Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Olympics 2012 -The Opening Ceremony

So I guess I won't need to tell you about the opening ceremony as over one billion people watched it.  But I figure that I can comment on it.

So lets start with the negatives.  There were some things that I didn't like.  I didn't really get the music and technology bit.  The use of Tim Berners-Lee at the end was good.  He showed that, far from being relegated to a nation that lost its influence and importance a few centuries ago, we can still create something that has had a major impact on the world.  And surely the fact that he didn't patent it to earn himself a fortune, believing instead that it should be freely available to everyone, is a perfect display of the kind of ideals that the Olympics stands for.

But sadly, while the idea of showcasing some of the vast and varied music from British artists over the decades was OK, I felt that the music and choreography didn't hang together as well as it could have done.  I don't think most of the international audience will have understood the various TV clips etc, and I'm not sure that even the UK audience would have caught enough of it to make it really effective.  I could see the point about the technological generation with mobile devices and social networking, but it felt a little contrived to me.

And then there was Sir Paul.  Mixed feelings there.  His voice is no longer that good, and Hey Jude has never been a favourite of mine as it is very repetitive and goes on for too long.  But... he is, or at least represents, a genuine icon of British pop music, and that fitted perfectly with the theme of the ceremony. And as we saw when we were there for his show in Montevideo, Uruguay, he remains very popular.  So maybe it was OK.

But those are really my only criticisms.

Now to the more positive.  I thought the 'green and pleasant land' to 'dark satanic mills' scenes were excellent.  Technically and visually it was amazing, and I thought it had a great story to tell about our past.  And the forging of the Olympic rings that then had the fireworks dropping from them looked fantastic on TV and must have been truly amazing in the stadium.

The involvement of real people was lovely.  Using NHS staff and patients was brilliant, and perfectly demonstrated that this was supposed to be for everyone.  The scene itself worked well, but what made it great for me was the fact that it looked like people were really enjoying themselves, rather than just performing.  It wasn't a highly slick and polished show, but it showed real enthusiasm and commitment from thousands of unpaid volunteers, who genuinely wanted to be involved.  Amateurs dedicated to doing their utmost to achieve something amazing - exactly what the Olympics is all about.

And I just loved the use of humour.  There was a danger that we could be a bit too serious about this and come across as arrogant, which is a charge that has often been levelled at us internationally.  But we showed brilliantly that we can laugh at ourselves too.  The Rowan Atkinson bit to Chariots of Fire was great, but James Bond collecting the Queen and 'parachuting' her in was just brilliant.  I think showed what a wonderfully human woman the Queen really is, that she was agreed to do it.  And enough of the gripes about the fact that she didn't look excited.  She almost always looks serious - it is an essential part of the role, and it was probably well past her normal bedtime.  And I was so pleased to see that she did, as she so often does, take care to have something relevant in her outfit; she wore a brooch that was given to her in 1948, when the Olympics was last held here.

Now maybe it's just my HR background coming out here, but I thought it was fabulous that we incorporated people with disabilities into the ceremony.  The drumming was lead by someone deaf, the national anthem was sung by children who were signing, and they included people with disabilities throughout.  This not only gave a great pointer to the Paralympics, which are often badly overlooked, but it also was another way that we celebrated the huge diversity of our population.

And then we get to the torch lighting.  So most people wanted to see a role for David Beckham, and he got it, bringing the torch to the stadium dock in style.  Sir Steve Redgrave was the favourite for the flame lighting, and for a while it looked like he was it.  But then the secret that had been kept so well was finally revealed.  There was to be no one Olympian lighting the flame, nor a royal, nor some other established and worthy person.

The use of the young aspiring athletes, nominated by our most revered British Olympians, was inspired.  Was it a cop out to avoid making a decision on which one Olympian we value the most?  Possibly; Sir Steve was clearly in the prominent role bringing the flame in to the stadium, but this way they could involve more of our Olympians in this symbolic moment.  Was it a fabulous approach that was totally in keeping with our motto of 'Inspiring a Generation'?  Absolutely!  We promised an Olympics that would encourage a new set of athletes and this was a very high profile way of showing that we meant it.

And that cauldron; it is truly beautiful.  Whether on the ground for the lighting, rising up, or in its final position, it looked stunning. I am really looking forward to seeing it for real when we are at the stadium for the athletics in August. The idea of using 204 individual copper petals, brought in with the individual teams, to make up the one whole cauldron is excellent.  Pulling it off so beautifully was just brilliant.

Overall, I thought that this was an exciting and interesting opening ceremony.  It didn't try to 'outdo' Beijing.  It did something different, that celebrated the United Kingdom, but with a touch of self deprecation and humour thrown in too. It showed us as a great nation, reminding the world of just a few of our peoples' great achievements, but avoided any hint of glorifying past imperialism.  It demonstrated that from Her Majesty down, we can laugh at ourselves and like a bit of fun.

So the Opening Ceremony got my seal of approval.  Let's hope the rest of the Games is equally good.  And of course, the very best of luck to Team GB!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Chislet Country Fair

While we were staying in Kent, we went along to one of the local villages' country fair.  It was a traditional style event, but we were pleased to see that the organisers had not succumbed to the notion that adding "Ye Olde" to everything makes it seem more interesting, so instead of being the slightly ridiculous 'Ye Olde Country Fayre', it was the rather more simple and authentic 'Country Fair'.

The nice thing about a fair like this is that it is held by the community, for the community.

It is held in the grounds of a local farm, next to the village church.   The owners of the farm allow the farmhouse grounds to be turned into tea lawns with a brass band playing while people drink tea and eat cake in the garden.

They had the children from the village school doing the maypole dancing display and the local dance school performing too.

Even the ex pupils weren't safe, as they were hauled up to have a go at the maypole dancing too.  They had obviously learnt to do it as kids, but some were clearly a bit rusty, as the first attempt ended in a bit of a tangle.  They got it together for the second go though and were very pleased with themselves when they reached the end with all of their colourful ribbons in the right places.

For any readers who are wondering what on earth maypole dancing is, it is a folk dance, traditionally done as part of the mayday festivities, but often seen at country style summer events like this fair.  This version uses a pole with many brightly coloured ribbons attached to the top.

The participants all take a ribbon and dance around the pole, in different directions and ducking under each others' ribbons so that the ribbons are weaves around the pole.  They then do the same backwards to put the ribbons back to how they started.  If it goes wrong, you can end up in quite a tangle.

There original version of maypole dancing doesn't include the ribbons, and uses a much larger, garlanded maypole.  This earlier form dates back to the 1300s, and was popular in a number of European countries; it is suggested to have originated as a German pagan ritual, possibly connected to fertility.  The smaller pole and ribbon dance, which is the type seen mostly in England these days, is thought to have been introduced much later in the 1800s.

But back to the fair; they had a barbecue, bar and cake sale, as well as some of the typical stands that you would expect to see at an event like this.  We didn't try 'splatting the rat', and we failed miserably on the coconut shy and at rolling the ball through the holes to win a joint of beef.

I did win a packet of sherbet flying saucers on the sweetie tombola, but sadly not the wheelbarrow of booze or any of the prizes in the main raffle.

As well as the usual pony rides, there was a chance for the kids - or the adults I suppose - to clamber over a fire engine brought along by the fire brigade to help raise money.  Thankfully the engine and crew only got called away to one actual fire during the afternoon.

Inside the church, they had various things made by the local school children and a photography competition.  They also had some craft stands, including a display by the local lacemakers.

Lace making has always seemed incredibly complicated to me, with all of those bobbins.  In fact I am assured that if you use an easy pattern it is relatively simple, as you only ever focus on four of the bobbins at once.  I rather liked the lace poppies that one of the ladies was making.

In the grounds, alongside the ancient tombstones, there were various artists selling their paintings, as well as some very good metal sculptures.  I could imagine having one of the lilies, or a couple of pumpkins if I had a garden, but I am not sure that many people would feel the need to have a huge giraffe on their lawn!
Back at the arena, we had missed the morris dancers, and the games were in full swing.  The dog races were not so much a question of how fast each dog could run, but won or lost depending upon the hound could locate and wolf down its designated sausage, and then be persuaded to run back, rather than continue to hunt around in case there were more to be had.
egg tossing gets messy
One event that it didn't do to get too close to was the egg tossing.  As you might guess, this involved the throwing of raw eggs between two partners.  The idea of course being to catch the egg without it breaking.  Easy at first, it got harder, and therefore a lot messier as the distance that the egg had to be thrown over got bigger.  And of course the further apart the throwers and catchers stood, the closer they were to the spectators, so the more likely we wet to get hit by a stray egg, or just splattered in the case of an overly rough catch.

When they got on to the tug-o-war, I have no doubt that there were some who later blamed their loss of footing on the remnants of the raw egg underfoot.  The teams for this traditional test of strength were the locals against 'the rest of the world' or more accurately those who lived just a bit outside of Chislet and were visiting for the fair.

The best of three went to the local side, but by this time it had, as tug o war always does, become something of a free for all, with rather more than the supposed ten on each end, and the people from the St Johns Ambulance on standby. Thankfully, despite some fairly spectacular collapses, no one seemed to do themselves too much damage, though I'm guessing there were a few bad grass stains to be washed out the next day.
St Johns Ambulance stand by
The final challenge of the day was to find the 'biggest tosser'.  This was the dubious title to be bestowed upon the person who managed to propel a sheaf - or in this case a sack of straw - over the highest bar, by tossing it with a pitchfork.

The junior version of this attracted various boys and girls, although probably inevitably was won by one of the taller and older boys, who seemed to be effortless in his launching of the sack over the bar.

Once it got to the adults though, it became a totally male event.  This was very clearly seen as a proof on manhood by most of the younger men in the crowd.  And as by this time, many of them had visited the bar a few times already, this soon became an event charged with much bravado and testosterone.  Some were very good at it, probably because they had been doing this for years, but it was more amusing to see those who were new to the concept doing battle with their pitchfork and sack.

This was a simple, relaxed day out at a very small traditional event.  It is never going to be on a par with a big show or major event, but sometimes it is nice just to see a slice of real life in a proper community event like this.  It was well organized, but better for not being a slick, rehearsed event like many of the bigger shows are.  This was, quite simply, local people getting together to have some fun and raise some money.  And we enjoyed it.

It's so nice to have.....

However much you enjoy travelling, there are always likely to be some things that you miss while you are away.  For us, things being different is all part of the experience; after all, travelling is not just about seeing the sights, it is also about being part of a new culture.
The fact that there are things that you can't get is far outweighed by the new things that you find to try - even if some of them aren't that great.  Even with my awkwardness about food and the difficulty I sometimes have with finding food that I can actually eat, I would hate to just have to eat exactly what I would in the UK; it wouldn't feel like we were away.  We have made it a rule that unless we get completely desperate, we won't eat in MacDonalds or Burger King, despite them being everywhere.  Except when we go to the States - then it will be a necessary part of the trip because it is where it comes from!

But even though we know all of that, it doesn't mean that you don't miss things anyway, and when you come home it is nice to have those things again.

For one thing, it is nice to be sure of decent and clean bed to sleep in and to know that you can have a hot shower;  most of the time our beds were clean, if not always comfortable, but the showers could be unpredictable and it is always reassuring to know that at least you wont get electrocuted in it here.  And while we're in the bathroom - and those of you who travel yourselves will appreciate this - it is nice to be able to flush the toilet paper!

It is also good to be able to speak the language.  While we got by with our basic Spanish, we always knew that there were huge parts of a conversation that we would struggle with and it makes it much harder to relax when you are talking to people or if there is a problem that has to be dealt with.  This was even more noticeable when we got to Brazil where our only Portuguese came from a phrase book or google translate!  A different language is part of the fun, but it gets wearing, and it is lovely to be back in an English speaking country where we don't have to think too hard about what we wanted to say.  A least for a while.

Then there are the little things.  As classic Brits, we did miss being able to definitely get a decent cup of tea.  Sometimes we could get 'proper' tea bags and make our own, but often the tea wouldn't be right, or the only milk available was longlife, so it just wasn't good enough.

And you can't get cheddar cheese abroad.  In much of South America the cheese is mainly a white salty variety that personally I don't like at all.  They do have some goudas and a few hard cheeses like parmesan and something called Sardo, which are OK, but they are not cheddar.  And when they do have one thing that they call cheddar, it turns out to be those orangy coloured plastic slices that they put into cheeseburgers.  So good cheddar cheese was one of the first things we treated ourselves to when we got back.

Then there is the strange phenomonen of the things that you miss even though back in the UK you rarely had them.  For Nic in particular this was the ability to get proper Fish & Chips or KFC.

And then if course there is the chocolate.  Don't get me wrong, they have chocolate in South America, and some of it is very good.  Let's face it, some of the best dark chocolate comes from places like Ecuador and Venezuala.  But we missed Cadburys Dairy Milk.  You can buy it there, but it just isn't the same.  The UK is, I think, the only country that likes its Dairy Milk as sweet and creamy as we have it,  everywhere else it is made slightly differently, more bitter and with a slightly grainy texture.  So we had some of that when we got back too!

I did miss Marmite too, but I bought a big jar on the Falklands and took it with me, so that lasted me until we came back.  There are other things of course, but even with our stint in the Falklands where we could get a quick fix of tea, cheese and chocolate, these were the ones we most noticed.

Would missing these things stop us travelling? Absolutely not; as I said, it is all part of the experience and like seeing friends and family, it gives you something to look forward to when you're back.  And, an odd jar of marmite aside, I could also never be one of those people that carries a huge supply of tea bags and other stuff with them when they go away.  Not only would it be just too much effort to carry and in some cases to get across borders, it just wouldn't feel right.  Far too Karl Pilkington!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Railways, oysters and beach huts

While we have for some years been working and living in London, so definitely regard that as our home, we are both originally from Kent.  Our families live in the Whitstable and Herne Bay areas on the coast near to Canterbury, where we both went to school, so this is where we came to on arriving back in the UK.

When we lived here, Whitstable was a fairly average town by the sea. It always seemed to have a lot of pubs, most of which were nothing special, but the shops were run of the mill and a bit dull.

There is the beach of course, but like much of the Kent coast it is pebbles, so while it looks nice with its painted beach huts, it didn't have quite the same appeal as sand.

It does have it's own castle though, which we always liked.  I say castle, but it is really a fancy house with towers.  It was built and added to between 1790 and 1840, mostly by the Pearson and Wynn Ellis families, with the Mallandains adding a lovely staircase and oak panelling in the early 1920s.

It was bought by the council in 1935 and started to be used for public events and hired out for private parties. It was granted a license for weddings in 2004, which we were pleased about as it meant that we could use it for our wedding a couple of years later.

But Whitstable did have two claims to fame.  The first was the Canterbury to Whitstable railway line, which in 1830 was only the third ever to be built.  It is claimed as the first line to regularly take passengers and issued the first ever season tickets in 1834.  The line has hilly sections, so is in part cable hauled by static winding engines, but the steam locomotive, Invicta, used for the flat bit was built by George and Robert Stephenson, using a design close to that made famous by the slightly later Rocket.

The Stephensons between them also oversaw the construction of the line itself, while Thomas Telford built the harbour at the Whitstable end.  The line had the world's oldest railway bridge and the first ever railway tunnel used for passengers.  Isambard Kingdom Brunel is known to have checked out the latter for his own research.

The railway is long gone now, with only a few remaining bits in evidence, but the old route of the Crab and Winkle Line, as it is known, has been opened up for pedestrians and cyclists and is popular with in enthusiasts and some tourists.

The other claim to fame is the Royal Whitstable Native Oyster.  Apparently, the fishing smacks have been dredging oysters here for around two thousand years, when the Romans liked them enough to have them shipped back to Italy.

The still trading Whitstable Oyster Company is known to go back as far as the 1400s, and had its heyday in the 1850s when oysters were a poor man's food and it was sending some eighty million a year to London's Billingsgate fish market.

However this wasn't to last.  By the second half of the last century the market was in a bad way.  In part it was due to some cold winters, the two world wars and a disastrous flood in 1953, but some have also attributed the problems to the decline of the oyster following the rising popularity of the prawn cocktail in the seventies!

Around the turn of the eighties, the owners of the company revitalized the oyster beds and opened up a fish restaurant which became highly successful.  Whitstable Native Oysters are once again popular, with the beds having been granted protected National Status by the European Union, and the restaurant helped to bring new custom to the town.

These days, Whitstable is a favourite destination for those wanting a break from the bright lights of London and the town has been regenerated.  There are art galleries and, as a pleasant change from most places, a number of small independent shops.  We particularly like the rather nice cheese shop and wine shop that have opened up on Harbour Street.

Interestingly, some of the small old shops, like an old fashioned outfitters and shoe shop seemed to have managed to keep going, although I am guessing the visitors are more likely to look at the newer shops with their pretty beach style goods or their fake retro.  I rather like the shop with the old fashioned style gentlemen's hair brushes, especially the tiny moustache combs.

And of course there are a number of new bars and restaurants to help cater for the influx of visitors.  One of the restaurants has a Michelin star, but we haven't managed to try that one yet and may not get to now we are on our rather more restricted travel budget.  But we have eaten at some of the others though and were particularly impressed by a place called Tea and Times.  We paid less than eight pounds each for a main meal that was very tasty both times we were there, and they let you bring a bottle of wine with no corkage charge.  They don't take credit cards, but then at those prices even we could manage the cash.

But my favourite thing about Whitstable hasn't changed and is never likely to; on the right day, you can get the most beautiful sunsets out over the sea.  When I commuted to London, it was always nice if I managed to see it from the train on the way home.  Unfortunately, I still haven't managed to get a photo of one yet, but when I do I will add it here.

Friday, July 20, 2012


This may seem like a strange thing to post about, but it was a new experience for us, so I figured it should go in.

Shortly after we got back, having already surprised our parents by arriving early, we planned to visit my Aunt and surprise her too.  So we picked up some things for an afternoon tea and my mum drove us there.  Now she had been having a bit of car trouble recently, but the initial problem had been fixed, so although the car was booked in for a further repair in a couple of days, there was no reason to think there would be a problem.

Until that is, we got about ten miles down the motorway and dial started showing that the car was overheating badly.  Pulling over to slow down didn't really help so it was a full stop onto the hard shoulder.  On trying to check the water level, the dirty creamy coloured liquid that oozed out gave a reasonable clue that something wasn't quite right.  Oil in the water is never a good sign.

Luckily I had my mobile and mum is a member of a certain yellow liveried breakdown company, so a call for help was made.

The initial call was not the most efficient.  We spent ages listening to a recorded message telling us to get to a safe place on the verge etc, which we had already done.  Then when we finally got through to an actual person, she proceeded to tell us exactly the same thing.   I only had a small credit on my phone, so we had to stop her so that we could get onto the point before it ran out that, but that seemed to throw her completely.  It also seemed remarkably difficult to establish where we were, but we got there in the end and they finally said that a vehicle would be dispatched to us.

The promised hour dragged on somewhat longer, but eventually the guy turned up and confirmed that the head gasket had blown, so we were going nowhere on our own.  He was friendly and efficient, so at least the company does the important bit well.  He quickly got the car winched up onto the truck and we all piled in the back of the cab.

We had a nice chat on the way back, and he dropped the car off at the garage and then helpfully dropped us at the end of our road.

As breakdowns go, I think we were lucky.  We weren't all that far from home, it wasn't a vitally important journey, it didn't rain, and we had food and drink in the car should we have needed it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

'Home' again

So how does it feel to be home after a year away?

Well, a bit strange really.  It is obviously good to see our families again.  We moved away from the Kent coast area that our families live in years ago, and with not driving and often working long hours, we are used to not seeing our families that often.  But there is a difference between not often, and not for a whole year, so it was good to catch up face to face rather than just by email, phone or Skype.

As we generally stay a few days with family when we are visiting, that felt very normal.  At least for the first week.  After that, it did seem rather strange to be spending so long there.  It isn't that we were fed up with being with family - she added quickly, knowing that they read the blog - just that we were not used to being there so long.

And because we are used to visits to family being free time, then initially at least we found it hard to get on with some of our many practical tasks.  We have tended to go into visit mode, rather than seeing it as just where we are living for now. This is slightly odd, because during the time that we have been away, we have had no problem at all in seeing wherever we were staying as our short term home.  Except of course the mouldy or cockroach infested ones!

It is strange too for us to be staying with other people in their own home for any length of time.  However much you know that you can come and go as you please, you are always conscious of being in another person's home; you don't want to disrupt their life too much, and if they are cooking for you much of the time too, then that feels a bit weird too.

While we have got used to not having the same independence and freedom as we had in our own home, because we predominantly have been either with a group on the truck or ship, or in hostels where the life is also more communal, we have still had a greater degree of independence, or perhaps it is more self-reliance, than when staying with others.

We are planning on staying with people more in the future as we try out couch surfing and staying in private homes through Airbnb (more about what that means in future posts), so hopefully we can get beyond that feeling or we will find that we won't have done any of the things we planned to and will get very behind.

But back to the point, how does it feel to be home?

It feels OK actually.  It was a bit strange to go up to London and not go to our flat.  It will doubtless be even stranger when we are staying in London, but not in our flat, and stranger still when we do go to our flat to see our tenants, with all of their furniture, and it being us that has to go home at the end of the day.

But other than that, it is just nice to be catching up with people, to be having some of the things we've missed - which I will post on separately, and to be able to understand the language fully!

Of course I do think that we would feel differently if this was the end of our travelling.  The fact that we will be going to Scotland and Germany while we are back, and then heading off for another year in a few months means that we can see our time here as a positive thing, rather than an end.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

356 days down, only 7644 to go

Well actually it is slightly more than 356 now, but that was how many days we were away for in our first stint of travel.  And what an amazing 356 days it was.  We said that we wanted our first year away to be special and we certainly achieved that.

We visited two continents, nine countries and one overseas territory.  In case you weren't taking proper notes, the continents were South America - or just America depending on whether you are a five or seven continent believer - and Antarctica.  The countries were Argentina, Chile (including Easter Island), Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil.  And the overseas territory was of course the UK's own Falkland Islands.

While we were travelling, and since we have been back, we frequently have been asked which was our favourite country or place.  For me, it is an impossible question.  We do obviously have some favourite places and experiences, but it would feel wrong to try to reduce a year down to just one 'best'thing.

So I don't have an answer to that, but over the next few months I will include a few posts that reflect back on our first year.  One of those will be a highlights posting, thinking about what our short list would be and why.  I may mention a few things that we were less impressed by too.

For anyone thinking about doing a trip of their own, or is just interested in how we make this new life work, there will be a few blogs on things like budget tips, what to pack and what to leave at home, and arranging transport and accommodation.  Mind you, Nic is planning to write the last one, so it may be another year before that appears!

I also will try to delve a little deeper into how our new life is different from our old one.  Aside from the obvious of not working and travelling quite a bit, our life is really quite different and that means that already, we have started to notice some changes in ourselves, so I will be writing about what those changes are and whether or not we like them.

And of course I'll be letting you know what we are getting up to while we are back in the UK, and what our next year away has in store.

But that is enough of what I will be putting in future posts.  In the meantime, we are back in the UK, enjoying catching up with family and friends.  Obviously some of what we are doing while back 'home' isn't really something to blog about, and it would be very boring for you if I did.  But we are doing some interesting things too, and I will be keeping the blog going throughout our time in the UK.

So although the posts may not always be quite so frequent, do keep looking as I will still be blogging regularly, and I hope you will still enjoy keeping up with our experiences.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Torres Del Paine - rambling at length

After 11 months of travel, it is time I wrote a blog entry. I seem to have been busy with stuff like accommodation & spending. But also I can be a bit idle! This is about trekking in Torres del Paine in Chile, a massive national park, in 26-29 January. This was my first trekking over a several day period, and included some great scenery, so it was certainly something new for me.

Day 1 got off to a bad start - a pretty wet morning, and I forgot my waterproof trousers. The scenery also wasn't that dramatic, including lots of damage from the recent sad fire, but we saw lots of guanacos (llama cousins). By then I'd not eaten any, or else I might have been a bit more eager for lunch. Interesting fact: rheas (ostrich cousins) lay a few eggs, cover them and then lay more eggs on top. This gives better drainage, and the bottom eggs are a first meal for their siblings from the top eggs. That's nature for you.

The afternoon was better, with just me, Margaret (retired, from Edinburgh) & Fernanda our guide trekking for 3 hours on some 'Patagonian Flat', i.e., not at all flat, but rather a bit up and down. The weather & scenery were better, often next to a river and trees as far as I could see. Then we walked to and along the beach at Lago Grey, via a very shaky (fun) footbridge. Very dramatic, mountains one way and the Grey Glacier at the end of the lake, with strong and cold winds making the waves crash in hard on the beach. Also, the 3 of us had a good chat along the way. A good trekking intro day.

Day 2 was my hardest day, about 18k to the base of the Torres del Paine. The Torres are, well, big pointy stone towers. The 5 of us split into 2 groups, me being with Joan, a friendly American from Alberquerque. We chatted for most of the way up - which was fun and deflected the effort - until it got to the steepest and last part, when speaking was definitely best avoided! We even got the offer of a place to stay in Alberquerque if we are in the neighbourhood, which was very nice.

The guide walked ahead and set the pace, which on the way up was good and steady, taking a bit over 4 hours. The weather was very decent, neither hot or rainy, so I thought it wasn't as hard as I feared it could be. Much of the way up gave a clear view from a good height, and there was some variety as part was in woodland and part on paths on the side of the mountain. Of course, this being South America, there were never any fences or ropes next to these paths!
The best part was turning the corner at the top to find ourselves next to a small lake staring up to the top of the towers. Partly it was about the satisfaction of getting there (although it's not exactly Everest) and partly it was just a great view. Also we were lucky that there weren't masses of people around. It was also a great place to stop and have lunch.

Just after lunch and the obligatory photos, the drizzle started and the Torres started to cloud over a lot more, so we were lucky to get there before that. Despite a bit more rain on the way down, having made it to the top and the view there, the effort of the way back seemed worth it by then. We saw a lot of people walking up in the afternoon, including many with big rucksacks - definitely not the way to enjoy it!

Given that I'd not done any real exercise for ages, I was pretty satisfied with how I did. But sadly my feet and legs were not used to so much walking, and about half way back the first of the blisters on both heels had burst. I had to push myself to the end and walk carefully and deliberately. The end took a long time to arrive, and was not helped by finishing the last bit without the guide, not being totally sure of the path, and then on finding it discovering that it was a short but steep path up to the camp.

Immediately I downed a Coke and a beer, then had one of the best showers ever. Then I spent much of the evening hobbling. I didn't really expect to be walking like that for at least another 30 years. I definitely advise doing some short treks to build up to anything as long or challenging as this. Obvious when you think about it, but I hadn't. The few shorter treks we'd done earlier in January were not much preparation.

Day 3 was supposed to be a very scenic trek. My body - knees, balls of feet, and blisters on heels - would however not allow me to go. Sometimes you just have to obey the body. This was one of those times. Gradually through the day I hobbled less. Good to have a day of rest from all this leisure.

Day 4 was an 8 hour, 19 km trek to Los Cuernos (The Horns) & back. They are more pointy mountains, which are very scenic as they are black at the top and a rocky grey colour at the bottom. This walk involved more Patagonian Flat, thankfully only gentle exercise. My blisters were covered up well, so didn't bother me much. But this was a day of impressive and varied scenery, with many lakes and mountains, a few rivers and some different vegetation to normal.

Stopping for lunch at the base of Los Cuernos was one of the best lunch stops I could remember for a while, with a great view up to the mountains in front and a big lake behind, and my legs needed a break by then! I had also made myself 2 particularly tasty and well-seasoned rolls for lunch. I like to think that the view was more inspiring than the rolls, but as I experienced both together I'm not sure. Anyhow, I didn't speak much at lunch, preferring to take in the views.

As with the previous trek there was a small group, 7 of us & 2 guides, which made for good conversation before lunch. On the way back I was instead often by myself, partly so my legs could go at the pace needed to not seize up! Not sure that I had any great revelations, but it felt good to just take in the scenery at times without focusing on anyone else around. My legs were aching from half way back, but in terms of the balance of effort and scenery this was actually a better walk than the one to the base of the Torres.

Overall my trekking experience was painful but rewarding, for the scenery, the sense of achievement and the relaxed chatting along the way. I wasn't really properly prepared, but that didn't stop me seeing plenty. It is a very scenic park, and certainly worth visiting, but it is harder work relative to the views you get than El Chalten in Argentina.

I am also a bit of a fair weather trekker. I will go out if it's wet, as long as I have all the gear, but I'm not going to enjoy it so much in the rain. Or in the bright sun. This was a good enough experience to persuade me to do more trekking, and it certainly helped with my fitness, but I will pick my moments. Especially as the bar, meal and bed waiting for me after the treks will not usually be as good as at Eco-camp!

Just a little longer now ....

Regular readers will know that Nic still hasn't posted a blog, even though he finally made a start on one back in May; I did warn you not to hold your breath!

But he has now written his blog about trekking in  January, and just needs to add the photos.  So hopefully - and he has been issued some serious disincentives to failure - he should be posting his first, and probably last blog, on Friday.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Raining in Rio

Rio is one of those places where most of what you want to do is outside.  Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Copacabana, Ipanema, the Escadaria Selaron steps, and general sightseeing in areas like Lapa and Santa Teresa, are all things best done in the sunshine.
So we weren't feeling overly enthusiastic about Rio in the rain.  Especially as the rain wasn't just normal rain, but torrential downpours that lasted most of the day.

Now I know that there are things that we could have done to amuse ourselves.  We could have gone for salsa lessons, or taken a cooking class, or even done a crash course in Portuguese, but I think we had reached the point where we were winding down to the end of our first year away, and didn't really feel like making that much of an effort.

We knew that we had plenty of things to do when we got back to the UK, and that we could cadge a free bed from family as opposed to spending a fair amount on Brazilian accommodation prices, so we decided to look into bringing our flights forward.  When we found that we could, we did.

And then we figured that, rather than telling my parents that the lift they had offered us from the airport was now needed a week earlier than expected, it would be much more fun to make our own way there and surprise them on the doorstep.

So we had one last day in the rain in Rio, during which we took a trip to the bus station to get our previously bought tickets refunded, and then took our overnight flight back to Heathrow.  We hadn`t seen as much of Rio as we`d expected, but we had at least made it up Corcovado and had a good view of the city and Sugarloaf Mountain.  We had also had a quick glimpse of the Sambadrome and the Maracana stadium as we passed them on a bus.

The flight was relatively good, although there was a mini drama about an hour in when a fellow passenger was taken ill and they had to find a doctor on board.  Thankfully it obviously wasn't too serious, so we didn't have to make an unscheduled landing, and when we got to London he did manage to walk off the plane under his own steam.

We had a good rest of journey back to Kent, and arrived at my parents house roughly twenty four hours after we left the hostel.  My mum's response, "what are you doing here?"  She did at least say afterwards that she was pleased to see us though.

Favela tours - yes or no?

the favela sits on the hill to the left
Alongside the beaches and the hills, one of the things that Rio is best known for is its favelas.  They are home to the poor of the city, and account for some twenty percent of the population of Rio; the largest, Rocinha, had an official count of 69,300 at the 2010 census, although the actual population is estimated at around 150,000.  The numbers are so large because they were swelled by an influx of people from the poor parts of Brazil in the 1920-50s, when Rio was enjoying its wealthy heyday.

The favelas have a notorious reputation for being dangerous and crime ridden.  They are little - or not so little - towns within the city, with the larger ones having their own schools, church and other amenities.  Many have for years been regarded as no-go areas for all including the police, controlled instead by the machine gun toting drug gangs.

Over the last year or so, with the hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in mind, the police and military have been raiding the favelas and ousting the drug gangs, to try to push crime away from the city and improve the face of Rio.  The local reaction to this is mixed, and of course while they have arrested some of the drugs gangs, many are just pushed elsewhere rather than actually being stopped.

a closer look at the favela
Much like the townships of South Africa, the favelas have become an integral and infamous part of Rio, and given the dangers of going into them alone, they offer tours of them for tourists.  So the question for us was, should we take a tour?

The obvious answer is yes; they are a major part of Rio and they show you a different side to the city.  As we saw in Bolivia, it can be a humbling and very worthwhile experience to see how little some people have and how lucky we are, and that would certainly be something that we would see in the favelas.

But I am quite uncomfortable at the idea of gawping at someone's home and life.  I would hate it if someone was treating my home and lifestyle as a tourist attraction, so why should I feel I can do that to others just because they are 'different' and poor.  Personally, it seems to me to be rather a rude thing to do.

And the same applies to taking photos there.  The ramshackle nature of the favelas, the way they cling to the hillsides, and the graffiti on some of them make for some good photos, as do some of the criminals with their guns, but I would feel most uncomfortable encroaching on people`s lives by actually taking any of those photos, even if everyone else was.

In any case, what are you really seeing anyway?  These tours do the same thing every time, so what you see becomes almost a performance.  If you're going to a favela then you will probably want to go to one of the more notorious ones, which means the tour probably has to be 'authorised' by the gangs that control it anyway.  They know when the tourists will be there and can ensure that we see what they want us to see - and only that.

Any if I wouldn't choose to tour a poor council estate in the UK, why would I want to do effectively the same thing here? So our view was no, the favela tour was not for us.  I am sure that many of you reading this will think we are wrong to decide that, and that is fair enough.   I think everyone has to decide for themselves where their tourism threshold lies and what they are comfortable with before they feel like their presence is an intrusion.

I expect that my low threshold comes from the fact that I value my own privacy, so it feels wrong to me not to give others the same respect that I expect.  I know that sometimes I will miss seeing something amazing, in the same way that I will miss out on some potentially great photos, but at least I won't feel that I am being hypocritical.