Monthly Archives: August 2012

Massaging the wallet

I have been given legal counsel to issue the following disclaimer:

“THE FOLLOWING POST IS IN NO WAY SEXUAL. ANY INNUENDOES ARE INFERRED AT THE READERS DISCRETION AND ARE NOT THOSE OF THE AUTHOR, HIS SISTER, PARENTS OR AFFILIATES.”

Having been ambling around Cusco for a few days now we have been offered on countless occasions massages. Indeed so fixed in the tourist agenda is a Cusco massage that it rates highly in WikiTravels top things to do in Cusco.

So, after a particularly uncomfortable night’s sleep and because of a high degree of bed swapping that has taken place over the past two months, we decided to splash out and dive in.

Being true to our traveller routes, we shopped around for the best price, settling on 15 Soles (about £3.75) for a 1 hour, full body massage.

We arrived at our allotted time and were shown into a fairly typical room. As is usual practice, we stripped down to our underwear, lay on the bed and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited.

After about 15 minutes, we heard a door open and looked up expectantly. A boy of about 5 ambled in. He casually walked around the tables chatting away in Spanish. I ventures a “¿dónde está la masseuse” to which he replied “Machu Pichu con la Incas”. This was unsettling. We decided that the boy would be no use as a masseuse and seemed to posses little relevant information so we dismissed him with a “vamos”. The child simply stared.

Some while later, a woman in her twenties walked in and proceeded to Mairead’s table. To my somewhat shock and alarm, she was followed by a girl of about 12. Another nuisance child a thought… alas no, this was to be my masseuse.

She started on my shoulders and back, but clearly lacked the strength to penetrate the several layers of knots that had built up. She heaved herself up onto the table in order to gain greater purchase whilst talking to her colleague in Spanish, I assume saying something along the lines of “Are you serious? Have you seen the size if this bugger? I’m only bloody 12! And also, his left shoulder is pretty hairy but his right has none… what’s that about?”

As she worked away, there was a large degree of clapping involved, so much so that I presumed she was also training as a croupier at the local casino, ably demonstrating that she was neither fixing the cards or my back.

In fairness to her she soldiered on. She moved from my back to my feet, which she simple tickled for 5 minutes. She then moved on to my legs, at which time her fellow masseuse got a phone call which she took. Evidently the news was exciting and as the information was relayed, my girl started rubbing up and down my leg faster, effectively plucking half the hairs out.

The whole amusing ordeal ended when she sat me up, took my head in one hand and my torso in the other and twisted in opposite directions. It was a move I can only guess she learnt from Sean Connery in the best escape from Alcatraz film made with Nicholas Cage, where Connery kills an enemy Marine with the same move. Sadly for my aching body (and no doubt you the reader) she failed in her attempted murder, announced “OK my massage friend, massage over” and took her S/ 15 and left.

I hobbled back to the hostel, swallowed some painkillers and took a hot shower.

Now, can anybody point me in the direction of the nearest Irish bar, I need a whiskey.

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The 1st Amendment to the First Rule of Travel

In his book, McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy tells of the first rule of travelling; “if you see a pub with your name on it, you have to go in.” with my surname being Cameron, the chances of this happening outside if Scotland or Nova Scotia (and even there it would be remote) are slim to none, so on arriving into Rio over two months ago, we settled on the 1st Amendment; if you see an Irish bar, you must go in and have a drink.

This amendment worked pretty well. We saw an Irish bar in Ipanema but it was closed, we saw one in central Rio which was charging the equivalent of £4 entry fee so quickly introduced the 2nd Amendment; if you see an Irish bar (that isn’t charging to get in), you must go in and have a drink.

And so life was good (and relatively sober). European’s tend not to travel north of Rio in Brazil and so we saw no more Irish bars.

We arrived into Lima in Peru and went out for something to eat and, out of practice at Irish spotting, we shocked to see a neon leprechaun dancing and smoking a pipe. Always a slave to a rule we wandered over. Alas it was a casino not a pub, so we were spared another potentially messy night.

So we arrived in Cusco with our livers in good shape, and, as we went to meet Mairead’s friend Colm in the ominously sounding Wild Rover hostel which he owns and runs, we walked past Rosie O’Grady’s Irish Bar. There was no escaping it, we popped in for one. To my relief, it was as authentic Irish as Barack Obama and after swilling back a bottle of Cusquena we headed on.

Our good fortune was not to last. The Wild Rover was the Real McCoy (not to be confused with an English pub in Cusco called The Real McCoy).

Drinks were brought, drank and replenished without ever being asked for, most of them without being paid for. I was escorted back behind the bar and told to pour myself a whiskey and then brought a second for good measure. Rows of shots were lined up on the bar and, if memory serves there was a dice game.

The evening ended (in true Irish style) with a table quiz – pub quiz to the Anglo-Saxon. Drunk as we are we somehow scraped a win by one point, probably by knowing the 2005 World Elephant Polo champions nationality – it’s pretty obvious when you think about it – Scotland*.

As we staggered back to our hostel through the now deserted streets of Cusco, closer to tomorrow than yesterday, our hearts sank as we saw a sign: “Paddy’s Bar – The highest 100% Irish owned bar in the world”.

This brought about the 3rd Amendment to the First Rule of Travel; if you see an Irish bar (that isn’t charging to get in), you must (though not necessarily there and then) go in and have a drink.

*If facts need to be verified: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/4235210.stm

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On the trail of donkey turds

Much has been written about the effects on the body of high altitude. It’s common knowledge that heights over 3,000 metres (roughly 10,000 feet) can cause nausea, shortness of breath and dizziness. It’s also well documented that altitude can result in stomach cramps and thumping headaches. What they don’t tell you about is the flatulence.

The change in air pressure results in bloatedness, which is only relived with a giant fart. This is something I found out the hard way, at 15,500 feet in the high Andes.

We left for our four day trek to the Santa Cruz river from Huarez, already well over 10,000 feet. However, having had 2 days to acclimatise we weren’t feeling the effects – yet!

Out gear was packed on to the back of one of 6 donkeys that formed the advance party which would set up camp each night. Our group would then follow, taking in the sights; the landscape changing from grass and tree covered mountains, akin to those found throughout the highlands of Northern Europe, to snow capped peaks that one could be forgiven for thinking of as The Alps and then, after traversing the peak of the Punta Union pass, dry, semi arid valleys that could double for southern Spain or even the Middle East.

You start off easy, a clear path, picturesque landscapes and little to do but occasionally look down to ensure you aren’t stepping in donkey shit. It becomes an obsession, ensuring that your as yet untested walking boots stay excrement free.

By day two, as you climb from the relatively accommodating 3,600 metres to a breath taking (literally) 4,750, the path becomes harder, steeper and more difficult to follow. Again you find yourself looking down for donkey droppings, now willing them on, desperately searching for them to ensure you’re on the right path.

By day three, you’re broken. The climb to the Punta Union pass – a 1km ascent in just 5km of path – has taken its toll on you muscles and joints alike. It’s a tough challenge even for those most adapted to it. Sadly one of the donkeys on the trail that day didn’t make it, dying of a presumed heart attack just metres from the summit. It’s lifeless body left to the side of the path for the vultures and other mountain animals that will ultimately pick the carcass clean, as evidenced by numerous other bones scattered along the route.

Clambering downhill from the pass on days three and four, all thoughts turn simple to making it to the campsite, to a tent and a warm sleeping bag. Occasionally you are distracted from this single objective by a glacier, a lake with icebergs floating in it or a waterfall cascading down the sheer sided cliffs.

Whereas on day one you looked to avoid donkey shit and on day two you aimed to follow it, by the halfway point, it had become part of the path – avoid it or step in it, you don’t have energy to care. There is only one thing driving you forward, a potent and highly flammable concoction of farts you can’t help but let rip.

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Looking back towards the Punta Union Pass, seen on the far right of the photo

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A panoramic view of a glacial lake at the top of one of the many side valleys along the route

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Towards the end of the trek, as the village of Cashapampa draws nearer, the landscape turns drier and dustier

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When do I get to meet Andy?

I’m sat writing this in a cafe, having a pleasant locally brewed beer. Earlier today I popped to the bank to get some cash out, bought a few essentials from the supermarket, microwaved some left over pizza for lunch and got some washing done.

So what’s so unusual about all that? Nothing, save from the fact that I did all this at twice the height of the highest point in the British Isles.

We are currently in the town of Huarez (pronounced Warez – blame the Spanish) in the high Andes. Why visit Huarez? Well, superficially – don’t! The town was almost completely flattened by an earthquake in 1970 and the new town that has grown up in the past 42 years resembles little more than a large slum. However, this is a slum which is sandwiched between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negro (one may suggest a name change for the later to the Cordillera Marrón).

The result of this prime location is a hub for walkers, hikers, climbers and adventurers alike. Tours leave daily for trips into the Andes, ranging from day trips to week long treks from one side of the range to another. One can hike up to glaciers, camp beside lakes high in the Andes and trek across passes higher than most in Europe.

In the town itself, a quick scratch beneath the surface reveals a culture recognisable instantly to those who have visited outdoor centres the world over. The cafes and bars where hikers and guides meet after returning to civilisation after days in the mountains. The restaurants with guidebooks and climbing magazines to read while tucking in to your guinea pig and the countless shops selling everything from maps to crampons. There is a close knit community feel about the town, everyone sharing a common goal or ideal – to tackle the mountains as best they can, to come back safe and sound, with stories and photos of adventure.

So I guess I should get onboard, we’re off for 4 days to cross the Punta Union pass – over 15,500 ft and 45km of walking.

Oh, and Andy? He’s a really enterprising guy, seems to own half the town – Andes Cafe, Andes Restaurant, Andes Adventures, Andes Explorers, even Andes Hostel. I’m sure he’s a great guy, but he needs to work on his spelling.

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Amazonian Photos

Better late than never.

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The end of chapter one

It’s fitting that we are ending the Brazilian leg of our tour on the banks of the Amazon. Fitting for two reasons.

Our journey started in the south, on the River Iguassu and the falls. Nearly 7 weeks later we find ourselves in the north of Brazil on the Amazon. Two mighty rivers that span several countries and between them a country the size of Europe.

It’s been quite the up and down, which I suspect is to be expected for two novice nomads. There have been times when both of us have been close to calling it quits, unsure of the point of our travels. And there gave been times where we can barely wipe the smiles of our faces with the sheer joy of our experiences. There have been places where we haven’t been able to get out of quick enough and places that we have departed from with a heavy heart.

This is what traveling is about.

It’s fitting to leave Brazil from the Amazon for another reason too. In a little over 3 days we will be in the Peruvian Andes north of Lima. Every water source we see there on the Eastern faces if the mountains, from a tiny trickle down a rock front to streams and rivers, will ultimately end up in the Amazon river, pouring out more than 100 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, just east of Belem. We may not have used boats, but we ultimately will have seen the full stretch of the world’s greatest river system.

But for now we say goodbye to Brazil. It’s been a steep learning curve, and at times a real challenge. But when all’s said and done, it has rewarded in spades.

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Sleeping in a hammock

How can one begin to describe the joys of sleeping in a hammock? When one sees them in the shops or on TV, they look so tranquil and serene. To begin with, you lie back and enjoy something you take to be comfort. You feel the gentile swaying back and forth, close your eyes and absorb the sounds of the jungle.

After less than an hour, this delusion wares off. The sounds of the rainforest have become unknown screeches in the dark, the gentile swaying back and forth no longer reminds you of infancy and your mother’s arms, but all those sea sick school trips to Normandy. As for the comfort, you spine has now taken on the shape of a banana – you fear permanently. The discomfort throbbing in your lower back is beginning to spread and you try to alleviate it by changing position. This simply highlights your imprisonment. Each attempted shift produces more rocking that nauseates further and fails utterly to improve your situation. You try to roll on to your side, but that only moves your whole world to the side and you stay in the same position.

You are truly trapped. Above you there is a thin netting which separates you from all the wee beasties which the world has to offer. Below, a constantly moving floor of leaves and who knows what.

This is your torture. You wish to all the deities you have so often dismissed to end you misery. You imagine this to be a cruel and unusual punishment employed to extract information. You would happily ask for water boarding than this, but it is no use.

You look at your watch – only 9 more hours till morning!

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The Heart of Darkness

Our arrival in the rainforest should have been no surprise, a flash of light and a clap of thunder heralded both ours’ and the rain’s arrival. We had deliberately come during the ‘dry season’, but in the rainforest that means little, and this dry season had been one of the wettest on records.

Our first venture out was delayed due to rain (how very British), but we entered our canoes and headed back in to the forest. We were treated to an arial display from the squirrel monkeys who fled our presence. We saw numerous birds flying high above, mainly parrots in vivid blue and birds nesting in black and yellow.

As the sun set, we headed back to base. In the coming days we made numerous excursions into the rainforest and down the river. We saw more wildlife than can be listed, we went out at dusk and fished for piranhas, spotted cayman’s red eyes glaring back at us in the boat. We saw pink river dolphins playing in the distance.

We trekked through the forest and learnt about some of the plants, including trying Jambu – a flower which when eaten makes ones tongue go numb. A native fruit called Caju, similar to a mango. We drank water from a Cipo D’Agua or water vine, which stores water in its vine (it’s in the name). Finally we painted our faces with red stripes with pollen from the Amapa flower, a tradition that indigenous people have done for millennia.

On our final day, after a refreshing kayak and swim in the river, we ventured once more into the forest and camped out overnight, hammock and mozzie net.

All in all it was an amazing experience, without doubt the highlight of our trip to date.

However, it was sad to see the deforestation. And sadder still that in the whole 4 days we never saw an indigenous person. Even when we visited what the trip organisers described as “a native family to see local traditions”. We met one man who moved to the Amazon from the city to make more money hearding cattle and saw the trophy teeth he had kept from a jaguar he shot.

Sadly I feel that this is the new face of the Amazon, certainly without journeying several hundred miles than we did. It was disheartening, but could never dampen the amazement of seeing the Amazon!

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Voyage into The Heart of Darkness

Where to begin?

Since Belem, we have indeed traveled deeper into the rainforest.

Firstly to Manaus. I knew before we even left London that Manaus was a city of nearly 2 million people and that it comes with all the trappings and shortcomings of a city its size. However, in my head, I still liked to romanticise this outpost in the jungle to be a small colonial town, opera house, rubber baron mansions and picturesque townhouses. I envisaged a place where the urban and the jungle met and where a short walk from a city cafe would find one amongst the palms and vines of the rainforest. This fairytale could never be supported, but how wrong was I?

Our plane landed in darkness to a city in a sea of black, tall buildings all lit up, a bridge over an inlet perfectly illuminated and vein-like roads stretching out into the rainforest. It was still a shock just to see for myself how vast this city was.

In daylight, the city didn’t fulfill it’s neon promises of the night. The opera house was impressive, but less so than Belem’s. The market was less vibrant and more functional and the docks more of a inner-city ferry terminal than the gateway to the world’s largest river system.

But then I suspect that’s just it, this town is little more than a one or two day stopover for those looking to get in to the Amazon.

After our obliguatory stopover, we headed off, by car, boat, mini-bus and canoe, to our jungle outpost and home for the next four days.

As we drove through the forest after crossing the mighty Amazon, it was easy to see the effect roads have had. All along the road the tree line seemed to be retreating. Huge swaths have been cleared. We saw the cows that had replaced the trees, more poignantly, we saw their ribs and skeletal frames. It saddened me that people put these ill-suited creatures on this land instead of the perfectly adapted flora and fauna that had been there originally.

As we got deeper in, the road became less Tarmac and more dirt, the cleared areas on each side grew smaller, though were growing still, some had just been cleared and were still smouldering. We arrived at another river, this one smaller than the Amazon proper, which mearly meant that a concrete bridge had been erected over it. Here we transferred to boats – motorised canoes this time, for the last legg of our journey. For 30 minutes we navigated up river and through flooded forests, each turn taking us deeper in to virgin rainforest until we arrived at a jetty, a wooden building on stilts and a palm leaf roof. We had arrived.

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Allow me to start at the end…

When I think of mouth, I think of an opening, a beginning. However with rivers, it’s exactly the opposite, the mouth is where the whole thing ends.

Perhaps it’s ironic then that for us, this is where our week and a half journey along the Amazon begins. Then again, perhaps not. Isn’t that how most of the world’s major rivers were discovered – from the mouth? The city of Belem at the mouth of the mighty Amazon, where we are at the moment, was founded by the Portuguese in 1616, however the source, the ‘beginning’, of the river wasn’t definitively found until 1996 – nearly 400 years later (and only with the advent of satellite imaging).

So perhaps it’s not so odd that our first sight of the Amazon is in Belem. It is the gateway for the river for travellers and merchants alike, and really developed during the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The late Victorian wealth is obvious, with stunning buildings such as Teatro de Paz – a grand theatre that would outshine many of London’s.

However I’ll admit to being apprehensive about arriving into Belem. Since our decision to fly rather than travel by land (and river) Belem hasn’t strictly been necessary. Would this city be another white elephant with nothing to keep us amused for the 4 days of our visit.

If Teatro de Paz didn’t convince me otherwise, sitting in a converted warehouse, drinking a locally brewed beer watching the sun break through the scattered clouds and bounce off the river – modest at this point at only a few kilometres wide – certainly did.

I have to admit that the scene overwhelmed me a little and made me somewhat awestruck. Whatever about the rest of Brazil, the Amazon had always seemed somewhere exceptionally remote, something only true explores see, and something, sat in all those geography lessons, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be looking out over.

Combined with the highs and the lows of traveling up through Brazil (and with the addition of several beers), I felt somewhat emotional at being here. The odd night in Maceio holds nothing to the joy of the sight.

And it can only get better as we travel deeper into the rainforest!

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Sunlight breaks through the cloud to highlight the Amazon River

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Disused cranes at the converted docks

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Giant water lilies at the Zoological and Botanical Gardens

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The interior of the Teatro de Paz

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