Monday, July 09, 2007

Back Home

We've been back home for a month now. Simon has been nursed back to health with the help of his Mum's cooked breakfasts and marmalade cake. We've had a wonderful time catching up with everyone, especially all the new babies that arrived while we were away! So now we are looking for a way to hop back on to the work treadmill, and soon it will feel like our journey was just a dream.

We have posted a selection of our photos on www.flickr.com If you are not already a Flickr member, you will need to create an account. Once you are in, click the drop down menu next to "Search" (top right hand corner) and select "Flickr Members", type in "Workingfromhome", click search, this should give you Simon's Flickr account, then click on the icon to see our pictures.

Thanks for reading the blog and leaving your comments...it really helped us to feel "in touch" while we were many miles away.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Change of plan...

Simon has been feeling unwell for several weeks now, so when we arrived in Cusco we got him checked out by the doc. It turns out that in an amazingly bad turn of luck, he has managed to pick up salmonella AND giardia. Consequently, we´ve been a clinic for the past 3 days with poor old Simon hooked up to a drip. He´s been discharged with a veritable cocktail of tablets to take, and the doc thinks he´ll be fine in a week or so. However...it´s all been a bit stressful and tiring, so we decided to come home early, a week on Friday to be precise, and we´re really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Where are the Andes?

At the end of your armies! (That´s definitely Simon´s joke).

Before we left Nazca, we took a trip to the Chauchilla cemetery, where the ancient Nazcans buried their dead, mainly as mummies crouched in a foetal position in walled pits. Many of the graves have been looted, so there´s not much left to look at in the way of funerary textiles or offerings. But the looters didn´t seem to be interested in the very long hair that most of these mummies have, so at least they have retained some of their adornment.

Our guide also told us a lot about the current economic and social sitaution in the area. It suffered a bad earthquake about 10 years ago, and as most of the houses are made of mud bricks, not many survived. The government gave grants to those who could prove they had lost a house, but did nothing for tenants until recently, when they allocated a plot of land about 1 mile out of town that now houses about 100 families, again in mud brick dwellings, but with no water, sewerage or electricity. By contrast, 5 miles further down the road is an agricultural property supporting about 20 families, with its own church and school. As there is so little surface water in Nazca, some years there is no crop at all, so agriculture is not a viable way to make a living as irrigation is too expensive, and yet this community receives many subsidies in order to keep going.

Next stop on our Peruvian journey was Cusco. At over 3,000 metres above sea level, nestled in a high valley of the Andes, it´s hard to imagine a greater contrast with the desert from whence we came. Cusco is tourist central as it´s the nearest big town to Machu Pichu. Consequently, the locals wander the streets in traditional costume, and offer to pose for pictures, along with their most photogenic alpacas (some of the alpacas even have red tasselled earrings!). To really tug at the heart strings, the kids carry around baby alpacas.

We made a 2 day side trip to Pisac, a little market town just 30 Km out of Cusco, to see the Inca ruins there (a quiet introduction, as Machu Pichu will be vey busy). Huffing up the steep terracing to the ruins, I finally realised why athletes train at high altitudes...I felt like an asthmatic grandma. Back in the town, wandering around the craft market and marvelling at the softness of the baby alpaca wool products, we realised why the kids in Pisac carry small puppies.

Tommorrow we go to Machu Pichu, so we´ll finally find out what all the fuss is about. Simon said we should prepare to be underwhelmed...the English were building elaborate castles at the same time as the Incas were errecting these simple dwellings with no turrets, windows or even the little slitty openings for arrows...what are they called again?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Puzzling over the Nazca Lines

So we arrived in Nazca and got up early the very next morning for our scenic flight over the lines (a series of huge geometric shapes and pictures of animals on a flat expanse in the pampa, made by the Nazca civilisation between 900 BC to 600 AD, by removing dark stones from the pale sub-soil). The plane was tiny, with barely enough room for the 5 passengers plus pilot, and in true South American style, there was no whisper of a safety briefing...the only sign in the plane was to remind us that the pilot will accept tips.

The plane buzzes along a couple of hundred feet above the ground, banking left and right to make sure everyone gets a near vertical view of each figure, some of which were a monkey, spider, hummingbird, dog, potato plant, astronaut and huge trapezoids that look like landing strips. You can see why some speculate that this was a point of communication with aliens, however those in the know tell you that the astranaut is actually an owl-man diety. For some reason the pilot thought we were all French, so that was the language in which our commentary delivered. All we could think of was "Le singe est dans l'abre, con la plume de ma tante"...but there were no auntie´s hats to be seen.

That evening, we went to a lecture at the planetarium to find out more about the purpose of the lines. Some say they locate precious water sources, others that the figures correspond to constellations, and so it is a huge astronomical calendar, but as the Nazcans did not develop any other writing system, we may never know. Afterwards, the guy got his telescope out and we took it in turns to look at the planets.

A rival lecture is run by an Austrian lady, Viktoria, who was a friend of Maria Rieche, a German mathematician who spent most of her life studying and preserving the lines. Viktoria did a great job of explaing Maria´s theories (see above) and concluded that the lines on the pampa are a big book of knowledge for the Nazcans, so why would they have developed a writing system...the lines are the writing system.

Viktoria has many huge chips on her shoulder about the lack of recognition for Maria´s work, the lack of national funding for studying and preserving the lines, the locals prediliction for riding rough-shod over the lines (while being happy to profit from tourism), the effect of TV on our brains (it makes your brain square), the uselessness of UNESCO (they have done nothing for the lines so they may as well shut down and grow potatoes) and the wealth gap between all western cultures and coutries like Peru. The two of us made up her entire audience that day, so we ended up feeling directly responsible for all of these ills and promised to tell all our friends about the Nazca lines. We have spare copies of her book which some of you may receive as gifts from our travels!

Well, that´s enough of the lines. We have a couple more days in Nazca before we take the bus to Cuzco. Just as well as after more than 10 months of travelling with perfect health, we are both suffering with upset stomachs, and we haven´t even tried the raw fish specialty of cerviche yet!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Darkest Peru

It was a fairly long and tedious journey out of Patagonia. a 3 hour bus ride then 3 different flights, before arriving in Lima at midnight. Unfortunately Lima is not the kind of place to be hanging around at midnight...but fortunately our hostel had arranged a pick up at the airport, so we were all safe behind the barred gates and windows by 1 30 am.

It is a real shock to be transported from lovely tranquil and beautiful Patagonia, from the rather expensive hotel that the remainining 6 members of "team Navimag" spent their last night, to a seemingly dangerous and smoggy Lima. To be honest I think we´d rather have stayed in Patagonia. Never mind, we´re not holidaying, we´re travelling...and that requires some "discomfort" periodically.

We spent our 1st day in Lima, exploring the neighborhood, which is pretty wealthy in Lima terms...Miraflores. It reaches to the cliffs overlooking a sea that you wouldn´t get into if you were paid to, but the views through the smog are quite impressive. We followed tradition and immediately found and drank a local beer. This one was Cusqueño (Richard see if you can find it in Waitrose)....and its fairly good.

Next to Central Lima, where you do need to have your wits about you. I have never seen so many armed Police, including 2 armoured cars with machine guns mounted on them in a city centre. We visited the Catacombs of the Monastario San Fransisco, which contain the bones of around 25000 monks and priests, all laid out perfectly according to type of bone, not the individual to which they once belonged....very strange, especially as the current monks were having their sunday service above us, clearly visible through a floor grating....all a bit "name of the Rose".

Despite Lima´s shortcomings, it does sertve some amazing food. We spent a top night at "Astrid Y Gaston" where Sam ate Cuy (Guinea Pig) and I had Pork (coward). Peruvian food is rather unique, often containing Fried banana, sweet potato, and giant sweetcorn.

So, from Lima we took a bus to Pisco, and we have been here for a day. Sam went on a boat trip to the Islas Ballestas, which is full of sea birds of all makes and models; terns, penguins, boobies, cormorants, pelicans, vultures etc. This number of birds produces some seriously large piles of guano(bird poo) so high in nitrates that it is harvested and sold at a high price for fertiliser.

Tomorrow we leave for Nazca, famous for its lines...strange markings in the desert, which I believe are as yet unexplained, but we will find out more and let you know

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The W

The reason we all came this far south was to hike the "W" - a 4 day walk through the national park - Torres del Paine. It seems we were lucky to make it in time as we are right at the end of the season, and all the facilities in the park are starting to shut down. In fact, we had stunning weather for our walk, the sunshine only being broken by snow on the last day, but the diminishing day light hours make it difficult to complete some legs of the hike without walking in the dark (which we did on 2 of the 4 days).

The most frustrating aspect of the hike was preparing...nobody could give us a straight answer about which lodges, buses and ferries were still operating. Everything is run by different companies, and they tell you lies in the hope that you will spend your money with them instead of the lodge on the next leg of the hike. We had to use all of our cunning and subterfuge to get it right and avoid camping in holes in the snow!

The colours in the park are amazing at the moment, as the leaves are every colour from green through yellow and orange to red. Couple that with the vivid blue of the sky and even some icebergs, and the stark grey of the mountains dusted with icing sugar-like snow, and all the condors we saw, and you can imagine we took stacks of photos.

Tomorrow we fly from Punta Arenas to Lima in Peru where we hope the weather will be a little warmer, and the spoken Spanish will be a little easier to understand.

Navimag

The next leg of our journey entailed a 4 day ferry journey on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt (a pretty uninspiring port) through the narrow sea channels of southern Patagonia to Puerto Natales (pretty town on the edge of a lake with stunning views of the national park, Torres del Paine). It used to be a purely cargo service, on which bohemian travellers would stow away for a small fee, but theses days, Navimag has cottoned on to the tourist dollar, and kitted their boats out with cabins and communal areas for their human passengers. Sometimes you can be on the boat with a load of cattle, but we just had a few horses.

Having prepared ourselves to combat boredom, hunger and sea sickness, we were pleasantly suprised to find we hardly had a minute to spare between socialising, photography, giant chess, eating and movies. The sea sickness couldn't be avoided on the second day as we traversed Golfo de Penas, and the Pacific Ocean created a 3 metre swell for 12 hours. But we all felt the suffering was worth it as we had incredible views on the third day with glassy smooth water, rainbows, and frolicking sea otters.

The final evening involved a game of bingo where we cleaned up, winning wine and Navimag socks, followed by games and dancing with our new friends Clare and David the Aussie doctors, Emily and David the dancer and chef from Ireland, and "King" Richard from the UK, so named for his stately beard and the mitre like walking stick he would later acquire during our hike in Torres del Paine.

Chiloe

Well our last few days in Pucon were plagued by torrential rain, but we didn't mind as we were in cosy hostel !ecole! - an ecologically minded outfit that had a sense of style and a delicious vegetarian restaurant (admittedly Sam was more excited about that than Simon, and we did have to go out for a few meals so that Simon could have lomo a lo pobre; the national dish of steak, fried eggs and chips).

A multi-leg journey of bus, bus, ferry, and bus got us to Castro, the capital of Chiloe, South America´s 2nd biggest island. It's a place that time forgot, and consequently a great place to see some Chillean culture. We spent 4 freezing cold days there, taking buses to misty fishing villages, looking at the cute wooden churches and houses built on stilts over the water covered with wooden shigles(palafitos). Simon made friends with the guy who ran the local craft market where we bought some woolly hats and scarves. The conversation was limited but they managed to sympathise with each other about the weather...it rains in Chiloe, it rains in London, it's all the bloody same!

One particular fishing village, Quemchi, had a fabulous rustic restaurant where the owner greeted us warmly, sat us down in front of the fire, and enthusiastically described the menu del dia...none of which we understood. However we really enjoyed the food that kept coming from the kitchen - a stew called curanto, made from chicken and fish with loads of fresh parsely, and a beautiful piece of grilled salmon with a russian salad, all washed down with a cold beer.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chi, Chi, Chi, Lay, Lay Lay

Is how the football supporters here refer to their country.

We had a fabulous few days in Santiago which felt just like being in Spain - the buildings, the food, the weather...all the same. But, you know you're not in Spain because the Chileans are all short stout people, and by contrast, they are surrounded by the beautiful cordillera - the magnificant mountain range of the Andes.

We stayed in a new hotel that is a beautiful restoration of an old merchants colonial style house, and Sam practised her Spanish with the breakfast waitress when Simon wanted breakfast in bed one day! We had a pisco sour before every evening meal because that's what the locals do, and also they are delicious. We went up the mountain in a funicular to see the blessed virgin and look out over the sprawling city covered in smog. We saw chinchoro mummies in the museum that are even older than the egyptian mummies.

Next we hopped on the train for 3 hours south of Santiago to arrive in the wine region of Talca. James, our host at the hostel, took us on his wine tour which visited two local vineyards for tours and tastings, plus a high speed drive around some of the local sights. He´d even fitted his car out with a couple of DVD players so we could watch the Tourist Information film about the region. Unfortunately we were only there for the wine, and the DVD merely served to illustrate how much more we were missing.

Also in Talca, we needed to get some stamps for our Easter Island postcards. We expected this to be a 5 min job, but after making our request at the Post Office counter, we were escorted into the office behind, and sat down at a desk with a particularly rotund Chillean who got out a huge folder of stamps with different pictures, and asked us to select our favourite. Each postcard required 2 stamps, 1 decorative stamp and an "International Priority" sticker, and was meant to go in an envelope with official looking stamps on. Well the cards didn´t fit the envelopes, and the nice gentleman spent a long time sticking the stamps on in a way that didn´t obscure too much writing. 20 mins later, he concluded the process with a shake of our hands worthy of a business deal!

Now we find ourselves in Pucon, a further 8 hours by bus, on the edge of the Lake Distict. We are in between a huge lake and a huge active volcano, and yesterday we attempted to climb the latter. It was the first day in 20 that the weather was good enough for the 2847 metre ascent. So we set off with our ice axes and crampons, shepherded by our manic guides whose mission was to get us up there quick enough to peak inside the crater to see the molten lava, then scurry down again before the weather got too bad.

It was all going well until the final 150 metres when the gradient got really steep. We were sometimes wading through snow, and at others crunching our crampons into solid ice, all the while the wind was whipping ice crystals into our faces. I´m afraid to say it all got a bit too much for me as I started to find the whole experience terrifying, so the guide dug a hole in the snow for me to wait in while the others did the final 100m, and Simon very kindly insisted on staying with me. As it turns out the wind was so bad that they couldn´t stay very long at the top and could only see a faint red glow of lava through the smoke. Descending was even worse for me, and I had to be helped alot by the guides who were very patient and encouraging (apart from when they laughed at me for looking like a duck walking in the snow). Simon was fine of course, with all the agility of a mountain goat!

The weather has turned awful now, lashing winds and rain, and we fear it will only get worse. A siren has just gone off here, wonder if its the volcano?!?