Sunday, 26 October 2008

Shining Jewels in the Clouds of Peru

So far on my travels in South America I have conquered the Inca Trail, just, and been spellbound and awed by the ruins of the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. But, let’s face it, I am a biologist at heart. The time has come to find me some fauna and flora that I can oooohhhh and aaaahhhh over, whose intricate lifestyles I can learn about, life that can mesmerise me with its beauty or even captivate me with its ugliness and sinister good looks – OK, so I may admire nature in all its glory, I can fall in love with anything furry, with cute little insects, bugged-eyed amphibians and intricately patterned snakes, but I am the first to admit that there are certain animals, particularly those with eight legs, that just give me the willies. It doesn’t help that a certain individual from Australia keeps posting pictures of giant, sinister black spiders with grotesque, spindly legs, eating birds that they have caught in their webs. Thanks Baino! Now, I can appreciate that spiders play an important role in their ecosystems. They are marvellously adapted predators, generally of small insects, what with their silk that is stronger than steel that can entrap and encase their victims for later consumption and their toxic venom that can subdue and paralyse their prey. I will never kill a spider, no matter how much it may creep me out, but they just have two too many legs, they just look evil, malevolent and wicked and while I can admire them, appreciate their role in nature and even be intrigued by their adaptations, I just cannot help but feel my skin crawl, shudder a little and be just a little bit disturbed whenever I see a spider. Anyhoo, I digress..........

So, where does a biologist go to look for nature in all its glory? The most obvious place is that with the highest biodiversity on earth – the Amazon jungle. And that is exactly where Mr. DBM and I were heading next on our journey. Specifically, we were travelling by van, boat and plane to the Manu Biosphere Reserve, located on the eastern border of Peru. The reserve encompasses approximately 20,000 square kilometres (about the size of Wales) and includes highland cloud forest and lowland rainforest. Part of the park is a completely protected national park, which allows limited use for tourism, but no hunting, logging or any kind of development. Much of the remainder of the park is designated as a biosphere reserve, which means that limited use is allowed by the indigenous people that live there, including such activities as subsistence hunting, fishing and logging. This allows the people that lived in the region before the area was declared a park to continue living there, while still protecting the incredible biodiversity of the area. Manu is one of the best places to spot wildlife in South America and has one of the highest species diversities in the world. This was going to be great – jaguar, tapir, giant river otters, ocelots, peccaries, macaws, toucans................I was going to see them all, wasn’t I? Let the journey begin!

One sometimes wonders if all the effort to get to a place is really worth it, particularly when you are actually on the journey. Is it really worth all that bumping around in the back of a van, trying not to peer through the window as the van winds its way over mountain passes on very rocky, narrow roads with very large drop offs about 2 inches from the wheels of the van? I had great confidence in the driver, but he did always seem to choose the route closest to the edge of the road, the edge that could lead to certain death. I tried to admire the view, I tried to spot birds of prey wheeling in the sky above the van, I tried to take photos of llamas and vicunas as we crossed the high planes. But all this was in vain, my eyes were drawn irresistibly, with morbid fascination to that drop of death just inches from the van wheels.

Eventually, we crossed the highest of the passes and started down the winding road into the misty wonders of the Manu cloud forest. Cloud forests are one of my favourite ecosystems. They cling to the higher slopes of the mountains that enfold the Amazon Basin. The trees drip with water as the mist and the clouds condense on their branches. They also drip with an exuberance of epiphytic vegetation, branches covered with spongy mosses and long-haired lichens, being weighed down by bromeliads, ferns and orchids. The pools of water that collect at the bases of the bromeliad leaves form little self-contained worlds. These pools of water form homes for a great diversity of minute creatures, ranging from tiny insects, such as mosquito larvae, to the many larger predators that dine on these inhabitants, including carnivorous dragonfly larvae and the tadpoles and then adults of the some of shy and secretive tree frogs that inhabit the wet and luscious cloud forest.

The cloud forest is full of life, but as I soon learnt and much to my dismay, it is not always easy to spot. Much of the life of a rainforest occurs up in the tree canopy. You catch tantalising glimpses of colour flirting with your peripheral vision. You can hear the cries and calls of the animal life around you, but you cannot pinpoint its location or discover the perpetrator of the vocalisation. You know that you are surrounded by life, so close and yet so elusive. So, when you do finally locate an animal that is doing just what you want it to do – sitting perfectly still, just waiting for you to sort your camera out, get the right lens on and figure out exactly what white balance and aperture that you need - your little heart skips a beat and you want to cry out with joy. Just such a moment happened as we descended down into the cloud forest. This little jewel of the forest was sitting on a branch, right by the side of the road, preening his feathers, just waiting for our eager eyes and camera lenses to feed off his beauty. He is a quetzal, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. During the mating season, males will grow twin tail feathers that can be up to one metre in length and these feathers have been coveted by many native cultures for ceremonial proposes for hundreds of years. As you admire this little bundle of beauty, you forget the long tortuous hours of the van ride. You forget the misery and awfulness of the journey that bought you to this place. It really wasn’t that bad after all and you realise that was worth every bump and every heart-stopping moment along the way.

So, life in the cloud forest is hard to spot. Our guide loved to point this out to us on every occasion where he had spotted something that was no longer there by the time we had sorted our binoculars out and looked in the right direction. I was starting to get a little peeved every time he said that we just missed a toucan as it flew overhead or that there a was a monkey in the tree over there, no, not that one, the one further back, oh no, it has gone now. So, you can imagine my scepticism when our guide told us that we were going to see Peru’s national bird – the cock-of-the-rock - that afternoon. He sounded so confident, so sure of himself. There was no perhaps, maybe, if you are lucky. There was none of the hedging and betting and quoting odds of between 10-50% of seeing one that I was getting so used to. He didn’t try to reduce our expectations, to soften the blow when we didn’t see one. I started to wonder how he could be so sure that we would see them? Have they got them tied to a tree somewhere just to keep us tourists happy? Do they have some stuffed ones glued to a tree branch, just far enough away so that we can see them but can’t actually tell that they are not real? What is the deal here?

It turns out that if you know a little bit about the biology of the cock-of-the-rock and you know where they breed, you will always be able to find them. Their name stems from the fact that they build their nests and raise their young amongst the boulders, rocks and cliffs that border the streams and rivers of the cloud forest. The males of this species are little ruby-red gems that congregate in certain areas, known as leks, near the nesting sites. Here they spend their time trying to impress the females. They perform a ritual dance, which includes bowing, strutting, jumping, snapping bills, flapping wings and noisy calling, sounding similar to squealing pigs. As with many birds, the females are a much more sensible colour, in this case a dull brown, and they do not exhibit behaviors that will attract the attention of potential predators. They just sit and quietly watch and then the choice is all theirs. They may not be as pretty to our eyes, but they get just what they want and the power is all theirs – isn’t that always the way it is with females?

Our first night in Manu was spent at the Manu Cloud Forest Lodge, a little bit of comfort surrounded by all the colour, noise and exuberance of the surrounding forest. After surviving the Inca Trail and its lack of anywhere near decent toilet facilities, a place with a hot water shower and a flushing toilet is a little bit of heaven to me. And the lodge had both! It also had a gushing stream behind it that I was assured would lull me into a deep, peaceful and serene sleep. Many people seem to share the view that the sound of running water is peaceful. To me, a trickling sound of water tinkling past my ear at night just makes me want to pee. In this case, it was not a burbling, gurgling stream, skipping over the rocks as it cascaded peacefully down the valley. Oh no, it was a huge, giant torrent of water, blasting and thundering down through the rocks and boulders right behind our room. How on earth was I going to sleep with that racket going on all night? It is not like the river was going to shut off for the night, was it? Turns out that I was either so tired or my body was so grateful for the extra oxygen found at these lower elevations compared to the altiplano, that I slept like the proverbial log. Or perhaps, just perhaps, that river did lull me into the most peaceful night’s sleep that I had had since arriving in South America.

The next morning, we continued with our epic journey to reach the tropical rain forest of Manu National Park. Just as I was settling into my journey frame of mind, the van came to an abrupt stop – monkeys! Not just the glimpse of one in some far off tree. Here was a family of woolly-tailed monkeys crossing the road right in front of our bus. I even had time to get my camera out! I am generally not a big fan of monkeys – they can tend to look just a little too human for my liking at times - but these furry little guys were just adorable. Just look at those cute but grumpy little faces. How could you not fall in love with them? Since they live in the cooler climes of the cloud forest, these monkeys are covered with a thick coat of fur. Their tails are long, prehensile and very strong and they can often be seen hanging from just their tails to rest or to free up their hands for feeding on fruit, leaves or small invertebrates. During the day, they tend to travel in small family groups, moving from one tree to the next, foraging for food. Watching these creatures move effortlessly from one tree to the next, mothers with babies, young juveniles and large, powerful males was just a perfect ending for our short, but sweet visit to the cloud forest of Peru.

Next stop – the hot, humid, sweaty Peruvian jungle. Finally, some heat for my poor chilled bones………

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Machu Picchu - The Lost City of the Incas.

At the end of my last blog, I had conquered the Inca Trail. I had made it to Machu Picchu, the Lost of City the Incas. Was I ecstatic, excited, thrilled to be standing at the heart of a long dead civilisation? No. Quite frankly, I was knackered and I needed a lie down. I was also very disappointed that it was chucking it down with rain and that I could only see small portions of the ruin at any one time. But don’t fret, dear reader, that is not the end of my Inca Tale. For the sun will come out tomorrow.......

4am – The Sun was not out, yet, but Mr. DBM and I were up bright and early (well, definitely early). We planned to get the first bus up to Machu Picchu so that we could enjoy the mystical and magical ruins of the Lost City in solitude, peace and quiet. Imagine our surprise when we reached the bus stop at 5:15am, only to find at least 10 bus loads of people already there! So much for our solitude, peace and quiet. Oh well, this is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, so perhaps we should not have been quite so surprised. It turns out that most of these people were heading for Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers over the ruins in all the pictures and postcards. Only 400 people are allowed on this trail per day, so if you want to do it, you have to get there early. I did toy with the idea of doing it, but only for about 24.7Āµsecs. Who was I kidding, the sight of just the flight of stairs going up to our hotel room was enough for me to break out into a cold sweat. So, while streams of people headed off towards Huayna Picchu, Joe and I headed back up towards the Sun Gate.

I may not have been paying much attention to my guide the day before, but I could remember him saying that the best views of Machu Picchu were not all the way back at the Sun Gate, but at a small series of terraces about half way back. Phew! I am pretty sure my tired limbs could not make it back up to the Sun Gate, but they did make it back to the terraces. As we reached our destination, I looked up, straight into the face of a llama. Just imagine my surprise and delight as I gazed into those deep, brown, liquid eyes, surrounded by long, curved lashes that any model would die for. I was captivated by those eyes..............but then the llama moved its head and I ended up staring straight into a mouthful of rather misaligned and somewhat too large teeth. I decided that the whole effect was delightful and immediately fell in love with Quido. I am not sure that the feeling was mutual. After all, I have blue eyes and, thanks to a good dentist, my teeth are relatively straight, but he did tolerate me for a while.
We then moved onto several viewpoints to get that view that I had been looking forward to every painful, arduous, grueling step of the way along the Inca Trail. Finally, there it was, spread below me in all its ancient glory, wisps of clouds clinging to the peak of Huayna Picchu, tendrils of mist reaching out and curling around the walls and buildings beneath me. I sat on a terrace wall, with my legs dangling over the side, Machu Picchu hugging the contours in front of me and grazing llamas behind me. I smiled. I just sat and I smiled. This is what I came for.

As I sat, I started to imagine what life must have been like when the city was in its full Incan glory. It was built around 1460, and was designed as a religious retreat for the rich and famous of the Incan Empire. It contains everything a priest could want – temples, sanctuaries, parks and residences. There are the all important sacrifice stones for those yearly child sacrifices. Apparently, llamas were the normal sacrificial victims but, every-so-often, it was deemed necessary to step it up a notch and offer up a virgin female to the Gods. A stock of suitable young girls were kept handy, chosen for their good looks and exceptional talents and skills. It was a great honour to be sacrificed to the gods and the lucky girl’s family was greatly rewarded. Oh well, that is alright then, although I am not sure what the poor girl got out of it. A few years of pampering and then.........Still, let’s look on the bright side, at least they had the decency to slip her a few drugs before the deed was done so that she didn’t scream or make a scene or anything. As a child, I was ugly and not particularly talented at anything, so I would have been alright, but if I had been pretty, I think that I would have been particularly useless at everything or poked my eye out with a sharp stick – they wouldn’t want a one-eyed beauty for the slab, would they?

As the sun continued to rise over the ruins and the mist and clouds began their daily retreat, Mr. DBM and I headed down to explore the narrow alleyways, buildings and terraces that make up Machu Picchu. As we wandered in and out of buildings and down the quieter, less visited corridors and alleys, I could almost hear children’s laughter echoing between the walls , I could almost see them running through doorways and down staircases, the past flitting before my eyes and teasing my ears, so near and yet so long ago. The spell was broken when a rather large tourist came barreling around the corner, telling his wife that he was planning to visit the hot springs of Aqua Calientes that afternoon. Great, now the only image burning itself onto my retina was large rolls of white flesh concealing a barely present Speedo.......shudder........

One of the things that has impressed me about the Incas is their skill with stone. Now, I know that I have complained, grumbled, moaned, whined and generally objected quite strenuously to all the stone steps that I have had to climb and descend on my way to Machu Picchu, but that does not alter the fact that I have been impressed with every single one of them. OK, so I didn’t want to have to tread on every single one of them, but one cannot help but be amazed by a trail that has lasted for over 500 years with very little maintenance. You can also see evidence of their stone masonry skills when looking at the walls of the more important buildings of the city. These are built with blocks of stone that have been cleverly cut so that they lock together like a jigsaw, without the need for mortar or cement. The walls all tilt in slightly and doors and windows are trapezoid in shape. Since no mortar is used, all the stones can move slightly relative to each other and then resettle without the wall collapsing. Such subtleties in design make these buildings very resistant to earthquakes – there are walls in Machu Picchu and other Incan cities, such as Cusco, that have been standing for centuries, while modern buildings collapse around them.

The most intriguing mystery surrounding Machu Picchu and one of the things that makes it so fascinating and enigmatic is the reason behind its abandonment only 100 years after its construction. There are, of course, many eminently sensible suggestions as to what led the Incas to abandon their most holy of cities. The most likely one is a combination of diseases, such as small pox, that were introduced by European invaders and wars, both with the Spanish and within the Incan Empire. Both led to a decrease in population, resulting in diminished manual labour and increases in costs of maintenance. In essence, Machu Picchu became a luxury that the Incans could no longer afford. My own pet theory is that there were just too many damn stairs that everything had to be lugged up and down and, one day, some bright spark suggested that they all go and live down by the river instead. Thus ended an era of pure mountain air, views to die for, llamas grazing contently on the terraces and calf muscles bigger than any Olympic athlete.

This picture has been added for the viewing pleasure of all, but particularly for Drowsey Monkey, Olga the Travelling Bra and my friend Cortes.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Inca Trail 1 : DBM 1

02:46 – I wake up, gasping. I take several deep breaths, drawing much needed oxygen into my lungs. Am I having an asthma attack? Why am I gasping for air? I need oxygen! Then I remember where I am – Cusco, Peru, 3310m above sea level. All my life, I have lived close to sea level and I have never really appreciated all the lovely oxygen found at lower altitudes. Now, I am really missing that abundance of life giving O2. Up here, on the Altiplano of the Andes, the air is much thinner and oxygen levels are lower than low altitude dwellers are used to. This can lead to many problems, such as headaches, lethargy, nausea, listlessness and, as I can now attest to, sleeplessness. Just walking down one of the cobbled streets of Cusco has me gasping for air and this has me worried – how on earth am I going to hike the Inca Trail if I can barely make down the street to buy some water?

Mr. DBM and I flew into Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, over a week before we were due to start the Inca Trail. We knew about the perils of altitude and had worked out a plan to kill two birds with one stone. We would spend a week in Cusco to allow our bodies’ time to acclimatise to the altitude and we would go to Spanish school so that we would be able to communicate our wants and needs to the locals. I am not sure that the plan worked so well for me – my Spanish is, at best, still minimal and I was still suffering from shortness of breath and sleeplessness. On top of that, I managed to pick up some kind of bug a couple of days before we were due to start the trail. This purged my system of all its contents and left me feeling rather weak even before we started the hike. This post is therefore a testament to the strength, endurance, stamina and resilience of the human body rather than all the pretty flowers or the Inca ruins seen on the hike.

Day 1 – 12 km, altitude gain of 250m.

No problem there, I can easily manage 250m of elevation gain. We started hiking through the dry and dusty valley running alongside Rio Cusichca, aka the “Happy River”. Well, we were all happy at this point. The trail was flat and the hiking was easy. We passed small settlements complete with chickens, dogs and donkeys and hiked alongside prickly pear cactus and other desert flora. Then the trail started to ascend. Our guide kept telling us that it was just a short, slight incline, but I soon learnt not to trust a word he said. OK, so compared to what lay ahead, it was a short, relatively easy incline, but I was still knackered by lunch. And I was starting to get this very uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. No, it wasn’t something that I ate or the effects of altitude. I was worried. The first day was supposed to be the easy day, and I was already struggling. How on earth was I going to get through the second day? Still, after lunch, we ascended further up onto a plateau overlooking the river and enjoyed views of our first Inca ruins – Willkaraqay and Patallacta.

We then continued on to our first campsite. As I was closing the flaps of our tent, I gazed out at the towering mountains that surrounded us and saw a large, black bird glide effortlessly down the valley. Was it a condor, the majestic bird of the Andes, the ancient messenger of the Incas? It may well have just been a vulture, but I went to sleep with a smile on my face, imagining floating down the valley on the wings of the condor...........

Day 2 – 13km, altitude gain of 800m.

The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, along with the altitude kept me awake most of the night. Today is the day we go “over the top.” If you look at the stats for the day, they really don’t sound so bad, do they? But what they don’t tell you is that there is a ruddy great big peak between the first camp and the second camp and that you have to go over this. It is known as the “Dead Woman’s Pass” and this is not making me feel any better. I am a little concerned that they will soon have to rename it the “Dead Women’s Pass.” It is the highest point on the Inca Trail, topping out at 4215m. Things do not get off to a good start. Mr. DBM also has an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Unfortunately, this is due to something he ate, and after about 1 hour of struggling up the trail he has to admit that he is now suffering from full-blown food poisoning and that he cannot continue. After a brief and tearful goodbye, he descended back the way we had come and I continued trudging on up and up, on my own, wondering if I would ever make it. The only thing that kept me amused were the hundreds of butterflies that fluttered and drifted through the trees, catching the light and my eye as they briefly alighted on the path before floating off back into the trees.

As I struggled up the path, I passed a large group of Japanese hikers. This gave me a little hope, since this meant that I was actually not the slowest person hiking the Inca Trail. I trudged on. I passed from the desert of the lower trail, through cloud forest and on up into the alpine zone of the high mountain pass. The pass could be seen, just ahead, but it never seemed to get any closer. It was a matter of just getting one foot in front of the other, climbing up one more set of stairs, getting from one bend in the path to the next. I tried to amuse myself by counting the stairs in Spanish. This was great for getting to around 20, but then I would have to stop and have a rest. Still, even managing only 20 steps at a time, eventually one will reach the top. And I did. Once there, I collapsed, threw up and then admired the view. You see, there are advantages to being one of the slowest hikers on the trail. I looked back down the valley, picked out the trail winding down its side; I could even make out a mixed herd of sheep, mules and llamas down in the valley bottom. But what I couldn’t see were any people. It was as if I were the only person on the trail, the only one admiring the magnificent view. My solitude was complete and I was elated. I had made the top of the pass and I was still alive!

Now all I had to do was get down the other side. When you are struggling up a hill, you always long for the downhill. However, once you start on that steep, never ending set of stairs leading down into the next valley, you almost wish for some uphill again. Note, I said almost! As I was making my weary way down, I met a porter coming back up the trail. He had a kettle and mugs and we sat down to enjoy a cup of mate de coca, a tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. This is all very legal in Peru, as long as you are just making tea and not trying to make or export anything else! It is said to help with altitude sickness and settle the stomach and it was one of the few things that I could keep down on the whole of the Inca trail. The porter then took my backpack and we descended that last few hundred metres into the camp. I fell into my tent and was asleep within minutes.

Day 3 – 15km, altitude loss of 1200m

This is the day that I stopped listening to the guide completely. I had done the high pass, it was all downhill from here, right? Look at the stats for the day, an elevation loss of more than 1000m. Yes, we had further to go, but the trail was all level or downhill, right? As the dawn broke and I looked down the valley, I could see a trail winding off up the side of the valley. Yes, that is right, up the valley. Well, obviously that wasn’t our trial, was it? We were heading down today, weren’t we? Well, apparently, not yet. First we had to ascend and conquer a second pass, nearly as high as Dead Woman’s Pass. As I was ascending this pass, I did briefly consider naming it “Dead Guide’s Pass”, but he was ahead of me and I was never going to catch him up and then have the energy left to kill him. So, I trudged on and up once again, finally reaching the pass at 3950m. Surely it must all be downhill from here? Well, apparently not, since the Incas seem to have a hard time building a level trail. Oh yes, they were great at building steps and staircases, going up and downhill, but there is very little flat Inca trail. According to Wikipedia, at one point the trail descends approximately 1000m, with one irregular staircase of 1300-1500 steps. Now, since I can only count to 20 in Spanish, I shall have to take their word for it,
although it did seem like a lot more steps to me! As we descended the second pass, we entered cloud forest once again, and, despite the fact that I spent most of my time looking at my feet, I did look up enough to see the unique vegetation that is found at these altitudes. There were trees dripping with mosses and lichens, adorned with bromeliads and ferns. There were tree ferns and cycads and many colourful, intricate and delicate orchids. And out of this misty, magical forest would loom Inca ruins that had been enshrouded in the clouds and vegetation for centuries before being rediscovered and revealed. I just wish that I had been a little less tired and had a bit more time to stop and explore this wonderful ecosystem, its flora, fauna and history. But, I had 15km to cover before dark and I had to keep moving........

Day 4 – 6km, altitude loss of 250m

The last day of hiking, the day I have looked forward to for a long, long time. It is the day we reach Intipunco – The Sun Gate – and I gaze down onto the greatest Inca ruins discovered, the Lost City of Machu Picchu. At least, that is how I always imagined it. However, the reality was quite different from my mental image. We were up at four, at the last checkpoint at five, where we had to wait in line with all the other eager trekkers to pass through the check point. It was then a forced march to the Sun Gate, with the goal of getting there just at sunrise, before all the tourists heading up to the site via bus, without shedding a bead of sweat or working a single muscle. Something is not right there........Luckily, the trail at this point was actually quite flat, and so I kept up with the pace for the most part. There were a couple of very nasty, very steep staircases to climb, but they were fairly short and I only needed a couple of breaks. One was to take a photo of one of the showiest orchids along the trail. What was most amazing about this orchid was not its size or its colour, but its abundance along the trail and around Machu Picchu. You could hardly miss these beauties!

As we drew nearer the Sun Gate, my heart began to sink, We had been lucky with the weather up to this point, but now the clouds were drawing in and, no matter how much I told myself it was just heavy mist, I could no longer deny that fact that it was starting to rain. As passed through the Sun Gate, I shed a little tear. All that work, all that pain and for what? A sheer expanse of whiteness, of nothingness. A man standing next to me stated that “It is the journey, not the destination that matters.” This bought about two reactions from me. One was to shed another tear, since I knew that that was exactly what my husband would have said had he been there with me. The other reaction was a little more extreme. I wanted to reach into the man’s throat and rip out his entire intestinal tract and then strangle him with it. After resisting this urge, I picked up my pack and wended my very weary way down the stone path and into the heart of Machu Picchu. There was only one thing that was going to lift my spirits now and put a smile on my face. I have never been so happy to see that balding spot on the back of my husband’s head. I picked up as much speed as I could muster down those last few steps and threw myself at him. “I made it, honey, I made it!” At this point, I really did not care about how Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu or why it was abandoned so many years ago. My body had pulled through and had achieved what it needed to, on very little sleep and even less food and now it was done. All I wanted to do was to lie down and never look at another step or staircase in my life, even if that meant moving to the Netherlands and living in a bungalow. Shame we were on the second floor of the hotel........aarrgghhhh........

Friday, 3 October 2008

DBM - Probably the Worst Traveller in the World!

Here I am, on a four month travel odyssey around South America and I am now admitting to being the world’s worst traveller – probably. How can this possibly be? Well, let me outline some of my travel foibles:

1. Health issues. If you read my previous blog, you will know that I went through a little stomach cleansing on my first night in Ecuador. Well, since then, I have had an even more thorough purging of the whole digestive tract. There are many reasons why travel tends to elicit such violent reactions from me. Exertion and stress are two of them. There have been many occasions when I have scaled some large mountain, reached the top and triumphantly lost my lunch. Apparently, sitting on a plane and doing absolutely nothing for hours, followed by the intense exertion of lugging four bags 50m is enough to set off this reaction. Combine this with jetlag, lack of good food and sleep, and there you have it. The perfect, heaving, storm. Now, added to this, we have the complications of high altitude, which can also bring on bouts of nausea...................well, you can probably already guess what happened when I tried to do the Inca Trail. Stress, exertion and high altitude all rolled into one, convenient, four day package. Not that I want to spoil my next post for you............

2. Issues with social customs in foreign countries.
Being English, I have had many social customs drilled into me from an early age. Don’t drop litter, hold open doors for people, stand on the right of escalators to let people pass, let people off the train before you get on, form a nice orderly queue and wait your turn..........I could go on, but I think that you get my general drift. Common courtesy, that is what I am talking about here. Well, such courtesies often do not apply in other countries. And it really bugs me. What is so hard about holding a door open for the person behind you? Would it kill you not to walk in a group of four along the pavement and make everyone else go around you and have to walk in the gutter? Doesn’t it just make sense to let people off a train before you try to get on? This little tirade is mostly due to the fact that to get from our hotel to the town square in Cusco, you have to walk along a very narrow street with a pavement that only allows one, lean person on it. To me, the sensible thing here is for the people facing oncoming traffic to vacate the pavement for those going the other way – after all, they can see if there is a huge tourist bus coming that may just take their heads off with a well-placed wing mirror. Of course, nothing so sensible happens, and it is every man, woman and child for themselves. So, one day, I decide that I am going to challenge this. I am going to walk the whole length of the pavement without stepping foot onto the road. My back is to the traffic, I should not have to risk losing my head to a wing mirror. Let’s just hope I don’t meet any old people, women carrying large loads or small babies – even I would give them the right of way – well, that’s just polite. So, off I set, staring directly ahead. Young, fit men have to leave the pavement, middle-aged men in business suits have to step into the gutter. Teenage girls have to actually acknowledge the world around them and stop giggling and go around me. All is going well, I am within metres of my goal, when a 6 year old girl comes towards me. She stops, I stop, we stare – then victory is mine! I outstared, outstubbourned and outlasted a 6 year old. I conquered that path once, but after that, I couldn’t stop feeling guilty about that little girl, and so I stopped trying to change Peruvian behaviour and for the rest of our stay, I walked in the gutter a lot. Thankfully, my head is still intact.

3. I am not good if local amenities are not up to western standards. I like to be able to sit on a toilet, throw the TP down the toilet and then flush. Is this so much to ask? Well, unfortunately, yes, it is. Many countries just don’t use sit on toilets – they are squatters. My main issue with squatters is the fear that one day I will squat and I won’t be able to get up again – I am getting older you know, and one’s legs can get very weak after much stomach cleansing.........I once stayed in a hostel in Thailand that did have sit on toilets. Trouble is, you would go in and the seat would be covered in dirty footprints where locals have stood on the toilet so that they could squat. I guess they like their toilets their way. In most of South America, sit on toilets are the norm, but their sewage system cannot cope with paper. This means you have to throw the used paper into a bin besides the toilet – what can I say – eeeeeuuuuuwwwww.
I also like my shower to be hot. Not lukewarm, not, well, it isn’t freezing, but hot! If you advertise hot showers, they had better be hot. No, I won’t accept the excuse that this is what passes for hot in this country. And being hot only at four in the morning or four in the afternoon is not good enough either. Who gets up at four in the morning for a shower? Well, I guess I do, if my choice is that or a cold shower. I just don’t do cold showers, period. Also, a dribble coming from a hole in the wall does not fall under my definition of a hot shower. If I can get a better shower by emptying my hot water bottle over my head, then the shower is definitely lacking.

4. Food preferences. I am not the most adventurous eater and food can be an issue for me. My number one rule is that I don’t eat pets. No rabbit in England, no dog in Sulawesi, no frogs legs in France and definitely no guinea pig in Peru – have you seen just how cute those guys are? How on earth could you eat them? I also don’t do “traditional food”, such as elephant in Africa, rats in Indonesia or alpaca in Peru – the locals don’t eat this – they eat rice, beans and potato – that is traditional food. I really do not need to eat alpaca or guinea pig. There is plenty of chicken to go around, thank you very much.
My other issue with food is that it never tastes right when you are in another country. The cheese here is just chewy, bread is sweet, milk is mostly none existent. The Chinese food doesn’t taste like Chinese and Peruvian Mexican or Italian is, well, still Peruvian. I long for a good hunk of mature cheddar and a nice bowl of cereal covered in ice cold milk. In fact, just a nice cold drink would be lovely. Other than in Cusco, drinks are not kept in fridges here. And the worst thing – my jar of Marmite is running dangerously low. I still have nearly 3 months to go – what am I going to do!?!

5. Tourists. I have issues with other tourists. There are just too many of them everywhere, spoiling my views, getting in the way of my photos, clogging up the scenery. Speaking to the locals in their own language and expecting them to understand if they just say it louder and slower. At least I tried to learn Spanish, and I do have Mr. DBM, who is getting quite good with the local lingo. The ones that I have the most issues with are the ones that loll around in their baggy trousers with crotches down past their knees, their hippy shirts and their ethnic bag slung over their chests. You know the ones I mean. They generally haven’t shaved in months (male or female) and their hair is now one tangled mass of ropey, skanky, mats of fibre that could be inhabited by 50 species of parasitic insects and arachnids new to science. I just want to hold them down, shave off all their hair and tell them to go home, have a bath and GET A JOB!
I also hate being treated like a tourist. I hate being given the tourist menu, with the pictures and the higher prices. I hate being told that a taxi to the town centre will cost me s/6 when I am standing right next to an official sign that say taxis to the town centre will cost s/3. I may not be fluent in the local language, but I am not an idiot! I hate being treated like some huge walking dollar sign that can be pestered at all hours to buy something.

So, there you have it. The world’s worst traveller?

I can think of one who is worse than me, but I can’t complain too much. The reason he travels is not to see the world. He travels because he loves me.

PS. The pictures were taken from around Cusco, Peru.