Sunday, January 31, 2010

Et kütt wie et kütt

It's been too cold to write. It's still too cold to write but my duty to do so compels me to scrape the snow off my screen, hack the ice of my keyboard and jab down on it with my frozen claw for your entertainment.
I don't want to keep literally banging on about the weather, but I can't help it. Last Tuesday people were actually celebrating we'd survived the coldest night of the year after it dropped to an unholy -24°C the night before. (You'll notice the lack of exclamation marks. I've already become resigned to et kütt wie et kütt. It's too cold to be surprised anymore.)
Plastered on the front page of the newspapers, Hauptding on Radio Eins, it was a sensation. We survived! Woohoo! Crack open the Sekt! Only the Sekt wouldn't open because it was still feckin' freezin' outside. Sure it has reached 0°C briefly since (a jump of 24°C!) but it's hardly bikini weather is it?
Once the celebrations cooled off - it didn't take long - your wan on the radio announces the cold spell will last until March at least. March! But I guess after surviving -24°C, the rest will be a doddle. (Pictured is snow from my balcony at night. -7°C and more heavy snow to come.)

Things are afoot. (Bad grammar - things are afeet.) I've been attempting to address my dire financial situation with the acquirement of work. To this end I'll be dusting off my suit and hoping it still fits when I try it on again later on. My weekend was ruined translating news articles from German into English for Deutsche Presse Agentur and I'll find out if my endeavors were worthwhile this week. An interview also looms on Tuesday so I really hope that suit still fits. Further complications are presented by the lack of an iron...
Meanwhile I've already been enlisted to do the PR for a play called Shenanigans to open, appropriately enough, on St. Patrick's Day. You'll be hearing more about that in due course. I'm sure we'll promote it all the way from Friedrichstraße to Broadway where everything is entertained but thoughts of -24°C.

The astute among you will have noticed the appearance of pictures and links to more on the earlier posts from Perú. Uploading is a slow and excruciating process, much like Irish Rail, but eventually I hope to get there, unlike Irish Rail. I'll let you know wann alles ist geschafft. (You can learn German through osmosis on this site.)
I must confess taking guilty pleasure from the plight of tourists caught up in the landslides and carnage at Machu Picchu last week just after our own visit. It's always good to hear of others' misfortune and the near miss of same. (One of the reasons, no doubt, this blog has readers at all.) Of course, the rescue effort was a shambles but that merely adds to the Schadenfreude.

Meanwhile, the blog reached a milestone over the weekend with 10,000 hits and the 1,000th visitor from Germany! All enjoying regular doses of Schadenfreude I'm sure. Of course, it could be just one nutbag going from internet café to internet café. Either way I'm grateful and no, it wasn't me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thermal souls

Jesus it's cold. Damn cold. Colder than cold. It's inhumane how cold it is. I've never been as cold before in my life, and am now seriously questioning the wisdom of my moving here to begin with. Sure, Berlin's great in the summer, but what if you don't survive the winter?!
It's so cold it actually hurts. I haven't been out much since we got back last week, but enough to realise it's not worth the while. Clothes and jackets make little difference. On Sunday I wore three pairs of socks, heavy boots, and still I might as well have been wearing flip-flops. I've taken to wearing two jackets, and still I'm nowhere near warm. Gloves are pointless, jumpers insufficient, hats a waste of time. It's ridiculous!
Anytime I go out it's like someone left a tap on in my head. Streams run from my nose without a thought for decorum or etiquette. Even those streams freeze to a standstill after a couple of minutes. Seriously! Frozen nose matter is a new one for me.
Sunday I thought I was going to die. Really. Shaking uncontrollably, my face numb, arms like icicles by my side. The pain is ridiculous. A few minutes exposed to the elements and the face begins to hurt, stabbing and throbbing and hurting like hurt. The only thing worse is the pain when you come back in to thaw out again. Hands red raw, stinging, pulsing with pain, aching and complaining. Aaoooowww!!!
I licked my lips today, and a matter of seconds later a thin film of ice had formed there already. Tonight it's supposed to drop to -21°C. MINUS TWENTY-ONE!!! Thankfully tomorrow the temperature will rise to a positively balmy -9°C, when we'll be warmed up by some heavy snow. I never looked forward to being warmed up by snow before.
To make matters worse I've run out of Barry's Tea. I'm on my last cup of Onno Behrends Schwarzer Friese Tee as I type. How am I going to fend off this blasted cold for the rest of the winter? I was offered thermal soles the other day to help me cope. Thermal soles! It's a thermal soul you need to live in this place.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Der Haarschnitt

First order of business was taken care of today - the haircut! It was getting ridiculous - there wasn't another moment to spare. Even my parents reacted with shock when they saw the mop on top of my head a couple of days ago. "Jaysus, you need a haircut!" Not even a "How do you do?"
The comparisons had become more wide-ranging and insulting in recent weeks. Predominantly from the 80s of course. Even some gobshite with huge teeth, an arse for a face, and hair from the circus pointed to my sprouting cranium the week before, eyes wide with wonder, mouth agape. "Wow man, time for a haircut!" he informed me. Cheers pal, time for a facelift I thought to myself. But I smiled politely and thanked him for his helpful comments.

Before that I'd been called Jon Bon Jovi, Luke Skywalker, Che Guevara (but that was just Jenny trying to plamás me after I complained all the comparisons were from the 80s), Ewan McGregor, and then Prinz Eisenherz whoever the hell he is. At the rate I was going it wouldn't have been long before someone called me an Ewok so it was imperative that drastic and prompt action was taken.

In Perú hairdressers have seats from the fairground, saddles on stools with horses' and other creatures' heads in front. I presume it's the only way they can get the locals to sit still, but I figured if they concentrate so much on keeping their customers quiet, then they probably hadn't gotten around to the art of the actual haircut itself. In any case, I wasn't taking any chances of looking like a Peruvian.

So on return to the sanctuary of Berlin, I booked myself an appointment at Haarschneiderei to have my Haare geschnitten werden post haste. I was particularly looking forward to be able to see what is in front of me for a change.
My Haarschneiderin, Lilly, tackled the task at hand with gusto this afternoon, quickly determining that I'm not a native Berliner due to my comical accent. Apparently my German is very good for someone who has been living here (or not as the case may be) for as long as I have (almost two years!), but I make all the usual mistakes English speakers so when "making an arse of" German.
I told her it wasn't my fault her language was so particular, and she told me not to worry, that my German is "niedlich" (cute) und "süß" (sweet). I guess I should be thankful Germans like having an arse made of their language. I know Jenny gets great entertainment from it and others too.
In any case, I still haven't decided if Lilly made an arse of my hair or not. It's still in my eyes would you believe, but she said she cut the rest so it would go to the side and not be blocking my view anymore. Damn it, it's cut now, one way or the other. At least no one can call me an Ewok.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Endlich zurück

Home at last! Endlich zurück in Berlin. We made it after much toing and froing (more froing than toing, very little getting), but we made it all the same! From México to Madrid, where we spent a very pleasant evening with my parents (rabbit stew for the non-vegetarians), before we finally boarded the flight home.
I slept all the way, my body now conditioned to sleep anytime I'm on a plane. It's more likely the instinctive desire to hibernate however. It seems the only way to survive Berlin in the depths of winter. It's fucking freezing here! Literally. 'Twould freeze the arse off a brass penguin. Minus seven yesterday, minus 12 at night. I heard on the radio it was to drop to minus 20 tonight. MINUS TWENTY!!! These Germans are mad. It's a biting cold, sharp and sore, permeating and unavoidable. Christ, it's cold. Teeth chatter, lips go blue. There's just no escape! Snow and ice choke the streets and everything is covered in a blanket of white. I'm seriously considering stocking up on pistachios, finding a nice cave somewhere, and just sleeping through it all until the weather improves in April.
At least it's dry though. It's not the same miserable wet and windy cold you get in Ireland from which the only respite is the pub fire and hot whiskeys (always a good excuse). Here Glühwein is the antidote of choice (no excuse needed), or simply staying indoors - Berliners are prepared for such inhumane winters and have shackled the chills of winter outside with good strong heating inside.
After getting home, I was delighted to find some teabags had survived the four months I was away. Barry's Tea! What more could you want? We'd also been at the supermarket at Friedrichstraße where we stocked up on black tea from the appropriately-named Friesland region (the whole country should be called Freezeland). It's not as good as Irish tea, but certainly better than the English muck a lot of the misguided locals drink. We also got some Inka Tee of which, strangely enough, no trace can be found in Perú. I'd say the poor ol' Incas never heard of their supposed tea. Feck it, it's tasty though, and warm which is the main thing.
Attention now turns to getting some work. My finances took a bit of a battering over the past few months, especially after having to fork out for unplanned airline collapses, and my bank account has now reached the quite unhealthy low of €-962.20. Everything's in minus figures around here. What a Waster comes to mind. (I just heard this on the radio for the first time about half an hour ago.) Maybe I can flog a few articles, but I'll have to supplement that with more realistic work if I'm going to keep myself in pistachios until April; perhaps teaching English, some bar work, prostitution, whatever it takes. At least the latter would have the added bonus of keeping me warm.
Meanwhile, I also have to update this thing with photos from the last four months. More pictures, less words will be the order of the day, until it's fully up to date starting with posts from September. This also has the benefit of keeping me indoors.
I'll just stick the kettle on first... Another cup of Barry's Tea. Snow joke, it's ice to be home!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mexican standoff

There was a final sting in the tail before we left Perú. A "departure fee" of $31 which had to be paid if you wanted to leave the country. The final rip-off, and a parting insult to ensure we leave with a bad taste in the mouth. It comes on top of the taxes already paid when purchasing the airline ticket. I vowed it would be the last contribution I make to the Peruvian economy.
Even then it wasn't a straightforward process. I guess they don't want to let go of the tourists that easily. Not only were we waiting about 20 minutes for the privilege of paying the tax, but there were so many security checks and so much bureaucratic bullshit, we only got to our departure gate as last call was being announced, despite our turning up at the airport three and a half hours before departure! It was the earliest I have ever turned up for a flight.
As soon as we stepped aboard the AeroMexico plane however, things improved dramatically. Good professional service, TVs you could decide whether you wanted to hear or not, and a complimentary bar - as much cerveza and tequila as you could drink! Unfortunately I wasn't able to take full advantage due to my eyes' inconvenient desire to close.
Now we're in México City, the big DF, where despite the incredible hustle and bustle of 21.2 million people living in the same place, we've actually found time to relax for a few hours. México is just great! Strolling through the Zócalo, browsing the food stalls and their irresistible attractions (tacos, tortas, tortillas and other wonderful dishes whose acquaintance I'm more than willing to make), and just bathing in the warm sunshine filtering through the trees in the park. Yes, it's great to be going home. But suddenly there's no rush any more...

More pictures from our too-short time in Mexico City can be seen here:

Machu Picchu!

Very few things will get me up at 3am after 3½ hours' sleep. Much less when faced with the prospect of trekking for hours in the dark before even finding out if my trek was successful.
But that's what you have to do if you want to be among the first 400 people at the gates of Machu Picchu to secure a coveted ticket to climb the imposing Wayna Picchu mountain just behind. "You have to climb Wayna Picchu. It's the best thing there," Cato had told us before we left Cusco the day before. Of course he didn't tell us he had gotten the bus up to the sacred site.

So we set off down the dirt-track without breakfast, armed with our flashlamp and headaches. It was already 3.50am (I'm very slow in the mornings) and we were worried we were already too late. Soon we passed a few stragglers on the road. That made us feel a bit better, but our pace was unsustainable and we were already out of breath before we'd even started climbing.
We came to the bridge, water gushing underneath with tremendous velocity as it had been last night on the way to Aguas Calientes. Now we were going back the way we had come, I was questioning the wisdom of paying for a hotel room for just a couple of hours' sleep.
We got to the steps up the mountain and soon all thoughts at all were gone from my head. Just huffing and puffing for breath as one steep step followed another. Up and up we went, step after never-ending step, knees and joints complaining all the while, and still we were nowhere where we needed to be. Up, up, up, step, step, step, hands on knees for support - it wasn't long before we were completely knackered. We overtook more stragglers and were in turn overtaken by more.
Still we slogged on, the number 400 driving us up the mountain. Imagine being number 401 and going through all this for nothing! The thoughts of it whipped us on and on, up step after step.
After 40 minutes my legs were shaking, Jenny's too, and the backpack on my back was getting heavier by the minute. Rivers of sweat were cascading off my forehead like the river left by the road behind us. And still we went on. Christ, it was never ending! We must nearly be there now, I thought after another ten minutes' slogging, but we were nowhere near the end.
We passed more and more passed us as our resources of strength were pushed to their limits. I looked up to see if we were near the finish, but all I could see in the dark was shadows of trees.
Suddenly I heard voices and laughter up ahead. That must be it! An end in earshot. It gave us fresh impetus. Conquest within touching distance. We hurried up and up, the last steps a little bit easier as we sensed an end to the suffering. We turned a corner, came out to the trees, and found ourselves in a clearing. A line of people waiting patiently. We'd made it! Woohoo! We ran to the end of the line and prayed there weren't 400 people in front of us. It had taken us an hour and 45 minutes from Aguas Calientes and we sure as hell didn't want the disappointment of finding it was all for nothing.

It was 5.05am, and the ticket office opened at six. More people came and joined the queue behind us and the anxious wait began, all praying to be under that magical figure of 400. How many people are in front? They asked. I don't know. It could have been 200, could have been a thousand. Stragglers hoping to join their friends already in the queue were met with outrage and quickly heckled out of it again. Nobody wanted to lose their place to some queue-skipping fuckbag.
"Take it easy," they'd say once the barrage of abuse became to much to bear.
"Other people are waiting here before you. If you wanted to get here earlier you should have got up earlier," I told one girl who was particularly put out she wasn't allowed jump ahead.
Excitement builded as we waited until six. Daybreak struggled to make an impression through the clouds, but we could clearly see the line was bigger than previously thought. How many people are ahead of us? Stop asking me that, I told you I don't know!
We eventually got to the gate. Ticket number 326. Phew! What a relief! It had all been worth while. Wayna Picchu here we come.

Peruvian conservation tactics means only 400 people a day are allowed visit Wayna Picchu, the mountain behind Machu Picchu, while unlimited numbers are allowed visit Machu Picchu itself, the site which actually needs the conservation. When each tourist is charged S/.126 (€31.50) to enter, it's easy to see why. (Despite the fact it was rediscovered in 1911 by a foreigner, Hiram Bingham, foreigners are now charged twice as much as the locals.)
We entered, and were met with incredible views of the mountains across the valley. Crowned by clouds, they rose up at impossible angles, their pointy peaks poking through, reaching to the Inca god Inti, known to the rest of us as the sun.

Finally we see Machu Picchu laid out before us, or at least what we can of it in all its mist and cloud-obscured glory. Stones shrouded in mystery, I can see it's not what it used to be. These ruins are ruined!

We stroll around and find roofs missing and no doors to keep out the draughts. No wonder the place was abandoned.
(Nobody actually knows why the place was abandoned. It was most likely left to the jungle foliage long before the Spanish arrived, thus ensuring its "preservation" as they never found out about it. I'm sure if they knew of the hardship required to actually reach the place, they wouldn't have bothered either.)
All the tourists gathered at the top overlooking the shrouded site, poised with their cameras waiting to take a picture which never came. Defied by clouds protecting the site's modesty.

We stroll up to the main plaza and again discover it's ruined. These people just don't know how to look after their ruins. Tourists ooh and ah over fallen rocks, but I'd much rather have seen it in its hey-day.
A couple of mating llamas provide some entertainment before the female decides she's had enough, much to the tourists' and male's disappointment. I guess she'd rather have had some privacy.

We see the Intihuatana-stone, a sundial thing Inca astronomers used to use to predict the equinoxes. Or so they say. They've no idea how they did it, so how do they know they did it at all?! These archaeologists would swallow any old shite the Peruvians tell them.
I guess the Spanish couldn't figure out how to use the others they found in other Inca sites. No wonder they smashed them all up.

The Incas could build damn good walls but they didn't do much else from what I can see. Their time of eminence only lasted about 100 years. Apart from building walls and temples in inaccessible places, they managed to conquer (or bribe) a few other tribes and were in turn conquered by a handful of sailors from a land thousands of kilometres away across a different ocean.

Machu Picchu itself is nice if you like looking at rocks, but the real beauty is in the setting around it: the impossibly-steep mountains, the lush jungle, the majestic fiery river curving its way around it. The ruins themselves are just like any other in Ireland or elsewhere, and the Incas just happened to pick a nice location. Apart from that, I'm afraid it's Mucho Picchu about nothing.

All the pictures from Machu Picchu can be oohed and aahed at here:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Going home

"We don't do discounts, we don't do last minute, and we don't help out customers from Air Comet!" So said the nice friendly woman at the LAN Airlines desk when we asked about flights home last night. It was $1,800 and not one cent less would they accept, especially from stranded customers it seemed.
We arrived at Lima airport to learn Iberia had availability to Madrid but no facility to sell us a ticket. "You need to go to our offices," they said after we had queued and waited for nothing. Their offices were back in the centre of Lima, a 40 minute cab ride away, and closed until this morning. Even if they wanted to sell us a ticket - although it didn't seem that way - they couldn't. In know, imagine expecting to buy an airline ticket at an airport.
KLM would bring us to Amsterdam for $1,459, or $40 cheaper if we bought a return ticket. "There's no way we're coming back," I told the woman
But we were really holding out for this "special fare" of $1,000, apparently made available by Iberia to stranded customers, so we decided to stay the night and go to the offices first thing this morning, bags and all, ready to go straight to the airport if need be. A queue of people waiting outside needed to be negotiated before we had to show passports to be allowed proceed into their offices.
"They're doing all they can not to get our business," I told Jenny. Funnily enough, none of the Peruvians had to show passports, but were ushered straight through.
After waiting and waiting, while some aggrieved man vented his frustration over some alleged fuck up (whatever his problem was, I'm definitely on his side), the woman behind the counter finally spoke to us.
It didn't take long to learn there was no "special fare" available nor, indeed, any seats at all on their flight back to Madrid. "Why did Iberia write to me to tell me about this special fare if it's not available?" Jenny wanted to know.
Apparently all the "special fares" had been snapped up long ago.
I asked what percentage of seats had been made available at this rate, but she wouldn't answer. More than two seats on the plane anyway, after I persisted. But there was nothing the woman could do for us, and I suppose she has to deal with enough shit from disgruntled customers.
So we walked down to the KLM office, lugging our bags with us, to enquire about the flight back to Amsterdam. "It's sold out. There are no seats available," the woman said flatly, dashing our hopes. That was that.
So we're now in the internet café around the corner, where after searching through Momondo and Expedia we finally found flights through AeroMexico leaving tonight for "just" $939. We snapped them up. We're going home!
We'll have a long wait in México City (12 hours, but at least the food's good there) before getting our connecting flight to Madrid, but thank Jaysus, we're finally going home.

Pictures from our last day in Lima, featuring more cows, friendlier than the ones above, (even in Lima, the Cow Parade cows weren't stolen or vandalised like they were in Dublin*), can been viewed here:

*From The Irish Times: In 2003, when Dublin hosted Cow Parade , an outdoor cultural art exhibition of decorated life-sized cows, the first 10 cows that were placed on the city’s streets were all vandalised so badly within 24 hours that the entire exhibition had to migrate indoors or to public spaces under surveillance. One cow was beheaded with a saw. Another was stolen. All had graffiti on them within hours. Cow Parade had run in many other international cities, including New York, London and Sydney and in no other city had the exhibits ever needed to be relocated.

The Cheapest Inca Trail

Peruvians being the way they are, there's no way to get to Machu Picchu without getting fleeced ($400 to $500 for the Inca trail) or going through a helluva lot of hardship. Being creatures of limited means, we naturally went for the latter option - we opted for the hardship.

After learning that having insurance is no insurance against not having insurance, we missed the bus at 8am despite getting up at seven. Never mind, the next bus to Santa María from Cusco (S/.20) was at 10am, or so we thought. It left at 10.35 by when even the locals were getting impatient, banging on the windows and demanding our departure. We were already well behind schedule.

The bus took us up and up, and then up some more, leaving the ramshackle poverty-stricken suburbs behind to take us past the pointiest mountains I've seen, crazy jagged like crocodiles' teeth. Soon we were on the windiest road on Earth, driving through the clouds, hairpin bend after hairpin bend, nothing to be seen off the sheer edges but a thick bank of cloud. It was crazy stuff as we made our way back down, the driver driving like a suicide bomber, throwing the bus into corner after corner. Meanwhile a baby, who'd apparently just had a particularly painful operation, screamed and cried to provide the soundtrack as we wound our way down.
We drive through rivers, past landslides, over rocks. Eventually we make it down to the jungle, where the road gives way to an Irish-style potholed bódhreen, but the driver drives on as before regardless, and the baby cries on as before.
Three or four hours after the driver aimed for every pothole in Perú, Jenny turned around to me and said: "It's probably not worth it." "Probably not," I agreed, before we hit the next bone-jolter.
Four hours of pothole pain later, we finally reached Santa María, just a little under two hours after they said we would.
"I've enough of South America," Jenny declared as she plonked herself down on a bench, exhausted. And that was just the first part.

After arguing with a multitude of combi and taxi drivers over prices, we found one willing to take us directly to the hydroelectrico for S/.10 each. Grand, we thought, and hopped in. Halfway to Santa Theresa, the village before it, he stopped the van and demanded everyone cough up their fare.
"You still going to the hydroelectrico for S/.10?" I asked him. He pulled a face, hummed and hawed and said he didn't have enough passengers, that he'd see when he got to Santa Theresa.
"Not what you told us earlier," I replied and I refused to pay. "We'll pay when we get there."
The lying fucker kicked up a fuss but eventually drove on again, not before asking if we wanted to walk.

The road itself was even more spectacular and hair-raising than the one before. If we'd cycled down the "World's Most Dangerous Road" the week before, then this is certainly the most exciting. As the track snaked its way up above the river valley below, hugging the twisting mountain-sides, the road edges dropped away to nothingness by our side. Sheer cliffs dropped more than 1,000 metres to the valley floor, with not even a hint of an incline to break our fall should a wheel slip over the unprotected edge. We drove past more landfalls and rock-slides, over rickety old wooden bridges and through gushing torrents tumbling across the track. The views were stupendous, and the gaping abyss yearned to take our little van as we bounced along the road above. There were a couple of hairy moments when we met traffic coming the opposite way, and we had to either stop altogether, reverse to a wider part, or try squeeze past without a wheel slipping over the yawning edge. Bhí mo chraoí i mo bhéal but we all squeezed through in the end.
Of course, when we finally reached Santa Theresa, the driver wouldn't take us any further. He tried charge us S/.8 each and was mightily put out when I'd only give him S/.10 for both.

We had to get another taxi to the hydroelectrico, for which we forked out S/.20. Light was failing at this stage and we were slightly worried as our driver sped along beside the river again. Nerves weren't helped when he winked conspiratorially at a colleague as he passed. Soon we're in the middle of nowhere, jungle on one side, river on the other, and suddenly he stops the car.
"Voy a urinar," he declared as he got out for a pee.
We watched closely as he stood behind the car to make sure he wasn't ringing his friends. His hands (both of them!) never left his pee-er though, so it was alright.
"Gracias," he said with relief as he hopped back in. He must have been bursting.
We eventually made it to the hydroelectrico, by which time it was pitch dark. We could see nothing but could hear the river whooshing in its ferocity below. The driver gave us a load of instructions we didn't understand, we thanked him, and he drove off, leaving us alone in the dark.

We immediately set off the wrong way through the jungle. We were to walk along the railway tracks to Aguas Calientes, our stop for the night before Machu Picchu itself the next day. But we couldn't find the damn tracks and had no idea where to go. We eventually found them higher above the hydro-electric plant and so knew where we had to go.
We were worried about meeting thieves and other unsavoury characters here in the middle of the jungle miles and miles from civilisation so we discussed the strategy in case we heard any strange noises. We were armed with a flashlamp and a fruit knife. I think I freaked poor Jenny out even more. Nerves were tense. We couldn't heard anything however, save frogs, crickets and all the mad noises of the jungle.
Suddenly we saw a light up ahead. Shit! What do we do?
"They'll have seen us now. We may as well go on," I said. So much for the strategy.
Thankfully it was just a few other tourists making the return trip from Aguas Calientes. "Be careful, muy peligroso," they warned us, before setting off the way we had come.
Soon we found out why. A wooden bridge with metal supports crossed the raging river below, and man was it raging! The noise was deafening. We could just imagine the frightful force of the torrent below as we gaped into the darkness. We found a platform to the right of the bridge which we crossed with trepidation, clutching the railing tightly to make sure of no deadly slips.
It was a relief to feel the wooden sleepers under our feet again as we continued in the dark, our flashlamp providing the ray of hope dancing on the beams ahead of us.
A stern blast breaks the monotony of jungle noises and stops us still in our tracks. What the hell was that? We hear it again. An immense horn blasting its way through the night, silencing the frogs and crickets for miles around. A train! Shit! We'd been told there were no trains on the line at this hour of the night. We jump into the bushes at the side of the tracks and wait for it to pass. Soon we see its headlight seeking its way through the darkness, lighting up the jungle as it comes around the corner. BAAAARRRRMM!!! It blasts again. We freeze like frightened rabbits in its headlamp, dazzled by its inescapable beam as it comes straight towards us.
The engine rolls past slowly, sending vibrations through the earth, growling with authority, before rolling off away from us again.
Nerves shot, we continued on as before, probing the darkness with our suddenly insignificant flashlamp, and now on the lookout for trains as well as the robbers and other unsavoury characters.
Half an hour later we heard it again. BAAAARRRRMM!!! Jaysus, what's going on? We darted into the side again, and waited for it to pass. Again it rolls past slowly, as if looking for something, its headlight probing and seeking through the darkness.
"Maybe the driver lost his hat earlier and he's come back to look for it," I tell Jenny.
We keep going, step by step, plank by plank; the monotony of progress self-defeating as we just want to stop and sleep. We'd been on the go over 12 hours at this stage and we'd had more than enough. Bridges over raging torrents break the monotony but after a while even these become monotonous. Christ, are we there yet?!
We come to a long tunnel and pray no trains come as we scurry hurriedly through. It's the train or us, there ain't room for all of us in this tunnel, and I've a feeling the train would win if it came to a matter of push and shove.
The next tunnel is even longer, as if seeking to crank up the excitement a notch or two. We emerged relieved and wrecked, and keep taking the wooden beams in our steps.
Eventually, three hours later after setting off from the hydroelectrico, and 12 hours after taking the bus, we come to Aguas Calientes. We'd made it!
Any hostel will do, and I'm asleep before I can even think of getting up again in less than four hours for the next ordeal.

Pictures from the journey to Aguas Calientes can be seen here:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gettin' high in Bolivia

I wrote the following while travelling back from Bolivia, altogether a happier place where thoughts of flights, bankrupt airlines, insurance rip-offs and gross incompetence were still far away... well, apart from the latter anyway. In any case, it's a nice distraction from the current goings on.

Bolivia is damn high. The highest I've ever been has been in this country, 5,000 metres at one stage. I've cycled through clouds and discovered my nostrils aren't big enough to get sufficient oxygen at this altitude.

Of course, there are other ways to get high here. Coca is grown in copious quantities, as it is in Perú, much to the exasperation of the US government which blames Bolivia for its cocaine troubles. The coca inevitably finds its way from local fields to the toilet cisterns of the US, Ireland and Berlin; everywhere, in fact, a cistern can be found. The coca wars instigated by the US were ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands of Bolivians and, conversely, the increased production of the drug.

For the poor peasants of the Bolivian highlands however, coca is still a far more lucrative crop than coffee and economics dictate they must keep producing. A lot of them were offered money incentives to stop growing coca but of course they just took the money and kept producing anyway. So it is in Bolivia.

President Evo Morales is a huge fan of the coca leaf. Claiming to be the first Amerindian president of Bolivia, he has made the peasants' fight his own and has campaigned internationally to have the coca crop given the respect he says it deserves.

Cocaine itself is illegal in Bolivia, and it seems to be hard to procure given the amount of times I've been asked by desperate gringitos if I knew where they could find some "Charlie".

Coca leaves are not illegal however, and have held a prominent place on the locals' palate since 2500BC or so. They chew like cows with particularly tasty grass, chewing chewing chewing until their teeth fall out and what's left are stained a muddy black. Old folks generally have two or three teeth in a gummy environment stained black from years and years of coca chewing. Not only does it help with altitude (although you'd think they'd be used to that by now) but it alleviates the pangs of hunger and helps the chewer cope with working in very harsh conditions. It helps with everything apparently, and coca tea is also used to cure all manner of ailments. One can quite easily buy a big bag of coca leaves in any market for half nothing.

In Inca times the leaf was sacred, and the Spanish quickly realised that workers would be more productive if given access to the crop. They actually set up the first large-scale plantations. The miners of Potosí were chewing coca to beat the band when I was there.

It is now possibly the most important staple for the average Bolivian worker, so while Bolivia is fighting the cocaine trade on a national level, it is also fighting its case on an international level for its beloved coca leaf. A conflict of interest if ever there was one, it remains to be seen how it turns out.

Still stranded

We still have no flight home. The cost now, apparently, will be $1,800 each if we want to fly home the same day we were supposed to. So we're fucked. There's no way we can pay that. Jenny's supposed to start work on February 2nd, and she also has to find a new place to live before then, so time isn't really on our side either.

I rang the insurance company, the one I paid €300 to cover me for the four months I'm away, to find out what the story is with cover in the event of my airline having its licence revoked, its planes grounded and all its flights cancelled.
What do I do? How do we get home? I asked.
"Well, let me just check if you're covered in the event of 'scheduled airline failure'," the unsympathetic cow replied, before putting me on hold.
She returned a few minutes later. "I'm sorry, your policy doesn't cover you for 'scheduled airline failure'. There's nothing we can do."
It turns out I'm covered in the event of my missing a flight, if my flight is cancelled, but not if my airline company goes bust. It just proves insurance is only good for the insurance companies. The fuckers.

Jenny just rang the Spanish embassy in Lima as we read the Spanish government would do all it could to get stranded passengers home. He hung up! She's furious.

We rang the Spanish embassy in Cusco, to find its given number is invalid. So we walked to the address given on its website, to find the address doesn't even exist. Unbelievable! A guy in the Dutch embassy told us where it is actually located. After walking there, we were told that the "doctor", apparently the only one with authority in the place, was away until next month at a function in Spain. All consulate services are postponed until his return, so there is nothing they can do for us either. Crazy shit.

Earlier Jenny had received an email from Iberia, which said it would do everything to assist stranded passengers.
A special fare of just $1,000 would be made available until the end of January. So we went to the airport in Cusco to seek an IATA agent who'd be able to secure our seats home at this "special" price.
The woman at the information desk had never heard of IATA however - the International Air Transport Association had never been heard of before in Cusco airport apparently. Such incompetence and stupidity I have never encountered before I came to this country.

We went back to the centre, where we found an IATA agent whose arm we had to twist to find out for us what the story is with this "special fare". It turns it's not available on any date before the end of January - all seats at this price were booked already, by anyone, not even stranded passengers. Iberia are now charging $2,300 each to get us home. The agent wouldn't even ring Iberia, but instead tried flog us LAN's fare of $1,800.

Our bus ticket to Lima, 22 hours away, is booked for tomorrow. We'll just have to go straight to the airport to fight it all out there the next day.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


We may be living in South America a bit longer than planned. I just found out this morning - by accident - that the airline company with whom we're supposed to be flying home, has gone bust. Bust! All flights cancelled, their fleet impounded, thousands of passengers stranded. Air Comet went bust on December 22nd apparently, when the Spanish government revoked the Madrid-based joke of an airline's licence due to huge mounting debts. Good timing lads.
Passengers hoping to fly home for Christmas were left without any way of doing so. 7,000 are affected. Riots ensued apparently, with Madrid's Barajas airport blockaded, passengers in Ecuador and Colombia going on hunger strike, while here in Perú, they forced their way into the Spanish embassy to demand a way to get home.
This, I learned this morning, by chance, while I was researching the best way to get to Machu Picchu. I wasn't even sent an email. I suppose we would have just turned up at the airport next week like idiots, to find out then we didn't have a flight home.
So now we've no idea how we're getting home. Air Comet's website has no information at all. Their phones are going unanswered. Lima airport's phones are going unanswered. Iberia (a possible alternative) are not picking up either. There is no information anywhere on the internet on how stranded passengers are supposed to get home. Any suggestions?

Bye bye Bolivia

So it's bye bye Bolivia. An eventful place, it's certainly hard to be bored here. For the last five days, since we got back to La Paz, we've been going out as if every day was Paddy's Day. Pubs to nightclubs back to pubs. La Paz really is a party town, probably because there's not that much else to do here. No other tourists I'd met had seen any sights or done anything touristy. The Death Road seemed to be the only attraction.

Poor Jenny got a bad dose of food poisoning and we had to call a doctor. A skinny old fella in a brown pinstripe suit and matching hat, he couldn't be more old school if he tried. He arrived with his little bag of tools and promptly had the situation under control. I had to go to the chemist to buy a whole heap of shit and he hooked her up to a drip attached to a picture-hanger on the wall. A couple of injections and a bottle of manky medicine, enough sleep for a sloth, and now she's right as rain again. Unfortunately now it's Cato, who's coming with us to Cusco, who isn't a well puppy. If it ain't one thing it's something else.

But back to Bolivia. The country itself is very easy to get into. Coming from Perú, we strolled over to find no queues, no people, no waiting at all. The guard barely looked at our passports as he stamped them. Once they don't try bribe you (apparently quite common), it seems they don't give a rat's ass who you are or what you try bring into the country.

I found the people to be much friendlier and warmer than the Peruvians, the ones who weren't trying to rip us off or screw us over that is. Oasis Odyssey Tours come to mind while there were also problems with the military police who can only be described as arseholes. Walking home from the pub one night, one goon with a machine gun blocked our path in front of the town hall and told us to go through the park on the other side of the road. I asked him why, what did he expect me to do, but he only hid behind his gun and barked his order again. More machine gun-wielding yobs on the other side of the road blocked us from walking there and we had to go through the park behind.
Jenny was mad at me for questioning the fuckers but otherwise they'll get away with murder (although that wouldn't be anything new here). The next night I had to go through the same shit again. Little men with big guns.

Anyone with the slightest authority seems to think they rule the Earth here. Even the traffic police strut around the chaos around them under the impression they're controlling it. Like in Perú they also have whistles, and they incessantly seek attention with them. Evidently unloved as children. Not one iota of difference to the traffic do they make. Little men with big whistles.

The regular Joes are different however. The women at the market usually have a warm smile and are always in the mood for a chat. They're fascinated by Jenny's hair and constantly ask her if it's real or not, if she can wash it etc. All the traders are amazed when they hear where we're from. We were shopping for dinner when a couple of women just gave us herbs and chilies to add to our spaghetti when they heard what we were making. "Para mejor sabor," they told us.

Another guy was sitting in front of a line of kids' shoes he was selling on the pavement, head down, looking pretty glum - evidently business was bad. Cato plonked his giant foot beside the shoes to size them up. "Awwww!" he exclaimed as he voiced his disappointment. Your man looked up, a giant smile on his face, absolutely delighted. It must have been a while since he heard a good joke.

Likewise, our hosts at Hostal Austria were fond of a joke too. The two men were ridiculously nice, looked after us very well, and asked us to come back again next year "con mucho amigos".

Many of them have a miserable existence however. On the night bus to Potosí we passed through a ghost town in the middle of nowhere at 3am. Nothing moved, nothing stirred, 'twas almost the night before Christmas.
There were only women waiting outside shabby diners in the hope of selling fried eggs or grilled meat to hungry passengers who may be passing in the middle of the night.
One old guy sat on a chair inside his eatery with his wife nearby, just waiting, arms folded, heads down. The place was empty and they looked so bored, so miserable. They should have been asleep, but instead they waited, waited for customers who never came.

Nobody even buys newspapers in Bolivia. Newsstands are surrounded by hordes of avid readers, all browsing the headlines of papers displayed for sale. How the newsagents make any money here at all is beyond me. I guess newshounds don't make any money here either, just like in Berlín.
But that's a problem for another day. Before worrying about the finances at home, there's a final fling to be flung! So it's back to Perú, where the ancient Inca city of Cusco awaits, and with it the much vaunted Machu Picchu. I'm prepared for disappointment due to a natural suspicion of all "must see" tourist attractions, but am hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Deadly buzz on the road of death

I'm alive! I cycled down the world's most dangerous road, careening down 64km from 4,700 metres to the jungle below at 1,100 metres and I survived!
To be honest it wasn't that dangerous at all. Sure, the "Death Road" is a bit narrow in places, 3.2 metres for two-way traffic, and there may have been sheer cliff drops of over 1,000 metres on the left, overlooked by rocky outcrops and ominous ledges on the right, and it may have been quite slippy, the rainy season making the gravelly dirt track that bit more treacherous, but - as I told Jenny often enough before we decided to plunge down through the clouds - a road is only as dangerous as the idiots who are on it.
There were plenty of idiots on it, all like us, seeking to overcome the challenge of what is officially the most dangerous road on the planet - a long, winding track cut precariously into the sides of mountains which used to be the main route from La Paz to the jungle area of Yungas down below.

Most of all the deaths occurred when it was still used by day to day traffic however, usually down to drunk driving or obstinence when drivers would refuse to give way to the other, causing one of them to tumble off to their deaths far below.
Thousands of Bolivians have died on (or off) it since it was built by Paraguayan prisoners-of-war in the 1930s. Setting the tone for what would follow, many of those prisoners died on it too, and those who survived were promptly flung off for their trouble once it was completed.
The country's worst road accident occurred on this road in 1983 when a bus careered off, sending over 100 passengers hurtling to their deaths. I'm sure any survivors were hurtling too, hurtling real bad.
Most traffic now uses a new road built in the last three years of so, making the old one a bit safer for us as we attempted to plunge down on two wheels.
Not too many tourists had been killed cycling down - only eight or so - although plenty have suffered very serious injuries.

The signs weren't good beforehand though. A bus crash killed 22 passengers just the day before, and we would have to get ready for the descent beside a cross marking some other unfortunate's fatality. Snow-capped mountain tops questioned our wisdom as we glanced down into the valleys where clouds were nestled against the cliffs.
The first part was grand, a lovely asphalt curvy route which we negotiated without too much trouble. Roadside crosses marked the scenes of previous crashes despite this being the "safe" part of the road. Of course, the Bolivians have to screw the tourists while they can and we all had to cough up B$25 to go past a checkpoint, before the dirt track part of the road started.
That's when the real fun started, although it wasn't as much fun as I imagined. We'd been warned of the dangers of attempting this in the rainy season, and I could see what they meant as we literally cycled through clouds. Then the torrential rain started, drenching us before we'd a chance to get far. When it wasn't raining we were getting soaked under waterfalls cascading over the "road". It can hardly be called a road at all. We had to cycle through strong rivers in places. Holding onto the bike going downhill was like holding onto a firing machine gun. I actually had to stop the bike to check if the front suspension was working. It was, but you wouldn't know it. My arms didn't thank me afterwards.
Cato, the Australian who's been sharing our adventures since Uyuni, went flying off his bike, twice. Always going down under these Aussies. Catos always land on their feet though, so he was alright. Others weren't so lucky. One guy ended up in hospital after breaking his wrist, while plenty more suffered bad tumbles, scrapes and scratches.
But we all survived, which is the main thing! Jenny and myself without injuries a bonus. 'Twas a deadly buzz man. A deadly buzz.

To avoid becoming another statistic, I yielded responsibility for photographs elsewhere. Unfortunately the quality was consequently yielded too. Nevertheless, the Death Road pictures can be seen here: