Happy New Year everyone, even if that's a bit late
Now that 2009 is upon us I thought to myself, it must be time for another newsletter. Amazing how the time flies by, unless you are waiting for an electrician. We are almost 1/10th of the way through the century, and 1/100th part through the “new” millennium, so, enjoy it while you can. The rest of this millennium is going to be a real eye opener. Meantime, I'll tell you a bit about the trip to South America, while it's still fresh in my memory. You can see some words and pictures at www.jimhewlett.com/southamerica.html
We used Explore as a facilitator, first and mainly because the only practical way of visiting the Galapagos is by boat, and the boat has to be registered, so it has to be a party organised by somebody like Explore, as was the jungle lodge which is in a National Reserve. We found them to be very competitive and very good value. There are several other companies that "do" the Galapagos, National Geographic has its name on several boats. We couldn't find the company called Kumuka (who did our Egypt trip) that we like, so presumably there is some degree of specialisation. If you have a favourite facilitator it might be worth asking them first. A lot of the "adventure holiday" companies advertise in BBC Wildlife magazine.
The boat that Explore organised was the Lobo de Mar (lit "sea wolf", or in English "sea-lion"), it carries about 16 passengers and most of our group came via London and all spoke English. Although she was not a new boat we found Lobo to be ideal, especially for snorkelling. The crew didn’t all speak English, but then to be fair, I hadn't learned any Spanish. We didn't run into any problems and picked up enough common words to get on with, especially with the barman. Of course the guides are fluent in at least one tourist language as well as Spanish, ours had perfect English. They took us to several islands on a set itinerary (see website) usually travelling between them at night. You cannot really visit the islands without a registered guide, and where the wildlife is more interesting, you have to keep to the paths which are specific for conservation. I suppose you could hire a guide and a boat and a crew all for yourself, but you'd need a Television Documentary sized budget. The islands really are kept first as wildlife sanctuaries and second as tourist destinations. Our trip also included Peru, Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu, the Amazon rainforest and a bit of the Ecuadorian mainland, again the website will give you an idea of it. Altitude is relevant to trips in Peru and the seasons are complicated, basically hot and dry or hot and wet. The rainy season was starting about then, but check the climate on BBC Weather and at www.explore.co.uk
Prices vary but ours was about £4,000 per person for three weeks all in (including flights and some eating and drinking money). Souvenirs extra. Incidentally there’s no malaria in the areas we visited in Peru or Ecuador, but if you are a blood donor, then a visit to any tributaries of the Amazon will prevent any donations for a year anyway.
I think the idea of the trip came first from Mum, who had planned an Amazon jaunt some years ago, but had been diverted to the Solomon Islands at the last minute, so she wanted to go. Fiona has always liked high places and thought Machu Picchu sounded sufficiently vertiginous to drag me up, (having trained me on Munros and other high places,) at the same time as being a worthy, and still slightly exotic holiday destination. I just go where I'm told. You may have gathered that I'm not too fond of heights, I am getting used to them, but I still think they're a bit risky, anyway, it's taken me half a century to get things the way I like, I'm not going to risk that on too many cliff edges. You'll notice that the Dalai Lama who is known for his intelligence and repeated reincarnation, always lives to be old. He's avoiding potty training, homework, (most) teachers and adolescence, by not scaling the odd mountain even if they are conveniently nearby. However, I'm getting off the track here.
Actually Machu Picchu, which you can spell in a number of ways, isn’t all that precipitous, Mum and I both managed it and neither of us goes looking for mountain edges. There are a few iffy bits available and you can elect to get a seriously dizzy climb off the more popular path if you have that kind of hankering. Apparently they involve old wooden ladders, and no of course I didn't. I might be able to salvage my quite unwarranted reputation as an intrepid explorer if I explained that the height of Machu Picchu bothered me less because I was so pleased to have the richer oxygen supply again. When we had arrived in Cusco, the aircraft re-pressurised up to the local 3350 meters above sea level (that's 3.3 kilometres up), but then they turned the extra oxygen off when they opened the doors, and that's the thing everybody in the group noticed, and we all felt tired sooner or later. We acclimatised reasonably quickly and simply remembered to breathe deeper. Machu Picchu at 2,400 meters (7,875 ft) is certainly easier though, and perhaps the ease of breathing took the edge off the verticality. The scenery is spectacular, as you would guess, with more geography than you could shake an "O" level at. It's worth remembering that most of our Scottish geography has been scraped comparatively flat by glaciers quite recently, and our volcanism* stopped earlier. Gringo Bill's Hostel was our base for the visit to Machu Pichu, a charming establishment that sometimes couldn't decide if it was indoors or out. It looks like two rooms and a door at ground level, but as the mountain behind it goes up and back, so does Bill's. By the fifth or sixth floor (depending on your way of looking at it) it's about ten rooms wide with turrets and extensions. The Hostel seemed to be made of wood whenever possible and even has a rooftop hot tub and a pool (sadly empty when we visited). The builders of Machu Pichu, or their descendants, were working on the main square of Aguas Callientes, the town below Machu Picchu and where the hotels are. There was a big hole in front of Gringo Bill's Hotel where we stayed, you might expect a word or two here, about how there's always building work going on and you just have to put up with it, or possibly a line to the effect that somebody built the hotel you are in, however I have a different angle for your consideration. The pleasure was in seeing large numbers of workmen just getting on with the job, especially considering the altitude, it was as though somebody had dressed a regiment in work clothes, I wouldn't say they worked with military precision, there's no such thing, but you'd swear they wanted the building up and comfortable before the rains came. Maybe that's the secret; tell them they'll be living there while they build the next bit. Anyway, I never expected to be pleased to find a building site outside my hotel window, but, after a British site, this one was a revelation to watch, no loafing, no shouting, no loud machinery and no Radio One at full volume. Perhaps sometimes they ran with wheelbarrows just to show how ill-adapted we were. Maybe they just liked the novelty of wheelbarrows, or level ground. One of the guides said that the three golden rules (in Quechan or possibly Quechuan) of the Empire of the Sun were: Ama suwa, Ama quella, Ama llulla. That is: Don't steal, don't be idle, don't lie. The idea seems to have stuck. Mind you, 400 years ago the punishment for disobedience was being tortured and killed, so it would have been a steep learning curve. We stayed overnight at Gringo Bills after going up to Machu Picchu, that way we were able to stay later (in fact we were the last ones out) not having to catch the last train back to Cusco. It gave us the opportunity to have another look the following morning, which Fiona took while Mum and I went for a dip in the hot water pools. The plan was that we could recover from the steep walking required for a really good look at Machu Picchu. Viewed from above it becomes clear that, with careful water management through terracing, the Incas used every square inch of ground, and it really looks as though you could live in Machu Picchu, unlike most archaeological sites. It had a distinctly Scottish feel to it, but I suppose if you build with freely available stone, and without much machinery in a remarkably similar weather pattern, you'll get similar houses. I was told the managed area could provide food for four times the estimated population and it was growing right next to them. I wish our planners would design that idea in. They managed to turn a near vertical slope into a town with fields for crops and gardens. Viewed from below, all you see are walls, so it looks more like the "dressed" mountain it is. The formal structures with their now famous mortar-free building technique are in excellent condition, the biggest damage I saw was caused by a tree, pushing the stones apart, rather than by earthquake. The buildings for the lesser folk used mortar and have sustained some damage over the years, but their main salvation has been not being turned into a cathedral. The Catholic church has a lot to answer for there. Perhaps it was the lack of writing, and paved roads for wheeled carts, that saved the place from Spanish attention. I mean you can take down the signs to a place, but somebody is going to look to where that road goes. Or notice that a town that doesn't exist, paid taxes and won last year's football match. If any wheels were ever used here, their remains would inevitably be at the bottom of the mountain, waiting for an imaginative archaeologist, but I can see that a rolling cart would be a liability at best. I'm not going to try to describe the site itself, there are plenty of pictures, but it's well worth the trip. Take the train from Cusco, the trips is an experience in itself, don't worry when it starts going backwards, and stay the night, before or after, so as to get a good all-day look. Hundreds rush up, dash round, and leave inside a day, seems odd, since everybody living further away than Cusco must have taken a day or more to get there.
I've always aimed for off peak holidays, it's much cheaper, less crowded and you generally don't get too burned. Our visit to the rainforest was just before the rainy season, I've no idea whether that was a "good" time or not, since the best time for one creature is quiet time for another. On the equator, or between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer it all runs rather differently anyway. The sun must be directly overhead twice a year. Presumably the best time to see animals and birds is when they are "courting", so that you get the maximum noise and colour, or feeding young for maximum activity, there was plenty to look at, anyway, day or night. You'll have to go and look for yourselves to see what it's like, but I can recommend using an organisation like Explore, there are several others, but I know that Explore has access to that particular compound. It's best to check on the likely age range of the group, but we've been the oldest and the youngest, and it's not mattered yet. The guides almost always let you wander off a bit, if it's not actually dangerous, though the Galapagos Islands have fairly strict rules about access. We've been well impressed at their skill at keeping us busy, interested, active, well fed, and reasonably comfortable. This trip in particular was excellent value for money, and we really don't have to worry about a thing. Generally there were pleasant surprises in terms of quality of food, accommodation and transport, especially if you don’t want it to be just the same as at home, and the staff and guides all seemed to know their jobs, and were available without being obtrusive.
Most of the time we were on the boat or taking trips out from it, I saw no "water taxis", so a boat is vital unless you want to stay on one island, and there aren't many you can do that on. The "Lobo de Mar" certainly wasn't brand new, but we got better than I'd have expected for the price, and she suited us perfectly. The crew were better at English and more importantly better at sailing, cooking, and cleaning than I'd have expected, certainly better than me. The seas were a little rougher than some of our party liked on a few occasions, and a toilet gave a few problems, but I had no complaints myself, and by moving from island to island at night we could spend most of the daytime swimming and walking, eating and drinking, snoozing and reading at will, with a mobile hotel constantly available. Brilliant. The Galapagos Islands themselves are very varied, the newest are just volcanic rock, others have farms, forests, beaches and mangroves. And of course loads of wildlife which takes very little notice of humans, so you can get really close for photos. It's rather strange having an iguana climb over your foot because its quicker than walking around it. The Blue Footed Boobies are charming, and will do a one legged dance just to check that a 13 stone tourist isn't going to turn miraculously into a female Blue Footed Boobie. The tortoises just keep doing their thing, probably seeing us as just more tourists, although, I imagine they are happier now that we don't eat them.
These and the rest of the birds and animals all made the trip worth while, with particular note of the Mockingbirds and Pelicans. And the Iguanas. And the Sealions.
After seven or eight days cruising around the Galapagos our time was running out and so we started back toward the delights of the British weather. We'd set off in autumn but it had definitely shifted into winter to welcome us back. Not wanting to stress ourselves too much we broke it up into stages, thinking we might we stop off at Quito, look around a bit and have a look at the equator while we were there. The President, Rafael Correa, was standing on the balcony of the Government buildings, which was a nice extra, I don't know if he saw me, and anyway he seemed to be a bit busy with a small group of protestors so I didn't go for a chat. After that we went to the middle of the world as they call it there, well, actually about 240 mtrs south of it. Some smart alec took a GPS reading at the site after they'd moved it the first time. There doesn't seem much point in moving it for a second time, continental drift will only mess it up again, and I apologise for not knowing which way the drift is going and how long it'll take to get to the right place. It took a long time to get there through town by reasonably priced but very crowded bus, and wasn't all that exciting when we got there. Better than John o' Groats though, and with lots of T-shirts etc. Since we were running late, we expedited our return to the hotel in three Taxis (nine people), it was rather more exciting with a native driver but also more expensive. I think he spoke Quechuan, but I'm really not sure. It was nice to find another race that thinks louder can substitute for translation, but I think that might have been a compensation for the broken car horn. We got back in time for a last supper (I always avoid the middle chair if they call it that) before flying off in various directions earlyish next morning. Miami was a bit dull, considering the hype, although 2 or 3 hours may not have done it justice, and at least the dress sense seems to have improved since the days of TV Miami Vice. Either way it goes in the bin with L.A. So here we are back again in Bonnie Scotland, and the weather is a bit dreech (useful Scottish word). Since returning I've put up a free-sat dish and started looking into going part time. We've had a 28 hour power-cut with a water-cut thrown in, the exhaust fell off the Pugeot and the Land~Rover lights failed. However these small challenges are soluble in wine, especially when candle lit, although I'm glad to report that the generator worked a treat, and the cats loved the old Super-Ser gas fire. See y'all.
*Vulcanism, I think, refers to rubber, possibly the wearing of rubber ears.