about every single flight I took - I was hungry each time. I don´t know whether it was my fault, or the length of the flights (usually around 10hrs, with just 2meals), or the airlines, but I was starving for much of the flights. Maybe I´m just a greedy bugger.

Anyway, 3wks with no flights at all. Bliss.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

more random Israeli notations

We went to the movies, twice. And both times, there was an intermission. This is apparently in all movies. Now, I didn´t like it one bit, since it seemed that as soon as things got interesting, there was a ten-minute break, but apparently this is entirely necessary, since Israelis cannot be expected to keep quiet for a whole two hours. Hmmm. Still, they also had popcorn, so I can´t complain.

The best frapuccino in the world is not available at Starbucks. Instead, it is at Aroma, the only place in Hebrew that I can recognise. Hey, needs bring about learning. Anyway, they have a fabulous drink called Aroma Ice, which is lighter and more coffee-y than a regular frap, and therefore delicious. For cold days, they also have a yummy coffee thing which has lumps of coffee at the bottom, all melted and yummy.

Aaah, the food. Highlights include real falafel (of course!), which was just amazingly delicious, with greasy greasy "cheeps", and yummy tahine. I could never finish one, although this state of affairs suited Ori just fine. Also, eating falafel meant that no other meals were required for the day. And the best junk food? Bamba. Like eating peanut butter in wotsit form. Yes, a hard idea to get your head around, but entirely delicious.

The nightlife was fun too. Things don´t get going until late, and my favourite bar was "The Bell". Maybe because free drinks were to be had all night from the Upper West Side kid who was happy to provide the alcohol, since "we were all Jews". Ah well, never mind.

Jaffa (no cakes)

Archway in Jaffa
Originally uploaded by scarlettholly.
Yes, my favourite biscuit and an old port collide all at once, and the result is a beautiful old town, complete with tiny cobbled alleyways, views of the surfers at Tel Aviv (who knew?), and at least 10 weddings having their picturesque photos being taken. Remind me never to get a dress made in Israel. Each one of the girls was wearing the most ugly attempts at couture I have ever seen. Meringues seemed to be in vogue, and lots of blonde hair. Not a good look on what were otherwise probably quite pretty Arab girls. Having said that, nothing could dampen the beauty of the gorgeous cobbled streets filled with tiny artist´s galleries that was Jaffa. This was so close to one of the most ghetto places I have ever been, which was regular Jaffa (not the old town), where girls wore white knee high boots, car exhausts may have been gun shots, and everything was generally run-down and horrible. Still, driving through during the day meant it was all pretty safe. After wandering Jaffa, we headed to the flea market, where, like all flea markets, gorgeous furniture jostled with ghastly attempts at tastefulness, and bargains could be had, if you were patient. Definitely a place I could have spent hours if (a) I had a place to live, (b) I had space in my backpack) and (c), if I had any spare cash, which I most definitely don´t. 7 months of travelling has most definitely taken a toll on my finances! Still, only 6wks left to go. I think I can handle it, especially if I stop eating.

The Middle Eastern San Francisco?

Bahai Gardens, Haifa
Originally uploaded by scarlettholly.
I wasn´t too sure of this title myself, but that is how the tourist information referred to the city of Haifa. Haifa is on the Mediterranean coast, and was indeed pretty, although not, admittedly up to San Franciscoan standards. What was notable, however, was the Bahai Gardens. These are the center point of the Bahai religion, of which I am completely ignorant. The gardens, however, were amazingly beautiful and luxurious. I am not a huge fan of wandering around tended places, being a bigger fan of the great outdoors, but this place reminded me so much of my grandfather, and how much he would have loved it, and I couldn´t help but be impressed.

Yes, I am a heathen

The second coming
Originally uploaded by scarlettholly.
It was time to see some sights outside of Jerusalem. First stop - the Dead Sea, officially the lowest place on earth. For the entire time that we were below sea level, I had to hold my breath. And it was for 2 days!!! I had no idea my lungs could be so strong. Okay, not really, but it was still a strange feeling to be so, well, low.

The Dead Sea had a kind of viscous, oily texture, and I can´t say that I loved it. I mean, it´s dead, for a start. Plus, there are very few free beaches, lots of entreprenurial chaps have set up nice businesses charging for admittance. In exchange for however many scheckels (I have to admit to not spending a single penny whilst in Israel - my darling boy took care of the finances), you got a sun lounger, a shower, and access to some mud and very salty water. We didn´t shell out, and instead kind of snuck on for about 5 minutes just to test the water. Maybe next time, if it is warmer I will take a dip and feel its redemptive powers, but I wasn´t tempted this time.

The detour to the Dead Sea was on route to Masada, a clifftop structure constructed by King Herod and later used in a siege against the Romans. After walking up the Snake Trail (we declined the easy option of taking the cable car), we reached the summit, which was a remarkably well preserved ancient (2,000+ years) fort-like structure. Parts of it had been rebuilt, which I didn´t agree with, but most of it was "as is". It was an incredible structure, and easy to defend, being on the top of a bitch of a hill. Eventually, the Romans actually built a ramp up to the fort. And to do this, they employed 10,000 Jews. Clever guys those Romans. I have to admit to not really knowing what they were fighting over, but probably that Judaism was bad, and that Romans were good. Still, the Romans eventually won, after years of siege. It was an impressive place, and you could see huge dust/sand storms on the other side of the Dead Sea. There were also plenty of carrion birds, it being the desert. Ori didn´t know that crows poke out baby lambs eyes, so now he doesn´t like them any more. That´s a good thing.

After Masada we drove north past Jericho to the kibbutz where Ori´s grandfather had lived. I have to admit to knowing nothing about kibbutzes, apart from that they were vaguely socialist, and that they weren´t doing so hot. People keep leaving them, because they are restricted by what they can do, since what they do must be for the good of the kibbutz. This means that if the kibbutz needs more cattle-hands, then you can´t go be a computer programmer. Even if you are a wuss and scared of dear old Bessie the cow. Okay, I have probably got that totally wrong, and will feel the wrath of the kibbutzen when they read this, but the basic fact is that they are having a hard time at the moment. Whenever we went there, the first thing that we noticed was being stared at. Like nothing else. This is because outsiders are not common, especially ones who aren´t speaking Hebrew. So eyes followed us as we went to the supermarket, as we wandered around the supermarket, and as we went back to where we were staying. This didn´t really bother me at all, since being blond in Nepal and being a girl in Vietnam has basially left me being immune to large numbers of people staring. The next morning, we wandered around, and the main thing that I noticed was that it was blissfully quiet - such a peaceful place. We went to where Ori played as a kid, and it was such a good playground. Much better than anything I had. A really beautiful place.

The kibbutz was in the north, near the Sea of Galilee, which was our next stop. The Sea of Galilee is notable for being the second lowest place on earth (I´m still holding my breath), and for some religious dude apparently walking on it. It also is home to some seriously vicious currents, and tons of fish. Ori used to swim the length of it (I wish I knew how long it was, but it looked a really long way), and he says parts of it were so shallow that he could see how the standing trick was done. I however went one better, and found a tyre slightly submerged, and stood on that. See, any fool could do it. And this is what two thousand years of Christianity is founded upon? Oh dear. Actually, it was a pretty nice place to hang out at, and on the other side of the sea is Jordan. I love looking over borders. I think it comes from living on an island, and therefore land borders are pretty surreal. It was lunch time then, so time to start driving West.

The Chosen Land and the Holy People

Originally uploaded by scarlettholly.
It´s funny to think that I am one of the most sacriligeous, heathen people I know, and yet, I have been to perhaps the most religious country in the world, the centre of the three great monotheistic religions. And despite the lack of theological guidance in my life, it was an amazing experience.

I was in Israel to visit my boyfriend, Ori, a native to the Holy Land. He was able to show me around and give me the insider´s viewpoint, although the occasional refrain of "a map might have been useful" was sometimes heard. He couldn´t help getting us occasionally lost; he actually hasn´t lived in the country for about 5 years. Still, he proved to be an exceptional host, and managed to take me almost the entire lenght and breadth of the country. The only major place that we missed was Eilat, and we can do that next time. By the way, Israel is pretty small, so the length and breadth took us only 2 days.

Ori lives just outside of Jerusalem, so it made sense to start there. Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and also home to some of the biggest religious conflicts in Israel. Notably, all peace plans for the Middle East leave a sort of blank space where discussion over the future of Jerusalem should be, for fear of not bringing parties to the table. Nobody really knows that the future of the city will be.

Anyways, aside from politics, it is an amazing city. Ori first took me to the Old City, where the streets and archways are around 3,00o years old. It is here where the Western Wall is, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, and where men and women (separately) come to pray. Many write their prayers on small pieces of paper and stuff them in the cracks. The stones that were used to build the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) are up to 2m thick, and no one knows how the stones were put in place. They were built before the Pyramids. I have to admit to not going up to the Wailing Wall myself, mainly because I am a non-believer. With so many people coming to make religious pilgrimages, I would have felt bad to just wander up and check it out myself. I think that harks back to the same reason why I cannot take pictures of monks. Maybe because of my lack of relgion I have a fairly large respect for those who are.

The streets of the Old City are compact, narrow, and filled with people. They weave in all directions, and I never knew where I was going. This was a good time to have a guide, but even if I hadn´t, it wouldn´t have been too hard to have latched onto one of the many tour groups being shown around the city. These comprised mainly of Eastern Europeans, who had, without a doubt, the worst fashion sense I have ever seen. There was one woman in jeans that were pvc from the knee down. Another woman had a fitted flower printed pvc shirt. And it was hot out. I can only imagine how much she was sweating. It was truly grim.

Through the windy streets we went, and ended up in a very important church - that where Jesus was buried. I have to admit to not being to hot on the whole ascension thing, but I saw an amazing building, said to be his tomb, that was decorated with a glorious mismatch of candles, and some very, very holy dudes who were allowed inside to pray. I also saw a broken piece of rock - I have a feeling it broke when Jesus lay on it, but I´m not too sure. Anyways, I think this church was the last stop on the Via Dolorosa - the walk of tears, on which Jesus carried his cross. Anyways, the church itself was extremely beautiful, and not in an over the top, grandiose, European Catholic way. It was large, certainly, and had amazing high ceilings and art-work, but it was lacking in the masses of gold that is so often used in Europe. To get to this church, we walked through some of the oldest Christian churches in the world, which were being tended by what seemed to be Ethiopian monks. These were tiny rooms, small, dark, low-ceilinged and almost stark. All incredibly fascinating.

After exploring the Old City, it was time for modernity. A couple of days later, we went to Yad Vashem - the Holocaust Museum. I have been to Holocaust museums all over Europe, and the famous one in DC, but to go to one in Israel is particularly special. Of course, there was little new to tell, but that didn´t make the memorial any less special. In fact, it was the "extras", that which was outside of the museum, which was particularly special. Ori told me how he would take his soldiers there, since education in the IDF was particularly important, and seeing all the soldiers there was interesting. The most special, or touching part of the whole area, was Children´s Memorial, an amazing trick of light and dark and mirrors, where 6 candles are endlessly reflected against mirrors in the dark to represent the 6 million who died. It was amazing. More amazing to think that the modern state of Israel, and many of the people who live there today, had lost so many to the Holocaust itself. A very intense place.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

the very top of new zealand

I have seen where two oceans collide, and it was beautiful. You could actually see the change in colour of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and there was even a random wave, right out in the middle of the sea. It was incredible. This all took place at Cape Reinga, the most northern tip of New Zealand. It was an amazingly beautiful and spiritual place - the Maoris believe that it is where souls come when people die to depart from the world. It was a very typical, end of the world kind of place - windswept, cliffs, crashing seas. Perfect.

I went up with a company called Awesome Adventures, who were okay, but, like most tour companies, tried to do way too much, and so you only got to spend a little time each place, which was disappointing. It was part of my cut-price Kiwi Experience pass, so I guess it was value for money, but I would be pissed if I had payed top dolla for it. It was a very long day, with a ton of time in the coach, although driving along Ninety Mile Beach was cool - it's a recreational highway in New Zealand, and it actually closer to 90km, but still cool. We also went sandboarding, which was fun until a dumbass Swiss guy tried to do it from this really steep place where there was no stopping area, and knocked himself out. We helped him when he came to, and the DOC got him in an ambulance. I helped him, but had no sympathy.

Tonight its back to Auckland, and then a couple of days tidying things up before Israel. Too exciting to be true, apart from the minor detail of 3 flights to get through to get there. Eeesh.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

hangi and volcanoes

It's my last week in New Zealand, and so I am attempting to cram as much as I can into each day, despite being completely exhausted. Sometimes, I have to admit, travelling does wear you out, but then again, I am kidding myself with the logic that if I am really, really tired, then I might sleep on my innumerable flights to Israel. Either that, or I will be so exhausted that I will sleep for 10 days and poor Ori's family will think that the Irish are lazy layabouts. Which mightn't be too far from the truth, but it wasn't me who said it.

Anyway, what have I been doing? Well, firstly, the finest day hike in NZ for a start. The Tongariro Crossing bills itself pretty highly, and the fact that you have to get up at 5.30am to get a bus at 6.20 from Taupo means that it had better be worth all that effort, but my god, it was. I went with Farideh, a girl I met in Christchurch, who is currently being employed as a kayaking guide for the summer in Taupo - nice work if you can get it. Actually, she told me I would make a great guide, so maybe I'll jack in my lucrative career in financial IT and become an "ever-summerer". Anyways, I was in safe hands, since she is all trained in lots of wilderness guiding, although she managed to identify some mist as a lake, fall over on the volcanic rock, and we both thought that Lake Taupo was the ocean. (Well, it is the largest lake in NZ, and, as we keep getting reminded, you can fit Singapore inside it.) Anyways, despite these clear setbacks, we had a fabulous day. The weather was clear enough to see Taranaki, a beautiful cone-shaped volcano in the far distance, which was incredible. It did look like Mt Fuji, and has been used as a stand-in for it. The hike itself was fun - there was one super-hard bit at the beginning, the aptly named Devil's Staircase, and then after that, it was just amazing volcanic landscape for miles. We could see the snow-covered Ruapehe, Tongariro, and another volcano who's name I can never remember, apart from it was used as Mt Doom in LOTR. Having said that, I could see no resemblance, again. I need to go watch those movies again and see whether I recognise the landscapes. I think I may have said this before, but I have a theory that the whole LOTR being shot in NZ is actually a grandiose scheme by the New Zealand tourism board which holds no truth whatsover. It's worked out very well for them.

The trail took us across a couple of volcanic craters, which were incredibly with steaming back and red rock, and then down to a triptych of emerald lakes, which were stunningly beautiful, and then to a blue lake. All these lakes were coloured because of their incredible chemical toxicity, although I had to wonder how many Maori and Westerners died of arsenic poisoning before people worked out not to swim or drink from those amazing waters. Finally, there was 4hrs of wandering through native bush, which looked rather like Scotland, and we were home. What a fantastic day. The sun shone, the craic was good, and we were pleasantly worn out when we were done. Even the trip home was eventful, with a light aircraft crashing into a house just 5mins before we drove past it. Rather scary looking crash site, but both the pilot and his passenger survived.

Last night I got to Rotorua (which my bus driver just loved saying), and then headed straight to a hangi and cultural experience. A hangi is a traditional Maori meal cooked underground by heated stones, but before we got to eat, we watched an hour of traditional dances and exercises. Wow. If I had arrived in the eighteenth century and been confronted by a Maori warrior dancing and being all ceremonial in front of me, I would have been on the first boat off. I'm surprised NZ has any Europeans at all. Those dudes were scary. It was an amazing sight though, and definitely to be recommened. The food was amazing as well (lamb! sweet potato! chocolate log!) and we even got to see glow-worms. A great night indeed.

This morning (see? It never stops) I went to Wai-o-Tapo Thermal Wonderland, which was very interesting - amazing colours, and lots of bubbling mud pools and hot hot water. It did remind me of Yellowstone though, and the geyser was pretty touristy (they added soap to it!). Still worth heading out to though. Finally, this afternoon I gave myself a rest by heading to Starbucks and having a nice wee capuccino. And tomorrow, the rushing around starts again, by heading to Auckland via the glow-worm caves at Waitomo. I'm excited about that. Pretty blue lights everywhere!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

the more time I spend here, the better it gets

It's true. Everything about New Zealand just gets better and better. I have just spent an amazing couple of days in Abel Tasman National Park, doing one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done - the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. It helped that the sun was shining the entire time, accentuating the golden sands of the utterly empty golden beaches and the amazing green of the calm calm waters. The track was almost deserted, and it was just me, meandering along a fairly easy track that hugged the coast, dropping down into amazing coves and estuaries (these weren't quite as much fun since they involved getting wet, wet feet), then rising up again to the cliffs to give a perfect bird's eye view of the coastline. It was a truly inspiring walk, and easy enough to take 2hours off in the middle to laze on a beach, contemplating how wonderful life was and to do some reading. How perfect. I then arrived at the spartan but comfortable DOC hut to bunk down for the night with other trekkers. I was quite surprised by how long people were taking to do the hike, but then again, my pack was pretty light, so I guess I could go faster. Although some may not believe it, I really can travel light when I absolutely have to. Anyways, no electricity meant an early night (the beach was beautiful in the dark, but I always prefer starlight to moonlight - the only disappointment of the trip. And if that's the only disappointment, well then things are good!), and my trusty blue kazoo kept me cosy all night. Ironically enough, waking up the next morning proved to be my biggest lie-in in a long time, since I didn't haul my ass out of my sleeping bag until 8.30am. Well, my kayaking team weren't picking me up until 9.30, and with no towel, I wasn't exactly in a position to linger in the shower. The kayaking team, Kaiteriteri Kayaks, were fantastic. My guide was an enthusiastic and exuberant guy called Tassie, and there were another 7 of us kayaking. We ended up covering about 18km, which I thought was pretty impressive. The coastline was completely beautiful, calm in the coves, and blustery out at sea. It was actually the closest I have ever come to capsizing a sea-kayak, with the waves being about 3ft. Still, a ton of fun, particularly if you timed the paddling right to catch the wave. We were well-fed and happy little paddlers as we covered the coast, checking out tiny private beaches and Split Apple Rock, all whilst telling (making up) Maori legends about the naming of all the beaches. A really fun day, which was suitably exhausting.

I got the bus and ferry up to Wellington today, and it is just a wonderful city. Of course, I think that any city which has a street of bohemian cafes playing cool music and serving fair trade coffee is awesome, but this one also has great shops and apparently an amazing museum - Te Papa, which I am checking out tomorrow. Unfortunately, because of weather restraints, I am burning up to Taupo tomorrow afternoon to try and do the Tongariro crossing on Tuesday, when there is a weather window. Otherwise, it simply wouldn't be happening, but that's a good thing - the faster I get north, the more likely I am to be able to see the far north, which I am really trying to do, if I have enough time. Ah, time, such a pressing restraint with only 10 more days in New Zealand. I already have a list as long as my arm of all the things I want to do when I come back.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

reading list

Travelling alone makes you really value your books. Furthermore, they become a kind of economy. Every book read can be traded for a new book, albeit the choice of second-hand books is most definitely random. I want to try and keep a track of what I've read, and I am certainly open to suggestions about things to look out for. The books so far, in order, are:

1. The Promise of Happiness: Justin Cartwright.
2. Bergdorf Blondes: Plum Sykes.
3. The Cutting Room: Louise Welsh.
4. The Other Side of the Story: Marian Keyes.
5. Generation Kill: Evan Wright.
6. The Snow Leopard: Peter Matthiesson.
7. Angels and Demons: Dan Brown.
8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Jean-Dominique Bauby.
9. The Reader: Bernard Schlink.
10. Dance Dance Dance: Haruki Murakami.
11. Where the Heart is: Billie Letts.
12. The Russian Debutante's Handbook: Gary Shteyngart.
13. Boo Hoo: Ernst Malmsten.
14. Absolute Friends: John Le Carre.
15. The Lost Continent: Bill Bryson.
16. Spies: Michael Frayn.
17. The Sportswriter: Richard Ford.
18. The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret Atwood.
19. The Right Stuff: Tom Wolfe.
20. The Lovely Bones: Alice Sebold.
21. The Love Secrets of Don Juan: Tim Lott.
22. The Witches of Eastwick: John Updike.
23. Travels With Charley: John Steinbeck.
24. The Quiet American: Graham Greene.
25. The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nightime: Mark Haddon.
26. A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby.
27. The Line of Beauty: Alan Hollinghurst.
28. The Rule of Four: Ian Caldwell.
29. Tuesdays with Morrie: Mitch Albom.
30. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: Haruki Murakami.
31. The Secret Life of Bees: Sue Monk Kidd.
32. Transmission: Hari Kunzru.
33. Oryx and Crake: Margaret Atwood.
34. Independence Day: Richard Ford.
35. Birdsong: Sebastian Faulks.
36. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers.
37. 50 Things You Want to Know About World Issues: Keith Suter.
38. The Stone Diaries: Carol Shields.
39. A Lesson Before Dying" Ernest Gaines.
40. Atonement: Ian McEwan.
41. The Alphabet Sisters: Monica McInerney.
42. The Kite Runner: Khaled Hosseini
43. The Little Lady Agency: Hester Browne.
44. I Don't Know How She Does It: Allison Pearson.
45. I Am Charlotte Simmons: Tom Wolfe.
46. Sophie's Choice: William Styron.
47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Milan Kundera.


For the first time since I have been in New Zealand, I actually had too many clothes on. How shocking. Today was definitely skirts and sandals weather, but I was in my canvas trews instead. Wowee. Well, the bus driver did tell me that Nelson was the sun capital of New Zealand, and he wasn't wrong. It was glorious today. The only shame was the fact that I was in town and not in Abel Tasman, where I head to tomorrow for an overnight hiking and kayaking trip. Fingers crossed the good weather holds.

Nelson has got to be one of the most liveable towns I have ever seen. Everywhere you look it is just green! The town is built on small hills that rise out of the coastline, and lots of the green forest has been left in place, which makes it incredibly picturesque. Furthermore, the town has way too much temptation on the commercial front (yes, my credit card took another beating, and I have yet more books to weigh down my backpack), as well as vineyards and galleries to tempt the more culturally minded. I had such a good day wandering the streets, having coffee, buying books (definitely my favourite thing to purchase), and then stopping into Queens Gardens, of which my Grampa would have been pleased about. There were mainly roses in the gardens though, and not enough rhodedendrons for his taste. Many of my childhood memories consist of being taken round various National Trust gardens in Northern Ireland and checking out vast bushes of rhodedendrons. I have to admit they are not my favourite plant, but he was a big fan.

Tomorrow I have to get up at 6am to be picked up at 7am for the Abel Tasman trip. This morning was my first lie-in in forever, and even then, I only lasted until 9.15am. I think it is clearly a sign of growing up that I can't lie in bed forever. I actually rather miss it. Although, I am sure, if I try really really hard, I will be able to do it again. But not whilt I am in New Zealand - too many things to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Today I deliberately fell into a crevasse

Well, I actually allowed myself to be lowered into the crevasse on a rope, with the intention of climbing out of it. I had actually paid for this experience, and better than that, was enjoying it. Ice-climbing has definitely been a highlight of my time in New Zealand, and Fox has been a pretty good place to me.

I've been in Fox about four days now, and yesterday I managed to get out in the chopper for the heli-hike. This was so cool - we got to see beautiful blue caves and archways, as well as deeep crevasses and amazing seracs being pushed up from the ice, all tinged blue from the sun. The ice was clean and free from dirt, and also, maybe best of all, we got to ride in a helicopter. This is rapidly becoming my favourite form of transport, and in order to continue this expensive habit, I will either have to join the armed forces (unlikely), become rich and famous (even less likely) or become one of those people who goes up in helicopters to look at traffic congestion (an interesting career choice which I hadn't considered up until now). I don't think there are many helicopters in the hectic world of financial IT. Still, you never know.

We had about an hour and a half of ice-time, which doesn't sound like much, but we didn't have to go through any crappy moraine, just beautiful clean ice, and furthermore, it was driving rain, so we were getting pretty chilled, despite the 10 zillion layers that had been kindly loaned to us by Alpine Guides. So an hour and a half was plenty of time to wander about, take beautiful photographs, and get a feel for the sheer size and power of the Fox Glacier.

But I really hadn't had enough here, had I? So, this morning I dragged myself out of bed at another ungodly hour (lie-ins just aren't happening in New Zealand - even when I slept through my flight I woke at only 9.05) to be a little bit more daring and see the ice with a completely different perception. Abel was our guide, and he was fantastic. He kitted us up with our crampons, ice axes, harnesses, helmets, backpacks, Columbia windproofs, (why rip my jacket with an ice axe when I can rip somebody else's instead?) and more warm clothes. Once we were adequately kitted out, it was out to the glacier, where he taught us basic moves, such as french technique and using our toes and axes. Then, we attempted faces. The first one was pretty cool and pretty easy - just a simple wall of about 20m, no real features to deal with on it - all pretty nice. Then, it all got a bit more complicated. The next climb we did was really awesome. We (there was only two of us learning - the other guy was a 6'4" German guy who had already climbed, so I didn't feel too bad about sucking compared to him) abseiled into a crevasse that was about 25m deep and only about 1.5m wide at its narrowest point, and then climbed up. It was plenty of fun, and a lot more challenging, particularly since I was entertainment for a day climb, who I know were willing me to fall. I only did that trying to come up over the overhanging lip at the top. Fine and dandy. We had a damn hard climb after that involving a funky leap to start with, and then, on the final climb, my arms just died. I could have cried with frustration, pain, exhaustion, anger, everything, but instead I just had to quit, which sucked. I mean, I shouldn't really feel any shame about it, but it's hard to try and tell your arms to do something and they quite simply wouldn't move. Abel lowered me off the climb, and when I reached stable ice, my whole body was shaking with fatigue. That was the last climb though, and it was a completely thoroughly rewarding day. I do have to admit that I am tempted to go again when I get back to Scotland, or maybe at the glaciers in Patagonia. I am sure that pleases my mother greatly.

Tomorrow I'm sitting up a bus for 12hours to get to Nelson, which I am actually looking foward to, since my whole body is pretty damn exhausted. My knees are completely bruised for falling off the ice onto them. They are going to be blue tomorrow I am sure. Once I get to Nelson, I am planning on doing the Abel Tasman trek, but I am undecided how much I will kayak and how much I will walk. I guess it all depends on the weather, which will, in all honestly, be most likely rain. Like the rest of New Zealand so far!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

when mobile phone batteries die...

You get stuck with a day of doing nothing. Last night my mobile phone battery died, meaning that the alarm didn't go off the next morning. (This is a big design fault, because on my previous nokia, even if the battery died, there was enough juice in it to set the alarm off.) I woke up at 9.05, precisely the time I was supposed to be boarding a funky little helicopter to go sweeping over the Fox Glacier. It was even a beautifully sunny clear day. I was not a happy bunny, although I clearly needed the sleep. I signed up for the 12noon flight, but of course since then, in true NewZee fashion, the weather has closed in and it has been raining for hours. So the day has been spent reading a book instead, which had actually been rather pleasurable. Sometimes, it is nice to just sit and read and chill. Furthermore, the book I'm reading, Birdsong, definitely needed a couple of hours dedication to actually get into it.

Almost everything I have wanted to do in New Zealand has been cancelled due to weather - Siberia Expeditions, the heli-hiking, the Routeburn Track. A heli-trek up to Chancellor's Dome was cancelled because of filming on the upper glaciers, and the train to Arthur's Pass, one of the top five great train journeys in the world is also not on whilst they build a tunnel. I'm pretty upset about that one, since I am a bit of a train geek. Still, I've been having an amazing time here, and basically this is a trip for learning where I want to go next time. I also have more time on the North Island, which will be fun too, since originally I only had a week there. Now I'll have about two. I'll just have to come back in the middle of summer here, and book all my hut passes months in advance. Oh, and save about $5000 for all the fun things I have missed out on. Ah, my poor wee credit card!

Friday, October 07, 2005

mountains and mountains and sounds/fjords

I've been in New Zealand for almost two weeks, but it feels like so much longer, because I have been doing so much. It is such an incredibly beautiful country, although the bus system sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

After leaving Christchurch from Kaikoura, I headed down to Mt Cook, which is the highest mountain in NZ. I stayed in one of the nicest backpackers I have been in - the YHA in the park itself, and it had a funky, stuck in the middle of nowhere atmosphere, and therefore everyone was pretty sociable. I think the cameraderie of being stuck in a national park in the absolute pouring rain had something to do with it though. Still, the next day cleared halfway through my hike up the Hooker Valley, and I had some amazing view of Mt Cook and the surrounding peaks. Fabulous. Although my feet have eiher changed shape, or my boots have, because they have started to blister me, despite the fact they caused me no trouble in the Himalayas at all. Strange.

After my illustrious hike it was another bus ride to Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world, or the capital of stupid sports, whichever you prefer. I wandered into the Southern Laughter backpacker, and immediately met someone who wanted to go hiking, and six people who wanted to go drinking, so it was a fine start, although the hangover the next day was none too pleasant. After a day of lolling around feeling vaguely sorry for myself, I signed up for the rite of passage that is bungy jumping with AJ Hackett, and a jetboat down the shotover river, just to make sure that I managed to scare myself as stupid as possible in the shortest amount of time. Bunjying off the kawarau bridge turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be, although being the second person of the day is not advisable, because you have no idea how long the experience will be (about 10seconds, of which maybe 3 are the initial freefall), or how you are going to be rescued from the cord (ungracefully hauled into a boat). It was a whole lot of fun, and I didn't get dunked, which is what I asked for. The only bad thing was discovering that I have gained 6kg (6kg!!!!) since I was in Thailand. How horrendous.

With that sobering thought in mind, I headed down to Te Anau, the gateway to Milford Sound with Richard. The plan was to do some hikes, maybe on the Routeburn track, but the weather wasn't really happening for us, so we took a cruise on Milford Sound, which was incredible. We drove down in the pouring rain, watching thousands of waterfalls stream of the sheer granite rockfaces, before the landscape opened up into the sound, which is actually a fjord. It was completely shrouded in mist, and continued to be for the first half of the cruise, until we came out onto the Tasman Sea. We then looked back, and the sun was shining, the fog was lifting, and the full force of the sound, with Mitre Peak, a mile high, forcing its way out of the deep water. It was completely spectacular. It is said that really there are two Milford Sounds - Milford in the sun, and Milford in the rain. The joy of the changeable weather of Southland is that it was possible for us to see both within a 2hr period, and then to drive back along the same drive, seeing incredible alpine peaks which had previously been hidden just added to the magic of the day.

Some activity had to be undertaken in Te Anau, so Richard and I did a day hike on the Kepler Track, which is actually a 3 day hike. It was fun to be actually hiking again, since the weather was good - cold, but good. Having said that, there were a lot of trees on the hike. Hiking just made me want to do more, but weather and transport are big issues down here, and neither of them were working out well for us. Still, I already know that I am coming back here in a couple of years, so hiking will be given another chance.

If you can't hike, what is the best way of seeing the Sound? In a tiny plastic unstable boat right at sea level (although Richard and Johnny did have to ask the altitude!). Sea-kayaking on Milford Sound was an incredible, beautiful experience, with highlights being 4 bottlenose dolphins playing with us for 45mins, and spotting a penguin swimming along. The lowpoints would definitely be the snow, the hail, and the rain that were a constant the whole time we were out, although we were exceptionally cosy in our 8zillion layers as provided by the kayaking company (Fiordland Wilderness). We were out for about 3 or 4hours, which was a mite too long, and my wrists are now absolutely agony for some reason. And again, once we were off the water, in only an hour, the weather cleared to become absolutely beautiful.

So, I am all done with Southland, and have come up to Wanaka, the last town before Mt Aspiring National Park. I was very excited about doing a Rob Roy Valley trek, but the weather is looking a little messy, so maybe I'll go horseriding or something else instead. Spring seems to be a pretty changeable time of year down at this part of the world, so sun one day, snow the next. One thing I know for sure is that I am going for a couple of drinks tonight with two guys I met in my backpacker, the Purple Cow. We'll be heading to Shooters, the local nightspot. Fun times.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

misty galway days

Kaikoura in the rain looks exactly like the West of Ireland, and it filled me with a silly, happy feeling to be so far from home in a completely familiar environment. Hiking along in the damp, mizzly rain, a sharp wind coming off the sea, wandering along steep, craggy cliffs (but not too close to the edge, Mum!), and coming across the odd sheep. How perfect.

Even more perfect was for the sun to burn the fog away to reveal snow-capped alpine peaks cutting across a perfect blue sky and rushing down to the sea, to go running along a perfectly flat beach path whilst looking up at mountain faces and feeling the sun warm on my back.

More perfect still was to spend a morning in a nippy little catermeran looking for dusky dolphins on a perfectly clear day, in the hope of swimming with them. Of course, perfection would be actually swimming with them, but unfortunately, today they weren't playing ball. Never mind. Maybe I'll get a chance to swim with them up in the Bay of Islands - I still had a glorious morning out on the ocean, checking out very big birds (albatrosses) and watching the cute little dolphins swim around the boat.

And the only downer? Coming a close second in a pub quiz on account of not knowing enough about sex. Damnation. This is after getting lots of very hard science questions right, revealing my inner geek and my knowledge of when the atomic clock was developed, as well as how many bits to the byte, and where the US Masters is played. My father would be proud.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

oooooh it's cold

New Zealand is a lot colder than Australia, particularly the balmy climes of Airlie Beach, but especially if you go to the International Antarctica Centre, where you can experience a simulated storm in -18 degrees - nice! Actually, a whole lot of fun, and also a good learning experience about what people actually do at the South Pole. Apart from studying seals and penguins and thousands of years of ice, they also have toga parties, get drunk, and go swimming in the ice. Pretty normal really.

This fascinating place is in Christchurch, where I flew into yesterday afternoon. I have immediately fallen in love with NZ, mainly because the people I have met already are awesome. I'm staying at Base, where everyone stays, pretty much, it seems, and have met zillions of people, who are all doing Kiwi Experience. I actually am not doing it, since I would like to have a bit more freedom to go where I want when I want, but it does seem to be a great way of meeting people. I've gone for a more public bus pass, which is pretty a-b, no frills. That's more what I wanted though. Tomorrow I'm heading up to Kaikoru, where I can swim with dolphins and go whale watching, as well as do some cool hikes along the coast. Then its down to Mt Cook. I'm naturally very excited about all the incredible scenery, and have actually been going running to try and get myself a little fitter for hiking.

Base backpackers are a bit swanky, and I'm staying in the Sanctuary, which is girls only, and I get free Aveda shampoo, as well as a towel. The towel was what swung it for me, since I am more than sick of my ratty trektowel. Tomorrow though, its back to real backpackers, and some serious serious budgeting. New Zealand, it has to be said, is an expensive place to be, especially if you want to do things like dolphin swimming and kayaking and ice climbing. That's the unfortunate but great thing about travelling - you get all these amazing opportunities, but at the same time, there is a pressure to experience everything. Maybe I'll have to start selling my belongings or something.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

blue seas, blue skies

Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island is undoubtedly the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. It was absolutely incredible. Swirling white sands, turquoise waters, and absolutely deserted when we arrived, which was also amazing. The only drawback was the fear of swimming because of the pesky jellyfish (box and something else incredibly evil), which if they stung you could render you paralysed, or in intensive care. Not so fun. Some girl (not in our boat) did get stung whilst we were out sailing, and was vomiting profusely. Poor thing.

Anyways, back to the fantastic time I had sailing around the Whitsundays. We were on a 53' boat called Ragamuffin II, and used to be sailed in the Sydney-Hobart race. She was gorgeous. 53' isn't a whole lot of boat compared to the 80' maxi-yachts we saw, but she was nippy, and it was fun to sail her properly, and feel her keel come almost entirely out of the water when the wind was just right. Tons of fun. Plus, the people I was sailing with were excellent fun - 2 med students from Cardiff, who were a blast, an American exchange student, a South African girl who's next stop was India, two OC girls, an Irish couple, and a warring German couple. Furthermore, our crew were just two people, Ian and Andrea, who were engaged, and we were also able to spy on their relationshop as well - nothing like a bit of gossip to draw people together! The first day we sailed to Whitehaven, the second we sailed around a bit more (sorry, don't remember any names) and had the best steak I've had whilst travelling done on the barbie, and the third we went to an incredibly swanky resort on South Molle Island where we were able to swim in a pool, hike to a viewpoint, play golf in our bikinis (but we didn't do that one) and drink cocktails, before heading back to harbour and a night of fun in Airlie Beach. We all came back tan as anything, not so hungover, and in fine, fine spirits. The ebullient mood continued right into the early hours of the morning, possibly due to the free jugs of sangria provided by the yachting company that night. One dodgy club, a wet t-shirt competition, and a trip into an Irish bar made for a fun night out, and I crawled into bed for 3hrs sleep before getting my flight back to Sydney. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get anyone's email address, and so all my new friends are gone forever again.

Yes, back in Sydney. Well, Bondi to be exact, for my last days in Australia. Australia is a funny place, and I haven't exactly loved it. Places have been incredibly beautiful, and I have loved them individually - Melbourne is a great city, Byron has an awesome vibe and good surf, the Whitsundays are truly beautiful, but so much of backpacker culture on the East Coast is purely obsessed with getting drunk, and I am rather over getting drunk all the time. Don't get me wrong - I still love to party, and that's exactly what I did in Airlie, but it's not why I travel; its not the be all and end all of why I'm here, and for a lot of backpackers it does seem to be the case. Furthermore, it does sometimes seem to be a little Britain, which is a million miles away from where I want to be. I have been told that New Zealand is completely different, and I'm really looking forward to meeting backpackers who aren't travelling just to wreck their liver.

Monday, September 19, 2005

mothers and daughters

I have just left my mother and headed up by myself again to Airlie Beach, the jumping off point for the Whitsunday Islands, apparently the jewel in the Australian crown. Spending a week with my mammy was fun; we saw and spent lots in Sydney, and then headed up to Byron for a few days of r&r. Sydney was much nicer than it was to me last time, maybe because this time I didn't have giardia. We stayed in the rather swanky Rocks, although our hotel was far from that indeed. It was more on the pokey, dark side of things. Russell Hotel, no thanks. Having said that, it didn't dampen our spirit, and the first thing that we did was hit the shops. We're girls, that's what we do. And besides, I had a whole backpack of clothes to replace. Looking through my belongings, I am unsurprised to see that almost everything that I came away with has been thrown out and replaced by cheap Thai gear, and expensive Sydney/Melbourne purchases. So yes, a Sportsgirl trip later, lots of Love Kylie underwear, some fun in Borders, and a whole new backpack, we felt we had given our credit cards a good workout.

The next day was focused on two, intertwined premises - food and Bondi. Food was covered with a breakfast at Bill's, in Darlinghurst, which was amazingly wonderfully fabulous. I had these amazing ricotta hot cakes with banana and honey butter (this was about a week ago, and I can still remember), and mum had corn fritters, or something like. After that, a quick hop on the train and bus, and we were at Bondi, where we watched the surfers (I lusted after the waves), and went for a long, rambling walk over the cliffs, through some random woodland, a cemetary, and eventually ending us up in some small town a couple of miles down the shore. It certainly worked up an appetite for an incredible meal in a beautiful setting at Bondi Icebergs. Icebergs is set up off Bondi beach, so you can watch the waves break, even in the dark, from the almost entirely glass building. The menu was fabulous, my pear and rose bellini a dream, and naturally my mother felt an urge to make conversation with the table of drunken 30-somethings beside us. I thought I was over being embarrased by my mother, but clearly not. We caught the late night bus home feeling a teensy bit drunk and slightly overfull from the chocolate cannoli that was had for dessert.

A trip up to Byron was always going to be fun, and it managed to provide one of the most memorable 20seconds of my life - surfing with dolphins. I was out at Cosy Corner, where the waves were anything but cosy, instead packing a fair punch, when suddenly 5 dark-dolphin shapes were spotted flitting through the waves, having the time of their lives. They surfaced a couple of times amongs the surfers, and then swam off to have their own fun. I had always heard that dolphins enjoy a surf, but it was absolutely incredible to see it for myself. The surfing in general was amazing - it was so good to remember how to do it, and feel my body get better at it, more attuned, more natural. Of course, dreams of surfboards are far-off, since the hassle of carrying one around would be a nightmare, but I did check prices. A heart-stopping $549 for a minimal. No thanks.

That is something that I have noticed. Australia is expensive. And it's not just me who thinks so. My mum was here five years ago, and believes that everything is much more expensive than it was before. Shame.

Before I met Mum, I spent a few days in Melbourne. I have to say that it is one of my favourite cities now: chic, fun, and a great public transport system. I had a blast wandering Brunswick St, checking out St Kilda's, and bar hopping down tiny, grotty, dark alleys to find amazingly cool, chic bars like Murmur at the bottom of them. A lot of fun. Also, the Great Ocean Road truly does rival Highway 1 in the US for picturesque roads, mainly because of the incredible 12 (11? One fell down) Apostles, which was the site of my first helicopter ride. I think I might be an addict.

So now the Whitsundays. Its warm here, which makes a change from the rest of Oz so far, and the town seems tuned into parties. Fun times. I'm going to go hunting for a kayak trip tomorrow, and be even more active, and go for my second run in Australia, since the first, in Byron, went so well, and now I have a high-tech watch to make sure that I am working hard. Awesome.