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 MarrĂ³n).

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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Funny Flights and Amusing Airlines

In my last post, I lamented our transition from land to air as a means of travel – if you haven’t read it you can find it here: https://alistaircameron.com/2012/08/02/a-change-in-travels/

I was sorry to be saying goodbye to the constant transition that land based travel offers – new people and new scenery, and I was worried that hopping on a plane at one airport and getting off at another would be the same as the world over.

Like so much else in Brazil, things panned out entirely differently from what was expected.

Planes here (particularly the low cost option preferred by us) operate incredibly similarly to buses. Our flight from Salvador to Belem is a prime example. The route is little over 1,500 miles, less as the crow flies, and could be achieved by plane in roughly 2.5 hours. However this would be too straight forward for Brazilians, and nowhere near as much fun. After 90 minutes our plane landed in Fortaleza, about 500 miles up the coast, we then flew to Sao Luis, roughly speaking another 500 miles, this time in just over an hour. From there we flew the remaining distance to Belem in 45 minutes, where we left the plane to fly on to Santarem and then Manaus, a route we’ll be taking in a couple of days time.

At each airport we were on the ground for just shy of an hour, making a 2.5 hour flight last nearer 6.

That said, it had its charm. Each time you land, you flew low over the landscape to study the change in scenery. People got off and new people got on. It made for great people watching and allowed for the connection with the country to be maintained – not to the same extent, but still more so than a standard A-B flight.

Don’t misunderstand me, having had 1 hours sleep the previous night, being on day two of what was shaping up to be a three day hangover and with the pilots making their Ryan Air counterparts look like they handle planes like Ming vases, I would have given my right arm not to be on that plane. But such are the woes of the international jet setter.

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A Change In Travels

Today marks a noted change in our trip. Until now, we have spent the last month and a bit travelling through Brazil by land. We have spent literally days on buses, traveling thousands of miles from the south of Brazil by Iguassu Falls and the border with Argentina, to the North East and Salvador and beyond.

Overall I have enjoyed these bus journeys. They have been long and slow, typically averaging just over 30mph, a tedious speed to travel over 1000 miles in one go. They have at times made us feel unsafe, my iPod was stollen on the overnight bus to Curitiba, I’ve taken to chaining my camera bug to the chair leg in order to be able to doze. And they have at times been crowded by undesirables – thieves and crooks, large families clearly fleeing something and those who have past the time waiting for the last bus of the day in the bar, and now seem unable to hold the alcohol in on the bumpy, twisty roads.

However, despite this, it has allowed me to to feel I am seeing the country. I have enjoyed being able to stare out of the window in a half trance and watch the countryside go past, and change.

Recently in the North East, I watched from my window as the landscape seemed to change from the tropical near Salvador, to Tuscan just north, then as the rain came on, the rural west of Ireland, rolling hills, cattle and lush green grass. It then changed again to something akin to the American prairies, flat and boundless, fertile but dusty. Finally, palm trees returned, the Atlantic Ocean could be seen and we were back in the tropics.

It has also given a feeling of being one of the locals. We have rarely been on a bus with more than a couple of other travellers, with the majority of people being native. We have watched as some get off at one stop and more got on. We have woken early in the morning to find an almost entirely different group of people to those whom we fell asleep with.

But as well as all this, it had frequently felt like endurance travel. Enduring the long and slow journeys simple for the sake of saying we have done them.

Add to this, the further north we go, the worst the roads get, the slower the buses travel, and less frequently. And they become less safe. Between Salvador and Belem (our next destination) there have been recent reports of armed gangs stopping buses to rob people!

As such, we have made the decision to fly north and then along the Amazon. Stopping frequently so as to keep our route as intact as possible and also not lose the connection with the country we are traveling through.

I’m currently making my way through one if the best travel books ever written – Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. In his 2008 foreword to the book, Theroux describes his feelings towards air travel; “I dislike planes, and when I’m on one – suffering the deafening drone and the chilly airlessness that is peculier to planes – I always suspect that the land we are overflying is rich and wonderful and that I am missing it all. Air travel is very simple and annoying and a always a cause of anxiety. It is like being at the dentist’s; even the chairs are like dentist’s chairs. Overland is slow and a great deal more trouble, but it is uncomfortable in a way that is completely human and often reassuring.”

I can only agree with him and can’t quite shake off the feeling that I am cheating somehow in flying, taking the simple option. I’m certainly no stranger to air travel, and for me, I suspect there is little difference in boarding a plane bound for Belem than one from Luton to Glasgow, Edinburgh or Shannon. There is no challenge in it and the result is there is no sense of achievement, or excitement. Theroux’s comments only compounded my feeling of failure for having cheated.

I was then pleased to read in the book proper Theroux say; “… I was homesick. Was there any point in this trip aside from the fact that I had been too restless to stay at my desk and endure another winter? I had left in fine spirits, but I was no explorer: this was supposed to be enjoyment, not a test of stamina or patience. I did not take any pleasure in suffering the torments of travel mearly so that I could dine out on them.”

His thoughts echoed mine greatly. Ultimately this trip is about enjoyment. I had distinctly felt that a number of our bus journeys were a simple act of endurance – the sheer size of Brazil ensures this. Traveling the whole country by land would have offered me little but the knowledge that I could go home and say I had done so, and at the cost of my enjoyment. Ultimately, to ruin an amazing trip with an act of endurance simply to say you had endured seemed futile, and so to the airport, to new adventures further north, and most importantly, to enjoyment!

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