Monday, 29 October 2007

Off to the Amazon

It's 20.00 here in Lima and we're just whiling the time away before we leave for the airport at 02.00 to fly to Iquitos (02.00 - Exodus tu est assassins). From there it's then a three hour boat trip along the river to our jungle lodge for two nights and more creepy crawlies than you can shake an extremely shitty stick at.

Talking of which... the first dose of Montezuma's revenge has struck, so rather than going out for a meal with everyone else, I'm sticking within a 60 second dash radius of my own khazi and hoping that I'll be all nice and purged before I get on the aeroplane. I'm not even indulging in a quick pisco sour, which is a cocktail I have very rapidly fallen head over heels in love with. Gorgeous stuff.

Lima takes a while to relax into, especially for a lad from Baulking (pop. 51, some of which are probably livestock). Nine million people live here, many in extreme poverty in the peublos that have washed up along the local hillsides, and there's also an atmosphere of slight paranoia amongst the gringos. Keep your thumb over your drink, don't carry anything valuable, walk purposefully at all times...that sort of thing. I blame the Footprint South American Handbook which, as well as being the weight of a small brick, tends to go straight for Defcon 3 alert status at the drop of the hat. This is a book that should be twinned with Crimewatch ('Oh, don't forget... having scared you witless for the last 60 minutes, there's not really anyone lurking outside your back door...honest'), or at least ship with the words 'PANIC' emblazoned non-comfortingly on the front cover. Mine is sliced and diced with the aid of a Swiss Army knife now, and at least is proving good and absorbent when camping...

A wander round the city then today, down into the rich Miraflores area and looking at museums and some mightily impressive colonial architecture. Though we all drive each other slightly insane at times, this trip is turning out to be frequently hilarious and I can't remember when I cried with laughter quite so consistently. It started with my roommate Rob (El Diablo) sitting next to an American girl on the tour coach to a chorus of 'Smooth Operator' and continued up to just now when I found that Bath beat Leicester today. Not Wildean levels of wit admittedly, but this is definitely a fun way to travel. Unfortunately, as with cricket and rugby tours, what happens on the truck stays on the truck and most of it is unrepeatable even for a journo with well developed immoral principles like myself. Well, until I get home and out of reach of El Diablo's dirty washing bag at least.

Anyway, enough wittering. Remind me to go through and give all this blog stuff a damn good edit when I get home. Some photos are up now, and I'll put more online after Iquitos.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Chan Chan

What a stunning place. Chan Chan is the largest adobe-built city in the world stretched out over about 26 square miles and nine separate palaces (when one ruler died, the nobles closed it off and all moved into another one) just north of Trujillo on the Peruvian coast. Rescued from the sand about 35 years ago, only one palace is open now, but at 300 x 400m it’s plenty big enough: 10 metre high mud walls stretch off into the distance, enclosing everything from administrative offices and religious spaces, to sacrificial chambers. Some areas have survived the centuries quite well, and motifs of fish and pelicans can be made out amidst a riot of geometrical art that would do many mosques proud.

We’d have looked at it in a bit more detail, but one of our number, Shannon, got mobbed by schoolkids (either because she’s a gringo and speaks a bit of Spanish or she can look a bit like Posh from certain angles) who then proceeded to follow us about for a bit grinning and practicing the word ‘Hello’ over and over again. Quite sweet really, though it made getting a decent photo a bit tricky.

Over the road (well, -ish) is the Huaca de la Luna, a religious site built by the Moche people. Here, warriors got sacrificed after an orgy of sex and drugs if they lost in battle to their god Ai Apaec, and seeing as how they were warring with people all up and down the coast, Ai Apaec did quite well on that front. For all their bravery though, the Moche were killed off by an El Nino event, and their gold was later looted by the Spanish. Ai Apaec’s powers obviously didn’t run to control of the ocean currents…

It’s been nice to do some proper cultural-like stuff after what’s seemed like a fairly solid mix of boozy behavior in the evenings and 12 hour days in the truck. Rewinding a couple of days, the truck full of nubile Australian virgins or whatever they were meant to be did in fact turn out to be full of Gap-year kids and a fairly harassed-looking tour leader. Scenic but dumb about sums it up, and at one point it looked like it was going to kick-off a bit after someone kicked sand into our mild-mannered accountant’s face after several sherberts, a dance-off of all things, and some heroic failures on the chatting up front, all of which we watched with great amusement from the sidelines (he looks mild-mannered, but is in fact single-handedly redefining the image of accountancy into that of a far more psycho like nature).

Calm was restored fairly quickly and our errant accountant returned to the fold, but it did illustrate the tribal nature of this sort of thing. With Shannon also looking uncannily like Davina McCall sometimes (she has got a great future in the two-for-one lookalike industry), it can occasionally feel like Big Brother gone mobile. Without outside events and objects to wander round, we all turn in on ourselves and the trip can seem to become as much about the friendships and conflicts that break out between a group of 20 people driving round in a truck than it is about the places we’re driving through. Last night we had the ritual first Argument About a Restaurant Bill, which officially marked the end of the honeymoon period, and paved the way perhaps for some interesting times ahead.

Luckily, a) we’re a bit more psychologically stable than the average BB contestant and b) distraction is on the way, big time. This sector used to be 3 weeks long once upon a time but has been cut down to 14 days, 12 if you include the wandering round Quito at the start. That’s what’s led to the long days on the road and whizzing through the landscape at 100kph for hours on end, which in Northern Peru seems to have consisted mainly of a barren and blasted landscape, coupled with whitewashed brick walls covered in political slogans. We had lunch under a pylon in the middle of feck all anywhere yesterday, proving that overlanding is nothing if not glamorous.

We have another of those horrible, long days tomorrow, but then we’re in Lima, and after a day or two there we’re flying into Iquitos and the Amazon. And if that doesn’t concentrate the mind and give you something else to think about as a wee beastie with too many legs crawls up your trouser leg and perilously close to your nethers, what does?

More after then. Oh, and I’ll try and buy a lead in Lima to get some pics up from the camera too.

[nb None of them smell. They’re all very nice…and can read, use computers and navigate their way to websites too worst luck ;-) ]

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Into Peru

They closed the Pan-American highway for a fiesta. This would not have been a problem but for the fact that we were trying to negotiate a town stuck in no- man´s land in the 7km zone between the Ecuadorian and Peruvian borders, so it was the equivalent of closing the M4 for a spot of morris dancing. Tankers were backed up, traffic was snarled, tempers were rising, we were parked over a trickle of a river that was more sewage than water, and there was a brass band happily marching up and down the street while the police smiled and said it was impossible to open the road for another 6 hours. And that was even after money had been applied to the situation.

Banos was so much more chilled. The canyoning was good fun, though there was a bit of concern when the rain started falling. “Six months ago it started raining and the water level rose one metre in one minute,” said our guide as we prepared to abseil down a 25 metre waterfall. “But since then we’ve learned and we’ve put escape ropes up now.”


Not surprisingly – and very handily all things considered - miracles are popular in the town. The local church boasts a series of fantastic murals inside, which depict local incidences of Madre de Dios appearing and saving the day. Also unsurprisingly, most revolve round the eruption of the giant Tungurahua volcano a mere 8km away and God appearing on a rainbow to save the day (after only lightly dusting the locals with volcanic death from above first – nice one God).

All in all we spent 14 hours on the truck yesterday, which was a bit on the brutal side (“Oh, me grapes,” as Leader Andy put it). Along the way though we did learn that insect repellent and sun cream applied at the same time makes your face and skin fizz in a manner which is personally alarming but rather amusing for the rest of the vehicle. Also one of our number, Charlotte, who had admitted an aversion to weeing in public finally cracked and thus lost her nickname of Corkie. I won the sweepstake at 4 hours…

Anyway, we dropped out of the mountains on glorious sweeping hairpins amidst the sort of scenery that would make the Lake District give up the ghost, twin itself with Swindon and have done with it. Then it was down through endless banana plantations to the coast and the border, the open sewer and the parade blocking the street.

Eventually some money was obviously applied to the right person and we turned off down a side street, which would have been fine if there hadn´t been a market in full swing at the time. However, Leader Andy and three suitably lubricated coppers marched in front of the truck pushing the stalls out of the way while Leader Tubbs engaged in some complicated n-dimensional folding of space that somehow managed to get our truck through the gaps. Not sure how, but it did, and we got a bigger crowd than the brass band in doing it.

Today is a rest, chill and (if you’re me) get over the hangover day due to Personages of Bad Influence at Punto Sol about two hours along the coast into Peru. There are a load of trucks from different companies travelling on roughly the same itinerary as ours with a week either side as all the tour companies try to overland to Rio to make it for carnival. So the Dragoman truck left this morning and there are three groups of us at the campsite tonight, all of whom have bought a 20 kilo pig for a pig roast. It’s not going to be like that too often, which is probably good for my liver, though Leader Tubbs reckons that at least one of the new arrivals is composed solely of 22-year old Australian girls. We’re kind of hoping they make it across the border smoothly…,-)

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Quito - Banos

Greetings from Banos, a small town of about 12,000 people nestled under two socking great volcanoes, one of which is still occasionally on the geologically feisty side. The lava goes past two sides of the town, there´s a gorge and a river on the third, and an entire escape bridge for the populous if it all goes nasty. That´s alright then…

The locals are going to have a hard time making it over though as the place is stuffed full of gringos. It reminds me a bit of Queenstown in New Zealand , and the streets are full of quad bikes and garish pictures of people throwing themselves off bridges on pieces of elastic or abseiling down gorges as the waters of the Andes thunder over their heads.

Which is exactly what we´re going to be doing tomorrow if the weather holds :-)

Quito was a bit of a blur of beer and rugby to be honest, though we did get out to see the Equator. A couple of them actually – the official, monolithic and monumental one being 150 metres out, which is a tad on the careless side. A far more informal but far more fun one is 100 metres up the road and loudly proclaims itself as being on the equator, though it´s not quite equipped to deal with troublesome tourists with handheld GPS units. I made it another 50m north, but I don´t think they can be arsed to build another one. How many red-painted lines with tourists gurning madly with one leg in either hemisphere does the world need after all?

The truck is basic but there´s a really good crowd of people onboard, with the rough ages ranging from 30 to 60+. About half of us are single, about most of us like a beer, and I have fortuitously been roomed in with Rob, who has been declared head barman, which could come in handy. I´ve yet to be assigned a job, but am developing a nasty suspicion that all the good ones have already been taken. Still, I´m hoping it can´t be as bad as Steve´s, who now rejoices in the nickname Slops. A Dutchwoman on board, meanwhile, has resulted in me once more rejoicing in the monicker Mr Naughty…(stout apparently being Dutch for ´naughty´, but only when there´s finger wagging involved).

I´m probably onboard for the shortest period of time, with most travelling round to Buenos Aries at least and a couple bailing out to head to the Antarctic in January (a thought, of course, which is driving me slightly insane with jealousy). Others have stitched this trip into a tapestry of round the world travelling which has gone on for a year or so and has months and months left to run still. Thus I´m being talked of as the weekend-tourist of the group, which tends to lead to a certain amount of banter shall we say. Ah well, I can always come back next year (though not with Exodus, their truck fleet needs upgrading and their new owners don´t want to fund it, so this is the last trip that´s being done).

Anyway, after a couple of days here we head down to the coast and wend our way southwards to Lima via Chan Chan and a few other places. That´s where the camping starts in earnest, so this is probably it from me until Lima or Iquitos. Stay warm, stay safe, and while I still don´t think I´m ready to talk about the rugby, damn but I wish I´d seen that Grand Prix.

Chicago interlude

Okay, I know I said I was off to South America, but I had a brief couple of days in Chicago on the way with my friends Mike n´Jax first. It´s a railroad city first and foremost, where trains the length of entire English towns snake through the landscape, and is also home of the first modern skyscraper in the world. Thus, after an entertainingly jetlagged night of beer, mexican food and discussions of third wave feminism and post-structuralism (incorporating a blast on Halo 3 on a TV the size of a small cinema screen) I got the train into the centre of town and went up the 103 floors of the Sears Tower to its skydeck. For most of the end of the last century this was the tallest building in the world, which certainly helps when you´re looking at clouds rolling in from the grain belt to the south and thinking uh-ho.

Chicago is not a city inclined to muck about with its weather warnings. None of that ´severe´ namby pamby stuff here...nope, in Chicago the warnings are éxtreme´, which concentrates the mind rather wonderfully. So, the first night we had tornado alerts and alarms blaring off in the distance, the next day hailstones the size of grapes were slamming into the pavements of the downtown areas. Luckily I managed to miss it all, and just wondered round oblivious to imminent metorological armaggedon and death from above, looking at some mightily impressive architecture while the overhead trains rattled past like the echo of a thousand Tom Waits songs.

Nice place. Will have to go back there and have a longer look around one day.

One story in the papers at the time was that O´Hare airport security had failed to find 60% of the fake bomb parts smuggled past them by inspectors, which is a) a bit crap and b) meant when I arrived in a sweaty breathless mess for my flight 5 minutes late, they weren´t inclined to let me on. Arse. Luckily, I also had a flight ticket for a plane five hours later (long story) so sat back, waited for that one and practised my Spanish on mystified airport staff.

All was going smoothly till we were 15 minutes late leaving for Miami due to a malfunctioning lavatory (that was fixed quickly, but the paperwork took ages) and with a genius eye on the law of sod, we also managed to land at exactly the other end of the aiport from my flight to Quito which left in half an hour. Yikes. Óh, it´s okay,´said the steward. ´It´s an old Airbus on that route and it´s always breaking down. You´ll make it.´

So, reassured and panicked at the same time (Like, how badly does it break down? Engines out of the sky sort of badly?)I commenced another mad dash to a departure gate, and arrived in my second sweaty mess of the day only to be told that yes, indeed, there was a small problem with the plane, and it was going to be leaving half an hour late. Hurrah. By this time I was rubbing dodarant on the outside of my clothes...

In this slightly smelly way I left North America in a plane full of middle aged Canadians heading for the Galapagos. I like to think the turbulence over Cuba was Castro cocking a snook at our decadent Imperialist presence passing over his head, but the engines stayed on all the same. Which was nice...

And that for the moment is that. Sorry for the sheer volume of wordage but these things get more terse as time passes, don´t worry, Give me a month and it´ll be ´Machu Pichu. V nice.´

Oh, and I won´t talk about the rugby if you don´t...

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

South America: T minus One day

Shameful confession time: I really don’t know much about South America and much that I do is a bit on the wayward side and been absorbed by some strange form of pub-quiz osmosis along the way. So, I try to imagine a whole continent in all it’s incredible length, rich breadth and stunning diversity, and end up with the equivalent of mid-western Yanks thinking that everyone in Britain eats crumpets at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, has innumerable servants all called Jeeves, knows the Queen personally and goes fox hunting at the weekend.

Here’s the catalogue of shame:

They all speak Spanish over there apart from the people who don’t who’ve gone for Portuguese instead, which seeing as how I don’t speak either isn’t really very helpful

It used to be full of tin-pot military dictatorships but is now full of oil-rich socialist republics intent on sticking it to Dubya

They eat guinea pigs and wear strange hats

The CIA like to have wars there

Cocaine comes from there

So does chocolate, which is apparently more addictive though makes your nostrils look a lot more untidy

The only country that plays rugby is Argentina (which is bugger all good when I’m in Ecuador on Saturday for the RWC final)

That’s where the Amazon is, which is like the New Forest only bigger

Che Guevara rode round it on a motorcycle (and Che means ‘mate’, so don’t call your kids that because Argentinians will point and laugh at them)


...that’s it

So, the usual Stout pre-holiday research process can widely consider to have imploded big time. Not quite as bad as trying to land in Nepal on the 10th Anniversary of the People’s Uprising a few years ago (cancelled on FO advice), but pretty lackadaisical all the same. Hey, I’ve been busy, you know...

Still, one other rather salient fact: that’s also where Machu Pichu is, which is what drew me there in the first place – walking the Inca Trail for four days over the 4215m Dead Woman’s Pass and dropping down onto the World Heritage Site to end all World Heritage Sites. Should be fun, but as we land in Quito in Ecuador, and then travel the 2000 miles or so to La Paz in Bolivia overland, there’s plenty more to see and do along the way too. The Moche Pyramids, Chan Chan, Lima, Iquitos (the only city in the world with no road connection), the Amazon, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco...the list kind of goes on and on. Damnit, I’m almost feeling educated about the place already.

I fly home from La Paz near the end of November, while the trip itself, run by Exodus carries on circumnavigating the continent. for details if anyone’s interested. Guess there’s always next year for the rest. Company always welcome ;-)

Anyway, must dash. Time for a crumpet. And judging by the dismembered remains of a rabbit I found outside my front door this morning, the foxes are getting feisty already. More (hopefully) from the mountains overlooking the Pacific coastline.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Rush @ The NEC

Oh they were good. Perhaps not quite up at the stupefying heights they reached on the R30 tour a couple of years ago, but still as good a live act as anything you'll see touring the arenas of the world. If Muse had a slightly eccentric uncle that read books on quantum physics, Rush would be him.

If there was a highlight amidst the dancing lighting rigs, dizzying time signatures and fiendish Impossible Drumming, it was the three song triptych that started with Subdivisions and went into Natural Science and then Witch Hunt: both band and audience hitting their straps and transcending their surroundings in a welter of sculpted noise. Ruddy terrific. 'Art as expression/Not as market campaigns/Will still capture our imagination' as Geddy sung it. Quite right too.

Oh, and then there was this: South Park performing as 'Lil Rush to introduce Tom Sawyer.

Close to as good as it gets.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A footie fan writes

And I quote:

"Everything about rugby union seems better than football - the drama, pace and one-twos, the passion, skill and muscle, the deadly grace and savage beauty of it all. Even when the countries sing their respective national anthems they do so with more verve."

Quite right too...

Rugby uncovers the awful truth of my wasted life | Columnists | Guardian Unlimited Sport

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Windscale: 50 Years On

Hard to believe that the Windscale disaster was 50 years ago. I mean, that's before Al Gore invented the internet, right?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Windscale: A nuclear disaster

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

McDonald's Videogame

A subversive work of genius. To win you have to devastate continents, add ground up animals to the animal feed, mistreat workers, mislead the public in the pursuit of rapacious profits and so on.

I smell lawyers. Play it while you can...

McDonald's Videogame

Monday, 1 October 2007

Men are from Mars...

Women are from Venus. This Book is From Cobblers

Some nice myth busting here: Do men and women speak the same language? | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited