Monday, April 17, 2017

Peru again.....and a bit of Bolivia too

I was worried Cusco and Machu Picchu might not seem as special second time around but Cusco was just as charming as on first inspection. And Machu Picchu was even better cos there was no rain and no rush. We got to spend a whole beautiful blue day there and saw the sun gate and lots of llamas ‘mowing’ the lawns. It’s been renovated but in a sensitive way that blends in with the original site - just more walls and more gardens and smoother paths to prevent injury.

Aguas Calientes has grown a bit with more hotels but is still as beautiful as ever.

The rest was new territory. Ollantaytambo turned out to be our favourite town. It's a living Inca town where people live in the original Inca houses on tiny cobbled streets and small canals run down every street carrying fresh water.  We stayed at Casa de Mama hostel which had a very friendly manager Victor and endless hot water, yay! (finally got to wash my hair). We visited the main ruins on the hill overlooking Ollantaytambo, which were very simple ancient walls but gave fantastic views over the surrounding countryside and farms in the Sacred Valley and the colourful native flowers growing all over the hillsides. Next day we trekked to some ruins on the other side of the valley just above Ollantaytambo which cost nothing and gave fabulous views over the old Inca houses in town and their lovely gardens and mini orchards.   

Practically all of Peru was perfect. Highlights were the Nazca Lines, Huacachina sand dunes (highest dunes in South America) and the islands on Lake Titicaca (highest altitude navigable lake in the world). The reed islands were the most interesting because they were so different but sadly we didn't get to stay on a reed island. But the island we did stay on overnight was beautiful - we felt as though we were on an island in the Mediterranean with the calm blue lake so huge it felt like an ocean and all the colourful flowers and buildings very Mediterranean as well.  We were billeted in a large hostel built by a middle-aged couple as their income source. After getting totally soaked on our rainy trek to the top of the island to watch the sunset, we were fed and dressed in warm traditional clothing and taken to the community hall to dance to music by a local band.  Next day we toured another 'Greek' island where a man gave us a great feed in his garden and demonstrated how they make shampoo from a plant that grows there.

Bolivia was all about Uyuni – the world’s largest salt desert – which took us two days of bus rides to get to. We set off from Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca through beautiful high altitude hills with great views down over the lake on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. We could tell straightaway when we saw our first Bolivian town that this was a poorer country than Peru. When we finally reached Uyuni it was amazing. A friend in Australia had said to me when I told her I wanted to travel miles from anywhere to see the world's largest salt flats and Michael couldn't understand why, 'Well, think about it Elizabeth - salt flats!'

But what salt flats. They were endless and as it got nearer to sunset the textures and colours revealed themselves more strongly. By the time we got to the cactus island, our final stop on the tour, it was late afternoon and the walk around the island in the early evening sunshine was breathtaking. It's hard to describe the vast sparkling immenseness of it, you had to be there. But the photos certainly help!

We left so late - it was hard to drag ourselves away when the full sunset hit - we thought we were in danger of missing our overnight bus back to La Paz, Bolivia’s highest altitude city. But these tour operators obviously know what they're doing. They got us back just in time to grab a snack bar and jump on the bus (luckily they'd fed us well at lunch in a cave-like restaurant built entirely from salt).

We arrived at La Paz central bus station at 4am so we had a long wait before we could respectably arrive at our hostel. Stay in La Paz for a day to check out the views of the snow-capped mountains overlooking this highest altitude city in the world, eat at the 'vegetarian' restaurant Tierra Sana (Healthy Earth) which has non-vegetarian versions of all its vegetarian fare, then go. (And be prepared for taxes on everything, from the few metres trip from the bus station to the bus stop, to the tax at Cactus Island that you weren't told about in the tour itinerary.)
We stayed an extra 'unnecessary' day in La Paz: unnecessary for sight-seeing but necessary for recovery from our Uyuni trip - day and night on bus to get there, day there, whole night to get back. Yours truly then picked up a brochure at the hostel about the Peru/Bolivia Hop bus just as her long-suffering Michael was about to book us a plane to Lima for a few days' rest & a day trip to the Nazca lines, before flying home. 
So the last week of our trip was spent cramming in as many of the sights of Peru as we could by Hop bus. We went straight to Copacabana just before the border on the Bolivian side. It was in glorious sunshine so we planned to spend the day on Isla del Sol, a Bolivian island on Lake Titicaca, but there was an argument between the tour boats and the Islanders about money so they were on strike. Our consolation prize was to climb to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and enjoy the 'Mediterranean' scenery again. Onward to Arequipa which was supposed to be one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Peru. We were a little bit underwhelmed because the colonial part of the town was fairly small but our free walking tour explored the local market which sold interesting things like llama foetuses and cactus fruit. And ended at a restaurant which gave us free Pisco sours, our first Pisco sours since arriving in South America.

Next day we did a long day tour to Colca Canyon, the world's second deepest canyon - scenery was beautiful, sweet cactus fruit tasted like kiwifruit, sour cactus fruit was so sour it made my eyes water but the most amazing part was watching the condors gliding overhead. The canyon was pretty but not a patch on the Grand Canyon or any of the other canyons we've seen like the one on Kauai or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Fun trip though with a nice bunch of travellers, a great buffet lunch and got to 5000 metres on a plateau where we saw lots of llamas.

Bussed to Nazca, which was a nice little town with the typical family-oriented central square like in most other Central and South American towns. The trip to Nazca passed through some beautiful desert hills winding right down to the Pacific Ocean. The very high and dry rocky dunes reminded me of the beautiful rockscapes in Morocco. Next day we did the light plane flight over the Nazca lines which was as much fun for the dipping and swerving plane ride as for the huge figures of birds, monkey etc..

By early afternoon we were back on the bus for a lightning trip to Huacachina which has the highest sand dunes in South America. Shame we could only stay an hour but we got the best hour of the day - sunset hour. Just had enough time to climb up one of the dunes and get a view of all the other surrounding dunes and the oasis below in the tiny town. Then on to Lima where we arrived late at night to crash in a comfortable hostel room right opposite Kennedy Park. So we got to say a brief hello to the cats of Kennedy Park next morning on our way to pick up our bright red Peru Hop T-shirts and zip in a taxi to the airport.
The cats of Lima

videoThe reed islands of Lake Titicaca

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Volunteering in Peru

March 2016 - ‘Home’ again in Cusco – this time for 3 weeks instead of 3 days. It definitely feels like home as we settle in for 3 intense weeks of voluntary teaching and Spanish language study. We live with local lady Carola who feeds us tantalising tropical fruit breakfasts and wonderfully filling vegetarian gluten free dinners in her cosy suburban apartment.

We teach for half the day at Inti Runakunaq Wasin School (Kechuan for House of the Men of the Sun) and it turns out to be one of the happiest teaching experiences of our lives. We finally get to team teach, which we’ve dreamed of since we first became teachers over a decade ago. The work is incredibly rewarding because the children are so enthusiastic and appreciative. They range in age from 6 to 13 years, boys outnumber girls 3 to 1, and the school is running a program for them during school holidays because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We teach them English during the morning and their other teachers run classes in practical skills like art, gardening and cooking.

We work pretty much non-stop from 9.30 to 1.00 but it’s still hard to tear ourselves away and by the end of the 3 weeks we really don’t want to leave. The children are making such great progress and we have so many ideas buzzing around in our heads about new topics to teach them. We learn heaps from the children about their culture, especially on the day Michael turns 55 and nearly gets his head pushed into his non-gluten free birthday cake. He manages to close his mouth just in time so his lips only get grazed by the icing.

Turns out the cultural norm in Latin America is to squash birthday boy or girl face down into their cake before everyone eats it: a messy, unhygienic and hilarious custom. Michael only escaped because he yelled out, ‘I’m allergic to my cake – I couldn’t get a gluten free one’ when the attack began. We also learnt more about Peruvian food as we were often invited to stay for lunch, which was made by the cook with assistance from the children and served in the classroom.  

The school has its own dog, that would meet us each morning

My Birthday

Last Day with the class :-(

Looking at what they had made in crafts

Cleaning up after lunch

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Polar Plunge is not just for Penguins

"Strange. There is always sadness on departure. It is as if one cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil..." - Fridtjof Nansen

One perfect day turned into another; this was truly the trip of a lifetime. On February 3rd at 4am we crossed into the Antarctic Circle (got to 66' 48"). This was a momentous event as only a few times a season can the boat get that far, late into the summer like this, and another milestone for us. We have been in both polar circles and on every continent now. Where is my T-shirt? We were headed to Crystal Sound but our luck left us and the weather forced the captain to turn back so we had a morning of lectures instead.

As compensation in the afternoon the crew found a large area of sea ice and after a test nudge, backed up and charged at it full steam crashing right into it. Once it had settled with a fair portion of the boat embedded in the sea ice they opened up the belly of the beast and we all streamed out, including crew. What a sight: about 150 adults went super childlike, including us, lying on the snow being snow angels, making snowmen, chasing each other with snowballs and generally goofing around. It was just like christmas, that is, if I lived in the northern hemisphere in a place where they get snow for christmas. A couple of seals and a Gentoo penguin looked on with amusement.

The next day we went to Jougla Point at Port Lockroy where we saw a large colony of Blue Eyed Shags, the older, the more sky blue their eyes. Straight after we arrived back, at about 12:30, we were invited to do the 'polar plunge'. My toes were still numb from the excursion so I cracked open my first pack of air activated foot warmers and went down in my shoes and socks, shorts and Lindblad bathrobe. We had to disrobe and wait in line in the mud room for our turn, getting more apprehensive as it got colder as we got closer. At the end it was a quick order to 'jump high and look at the camera' and you were in the barely sub freezing water (they said 29F, about -1.7C), where the cold hit you like 10,000 needles. I just wanted to get out as fast as possible so I scrambled to the platform and pulled myself up and into the boat, where we were greeted with a towel and a large shot of Schnapps (don't tell, but I had two). I then went and put on my bathrobe and got my feet into my preheated shoes, still with their foot warmers in them, keeping my feet toasty for the next five hours. Not something I ever need, or want, to do again, but hey, how many times do you go to Antarctica? FYI, the 'jump high' directive was a trick because that just makes you go deeper for longer; don't fall for it. We were two of 54 that jumped from a ship of 143 passengers, which they said was a record.

We spent the afternoon cruising through the Gerlache Strait and Dallmann Bay on our way back to the Drake Passage and 'home' (Ushuaia). We came across some humpback whales and a flock of penguins swimming in the sea alongside them. The humpbacks were really friendly staying close to the boat and lazily flicking up their tails as they dived down and then came back up floating and blowing and then lazily going down again. The penguins would skim across the water in short jumps as a group cleaning up any leftover krill. It was a marvelous scene that went on for about 90 minutes. We had come across  whales twice before, humpbacks and killer whales, but this was the closest we had got to them.

The next day we were back into the Drake Passage, the most notorious section of water in the world, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, creating a whirlpool effect. We were not as lucky as on the trip down. Staff strung ropes all around the ship so that no matter where you were you could hold on to something. The boat bounced up and down, lurched forward and back and rolled side to side. We had one of the cheapest rooms on the ship with only a small porthole and that was closed and bolted in case the glass blew out, the whole day and a half. Many passengers had patches on their necks (most for the whole trip), a protector against sea sickness and only moderately successful from what we could tell. We had successfully avoided taking anything the whole trip (we are very good on planes and boats - Elizabeth even smiles during plane turbulence), and so wanted to try to last. The only time it started to get to me was about the last two hours. We held out and soon we were looking at Cape Horn and smooth seas; it was weird seeing green and trees again.

A map was kept up to date on our travels
The trip was over, probably the most amazing of our amazing lives. At first glance a lifeless, white, barren, cold but stunningly beautiful landscape, in reality teeming with an astounding array of life. We saw penguins feeding chicks, gathered together as families, collecting twigs and fortifying their nests, waddling, swimming, sliding. And seals and whales and a large variety of birds. We are so lucky, or as Spock would say 'random chance favours us'. Next stop Peru where we try to give back a bit by doing some volunteering in Cusco.

This is Part 3.

Part 1:
Part 2:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cruising with the National Geographic crew, Antarctic ports and Climate Change

Seen on the wall of the ship

The Bridge
Cruising with National Geographic was not only an adventure but an educational experience. Everybody and everything was approachable and accessible. The ship had an open bridge policy, which meant you were allowed on to the bridge any time to talk to the crew, look over the maps, have a naturalist point out birds for you and more. The ship was filled with naturalists and had a global perspectives speaker. All the staff would eat with the passengers so you could find yourself dining with several naturalists, the expedition leader or even the guest speaker.

Peter Hillary
Early on I was having a discussion abut the ice shelf collapses and how that will accelerate glacier melt with a particularly cluey staff member. After our discussion I said to Elizabeth, 'That guy knew what he was talking about' and she said, 'That guy was Peter Hillary.' Doh! Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, was our Global Perspectives speaker.

Whenever conditions would cause plans to change and a morning or afternoon would end up free we would get presentations from the naturalists and photographers, as well as during evening 'recap' when they would do short talks on their favourite topics. As this was also a research ship, presentations could include videos, photos and information on research they had just conducted during a dive while we were out on excursion. Talks included:
  • Historical account of whaling
  • The skua support society. Skuas were generally not liked because they attacked the penguins, but they gave a more balanced perspective on the circle of life in Antarctica.
  • Ice and frozen oceans
  • Krill
  • Shackleton's amazing 1915/16 adventure in Antarctica
  • Their research on leopard seals
  • Killer whales
...and many more.

Palmer Station
Refreshingly most talks would include references to climate change and its effect on Antarctica and the wildlife there in a matter-of-fact scientific way. No debate, no hesitation, just straight out this is what is happening and why. Our trip also included an excursion to Palmer Station, a US research port that only allowed eight visits from ships this summer and we were one of them. The station presented a lot of local information on climate change:
  • Long term data shows temperatures at Palmer Station have increased 7 degrees Celsius since 1945. This is more than 5 times the global average. Antarctica in general has increased temperature at about twice the global average.
  • The station used to get fresh water from a nearby glacier but since it has receded so much they now use osmosis to purify seawater.
  • The Adelie penguin numbers have decreased from 15,000 in 1974 to 2,000 in 2014 due to the decline in sea ice.
  • Krill numbers are falling in the area and are affected by warming oceans. 70% of the krill population might die due to climate change. This is a huge issue as krill are near the bottom of the food chain and are eaten by penguins, seals and even whales.
  • Phytoplankton has decreased by 90% north of the station but has increased 60% in the south. Phytoplankton produces about two thirds of the planet's atmospheric oxygen. New research indicates that as oceans warm photosynthesis in phytoplankton may shut down.
  • There is accelerating glacier loss in West Antarctica.
  • The Larsen B ice shelf in West Antarctica is almost all gone making a total of 5 ice shelves that will have collapsed since 1989. Larsen C is showing signs of beginning to collapse. While ice shelves do not contribute to sea level rise they hold back glaciers that do contribute to sea level rise. These collapses are partly due to warming oceans melting the ice shelves from underneath and were unexpected, meaning current sea level rise projections are greatly underestimated.
Coming to Antarctica was always planned as an educational experience as well as an adventure; that was why we chose National Geographic. But it was frightening to see and hear how fast climate change is affecting this pristine and crucial part of the global ecosystem. One only hopes that the world makes good on its promises in Paris.