Thursday, December 2, 2010


So, I know I said the last post was going to be my last blog entry, but I decided to do one more with all the commonly asked questions I get since I have returned.

Favourite place? 
I have been saying Japan because it's the longest I spent in any one country (2 months) and because of all the awesome people I met there. Obviously it's way difficult to choose one favourite place, and it's usually not the place itself but the experiences you have there that make it your favourite.

Favourite city? 
Amsterdam... not because it's legal to smoke marijuana there, but it was my first European city and I fell in love with the canals and the tall colourful buildings... it just had a cool vibe.

Favourite hostel? 
7 Hostel, Sorrento, Italy. This was more like a 5 star hotel than a hostel with huge bathrooms, a view from the rooftop terrace to die for and a bar with cheap cocktails. What more could a girl ask for?

Best stretch of coastline? 
The Amalfi coast in Italy. And scootering down it just made it all the more thrilling.

Best beach? 
The one apparently called "Monkey Beach" (despite there not being a monkey in sight) that we stumbled across after a harrowing jungle trek in bare feet in Tioman Island, Malaysia

Most beautiful language?
French. Yes, the French are arrogant, especially about their language, but I could listen to it all day.

Friendliest people?
Croatians. They are always so eager to help, and every hostel we stayed at in Croatia was run by some motherly old hen who would make you want to stay forever.

Rudest people?
The Spanish. I'm pretty sure they were the rudest people I ever had to deal with, even when I was a paying customer.

Best book I read while travelling? 
It's a toss up between Shantaram and Bill Bryson's "A short history of nearly everything"

Best public transport? 
Japan wins by a mile

Best airline? 
British Airways or Qantas... yes I know they've been getting a lot of bad press lately but frankly they have the friendliest staff, best inflight entertainment and I have never had a delayed flight.

Best shopping? 
Bangkok - cheap and varied

Best festival? 
Oktoberfest with the Dorties, what could top that?

Best National Park? 
Plitvice National Park in Croatia... the best National Park you've never heard of

Best tour? 
The Inca Trail, or the river cruise we took in Borneo

Best night out?
The night out in Positano, Italy where we rode down the Amalfi coast at midnight on scooters with Italian guys we'd just met and then ended up in a nightclub in a cave and gatecrashed a wedding reception, then got back to Sorrento in time to watch the sun come up while eating fresh croissants from the bakery.

Best beer? 
Cliche, but it's got to be Belgium. Holland is a close second.

Best live show? 
Comedy of Errors at the Globe theatre in London

Best food? 
Really difficult but it's a toss up between Thai or Japanese... or Greek.

Best cultural experience? 
The tea ceremony in Japan

Favourite souvenir? 
My kimono

Hottest boys? 
Scandinavians. I didn't actually go to Scandinavia, but I met quite a few while travelling and not only are they nice to look at, but they're not overconfident and cocky like many European boys.

Best art museum? 
Louvre or Rijks museum in Amsterdam

Best religious structure?
Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Best museum? 
Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

Friendliest travellers? 
Swedes or Kiwis

Most handy travel accessory? 
Pocket knife, USB stick or sarong

Most worn clothing? 
My poor little jeans, which were riddled with holes in embarrassing places by the end of my trip.

Best nightclub?
Babylon, Florence. I hear it's closed down now, but I will never forget stumbling upon this place to find guys dancing on stage in their underwear, being sprayed with champagne at ten minute intervals and being served by bar tenders who were clearly more intoxicated than any of the people they were serving.

Best bar? 
Tracks bar, Hakuba (Japan). This place harbours so many fond memories for me, it was pretty much my home for two months. Introduced me to Southern Comfort and ginger ale, sho-chu and even let me play a few songs on the stage.

Best market? 
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul. Despite getting hassled all the time, the scarf sellers were so funny and friendly and you even get served Turkish tea as you're shopping!

Best ruin? 
I know Machu Picchu should be the obvious answer, but honestly, the ruins in Palenque, Mexico do give it a run for its money, and have way less tourists.

Safest country? 
Japan. I am convinced there is no crime in this country... well apart from the Yakuza maybe. There's not even any graffiti!

Most dangerous?
Vietnam or Bolivia... I will never forget how Ash and I were nearly kidnapped and sold into the sex trade by an unregistered taxi at Hanoi airport. Ok, maybe I'm slightly exaggerating, but it was not a nice feeling.

Cheapest country?
Vietnam or Bolivia... it just so happens that the most dangerous countries also happen to be the cheapest.

Best painting?
Girl with the pearl earring by Vermeer; and there were no barriers and crowds of Asian tourists around it! (take note, Mona Lisa)

Best building?
Ginkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

Coldest place? 
At the snow in Japan or Halong Bay in Vietnam

Seville, Spain

Coolest looking money? 
Czech republic, but over all, Australia wins for me. We have the most colourful and most durable money in the world. One Brit even told me that when they came to Australia they kept spending too much money, because they felt like it was Monopoly money.

Dirtiest place? 
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Tokyo or Singapore

Most fashionable? 
Tokyo. People here are always impeccably dressed... I'm pretty sure they have never heard of tracksuit pants.

Where I felt most homesick? 
Kyoto or Mykonos

Worst bathrooms? 
Vietnam or Malaysia. Toilet paper is optional and often there is no flush. Nothing beats the toilets on the sleeper train in Vietnam that were basically a stainless steel floor with a hole and two footprints to put your feet.

Best bathrooms? 
Japan. So high tech, you can warm your seat, play music to cover the sound of you peeing and super clean to boot.

Longest time without a shower? 
Four days on the Inca Trail

Longest plane ride? 
Santiago to Sydney, 18 hours

Longest bus ride? 
Mexico City to Palenque, 22 hours

Best meal? 
The huge 50 course Korean meal in Malaysia when Beth spilled a bowl of red soup on her beige dress.

Most interesting history? 
South America... so much is still a mystery

Main things I missed about Australia (as a country I mean; things like family, friends, my guitar, etc. are a given)?
The friendly people, less crowds, the fresh air, being able to communicate to everyone and BBQ Shapes!

First thing I did when I got home?
Shopping at Chadstone! Well, it was my birthday, I had to milk it.

Thanks for reading, hope you've enjoyed my adventures as much as I've enjoyed writing about them.

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
CS Lewis

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hook, line and Inca (Peru Part II)

Back in Peru, I decided to find a tour that went to Manu National Park whilst killing time before doing the Inca Trail. I had some bolivianos (the Bolivian currency) left over, so first things first, I went to get my money changed at one of the many "cambio" booths in Cuzco. But as I went to pay for my lunch with one of my nice crisp 50 sole notes (about $16 AUD) the lady informed me that they couldn't accept it because it was a photocopy. A really bad photocopy; I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed earlier, it was so obvious once she pointed it out. It wasn't even the same size as a normal note. In short, a really bad forgery. Not one to take this lying down, I stormed back to the man at the cambio booth and informed him that I had received a photocopied note from him and I wanted a real 50 sole replacement. Of course he denied everything, but I knew it had come from him because the only other money I had was from an ATM. So I threatened to go to the police and to my surprise he offered to come with me. We found a policeman on the street, but he only spoke Spanish, so the he called the "Tourist police" who rocked up in a shiny car and told us to hop in. I don't normally get in cars with strangers, but they were wearing uniforms and the car was clearly an official one. After much toing and froing, the cambio guy offered me 40 soles. I laughed in his face, as to me this was clearly an admission of guilt and told him firmly that I wanted my full 50 soles. Eventually he caved and I got my money... my REAL money. Cambio guy 0 persistent gringo (me) 1! I love when the good guys win. And I still have the fake note as a souvenir.

So I booked a three day tour of the Peruvian jungle, as that was all the time I had, but of course it wasn't long enough. When the bus picked me up early the next morning, I realised I was in a tour group with six much older people. I had obviously booked with Granny Tours. But they were really friendly, if a little opposed to anything too strenuous. The bus trip to our lodge in the middle of the jungle was interesting, as the roads were awash with rain and the driver and guide had to get out on numerous occasions and dig us out of a bog with a pickaxe. It was like driving with Sam (:P). We then transferred to a boat where we were delivered to our jungle lodge complete with mosquito nets, cold showers and lazy hammocks. It was a cool little place and we all fell asleep to the sounds of frogs and crickets chirping through the mesh windows.

The next day we got up at 5am to go "bird watching". This apparently excited the geriatrics on our trip, as they eagerly wielded their binoculars and wide lens cameras. I, however, will not be taking up bird watching as a hobby any time soon. We sat across the bank of the river watching a part of dirt cliff where apparently the birds all hang out early in the morning. But we were out of luck this morning, as the birds obviously enjoyed sleeping in as much as me. We were so far away you could only see birds through their special bird watching telescope anyway. It failed to excite my interest. So after an interesting breakfast of hamburgers on the side of the river, we boated to our next destination where we went on a bit of a walk to see a huge old tree and I tried to get some good photos of butterflies and flowers, which there were plenty of.

We also went on a "gondola" ride in a river complete with wooden raft and saw some prehistoric birds and woolly monkeys as well as some other weird looking animals. We picked some bananas for dessert and got a crash course in jungle medicine before heading back to camp. The next day we already had to head back to Cuzco. I had one day to recover before starting the Inca Trail, which I had booked three months ago with a company called Llamapath. I had to attend an information session that night and got to meet the group I would be hiking with, a group of 11 of us. Five couples... and me. Ever had to be an 11th wheel? No, only kidding, it wasn't like that at all and everyone in my group turned out to be really lovely. In our group were Kerry and Bruce, a couple of lively Americans from Salt Lake City; Adam and Sarah who were honeymooning medical graduates from Manchester, England; Sindre and Jurenn from Norway; Grant and Anne from New York; and Anje and Camil, the youngest in our group and least experienced hiking-wise, from Poland.

So day one we left Cuzco while it was still dark (some of you must be wondering how I am coping with all these early mornings on the hikes... the answer is strong coffee!) for a bus to a restaurant for a buffet breakfast of pancakes, eggs, fruit and... strong coffee. Then we drove to the starting point for our hike and after stowing some of our heavier items with the amazing porter team, (affectionately nicknamed "The Red Army" due to their red uniforms and backpacks) we were off. The first day day of walking lulls us into a false sense of security, as the weather is nice and warm, the hills not too steep and the hummingbirds and butterflies guide our path. Lunch is provided by the porter team, who already have a tent set up for us to eat in and all the cutlery and crockery set out waiting for us. We also have warm bowls of water for washing hands and a cold glass of juice. The food is amazing and this is the standard of excellence we become accustomed to throughout the trek. Talk about luxurious hiking! We arrive to our first camping spot at about 4:30pm, where of course our tents are already all set up with foam mattress and all. We all have a celebratory beer as the night sky grows dark and the most stars I have ever seen emerge from the darkness, as well as Jupiter. That night I start to feel a bit ill, headache and a sick feeling in my stomach. I figure a good night's sleep is all I need and fall into bed.

The next morning I feel alright and I feel even better after drinking the coca tea that is delivered to my tent door early in the morning by a porter. I feel a little tired, but ready to take on the most difficult second day, where we climb from 3300m altitude to 4200m, then down again. We walk uphill through beautiful jungle, interrupted only by a herd of alpacas coming through. Suddenly the uphill becomes much steeper, until the last killer flight of uneven granite steps, which make your thighs and calves ache just to look at them. We arrive to the peak, appropriately named "Dead woman's pass" (not because that's how you feel when you get there, of course, but because there is a rock shaped like a woman's nipple at the top) to a standing ovation from our Red Army. Adam passes around a bottle of rum for a celebratory swig and it warms the cockles of the heart, as it is pretty cold and foggy at 4200 metres. We all get our "Japanese moment" photos (as our guide calls these Kodak moments) and then begin our descent... a very steep descent. I'm feeling alright until about halfway down when I start to feel a little nauseous. We stop for lunch and when I lay down and it is a struggle to get back up again. I eat some lunch, then immediately throw it up again. I sit and drink some tea and then I vomit again (sorry about the ew factor, but I just want to illustrate that I felt more than a little sick at this stage). When it comes time to hike again, I am certainly not feeling up to it. I have no food in my belly, no energy and I am spewing up everything.

At this stage, the collective kindness of my group almost brings me to tears. Sarah walks with me even though I am lagging way behind the group, Adam lends me his walking stick and Anne even takes my backpack for me, as she doesn't have one. I can't remember ever feeling so ill in my whole trip and top of it all I am being forced to hike uphill when all I want to do is curl up in bed - it seems like an impossible task. I feel as weak as a 100 year old lady so that each step looks like a mountain and I am stopping every 5-10 minutes to take a breather. I try to eat an apple only to throw it up 5 minutes later. I don't think things could get much worse until it starts to drizzle down. Finally, I'm nearly at the top of the second pass, so I muster my last atom of energy, even though I feel like a ten tonne deadweight powered by a little AAA battery that is almost dead. But somehow I make it and our guide finally decides I need an antibiotic and it helps me to continue the rest of the way, which thankfully is downhill. My legs are like jelly and I walk mindlessly. The rest of the group visit an Inca site which is at the top of an extremely steep flight of stairs, but I decide to give it a miss and continue to the campsite alone. Thank God for the porters, they have the camp set up and as soon as I tell them "Estoy infirma", they provide me with some warm water and I crawl into my sleeping bag and get some much needed rest. I wake a few times to loud thunderstorms and torrential rain, but mostly I sleep right through dinner and everything. I wake up at 2am feeling ravenously hungry, so I eat a mandarin, stumble around the dark campsite for a few minutes trying to find the toilet then almost get into someone else's tent. But I didn't throw up the mandarin, so I figured I was feeling better. Then I went back to bed and slept right through to the morning.

The next day was an easy day, our guides, Raul and Edwin assured us. I was feeling better, still not much of an appetite but I could hold food down, so that was good. I don't remember much about the third day, I guess we were all pretty tired, but after 5 hours we made it to the next campsite. The boys played a game of high altitude soccer and I took a hot shower for 5 soles - I don't mind saying, it was the best 5 soles I ever spent. Even our guide commented that I looked like a new woman. We also went to see a huge Inca site called Winay Huayna (Forever Young) which was a great warm up for the main attraction the next day. That night we farewelled the porters and tipped them generously, as they did such an amazing job of looking after us and smiling the whole time.

The final morning we got up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am, but I drank my chamomile tea and made a concerted effort not to talk to anyone, especially Raul who was being overly chirpy. The sun came up as we walked through the checkpoint and this time our group was one of about ten others walking in a steady line. We walked at a cracking pace, eager to get there, but the serenity of the journey was sort of wrecked for me by the amount of people. One more flight of almost vertical steps and we made it to the "Sun Gate" to see our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, the lost Inca city. The weather was perfect and clear with just a wispy mist hovering at the tops of the green covered craggy mountains. The granite stone ruins stretched out beneath the sheer mountain which rose up out of the ground like a tombstone. All the hikers took their dorky victory photos and we got the group shots you see in all the tourist brochures. They allow 500 people on the Inca trail per day, and an additional 1500 to the Machu Picchu site itself. So you could imagine, there were a lot of people there and it was really weird after being isolated in the mountains for so long. Raul gives us a 2 hour tour of the ruins, but it is so hot and everyone is fading.

So we are left to our own devices for a while and we watch some llamas stealing an apple straight from a lady's mouth and then we have a "National Geographic" moment as Bruce calls it as we watch a tiny bee carrying a huge tarantula up a vertical cliff face. I wander around for a while until the heat wears me out and then catch a bus down to the little town of Aguas Callientes to meet the others for lunch. Afterwards we hop on the train for a slooooow two hour ride through the middle of the mountains back to Ollantaytambo, where we started. From there we hop on a Llamapath bus back to Cuzco.

That night I had an amazing sleep, before flying to Santiago, my final destination. There isn't much to be said about Santiago; it's a nice enough city, but there isn't a whole lot to do and I find myself just chilling out and relaxing with the guys in my hostel, counting down until my flight home.

So, there you have it, my final blog entry. Thanks for reading and keeping up with my adventures. I had a blast, but it's good to be home and to be able to tell you all my stories in person.

Tam biet, sayonara, selamat tinggal, hou doe, au revoir, ciao, elveda, aufwiedersehen, adios, farewell!
(see how many languages you can recognise...)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Livin' la vida loca in Bolivia

My first stop in Bolivia was at a little town called Copacabana, a laid back place perched on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest elevated lake in the world. I made friends with two German guys and we found some accommodation then settled in for a delicious lunch of rainbow trout, fresh from the lake. The next day we did a tour of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), supposedly the birthplace of the Incas. But I have to say, the Inca ruins were disappointing and the fact that we had to pay each village a fee just to hike through their towns was not cool. But we hiked from the north end of the island to the south regardless. On the ferry back to land, we also stopped at a "floating island" which was basically a floating wooden barge covered in straw with some huts and nets for catching trout.

That night I caught an overnight bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and a city at the lofty altitude of 3000m. The place was surrounded by mountains and all the terracotta roofed houses were perched on the edge of steep hills. That night I initiated myself at the hostel with a little game of "shot pool" followed by "very tipsy Jenga". My loud claims that I was a champion Jenga player and had won tournaments all over the world were quickly quieted when I felled the tower. I blame the shot pool.

The next day I did a tour of a jail. It wasn't something that was advertised in the Lonely Planet or something I had really planned on doing, but a couple of Aussie girls from the hostel were going and they convinced me to come along. I am really glad I did, because it's not every day you see the inside of a jail, especially one in South America and it was a truly eye opening experience.

So here's what happens; tours through the jail are obviously highly illegal, but there are certain people within the jail who like to seize the opportunity to earn a bit of cash. So we loiter outside the jail and within one minute a lady approaches us and asks "You're here to see San Pedro?" We affirm that we are and she asks us to follow her into the jail. It's a weekend so there are visitors queued up outside the door and many prisoners staring through the bars of the gate. We get ushered into a little back room where we hand over some cash and get our cameras taken. Then the lady fetches our tour guide, one of the prisoners who speaks English and we go to another room where we have to sign in. Our guide is Mauricio, a Bolivian guy who seems to be in his 30s and is in for armed robbery. He has two months left of his 19 month sentence and this is his second time in San Pedro. He introduces us to our "body guard" who is going to protect us as we walk through the jail. He shows us the different cells where the prisoners sleep, and we notice there is a hierarchy of which prisoners get the better beds. Apparently the government doesn't put any money into the prison, so prisoners have to make their own income through various means, and how much money they make determines what kind of cell they can afford. I am surprised to see little kids and many women hanging out in the prison; apparently they value family very highly in Bolivia, and the families of the prisoners are allowed to live in there with them. They can come and go as they please and this is often how they are able to make their income, by getting their wives to bring in goods to sell from the outside. Mauricio turns out to be a very informative guide, and I am glad for the body guard, as the prisoners are giving the three of us girls a little unwanted attention. I am also grateful for the body guard when we go into the kitchen where the meals are prepared and Mauricio tells us that the guys who get delegated to the kitchen duties are the lowest scum in the prison, murderers and rapists. I look at the young guys cleaning out the giant pots and shudder a little at the thought. Mauricio tells us prisoners have been killed in the kitchen before by other prisoners. I am pretty glad to get out of the kitchen.

The tour ends in the prison "bar" where we are offered anything from coke (the liquid kind) to the other kind of coke. We politely decline the offer and pay our tips to the guide and body guard before being escorted back into the real world. We get our cameras back and the ladies are looking a little nervous and frantic about us being seen exiting the prison, as there must have been some police around or something. So we are discretely ushered out and all the way back to the hostel we are just thinking "Did we really just do that?" It was certainly a surreal experience.

Another surreal experience in Bolivia were the Salt plains, the largest salt lake in the world situated in the south of the country. I booked a three day tour and hopped in a Jeep with Edgar, our driver, who also ended up being our cook and tour guide. We had a group of six of us as we hurtled across the seemingly endless plains in the Jeep. It was so hot and dry, I felt like the sunscreen was burning right off my skin. We got to see a fuzzy cactus plantation, take some odd perspective photos and see a hotel made completely from salt. That night we stayed at very basic accommodation on the edge of the salt flats with no running water, but we did have a table tennis table to keep us entertained and the beds were pretty comfy.

The next day we got to see some beautiful lagoons, some weird rock formations that looked like they came from a Salvador Dali painting and some vibrantly pink flamingoes. Photos really speak louder than words to describe the landscape, so you should check them out on my Facebook. We stayed in some even more basic accommodation the next night and it was rather cold, but we warmed ourselves up with a nice bottle of red that Edgar surprised us with. The next day was a looooong day of driving in the Jeep back to Uyuni, only to hop straight back on an overnight bus to La Paz. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I spent some time in La Paz shopping and recovering before heading to Cuzco, back to Peru where I was booked in for the Inca Trail. And what an experience that turned out to be!

Til next time,

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Peru Part I

My South American adventure started in Lima, the capital city of Peru. I have to admit, I hardly saw a thing of Lima; I was so tired out after my whirlwind trip of Mexico, I just wanted to lie down and watch movies. So that's what I did for one night. The next day I caught a bus to Huacachina, which is a surreal little oasis town near the southwest coast. The place is literally a big lagoon in the middle of a desert of sand dunes surrounded by backpackers and restaurants. But the place was packed with gringoes (that's what Western tourists are called here) mainly because of one thing; sandboarding. So that afternoon I strapped myself into some snowboarding boots, grabbed a snowboard (which felt really weird in such hot climes) and hopped into the big dune buggy. The ride in the dune buggy was fun enough; our crazy Peruvian driver laughed maniacally as we squealed in delight going over the bumpy sand dunes. Every now and then we would stop at a nice looking dune and we would all take turns sliding down it, either on your feet or stomach. All my snowboarding practise in Japan didn't really help that much on the sand... it was a completely different ball game. The only way to get to the bottom without falling off (which I did many times) was to just go straight down. By the end, I had sand in places one should never have sand.

Afterwards we went for a sandy dinner of pizza, before showering and deciding to hop in on a wine tour with a couple of Norwegian girls, an English guy, an American, a Portugese girl and a couple of Belgians. But this was like no wine tour I've ever been on before. First the taxis took us to the middle of nowhere, which was apparently a winery. From the outside, it looked like someone's old rickety shed, with a nightclub next door. So the guy showed us a big cement pit where they make the wine the traditional way, by squelching the grapes with their feet. Then we went into the shed where there were heaps of stone vats full of wine. There were also lots of stuffed animals looking at us and a lot of dust. Unsure of how hygienic it was, we tasted a few wines and a Peruvian spirit called pisco. I swear I could still taste the dirty feet in some of the less mature wines. They certainly tasted different to any wine I had ever tasted before. So we selected a bottle of one for the group and after a few glasses, we were ready to hit the dancefloor at the "nightclub". I use the term nightclub quite loosely as it was basically a whole lot of young locals dancing to music in a carport type thing with some flashing lights. They all stared at us as we showed them how gringoes dance and after a while, everyone joined in together in a big multicultural dance fest.

Things were winding down at the winery, so we all hopped in a couple of cabs and went to another bar back in Huacachina, but no one seemed to be dancing, so of course we fixed that. There was a big group of young Peruvian girls just standing watching, so we pretty much made them join in and before long the dancefloor was pumping. Meanwhile, right on midnight, an older lady who had been keeping an eye on the girls ushered them all out the door. We asked her in Spanish how old the girls were and she said 14. Turns out she was their teacher; they were on school camp and they had a midnight curfew. Ha! I'm pretty sure that would never happen on a Flinders camp. I think they had a good night though. I know I did.

My next destination was Nazca, to see the ancient Nazca lines drawn in the sand in the middle of the desert. I wanted to get a flight over them, but then I heard that three British tourists had died in a plane crash just the week before, and for once I decided to err on the side of caution and just go to the lookout instead. I think I'm glad I saved my money because I spoke to an older lady later in my trip and she said it was the biggest waste of money. The flights are only half an hour and she said they all got sick because the plane wobbles around so much. So I got to see some of the lines and I lived to tell the tale so that's enough for me. For those who have no idea what I am talking about, the Nazca lines are huge pictures in the sand thought to be thousands of years old, drawn by the Nazca people, but it is a mystery why they drew them. There are symbols of a hummingbird, a monkey, a spider and many more, but they are so big you can only really see them from the air. This led many people to believe they were drawn for extraterrestrial beings, but the more likely reason is that they represent some sort of agricultural calendar or offering to the Gods or something.

After Nazca I caught a bus to Peru's second biggest city, Arequipa. This place was charming, very Spanish-looking with big cathedrals and cobblestone streets. I had another night out on the town with some people from the hostel, then did a three day hiking trip to the Colca Canyon, which depending on who you talk to is either the deepest or second deepest canyon in the world. Our guide thinks it's the deepest. We saw some big condors from a lookout then began the hot, dusty descent into the canyon. The best thing about a canyon hike is that you get the good view before you even start hiking. The downhill stint was pretty taxing on the old ankles and knees, but we rewarded ourselves by dipping them in the nice cool river at the bottom. Then we walked to a little village. One thing that hasn't ceased to amaze me in this trip is the strange desire of people to live in the most isolated places, despite the difficulties arising from such a choice. These villagers were so cut off from the world; most of them looked like their skin had spent just a little too much time being cooked by the sun, so even though they all looked about 90, for all I know they could have been 35. The only way they get supplies into the canyon is via mule, which meant water was expensive. Goodness knows what they do with their day, other than farming... actually, they did have a dusty old soccer pitch and I am told that the people get VERY excited when it's football season. I will have to take their word for it.

So we left our basic lodging at ridiculous o'clock then continued on to the next place we were staying, a lush little oasis in the dusty canyon with a few cool blue pools scattered around the place. We nearly lost two older German ladies in our group who insisted on leaving before us so they wouldn't hold us up, only they got lost so we ended up having to wait even longer for them. We all had a dip in the pool then lazed away the rest of the afternoon. Early night, as we had to get up at 4:30am again the next day to begin our arduous climb out of the canyon (it's alright, good training for the Inca Trail...) before the sun came up. I have to say, I was grateful for the early start, as the sun was HOT when it got going. Our group climbed the 1000m in two hours, which was a pretty good effort, and I am glad to say we beat the mules, which some people decided to ride to the top. May I point out that they do have the advantage of two extra legs... it only takes them about 1.5 hours, but they left an hour after us, so we still beat them :P

So we concluded our tour with breakfast of fried eggs at the village at the top and then we went to the hot springs to have a cold beer and soak our sore muscles. I slept pretty well that night, then caught a bus the next day to Puno, my last destination in Peru before crossing the border to Bolivia. But I would be back again for Peru Part II!


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Exploring ancient civilizations in Mexico

It was with more than a little trepidation that I flew in to Mexico City. Many travellers had warned me of the dangers of this massive city, and to be careful as a girl on my own. But, as usual, the travellers cautions were overzealous and my experience of this city was a great one. My hostel had told me not to pay more than 127 pesos for a cab from the airport (about ten bucks), so I approached a registered taxi and asked the price: 200 pesos. I don't think so. I persuaded him down to 120, being the savvy and stingy backpacker I was and we were off. The driver was a happy little man who spoke no English and whose mouth looked like someone had grabbed a handful of teeth and just stuck them in his mouth wherever they wanted. My hostel was amazing and new, not the dive that I had been anticipating and the people really friendly. I was sharing a room with a Mexican lady who gave me her email when I left so that I could stay with her next time I was in Mexico. So where were all these lowly bag snatchers, kidnappers and drug dealers I had been led to believe were waiting to get me on every corner?

I went for a walk and went past what I thought was a church. I took a few photos before the security guard let me in to see it was a library. A really cool library. Every inch of the place was painted with brightly coloured murals and a spiral staircase led up to a cool view. I was getting a bit uncomfortable being alone in a deserted library with an old security guard who spoke no English so I thanked him and he tried to kiss me as I left. I sort of backed away and said "No." and he said "No?" "No." I'm pretty sure that translates in any language. Nice try buddy. I got outta there quick sticks and walked down to the main plaza where it must have been family day, because everyone was out with their kids flying these inflatable crayon shaped balloons and there were some guys playing mariachi music on guitars and a cute little market. There were guys with feather headresses burning incense and calling themselves shamans and one guy with dreads stopped me to talk about surfing in Australia. I was loving Mexico City. My first day certainly put my mind at ease.

So I wandered around the city the next day, taking in the sights. I caught the metro which is obviously not the done thing with tourists (well, the little tourists that are there... they must have been scaremongered off) as people were staring openly at me. Every now and then someone would hop onto the train to sell anything from CDs to chocolate to leather wallets. The CD guys were the funniest because they walk around with a big speaker on their backs. I went to the Anthropological Museum which is probably one of the best museums I have been to on my whole trip, as it went through human civilization from monkeys through to the Mayans and the Aztecs. Then I hit a few artisan markets which were in the dodgy areas, but found some pretty cool stuff. All in all, I found Mexico City to be very friendly and efficient; people were always ready to help me with translating Spanish or to find where I was going. Although, every day on the front page of the newspapers these guys were selling at the metro stations, there would be an extremely graphic picture of a dead bloody body lying in some street. So I guess there are dangerous things going on somewhere in that big city.

My last night I went to Garibaldi Plaza where all these old guys dress up in their mariachi costumes complete with boots and hat and play music for anyone who gives them a bit of money. You can request whatever song you want... a lot of couples would go here to be serenaded. It's kinda cute... these guys all walk around like celebrities with their greased back hair and cowboy-like outfits with big double basses or mini guitars strapped to their backs.. "Mariachi?" they ask you with a big grin. It was a great way to finish my time in the city. I then caught the bus to Palenque in the south, for what I thought would be a 13 hour journey. It ended up taking 22 hours because of all the flooding happening around the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, we were all pretty relieved to get off the bus at 2pm the next day and me and a couple from Australia and NZ booked into a beautiful hostel in a shady jungle area. I had a much needed shower, then we had a few beers, some ping pong and ended up hanging out with the owner of the hostel all night in the terrace restaurant.

The next day we explored the ancient Mayan ruins down the road, which were amazing. Being the off season we almost had the whole place to ourselves and we were able to wander through the temples and pyramids at our leisure. Amazing to think all these stone buildings had been there since about 100 AD. The place was so peaceful and tranquil with butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around our heads, until the silence was broken by some howler monkeys. I don't know if you've ever heard these things, but they are LOUD... they sound like dinosaurs, I felt like I had stepped into Jurassic Park. So we walked through the jungle to some nice waterfalls and had some sandwiches for lunch before hailing a bus back to town.

The busride from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas was really cool, although windy. We drove past a lot of cute little villages that didn't even look like they had electricity as we climbed higher and higher in the mountains and ladies with plaited hair walked around in traditional shirts and skirts. When we got to San Cristobal I suddenly found where all the tourists were. This place was crawling with gringoes and pushy ladies trying to sell blankets, shirts, necklaces, anything. They were also wearing traditional clothes. It was a cute little town though, with really brightly coloured buildings, but temperatures were freezing at night.

On the 18 hour bus back to Mexico City where I would be getting my flight to Peru we got stopped so many times by officials looking for anything from drugs to passports; one even woke me up at about 1am to check my passport, but didn't check anyone else on the bus. And one time we all had to actually get off the bus as they took out our bags and got a sniffer dog to go through them all. There were three nuns on our bus who looked slightly bemused by the whole situation. The guys in army gear tried their hardest to find something, but they didn't. And so we were off again through cactus studded landscapes with a snow capped mountain in the distance. I had my first successful conversation in Spanish (well, close enough to a conversation) with the taxi driver who took me to the airport. So I said adios to Mexico, one week wasn't long enough, but I had to catch my plane to Peru.

Hasta luego, amigos,

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of...

But before I get onto that, I nearly didn't make it out of Europe. Due to some "Shengan Agreement" or something, you're only supposed to spend a maximum of three months in pretty much the whole of Western Europe. As if three months is enough for the whole of Western Europe! So anyway, because I was there for about six, I was actually an illegal alien, which the really cute guy at Amsterdam customs was quick to point out. What I don't get is that I have had my passport stamped several times travelling within Europe and nobody picked up on this fact until I'm about to leave the continent? So anyway, he was quite nice about it but I had to go to the cold, grey back room and fill out a form like a criminal and he said he was 99% sure they would let me off, but if they don't I can't go back to Europe for five years!

But another day, another continent and I couldn't mull over my illegal status for long as I was flying to New York, New Yoooooooooork. What a buzz. Even the fact that British Airways lost my luggage couldn't get me down, especially since the nice guy on the desk chuckled at my lame jokes and gave me a free toilet bag. I was so excited as we touched down on the tarmac of the city I had seen in so many movies and TV shows; seeing New York is like meeting a famous actor in real life that you have seen in heaps of movies. I was staying in a hostel in Brooklyn, but it was like the trendy part of Brooklyn and reminded me a lot of Fitzroy in Melbourne with lots of vintage stores and cute little cafes. I was pretty spent after my big flight, so I didn't see much on my first day, but I was asked to go in a photo shoot. Yeah, well you know, I always knew I would get discovered in New York. It was just a publicity shoot for the hostel, but I got $60 cash in hand and free red wine all night, easiest money ever!

The next day the sun was shining bright and everything was dandy, so I caught the subway into Times Square and walked around central Manhattan. I smashed all the big sites; Times Square, Central Park, Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue, Broadway, Central Station, Chrysler building, walking past addresses that I had heard muttered to cab drivers in a million movies... "45th and Broadway please". I ran around like a little kid in a huge Lego store full of massive dragons and things made out of Lego, then did... The Empire State Building. I got to the top just as dusk was approaching and despite the paparazzi spectacular, the view was amazing. On the way home I found... Pop Tarts World. Yes, they have a whole store devoted to Pop Tarts! I bought two tasty frosted varieties, then caught the subway home with a big smile on my face. At midnight I went with another Aussie guy to the only Australian pub in New York, and paid $10 for the privilege of watching two football teams end up back where they started, albeit a little more tired. I felt like I was in Australia again for the whole 3 hours. Then I hailed my first cab on the New York sidewalk, with what has to be a record of like 30 seconds. My fame must have been getting around after my photo shoot.

The next night I caught up with a guy Alex who I had met in Croatia previously in my trip. He was out with some friends after a wedding and generously offered to take me along for the ride. The whole night I felt like I was in Sex and the City. We started at a busy little bar near Central Park where they have those hostesses who decide whether or not you can come in and all the guys are wearing suits. Then we caught a cab to an exclusive nightclub where Alex had booked out a private table on the rooftop terrace which had the most AMAZING view of the New York skyline. Mind you, it cost $120 per person for the privelege! A lot of dancing, a lot of drinking followed by a scrumptious slice of New York pizza ended a fantastic night. And the next morning... bagels! Delivered straight to the door of your apartment!

I slept in too late to go to a Gospel church that morning, but it didn't matter, because this is New York and of course they have an afternoon service! Now that's my kinda church. So armed with a really crappy map I jumped aboard a random bus heading towards the part of Brooklyn the church was in. A guy who had lived in New York for 42 years chatted to me on the bus and told me how the place had changed. When I got off, he told me to be careful cos of the neighbourhood and all. It turns out I was the only white person in a black neighbourhood. I had heard there were "black" neighbourhoods in New York but nothing prepared me for how extremely segregated it really was. I was getting stared at like I had just stepped out into a remote village in Africa and there were some pretty mean looking guys walking around. I honestly felt so uncomfortable I hopped on another bus so I didn't have to walk. There were some lovely old ladies dressed in their Sunday best, and they directed me to the Brooklyn Tabernacle.

This place was pumping! They had a choir of at least 150 people, minimal instruments and some fantastic solo singers. In the church body alone there would have been about 1000 people and the music was so moving, I actually had a bit of a tear. I didn't realise how much I missed church until I was in the midst of such an energetic one. The preacher was really good too, wish I could remember his name, but he preached about God commanding us not to worry and to rejoice in him always, even if not in our own circumstances. It was a great experience and even though the place was so big they needed ushers, I felt at home straight away.

There is so much to see in New York it becomes a little overwhelming. The weather turned bad, but this would not stop me from sightseeing! I walked out of my hostel one morning to drizzle, only for it to turn into a veritable deluge just as I was stepping out of the subway to line up in an outdoor queue for Broadway tickets. My ineffective travel umbrella turned inside out, so I was soaked from head to toe, but I got my tickets to Westside Story. One night I was walking through Times Square and there was a Wagner opera showing on the big screens and people were sitting in the rain watching. It was actually really good, I might have to go see an opera one day. That was the idea of course, advertising. I went into Toys R Us, a toystore so big it had its own ferris wheel, life size dinosaur and giant Barbie dollhouse. I also got to saunter into Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue and spend a bit of cash on mum's behalf... I know what Holly Golightly meant when she said in Breakfast at Tiffany's, "It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits..." How could you be sad in Tiffany's with all those sparkly things and the Australian dollar as strong as it is?

On my last day I stupidly rocked up to the ferry port to go see the Statue of Liberty four hours before I had to be on my flight only to find the queue miles long. So I took the cheats way and caught the Staton Island ferry instead... free, no queue and a great view of the lady herself. The only thing was, it took longer than I expected. So I was rushing to the airport for my domestic flight to Miami, got there 45 minutes before the flight only to be told the flight was closed. About five minutes ago. To make matters worse, the staff were unnecessarily rude, and the next flight they put me on was delayed by one and a half hours. So yes, I will name the dodgy airline here for all to see: American Airlines. So that is flight number two I have missed. Well, two out of twelve ain't bad. Actually, that's shocking isn't it?

So I had about three days to spend in Miami. I was staying at a hostel that was party 24/7, house music thumping like a nightclub at all hours and the common room dimly lit like a strippers. But they provided three meals a day for free and one night we even had a free keg. I just spent my time lazing on the beach which was huge and really nice, although you have to ignore the constant hum of planes flying over your head advertising anything from Miami nightclubs to lyposuction clinics. One afternoon I went for a jog along South Beach only to jog past the one and only The Fonz. He was a little more old and grey than last time I saw him on Happy Days, but I am pretty sure it was him. I was sharing a room with two crazy Romanian girls and together we had a few big nights out in Miami, more girls in underwear dancing on poles (not us!), exhorbitant drink prices and thumping house music. All in all, a good time was had by all, but I was ready to move on to my next destination after three nights... Mexico!

xo Meg

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dortmans take over Oktoberfest!

Beer. That's mainly what this blog is going to be about; German beer and lots of it. But before we get to that, I better talk about Berlin, as that is where I first flew into. Berlin is a strange city and Berliners are even stranger. But I guess that's not such a surprise when you look at the history of the city. It has an alternative/artsy feel about it, everywhere you turn there is technicolour graffiti adorning the grey Soviet-style buildings or some sort of art installation. The first day I got there the sun was disarmingly shining (this tricked me into thinking the weather was always going to be like this...) so I went for a stroll down to the East Side Gallery, which is part of the old Berlin wall and has some of the best "graffiti" in the town, getting political, hippie and abstract all over the place. I also checked out Checkpoint Charlie, which had an exhibition on the history of the Berlin wall. A lot of it was news to me, considering I was 4 years old when the Berlin wall came down. You hear a lot about WWII when you're growing up, but not so much about the aftermath and what happened to Germany and the rest of Europe as a result of everything that went down. I learned even more about this history in the Topography of Terror, an exhibition about how Hitler came to power.

My last few days in Berlin were rainy and grey, and all the depressing history was kinda getting to me, so I caught a bus to rainy Prague instead and spent a few days kicking around this beautiful old city. I met a funny group of Aussie guys and a couple of girls, and we all decided to hit the town and see what Prague nightlife had to offer. The hostel took us to a weird club which was full of weird robotic lights and everything was decorated with scrap metal. It looked kinda cool, but the music was reggae/dub which is okay for a few songs, then it just gets a bit boring. So we legged it to another club called Mecca. This place had girls in leopard skin underwear dancing on podiums and crappy trance music, so us girls went downstairs to where they were playing 80s and 90s music and we totally got the dancefloor going. Then we went back to the hostel and played Uno for a while before sleep got the better of us. The next day the sun finally decided to make an appearance and we went for an adventure to the Prague Castle, which was basically a huge fortress... we were wandering around asking "Where is the castle?" only to be told "Uh, you're in it". Oh. Fantastic views were our reward as we reclined on a grassy patch in a vineyard and took in our bearings. That night Olivia and I went to see Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg, which was a really cool experience, as I have missed seeing good live music. It was one of those surreal experiences where you walk outside after the 2 hour show and go "Oh, I'm in Prague... I kinda forgot for a while there."

So after Prague I caught a bus and train to Munich to meet up with the Dortmans crew for an epic Oktoberfest. Nothing can describe my excitement at arriving at the camping grounds to be greeted by Dan, Kate, Ana, Laura and Kate's friend Coxy. It was great to see some familiar faces again. So in true Dortmans style we had a few beers, which were needed to help us sleep in the arctic overnight temperatures in Munich. I didn't even have a proper sleeping bag, so I curled up in a little ball in layers of thermals, pants and jumpers and had a pretty unrestful night's sleep actually. But it didn't matter. Next morning we all got up at some ungodly hour, had breakfast and put on our most German drindles (actually Sam tells me they are called dirndls... we were calling them drindles the whole time!) and lederhosen for the opening day of the 200th Oktoberfest 2010.

Queues for the showers were phenomonal, so most of us decided to keep our shower tokens (yes, you had to pay one euro for the privelege of 5 minutes of hot water) and go dirty. Then Ana and Kate unveiled a surprise for us all... some yellow and green plastic kazoos. I repeat, some yellow and green plastic kazoos. These were to be our pride and joy for the rest of Oktoberfest, as we played "Guess the tune" and pretty much annoyed anyone else that didn't have a kazoo. After a few steins, we even resorted to communicating only via kazoo ("Uh, sorry Megan could you please kazoo that again, I didn't quite understand..." from Ana).

So we got a shuttle bus into the fest, to be greeted by a fairground complete with ferris wheel and 14 MASSIVE tents. Calling these thing tents is like calling Uluru a pebble. We picked a table outside the biggest tent, the Hofbrau and then waited until midday for the opening of the festival and the tapping of the kegs. We entertained ourselves in true Dortmans style by buying HUGE pretzels (everything is oversized at Oktoberfest) and playing "How many things can you do with a pretzel?" We were getting very creative and cracking ourselves up, and this was before even having any beers. Then at midday a procession of floats holding kegs and lots of people in traditional dress came through the crowd, even little kids were being weened early on as they hung off the floats with fake steins of beer. Parades of brass bands came through playing German songs and some of those German boys looked very cute in their lederhosen. Finally the kegs were ushered into their tents and the man kicked off the festival by tapping the keg, and fountains of golden beer poured into the steins. Beer wenches crowded around the kegs to fill up the dozen steins they held in their Herculean hands (I still have no idea how they hold so many of these... each stein holds one litre of beer!). And the race was on... each table tried to get the attention of any beer wench that came through the door, and I have never seen anyone get so excited over the arrival of beer. The energy was contagious. Many shenanigans ensued until... the big toilet disaster. Unfortunately, the downside of drinking so many beers is that you and every other beer drinker need to go to the toilet a lot. So, silly me, I left it quite late and got to the toilets only to find they were CLOSED. So Ana and I hurried to another tent where the line was majorly long. I viewed the situation and estimated roughly a 30 minute wait... I knew I didn't have that long, I needed to go NOW. So I farewelled Ana who again laughed at my misfortune (she got her comeuppance when she had to squat under a truck later on...mwa haha) and I ran across the road to where I found a Chinese restaurant. These wily entrepeneurs were charging one euro for the use of their toilets, but I swear it was the best euro I ever spent. No line, clean toilet, plenty of toilet paper. Ahhh. You can sometimes take these necessities of life for granted. I heard later there were many girls squatting under trucks and in parks because the toilet situation was so dire, and a few boys at our table even filled a few steins... eeeewwwWWWW!

Day two of Oktoberfest, we were up at 8am ready to do it all again. This time we scored a table inside at the Lowenbrau tent with a couple of other people we met. Our beer wench was a character, always pushing us to buy more beer and showing us how to eat a German sausage. We were seated next to a table of Marios and Luigis with cool handlebar moustaches. This time the drinks started flowing from 10am onwards, and the first one went down like nails. We ordered a German platter to accompany our beer, and this ended up being much more entertaining than it was delicious. Apart from ham, we weren't able to identify anything on the platter, so it became a fun game of "Guess what we're putting in your mouth?" There were some things that resembled dog food (I'm pretty sure they were) some black sausages and other weird looking things. The looks on their faces say it all.

Soon enough, everyone was dancing on tables, shouting "Prost!" and singing along to the German songs, despite not knowing a word of German (cheers being the exception). Beer was everywhere and things were gettin' loose (as Dan would say). Laura was falling asleep on her beer stein, Ana was falling asleep between a guy's crotch and I was ready to never drink another drop of beer in my life. It seems after seven litres in the one weekend I had reached my beer threshold. So we retired after another day of hard work. We had to get some sleep before the DORTMANS ROAD TRIP OF 2010.

We had a bit of trouble with car hire, but after some negotiation, we got two little cars for quite a good price. These were the honourable vestibules which would be carrying us forth to visit more Dortmanses in Holland. For some of us, this was the last stop in a Euro trip of a lifetime. So we piled into the cars and hit the Autobahn, Dan getting our little Ford Focus up to a cool 190 km/h. We made a pitstop where Laura found some fascinating self-cleaning toilets, which she claims were the highlight of her whole trip. Our fantastic navigation skills got us to Dinther in one piece (who needs GPS?) only my navigational skills were pretty dodgy, as I directed us to the wrong house. And Dan only drove on the wrong side of the road once, which is pretty good.

We were greeted by that famous Dortmans hospitality to a fantastic 3 course meal of soup, meat and veg and custard. We were beaming afterwards, after living on a diet of pretzels, beer and German sausages for two days. For once we went to bed without having any beer. We had a great night's sleep before sightseeing around Dinther and Den Bosch the next day. The Dortmans girls, Ilse, Noreen (sorry if I spelt it totally wrong!) and Marlies fed us some Dutch delicacies and then we ran around town before going back to the house for delcious pancakes and a party full of Dortmans. Which meant more beer. The next day Laura and I stuck around to catch up with some rellies on Oma's side. To our amusement, we found one of them riding a bike along the main street of Dinther. His name was Fritz and he was 84. After door knocking all around Dinther to try and find out where he lived, watching him cruise past on a bicycle was the highlight of my day. He had a cheeky grin and gave us a wave while doing a u-turn and nearly getting hit by a car in the process. He looked exactly like Oma and just as healthy.

We also met Oma's younger brother Wim, all of them lived within 5 minutes walking distance in the same town. We probably could have knocked on any door in the cute little town and they could tell us where they lived. Which is pretty much what we did!
Phew! What a long blog. I will have to tell you about New York and Central America another time. Hey, guess what? I will be home in about 5 weeks! Can't wait chicas!
xxoo Megan