On avocado, manners, reading and the collectivo

Jottings discovered in my Evernote app, almost a year later:
  • Avocados are everywhere (mainly Peru) and way more delicious than we ever have in the UK – I’ve been buying them on the street for peanuts to eat with bread for breakfast and lunch.  I try to avoid the slightly dodgy, unripe sort of bread fruit that looks like a misshapen avocado but isn’t, but I’ve discovered we can pluck really tasty yellow-skinned passion fruit from trees.  At the same time, my trekking guide was astonished to hear that most of our blueberries and asparagus come from Peru.
  • Bolivians, so far, are a polite and gracious folk.  The old Don entering my cable car tipped his hat and buenos tardes senorita-d me, as did everyone else at every stop – they do the same on hailing a taxi or collectivo, and when you walk into a shop, up to a market stall or into a bar, you must “bueno” or be justifiably ignored as rude and undesirable.
  • I’m rereading the South American trilogy by Louis de Bernieres, and a paperback of the life of Ché.   Magic realism, mountains, romance and politics; the perfect mix for the Andes.
  • Travelling here, and especially in Bolivia, is a little like being in Vietnam.  Everything is dirt cheap but starts to feel extortionate.   Three of us paid 30 bolivianos each (₤3) to the driver of a collectivo (mini bus) hailed on the road to drive us 85 km up to La Paz.    We grumbled much of the way, in the knowledge that the Bolivians about were paying a great deal less;  yet the driver stopped with a smile,  dropped us in the centre of town and drove us safely up a narrow, mountain road with incredible views.
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travelling solo

I was single again, last year, when I flew to Greece.  I’d wanted to visit for years, really ever since tales of the Minotaur, Helen and Icarus beguiled my childhood.  I was just me most of that year; a short but exciting fling over by March and I felt swamped by the feeling that ‘out there’ was too difficult and, maybe, I wouldn’t love again.   I was being stubborn and I was rebelling.  Why couldn’t, why shouldn’t I go to Greece.  What’s wrong with yearning for sunshine and the Med.

A year before I found myself with a few unexpected weeks off just after Christmas so I jetted off to Thailand.   Travelling solo was perfect, I could take advantage of sudden availability and I didn’t need to explain or justify my insistence on Premium Economy when flying inter continental.   In Thailand I loved the independence of deciding at a days notice when to fly to the islands and, yes, I’d love to enrol on a two-day cookery class, walk with elephants, drink cocktails with the dutch mother desperate for a break or lose myself for a weekend with an American blogger in Chiang Mai.  I was empowered by choice. In Thailand I was travelling, properly abroad.  Travelling alone, in another continent, is a rite. Island hopping in the Mediterranean is a far more brazen endeavour altogether.

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Naxos cafe life

There are drawbacks to travelling solo.  Eating alone isn’t hard, but choosing one small dish when you want to try everything is.   One lovely Cyclades cafe owner insisted on serving me half portions so that I could feast on salad, fish, tzatziki and roast peppers, but most aren’t that considerate.   Drinking alone can be a trial;  in Thailand I learned how to sit at the bar, to pull others into a conversation and I became practised at recognising moments before they go too far.  It’s probably easier to be confident in safety when you live in London and are practised in ensuring you avoid the dark alley and how to project aplomb.   Travelling solo can be a great opportunity – you read, think, write and draw, you sleep and stare into space – but it can be lonely.  I lay on a remote beach on an even more remote island half-watching attractive, naked Greeks laughing and teasing. They weren’t that much younger, Athens-based professionals, and they were friendly, talkative and interesting when we met, full of political exposition, economic theory, fluent English and dark jokes about the states we’re in, but that afternoon they swam and lolled in the bay with a sureness in each other that I envied.   Lying there I felt a rush of emptiness.  Maybe watching that kind of all-encompassing ‘together’ is the hardest part; there’s no-one which whom to share when you’re travelling alone.

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Koufanisia

At the same time travelling alone is cathartic, empowering and necessary.  We should all travel alone at least once.   Like having your own bank account, paying for your own electricity bill or renting your own apartment, holidaying solo forces us to  take control.  If we don’t book the ferry ticket in advance or we forget bottled water one evening then we rue the consequence, we remember, we blink and we move on, and in Thailand we sleep with dirty teeth.   If we find ourselves in a dark street or unexpected situation then, much like life at home, we look for the light and walk purposefully towards it.   We choose the best dates; Thailand in January, the Cyclades in September, when fellow travellers will be adults rather than families with noisy children, and we grab the freedom to find something new.

You can’t always take the same chances while travelling solo – if I won’t do something in London then I don’t elsewhere – and you don’t always meet as many fellow travellers who, keen to talk when you’re in a pair, can be shy of chatting to a woman alone.  It’s more expensive, but, you can take the window seat travelling solo, or stretch out for an afternoon nap without checking that others are content.  Which sounds selfish, but for once, travelling alone, you can be self-indulgent. You can drink a second coffee or another G&T, read and watch others.  You can walk along the bay until you find the perfect stretch of sand, and, if the mood strikes you can just keep on walking.

The Glorious Lakes: up a hill and down a mountain

I’ve always loved the Lake District.  As a child we camped near Windermere most summers;  swimming in rivers, watching bats, climbing trees and stone walls, tramping up hills and sliding down, slurping coke floats and making new friends in the campsite.

I don’t return enough but, bolstered by Andean success and the persuasion of others, this year has seen both a quick and wet weekend summitting Helvellyn via Striding and Swirrell Edges, and a more leisurely week with friends, lazy but still conquering Haystacks, Helm Crag and Crinkle Crags.

At the very beginning of August three of us jumped in a very small car and bumped our way slowly up the M6.  We arrived, in the dark, about eight hours later and stumbled into the Buttermere Youth Hostel.

We were there, the three of us, with different levels of experience and drive.  Mark had never seen the Lakes, Sophie hikes a different multi-day challenge most summers and I, well I was a bit worried by my new role as map-reader, planner and guide.  It didn’t really matter – all three of us were silenced by the beauty of the sun glinting over Buttermere the next morning and the purple and grey summits mirrored in the Lake.

Walk #1 was planned to be a showstopper and relatively easy introduction to scrambling for our Lakes virgin.   Haystacks is Wainwright’s favourite – his ashes are scattered at the top – with enough changes in gradient to make a hike out of a walk and some fun but beginner scrambling at the summit. Sophie and I had to ‘climb’ in a few places; our 6-footer novice companion found he rarely needed his hands.   We stopped at the top of the hill then wandered across and down towards the mines and the ‘mountain’ of Fleetwith.  The top of Haystacks is a fun place to be – pretty with purple heather, rocky enough to make walking interesting and dotted with tarns.    Children jump about and adults loll over lunch (if they’re lucky enough to catch a sunny day) wishing they could still bounce with such enthusiasm.

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Descending the hard way – Fleetwith Edge, looking down to Buttermere
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The official route

In reality we made a mistake.  Slightly too early for lunch, and realising we’d left the flask of tea in the car, we set back off to Fleetwith and ended up lunching huddled on a windy slope behind the mine.   But fortified by sandwiches and chocolate we launched ourselves up the remaining mountain and almost ran through slightly boggy slopes to the very windy top.

Taking the Edge down isn’t really recommended.  It’s a steep, narrow and slippy scramble in parts but the colours and view are incredible.  Take it slowly, it’s easy to turn an ankle or knee while mesmerised by Buttermere views.   At the bottom we bumped into men from the intrepid Cockermouth Mountain Rescue team training on the steep face of Honister Crag, laughing and shouting at each other but very seriously lowering stretchers down a vertical drop.   After an ice cream at Gatesgarth Farm we wandered down to the lake and sat on rocks bathing our feet.   I’d half planned a swim at this stage – Buttermere is sparkling, inviting and clean, a real wild-swimming destination, but pints and hot food beckoned and we followed the mountain rescue guys towards the pub.

The Detail

  • Buttermere Youth Hostel gave us a family room (4 beds), a cooked breakfast on our first day and a late-middle aged clientele who made us feel relatively young.  Our room in the huge Edwardian house just outside the village was thoroughly good value at £25 a night each (Aug 2016) and less than a 5 minute walk from village pubs.
  • maps from Ordinance Survey
  • We also stayed at the far busier Ambleside YHA.  Gobsmackingly beautiful and perched on the banks of Windermere in one of those enormous old Edwardian mansions but in August it’s full of school children.  Book in advance and be prepared to wait your turn to access the kitchen.   Then again, when else will I watch Olympics diving surrounded by Chinese school-tripping 11 year olds?
  •  Mountain Rescue  frequently brave dire and dangerous conditions to save lives – please support where you can.

barman (fast fiction #2)

They met that evening. She was perched against the bar,  waiting for friends and happy to do so.  She’d fizzed, sparkling, as she sat.  The barman flirted back in turn, drawn by her obvious elation.

He sent cocktails later,  winking at all three of them when the noise of the bar made talk impossible.   Mint, sugar and rum,  sharp, sweet and heady.

Her friends left as the bar closed,  excited laughs tinged with jealousy and soft concerns of call me,  be safe.  She sat, legs crossed, allowing one heel to swing and her skirt to slide up an inch.

Later he pressed himself against her,  pushing her backwards.   She let him do so and leaning back to arch against a car she opened her mouth slightly,  expecting to feel his tongue as forcefully as she could feel his cock pushing against her hip.  Instead she tasted both his tongue and the bitterness of a small pill.  His tongue brushed her lower lip quickly as he laughed and pulled her by the hand up and into the street.

encounters

She ran, pushing herself to the next tree, and then the junction, past the kid learning to ride his first bike, dad running behind him, and around the dog walkers and prams blocking the full width of path just as the hill reached its very steepest. She only briefly registered the man running towards her, he’d looked, but she was in a world of repetitious beats, her feet pounding, arms pushing forward and over it all the magnetic beat of music. LCD Soundsystem giving way to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and then, almost ancient now, 1980’s New Order. She sped up as the incline reversed, heading back down to the road, and then, on the straight again, sprinting to the park gates and round past the Lido.  As the Cure kicked in with a jangling Love Cats, she slowed down to a jog half gasping in the cold air, and grinning back when this time she noticed a passing man’s glance.

At home, she breakfasted. Porridge, strong tea, then in the back garden a coffee and illicit cigarette.  She rarely stretched enough but pushed her arms high above her head then later reached behind to pull her heel towards her bottom in the shower as she washed the smoke away. She dried hair, applied creams and make up and dressed, carefully; a green miniskirt she was no longer sure she was really young enough to wear but she knew suited her, and a favourite grey jumper over white low-necked vest. A slightly Russian look especially with faux fur hat and military navy coat. First date appropriate, sexy but not obviously-so and with a hint of casual, the every-day ‘throw-on’.

He’d suggested meeting in a cafe, central and equitably half way between their homes. She was early and wandered round the book shop first, noticing and jotting down titles for the future, knowing full well she was already overloaded with new reads. She was nervous, but at the same time excited, they’d talked only briefly but enough to establish common ground and a few shared memories.

Her last first date of note had been at night time. A Friday evening in a relatively fashionable pub, just far away from the crowds but still busy, continued past midnight in a more central wine bar. She’d almost gasped when they met, suddenly tongue-tied by his good looks and seeming confidence. She’d felt immediately out of place, saved only by a slow realisation of shared hangups and family disasters, but still overawed enough to drink too much. They hadn’t lasted long. A musician, he’d been instant in his condemnation of her job, a career she hated but, that night and on subsequent occasions, found herself defending. In retrospect, she knew full well he tended towards depression and would be selfish, but physically she’d felt an immediate tug and still occasionally wondered what might have been.   A month or so later, together again,  he arrived at her home.  They both wanted sex but on her admittance of period and impossibility he pulled back – from more than just her body. Lying on the floor, he announced a parent with heroin addiction. She didn’t believe him at first in the suddenness of the unexpected and had blinked, open mouthed, and he changed the subject. She regretted that.

The cafe, and shared flat whites, was followed by conversation in a pub. Pints of pale ale and an easy, laughing afternoon. They compared reading glasses, music, childhoods in divorce, university memories.  On the way back from the toilet she had, spur of the moment, placed both hands on his knees, asking when had the pub behind them become so busy. He’d laughed and asked to meet again.  They’d pecked a quick kiss as tubes arrived but she found herself smiling into the opposite window as she was carried home.

She masturbated that evening.  Lying on the bed,  semi-clothed, excited with new possibility and casting her mind back to the last man she’d slept with.   Flickering between equally welcome images, as she closed her eyes and fluttered a finger against herself.    The last man, the musician, intense and deliberate.   She arched her hips thinking of the moment he had picked her up from his lap, pushed her forwards and re-entered from the side,  her eyes glazing and hand stretched out, involuntarily, to touch the wall.  She’d come, quivering, at that point, and again later when, leaning over to fellate him, he surprised her by pulling her hips to his mouth and sex to his tongue.    And then the new; imagining a beginning by leaning into him, almost as she’d teasingly stepped closer on the escalator before they parted earlier that evening but this time moving to touch bodies and mouths.  The excitement of undressing, of gazing, touching and tasting for the first time. She leaned back, content.

the Yapa


And, yes, this is it.  I’ve just left Bolivia and, in about 5 hours I jump on a flight to Londres.  I admit, I was running out of time to finish the last post – it’s been busy – but here goes. (a little whistle-stop but I have two hours before I must go to the airport and I’m running out of battery).

Oh,  ‘Yapa'(spelling?) is chechua for the ‘little bit extra’, or when the street vendor tops up your orange juice with the rest of the squeezed left overs.

I have been tempted to extend – a week in Easter island sounds wonderful and ever so do-able – but common sense (and the cost of changing flights) prevailed.  London it is.   Back to work, tap water, flat white with semi-skimmed milk, friends and a larger wardrobe!

adios

La Paz & the Salt Flats

La Paz & the Salt Flats

Hola everyone,

I left you last as I was arriving in La Paz. Which I love.  Bolivia is poor but the streets are spotless; it’s beautiful (in a steep canyon in the Andes), very friendly and, importantly LESS COLD than Lake Titicaca.   I treated myself to two nights in a beautiful, colonial b&b, La Casa Del Piedra, with balcony, courtyard, metalwork (and heating).

Most noticeably, Bolivians, and especially those in La Paz, are incredibly friendly and polite.  It’s rude not to greet the shopkeeper or bartender as you arrive, and, on the cable cars, everyone told me Buenos Tardes as they entered.   Even the heavily armed riot police protecting plaza murillo (centre of government) expect a “buenos” as you pass, and the police captain who sat next to me in the square was as disappointed as I that we couldn’t have a proper conversation.

That’s my biggest regret – my Spanish is atrocious.  MUST take classes.

My introduction to La Paz was a blur of tours -a quick walking tour and then a foodie tour.  I was anxious in advance – everyone says La Paz is dangerous – and I didn’t want to be frozen by not knowing quite where to go or how to be.  As it was, I was the only one of four bookings to show on the foodie tour, so, ahem, I was wined, walked and dined around La Paz for an evening by the VERY charming Daniel.   (redcaptours.com)   The food is similar to Peru, so lots of trout, lomo saltado, chicken in lemon sauce, but highlights include api y pastille (a hot toddy made with corn and served with a deep fried pastry stuffed with cheese, and covered in icing sugar),  empanadas on every street corner, pollo stuffed saltena (pastry) and pork knuckle in red pepper sauce.  Oh, and, just like Peru, there are avocados, cactus fruit and passion fruit everywhere..

The following day, I set off on a mountain bike down La Camino del Muerte  (aka Death Road).   It’s a 65 km ride from the mountains above LP down to the jungle, with, at times, 800m drops at the side and, theoretically, incredible views.  It’s very much a stalwart of the backpacker route, but possibly the most fun you can have on a bike, if you’re like me and quite like mountain biking, speed and going downhill …    luckily we had extremely technical bikes with fast tyres and amazing brakes.   It was a cloudy day – at least on the steep sections – so we didn’t see the vertigo-inducing cliffs in quite the same detail as hoped – but still, gorgeous. Unfortunately they haven’t sent us the photos yet but they will be awesome!

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I stayed overnight, in the jungle, at a monkey reserve (Sende Verde) and with a couple of new friends jumped on a local collectivo (we stood on a road corner and held out our thumbs, just as the Bolivians do) back up the very steep hills the following day.

So, stuff I learned-.

  • San Pedro prison in La Paz used to be a tourist destination (really!), until, well, the tours were attacked
  • traffic wardens dress in zebra costumes, jump about making comical faces, are highly entertaining and happy to pose for photos (somehow, no-one minds the traffic jams)
  • Bolivians like the diminutive, so Daniel becomes danielito; chola, cholita; and groups of people, regardless of age, chicos
  • there’s safety in numbers – so, you have ten cafes in a line, ten barbers, twelve laundrettes etc
  • but the system works, Bolivians have their ‘casera’, ie the establishment they patronise and always will
  • cholitas, the Aymara or mestizo women dressed in wide satin skirts and bowler hats, are the backbone of the economy, the workers and shopkeepers. They don’t dress like that for tourists but instead it’s a family tradition
  • and while the country is nominally catholic, pachamama (the earth goddess) reigns.  You can buy potions, spells and llama foetus in any number of witches markets.

I rounded off the month with a trip down South and a three day tour of the Uyuni salt flats and the national park on the border with Chile and Argentina.   It’s not the best time of year (in summer the flats are covered in a inch of water which makes everything reflective) but still, the never ending white is mind bending.  We took countless photos, wandered around cacti, jumped over volcanic geysers and lost ourselves in  coloured lagoons and deserts.   The desert is high (up to 5000m by the geysers) so it’s hot during the day and bitterly cold at night, but the stars are incredible.  On our second night we floated (cooked) in hot springs, surrounded by flamingo trapped for the night in semi-frozen lakes, staring up at the sky and refusing to leave until we’d each seen a shooting star.

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Adios chicos,

The Detail:

  • Red Cap walking and foodie tours: cheap as chips, great fun and hugely knowledgeable Red Cap
  • Death Road:  I can’t recommend Gravity enough.  Nathan, our very young but keen American guide was charming, funny and ever-so safety conscious.  http://www.gravitybolivia.com/index.php?mod=tempview1&id=1251406369
  • Sende Verde:   Sende Verde do valuable work rescuing wildlife from illegal traders.   They are building a new aviary so it’s not very tranquil during the day, but my tree house was fun and comfortable.  Don’t forget a torch and (for my night at least) there’s no hot water in the morning.
  • Salar de Uyuni (and the National Park):   Red Planet Expeditions this was a find, via Coco the Piedra desk clerk and his travel agent friend, and I was a little put off by the really bad English translation, but they’re highly recommended for a reason.  These guys are experts and are both safe and knowledgable.   Best of all..  you get to stay overnight at the Hot Springs, use them when the stars are out, then sit back and watch all the other tour groups turn up to fight for space in the morning
  • and I spoiled myself with a stay at Casa de Piedra and followed that with a perfectly comfortable, great fun, couple of nights at the B&B outpost of Adventure Brew Hostel