Sunday, 29 April 2007

The hour of the leaving is at hand ...

... so I thought I'd set down some semi-random, unconnected thoughts.

Just like normal, then.

I'm currently still deep in footprints on the ceiling territory*, but soon I'll be leaving Iquitos and heading down the Amazon to Brazil, if only to gain some temporary respite from the infernal panpipes, and I may be gone some time.

Two or three days, maybe.

* The first time I saw this phenomenon was in Greece as a callow youngster, and I didn't understand it till a few days later, covered in itching bites, when I found myself chasing a recalcitrant mozzie round the room with a flip-flop in my hand. "Oh, that's how you get the footprints on the ceiling" I realised as I lashed out again at the little flying f*cker.

Anyway, I don't think Iquitos can decide whether it wants to be a palace of virtue or a den of iniquity. In the main square is a rather public Alcoholics Anonymous building (for the incognito dipsomaniac who wants to be seen around town), a cohort of Christian evangelists who try to introduce you to G*d in this rather unlikely setting, even if you've merely paused for breath, and a big sign saying "Say no to child sex tourism", whose very presence seems to indicate that, sadly, rather too many people must be saying yes.

Just off the plaza is The Yellow Rose of Texas Bar and Grill, where the waitresses wear what you'd imagine was traditional Texan dress if your only frames of reference were Daisy Duke and a young Dolly Parton. That's next to the Iron House, where the bar staff wear the uniform of a nineteenth century English butler, and next to that there is the Casino (No Gambling). Now I'm not exactly a high roller, but even I know that if you have a casino with no gambling then what you have is an empty room and a set of playing cards.

The town is a lot like Puerto Maldonado, another jungle town with such a different climate to Cusco in the mountains that it feels like a different country.

Iquitos has the added bonus, though, of being almost ten degrees of latitude closer to the equator, so its even warmer. Gosh. The day starts off fiery in the morning sun, is seriously baking when the sun is directly overhead, becomes ovenlike in the afternoon, then somehow seems to get even more blistering when the sun goes down, and progressively more roasting through the night. Then the next morning the whole sorry procession starts again.

Iquitos also has a level of humidity such that when it starts to rain it doesn't so much increase the amount of moisture in the air as merely give it direction.

In this situation you perspire at such a rate that you'd need to be hooked to a saline drip to replace the fluids you're losing, you just can't drink fast enough, and rehydration has to be a significant part of your daily budget. I'm spending more than I spent on a room for a night in Bolivia on bottled water, and am still thirsty.

Speaking of drink, I like what appears to be the naming convention of Peruvian beers - I've had Cusceña (which I think I mentioned translates as 'girl from Cusco'), Arequipeña ('girl from Arequipa'), and now Iquiteña ('girl from Iquitos'). I hope this continues into Brazil, because it would amuse me to be ordering a Girl From Ipanema in some seedy bar.

So with that I'm off

Alpace to the sauce

A return to the old school:

Travellers' Glossary
apparently (adv) "It says in the Lonely Planet that ..."
Bolivian (adj) aggressive, unpleasant and confrontational, as in "He's a good bloke, but he gets a bit Bolivian when he's drunk"
hot (adj) not a solid sheet of ice, but pretty d*mn close, as in "of course this hostel has hot showers"
leg room (n) (LAm) no information associated with this entry
safety standard (n) a legal ruling intended to ensure that the minimum number of tourists dies in the pursuit of any particular activity, or at the very least, if they do die their relatives can't sue; (LAm) no information associated with this entry

Walk a mile in flip-flops, see what a stupid idea it is

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The hour of the exit is the 10 am and it is requested the passenger that leave

That's on a list of instructions in my hostel room, as well as the heading "This forbidden zone" above a list of things that aren't allowed in the rooms, including animals and electrical equipment.

Anyway, contrary to anything I may have previously led you to believe, the latest news on my trip is that tomorrow I shall be heading North to the jungle town of Iquitos (why do I do it to myself?) from where I should be able to take a river boat down the Amazon into Brazil.

I like to call it flexibility and spontaneity, but some might consider it an inability to plan and an unwillingness to make my mind up.

Oh yes.

Obviously, you know as well as I do that it's possible none of this will happen.

But I'm saying a fond farewell to Cusco, the city that has been my home, on and off, for the last three months, and striking out into the great unknown.

It's probable that the next time I email will be from Brazil.

Alpaca to the sauce

Sunday, 22 April 2007

When the Good Lord created the world

... he very kindly put the more likeable aspects of our existence (air conditioning, refridgerators and cheesecake) where civilisation is, and left some of the nastier things that we must endure (killer ants, malaria and ten meter snakes) out in the jungle where they belong.

Despìte this, though, we somehow found ourselves flying into Puerto Maldonado airport with nothing but a fifteen gallon barrel of deet and my near-terminal hatred of mosuitos to sustain us.
Puerto Maldonaldo is a small town at the southern-ish end of the amazon rainforest, lying on the Madre de Dios river - so called because the first explorer to find it exclaimed "Mother of G*d, that's a big river!". The Madre de Dios runs four thousand kilometres before it meets the Amazon, and is therefore considered a 'tributary'. Two and a half thousand miles of water and it still doesn't make full river status. Harsh.

As we landed I felt confident because you could clearly see a half sized football pitch painted on one of the service roads leading to the only runway, obviously intended for the ground crew to have a quick kick-about in between flights. In an unprecedented display of positivity I even found myself singing "Welcome to the jungle" by Guns n Roses as we landed. My kind of place, I thought.

I was soon disabused of this ridiculous notion, though, by the welcoming committee of biting insects that had been organised in our honour - and that's even before I found myself up to my an*s in swamp water and down to my elbow in creepy tendrils camouflaged as snakes. I was expecting the jungle to be hot - that pretty much goes without saying. If you're visiting the amazon rainforest, too, you expect it to be wet (again the clue is in the title) - although would you believe that the time we spent there was the most rain free I've had since I arrived in Peru?

Of course you would. Before my visit, though, I would probably have used terms like steamy, sweltering and sultry to describe the place, whereas I now know that words such as sweaty, soggy and dank are more accurate. Not to mention airless, stifling, overpowering and suffocating. Positively torrid, it was.

What I hadn't been prepared for at all, though, was just how dark it would be. The thick canopy of branches in the sky lets little light penetrate to floor level, and if I'd known how badly my photos were going to turn out I don't think I'd have sallied forth to do battle with the bloodsuckers in the first place. Almost every creature we saw, our guide said "Hates sunlight" and I could really see that the jungle is the place to be if you're a sun-hater. "Over-hunted" was the other phrase he used about almost everything, too.

Something else I hadn't expected was the mud. We were travelling at the end of the rainy season and the start of the dry season, and it turns out I was focussing too much on the "start of the dry season" part of that equation.

What I hadn't considered enough was that for the previous three months all of the trails had been under water almost all the time, and then tramped and treaded by man and mammal alike.

Lots of the jungle animals, particularly the large ungulates, like to walk on the man-made trails because it makes life easier for them. For this reason you'll also often see a puma or a leopard ambling along the paths, on the off-chance of bumping into a convenient meal - saves all that tedious hunting, you see. You can't imagine how I was looking forward to turning a corner and coming face to face with two hundred pounds of jungle predator.

So although it didn't actually rain on us (much) while we were there, the trails were knee deep in a particularly rich and unpleasant form of jungle mud. Plus it was almost completely dark, and it was hot, and it was sweaty and wet. The jungle is hot, gloomy, sticky and covered in filth - just like my teenage bedroom. The horror.

Unlike my teenage bedroom, though, the jungle is home to an awful lot of activity, particularly at night. We didn't get to meet some of the more glamorous inhabitants of the area (ocelots, armadillos and coatimundis) but we did see plenty of other livestock - caimans (it's a kind of poor man's crocodile), mildly venomous snakes and plenty of monkeys (or mankeys as the brochure promised). Not everything could kill you, but a respectable percentage would put you in hospital for a few days. If there were any hospitals in the area, that is.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, too - it was like hiking with your own personal David Attenborough, though I didn't have the heart to tell him that we saw a wider range of exotic and potentially lethal wildlife on the way to the bathroom every night than we met on his nature trails.

I also suspected him of giving a slightly Disneyed account of the harsher realities of jungle life, especially when he pointed to two ants and said "Look, one ant is trying to help his friend, who is sick". Sick of the other one trying to bite his head off, maybe. And I may not be a regular subscriber to Nature magazine, but I reckon that what those two parrots were up to was more Playboy Channel than Disney Channel, and what that monkey was doing with himself was pure Men and Motors.

He was also good with the imaginery wildlife. "Wow", he'd exclaim, "A striated heron just flew away. Did you see that? It was a red breasted Macaw, but it's gone now. Oh, that was amazing, it was a spider monkey. He left".

My favourite commentary moment, though, was when he stopped for two minutes in the middle of nowhere, stared intently into the scrub and then announced, accusingly "Nothing. There is nothing here. Let's go."

He also pointed to a kind of fern and said "This plant is very nice. It's good for uses" and moved on.

His enthusiasm was infectious, and it did sustain me right up until the final day when we got up at four am in order to see a couple of parrots sitting on a rock. It was a very affecting experience.

We were told that in this area the people keep tarantulas in the house because they eat insects (I used to think I hated tarantulas, but it turns out they eat mozzies, and anything that eats those whining nectar-feeders is a friend of mine) and they also breed boas because they eat rats. However, once the constrictors get too big the poor loves get turfed out into the jungle to fend for themselves. As you can probably imagine, though, a five meter long snake can do a fair bit of fending.

There are quite a few animals and sanctuaries and shelters in the area, where they save such poor creatures as mistreated anacondas (eight to ten metres of man eating malevolence) rather than finishing the job, as would seem logical. They also save the poor jaguars (whose name in the native tongue translates as "death from above" or "he who can kill with one leap") in order to re-release them into the wild when they've recovered their strength and are feeling more up to the tricky task of hiding in trees and killing whatever walks underneath.

We also saw a chocolate tree, but to my disappointment it didn't have branches bowed under the weight of Green and Blacks, so we moved on.

Highlight of the trip, however, had to be visiting the traditional indigenous family and their traditional indigenous souvenir shop ("In case you want to buy some memories", as our guide put it. Good idea, I thought, I'll have some of Frank Sinatra's if they're going).

This visit consisted of the grandfather explaining what life used to be like in the jungle, and it was a lot like when your oldies go on about how different things were when they were kids - in his day they didn't have cotton, they made all their clothes out of bark; they didn't have shoes, they used to tramp through the jungle barefoot; they didn't have comfy mattresses, they slept on reed mats.

Sadly all of these 'traditional' ways are being lost, because it turns out that bark is itchy and unpleasant to wear, walking barefoot isn't too handy when you're treading on thorny and poisonous plants, and it turns out that it's easier to get a good night's sleep on a well sprung mattress than it is on a piece of reed.

My top five authentic indigenous 'you had to be there' moments (in reverse order) are:

5. As we left we turned back to see the guy ripping off his itchy bark smock to reveal a pair of board shorts underneath

4. After a long untranslated passage, the only comprehensible words being gringo, blanco, indigena and nativo, our guy mimed walking off into the jungle, legs splayed and arms aloft carrying bow and arrow. Our guide said "In the jungle, everyone walks like this"

3. After explaining that they had no drinking water in fancy bottles in the jungle, Mister Indigenous showed us how to get a drink out of sugar cane by beating it and twisting it into your mouth. Having taken a few mouthfuls he then preceded to have a coughing fit that lasted a good five minutes. Hmm, tasty.

2. He spent fifteen minutes of lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together, only for his baby gap and wellington boot wearing grandson to stamp it out.

1. Our guide asked him "How long have you and your family lived here?""Eight years" was the reply.

Gosh, eight years, as long as that.

So I'm temporarily back in Cusco.

And finally, comrade Marloh sent a reply to a previous email of mine that I enjoyed tremendously. I hope he won't object to my quoting part of it for your instruction:

"So in this way I came upon "Alpaca to the sauce", and it has been keeping me amused ever since. I have a million little theories of what it could be; one of them is it's a battle-cry; from the olden days of Alpaca farming, when there were feuds between the alpaca farmers, and they would shout 'alpaca to the swords!'. Another of course is derived from the remaining social strata of Peruvian society, those who were not Alpaca farmers. When they were served food which had a particularly bad sauce, they'd deride it by shouting, contemptuously, "Alpaca to the sauce", which was the equivalent to "bollocks to this", or potentially translated as "Get the (resident) Alpaca to lick this off my plate, it's so bad it doesn't even deserve to be taken out to the Alpaca (when it would be "sauce to the Alpaca").

I have successfully used it all over London. It's particularly useful while driving. I said it with a smile, quietly, as I waved an old woman across a zebra crossing. Pointing at the lights which for me were green, I shouted it at a pedestrian who walked confidently across red traffic lights. I even said it on the phone today. I had a call offering me double-glazed windows.

Are you the homeowner?
Yes. What is it you are trying to sell?
Nothing, what would you say if you had new double-glazing installed free of charge?
Alpaca to the sauce
Excuse me?
You heard.
And with that I rang off. It worked a treat - they haven't called me back."

Good advice there, I think.

Alpaca to the sauce

It has come to my attention that although my previous email was primarily about the Inca Trail, I barely mentioned Machu Picchu. So, for the curious, I shall now inform you that it was very nice. It's a series of small walls between two mountains.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Did you know that the Rhinoceros Beetle can carry 850 times its own body weight?

It's officially the strongest member of the animal kingdom.

That's nothing.

The porters on the Inca Trail could carry all that, running, and then they'll happily strap your rucksack on top if you slip them a few quid.

Apparently the porters have a race along of the Inca Trail every year - the route is only about twenty miles, but a lot of it is along what our guide called "Inca flat" (ie a few degrees shy of vertical), and there are several stretches of ascent and descent using some pretty steep, narrow and slippery steps that are enough to make you wish you'd never heard of the f*cking Incas.

I'm told the record is three hours and twenty seven minutes, but four to five hours is supposedly considered a fairly acceptable time.

So, what it takes the average gringo four days, three heart attacks and a couple of nervous breakdowns to complete, the porters can run in less time than it takes to explain the off-side rule.

It was a great experience, but it's pretty humbling hobbling up and down those evil hills, stepping aside occasionally for the porters and septagenarians to skip jauntily past, then crawling into camp on all fours, having long ago lost the will to live, only to be applauded by the cook and his team who arrived three hours earlier and have erected the tents, set up a dining area and started cooking a three course meal.

The food was plentiful and tasty, a first on my Peruvian treks, and especially surprising considering the backend-of-nowhere location and the lack of basic cooking facilities. The birthday cake they made for a couple of the girls was particularly impressive given the fact that they had no oven - how? - though my personal favourite was the pizza they turned out for us.

If I could cook like that in my kitchen back home I would be a happy (and considerably fatter) man.

The group we hiked with was also really cool (always a bonus), apart from the campest German I've ever met - a guy called Hans Peter, or Hans Off as he was christened by one of the team.

As you know I'm not one to b1tch, but I did find his habit of waiting for the guide to finish talking and then say "So, could you repeat from the beginning please?" pretty wearing after a while. When we arrived in Maccu Picchu after four days of hiking, Rebecca and I got separated from the main group due to an urgent appointment with a cheese sandwich, and I was hugely disappointed not to get a laugh when we finally rocked up late and I asked the guide "So, could you repeat from the beginning please?" in a comedy German accent.

No sense of humour, some people.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Doctor Johnson promised to complete the first English dictionary in three years

... when it had taken forty Frenchmen more than forty years to produce the French equivalent. "Forty times forty is sixteen hundred", Dr Johnson famously said, "And as three is to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman". I mention this because myself and m'colleague Rebecca went whitewater rafting with a group of native English speakers and an Argentinian couple, and it proved quicker to teach the five of us some basic commands in Spanish than it was to teach the Argies four words of English - left, right, backwards and forward. Even in Spanish they were still getting it wrong.

Anyway, we were rafting for three days in all, and it was great. Each day the rapids were faster and higher than the day before, so it just got more and more exciting. On the final day we were in a boat with four Israelis, thoroughly nice chaps all (notwithstanding the comments in my previous mail*), and they were just crazy enough to make the whole thing worthwhile - we were hurling ourselves headlong into the highest waves and the deepest drops, singing. It was Class IV and above (in other words, the good sh*t) and the Israelis acted like it was a personal affront if we missed even a single wave, they were so committed to the experience. Fantastic.

Apparently just above where we did it there is a stretch of river that they used to run which is Class V+, but the police closed it last year because six people died. Pah. That would never happen in Bolivia - what's six more dead gringos to the Bolivian police?

The nearby town we used as our base was called "Cusi Pata", which I'm told translates as "Happy place". It's a small town with no water and no electricity, though they are building a brand new five hundred seater football stadium - no wonder it's a happy place. It's all about priorities, you see.

I went sneppling on the final day, which seems to involve dangling from a hundred metre cliff by a thin rope. I'll upload some photos at some point so you can see what I mean.

* We also met a nice Californian guy, which was a relief to me since I'd met three Californians up till that point, and all of them had been aggressive, obnoxious and up-tight. It felt good to redress the balance.

Before that we spent three days trekking in the Colca Canyon, which is the second deepest canyon in the world (the deepest is right next door but you can't go there) and more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon - although as United States travellers like to point out, the walls aren't as steep, so ya boo s*cks to you.

It's good that the walls aren't as steep, though, because in the space of two days we walked down one side and then back up the other. It was more than two kilometres straight up and down, and god knows how much in total because it's an apparently endless series of zigzags and switchbacks, with every corner leading to yet more uphill until you've pretty much lost all interest in having legs at all. Some of the locals do that walk every day. Dragging donkeys, some of them.

Bring on the Inca Trail, that's all I can say.

In between we were in the stadium when the mighty Cienciano (the Red Fury) humbled ten man Boca by three goals to nil. So after their disastrous start to the Copa Libertadores the Cusco side have now qualified for the next stage with a game to spare. Maybe there's hope for England yet.

The Peruvians are a bit lacking in English style football chants, but one they use in the stadium is "si se puede", which I'd heard before from my teacher friends translated as "yes it can be done". I'd been told of a certain notorious film of that title, which apparently involves the use, misuse and even abuse of various members and orifices in order to prove once and for all that yes, it can be done.

So I was quite amused to be chanting "si se puede" for long stretches of the whitewater rafting. Morale building, that's what it was.

As you can tell, it's all go here. We barely have time to eat - though we have encountered more delightful menu translations I'd like to share. I had to try "Celestial bananas" (they were okay) but was happy to pass on "Hamburger of beast" and "Loin I die". However, it was hard to know what to choose when one venue offered us "Crumbled hen", "Crunchy of pig", "Alpaca to the sauce", "Gordon Blue of Chicken", "Brass chicken", "Avocado of the queen" and "Fillet in tree sauce with French frites"

Obviously I didn't want to steal the Queen's avocado, and alpaca to the sauce sounded a little bit gangsta for me, so I settled for the slightly Shakespearean "Pizza as you like it".

To my delight the meal was accompanied by a small group playing traditional Peruvian music. Barely a day goes by here without hearing El Condor Pasa (thank you Paul Simon) but I was surprised that they also included Sound of Silence in their repertoire. However, they capped it all with their Beatles renditions. I mean, you may have heard The Frog Chorus and Ebony and Ivory. You may have heard him give self-serving interviews in which John Lennon's role in the band is reduced to little more than making the tea. You might even be Heather Mills. However, I guarantee that you've never truly wanted to stab Paul McCartney in the face until you've heard the pan pipe version of Hey Jude.

Seen on an Australian backpack - a sew-on patch asking "What would Merv drink?"I assume this is a reference to the famous Australian moustache wearer Merv Hughes (I believe he might have played a little bit of cricket, too, but he's definitely best known for his incredible contribution to facial hair). However, as far as I'm aware he's less famous for drinking than his compatriot David Boon, so maybe someone can enlighten me. What *would* Merv drink?