I didn’t travel alone

Date: Friday 18th March 2016

Location: My Bedroom, Dorset, United Kingdom

It’s March and I’m sitting in my bedroom in my mum’s house where I’m now living (at the age of 26), looking out the window at the grey sky, the grey roads and the grey houses. Sometimes I forget that I even left the country, and when I do remember I wonder if it wasn’t just a dream. But then I look down at my arm and there are these two little marks on my forearm that will probably be there for a long time to come. They are the scars from when a giant, thorny fern fell on me in the jungle and I was too impatient to wait for the thorns to fall out on their own so I dug them out with a needle … and now they have scarred. And then there’s the thin white line that goes up my shin on my right leg where I scraped it climbing a fence to get into a corn field in America … and then I got sunburnt the next day and now it will stay. It took 4 months for the bruises from that bloody table challenge in New Zealand to fade, although I did keep accidentally hitting them on stuff so maybe it wasn’t all the game. To add to this I don’t think the mosquito and sandfly bite marks on my ankles will ever disappear. But the biggest change to me is when I close my eyes. Inside my head I can see a million different pictures in a myriad of the most spectacular colours. Each memory in turn can make me smile, laugh, cry, pause in wonder, cringe in embarrassment, fill with joy, stare in awe, swell with pride, make my heart break, make my heart sing and make me feel an astounding number of things that touch every point on the emotional rainbow (my emotional range is now definitely larger than a teaspoon). On the whole they make me grin from ear to ear. Memories are amazing; each one is like a brightly wrapped gift that I get to open again and again.

But more than just the physical and mental marks left on me I’ve gained the knowledge of this incredible group of people whom I never would have met in any other situation. When you are travelling you meet people you had never even imagined could exist and they’re doing things with their lives that you never even considered someone could do. Each and every person you meet opens up your eyes to new possibilities and it’s overwhelming and fascinating all at the same time. I loved learning about each and every one of you and I’m honoured that you thought I was worth sharing your story with.

When I tell people I’ve just travelled around the world on my own they generally tell me I was brave to do so (which I still think is a weird comment) but the truth is I didn’t travel the world alone, I travelled it with all of you. Whether it was a month, a few weeks, a day or even just dinner you all kept me company and shared my experiences the whole way round. I know I’m sounding all lovey-dovey and New Age (maybe I picked it up in America) but you guys made my trip what it was. If I hadn’t had someone around to take me out for dinner on my first night in New York or take me wine tasting in Niagara or show me how a tornado forms in real time or take me dancing all night in Austin or take me to crazy music festivals or invite me to stay in your family home or get me lost in the Wyoming mountains on a horse or teach me how to use a machete or join me in swimming in a river full of piranha and caymans or teach me how to act like a tree when there’s a monkey on your back or how to play dishes or save me from killer chickens or encourage me to get to the top of Colca Canyon or chase llamas in Cusco for me or help rescue my backpack in Puno or make me friendship bracelets in a truck driving across the salt flats of Bolivia or understand my excitement at geysers in Rotorua or jump out of a plane with me or forgiven my terrible Maori stick throwing or ride across the Narnia landscape with me or jump into the freezing lake Wanaka with me or laugh at me when I got too drunk (again) in New Zealand or invite me out on random snorkelling trip with all your friends when you’d only just met me or stay up drinking and laughing all night on a random sand island or take me to the most hilarious, empty club in the middle of the outback or laugh your way round the museums of Melbourne with me or take me for walks on the beach discussing the pitfalls of love or spend the evening prank calling exes with me and dancing like a crazy person … my journey would not have been the same.

So I want to say a huge thank you to everyone I met and remind you that by traveller code if you ever need a place to stay, or even just some help navigating my home country/city, then just let me know and I’ll be there for you.

And to those who haven’t yet travelled, go, please go, just go. Like I said, memories are amazing! They are worth far more than any Gucci handbag or Louboutin shoes you’re saving for (and I would really love a pair of Louboutin’s) and making the memories themselves is even more magical. The world is a massive, complex and beautiful place that I haven’t started to scratch the surface of. You don’t travel to realise your dreams, you travel to create dreams you don’t even know you’re going to dream yet.

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The Greatest City in the World … Apparently

Date: Monday 5th October to Friday 9th October 2015

Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina

As I flew into Argentina I can remember thinking ‘this looks like home’. Lush green trees and rolling farmland that look a lot like Hertfordshire… but, just, not. The landscape surprised me, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting and it wasn’t my last surprise either. Buenos Aires was nothing like anywhere I had been in South America. It’s a little bit like Paris, but more exciting. A little bit like London, but less crowed. A little bit like Florence, but there’s less art around, and a whole lot like a Spanish city that you just can’t put your finger on. Essentially it is 100% Buenos Aires and completely Argentinian. The architecture screams European with a twist but the atmosphere could not be more special. As you’re walking around there’s a warmth that spills out of the countless coffee house and wants you to smile. Despite it being a capital city nobody is rushing, they are taking their own sweet Argentinian time and it lulls you into their slower pace.

There were two things I was desperate to do in Buenos Aires. One was Tango, obviously, and one was go to the theatre. Having been deprived of a classical theatre all through Peru and Bolivia I was ready to enter the calm silence of an auditorium again. I happen to know Buenos Aires has a wonderful ballet company (being the people who produced Marianela Nunez) and I was really looking forward to seeing a show on my trip. Unfortunately there was no ballet on, so I had to settle for a piano recital but in a theatre famed for its acoustic qualities just listening to one piano wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful theatres I have been to. Built in the early 1900s to rival all European theatres, no expense was spared in its construction and all these years later you can still tell. Quality (and marble) stand the test of time. And those acoustics were fantastic. I sat up in the highest gods possible and I could still have heard a pin drop on the stage. They were the kind of acoustics that always make me nervous that I’m going to sneeze at exactly the wrong moment.

I managed to fit the Tango in several times on my trip. My first taste of the beautiful dance was a shoe shop (of course) where I couldn’t resist one of the most beautiful pairs of shoes I have ever seen. I bought them without looking at the price tag and without thinking and I haven’t regretted it for a second. Mostly because I wore them to my second experience of Tango which was a club in the basement of a hotel which ran lessons for locals. I was taken there by a friend of a friend who had been put in charge of entertaining me in BA and was thoroughly enjoying the experience of showing someone else around his home town. The club was dark, sultry, full of people dancing impossibly close together and everything else that you would wish for from a Tango club. I started off in the beginners’ class but knowing my dance history my friend pulled me up about three levels to the ‘experienced’ class. Needless to say I felt a little out of my depth! It didn’t help that the first thing the teacher said on dancing with me was ‘you’re a ballet dancer aren’t you, I can tell. Relax!’ From the tone of his voice, that wasn’t a compliment. But I soon loosened up, got the rhythm and had a brilliant night!  So good in fact that I went back two nights later.

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What became apparent in my 5 short days in Buenos Aires is that Argentinians like to show off. The highway in BA is the ‘widest in the world!’ the theatre is   ‘the grandest in the world!’ and this even holds true of the city cemetery. I came across this on the end of a city tour and it’s a very bizarre place. Each tomb has tried to outdo its neighbour, with generations of families adding to the grandeur of each marble palace. Slightly grotesque and a bit freaky, I can’t say the experience of visiting it was particularly spiritually moving but it was an impressive sight to behold.

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Is this still Earth?

Date: Monday 28th September to Friday 2nd October 2015

Location: Salada de Uyuni, Bolivia

The main reason I wanted to go to Bolivia was to visit Salada de Uyuni, or in English, the salt flats. These are a vast expanse of dried salt where there used to be a lake. They are flat and white and go on for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles … so far in fact that the mountains surrounding the ancient lake) disappear behind the curvature of the earth and rise up to greet you as you drive towards them. The salt flats are just as wonderful as I imagined them and a hell of a lot colder! I didn’t really think about the fact that they are very high up and as they’re so flat, they are also very windy. Either way the salt flats are the perfect place to take some very good photos, play with perspective and generally prance about like a bit of a fool for a while. Too much prancing will make you out of breath though, there’s no oxygen remember.

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I took a three day trip around Uyuni and the salt flats are the first thing you visit but there’s plenty more to see up in those mountains. Right in the centre of the salt flats is an island of rock, completely covered in cactus plants that would be more at home in a roadrunner sketch. These plants are all around 500 years old and just sit there in the middle of the desert, minding their own business all year round.

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We visited several amazing places on this trip but one that stands out in my mind is the red lagoon. This is a lake that is completely red due to the algae that flourishes on minerals deposited in it from the nearby volcanos and it is home to a large flock of flamingos. I don’t know about the rest of you but I had no idea that flamingos lived a) somewhere cold or b) at altitude. I just thought of them living in the backyards of Californian houses … but now I come to think of it those ones are made out of plastic aren’t they? Either way they are majestic creatures and much pinker in the wild than any zoo counterpart I have ever seen.

The salt flats were amazing, the flamingos were incredible but the stop on our last night took the biscuit. We stopped at a hostel at the very top of a volcano, nothing special in itself, in fact it was pretty run down and freezing cold, but outside it had some natural hot springs. After dinner, and after the sun had gone down, we all ran down to the springs as fast as we could (you have to run its cooooooooold!) with a bottle of wine and slipped into the warm, warm, water of the spring. It’s toasty in there and because you are in the middle of nowhere you can see every star that the sky has to offer, plus a few shooting stars just for good luck. It was one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen, in one of the most beautiful settings for every sense I have. But, you see stars are magic and you can only see them as long as you are there. You (at least I) can’t hold the beauty of the scene in your mind and in photos it never comes out the same way that it looks. It was a once in a lifetime experience to see and feel that beauty.

Sometimes a home can float

Date: Wednesday 23rd September to Sunday 27th September 2015

Location: Puno and Lake Titicaca, Peru.

I arrived in Puno to the biggest rain storm I have seen in a long time (and I went storm chasing). The rain was coming down in buckets, causing rivers to pour down the very steep streets and all I wanted to do was get to shelter. I grabbed my bag off the bus, ran to a taxi and directed him towards my hostel. It wasn’t until I got to the hotel desk and looked down at my bag that I realised something was wrong. ‘Strange, I don’t remember my padlock looking like that’ I thought. It was maybe another 5 seconds before the ice cold dread in my stomach alerted me to the fact that this was not my bag. I am so glad no one could hear the string of expletives that went off in my head at that moment. However, the moment I said the problem out loud everyone who heard me jumped into action. The receptionist was on the phone to the bus company instantly, the two girls in the common room mentioned they were ordering pizza and did I want to join them while I was waiting for the outcome on my bag? And the security guard brought me a cup of tea to warm me up and try and stop the shivering that my wet clothes and shoes were causing. This is what I love about the travelling community… and the story had a happy ending as within three hours I had my bag back with me.

I was booked onto a tour of the floating islands the very next day and was picked up in the early morning for the boat. The floating Islands of Titicaca are pretty much the only reason you would go to Puno, other than that it’s a bit of a mess of a city. Maybe because of this the tours of the lake are some of the most touristy things I’ve ever done. I genuinely felt like a pile of meat being passed through a sausage factory and being scraped of any money I might have on me at each opportunity. Saying this, the floating islands are amazing, they are islands made out of reeds that people really live on. And out on that water it is so quiet and peaceful you can see why people would do it.

After seeing the floating Islands we were taken to a real island in the middle of the lake which we would be spending the night on. After walking to the top of the island (people have an obsession with getting to the top of things in the mountains … what was wrong with staying by the shoreline?) we were served one of the best lunches I have had on my whole trip fresh of caught trout, with the most spectacular view (… yeah alright, that’s why we walked to the top).

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Afterwards we were taken back to our ‘homes’ for the night and after a delicious dinner we were told we were going to have a fiesta. The grandma of the house came out with an armful of clothes and proceeded to dress us all in traditional dress – skirts, shirts, belts and all. When we all had all our finery on we were taken to the transformed dining room of the house to listen to a local band and learn the local dancing. Dancing around in traditional dress with a group of people I’ve only just met and someone yelling at me in Spanish to go faster was one of the most surreal nights I’ve had in a while. Enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but bizarre.

 

 

More than just a ruin

Date: Friday 18th September to Tuesday 22nd September 2015

Location: Cusco, Peru.

Cusco is probably best known for its proximity to Machu Picchu, most people heading there are going as a base to start the Inca trail or something similar. Let’s just get this out the way now … I did not go to Machu Picchu. There, I said it. Be as amazed as you like, that was my decision. There are many reasons why I didn’t go so if you want justification just ask me.

One of my friends from Taricaya travelled up to meet me in Cusco for a few days (he was also in agreement with the anti Machu Picchu plan) and we set about trying to see as much of this city as possible. We started (I might have influenced this) with the chocolate museum. Yes, Cusco has a chocolate museum which also includes a café. One of the best cafés ever with about 10 different types of hot chocolate, all with different spices and flavours. Or if you’re feeling like your diet can’t handle the boatloads of milk and chocolate, you can have chocolate tea. Yes, tea that tastes exactly like chocolate!! All of the flavour, none of the calories. Why is this not a thing in England?! We then headed to the Coca Museum (might as well get all the museums out the way in one day) and although it is a very small museum it does have a very informative display about how exactly to turn coca leaves into cocaine … not sure that was the aim of the museum.

In the evening we headed up to an area of the city known as San Blas. This is what I would call the ‘hippy’ quarter. It’s full of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, adverts for yoga classes and retreats and shops selling those baggy trousers that no one other than people with dreadlocks can pull off. I loved it. The bars up there are really good fun, full of live music and the food is delicious. We managed to find a Jewish restaurant (yes Cusco has a rather large Jewish community for its size) which served a delicious home cooked meal for a stupidly cheap price.

After sleeping off our hangover (very easy to get while drinking at altitude) we decided it was about time we saw some of the Inca ruins that Cusco is famous for. We headed up to Sacsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman) which is located just outside of the city up more hills. The size of this area and the size of the rocks used to build it are incredibly impressive however, to me, it’s still just a pile of rocks …. I’m sorry! I’ve tried really hard in the past to get some sort of feelings from the broken bricks of buildings on the floor and I just don’t get it. Doesn’t matter where it
is either, Greece, Rome, Cyprus, Stonehenge … they are just broken pillars to me. By this time as well the altitude was kicking my arse and I was starting to feel less than alright. Sensing my distress (probably due to the fact I was becoming pricklier than a porcupine) my friend decided it was time for us to leave the ruins and head to the nearby town of Pisca. Here we discovered a lovely local market selling arts and crafts that we lost ourselves in, and a brilliant tea shop which we spent several recuperative hours in.

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During our time in Cusco we were lucky enough to come across a parade marking the date of a large war between two Inca tribes. We walked into the main square to be greeted by maybe 100 teenage boys, dressed in traditional dress, each holding the Inca flag and kneeling around the edge of the square, completely still. Stopping and looking at each other we wondered what we had walked into! On the beat of a drum every guy in the square stood up in unison and started to chant, this merged into a march which went once round the square and then out along the street. We were informed that this march and chant carried on all the way up to Sacsaywaman rather them than me!

 

Colca Canyon

Date: Tuesday 15th September to Thursday 17th September 2015

Location: Colca Canyon, Peru

One of the main activities people do in Arequipa is visit Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the whole world. Twice as deep as the grand canyon and so long that once you’re in it you can’t see where it begins or where it ends. You can take a two or a three day trek to see this beauty of a landscape, the two day trek taking exactly the same path as the three day, just faster. I decided, not being particularly fit at the moment and also getting severe altitude sickness whenever I so much as poke my head over 2500m, it was probably better to take the three day trek and enjoy my time and the scenery. This turned out to be a great idea as most people do the two day trek and it meant my group was wonderfully small and personal. On setting off from the hostel (at 3:30am, yuck!) I met our amazing guide who for the whole trip was interesting, relaxed, full of information, friends with all the right people and just generally a brilliant person to be around. On getting in the bus I met the one other girl who was in my group and it became clear early on that we would get on fine. I was then told we would pick up one more guy at the top of the canyon and who should it be but the friend I made in Lima and went to Mistura with … fate’s a funny one. All in all this was shaping up to be a good trip.

The first day we started at a look out point at the top of the canyon which is specifically there to view the condors, the national bird of Peru. These birds stand between 2 and 3 metres high with a wing span of sometimes over 6 metres. They gather to the canyon in the morning to catch the warm updrafts in the air and glide up the canyon on them. It’s amazing to see these giant birds gliding silently and effortlessly around and around enjoying the early morning light. From there the walking starts. We walked for 4 hours on the first day, all downhill towards the river at the bottom of the canyon. It was hot and sunny in the canyon with little or no shade so by the time we got to the river we were ready to jump in as fast as possible … until we felt the temperature of the water, bloody freezing!!! Just putting out feet in was enough to cool off our blood and the first days blisters.

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That first night we stayed in a tiny village half way up the canyon side. The village was so small you could see from one end to the other by standing on the main street and so remote it was only connected to the mains electricity two months ago. We stayed with a lovely family who cooked us the most amazing meals and let us have free run of their farm. Unfortunately they also let their animals have free run so when I felt a tickling on my ear in the morning I assumed the cat had found its way into our room and was preparing to cuddle up to my face. Turning over and opening my eyes I discovered it was not a cat but a chicken which had managed to jump up onto my bed and was pecking at my hair. I have never got out of bed so fast in my life and I ran screaming like a little child and launched myself into my friend’s bed instead… much to the hilarity of everyone else in the room.

The next day we started the second part of our descent further down the canyon to a town aptly called Oasis. As you travel down the 1000 metres of this canyon the climate changes rapidly. At the top it is cold, windy and generally reminiscent of a Scottish winter, by the time you get to the bottom it is balmy, green and sunny and there are palm trees growing all around you. Here in Oasis is a hostel where every group trekking the mountain stops for the night. This hostel has a swimming pool, a bar and a bonfire. If there are other things you need in a hostel at the bottom of a canyon I don’t know what they are, it’s amazing.

On the last day you start your climb upwards at 4:30 in the morning in order to make it up before the sun really starts to hit you. The gruelling 1000m climb is uphill all the way and as you rise you can feel the air getting thinner and thinner. I admit it took me a while and I had to take quite a few of our guide’s magic tricks to fix altitude sickness (like putting antibacterial hand gel all over your hands and breathing in the alcohol fumes to stop the dizziness) but step by step, slowly, slowly I did it. I was pretty proud of myself by the time I reached the top and the sun was just rising over the edge of the mountain. The lovely tour people then have it all planned out as after a great breakfast they drive you to some hot springs down the road so you can soak your aching bones and finally relax…

Beautiful Arequipa

Date: Sunday 13th September to Monday 14th September 2015

Location: Arequipa, Peru

Arrived in Arequipa in the pitch black and jumped into a taxi as fast as possible (as it was freezing) and got to my cozy bed in my hostel as quickly as possible. This meant that when I did eventually step outside into the daylight, the beauty of Arequipa hit me like a mountain in the face. It’s a beautiful colonial town with a main square made of pure white columns, stunning churches full of intricate carving and enough Moorish style architecture to fill Gibraltar. And that mountain that hit me in the face earlier, well there’s actually two… and they’re volcanoes, not mountains. These two beauties frame Arequipa with a snow topped peak on either side of the town and you can see them from pretty much every point in the city.

I’d done my lonely planet research for Arequipa and I was determined to visit the Monesterio de Santa Cataina so I put it first on my list. It is the most beautiful old convent in the heart of the city. Although the number of nuns currently occupying it is far less than it used to it is still active.  These days the nuns are confined to a small section, while the rest of the very large (it has streets and road names) convent is open to the public. Inside it is calm and quiet and painted in stunning shades of sea blue, bright orange and pale terracotta. I stayed for hours just soaking up the peace and quiet and also having tea and cake in the café. All the cakes sold are made by the nuns and I have to say it was the best apple cake I had in the whole of Peru, along with one of the best views.

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The next afternoon I decided to get out of the city and explore the valley around it and my chosen method was horse back. As it turned out it was just me and the tour guide …who didn’t speak a word of English. It was going to be an interesting tour, made even more interesting by that fact that although the horses were particularly well trained they were also very jumpy! It took every bit of riding knowledge I have to keep the horse under my control, but I did it. And the views you get of the terraced farmland were worth every moment.

On my last evening in Arequipa I met with a friend that I had made in Lima. He had managed to find by a bit of exploring, a restaurant located right on the top of a building, right next to the cathedral. It gave you the most amazing views over the top of the town, towards the volcanoes and from here we watched the sun set with a Pisco Sour each in our hands.

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