Sunday, 30 May 2010

Week 4 - Bolivia - La Paz (a city that takes your breath away - literally), & Copacabana

Hello again! Is everybody well? Since the quite 'breath-taking' views from last weeks blog in the Salar de Uyuni, it's been a 'breath-taking' experience of another kind these past few days! I mean very literally, I have been gasping for breath too many times for my liking!

After a somewhat dodgy and freezing overnight bus from Uyuni to La Paz, and going from the remote desert to the bustling metropolis, I arrived in La Paz at 08:00 ready for some sleep! I had heard that at a very high altitude (4058 metres above sea level), even walking around this city needs to be done with care! As I snaked down towards what looked like the centre of town, my backpack felt like a ten ton weight. After asking people in my broken 'Spanglish' where the plaza de San Francisco was, every 50 metres or so, I finally 'came to rest' outside the church at the Plaza! I had found the backpacker mecca of La Paz, and it still wasn't 09:00! The Hotel Maya awaited, and they had a room (double room, but just for me), at a very reasonable price of 60 Bolivian pesos! After 5 minutes of heavy breathing (and I don't mean down the a phone line), I regained my breath in time to ask for the room. I was quick to shower, in luke warm water, and set about my to-do list. Laundry topped that list, swiftly followed by money changing, Internet and blogging! All necessary services were very conveniently located within a 1-minute radius of the hostel, so I was a happy man!

resisting the urge to sleep and waste anymore time, after over 3 hours online, I set about walking around La Paz, well I say that, I tried to walk around La Paz, but any uphill movement, and you can see from the pictures, there is a fair amount of hills, led to more breathlessness. I decided I had to eat, taking the advice to eat only a little, (with a burger and fries!). The rain began to fall, but undeterred I continued to trek through the street to see what funny pictures I could find. I found lots of very colorful buildings, and buses! La Paz definitely wins the award for most colorful buses!

I also found lots of market stalls and some kind of preparation for a festival, with flowers and soft toys filling the stalls all around town! After some very unsuccessful bartering for some deodorant and moisturiser at the local market, I needed a plan for the evening! Being so tired, and in poor weather, options were pretty limited, so I decided I needed to do something that I like to do at home! I went to the cinema and watched Russel Crowe in 'Robin Hood'. It was quite good, and I do like checking the movies out in different countries... I mostly enjoyed the popcorn and sweets I ate whilst watching the film.

Going to the cinema on your own is always a funny experience, I get paranoid that people think I must be some kind of weirdo, or very lonely person, and it's not the kind of place where people are wanting to strike up conversation - in a darkened room! Still, it filled the time and allowed me a good rest ready for the following day's trip to Copacabana!

COPACABANA - yes for many of my good friends, you this word as the infamous Barry Manilow song or the name of the Salsa club in Manchester that I go to. Ok, so it's not quite the world famous Brazilian Copacabana, but the Bolivian version certainly had it's own charm. Situated on the shores of the huge huge huge lake Titicaca (try saying that quickly after a few beers at altitude). The lake was truly amazing, so big and with endless beautiful scenery. The town of Copacabana in Bolivia, was a small town, fairly dominated by backpackers, but with some quaint little cafes, bars and eateries! I must mention the discovery of cheescake I made here, as I told my good french friends that cheescake could bever be far away in the desert of Uyuni!

I was far more concerned with continuing my period of R&R (rest & relaxation), so after a beautiful grilled lemon trout ( see picture below)

I went for a stroll along the shore, and enjoyed some sunbathing on one of the little wooden jetties!

I'd been told to head up the nearby hill, lined with religious crosses, for sunset. It was a beautiful view over the lake, and several other backpackers had done the same. I sat reflecting on the trip so far as the sun set over the lake..

On the trip back down to the city, I got chatting to a really nice English girl, (who's name I never asked for) who had been working and living in Guatemala. We went for a beer and dinner, and I have to say if she ever reads this blog, "thanks for a really interesting chat". I won't bore you all with details but we had some really interesting chats about living and working in a different culture and how that kind of experience changed our opinions about our own county, both in a positive and negative way! These random meetings, often conducted without formal introductions, are one of the reasons why I love travelling. I am still in touch with a American girl that I spent had a few beers with, back in 2001! We have never met since, but keep in touch! Just brilliant!

The following day I left to cross the border to Peru and head for the Inca ruins, which I wll write about next time!

Oh just one more funny story... the hostel in Copacabana, cost little over 2 pounds! The room was clean, but the showers were downstairs in the main courtyard, whilst my room was on the lst floor (2nd floor to North Americans). Thinking that it was a good idea to shower before a long bus ride, I headed down to the shower room in the courtyard. I spent five entire minutes looking for a way to turn the shower on (and hide possible stupidity). I eventually gave in and had to ask the owner. He explained (via a number of strange hand gestures) that I had to get back in the shower room, undress, and when I was ready for water, knock on the door, and he would then turn the water on, from outside the room. Once I was finished I was expected to knock on the door again (hoping he was still there) and then wait until he turned the water off! Fortunately it was warmish water - but what a funny way to shower! Guess that's what you get for 2 pounds a night! See courtyard and shower room below!

Thanks for reading!
Regards from Peru!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Week 4 - San Pedro De Atacama (in the Chilean desert), & a breath-taking Bolivian Journey

Hello Everybody! After the disappointment of La Serena I feel I have been more than compensated for with a week or unexpected magic! It´s been the kind of week full of adventure, fun, madness and breathtaking nature that you just dream of on a trip like this. So let me take you on the journey of my week.

It all started out with a crazy coach journey to San Pedro, and after 18 plus hours I arrived in the following scenery...

the bus station looked like nothing more than a small beach bicycle park, and I wandered down the 'road' (sand path). wondering just where the hell I was? The streets were tiny, as was the town, and the buildings looked like they were completely made of sand! Here are some street scenes...

So after wandering for about 20 minutes I saw a hostel international sign that seemed appealing enough to stay! For just 8000 pesos, I was ushered past reception into a dorm room with unusually high three level bunk beds... see below..

I soon realised that I had to make the most of my time here and booked on a tour to go and see the salt flats, and the sunset. Words will fail to describe the following scenes so I won't try to explain the pictures, but I will say that on these day tours, the thing that usually makes it memorable are the people you meet. I was very lucky to meet some very entertaining and funny people - an OT from Holland, an Aussie Physio, an American teacher, and a girl from the Ilse of Man! Together we declared ourselves 'Team Salt', and as you can see from the pictures we enjoyed a brilliant day at the salt water 'lagunas', and watched a quite amazing sunset over the salt flats!

The day only got better as I returned to San Pedro and met Cristina (Canadian engineer) for dinner. She introduced me to a Chilean lady, and a South African couple, who had all met on her tour that day. So here we were, four lots of people from 4 different continents, 4 different walks of life, having dinner, discussing all manner of topics, having just met on that very day! You just can't buy those experiences!

The following day I was supposed to leave for my tour, but I had received a message the previous night to say the border to Bolivia was closed due to bad weather. So I decided that I could not resist the urge to book another day tour, this time for sand boarding and another sunset view, this time from Moon Valley! The group consisted of me, a guy from the USA, a German girl and my hostel room mate from Holland. Our instructor was typically cool, multi-lingual guy with a good sense of humor. He was quick to let us get on with having a go, and here are some photos of the boarding and the following sunset!

We'd had a good laugh, so we decided to meet later for a farewell dinner.. see below!

So onto PART 2 of the adventure. After finally leaving Chile (after locating the piece of paper I received 3 weeks ago with no waring to keep it for when you want to leave the country) my next tour was a 3 day tour of the Salt flats and desert in Bolivia. This next group was made up of myself and three very lovely, and entertaining French folk. Mattiew, Etienne and Sarah. Mattiew's excellent Spanish helped us to understand the driver, which was obviously quite useful! This quite breath taking tour allows you to take a 4x4 jeep through some wild terrain, and includes sights such as, huge salt 'lagunas', stretches of desert, the world's largest salt flats complete with islands, and there is even some wildlife along the way - flamingos, wild rabbit and of course Lamas! I could talk about the bumpy jeep, the seriously cold first night, which led us all to go to bed fully clothed! I could talk about Etienne´s quite bizarre breakfast of coffee powder, milk powder, and sugar on bread, or the quite good selection of food we had along the way. I could even talk about the fun we had at the 'wild west' town, complete with high noon showdown photos... but I'll let the pictures do the talking, because all I can say is, if you ever come to this part of the world, then these are places worth seeing! Quite simply an awesome piece of nature!

This was so difficult to condense these experiences into one blog post, but I hope it gives you a little flavour of life on the road here
Thanks for reading, regards from Bolivia!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Week 3 - La Serena, 2 days of coach travel & Kissing!

Hello everyone, I am now in one of the most surreal places I think I have ever been to (San Pedro de Atacama), in the very north of Chile, in the desert! But more of such tales next time. Before I head off to the warm salt lakes and watch the sunset in 'moon valley', I have time to recount my tales of getting here!

There is no talk of OT now, it's just funny travel stories for the next week or two! So after my wonderfully homely stay in Conception, I took a bus at 11:30 on Wednesday, which got me into Santiago at around 18:00. With no bus available for La Serena for a few hours, I ate a quick Mcpollo sandwich (yes from MacDonalds), and used the internet of a while. My next bus took me from Santiago at around 20:00, and arrived in La Serena at 02:30 Thursday morning. Now, arriving in a small town in Chile at 02:30 is not really recommended, especially as most of the hostels listed are closed from midnight to 7am. So after checking out three very closed hostels, I gave in to staying at the only open hotel I could find (whilst carrying all my worldly goods remember!). I found a place for 18,000 pesos (25 pounds), though he only charged me 15,000 - good job seeing as I´d be checking out in a matter of hours! A tiny tiny room, that even a child dwarf would struggle to spin round in, at least offered me a comfy bed, a similarly tiny TV, and somehow a fully sized wardrobe! I got a few hours sleep, before getting up and having an amazing hot shower, which more than made up for the hobbit style room! I quickly returned to the bus station to buy a ticket for that evening at 22:05 to get to San Pedro.

So I now found myself with 10 hours to kill in La Serena, and as the overcast skies seemed to tease me with rain, I had an idea. Always when in doubt, alone in a strange place, and short of inspiration there is only one place to go! The town square! known here as the Plaza de Armous (spelt incorrectly!). I was not to be disappointed, as there was some kind of official parade going on, with what seemed like military personal parading past some high ranking officers (I could tell this from their uniforms), and then just as I got my camera ready for some pictures, the parade changed drastically from military personnel to school kids... I started to feel a little uncomfortable taking pictures of hoards of kids in their school uniform, so I quickly moved on! But here's a few photos I did take before being escorted away by the police!

So I had come to La Serena as I was told there was a lovely beach! Just what I needed I thought! There may have been little sunshine, but I was determined to get there, and a tall white lighthouse led me to the following scenes.... I´ll let the pictures tell the story, because otherwise my review of the place will get me into a lot of trouble with the Chilean tourist board!

I was after to meet a lady from La Serena ( but I didn't know it at the time), and I was saying how crap I thought the beach was - to which her response was - 'well it´s nice in summer' - well those comments were about as useful as a chocolate tea pot I thought as seeing how we are now in Autum/Winter here in Chile!

I soon returned to the town, as the local stray dogs looked like they eyeing me up for dinner, and I was fed up of interrupting couples kissing every ten metres or so on the way to and from the beach. I did stop to watch a very local football match that was happening opposite the University, and was clearly very one-sided. I saw one team hit 3 goals in twenty minutes! The town of la Serena had some quaint little streets, churches, markets and numerous places to eat, and so I can imagine it is a nice place to be in summer, but I was glad to be heading on.

With yet more time to kill, I headed to another little backpacker's hideaway - the Mall. I was able to look around, get an ice cream, and even find a bookstore with internet. I had a brilliant quick skype chat with a Colombian OT, before finally heading back to collect my bag, and get my bus!

This bus was supposed to be at 22:05, it actually arrived about 22:20, and had me worried that I missed it already. On the bus (Tur-bus) they gave us a little snack - a sandwich, drink and crisps, nice touch I thought, before we all were given a blanket and pillow, and a kind of half sleep let me drift off. Over 12 hours later we had finally arrived.. well I thought we had, only for the driver to start telling me something in Spanish, and giving me a piece of paper with a number on it. I was told to get off the bus and wait... it turned out that we were not quite at my destination, despite 12 hours on the bloody bus already. We had stopped in some god forsaken town in the desert, and had another 4+ hours to go! Oh My God! I was not a happy bunny! But with no choice, but to use the break for a quick toilet stop, I made the most of this 30+ min refuelling break. I now had learned to carry my own toilet paper, but it didn't stop me stealing half a roll from the toilet block - I mean come on, you just never know here!

Ok, I´ll leave the news from San Pedro for another time, but I do want to have a little rant (moan) about all the kissing here! I spoke with a Canadian mining engineer about this, who has lived in Chile for almost 2 years. At first seeing all these apparently happy couples (of all ages) kissing in almost every public place conceivable, is kind of sweet! On the street, in the subway (even when you are almost sandwiched between them), and in every park there are kissing couples! I´m all for public displays of affection, but this goes to the next level, of what I am used to seeing. Maybe it's because I´m traveling solo, or maybe because I´m not used to such open snogging, it's just that people seem to give each other free dental checks with their tongues EVERYWHERE you go! There is just no escape! Ok rant over!

Enjoy the pics from La Serena and especially pics form the bus ride through the desert!

Regards from Chile.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Week 3 - (in Conception) - The kindness of strangers, and a devastaated city.

Hi everybody, and welcome to another update from South America. To even try and begin to describe the experiences of the last few days would simply take hours, so here is an attempt to try and summarise the 'Conception' experience.

After receiving hospitality from strangers in both Romania and Vietnam, as people took me into their homes and treated me like family, my perceptions about having an open mind to unfamiliar people and situations has changed dramatically. The past few days I have experienced more examples of unconditional kindness... so let me begin.

After managing to finally break free from Santiago's warm grasp and ever open invitations for drinks, I got my 6-7 hour bus to 'Conception' - home of the 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile in February. Having made my way to the centre (centro) with the aid of a local bus, I found myself in a pickle! Of the hostels listed in my book, all but one were virtually piles of rubble. The only one I had been able to find, down a darkened corridor, clearly in a residential apartment building, was full! The very nice lady there could sense my distress, and quickly got on the phone to her friend (Vicky), who for a quite reasonable price, offered a room in her apartment for the night. It was just round the corner, and the thought of staying in my own room, a comfy bed and chats with a local family released any concerns I had. Ok, so my lack of any understandable Spanish could have been a problem, but with new found optimism, and my new found language (Spanglish!) I headed to Vicky's place.

I was soon to catch up with the wonderful students from the University of San Sebastian, and one of them (Andrea) was able to meet me that same evening to make some plans for the next few days. We went to buy her granny a birthday present (pink slippers - they were nice!) before her very kind boyfriend Milto gave us an evening tour of the city! As I was getting ready for bed, my mobile rang, with an invitation to join Andrea's family for granny's birthday! I wasn't able to make the party, but the very next day I was invited to Andrea's home for lunch, which soon turned into a 3 night stay! The scene greeting me at Andrea's home was a welcoming sight as we sat around watching a football game on TV before the most fantastic food arrived and just kept on coming. After getting used to a backpacker's diet, this was like a royal feast for me!

After dinner, we were discussing the affect of the earthquake here, when Andrea's brother offered to drive me around the badly hit area of Talcahuano, which was hit by a tsunami BEFORE the earthquake came! Seeing these scenes of devastation, just 3 months after the event really reminded us of the fragility of life, and yet people continued to get on with life as best they could. Just to put things in perspective for you, a police imposed curfew was set up to prevent looting, and some people were forced to wash in local lakes directly after the events in February. Here are some pictures from the area.

The next day I traveled with students into the University to discuss having a look around. The staff were very receptive to having me give a lecture the following day to their students, so a plan was hatched!

In the meantime I didn't want to waste any time, and some very kind students made some calls on my behalf, which allowed me to go and visit a regional children´s Therapy centre called 'Teleton'. This centre was funded by the Chilean version of 'Children in Need', where on one day of the year there is a national fundraising project! The facility allowed children with physical or cognitive impairments to access physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, and a wide range of other health and educational services. Despite being privately funded, the access to the centres (based all over the country), was open to all people, via some kind of 'means test' to assess a need for financial contribution. This centre also catered for children needing artificial limbs and other prosthetic and orthotic devices. See the pictures below for an idea of the wonderfully engaging and stimulating environments they had for the children. Oh I must mention one thing, whilst we were visiting the centre, there was a 'little' earthquake registering 5.1... and I really did feel it this time, even though it only lasted for just a few seconds. The experience was unsettling on many levels!

The following day (Tuesday), I returned to the University to give my presentation, but also to spend time with the staff and students from the Occupational Therapy course. I met a student who had just finished a 'craft' activity workshop where they had been learning techniques to produce goods from leather... see the pictures below.

OT studies here in Chile currently run to 5 years, with the last year consisting of mainly practice. They have the theoretical content in the course as you'd expect, but they also seem to have a very practical activity focus too. I even sat in one class, that I presumed was to develop awareness of the biological and social links between family members, as the students were being asked to identify three generations of a family tree. An interesting task I thought! Staff in both Universities I have met have appeared very forward thinking, and keen to engage in new and innovative ways of learning and teaching, the students also appear very positive about the subject of OT and this lends to positive learning experiences for all.
My presentation, entailed a lecture room full of students and staff, and me stood at the front with a microphone, that made me feel like doing a karaoke number! ( Luckily I had been out with Andrea and her very talented brothers to a karaoke bar the night before!) You know me so I don´t need to show too many pictures of me presenting, but here you are...

My close friends and students, Pepe, Vanesa and Andrea took me for a Chinese meal that evening, (courtesy of the University) which was a lovely end to my few days with the people here. I even got an invite to quickly meet Vanesa´s mom, despite it being close to 12am!

Though as it happened, I was aksed to perform one more task before I left - A breakfast 0830 meeting with the Faculty Dean, and the therapy staff. It was a lovely touch, and we had some quite thought provoking discussions. If any UK universities are reading this, get in touch because people here are very interested in making international partnerships! See pictures below...

So I could say so much more... the karaoke and salsa dancing with the Sato Family, the fact that at the University cafeteria (Casino) they will serve milk with coffee, but not with tea, or the fact that for some reason the toilet paper holder is situated outside of the toilet cubicle.. (beware that one!) To conclude all I can possibly say is the biggest thanks to the Sato family, Pepe, Vanesa, Pamela, Claudia, staff at the university and Teleton for opening up your homes, work, life and experiences to a traveling OT! No guidebook can direct you to this kind of experience!

Regards from Conception